It was mid-afternoon as I walked west up Presidente Córdova under a mostly cloudy sky. Areas of blue opened on occasion, allowing some interesting light to filter through. I was with my ten mentorees, all successful applicants to an artists call earlier this spring.
My exposition, “Decisive Moment,” has now been open in Cuenca’s Museo Central for almost six weeks. As an element of the exposition, the City of Cuenca requested that I mentor my art and photography skill sets to local photographers. Through an Artists Call with the Municipality and Foto Club Cuenca, I selected ten applicants. In late June, prior to the opening, I began mentoring advanced techniques in art through photography to ten experienced, Ecuatoriano photographers. We’ve spent nearly 40 hours together in the classroom and in the field.
During this time, I’ve shown them my special places high in the Andes (and a few in the city) and they have reciprocated by sharing their favorite backdrops and areas for meaningful photography. From the Inca ruins at Ingapirca to Cuenca’s El Centro, the Andes and beyond, we’ve been making art. It was during our time together, working afield, that I was fortunate to meet Gloria.
We had cut across the eastern end of Plazoletta San Francisco, coming to the area of Otovalan vendors that line the north side of the square. It wasn’t an area unfamiliar to me. I had passed there a hundred times and been in the sometimes dim reaches and multi floors of a couple of those tiendas. These places are not often seen by gringos. Most gringos don’t get very far past the immediate facade where family members call out to passersby offering their woven goods for sale.
My friend, Juan Vasquez, had engaged a particular tienda owner in conversation. He was asking permission for us to enter and make photographs. But, the man explained, other competitors could see his designs and techniques and copy them to their benefit and his loss if they were to see our photographs. The conversation was lively and Juan was a great negotiator. In we went with the agreement to never show any photographs we made there publicly. We would only show them privately for discussion, critique and general viewing.
I found myself in a large old colonial home, two story, with huge glass skylights covering the courtyard area. My mentorees and I began to make some photographs. Some of the architectural elements were particularly interesting as was an old loom that had spun alpaca wool stretched tight across its frame. Here and there, Ecuadorian women bartered for the best prices on every kind of woven item imaginable, all represented in a stupendous array of bright colors. The hand of the material they sell is very fine, there wasn’t a coarsely woven item in the place. We made several nice photographs as the soft, cloud-diffused light filtered in from those skylights. Several young women moved quickly about offering assistance to potential buyers.
As we got ready to leave, I noticed several of my friends had begun a conversation with one of the young saleswomen. As is common with her age group, she was wearing an Aeropostale hoodie and they were asking her to take it off, revealing a beautifully embroidered traditional white blouse. They began to photograph her with zeal; the young woman was more than pretty. The light was coming and going and there was precious little of it. When they finished, I called to her softly and asked her to give me her face; to turn toward me and the diffuse light. She did as I asked. That soft light fell across part of her as the faintest demure smile formed on her lips. We connected. I pressed the shutter.
A week passed and I entered the photograph in a blind, monthly competition for best photos. The photograph won in the private showing but based on our agreement with the tienda’s proprietor, it could not be shown on Facebook or in other public places where winning pieces are usually shared. I was a little disappointed as I had begun to really like the Mona Lisa-like smile Gloria had gifted me that afternoon in El Centro. Gloria definitely had an aura of mystery, her hazel eyes rested firmly on me as that faint smile barely raised the corners of her mouth. Not to be daunted in being able to share her mysterious beauty, I set about a simple plan.
A week later, Juan and I were again in front of the tienda, me with a 20 x 30 centimeter print of Gloria stashed in a valise. Her father met us at the door, remembering us from our time there visiting and making photographs inside the tienda. I showed him the photograph of his daughter which he had no idea I had made. I cannot describe his smile except to tell you it was deeply sincere yet reserved. He told me that I could show the photograph wherever I would like, but only with Gloria’s permission. Other young women were at the door area and they clamored to see the photograph, expressing much excitement. Some of the young women were Gloria’s sisters. They called to her to come quickly to see the surprise. After greeting her, I gently placed the print in her hand as she stepped up. After a brief look, she pulled it close to her bosom, looked me in the face and then looked down. Others reached to see the print but she swatted all their inquisitive gestures away reserving the piece for herself. She looked again for a brief moment and then looked right at me, thanked me for the gift, granting her permission for public showing at the same time.
Indeed, it was the culmination of several decisive moments. The final moment is here now, your chance to see Gloria. She’s even more beautiful and mysterious than I told you, isn’t she?