How it Was Shot: ‘Chair and Shadow’ in San Miguel, Mexico

It would be fair to say I am most well-known for my landscape photography, from large “grand landscapes” to abstracts set in the slit canyons. I have also been a photographer of human-made environments for most of my professional career. In 1994, during a workshop in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I led the group to the Convento San Miguel located in Mani.

Mani is so tiny that it does not appear on any maps of the region. It is located between the Mayan ruins Chichen Itza in the middle of the peninsula and Tulum on the east coast. It was discovered by accident while driving from one Mayan ruin to another on a 1993 scouting trip. Convento San Miguel is the main attraction of Mani. Convento San Miguel was built in 1562 shortly after Cortez’s Spanish conquest. It is now a school and church, a ruin and a village meeting centre. It is used every day. Amazingly, we were granted permission by the authorities to roam the structure and take photos as we pleased.

I was a wanderer in the 1994 workshop. I worked with students and also took photographs. This is how I use it as a teaching/learning tool. I invite students to view and discuss the images I consider worthwhile. Students are often scattered during field sessions so that only a small number of students can participate in discussions about the image. To show students who were not there, I made a 4×5 Polaroid of every negative I exposed so they could discuss any aspect of that image. As we boarded our chartered bus to take us from one place to another, I pulled out the Polaroids that I had taken that day, and I passed them around so that they could discuss the imagery.

During Convento San Miguel’s field session, I wandered into a room that was used to make the image. It was a rectangular, bare room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, peeling plaster everywhere, and one door to the room at the end. I also entered the one on the other side. The door to the balcony led to another door on the shorter wall. There were no windows.

The room was home to several students who were creating compositions. There were also many folding chairs scattered around the room. After working with one student, one day I looked up to see the chair’s shadow in the room. Although it may have been moved by students before I entered the room or while I was working alongside a student, I still had not touched it. It was there that Pablo Casals, a great classical cellist, was sitting. He was practicing Bach cello suites. After he had finished, he got up and walked out to the balcony, which allowed light in. I could still hear the music echoing throughout the room.

Instantly, I shouted, “DON’T TOUCH THAT CHAIR!” The chair and its shadow in the bare room told a complete story. The strong winds were causing the door to swing open and close wildly. First, I set my tripod where I wanted it to be placed, then I walked onto the balcony to search for a small piece plaster (such pieces are everywhere) that I could place under the door as an anchor. I carefully selected the right-sized piece and placed it under the door so that no light could pass through the partially opened door. It can be seen under the door.

Next, I created my exposure. I knew I would eventually print it at 11×14″. I also took a Polaroid photo of the scene. Although the Polaroid was not what I was picturing as the final image, it was a good example of what I was trying to capture. I shared the image with students who were still present, encouraging them to take an exposure or any variation.

That was it. This is the story behind this image. There are two things I think are so important that they deserve further discussion. First, after returning from the Convento session ended, I took out the Polaroids that I had made and gave them to the first student sitting in front of me so they could be shared around the bus. A student was sitting at the back of the bus with his wife. He was not a participant in the workshop but was welcome to join the fun and discoveries. She stopped at the shadow and chair Polaroid and cried. I was shocked. I reminded her that the negative had not been developed yet. She said again, “I must have the photograph.”

I suggested, “How about this: I will develop the negative when I return home and print it as an 11×14″ picture. If it pleases me, I will send it to you. I will pay you if it is your favorite. It’s okay to return it if you don’t like it.” She agreed. Although it took several weeks to develop and print the image, I liked it. I sent it to her, and she wrote me a check.

I honestly don’t know what it was that struck her so deeply. It brought me to tears. I didn’t ask. It was evident that I had created an image that provoked strong emotions. It speaks volumes about the emotional power that a photograph can possess.

Three years later, the second follow-up took place. One evening I was showing prints and answering questions about each image during a workshop at home/studio. This was one of the images. It was up and I didn’t say anything (as I do when I show images), while I waited for students to comment or ask questions. One student stood up from his chair and slowly walked up to the print. He said that he could see Pablo Casals practicing the Bach cello suites. Then he described what he saw, concluding that he had left the door and that he could still hear the music.

I was dumbfounded. He described what I felt and used the exact words that I had used to describe them. He had never been before to a workshop and I had not yet written about the image in any publication or other venue. He invented those words entirely on his own.

What does this mean? It seems to me that this is an echo of my opening words in The Art of Photography. It appears that I had communicated something and the receiver (the student), used my exact words for what he took away from the image. To this day, my head shakes in disbelief.

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About Bruce Barnbaum: Bruce Barnbaum, one of the most influential photographers and educators in the world, is Bruce Barnbaum. His classic book “The Art of Photography: A Personal Approach to Artistic Expression” is widely recognized as the definitive source of insight, photographic thought and instruction. Bruce is also well-known as one of the best black and white traditional darkroom printing experts. His work is displayed in galleries across the United States and Europe, and is part of the collections of museums and private collectors around the world.