WILL BYERS | Photography | Portland, Maine

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Will Byers is a photographer and writer based in Portland, Maine. Here is a growing record of as many far-flung things as he can manage to put accurately and articulately. Music videos. Sweet links.

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Gaining Recognition

Building the CV

I'm happy to share that I was selected to be one of 55 photographers featured in Bloom Publishing's upcoming book, OPEN.

The photo they chose is from my Cementerio de la Chacarita series, and is possibly one of the best images, if not luckiest, I have ever created.

I've told the larger story about Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, but it is such an interesting place that each photo offers its own story. This is especially true with the photo chosen for OPEN.

Chacarita Cemetery is sprawling, with many sections, eras and styles to explore. In the heart of it all there is a chapel and a space for funerals to gather.

I approached the area looking for a restroom, having wandered the grounds for a couple of hours. It was hot, so I circled the shady edges of the buildings and peeked into open doorways.

The first large room I looked into was empty except for a pedestal awaiting a coffin, and a priest. I could see through the to the other side, and heard a funeral party gathering nearby.

I sensed the need to be even more delicate, and unobtrusive. It is one thing to peacefully stroll through resting places with a camera - it's altogether different when a family is laying someone to rest. 

So I continued down the back side of the building, retaining my invisibility. At a well-shaded inner corner, I saw a doorway into a chapel. The space seemed cool and airy, despite the bright and forceful summer day.

Door #1

I approached softly to look in, thinking the space might have a photo or two waiting. One step in, maybe two, I paused when I noticed the seated clergyman. I realized that he must be waiting to perform his duties, and was messaging someone, or browsing the internet, with his down time. 

My camera was up in a heartbeat - I didn't move from the spot, centered on the massive candle stand, and zoomed in enough to still include its full height. Occasionally I get the feeling that a photo is nearly perfect as soon as I capture it, and that was the case here. I quickly snapped the frame a couple of times to ensure that one would be appropriately in focus, and then backed away from the chapel.

What Does It All Really Mean?

The clergyman stood up not long after. I had chanced upon a rare moment, surrounded by aesthetically appealing elements that were both commonplace and surreal. The holy man pecking away at a ubiquitous, modern device, kept company by "plugged-in" objects such as the facsimile of a flame, created an image that many rightfully find ridiculous, while others may find it more profound.

I don't hold the same contempt for all of organized religion in the way that many do today, though I understand where the contempt originates from. There's a lot of beauty in it. Personally, I substitute cheekiness for the cynicism some feel about this image. The image resonates with me in a way that brings happiness and contemplation. A faceless clergyman prone to the same boredom and frivolity as any other human - are they texting God? Or swiping right on Tinder?

Depending on one's perception of religion, or connection to spirituality, this image can evoke cynicism or humility. The cynics aren't wrong. We often put too much faith in our intermediaries - the leaders with comforting answers. At the same time, we are all simply and incredibly human, seeking a route to communicate with what is real and true. Are we ornate, well-crafted implements at the receiving end of a power cord, drawing energy from the universe to recreate the elements of reality that bring us comfort?

Am I reaching? Doesn't matter. It's a damn good photo anyway.



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Diana, Holga, and LOMO: Lo-Fi Toy Cameras

Cheap, Classic Film Cameras and Their Experimental Appeal

If you dig the retro, grainy, saturated look of the hipstamatic photo app for smart phones, you may be interested in the world of inexpensive, plastic medium-format film lo-fi cameras like the Holga or Diana F+. As well, photographers who want to loosen up creatively, or experiment with film might enjoy working with these lightweight, basic cameras. I obtained a Diana F+, and have enjoyed shooting some rolls of Kodak Portra 120 film around Portland, Maine.

Here's a brief run-down of some available toy cameras, and the emergence of lomography as a community and aesthetic.

LOMO & Lomography

LOMO LC-A shot by unknown LOMO enthusiast.

As I understand it, the LOMO LC-A started it all, and brought it all back. It's a Russian camera that some Austrians revived in the early nineties. They formed the Lomographic Society International, known broadly as Lomography. In their own words:

"Lomography is a globally-active organization dedicated to analogue, experimental and creative photography. With millions of followers and friends across the world, the concept of Lomography encompasses an interactive, vivid and sometimes even blurred and crazy way of life. Through our constantly expanding collection of innovative cameras, instant products, films, lenses & photographic accessories, we promote photography as an inventive approach to communicate, absorb and capture the world."

Holga

A Holga shot by Marky Ramone Go.

The Holga is the first toy camera I ever heard of. Despite sounding like a Scandinavian creation, the Holga was from China. Created by Lee Ting-mo in Hong Kong in 1981, it is largely responsible for the global swell of toy camera enthusiasts. The factory closed in 2015, and that is that. Luckily there are thousands to be found for sale, after its boom in the 2000s.

Diana

The Diana was also created in China, during the 1960s, and is now known as the Diana F+. Dianas are a little more pricey than Holgas, but they are lighter and smaller.

I own a Diana, and am very pleased with the balance it offers. Its photos have the lo-fi, bright appeal, but are often crisp and rich. The focus and colors are a little more accurate than with the Holga, but the corners are vignetted in the same manner.

It's a system camera that came with a flash, but I haven't used it. As with other toy cameras, it's all too easy to experiment with double-exposures — most of mine are accidental from forgetting to advance the frame. It’s my habit to not wind it, because of how I toss it in a backpack often, where it could fire).

It's possible to load film two different ways with a removable template. One results in 12 large square frames, the other produces 16 smaller square frames. I have yet to shoot a roll in the smaller 16 frame format.

 My gallery of successful Diana shots is below:

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Street Photography in Buenos Aires

Exploring the Barrios of Palermo, Villa Crespo, Recoleta and Chacarita

In 2017 I had the chance of a lifetime to explore the neighborhoods or barrios of Buenos Aires for 3 months, while living in Palermo and Villa Crespo. The freedom to go out everyday and practice with my Fujifilm X-T10 helped grow my confidence in composing shots on the fly. Here I'll share my lengthy experience exploring the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and practicing street photography for the first time.

Is This Real Life?

It had been a long time in the making for Zoë, but we had only recently met, and fallen in love, when she learned she had received a Rotary International scholarship. I remember her nerves when she first brought it up, before it had been granted.

She didn't know how it would go for us, given that it would send her to South America for 3 months, twice. I assured her I would be joining her. I am lucky to work for ReVision Energy, an employee-owned, B Corp solar energy company in New England, and they are supportive of their employees leading full lives. They approved my leave of absence and the game was on.

We left icy Maine in late January, dropping into steamy summer in the city of Buenos Aires (Bs As, as the cool kids say). We had a week to explore before I started Spanish language studies with Academia Buenos Aires - mostly we figured out where to withdraw money, where to find groceries, and how to navigate the subway, but we also had plenty of time to run through huge neighboring parks and swim in our building's pool. The 3 months ahead of us felt endless.

Though a partly cloudy day here, this became my Maine babe's tannest February yet.

Turn Me Loose

I was soon roaming block after block of Palermo (where Borges lived and wrote), experimenting with street photography. Language schooling went for three weeks, and was rigorous, but afterward I was completely untethered from having to show up anywhere. I realize how rare a thing that is.

I have been pushing myself to get better at photography for a few years now, developing my eye and technique, but time to really immerse into a practice is usually scarce. Here was a chance to shoot until I was exhausted, to dig into a new culture and explore one of the famous cities of the world. I had been dreaming about this prospect for months.

Everyone should exercise their own degree of caution, but I will first say that I never felt unsafe while walking Buenos Aires with my camera, often off the beaten path. The core barrios are a little rough in areas, but I never sensed the type of desperation that could lead to a mugging. Just check your surroundings and be conscious of other people, but not to a paranoid extent. Never, however, leave your camera unguarded at a cafe, for instance, because I have no doubt that non-violent crimes of opportunity could happen in nice places - especially Palermo Soho, where wealth is on parade.

Also in my favor: the mirrorless Fujifilm X-T10 I carried is small and reminiscent of film SLRs from decades ago, and so on that level I felt comforted that my gear did not shout, "DIGITAL! EXPENSIVE!" As well, at 6'2" I am not a small man, either, so I'm aware that I also experience a certain privilege of physical wherewithal. Nonetheless, I had 3-4 different people across the city tap my elbow to express concern for my camera. I thanked them and assured them I would be careful, but privately it never matched up with my intuitive sense of safety. Like I said, the core neighborhoods are not desperate places, especially during daylight hours, and even big city Argentines are often remarkably genteel people.

I did not explore La Boca. It has huge appeal, and you may be very interested in seeing it, so just know that it is widely advised to stick to the beaten path there. Probably wise to join a tour group, even.

Casual breakfast views of Palermo, Villa Crespo, and on the fringe, Chacarita.

Battery Steele is a decommissioned WWII bunker on Peaks Island. I took this with an iPhone 4 while working a carpentry job out there my first summer in Maine. I was beginning to look for photographs everywhere I went.

A Little Background

Northern New England and its difficult moods have contributed a lot to my interest in photography. After a substantial stint in Vermont, there was Downeast Maine over the fall and winter of 2013, where, from the deck of a Dutch mussel boat in the Mt. Desert Narrows, I captured brilliant skies, and scenes of austerity and silence that felt otherworldly to me. 

In 2014 I moved down the coast to Portland, a fortified harbor town that still has the hardscrabble community and salty, weathered aura of an early colonial city, I imagine. I kept seeking scenes possessing what I could only describe as "magical realism," having some hint of energy from elsewhere.

Don't Sweat the Technique

Plaza Armenia rap battle, Palermo, 2017.

Hunkering down and photographing New England in this way without any major trips elsewhere for a couple of years made me feel like I had a particular style that would carry over wherever I went. It turns out that shooting in new places requires me to redefine my awareness and style, and that's alright because I'm finding that the observation involved is something I'm pretty good at.

In Argentina, I had nearly 100 days to explore, immerse, and absorb. Cumulatively this was as much time as I'd ever shot anything anywhere, and it wasn't long before a new style started coming through. But it wasn't until I went inside Cementerio de la Chacarita, or Chacarita Cemetery, during the second half of our trip, that I realized what was missing from my work: a project... but hold that thought!

I roamed the neighborhoods for a month or so before I found Chacarita Cemetery -  I was always searching for old facades, tree-lined streets, funky cars and stylish Argentines to photograph. There's no shortage, and I feel confident saying Buenos Aires must be one of the coolest cities to practice in. There's such a juxtaposition of style and decay, Old world and New.

If I could have more time to photograph Buenos Aires' streets again, I would push myself to seek more photos of Porteñas, the women of Buenos Aires. I can remember sweet pairs of elderly mothers and grown daughters walking arm in arm, or young women enamored with enormous, studded platform sandals that boosted their height, and I wish I had a photo that captured it.

I suppose it was shyness, in part, that kept me from aiming my camera at the women of Buenos Aires, and in a way I was overly sensitive to the idea of how some women might be uncomfortable with a stranger snapping shots of them. There's nothing wrong with respect, but I need to get past my shyness, or the thought that people are largely against having their photo taken.

There was one occasion when Zoë was with me that we asked a pair of nuns for their portrait. They reluctantly obliged, and smiled, and then requested that the photo never be published! It is too good to not share it, someday, perhaps. 

I'm practicing approaching people for portraits a lot more nowadays, and often they're happy to oblige, and are maybe even flattered. If they don't want to, they just say, "No," and life goes on! After the portrait, I feel like I should offer a copy to the individual, to make it worth their while, but I usually don't act on that feeling. How do the other photographers reading this approach that situation?

The Gates of Chacarita

All of that exploring led to my first significant project as an emerging professional photographer. We had seen an immense cemetery on the map, close to our upcoming neighborhood, Villa Crespo, and thought about doing long runs around it, since we were leaving Palermo and the traffic-free parks nearby.

Chacarita Cemetery's corner gate, 2017.

I love graveyards (cemeteries, dolmens, sarcophagi, etc.) so one evening just before we moved apartments, I went far out to go have a look at the cemetery. After a lengthy walk past boutiques and kioskos, across train tracks and thoroughfares, I approached a quiet corner of a massive wall as the sun moved behind it. "CEMENTERIO DEL OESTE" is engraved above a large gate, and through it I saw golden streets of mausoleums.

Still In Awe

I was fairly stupefied by the size of the wall. I followed a silent, tree-lined span of it to eventually find a central front gate. The hours were 7 am - 5 pm. I couldn't wait to tell Zoë. I had a feeling this was where I needed to look, but I still didn't have any idea what really waited in there. 

I'll tell that story, soon, but suffice it to say, this was my first project, and the first time it felt necessary to put words with my work.

I've yet to write an artist's statement but I'm beginning to see how helpful in can be in attracting an audience. Lately I'm noticing that having a better idea about what I like to shoot has made me better at describing what I'm looking for. I feel that as I get better at creating images, and honing my expression, the seemingly distant notions of having my work valued as art or being sought for hire will begin to happen naturally in recognition. So, make work, share ideas, and maybe someone will dig it.

What say ye?


Read more about the truly amazing Chacarita Cemetery


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The Last Meal in Samsara

Driving to see my grandparents in the mountains of Yancey County, my mama could see her window-gazing baby boy thinking too hard. “What’s wrong, Will?”

“I don’t know whether to believe in god or the big bang.”

“Well, honey, I think you can believe in both.”

The wheel of the world just turns.

At the end of my youth when I moved to Maine to work on that boat, I stopped looking through the glass and tried to get to the marrow. I’d taken that ride to get booked for some dumb shit. I’d spent everything I’d ever made. I’d hurt this good body.

The Dutchman had me watching the haul going up the conveyor into the heart of his floating factory that sorted rocks from starfish from muck from tin cans from sticks until there were only shiny, bearded bivalves rattling across the sizing grate and dropping through when they were above their bin.

He saw I liked the rocks that were shaped like hearts and told me, “Don’t give one to a girl, it will turn her heart to stone.” He was wrong about this and lots of things, but he was a good captain in the circle he sailed, at least.

I dreaded the minutes at my post, waiting for the machine to jam, slugging weak, scalding coffee, and torching tobacco in defiance of my grimly uncreative day. I ate peanut butter sandwiches from dirty hands and I was tough and I was gentle and I tried to relish it.

But there were stars and memories, and even as I slid into poverty despite caring for the very first time where my money went, every time the sun set I knew I was close to Xanadu.

Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.

The delicacy of today was taboo just the day before. The bottom feeder bug is the taste they’d like to remember, trash food for the liberated soul.

This is the prisoner’s last meal meal in samsara.

will-byers-the-kid.jpg
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