November 10, 2015

Eric Politzer: Las Transformistas of Havana

Professional photographer and Santa Fe Workshops alumnus Eric Politzer shares his thoughts on photography, workshops, and his latest project: Las Transformistas of Havana, portraits of female impersonator and male-to-female transgender performers in Havana's gay cabarets. All images are © Eric Politzer

Please tell us a little about your background and photographic style.

After working for a very long time in social service organizations, I needed a change of pace. A friend hired me to work for his public relations firm, and I began to shoot for our clients. I got hooked. 6 years ago I decided that if I was serious about this I had to go all in. I don’t really think I have a style as much as an approach: to work with my subjects as collaboratively as possible, to be as attuned to the environment as I can, to try to bring something new to every shoot, and to produce images that make my subjects see themselves differently than they have before.

You’ve taken a number of workshops at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops over the years. How did you get started with us?

I have taken two in Santa Fe and then the one in Cuba. Through Scott Kelby’s blog I heard about this fellow named Joe McNally, who was co-teaching at the Digital Landscape Workshop Series in Kauai. So I went. When I found out that Joe also taught at Santa Fe, I signed right up for his next gig there.

Tell us about your experiences with The Workshops.

I studied with Joe McNally and Jay Maisel in Santa Fe. An embarrassment of riches if you ask me! The two workshops could not have been more different in almost every respect, which refreshing and challenging. For me a couple of the take-aways from Joe’s class were the necessity to fail en route to becoming a better photographer; and always remembering your responsibility to value and respect your subject. From Jay it was the admonition to steep yourself in the history of as many art forms as you can to drive the creativity you bring to your photography; and always to strive to interpret what is in front of you rather than just “taking” a picture.

When did you decide to go to Cuba, and what made you want to go?

I went for the first time with Santa Fe Workshops in April of 2011. Like so many other Americans, I had been intrigued by the history of Cuba and its status at the time as a “forbidden fruit” for US citizens. I yearned for the opportunity to go and shoot in a country that combined such natural beauty and rich culture on the one hand with rampant poverty, decay and social/political oppression on the other.

What inspired Las Transformistas? How did the project begin?

I had wondered for a long time if there was any kind of organized gay community in Cuba. The only thing I could discover about it was a short video on Las Transformistas, which talked about how the cabarets where they performed were a safe place for LGBTQ and straight people to come together. I really wanted to investigate this more.

I had been quite active in LGBTQ civil rights and AIDS service providers for a good part of my adult life. Because of this, I was very aware not only of the discrimination against and struggles of people living on the margins of society, but also of the tremendous contributions they make in fighting for fairness and inclusion for all people.

Was it difficult to gain access to Las Transformistas’ inner world? How did you encourage them to open up to you?

I had made great contacts in Havana during my first trip, and they were able to get me a sit down with the owner of one of the cabarets. He arranged for a shoot with one of his performers. When I returned on the next trip, I brought both of them professionally designed books of her photo shoot. I really believe that the book was the single most important factor in moving the project forward. It demonstrated that I was a professional, that I honored all of my promises, and I was there to document and celebrate Las Transformistas -- not to caricature or sensationalize them. On each subsequent trip I brought the books for everyone I had photographed. The books began making the rounds in the community, and by the end of the project I had no shortage of potential subjects.

One of the things that I found most important about building trust with Las Transformistas was simply showing up, and showing up with a humble, sympathetic and playful attitude that put most of the subjects at ease.

What were the challenges of creating a project like this in Cuba?

Pretty much everything about doing this project in Cuba was a challenge. I could only bring in so much equipment, and even then I was subjected to extensive interrogations about what I was doing there. Since there was such limited phone and Internet service in Cuba, communication with Las Transformistas was very difficult. At the time there was no open gay community to speak of, so finding resources to gain access to Las Transformistas was a non-starter. And then of course there was the tremendous initial suspicion from Las Transformistas about why a Yankee was there doing this kind of project in the first place. I also knew that we were being watched by the police most of the time, so there was no little amount of anxiety that the whole thing could be shut down at any moment without warning and without recourse.

What did you learn during this project, either photographically, or from your subjects?

My original vision of the project was to document the cabarets as social institutions within the LGBTQ world in Cuba. But once I started to hear the stories of what Las Transformistas have to deal with every day in a country with so much cultural, political, and religious opposition to them I became deeply humbled by their extraordinary courage and resiliency. The book then became about them, not about the cabarets. 

I also had my belief in photography as a tool for social change validated: we took many of Las Transformistas out into very public spaces – some times iconic Havana sites. None of them had done this before in performance attire. Initially things were pretty tense, but over time they came to own those spaces. They realized they belonged there as much as anyone else. The project had become a form of social empowerment for them. And it empowered me as well: I feel that this project has emboldened me to take many more risks in my work, become much more adaptive to challenging circumstances, and to realize that if a project like this can be done in Cuba then I probably should not sweat most of the stuff that comes up in the daily grind of being a photographer.

To see more of Eric's work, visit his website, For information on Santa Fe Workshops Cuba programs, visit

October 20, 2015

Paulette Tavormina: Full Circle

Paulette Tavormina's journey as a photographer has been an exhilarating one. This spring, twenty-five years after her voyage started, she returns to where it all began. This is her story...

Paulette’s introduction to the photo world started ordinarily enough. While working for a small PR firm in New York, she was asked to photograph a famous flutist for a client. She recalls, “All the other photographers had these big cameras with big flash units, and there I was with my little Olympus clamshell camera. But I got the shot!” She also got the motivation to improve her skills. 

While living in Santa Fe, she was offered a job photographing a collection of historic Cochiti Indian pottery. Santa Fe drew her in and she started taking classes at Santa Fe Workshops. One lesson in particular stood out. “One of my instructors told me that I needed to specialize. It never dawned on me that it can be important to learn one particular field or aspect,” she says, “That’s how it all really started for me.”

Once she had chosen her specialty—food and still life—her creativity and business thrived. Her experience has included photographing cookbooks, prop and food styling for Hollywood movies, photographing artwork for Sotheby’s catalogues and photographing for The New York Times and National Geographic.

Eventually, she decided to pursue her long-held dream of creating photographs inspired by Old Master still life painters. “I just immersed myself into this whole new genre,” she explains, “And that’s how I’ve devoted my time for the last eight years.” 

When she felt the work was ready she contacted the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston. It was her big break. She recalls, “Robert himself emailed me back to offer to represent me and my life changed in an instant. Twenty-five years later, from my education in Santa Fe to my love of old master still life paintings, it all came together.” She also has gallery representation in New York, San Francisco and Paris and recently had a solo show at the Beetles + Huxley gallery in London. Her first monograph, Seizing Beauty will be out April 2016 and her first solo museum show at The Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland will also be in April 20, 2016.

With her return to Santa Fe Workshops this spring, this time as an instructor, Paulette’s photographic life has come full circle. As she says, “I’m thrilled to be teaching at the place where it all began and excited to share what it’s taken for me to get from The Workshops to right now.”

Paulette Tavormina leads The Fine Art of Still Life Photography, April 3-8. For more information, visit the workshop page on our website.

To see more of Paulette's work, visit her website at

September 7, 2015

Eduardo Rubiano's Five Tips to Improve Travel Photographs

Photographer and former National Geographic Photo Editor Eduardo Rubiano shares his tips for creative travel photography.

“When we are away from home, our creative juices tend to flow. Fresh eyes and a spark of awareness come easily when, pressed for time, we must capture some essence of the world in precious parentheses of our lives.”

You read that right, do NOT photograph—at least not yet. Put the camera aside and run a sensory
scan of your entire being in a new place or even a familiar place. Only by suppressing the urge to
lift the camera in order to take pictures, can we ask ourselves the most important question: "Why?” Then, with awareness of purpose, proceed to make pictures.

We don’t necessarily have to travel in order to make creative travel photography. Sure, it can be difficult to photograph our own neck of the woods, but by revisiting a spot we’ve already explored and simply changing our body position or the direction in which we glance, the time of day, the time of night, new discoveries are possible. Get outside your comfort zone and see what happens!

When in “image hunter” mode, one way to "find" images is to focus on one visual element within our field of vision and then ask ourselves what else in the vicinity echoes or contrasts that element. Visual relationships can be defined by scale, repetition, opposites, positioning and many other serendipitous circumstances. Practice, practice, practice!

By placing relevant objects between our cameras and our main subject, we can actually enhance the essence of that subject. For example, if you’re photographing mountains in the distance, place a nearby natural element—like a flower or part of a cactus—in your frame to create an interesting
relationship, such as a sense of scale or a natural theme.

Often times, we seek to make travel images that can be easily understood by our audience. While this is a safe approach, we can cheat ourselves out of making the place we visit our own! That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of travel photography; we get to define the essence of a place according to our own visual voice. Do not be afraid to break the rules, even when portraying a famous landmark. Honor it by pointing out how you see it!

Want to learn more from Eduardo? 
Join Eduardo Rubiano for more tips, techniques and personalized instruction to help you make meaningful, memorable, eloquent, intention-driven photographs during your travels when he teaches Developing Your Visual Accent, November 13-15. 

August 10, 2015

Falling for Santa Fe

Fall is beautiful everywhere, but at 7,000 feet it becomes absolutely stunning. In Santa Fe, locals often say autumn is their favorite season, and here are just a few reasons why:

Smaller Crowds and a Huge Burning Puppet
That’s right, as soon as the summer crowds leave, we Santa Feans get together and burn a 50-foot marionette. Zozobra—as it’s called—is a ritual to chase away the doom and gloom of the previous year, and we’ve been doing it since 1926.

Blazing Gold Aspens
Every year in late September and October, the aspen trees that blanket Santa Fe’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains put on a gorgeous display as their leaves turn from soft green to brilliant yellow. It’s beautiful but fleeting, so locals seize every opportunity to enjoy the fall foliage. For the best view, drive up to Ski Santa Fe and take a scenic chairlift ride to soak in blazing vistas.

Hiking and Biking Perfection
Santa Fe may be known for arts and culture, but our outdoor spaces are equally superb. Santa Fe is a hiking and biking paradise year-round, but it gets even better in autumn, when the weather is absolutely flawless. The summer monsoons have abated, the air is cooler, and of course the aspen trees are spectacular.

A Bountiful Harvest
Northern New Mexico’s thriving agricultural community really shines in the autumn. The Santa Fe Farmer’s Market is positively booming and local farm-to-table restaurants take full advantage of the seasonal abundance. A few of our favorites that embrace the locavore concept include:

Oh, and did we mention chile is in season? The aroma of our beloved state vegetable roasting on the fire fills the air all September long, and it’s available by (and consumed by) the truckload.

Nearby Festivals and Celebrations
Also in fall, there’s a plethora of annual events in and around Santa Fe: Santa FeWine and Chile Fiesta in September, Albuquerque’s famed Balloon Fiesta in October, the Bosque del Apache Festival of the Cranes in November, and Native American Tribal Feast Days throughout the season.

For these reasons and innumerable others, fall is Santa Fe’s worst-kept secret. Come see for yourself, but be forewarned: Once you get a taste of autumn in Santa Fe you may never want to leave!

July 1, 2015

Staff Picks: Santa Fe Restaurants

It's a question we get asked a lot by visitors to Santa Fe: "Where's a good place to eat around here?" And, of course, Santa Fe is chock full of outstanding restaurants and everyone's got an opinion on which one is the best. So we asked our staff to share the favorite restaurants they recommend to visitors. Here's what we had to say:

Will Van Beckum, Digital Lab Manager
"Tune Up Cafe. I recommend the...everything."

Abigail Moore, Digital Lab Assistant
"Vinaigrette, I love that place. I think their salads are really fresh, and so many unusual combinations I would never think of, so it's a creative dining experience for me. Also, it's a nice change from New Mexican food."

Reid Callanan, Director
"I send visitors to Pranzo's Italian Grill. It's where we have our instructor dinners. It creates a nice ambiance for us there with a group, and almost everyone enjoys Italian food, so it's a good choice.
We also like to go to Rio Chama Steakhouse because we like their selection, and they have great salads."

Wes Sheridan, AV Coordinator
"Mama's World Cuisine, because it's really new."

Brandon Johnson, Operations Assistant
"Dr. Field Goods! I know the chef and they use locally grown food."

Cindy Ryker, Admin Assistant
"Vinaigrette has consistently tasty food and they grow their own veggies, or source locally."

Suey Surprise, Admin Assistant
"I have to say for breakfast and lunch, Counter Culture. It's fresh, with great variety, good coffee, and very casual. But bring cash because they don't take cards."

Mignon Ohmura, Admin Assistant
"I would say Vinaigrette and Tune Up Cafe. And Cafe Fina, it's fresh, clean, and yummy. They have the best blueberry smoothie around!"

Anne Fuller, Director of Admin
"Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen: good selection and healthy food."

Sharon Bain, Director of Finance
"It will always be Harry's Roadhouse for me. It's a great for when you just want to have a good time. Pyramid Cafe and Counter Culture are also good."

Jay Reisinger, Finance Assistant
"I actually have two, it depends on my mood. I like The Junction, it's really comfortable and the people there know you when you walk in, so I like that place. The other one is Annapurna, because it's very healthful, and I like the atmosphere. If I want to be by myself and read a book and eat something good for me, that's where I go."

Carrie McCarthy, Director of Marketing
"Counter Culture, for the food, the relaxed, hip environment, and the support that owner Jason Aufrichtig provides to artists in the community."

Melyssa Holik, Marketing Associate
"There are SO many good restaurants in town, it really depends on what you are looking for. Burrito Company is nice for a quick lunch (and if it's hot out, their paletas and agua frescas really hit the spot), Del Charro is perfect for casual dinner and drinks, and Rooftop Pizza has a nice sunset view if you sit on the balcony. If you're feeling fancier, La Boca and Joseph's are both top-notch."

June 1, 2015

Fashion Meets Lifestyle Meets Andrew Southam

Andrew Southam is teaching for the third year at The Workshops this summer when he leads Fashion Meets Lifestyle, July 5-10. We recently got to know Andrew a little better when we spoke with him about his photographic background, his style, and his upcoming workshop.

Let's start at the beginning: How did you get started in photography? What attracted you to it? 

I finished high school one day and I started in a professional darkroom the next. There was extraordinary luck involved: my dad knew someone who was a photographer, so he knew you could do this and make a living at it and he was really supportive. I was an artsy head-in-the-clouds kind of kid, always looking at images and film stills. I would tear out film stills and put them up on my wall. I loved painting and drawing, the arts broadly speaking, and I had a preoccupation with storytelling.

Did growing up in Australia influence your work and your style?

I think it does, in a few ways. First, there's the Australian light. It's light unlike any other light; it’s incredibly pristine and unforgiving so you really have to learn to work with daylight early in your career if you’re going to incorporate daylight. I think when people look at my work they notice the light. I also think it is very humanizing when you photograph people in natural light.

Secondly, I think the Australian character is to take the work seriously but not ourselves. So I take the work very seriously but I don’t think I’m the center of the universe. I think it's just that Australian thing of unpretentiousness. I feel like I’m part of a team, I’m at the service of the subject. I want my set to be a warm and friendly place where my assistants feel acknowledged and respected. I mean, my best assistants feel irreplaceable to me, so I want to make sure they know it.

Also, Australian film was having a real moment in the 1970’s, so I think I was getting educated in imagery and storytelling at a pretty early age. Fred Schepisi, Peter Wier, and Gillian Armstrong all influenced me early on.

Why do you enjoy portrait, fashion, and lifestyle photography in particular?

It’s the human connection for me. Always, always, always it’s the people. I would never have been a landscape or still life photographer. My work's not conceptual, it’s about the relationship between my subjects and me. I feel like it’s an intensely social engagement when you’re shooting; you’re plunged immediately into a strangely intimate situation. The camera is an incredible passport into other people’s lives and I consider it a great privilege of this work that people will reveal themselves to me in certain ways. That’s extraordinary.

You've been photographing professionally for more than 30 years. What is the biggest change or surprise you've seen in that time?

I think digital is the most profound change. I was surprised how much I love it, because it allows you as a photographer to be braver. When exposing images on film, I was always very conservative about underexposure and lens choices. Today I’m shooting with wider lenses than I used to, because you see in an instant if it's going well. I grew up shooting Chrome, and if you underexpose that you’re finished. Today, if I want to try a little underexposure, I can see immediately if it’s going to work.

The only thing that dismays me about digital is how fast everyone wants everything. On the last day of a shoot we just did in Vancouver my assistant was up all night processing photos so the client could return home with hard drives full of images. It’s a staggering amount of work that has to happen on the set. There’s a client expectation that hasn’t quite caught up with reality. And we as photographers haven’t quite figured out how to regulate that expectation; it’s everyone’s impulse to say yes to everything, and when everyone is saying yes to these demands, it can mean we’re not being compensated appropriately for that intensity of work.

What has gone unchanged in 30 years?

I think what never changes is people wanting a really powerful, potent image. At the end of the day that's what people remember. So, whether the shoot was fun or not fun, or went quickly or not, it’s the images that endure. That’s true whether you’re making images with daguerreotype, or digital, or anything. Is it a remarkable photograph? No amount of resolution will answer that. If you can get an unbelievable picture with your iPhone, you’ll get more work than the guy with the expensive Hasselblad.

What’s the best thing about being a photographer today?

I just love the lifestyle. I love going somewhere I’ve never been before and meeting someone I’ve never met before, and taking photographs of them where they live and work. I just find that infinitely fascinating, and fun, and a privilege. I never cease to feel lucky. Then, making the photograph is the next fun thing. Because you’re solving all these problems; this is where the light is coming from, this is where the type needs to go, this is what the client needs, that’s the job of any commercial photographer. I love to solve the puzzle. How do you make that photograph in a new way? In a human way? In a way that engages the viewer and doesn’t seem contrived, and yet is new each time?

For fashion/lifestyle, you should never see the photographer’s hand in the image, it should look like real life. There are all these considerations and you’re trying to bring all this back to the human moment. When you're shooting and everything is going well, every synapse is engaged in that challenge, you’re unaware of yourself, and it’s a beautiful feeling.

What’s the most challenging thing?

I think the most challenging thing is to keep being new; to keep finding a photograph you haven’t taken before; to keep renewing your approach. To try and approach like a beginner in a way.

I think the danger of doing it as long as I have, is to go into a room and have an idea of how this picture should look, and default to that idea. In a way, you have to resist that impulse if you can, or get around it and try to do something new. If you do it precisely as you’ve done it before, you will have failed because it will lack a certain life and energy because you’re essentially copying yourself.

I mean, I know how to make it perfect, but sometimes perfect is kind of dead. How do you make some mistakes that make it visually exciting? So you’re looking for those little mistakes and little miracles. And that’s why you’re so alive on the set; because you almost have to be supernaturally attentive to what’s going on to notice those moments.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in fashion/lifestyle photography?

It’s going to be deceptively simple, but it’s advice I wish I’d had: You have to find your own way.

All of us are different, and I think for the longest time I wanted to be other kinds of photographers I admired. I’d see Helmut Newton or Richard Avedon, and think “I want to be that way” and of course you can’t. I’d think as a child from suburban Sydney, my life isn’t interesting enough, I’m not sufficiently sophisticated enough, or my point of view doesn’t matter enough. So I need to co-opt other people’s and cobble together a point of view out of that.

But the truth is we all have our own way of seeing, and what you have to do is find that. You have to make a lot of mistakes and evaluate your images, and see what’s good and think about why it’s good. 
I think it’s Cartier-Bresson that said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." It’s just a labor intensive process: just doing it, and doing it again.

Working at it is a big thing, and it’s something I didn’t want to hear as a young photographer. You look at people that have kept at it, and aren’t just repetitive, but just keep at it, they do better and better at it. After a lot of time, you achieve a sort of ease with it. It’s just practice.

Your photographs have appeared in some pretty major publications: Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, you’ve exhibited in the Australian Portrait Gallery and racked up awards, but which of your photographs is your favorite, or if you don’t have a favorite, is there one you are most proud of?

There’s not one image above all. There’s three that come to mind. I love my portrait of Willem Dafoe smoking, it just has so many of the properties I like. I like that it feels simultaneously masculine and feminine, because he’s so masculine but there’s a delicacy to the way his hand is in the picture. I like that it’s simultaneously gritty and graceful at the same time. I like my own photos when they are more than one thing. That’s how people are and life is, and if I can convey a little of that, that’s a success for me.

Another favorite is my picture of Liv Tyler; actually the whole series. The one of her on the bed is probably the one that’s been most reproduced. It’s got kind of a life to it. Similar to the Willem Dafoe shot, its sexy but it’s sweet, it has a couple of different undercurrents, showing a girl at that moment, at that age. I like images that are sexy but I don’t like when they are sort of demeaning to the woman. So, for example Helmut Newton images where they are sexy but the women always look powerful and in charge.

The other one that comes to mind is Jodi Foster, because it was meeting someone who was a hero, and she was really humble and collaborative. So it was memorable to me to meet her; an unforgettable experience.

What’s the craziest or strangest photo shoot experience you’ve ever had? Most difficult? Most fun?

The strangest, I'm not sure. Oh, I know. OK, one thing I’m not conversant in is hip hop culture. I did a shoot with Naughty by Nature for VIBE magazine, and I didn’t really understand what they were saying, and they didn’t understand what I was saying. They showed up in bulletproof vests, I’m a boy from suburban Sydney, and these are hard-core rappers who have had legitimate death threats. One of the members wore a sort of terrorist mask the whole time, which was strange for me since I’m so much about eyes and faces. It definitely presented me with a challenge.

I ended up doing a kind of formal portrait that was weirdly graceful, and it was so much in contrast to how they lived and who they were, that contrast made for a really interesting picture. That's a trick I learned from Irving Penn, when he photographed the Hell's Angels. It was a subject outside of his bailiwick at Vogue, but he did these very elegant graceful portraits of these guys, and it came out very beautiful. So if you consume enough imagery, you will see these examples from the people who came before and that can be helpful.

But I got a beautiful portrait of them, it actually won an award SPD Society of Publication Designers. It goes to show… something. I think it’s if you look at someone closely enough even if you don’t speak their language, it’s the quality of looking that makes the photograph.

Liv was probably the most fun, because all my preconceived ideas worked, and she was completely equal to the moment. As a photographer, if you’re any good, you dream up what you might want to do ahead of time, even if it doesn’t go to plan, you think about it. This was that perfect moment where everything happens the way you saw it.

The hardest is when you’re out of sync with the subject. I’ve had shoots where the subject and I just didn’t mesh. I pride myself on being good at that, but once in a while it happens, and you just don’t connect. Something I’ve learned is that I have to be responsible for those moments too, and solve that problem. Now I kind of pride myself on being able to work through those moments, where you don’t lose your cool.

Can you describe your teaching style?

I think it’s much like my shooting style: I really want to be at the service of my students. I really want to facilitate something happening for them; some kind of shift. Whether they’re going to get an extraordinary picture during our time together, or learn something that will allow that to happen down the road.
I don’t want it to be about me and my career or achievements, because I want to create that for them in their future. I’m super supportive and something of a cheerleader. I’m very excited because I think of teaching and photographing as a transfer of energy, and it's my responsibility to give my subject some of my energy,

What can workshop participants expect from your Fashion Meets Lifestyle workshop?

They can expect to think about their work and then subsequently practically shoot their work in a way unlike they have before. They’re going to be engaged in their work in new ways. I’m going to give them tasks to do and share technique with them that will deepen their experience of taking photographs.

My mission is to make this more than a casual experience of just walking out the door and clicking the camera. To me it’s like a full body experience: how you are in the world, how alert you are to the light and the relationship you have with your subject. So I see it as an intensely energizing experience for subject and photographer.

It’s a quality of listening and watching, and seeing that’s very personal and intense if you do it well.

Thanks Andrew, we are so pleased you're joining us here this summer!
Thanks, Melyssa, I'm looking forward to it.

To learn more about Fashion Meets Lifestyle with Andrew Southam, visit the workshop page on