John Langmore: Photographing the Mystery of Oaxaca

John Langmore is an Austin, Texas based photographer most noted for his long-term work on East Austin and Oaxaca, Mexico. He grew up in a family of great photographers  – most notably his father, Bank Langmore, who established himself as one of the preeminent photographers of the American West in the 1970s. A professional and enthusiastic photographer, John has many interesting things to share in this interview. Alex Coghe, the interviewer, is a Leica Blog contributor.

Q: Why photography and what is the focus of your visual research?

A: “Why photography” is an easy one. It’s an unavoidable family institution. My father quit a corporate career to pursue photography in the 1970s and went on to make a seminal body of work on the American cowboy. My mother was an equally talented photographer who ran a photographic studio in San Antonio for more than twenty years, which is now run by my brother and sister. I started my professional life as an attorney but could only resist the family siren song for so long. The gift of a camera at my wedding, just before moving to Asia, was all it took. I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

Since 2006, when I actively began pursuing project-based work, the focus of my photography has gone from socially significant projects, like “Fault Line”, which attempt to tell a clear narrative, to the purely whimsical “Eeyore’s Birthday”. Perhaps the Oaxaca work falls somewhere in between. As with all photography, mine is a reflection of myself. I have an activist streak and some of my work reflects that. Other times, I buckle under the weight of my own seriousness and events like Eeyore’s birthday serve as the antidote. But, the single most important component of good photography is passion. What you’re photographing must inspire some form of passion in you. Whatever rises to inspire my passion will always be the focus of my visual research.

Q: Naturally, I love your reportage in Oaxaca. In the presentation of this work you talk about the Mexican state like an enigma. I can assure you that all of Mexico is a mystery. What are your thoughts on this work?

A: It’s nice to have someone living in Mexico City appreciate my work on Mexico. Worrying whether I’ve done justice to the beauty of Oaxaca as an outsider is something that constantly haunts me about those photographs. An equally daunting aspect of photographing Mexico is the magnitude of the photographers that have already been there: Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastião Salgado, Abbas, and so on. It’s a tough group of photographers to follow.

Fortunately, though, Mexico’s effect on everyone is unique, so there’s always room for a different point of view. My attempt with that body of work is simply to convey a sense of Oaxaca’s beautiful but enigmatic qualities I find so alluring. Most revolve around the culture, although I’m obviously enchanted by the sheer natural beauty of Oaxaca as well. The culture is really the source of that ‘mystery’ you mentioned and is what really intrigues me. The thought and preparation that go into Oaxacan celebrations simply to ensure that they’re as outlandish and spectacular as possible is astounding. Oaxaca has the same problems of the modern-day world that you’ll see anywhere: poverty, alcoholism, civil strife, etc. But, Oaxacans respond to it so uniquely. They throw huge feasts, celebrate the departed for days and dance through the streets in the most elaborate manner and dress you’ve ever seen. Then they get up the next day and tend to the endless work imposed by rural living as though the night before never happened. Artistry thrives in Oaxaca as though distributed like pollen in the air. It’s simply a magical place. Although I would never pretend to understand the source of Oaxaca’s unique and mysterious culture, I do appreciate their passion at a deep and personal level  – perhaps because I’ve been visiting Mexico regularly since childhood. That enigmatic beauty that defines Oaxaca certainly merits documenting and sharing with the outside world.

Q: You are also a founding member of the Austin Center for Photography (ACP). Would you tell us about your role in this?

A: A group of about eight photographic enthusiasts, not all were photographers, came together in 2009 realizing that Austin had an incredible depth of photographic asset,s but nothing to draw them together. A number of world-renowned photographers and editors live here in Austin. In fact, we actually have the first photograph and the Magnum archives at the Ransom Center as well as the Wittliff collection thirty miles down the road at Texas State University. Our desire was simply to offer a place for Austin’s diverse photographic community to convene. Of course, we also wanted to raise community awareness about the joy and power of great photography, while also selfishly educating ourselves in the process. ACP’s signature offering has been our “Icons of Photography” lecture series. Mary Ellen Mark was our first icon, Joel-Peter Witkin was our most recent and William Albert Allard is our next one this fall. We’ve had fourteen thus far including Peter Turnley who we hosted in conjunction with the Leica Akademie. We’ve also offered a few workshops and are expanding our offerings into portfolio reviews and career panels. It’s a great group of folks that make ACP possible, from the board to the volunteers, and I’m fortunate to be a part of it. My payback is a continual source of inspiration and the satisfaction of knowing the larger community is coming to appreciate great photography.

Q: I appreciate very much your style. Much of photography is retouched in post-productions now. How do you feel about this and how much post-production retouching do you do with your work?

A: Although I appreciate that some photographers complete their photographic vision in post- production, whether in the darkroom like Jerry Uelsmann or in Photoshop like his wife, Maggie Taylor, I personally like to execute as much of my vision as possible in the camera itself. That is merely a personal preference and not anything I consider superior. I certainly work with my printers to create a certain look or mood for each image or body of work, but in the end, engaging my subject and working my camera are where I hope to achieve any artistry that might exist in my work.

Q: Why do you use Leica cameras?

A: From a technical perspective, for the sake of the lenses and the lack of movement offered by a rangefinder. Their performance in low light is unequaled. But, more importantly is the subjective advantage of Leicas. Almost all of my work is candid. People I photograph are generally doing things for their own sake, not mine. The small and discrete size of Leica bodies and lenses, coupled with a rangefinder’s quiet exposure, is a real advantage when you want to remain as anonymous as possible in those circumstances. Obviously it’s not a necessity as there are a lot of amazing photographers using SLRs, but it is a distinct advantage. I primarily use a Leica MP and I’ve grown so comfortable with it that it presents virtually no barrier between me and my subjects. It’s as though it’s merely a part of me. I also love that I have to manually advance my film. It’s so much more deliberate. It slows me down and makes me more conscious of the individual frame. I think my work benefits from that. Furthermore, I still believe in film for the sake of the beautiful prints they produce. But, I also own and greatly appreciate my Leica M9 even though my commitment to digital is not as strong as is my commitment to film. And with Leica cameras, there’s the fact that I merely love something so well made.

Q: It is impossible not to notice a surrealist vein in your work. Is it the street photographer approach that emerges?

A: It’s always interesting to hear what others see in your work. I haven’t aimed to make my work surrealist, although I appreciate that some of the images contain incongruous juxtapositions. And certainly a subconscious component makes its way into my work as it does with everyone’s. In fact, I think all good photography has a surrealist component to it. It has both a component of serendipity created by chance effects like street photography, coupled with a clear manifestation of the photographer’s inner vision. Think of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” or Koudelka’s “Exiles”. Their power derives as much from that clear and distinct inner vision as it does from the subject matter. If my work shares that surrealist component, then I’m flattered.

Q: Who are some photographers who have influenced your work and your interest in photography?

A: I’ve already mentioned several, but the list of photographers that have influenced me is impossibly long. Ones I admire and have spent the most time with and who, in turn, have inevitably cast a long shadow over my work are my father and Mary Ellen Mark. I got to watch my father work for decades and I’ve been the fortunate recipient of Mary Ellen’s incredible insight for several years, beyond simply being inspired by her own powerful and visceral images. But there are photographers’ whose work I’m constantly returning to both on my bookshelf and in my mind. They are, to name a tiny few: Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith and some lesser-known but equally profound photographers such as William Clift and Philip Perkis. I’m also greatly and perhaps more influenced by bodies of work: The Americans, Dorcester Days, Falkland Road, East 100th Street, Tulsa, Gypsies, Paris by Night, and the list goes on. In the end though, my greatest influence and inspiration comes from my friends and fellow photographers. They critique my work, support my efforts along the way when I fall victim to disappointment, inspire me with their own work and simply provide that foundation of support that all artists need. They know who they are and they have my deepest gratitude.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next five years?

A: I simply want my photography to improve. I have so far to go and I’d love to make one or two really important bodies of work in my lifetime. I suppose that’s the wish of every serious photographer. I recently read John Szarkowski discussing Diane Arbusʼs pictures saying that they “challenge the basic assumptions on which most documentary photography has been thought to rest, for they deal with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than historical facts, with the prototypical and mythic rather than the topical and temporal”. That is something I aspire to. Not necessarily to be as good as Diane Arbus (if only), but for my work to have that aspect of dealing with private realities  – to really reflect the inwardly turned eye as well as the one turned outwards. If I ever hope to make a meaningful body of work it will have to strongly convey that inner reality.

Q: Whatʼs next? Are you working on any other projects or exhibits at the moment?

A: I’m early into a project that will run three or four years and I hate to bring it up. But, the work that will inevitably consume me for that period of time is a project on the American cowboy that I have contemplated for years and finally began this summer. No doubt anyone reading this is rolling their eyes. I can’t think of more heavily photographed subjects than nudes, flowers and the American cowboy. And it’s been done so incredibly well by my father, William Albert Allard, Kurt Markus, L.A. Huffman, Jay Dusard and Robb Kendrick that you’d think there’s nothing left to be had there. But, for me it has a very personal component. Beyond picking up where my father left off as a photographer almost forty years ago, I cowboyed every summer from the age of twelve through my first year of law school. So, I’m returning to a way of life I not only understand intimately, but those long summer days as a cowboy have been more influential in defining my character than anything I’ve ever done. Maybe this will allow me to find something new in photographing such a well-covered subject. But most importantly, perhaps it will offer me the chance to deal with “psychological rather than historical facts, with the prototypical and mythic rather than the topical and temporal”. One can only hope and I’ll certainly go down trying.

Thanks, John!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about John and view his photographs, visit his website.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.