Carlos Victor Causo: Monochromatic Memories

Carlos Victor Causo was born in Cuba and raised in different locations, including Buenos Aires in Argentina and São Paulo in Brazil. After graduating from an American high school abroad, he moved to the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Florida International University. While in college, Causo landed a full-time job as a photo assistant in a major advertising agency were he learned to shoot with a 4×5 camera and he took several photography courses that included history, darkroom techniques and printing, and received weekly critiques of his work.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts photography, video and related media at the School of Visual Arts in New York where he also received the Paula Rhodes Memorial Award. This award honors Master of Fine Arts candidates whose work is deemed exceptional by their chair and faculty. Causo also received the Cintas Fellows Award in 1992. In 1994 he returned to Miami and started working in the commercial sector of photography, at which time a former mentor, William Maguire, offered him an adjunct teaching position at FIU. He taught fine art photography, and later on Photoshop, for well over a decade, “and I will definitely do it again because I love teaching, and nothing is more rewarding,” he exclaims.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Some photographs depict forgotten landscapes left to the mercy of the elements and mirror the encounters between man and nature. Others become ruinous testaments of a distant era.

The man-made world in its logical, rigid and organized character is a massive array of static and dynamic shapes and symmetrical aberrations that threaten the very source from which it was originally extracted. Through my photos, I want to establish the equality of absolute chaos to perfect order – first, by presenting a balance between abstraction and representation, and secondly by exploring a relationship or dislocation between natural and man-made forms, juxtaposing the shapes of disarray into an organized manifestation.

I want my images to represent the illusion of an eternal now by directly transmuting a visual notion where scale as well as dimensional time is nonexistent. The quest for discovery leads me to places in which revelations of forgotten memories are resolved by the fact of mere presence, and although I try to maintain an inquisitive yet detached attitude in my findings, I am nonetheless overwhelmed to recognize the regenerative powers of nature, transcending beyond time and circumstance.

Q: The word ruinous usually means bringing about ruin, but it can also mean “in a ruined state.” Which meaning did you have in mind and why do you think “landscapes left to the mercy of the elements mirror the encounters between man and nature”?

A: I meant in a ruined state. Growing up in highly industrialized cities and seeing how quickly industrial complexes become obsolete, compounded with my background in environmental studies, are major influences on my work. More than ever we are becoming aware of our surroundings and of nature having the power to regenerate.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: Images that carry with them iconic references that are concerned with the assemblage of ideas, building towards a sense of totality. The narrative is redefined, sequential or arrayed. Events are themselves complex configurations of experience and interpretation. A link between recording and rendering is formed to conceive these urban fairytales.

I embrace fragmentation as fiction – a kind of reinvention of allegory in terms of the imagination. It’s a fusion of the real and the dream and also of simultaneity, where time vanishes, linking associations through acts of displacement and representation.

Q: Can you elaborate on your concept of allegory and how you fuse the temporal and timeless into a visual statement that embraces both of these aspects?

A: I should have mentioned, though it’s not a direct quote, that this portion of my explanation borrows a line taken from an article by one of my professors, Timothy Druckrey. He wrote, “to embrace fragmentation as fiction, a kind of reinvention of allegory in terms of the imagination.” Here he is actually making a reference to Surrealism.

In terms of allegory, the hardest part would be to construct a whole narrative based on a single image, and to create a photo able to describe, with subtle distinction, a greater cause by the mere act of representation. Furthermore, what I try to decipher is how much of the conscious and the unconscious play a part when taking a photo. Does the unconscious mind see hidden messages and symbolisms? And do we inadvertently embed these signifiers as we stand, gaze and press the shutter? Perhaps, but at that very moment we are not consciously aware of it. Thereby, fragments, as in dreams, permeate the imagination. The photograph then assumes not only the aspect of a narrative illusion to what it depicts but also creates a cohesiveness or relationship of the elements, both symbolic and descriptive, within the frame.

By temporal and timeless, I mean that a photo can be placed in history linearly in terms of what it represents, but is also timeless because it captures a slice of time in a frame. The moment becomes unique in a sense, and equates to Henry Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. It cannot be repeated.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: One of my mentors always photographed with a Leica. Also, when you study photography, you find out that some of the photographers you admire used Leica cameras like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Considering the fact that I like traveling and documenting my journeys, the Leica M format is the perfect fit for me. My first one was an M4-2, then an M4-P and an M6.

Q: What camera equipment do you primarily use for your personal and creative work now?

A: The Leica M240 and Leica M Monochrom

Q: Aside from the oft-cited advantages of compact size, ruggedness, and excellent image quality, what are some of the specific characteristics and features of the Leica M and the Monochrom that you find especially useful in your creative work? Which camera do you use most often, and which lenses did you use to create this portfolio?

A: It has to be simplicity in design – no bells or whistles. I use the Monochrom mainly with wider lenses, 28 mm and 35 mm. I have yet to try the 24 mm that everyone raves about, but in reality all Leica lenses are excellent! I keep the 50 mm f/ 0.95 Noctilux on the M240. It renders superbly and the color palette is exquisite. I am experimenting with video as well. It would be nice if the M240 camera were 4K capable like my sister’s D-Lux Type 109. In my opinion, the Monochrom image quality is comparable to medium format film. I have scanned many 6×4.5 cm and 6×6 cm negatives with a drum scanner. The comparison with Monochrom files is imperceptible. I use both cameras equally for different reasons.

Q: All of these images are presented in black-and-white and at least some of them were shot with your Leica M Monochrom. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium as your primary means of photographic and artistic expression?

A: I can visualize form and not be distracted by seen colors. I can think more in terms of composition and lighting. I go out into the world and visualize in black-and-white as opposed to color and convert the images in post-production. Commercially I shoot in color. It’s all about depicting with precision a certain object; what you see is what you get.

If I may quote Robert Frank, “black–and-white are the colors of photography.” Most photography books I own and love were all presented in B&W. I am definitely influenced by them.

Q: There is a joyous and carefree quality to the image “The Joy of Feeding” that was obviously shot on the boardwalk. The enthusiastic interaction between all of the people on the boardwalk and the seagulls flying overhead is amazing. How did you manage to capture this beautiful decisive moment? Did you crop this image or shoot it at a very high ISO setting? The reason I ask is that there is a mottled texture in the sky. Also please provide the tech data including lens, camera, exposure and ISO.

A: Thank you. While in grad school, I purchased a used M4-P and a 35 Summicron – I think it was version four – which is smaller than my current one. The image is not cropped. I was trained not to ever crop images, just get closer. It was shot with Tri-X 400, overexposed and underdeveloped for optimal tonal range (rated at 100 ISO). The mottled texture is a Newton ring from scanning. The shot was probably taken at f/4 or f/5.6 and shutter speed was either 1/125 or 1/250 sec.

Q: The striking scenic image called “Kilauea” is remarkable because of the way the line of the sea on the horizon slices the image into two complementary parts with the array of different sized rocks in the foreground and an amazing dark cloud formation in a luminous sky above. I assume this was shot on the coast in Hawaii. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? Also, what does this image mean to you personally?

A: I have great respect for culture in general. Hawaiian lore and legend fascinates me, and the challenge was how to represent this sacred place. Kilauea, the volcano, is home to Pele, eternal goddess of fire. Pele also means molten lava, which is destructive by nature, but it also terra forms. The rocks in the photo suggest fragmentation, both literal and metaphorical. The photo may also suggest a somewhat primordial state in a time where dinosaurs roamed the earth. This is what I mean when I say, “by a fusion of the real and the dream, and also of simultaneity, where time vanishes.” The sky can also foreshadow a cataclysm. But after the storm, the calm pervades. This is what Pele represents — two opposing forces coexisting. There is spirituality, manifested through a tangible force. And there is regeneration by way of destruction.

When I went back there in 2013 I couldn’t get close enough because the sulfur gas plumes were exponentially bigger than what you see in this photo.

Q: “A Path Ahead” is a masterfully composed landscape showing a dirt path leading to the shoreline, and a rude old stone triangular structure on the right, all under a magnificently dramatic sky, but for me the most interesting thing about it is the modern minimalist bridge spanning the water that provides a perfect visual complement to what is basically a rural scene. In other words, it is an example of the works of man fitting felicitously into, and maybe even complementing, nature. Do you agree?

A: In this case, yes, the Skye Bridge complements the landscape. It is also a good example of how the Monochrom picks up detail and renders, considering that it was 9 pm with a setting sun directly ahead. I like to think that this photo could be a good example as to how I jump from the methodology of the studio to the outdoors. I guess I am able to discern patterns that appeal to me in term of placement, form, tonalities and composition. The Isle of Skye is one of my favorite places on earth. The hard part in photographing is how not to be overwhelmed by its mysteriousness.

Q: It is fascinating that “Wind Turbine” gives me the exact opposite feeling from the image mentioned above. While these turbines may be needed as an alternative to fossil fuels and to mitigate the detrimental effect of climate change, they are a visual affront to a timeless pastoral scene of grasslands. Even the dark clouds in the sky seem to impart a malevolent quality to this image. Am I over the top here, and what do you think this image communicates to those who view it?

A: Absolutely, well said, and to top it off, the turbines are non-operational because of budget problems. Double whammy!

It is interesting how certain elements of a photograph, particularly clouds, seem to seamlessly blend in with other visual elements. In this case, the turbine appears to whip or comb the cloud. Could this be triggered by an unconscious mechanism that we don’t readily perceive consciously at the moment we press the shutter? I certainly don’t remember seeing this when I pressed the shutter release. This happens quite often and is represented in many ways.

Q: “The Gathering” is a picture of hogs in a squalid jury-rigged pen littered with building materials and miscellaneous junk. To a city dweller this image might suggest man’s thoughtless and venal subjugation of the natural world, but I know that these pigs are free range, with access to a mud pit and are probably much better off than those confined in indoor pens for their entire lives, which is the common practice in agribusiness. What is your feeling about this picture, where did you shoot it, and why did you include it in this portfolio?

A: My first reaction was, “How do I make sense of this?” Where do I stand to best represent it? I see shimmering light, pigs made out of clay, and a tank of a similar shape to the animals. It also reminded me of Sandy Skoglund’s sculpted animal installations.

I pictured a world gone mad – in disarray – but the pigs, as you mentioned, are free range and appear healthy; they somehow adapt. I don’t generally rationalize this in the moment of execution, at least not in a conscious manner. I just saw and said to myself, “How wonderful!”

It was shot in Homestead, about 30 miles south of Miami, the agricultural area of South Florida. Usually, I choose not to photograph on cloudless days. Hence most of this scenery was originally devoid of harsh colors.

Q: I assume that you entitled your compelling picture of a palm tree and other vegetation under a dramatically streaky sky “A Lapse in a Slice” because it is a time-lapse image. Is that correct, and can you tell us how and where you shot it?

A: Yes, correct. It was one of many images I shot. It was probably a one or two minute exposure on a really windy and cloudy Maui night. I popped a flash at the plant to the right. The experiment was to shoot about 20-40 photos and import them into Adobe Premiere to create a time-lapse. When you import the JPEG files into Premiere, you basically click on the Numbered Stills option, which basically compresses all of the photos into a movie file.

Q: How do you see your photography, both the commercial side, and the personal creative artistic side, evolving over the next few years? Do you plan to continue this project going forward and are you working on any new projects you can mention here?

A: I was an adjunct lecturer in three universities for several years, and taught both photography and digital media. I want to go back to teaching. It’s rewarding. Commercially, video is an avenue that merits exploration. Creatively, I need to push forward and be more specific in finding a solid and homogenous approach in my work.

Thank you for your time, Carlos!

– Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Carlos’ work on his website and Instagram.

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