San Pablo Villa de Mitla in Black and White: Oaxaca Archeology and Photography

Grecas at Mitla archeological site

It was one of those perfect Oaxaca days where the skies were cerulean blue and filled with puffy white cumulus clouds scattered like pillows across the horizon. Our photography workshop participants set out by van for the ancient village of San Pablo Villa de Mitla at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley about 35-40 minutes from our base in Teotitlan del Valle.

Several of the participants as well as instructors, wife and husband team of Sam and Tom Robbins, were versatile in both digital and black and white film photography.  However, most of us had never used the black and white settings on our digital cameras before and this was our assignment for the day.  It was challenging and a stretch!

We spent the morning looking at the work of extraordinary black and white photographers — Ansel Adams, Josef Sudek, Andre Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Ron Mayhew, Richard Avedon, Jill Enfield, and Sam and Tom Robbins.  Then, we practiced using the settings on our own cameras.  Tom showed us his work just published in B&W Magazine.

Tom and Sam asked us to pay attention to window light, reflection off metal, shadow and shape, horizon lines, repetition of shape, texture, composition and gradations of grey.  In the pre-shoot learning session we discussed ways to capture shapes, tension, balance, to hold the camera to the eye and scan.

Woman with White Head Scarf by Omar Chavez Santiago

“Remember to move your feet.  Knowing where to stand,” says Sam, “is the most important thing we can teach you.”

This was my first attempt at B&W.  My friend Omar was a beginner and this was his first experience with digital photography.  It was a challenge and an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens!  We learned to shoot through doorways, look for repetition of angles, note that diagonal lines add tension and horizontal lines add stability.  We paid attention to simple shapes and to get close up.


“Tip the camera to get the best angle,” Tom Robbins encouraged us.  “Look for the mood of a place.”  Mitla is an extraordinary place. It is a pre-Hispanic Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site where the Spanish conquerors built atop a regional temple (as they did throughout Mexico) to attract locals to worship.

Handwoven Mitla waste basket

Chris, another participant, said, “I’m getting a ton of ideas.  This is encouraging me to look for opportunities in places I frequent at home to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary.”

“Watch for the light,” Sam said.  Catch movement.  A faster shutter speed with flash will sometimes stop your subject.


Stele at Mitla (above) is by Omar Chavez Santiago.  All other photos by Norma Hawthorne unless indicated.  I am using a Nikon D40X (out of production) and Nikkor lenses 18-105mm and 70-300mm.

Photographer Edward Weston captured Mitla in black and white between the 1920’s and 1940’s.  His photos are intense juxtapositions of light and dark.  Tom advised us to “get low against the wall if it’s noon to capture the shadows.”

We loved the experiment in black and white!

Come along on our next photography workshop:  Day of the Dead Photography Expedition with Bill Bamberger, October 29-November 4, 2011.

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