Classroom: Margarita Valdivieso

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 1

fototazo began a mentorship program in 2012, matching young Colombian photographers with mentors from across the spectrum of the photographic world - gallery owners, bloggers, academics, art directors and working photographers. The goal is to provide the young photographers with commentary and advice on their work from professionals in the field and to expand their network and knowledge of resources beyond Colombia.

The program started behind the scenes, but in an effort to create a singular conversation, share with readers work being made by the photographers and under the belief that the advice, insight and ways of talking about images offered by the mentors will be useful and interesting to other photographers, we are experimenting with making the process a public one.

We periodically feature a selection of images from a photographer involved in the program and comments from mentors. Older posts will be available through the site links page.

This post features the work of Margarita Valdivieso - who was our fourth microgrant recipient - and comments from her assigned mentors, Matt Johnston and Kevin Thrasher, as well as additional comments from Dawn Roe and Mariela Sancari.

The image numbers in the text correspond to those below the images in the caption.

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 2

Margarita sent this note to her mentors about the work:


"Self-portraits" is a photography project or "relational photography" as I call it. It comes from a series of artistic exercises I did in 2010 with objects that I felt some empathy towards and that belonged to one of the various houses that I have lived in. Since 2012 I have built from those old exercises the idea of ​​a project titled "AUTORRETRATOS" (Self-portraits) in which I collaborate with women in the creative arts around the idea of ​​identity being reflected in personal items. In this project, I invite these women to take a still life in the space that they live in composed of the objects that they consider represent them; some have also written texts reflecting on this exercise.

During the course of the project, I began taking photographs in scheduled meetings with each of the women in which we had conversations around the theme of identity and we ended our meetings by either making a photograph together or with the subject making a photograph of her objects or the spaces that deal with the project's theme.

The project is composed of still lives, photographs of the process and video interviews with the women.


I think my concerns are more related to the formalization of the project, that is to say how to present it: through a book, a blog, gallery prints...I would like to have suggestions in this regard and I would also appreciate a critique of the photographs themselves, thinking formally about the color, composition, etc., but also about their relevance to the concept.

Finally, I'd like any references you might have in order to know about more artists that have worked with a similar method in photography.

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 3

Comments from Dawn Roe:

Hello Margarita,

Thank you for allowing me to look over your work.  We've not corresponded before, so I hope you don't mind my contribution.  I have a bunch of feedback for you!

When I initially looked at this set of images without reading the accompanying statement, I was immediately drawn to the still life reference and indeed began to think about the relationship between objects/material/space and identity.  I also noticed electronic technology in the form of computer screens turning up within the images and/or the feeling that some images had been captured via a screen grab or were themselves images taken of the screen.  As well, the camera itself shows up frequently. These aspects seemed important to me, as a viewer, but I wasn't quite sure how to link that with the varying sorts of still life aesthetic within each photograph – I started to wonder if the distancing effects of technology and our relationship to photography were part of the conversation within the work.

You are right to start thinking about how the work will ultimately take shape in terms of how it is encountered by the viewer.  If the collaborative participation is a fundamental aspect, it does seem as though secondary materials in the form of written text or video interviews would need to accompany the imagery – this could certainly happen on a blog or website dedicated to the project, but could also be formed into a gallery installation or physical book.  You will likely need to test out many strategies in the studio and online.  Make prints, type out text, edit video sequences – work with these materials as objects. The work need not take only one form – it might exist in several, and may shift a bit, depending on context.

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 4

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 5

I wonder if it might not be useful to do a bit more writing about your project to help you distill your ideas a bit. Currently, it seems there are a few different threads running through – objects/identity - collaborative exchange  – women and agency.  These are certainly not mutually exclusive, but it's not entirely clear how they are coming together in the images themselves at this point, as the set is a bit formally disparate – ranging from grainy, (seemingly) purposefully lo-fi imagery, to commercial style studio work, to street photography, to atmospheric interiors, to beautifully lit more "traditional" still life studies, full of texture and ambience.

As to the images themselves, as mentioned, they are pretty disparate at this point and very formally distinct, so it's a bit hard to critique them as a cohesive group – however, if what you want is for this variance to come through (due to the fact that the images are made by different people, and you want the viewer to notice/think about that) then you may have to begin by establishing some criteria for yourself in terms of what formal qualities are important to you – which can be hard if you are not in control as the photographer for each image (although you can be very selective in editing, and choose only those that "work" with another from each participant).  If the project is meant to be seen as socially engaged/relational work, the criteria may well be different from a more straightforward, documentary/conceptual project.  This goes back to your questions around how the work will be seen – I think that is largely what will help you to begin establishing your criteria.

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 6

As it stands, there are a number of striking images in the group – those that really stand out to me are #1, #2, #5, #9 – although they are very different.  #1 works with color and light very strongly (as does #2) but is the only one of its kind in the set – the purposeful juxtaposition created by the repeated and flipped images forming a diptych, seemingly placed on a lightbox or illuminated surface of some sort. This image actually leads nicely into #2 due to the color and light relationships, but #2 has a much more intimate, personal feel due to the material and the inference of a domestic space.  I could see #5 working with #2 and possibly even #9 – these images share a common formal language in terms of composition, color and light, but #9 reads as a fabricated, rather than happened upon scene (it doesn't matter if a scene is or is not constructed or found, but it matters how it appears to the viewer in relation to a group of images). I think #9 is really fantastic in its playful and poetic nature, and it feels a bit like street photography, which conjures a certain sensibility as well.

#6 and #10 are also strong images, but for different reasons, and I'm not sure I'm relating these as much to your project. These are much more atmospheric and ambiguous, using shallow depth of field to evoke mystery, rather than detailing specific objects or spaces. #11 is strong as an image, but really doesn’t relate to your project for me at all (although, I could possibly see it with #1 – but that may be a different project).

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 7

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 8

The images that seem to relate most closely to your project as stated are #3, #4, #5, #7, #12, #13, #14, #16, #18, #19 and maybe #8 and #17. Aside from #12, #13 and #16, the others feel a bit overly purposeful, or maybe a bit too obvious. There is more subtlety in #12, #13 and #16 and I think it would be worthwhile to pay a bit of attention to those. #17 I enjoy as well, I'm just not exactly sure where to place it at this point.

On an aside, you also linked to your Flickr page with images of the process itself. I found the first image on that page to be remarkable and in fact, probably the most in keeping with your project. In this image, so many things come together – the classical, formal aesthetic (rich blues, golds and reds in a softly lit space), the inference of the photographer's presence (hand held out with gold nail polish punctuating the scene), the significance of the imagery being held and the out of focus/obstructed figure in the background who seems to be going through boxes of things. This entire situation as depicted makes me think of so many of the things you mention in your project statement. I would love to see more that do this!

Very sorry for my long response, there is just so much to think about with your project and the images you have created thus far. You have a strong start and are asking yourself good questions – this kind of project will take time and go through many iterations. I look forward to seeing your next edit and/or group of images!

- Dawn

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 9

Comments from Matt Johnston:

OK, wow, /\ what Dawn said /\

This is a really interesting set of ideas, and ideas that will strike a cord with a large audience. There is a real interest in the objects we shape, and those that shape us at the moment which is why I am particularly interested in your inclusion of electronic equipment, something many would exclude for its move away from the tactile.

My advice for now would be to temporarily put aside your thoughts regarding outlet or platform and instead focus on what you want to say or comment on. It is not impossible to talk of two or three things at one time but truly you are more likely to speak to your audience if you focus on one primary theme. Some questions to ask yourself…

What is more important - the objects or their location?

Is it important that you are working with women?

Is it important your subjects are creative?

How important is your role in the photographic conversation?

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 10

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 11

And some things to look at and read as starters…

Handmade nation, the rise of DIY

On Longing by Susan Stewart

Michael Spijkers

Steve Pyke

Studio Kapsede by Henrik Duncker

While Steve's images are very different from yours, you can see the power of the removal from situation - the soles of shoes against white background become almost forensic and our mind can begin to wonder and wander about the scars and scuffs on the shoes. Just another way to think about the still life.

Currently the more traditional still life images you have in the first third of the portfolio are a little cluttered, they reference you as the photographer as the objects always push the edge of your frame. It might seem a small thing but it brings focus back to you and your image-making where I feel it should be on these objects, your subject's selection - you should almost be invisible? I appreciate your talk of process but not completely sure what this adds to the work.

This is a lovely concept Margarita, one that just needs a little more working through.


© Margarita Valdivieso, image 12

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 13

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 14

Comments from Kevin Thrasher:

Tom included a link to a flickr page with this image.

I keep returning to the image from the link above, and want to see more like it. The color palette is wonderful and the photo, with an actual person behind it makes me start creating narrative. To echo Dawn's sentiments, the image on Flickr is very good. I would like to see more work you're making during the process. I think it's too early to talk about presentation, without being able to see text or video.

Technology shows up so often, images #1, 4, 7, 13, 16, 19. This could be an interesting aspect of the work. Images that stand out for me: #1, 5, 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19 - these images are the most varied and visually look like they came from different authors. I think time is relevant to consider for this project. Photographing the objects of my room 10 years ago would present a different person from who I am now. These objects's meaning will change over time, why is this moment and the objects important? Do you have them explain why they chose the objects they photograph?

Some responses for why images didn't work for me:

#2 this image of an interesting piece of clothing, hints at specificity and the lighting is attractive, but it doesn't culminate in a larger meaning for me.

#6 possibly if the shadows were opened more, greater detail would be revealed, I'm interested in this image, but it falls short because of the exposure.

#10 the image is too abstracted.

#14 the HDR is overdone.

#15 is so different from all of the other photos, that it stands out too much.

- Kevin

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 15

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 16

Hola Margarita,

Qué buenos comentarios de tus mentores. Espero que los aproveches.

En general estoy de acuerdo con cada punto que mencionaron.

En particular, me quisiera detener sobre dos cosas: creo que es importante que, aunque pensar en la presentación y soporte del trabajo es una parte fundamental del proceso (que incluso, como te mencionaba uno de los mentores puede cambiar en diferentes espacios y situaciones y nutrir el contenido de la serie) es más importante primero pulir bien el trabajo. Una vez que sientas que hayas logrado esto, el formato expositivo o de presentación tendrá mucho que ver con la edición final. Insisto en que es muy importante tomar en cuenta el soporte del proyecto final pero a su debido momento. De hecho creo que muchas veces los fotógrafos dejamos esa parte completamente relegada a cuestiones de espacio o presupuesto (que son completamente entendibles en la realidad de nuestros recursos) y nos acostumbramos a resolverlo de la manera más sencilla y tradicional (como por ejemplo sería imprimir y montar en una secuencia lineal) cuando esta parte del proceso del trabajo puede aportar, enriquecer y dar una profundidad diferente a la obra.

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 17

La otra cuestión que quería mencionar es con respecto a las diferentes estéticas de las imágenes en la serie, algo que también resaltaron los demás tutores. Entiendo la intención detrás de la variedad de miradas (siendo esta serie un proceso colaborativo con otras personas) pero creo que una forma de "resolver" estas variaciones que pueden parecer disonantes en un primer momento es hacerlas más evidentes, es decir, resaltarlas y darles sentido dentro de la edición para que quede claro que es parte de la intención y no algo "descuidado" o "sin sentido". Como un posible ejemplo se me ocurre que puedes intercalar texto entre algunas de ellas (incluso con diferentes tipografías) para que el texto acompañe la secuencia y colabore en la "presentación" de cada imagen como una mirada distinta. Por supuesto, no tienes que hacerlo y sólo tómalo como una sugerencia que puede detonar otra idea o solución en ti.

Te deseo todo el éxito!

Seguimos en contacto,

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 18

© Margarita Valdivieso, image 19