The award-winning photographer Yvonne Venegas, originally from Tijuana and now based in Mexico City, got her start at the age of 16 and took her first official photo class a year later. Her father, a social photographer in Tijuana, gave Yvonne her first camera.
Yvonne is a graduate of the certification program at the International Center of Photograhy in New York and she received her MFA at the University of California San Diego. She has shown her work individually and in group shows throughout the US, Mexico, Poland, Spain, France and Canada. Her work is part of collections in the US and Mexico, including the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Fundación Televisa, Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City and the Anna Abello Collection. She has published two photobooks, “Maria Elvia de Hank” and “Inédito.”
Here Yvonne discusses her latest project, for which she used the new Leica X Vario to document her father, José Luis Venegas, at work.
Q: What type of photography do you do?
A: When I started I wanted to be in fashion, then I wanted to be the Annie Leibovitz of Mexico and now I’ve been really focused on creating my own language and my own identity through my work.
Q: You usually take a couple years to do your projects. Can you tell us about your process?
A: I like to focus on one subject at a time. In 2000 I started my first long-term project and it lasted four years. I discovered I was trying to create something that paralleled my own identity. It was a wonderful experience.
I guess an important part of my process is that I’m often confused. I don’t really know what I am doing. It does parallel how I’m feeling or thinking. It is a bit abstract and hard to define in the first couple of years, but as I keep working at it, it starts to come together. I did a project called “Inédito” between 2006 and 2010 and I published a book with it. That was particularly a revealing experience because I worked on it during my graduate degree. I was living and doing the project in Tijuana and I was going to school in San Diego. I was doing the duel life of creating the work in Tijuana and then working with my fellow students and teachers and formulating something with it. My process tends to be blurry and then it comes together at the end.
Q: Tell us about your latest project documenting your father. Where did the idea come from?
A: This project is kind of a fragment of what I’ve been thinking lately. It is kind of an extension of it because I have been wanting to photograph social photographers, but I don’t know any in Mexico City. So I’ve been focusing more on the photographers I do know. When I had the opportunity with Leica, I thought it was perfect to shoot this idea but with a photographer that I have access to. I proposed it to my dad and he was very happy. It was a wonderful process.
Q: Your style is very different from your dad’s. Can you tell us the differences between how your dad shoots and how you shoot?
A: I don’t think there is another way to say it besides we are completely opposite. I am looking for moments that are imperfect or just a little bit off that make those perfect moments that he was formulating for his customers. They don’t have to be a terrible mistake where someone looks awful, but just wrong enough to make you want to throw it out and not include it in a photo album. That has been our dynamic. Unlike his perfect pictures, home life wasn’t perfect and I’ve always thought that photographing like this is a way of sort of fighting him.
Q: Can you tell us about the experience of shooting your dad?
A: It was very intense. It was seeing my dad in a later stage of his life where he is not the young man he used to be. He used to go to weddings and work 15-hour nights and then just sleep it off and be okay the next day. Now he is almost 70. It was an emotional thing to see him grow up and to see me grow up also. When your parents grow old that means you are old too.
It was a beautiful process. It had all the kind of feelings I like for a project to have. It was uncomfortable and emotional. The feeling was a bit more intense than my other projects because it was my dad. I was crying a lot and it was really odd. I would tell my dad’s customers about the project and they love him. Some of them have been his customers for 20 or 30 years.
Luckily, I got to photograph the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple and their family who have always had my dad photograph their events. When this beautiful, wealthy lady from Tijuana started to tell me about my dad and how wonderful and important it was to have him around then I see my dad photographing this private dinner party for them, I had to hold back the tears. They all obviously respected him.
Q: You’ve talked before about your father wanting the perfect picture and how that reflected him aspiring to a different social class. Can you tell us about why your father is obsessed with the perfect picture?
A: I think the perfect moment is a fantasy. My father grew up in a different circumstance than I did. His father worked for the law in Mexico in the ‘60s. So my dad had this strong conviction to have his own business, to be a stable person and send all of his kids to the best school. He was part of the building of a social class. He became crucial to a lot of people. But the way he had grown up didn’t allow him to be this perfect father so it was a bit of a tense upbringing compared to other girls. He had this idea that we were going to belong to this social class and marry rich guys and do all this stuff, but then our ideas became very different. My twin sister and I both became artists. She is a musician. The rest of my family did other things. But my twin sister and I never fantasized about marrying a rich guy or being a part of that social class. We liked to be different.
Q: How has your view of your father as a photographer changed through the years?
A: A few years ago I went into his archives and looked at all his negatives from 1972-1975 and I did my own edit of them. I plan on doing a book with them. The pictures I found were pictures that I wish I would’ve taken. A lot of people who have seen the pictures see a lot of similarities with my work. My dad as a beginning photographer was seeing things the way I see them. But then he became a commercial photographer so he started eliminating those moments that were not going to be bought. When I saw that work together I thought it was my eye as an editor, but it wasn’t. We come from the same place. I inherited something from it. It isn’t necessarily beautiful. It is a little bit dark sometimes. I also inherited how to make portraits, how to talk to people and make them feel comfortable.
After so many years of fighting with him and being pushy about things, I come back to this moment where I feel that he gave me so much. I admire how he treats people and makes portraits. I used to think they were cold and stiff, but they really weren’t. When you see his portraits compared to other photographers that follow all the same rules he does, they were alive. His portraits do have a feeling of character. I think that feeling is something I have inherited from him. Also, he is always trying to learn. I have the same feeling about my work. It is an addiction to just getting better. I got that from him.
Q: Can you talk about how using the Leica X Vario fit into your recent project?
A: I had never done a project with digital media. This was the first time. It was a surprising and refreshing experience. It was a different rhythm. Sometimes film will sit there for weeks before you develop it and look at it. This way you can look at the images as you’re working and it is like someone just sped up my process. It was exciting. I came back from this project feeling refreshed. I had this idea of photographing photographers in mind and suddenly I did it in three weeks. I edited it in four weeks. It got me really excited to do other projects. It just showed me the possibility of a different rhythm of working.
Working with a compact camera is a completely different experience. I feel like I’m in places I wouldn’t be otherwise. A compact camera is comfortable to carry everywhere. It allowed me to go into spaces that I probably wouldn’t have gone into. The image quality of the Leica X Vario is amazing. The RAW files are beautiful. It made me doubt my film addiction for a moment when I saw the RAW files from this camera.
Q: How was the Leica X Vario special for the project?
A: Working with the Leica X Vario was special for so many reasons. It was easy to bring to situations and not intimidate people with a bigger camera. It had beautiful RAW files that came out of every moment. The flash is really cute too. It’s like an alien! And you can use the Leica X Vario in manual. To get the moments I wanted, I had to shoot a lot. The camera has to shoot when I want it to shoot. I loved that about this camera because it was shooting when I wanted to. To focus manually and have manual controls was important while I was working. I was better able to be in control of the situations.
Q: Over the past 15 years you have been working on defining your voice. How would you describe your voice right now?
A: Recently I had a revision of my work from when I first started to now that made me see my work in a new light. I initially thought it was a bit of a mess and didn’t know where I was going. It made me realize that many things have happened with my work. I did a project in 2006 that was supposed to be published and shown and nothing happened with it. These things happen in my work and I just have to be patient. It shouldn’t have surprised me that people weren’t always going to understand it. After finally seeing the show and publishing the book, which both happened in September of last year, it kind of set me straight. I see this as a new beginning. It sounds corny but it’s true. It made me reflect on my past work. It made me confident and helped me find my voice.
Thank you Yvonne!
-Leica Internet Team