Neighborly Portraits in Mexico

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A change of scenery made Russell Monk see Mexico in a new light.

Literally.

He had been living like the typical artsy expat in the center of San Miguel de Allende when he decided to uproot himself and buy a small house on the outskirts of town. There, he began doing portraits of his Mexican neighbors, starting with Isabel, the matriarch of a large family who lived on the other side of his back wall.

“People ask how you light those,” he said. “I don’t — they’re all natural light. You can’t beat that.”

The wall he shared with his neighbors is an important element of all his subsequent photographs. He had painted it a mottled gray and used it as a backdrop in an improvised open-air studio, where he does smoothly lit black-and-white portraits of his neighbors, often portraying them with tools of their trades, or whimsical talismans from his dreams.

The images are the result of a project he started on impulse last winter (which he first started showing on Facebook). He had gone to Mexico 20 years ago to do a book and subsequent documentary on the Day of the Dead festival. He fell in love with the area, and moved there a while later from Toronto.

“There is something about the light,” said Mr. Monk, who was born in London. “Mexico is a pretty surreal place, and has this macabre sense of self in a way that America or England doesn’t.”

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Russell Monk Cabeza de Cerdo

His Mexican portraits – which were also honored by PDN this year — are the latest twist in a 30-year career that has taken him to war zones and advertising studios. In recent years he has done campaigns for Samsung, a hospital group and Greenpeace.

“Like a lot of photographers, I’m not doing it the same as I used to,” he said. “Everyone else is doing it, and it’s harder. I’m trying to do more of these kinds of things, which I find rewarding.”

When he moved to his house on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, he began to photograph his neighborhood. Though he had once traveled in the country with a tent to do portraits, à la Irving Penn’s “Worlds in a Small Room,” he found his portrait project worked better at home. The residents of his community, he said, still saw it as an honor to have their portraits done.

“It seems so old-fashioned in many ways, but I’m drawn to it,” he said. “There is an honesty to it – a subject and a wall. Of course, I add what I add to it. Sometimes I see a prop and buy it, then try it out on six different people.”

Mind you, it might take five or six appointments to connect with just one of his subjects. Other times, a friend of a previous subject would come his way, asking for a portrait. It was a rhythm he learned to accept.

The images themselves have a smooth-toned, sometimes dreamy quality: a street vendor draped with a garland of garlic bulbs, a teenage beauty queen, a bricklayer obscured by his burden, a butcher holding a pig’s head like a game-winning ball under his arm.

“I can only take these pictures because of the level of intimacy with the people in the area,” he said. “You just can’t jet into a place. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be as good.”

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Russell Monk Corazon de Nopales

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