Monthly Archives: October 2016

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.

We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.

A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween?  My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.

All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Skulls in the market. All altars have some form of them.

Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.

The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.

Calavera sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?

In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.

Preparing for Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is coming soon. Festivities in Oaxaca will begin in the next few days, and people are now gathering what they need for home altars to honor their deceased loved ones:

  • palm branches to create an arch over the altar through which loved ones pass from the otherworld — a gateway to now
  • smokey copal incense that provides the aroma to guide the way
  • candles that burn continuously to offer light along the journey
  • fresh flowers, especially marigolds, a seasonal offering with a pungent aroma to guide the spirits
Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

  • bread, chocolate, fruit and nuts for the spirit visitors to eat
  • favorite beverages of those who have passed on and will return: hot chocolate, beer, mezcal, whiskey, coca-cola, Fanta orange, atole
  • framed photographs of those who have died (it wasn’t until the 70’s or 80’s, I’m told, that most locals had cameras to capture images)

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

 

Oaxaca street parades will start on October 30.

On October 31, the Xoxocotlan panteon (cemetery) will host locals and tourists who come from around the world to experience the reverie and revelry of Muertos. I like to start at the old cemetery around mid-afternoon to be present at the magic hour of sunset.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

On November 1, there are many cemetery festivities, at San Pablo Villa de Mitla in the morning and in the evening at the Oaxaca city Panteon, and in San Augustin Etla.

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, the low-key ceremonies of honoring the dead begin with a mid-afternoon meal at home to ensure the dead return to their graves with full bellies. The villagers then accompany the spirits to the the cemetery (around 6 p.m. ) and sit with them through the night to be certain they are cared for and rest in peace.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

On November 3, in San Antonino Castillo de Velasco, the flower growing village, holds their Day of the Dead celebrations after they have cut and sold cockscomb, marigolds, lilies and more to surrounding villages and city dwellers.

You might also want to add Santa Maria Atzompa to your itinerary.

Sand paintings, part of the tradition,  Muertos

Sand paintings, part of the tradition, Muertos

These are not created as tourist attractions but exist as part of ancient pre-Hispanic ritual in many parts of Mexico. Oaxaca has one of the most vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations.

Locals and seasoned Oaxaca travelers continue the search for the undiscovered Day of the Dead celebration where few tourists descend. The farther from the city, the more likely this is to occur.

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

I’m in North Carolina with my friend Hettie, and have with me photos of my parents and copal incense. I’ll start making my memory altar in the next few days. Meanwhile, my Teotitlan del Valle family will light incense and place marigolds at the gate to my home to welcome the spirits and guide them back under the shadow of Picacho.

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

After I built my altar last year, our 99-1/2 year-old mom took a downward turn and I left Oaxaca for California. She died on November 15, 2016. I return to California next week to join my family to lay the headstone on her grave just before the anniversary of her death, a ritual that is part of my religious tradition.

This year, my altar will hold them both. I will sit and honor their lives.

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

 

 

 

For All the Bad Hombres and Nasty Women: An Essay on Voting

Yesterday was opening day for early voting in North Carolina, where I live when I’m not in Oaxaca. The top priority for being here now was to change my voter registration to my new legal name of Norma Lee Schafer and to vote in this presidential election. I drove to Graham, North Carolina, the Alamance County seat of government, stood in line and cast my ballot. Done.

But not really. The politics of anger, bitterness, biting and back-biting, hurled insults and what it means to live in a democracy where voting is a right, a privilege and a responsibility are taking its toll on me. It was a sleepless night for me on October 20 as I reviewed the October 19 “debate” and its aftermath, what it means to have a clean election that is not rigged.

Vote Protector Volunteer. I see this as reassurance.

Vote Protector Volunteer. I see this as reassurance.

So, this is what is prompting me to write this essay about voting, elections, and the tone of discourse in the USA. To say I am disturbed is to minimize what is happening in our country. I know many of you join me.

To disrespect the electorate and the electoral process by a major party candidate who says he will not accept the election outcome unless he wins brings our democracy to a level I have never seen in my lifetime. Political analysts say it is without precedent.

Tell the African-Americans and Latinos in line with me at the Youth Services Building set up by the Alamance County Board of Elections that this is a rigged election. Tell all the traditional country born and bred southerners with teased blond hair or baseball caps standing with me in the hot afternoon sun that their vote is discounted unless a certain candidate wins.

Standing in line waiting to vote this year meant even more to me than usual. I feel proud to participate in a several hundred year process that is safe, respectful, honest and peaceful. Standing in line, I’m reminded that not many countries in the world offer this to their citizens.  I am reminded that many don’t vote in Mexico because they believe the elections are pre-determined.

I take this voting responsibility seriously. Especially this year when so much is at stake.

As I waited in line that continued to grow as the afternoon lengthened, neighbors and strangers exchanged greetings, smiled, held on to hands of children, tipped their hats for shade. I have no idea whether the kindly man behind me was Democrat or Republican and I didn’t ask as he helped me take off my jacket to use as a sun shield. We stood patiently, waiting our turn. Election officials told me they would not close the doors. Everyone in line at 5 p.m., however long it was, would vote.

In line, I felt this sense of urgency, of significance, of something extremely important happening in a small, rural North Carolina county seat.  I felt what I was about to do was important, very important for the future of this country and the world. I thought about poll taxes and voting rights, and the struggles for equality, legal and social, that each of us deserves. I thought about women’s right to vote and to choose, about borders and walls, about haves and have-nots.

I’m angry as I watch the national drama continue to unfold, unravel, and discharge the next epithet: Bad Hombres and Nasty Women. Political theatre has become the Theatre of the Absurd, and I wish for something better, more redemptive, something that will heal our differences and take us forward together.

And, I’m afraid of a post-election aftermath where we now tolerate personal attacks that turn from verbal to violent, led by a candidate who will not accept a process in which he has failed.

But, mostly, I urge all to vote, to make your voice heard through your ballot as we continue this important tradition of peaceful transfer of power, a tradition that makes democracy work and prevents anarchy.

From One Nasty Woman, Norma

 

 

 

Textile Fiestas of Mexico guide book by Sheri Brautigam, with a little help from Norma Schafer

It was early 2016 and I’d just returned from taking a group of textile travelers to Tenancingo de Degollado, Estado de Mexico, to study the ikat rebozos of the region.  Textile maven and friend Sheri Brautigam was in Oaxaca putting the final content and photos together for her upcoming book, Textile Fiestas of Mexico.

With A Little Help from My Friends in Mexico

When Sheri is in Oaxaca (her home is Santa Fe, NM), we like to hang out together.

ONE Space Open: Ikat Textile Study Tour to Tenancingo, Feb. 2-10, 2017

I took her with me and introduced her to the Feria del Carrizo (river reed basket fair) in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca, just across the road from where I live in Teotitlan del Valle. She loved it so much, she decided to include it in her book! At the end of January each year, it’s a special event that includes hand-woven river reed baskets, lampshades, fish traps, music and amazing food. 

Tenancingo weaver Jesus Zarate with his amazing ikat butterfly rebozo

Tenancingo weaver Jesus Zarate with his amazing ikat butterfly rebozo

Sheri’s deadline was fast approaching. She wasn’t sure she could get back to Tenancingo to interview and photograph people, something I had well-documented. I suggested that perhaps I could produce that chapter for her.

Smokey and steamy dye pot, the alchemy of natural dyes

Smokey and steamy dye pot, the alchemy of natural dyes

I also suggested that she include a chapter on the natural dye wool textiles of Teotitlan del Valle, focusing on the process of using indigo, cochineal and other plants and minerals.

Hands in the cochineal dye bath

Hands in the cochineal dye bath

Sheri sent the suggestion to Karen Brock at Thrums Books, the co-publisher, and she agreed.

If you are traveling to Mexico for any reason, this is the book you want in hand to explore the rich textile culture. It includes how to get to the textile regions, what to look for, where to shop for the best, where to stay and eat.

Of course, if you want a personal, immediate experience, come with me!

Cochineal from acid (lime juice) dye bath -- brilliant color

Cochineal from acid (lime juice) dye bath — brilliant color. All natural!

Let me know how you like it if you do get a copy. We are interested in your feedback for the next edition!

 

Making Mexico Color Photos into B&W: Chapel Hill Camera Club

Last night the Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Camera Club held a free workshop using Silver Efex  Pro2 taught by Mark Lipton. It was fun to select a few of my color photos and work with the (free) Google program that then becomes an editing option in Lightroom.

smile

I want to share these with you.

Ocotlan Market Woman, 2013

Ocotlan Market Woman, 2013

Mark first recommended that we watch the video Seeing in Black and White by Eileen Rafferty. It’s almost two hours long, but well worth it to understand that color can be a huge distraction from seeing the texture, composition and artistic quality of a photograph.

Tlacolula market scene. 2015. Color.

White sombrero. Tlacolula market scene.

Color evokes emotion. Our eye goes directly to the intense red, blue, orange or green and fools us into thinking that a photograph may be better than it really is.

White sombrero. Tlacolula market, post-processing with Silver Efex

White sombrero. Tlacolula market, post-processing with Silver Efex

Mark says that with B&W photography we can see the layout, the diagonals, the triangles, the textures. But, there are times when color has much more of an impact than black and white, is more effective. It’s up to us to decide!

Bird cage, Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla

Bird cage, Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla

The questions to ask are: Can a black and white photo serve me more artistically? Can an unremarkable color photo have greater impact as a B&W image? Does this image need/want a sense of history or timelessness — enough to choose B&W over color? Does it offer an aspect of artistic abstraction in shape and structure?

Bird cage. Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla. Silver Efex post-processing

Bird cage. Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla. Silver Efex post-processing

Color is information. The stronger the color image, the more the brain loses the detail of texture and shadow.

Lila Downs in concert, Oaxaca, Mexico

Lila Downs in concert, Oaxaca, Mexico

In using B&W and to convert from color to B&W, we have to begin to think in hues and tones. Is there enough tonal differentiation in the photograph or will greens, reds, blues just blend into the same shade of grey when it’s converted?  Is there enough contrast? Which filters do I want to use? What b&w film and speed do I want to simulate?

Lila Downs in concert, Oaxaca, Mexico. Post-processing with Silver Efex

Lila Downs in concert, Oaxaca, Mexico. Post-processing with Silver Efex

Photographers must be aware of light, dark, shadow. There is no saturation in B&W photography. There is glow. Using the sliders in Silver Efex can enhance the glow, says Mark, but we must be aware of keeping a photo natural.

Compare these photos I’ve worked with today and let me know which you prefer — the color or B&W version? Why?

I’m just learning Silver Efex so experimenting with the post-processing software is more about getting a feel for what it can do.