Monday, 6 June 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no.16 - Artist, Gil Abelha - Salvador de Bahia, Brazil

I met artist Gil Abelha when my guide Francois Duc took me to visit him at his studio. Gil is one of Bahia's treasures and a successful, well known artist. Click here to see more of Gil's work.

Gil Abelha, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
©Michael G.O'Brien

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no.15 - Living treasures of the Pelourinho

People are the main reason that Latin America attracts me. Along the way, good fortune has been with me, allowing me to meet fascinating people at every step. When time is limited and a place is totally new to me, I hire a guide to lead the way. As fate would have it Francois Duc, a local guide extraordinaire, connected with me and made my stay in Bahia productive. For instance, we met Ascendinha (below) while exploring the inside of an old cathedral where we found a passageway into the bowels of the huge structure. The back basement wall had crumbled and opened up to a view of the Bay of All Saints. This is where Ascendinha had lived for the past twenty years. She was in her 90's, was sharp minded and friendly. She gave me permission to make these pictures.

Ascendinha, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
©Michael G.O'Brien

Ascendinha's livingroom,
Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil
©Michael G.O'Brien

Thursday, 2 June 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no.14 - Looking down into the Pelourinho district in Salvador, Brazil

This is how the Pelourinho looked in 2001. Despite (or maybe even because of) all the horrific things that happened to black people in this area during the time of slavery, it had an almost hallucinogenic effect on me all the time I was there. It has real presence maybe because of all the ancestors present and the fact it is such a cultural centre for people in this part of Salvador. I decided to photograph it using Kodak Hi Speed Infrared Black and White film to express this vision I had of the place, which seems to exist in the past, present and future all at once.

The Pelourinho is a historic neighborhood in western Salvador de Bahia. It was the city's center during the Portuguese colonial period and was named for the whipping post in its central plaza. The Historic Center is extremely rich in historical monuments dating from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Salvador was the first colonial capital of Brazil and the city is one of the oldest in the New World (founded in 1549 by Portuguese settlers). It was also the first slave market on the continent, with slaves arriving to work on the sugar plantations.This area is in the older part of the upper city (Cidade Alta) of Salvador. It encompasses several blocks around the triangular Largo, and it is the location for music, dining and nightlife. In the 1990s, a major restoration effort resulted in making the area a highly desirable tourist attraction. It has a place on the national historic register and was named a world cultural center by UNESCO in 1985.Easily walkable, Pelo has something to see along every street, including churches, cafes, restaurants, shops and the pastel-hued buildings. Police patrol the area to ensure safety.

The Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil 2001
©Michael G.O'Brien

Monday, 30 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no.13 - Salvador, Brazil, Upper City near Praca de Se

The colonial architecture of Salvador is gorgeous and reminded me of being in Cuba. I decided to photograph Salvador in black and white - it had been done in colour better than I could ever do it. I brought a dozen rolls of Kodak Hi-Speed Infrared 35mm film with me on the trip. This is one of the resulting images.

Salvador, Brazil - Upper City near Praca de Sé
©Michael G. O'Brien

Sunday, 29 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no.12 - Hotel Solara in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, Brazil

Although I never stayed at the Hotel Solara in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, Brazil, I walked past it everyday and would pop in to get some water or a snack. People were friendly with me, so it was one of the little landmarks I used during my stay in Salvador. It was right after Carnaval so people were tired, but this child had lots of energy! This image always reminds me of how intense was the sunlight those days. There was a real heat wave that went up to 40 - 45C some days - too hot even for the Brazilians who mainly stayed cool in the shade.

Hotel Solara in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, Brazil
©Michael G. O'Brien

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE - no.11 The Mercado Modelo , Salvador de Bahia, Brazil

These photos were made during a trip to Bahia, Brazil in 2001 - I'd been on a life changing visit to Brazil once before in 1976 - now 25 years later I was returning to Bahia to see if I could find someone that was very special to me. A mentor /spiritual teacher I'd met in Brazil and lost touch with in the 80's. I didn't know if they were alive or dead. More about that as these posts from Brazil unfold.

A lot happens in 25 years - for instance in 1976 the red dirt road from the airport was lined with shanty towns - now it was a 6 lane highway lined with high rises - some of them truly extraordinary buildings. However, many things remained the same so it didn't take me long to orient myself and start visiting the old haunts that I loved in Salvador; like the Mercado Modelo and it's famous wrap around elevated restaurant. The food is ok - the views are spectacular. 

Mercado Modelo, Lower City, Salvador, Brazil
©Michael G.OBrien

Sunday, 22 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE - no.10 - Big Mama 1952 Chevrolet Wagon Tin Woody?

Each day that I stayed in Havana was a new adventure - I had no agenda - knew nothing about the place and was sick as a dog most of the time. But I was still excited and was hungry to see everything I could. Whenever I wasn't walking I was driving around in a big, bad classic car. When this one passed us I had to record it - it was a thrill to see these iconic cars actually in service as taxis. Cubans shared them and paid very little to get anywhere in the city. I'm not positive but I think this one was a 1952 Chevrolet Tin Woody - a seriously beautiful machine with curves in all the right places.

Big Chevy, Havana, Cuba
©Michael G. O'Brien

Friday, 20 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE - no.8 - Man with Girl near El Malecon, Havana, Cuba

As I walked around Havana with my camera I felt totally safe during the daytime - night was another story. I ran into this man with a girl on his shoulders and was curious, but didn't ask about their relationship. Even after a few weeks in Havana I'd adopted the Cuban trait of not asking questions. Now I really wish I'd asked. I don't usually talk about equipment, however, as a photographer that also teaches I'm always asked by novices, "what kind of camera did you use for this picture etc etc?" This was made with a Nikkor 28mm lens - my favourite focal length for street photography. It always helps me include exactly what I want in the frame and, over the years, has become an extension of the way I see.
For instance in this image the element of composition I'm using is dominant foreground/contributing background. Even when this lens is at 2.8 it gives me enough sharpness in the background to keep it as part of the picture whilst still allowing for a shutter-speed that's fast enough for this kind of flat lighting. This is important to me for my style and working method on the street.
The 28mm Nikkor is light and small, which means unobtrusive in the streets - again, just the way I like it.

El Malecon, Havana, Cuba
©Michael G.O'Brien

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE - no.7 Barrio Chino - Gateway to Old Chinatown in downtown Havana, Cuba

The Gateway to Barrio Chino
in downtown Havana, Cuba
©Michael G O'Brien

One of the things that I love about walking around Havana is the constant surprises relating to the history of the place. Seeing this gate honouring the Chinese community that had been there really touched me in some way. There was no Chinese people in sight in that place. When I asked what happened to all the people from that community, people evaded my question; in my limited experience with Cubans I found that answering direct questions about history has caused people too many problems so they avoid them like the plague.

Monday, 16 May 2016


Anyone visiting Cuba is, like me , struck by the vintage American cars seen everywhere. It's like being in a time warp.....this is all about to change. For many reasons, the owners of these cars lavish attention on them, in a way that we haven't really seen in North America since the Big American Dream days of the '50's. It's ironic, to me, that in the land of the Revolucion and given the in your face animosity towards America, that we see this kind of care given to the icons of America. Yet so much of it is practicality with a dollop of affection for these old beauties from the golden age of the automobile. They are works of art and they are made of metal so can be repaired with expert welding and spare parts. The engines are also built to last and dead simple to repair compared to what we have today; add to this the fact that people can't afford new cars and the U.S. blockade and you have a country full of vintage cars in flawless condition.
Every morning I'd watch as my neighbour in Havana washed his '57 Dodge while smoking cigars, sharing the daily news with his buddies and taking in the morning sun. It's a special part of the culture and a source of pride and joy for the owners of these Big Papas.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

LATIN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE no. 5 - Staircase, Havana, Cuba

I spent days wandering through Old Havana. Often I'd just stick my head into the doorway of an old building and get a glance of the dilapidated staircases which I found endlessly fascinating. Each building seemed to have one that was totally unique.

Staircase, Havana Viejo, Cuba
©Michael O'Brien

Friday, 13 May 2016


The Old Guard

While staying in Havana, Cuba, I had an apartment near the Plaza de la Revolución. The day this picture was made it was the anniversary (birthday) of José Marti the fabled poet grandfather of the Revolution. Tens of thousands school children were assembled in the Plaza while speaker after speaker came out to the podium to deliver firebrand communistic, anti-capitalist speeches; some of them looked like they couldn't have been older than twelve. In front of me, a man proudly stood at attention, as if still honouring the spirit of the now totally failed revolution; as if everything he'd sacrificed was worth it to just to see these children relatively free from poverty and oppression.
Seeing this children's political rally summed up my ambivalent feelings for Cuba - it seems to me at once sinister and innocent. However, the rally provoked a question in me - are we really any different than the Cuban regime or do we just indoctrinate our children with different ideals while it seems that conformity is really the chief goal.

La Vieja Guardia
Plaza de la Revolución
Habana, Cuba

Thursday, 12 May 2016


Amigos hanging out in one of the quiet
 neighbourhoods of Havana, Cuba
©Michael O'Brien

Wednesday, 11 May 2016


Waiting for the Bus, Havana, Cuba
©Michael O'Brien
Waiting for things in Cuba is a way of life;
nothing is 'on time' or dependable the way we expect things
to be in the developed world - yet somehow the bus always shows up.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”....Ansel Adams 

La Rampa Servicentro
Havana, Cuba
©Michael O'Brien

Thursday, 28 April 2016


Listen to photo icon Joel Meyerowitz talk about how his intention is to photograph the unspoken relationship between things.....

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


In Toronto we affectionately refer to the Royal Ontario Museum as the R.O.M. The ROM has a dedicated staff of scientific and research people. The collections are extensive and massive. I salute the ROM for staging some brilliant photo exhibitions, such as Sebastiao Salgado's 'GENESIS' exhibit a few years ago. I forgive any of it's failings - I love going to the ROM. This image shows the modern Crystal addition to the old structure. For all their work on the building, I wish they could replace the little ROM sign at the front entrance, certainly we can show our city in a better light than that.


Wednesday, 13 April 2016


The following series of posts are my homage to the art and craft of street photography. At the core I'm a self taught photographer whose roots are in street photography. Years ago this passion of mine quickly spread to include urban night photography and urban landscape. I like street photography because it's an ever shifting subject whose only limits are the imagination. This base skill set prepared me well for everything that I did afterwards; the portraits, weddings, stage, studio, documentary and nature work. I had no one to tell me I shouldn't do all these things, so I just kept doing it.
While my current work revolves more around themes found in the natural world, I still take my camera to the streets on a regular basis - whether it's to high impact field trips in the courses I teach at local colleges, to the workshops I lead or to the travel I do, I still draw on the skill set I formed on the streets. It keeps me sharp, flexible and open to the exciting world of discovery through the lens.

Security shutter for the El Mocambo Club
 on Spadina Ave. Toronto
©Michael O'Brien 2009