A Typical Day Photographing At Lake Atitlán

San Pedro Volcano in the morning light.

San Pedro Volcano in the morning light.

By Eric Mencher (aka Señor Amable)

Part One of a Four-part Series on what an average day might be like taking pictures around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

Part 1, Early Morning

Around Lake Atitlán, the earlier you get out into the slight chill of the early morning, the more engaging your pictures might be. Even before the sun begins to warm me, a beautiful soft but faint light hangs over the lake. In the large lagoon behind the Posada de Santiago, a mist rises early, enveloping the fishermen in a surreal haze as they glide effortlessly through the still water. Some days I’m torn between taking pictures, doing yoga, or just stopping to witness the most incredible awakening of the day one will ever see. Usually I choose photographing (or yoga with my iPhone by my side, which really isn’t yoga) and my heart thumps as I race around the water’s edge, making decisions about the best angles, choosing between color or black and white or perhaps some quirky app, and wondering if I should have reserved the Posada’s canoe to really get out into the middle of it all.

As the sun slowly shares its golden light, I watch (and photograph) with awe as its rays first dance atop the San Pedro Volcano, then slowly work their way down like giant spotlights, highlighting every ripple in the water and every crag on the perfect pyramid that stares me down.

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But wait! In the distance, I see a woman balancing a basket atop her head, stepping gingerly down a path near the water’s edge. Will I get there in time? How will she react? What will the light be like? Is it worth the effort or should I just stick with the gorgeous scene that seems so intent to unveil something new with every passing second? I choose (quickly) and race to her, arriving just as she lowers the basket of dirty clothes from her head. I murmur “buenos días” but she doesn’t really see or hear me and I make a few quick snaps and decide to not intrude any longer into her very public but very personal work.

So I slowly walk back to the dock behind the Posada. I look quickly at my phone to see if there’s a picture. Maybe, I think. But I’m moved and definitely conflicted and I’m wondering about life and whether the woman likes hers and whether she has a good family and is happy.

Back at the dock, with lots of questions and really no answers except perhaps for the answer that is the image in my phone, I make a few more snaps, including a black and white of a fisherman already heading to shore with today’s catch. And a color self-portrait of my shadow in a cayuco (fisherman’s canoe). Perhaps to say to myself, “yes, you’re an outsider, but yes, you are here in this moment and you want to share what you see with others.”

And I promise myself, tomorrow I’ll take the Posada’s canoe!

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Welcoming National Geographic Photographer Bob Krist to SEEK

When I was starting my career as a photojournalist, I declared that I was a "natural light-ony" photographer. I held that idea up as a point of pride, rationalizing that if neither Henri Cartier-Bresson nor Robert Frank used flash lighting, nor would I. Even at a point in my life when the wisdom of the day encouraged me to work on the razor's edge of technology, I was a throwback, drawn to the black-and-white street photography of the 1930's and 1950's. The light emanating from a jukebox would suffice as far as I was concerned.

Photographers don't necessarily need to use flash. There is a valid argument for only using available light, whether daylight, a streetlight, the glow of neon, or any other artificial forms of light you can find. This attitude can take you far, but it does limit you a bit as well. In the mid-90's, before the advent of the ultra-high ISO-capable digital cameras like we have today, shooting with flash was a greater concern to photographers who by aesthetic choice or the needs of clients, had to provide well-lit, grain-free images. And when I landed at a New York City metropolitan-area newspaper in 1998, my "natural light-only" attitude didn't fly too well when I was I handed a location lighting kit with soft boxes, umbrellas, light stands, and other mysterious equipment and sent off to an assignment where the brief called for a well-lit environmental portrait. I broke out in a nervous sweat while trying to convince the subject I knew what I was doing with the gear. Light stands tipped over, the subject's face was overexposed and ghostly, and I couldn't figure out how to put the reflector back in its bag.  When I showed my photo editor the pictures, the look on her face more than suggested that I had better learn how to use the lights. 

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I ran off to the nearest book store, and found what would become my lighting bible for the next eight years, "Secrets of Lighting on Location," by National Geographic photographer Bob Krist. I carried the book in my car, and would refer to it for explanations and inspiration before countless assignments that required lighting. It became dog-eared, and whenever my fellow photographers at the newspaper asked to borrow the book, that same nervous sweat threatened to break out again. One of the photographers eventually absconded with Bob's book, and I could never solve the case of my missing lighting bible. By that time, I had learned enough to light things on my own, with my own techniques and style. The instruction I received in that funny, beautiful, and clear book was some of the most valuable information in my education as a photographer. 

Last year, I was having dinner here in San Miguel de Allende when I noticed a man across the restaurant. He looked familiar, yet I couldn't place from where I knew him. I thought it might be Bob Krist, and after a quick Google search on my phone, I confirmed it was him. As he and his wife Peggy were leaving the restaurant, I stood up to introduce myself and thank him for all the help he had unknowingly given me. He appeared a bit nervous, perhaps eager to escape from an adoring fan, and I had that old sensation from those times when I was fumbling to assemble a lighting scenario ten years before. We exchanged emails and agreed to meet soon for lunch.

When we met again, Bob revealed he had been worried when I stood up that I was going to confront him for admiring the looks of my dining companion. I hadn't noticed, as I was too busy trying to pretend I wasn't staring at him. We became friends, and photographed a few things together around the city. When he told me he and Peggy had bought a condo in San Miguel, I told him that one day, I would trick him out of semi-retirement to teach a workshop for SEEK. He assured me that his workshop teaching days were over. He was mostly shooting video around the world for different clients and occasionally working as the representative photographer on National Geographic Expeditions, where some prices for a 14-day trip by private jet start at $56,950 per person.

L-R, Richard Ellis, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Krist, and Ian Lloyd make way for street sweeping in San Miguel. Photo by Peggy Krist

L-R, Richard Ellis, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Krist, and Ian Lloyd make way for street sweeping in San Miguel. Photo by Peggy Krist

I couldn't have been happier when visiting with Bob a few months ago to hear him say that he wanted to teach video making for SEEK. The February 2018 workshop, aimed at still photographers who want to learn video and filmmaking, intends to enhance photographers' understanding of image-making to help them learn how to create cinematic video stories. Known for using the smallest and lightest equipment possible, Bob will unlock the mysteries of how to build a similar camera and audio kit. He'll also teach sound recording basics, how to get the most important shots and angles used in motion pictures, the essentials of video editing, and how to analyze your ideas for their potential as video stories. We'll conclude the workshop with a screening of everyone's short films at Bellas Artes in San Miguel.

At the risk of embarrassing Bob, it's been one of the most gratifying and fun experiences of my career to collaborate with him after so many years of having his book as a mentor by proxy. He's hilarious, kind, humble, smart, and accomplished. It's hard to put a value on what he gives to his students, but to me, he helped me succeed as a professional photographer.  

For more information about Bob's workshop, to see some of his video work, and to sign up for this fun and valuable experience, visit the workshop listing here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/bob-krist-video

Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity," Part 9

We conclude our presentation of Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity" with today's installment of the series she produced for Exxplorevision, an Instagram community dedicated to promoting the work of women photographers. Kass and her husband Eric, both known for their distinctive style of photographing daily life, will be teaching a creative photography workshop in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala in February 2018. Our accommodations and studio space will be at Posada de Santiago, and we will visit many of the villages around Lake Atitlan, a place that has entranced the Menchers for years. This workshop is filling and is expected to sell out. We are offering an early sign-up discount until September 30. For more information about the workshop, including an extensive gallery of photos by Eric and Kass, and to register, please visit the workshop page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/lake-atitlan-guatemala-mencher

Thank you, Kass, for sharing your words and photos.

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dawn chorus singing
imprint of a bird in the sky
it's the era of ether





As I've written previously, I've been to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, nine times in the past seven years, usually for 2-4 months each visit. Originally the plan was to come only once. Obviously that is not what happened. 

There is a Mayan myth about a magic ring that was thrown into the middle of the lake. The ring was imbued with the power to attract and that is why so many people come once and stay, or in my case, keep returning time and again.
Others say there are 3 major energy vortexes that also have the power of attraction: the Pyramids at Giza, Machu Pichu in Peru, and Lake Atitlán.

I like the myth about the magic ring, but hey, that's me. I believe in magic. But whatever the cause there is no doubt that I am under the spell of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity," Parts 7 & 8

With today's installment of "Fixed in Eternity," we continue our presentation of Kass Mencher's project about Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Kass and her husband Eric Mencher have lived several months per year since 2010 in villages around Lake Atitlan, photographing and observing Maya culture and the landscape surrounding the former caldera of, now one of the world's deepest and most mysterious lakes. In February 2018, the Menchers will co-teach "The Analytical & The Intuitive," a special photography workshop in which they will lead discussions and experiments in Light and Shadow, Space (and How to Use It), Composition, and Moment. Visit the workshop page to learn more: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/lake-atitlan-guatemala-mencher
--Andrew Sullivan

All photos and text courtesy of Kass Mencher

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silent with stones
dawn
becomes day

“We tell ourselves stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality.” - Bill Moyers

The world began on August, 13, 3114 B.C. And it began not far from where my lady at dawn is standing, in the waters off Santiago. “Before the world was made, on Lake Atitlán existed at the center of everything. Everything was covered with water. Then the three volcanoes grew out of the lake and lifted the sky. A cosmic hearth was created which they lit with a lightning bolt igniting new life in a new dawn” - Maya elder

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For eons the Maya have fished the same fish in the same way from their cayucos that they gracefully guide along the lake, making the difficult seem easy. And Chaac the rain god, also a fisherman, provided them with a varied bounty of fish for centuries and centuries until 1958, when a plague of large mouth bass from Florida and Alabama rained down through the sky from the wings of Pan Am Airlines. Like many ill-considered ideas prompted by self-interest (tourist dollars) and not much else, this did not end well.

The Maya ended up with less fish--not more--and many local species were devoured out of existence. Pan Am went bust and lake hotels were able to fill rooms anyway, without the help of the U.S. sports fisherman.

Today, fishermen's wives still get up before sunrise to make fresh tortillas for their husbands who still begin their days with the twilight of dawn.