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‘Open to everyone:’ Foto Forum is back, with opening exhibition

Mexican American photographer Joel Orozco in recent years has collaborated with his local communities to pose people in masks for pictures. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner)

Mexican American photographer Joel Orozco in recent years has collaborated with his local communities to pose people in masks for pictures. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner)

SANTA FE, N.M. — When he founded Foto Forum Santa Fe, Sage Paisner wanted a place for “beautiful, interesting and challenging work.”

“One of the reasons I opened the space is because I know how competitive and how hard it is to get a show, even when you have great work,” he explained.

In the art venue world, he said, curating shows is often about whether the work will sell or not.

The photography exhibition space and darkroom opened just outside of the Railyard on Paseo de Peralta back in November 2017. Other parts of its mission were offering photography workshops and renting out the darkroom,

But Foto Forum lost its home last summer after its short-term lease was up and the landlord wanted the spot for other uses.

But recently, the same property owner offered a permanent venue next door. The space will relaunch this week, kicking off with a solo show from Mexican American documentary photographer Joel Orozco.

Everything will be the same in terms of Foto Forum’s offerings – exhibition space for shows and talks, and a dark room studio that locals can use. Foto Forum also received its 501c3 nonprofit status at the beginning of the year.

“Even though we didn’t have a space, we’ve been trying to do our outreach,” Paisner said.

He’s recently been conducting classes elsewhere – photo printing workshops on location for elementary school students in Artesia, Carlsbad and Hope, and a digital landscape tutorial at the local Audobon Society.

Going forward, the organization hopes to add portfolio reviews and an annual photo contest with two winners, one from New Mexico and one for photographers from anywhere in the country.

“Now that we established the 501c3, have a following and have had some great exhibits, we feel we can expand” into those areas, said Paisner.

When the new space opens on Friday, so will Orozco’s solo show.

An untitled image taken by Mexican American photographer Joel Orozco, who spent several years documenting the indigenous Tahumaras communities in Chihuahua, Mexico. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner)

An untitled image taken by Mexican American photographer Joel Orozco, who spent several years documenting the indigenous Tahumaras communities in Chihuahua, Mexico. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner)

Orozco was a student of Paisner’s at the California Institute of the Arts and graduated in 2016. The 27-year-old photographer spent about seven years, starting in his teens, photographing communities of the indigenous Tahumara who live in remote parts of Mexico’s Chihuahua state.

Before attending CalArts, Orozco – who now splits his time between Los Angeles and a small Chihuahuan town – had no traditional education in photography, he told the Journal.

Raised in Santa Barbara de Tutuaca in Chihuahua for most of his childhood, he became fascinated with films and eventually the “movement” of cameras. As a teenager, his dad bought him a point-and-shoot digital camera.

“I could walk with most of the children in my town, the parents always found this amusing, they thought it was funny that I was picking up a camera and taking pictures, they were like, why the (expletive) are you taking pictures of stuff so mundane or things like that,” he said.

“They thought, why not, if you want, why don’t you photograph one of the activities, my son’s wedding, this and that. It’ll be good.”

One day, a Tarahumaran man he worked with invited him to come to the native group’s communities and take pictures.

“He noticed my passion for photography,” said Orozco. “I used to work in a farm, in a field, picking up corn, but I always had my camera with me.”

Naturally, through conversation, he said, he gained the trust of the Tarahumara. He said he’s been named godfather for some their children.

Orozco said he didn’t go in with the idea of making some sort of statement about the tribe or the way the Tarahumara people live. To him, it was simply about documenting everyday events that were interesting in the moment.

“For me, I do it because I was fortunate enough and I had a camera,” he said.

Working with masks

For a recent project, which Paisner plans to highlight at Foto Forum, Orozco’s moved into the realm of staged photography, with his subjects donning a variety of Halloween-eqsue masks, some humorous, like presidential face masks, and others of more eerie creatures. He describes the work as a collaboration that began with the Tarahumara people that he’s since taken into other communities.

Paisner said he was interested in these surrealistic images because of the way they connect to stories or characters from regional Mexican folk tales.

“It’s kind of very different than most documentary photographers and it kind of lent itself to its photo tableau, otherworldly, indigenous, Mexican folklore,” said Paisner.

Orozco said he started experimenting with masks around 2015. He recalled being at a festival when he saw a mask and picked it up to take a funny photo. He then got the idea of taking masks into the Tarahumara villages.

“Because where I go, they don’t have any television, they like to play around … . I said, well, why not buy these masks to bring into the community, (see) how they can dress up … how they can engage with one another?,” he said.

Over time, Orozco said, he found the masks in fact made for interesting images, with elements of mystery and theatricality. The photos’ simplicity leaves it to the viewer to see or interpret them how they choose.

“It’s open to everyone then,” said Orozco. “You don’t have to be an artist to understand.”

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