Lesha Rodriguez is the 2020 Denis Roussel Award winner. We are pleased to feature her work on Rfotofolio.

“This is a beautifully crafted, realized and graphic portfolio full of painterly energy and gesture. As well, the work is resplendent with a multitude of powerful themes involving your Mexican heritage combined with an ever-evolving American identity, the internal and social struggles embodying your desire for children and that desire being challenged by the chronic health afflictions within yourself and family. It is an impossibly rich combination of themes which, to this point, you are representing with passion and power. Great work!”

Christopher James

You may click on each image to see a larger size.

Would you please tell us about yourself?

My father immigrated from Durango, Mexico. My mother’s family immigrated to California from Zapoteca, Mexico where my grandfather worked as a silver miner. With his experience in the mines, my grandfather came to the United States through the Bracero program and worked as a mercury miner in California. My parents met in Paso Robles (California), fell in love and married. However, that relationship proved volatile and my parents divorced when I was three years old. I was raised in Salinas, CA mostly by my grandmother Maria and two amazing aunties whom encouraged my creativity at a young age.

Outside of my “homes,” it was a very different environment. In elementary school, I remember being told not to speak Spanish. Most everything involving my ethnic heritage was discouraged in school. I remember the impact this had on me even at home and elsewhere. I was made ashamed to speak Spanish. In high school, I finally took my first Spanish language class. Later as an adult I wanted to learn more about my heritage and culture. Beginning in 2006, I would spend my Summers in Oaxaca, Mexico — and have returned every year since. This year, 2020 would be an exception due to the current pandemic. 

For me, working in Oaxaca, making art there for the entire Summer has become my ritual and fusion of heritage and creativity. 

Where did you get your photographic training? 

Although I had been a photography hobbyist as a child, it was not until I graduated with my undergrad from UC Santa Cruz that I would  pursue photography as a career. I wanted to be more technical and literate in the photographic arts and began taking classes at my local community college, Cabrillo and at San José State University. From the body of work, I produced during this period, I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted and chose UC San Diego. 

My training is a culmination from a variety of schools and workshops. 

Workshops: Mary Ellen Mark, Alex Webb, Rebecca Norris Webb, Matt Black, Charles Harbutt, Joan Liftin, Beverly Rayner, Jodi Alexander, and Tami Bone. UC San Diego (Graduate school): Fred Londlier, Ernest Silva, Teddy Cruz and Phel Steinmetz Cabrillo College and San Jose State University: Ted Orland, Brian Taylor, Susan Hoisington, Shelby Graham, Tobin Keller, Sandi Frank, Victoria May, Robynn Smith, and Sheila Malone.
Undergraduate (UC Santa Cruz & Hartnell College): Eric Bosler

Who has had an influence on your creative process? 

I’ve had many influences in my life from both teachers and artists. Two of my early influences are Kiki Smith and Francisco Toledo. When I look at Kiki Smith’s work, I’m always amazed at the diversity of mediums she works with. The scale and power of her works are not only inspirational but life changing for me. Francisco Toledo is the artist that makes Oaxaca – Oaxaca! He is unequivocally the founder and chief patron to the arts in Oaxaca. Not only did he devote his life to art and community, but he also served as a leader for his indigenous community by frequently spotlighting his Zapotec heritage. 

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time. 

Alex Webb’s Tehunatepec, Oaxaca (Mexico 1985). The way Alex activates every plane: foreground, middle ground, and background is esoteric. As my eyes journey within this photo, a dialogue manifests in my mind; Is the boy in the front spinning a globe of the Earth or a soccer ball? Then, to the left of the boy with the blue striped shirt, I see a glimpse of two younger boys and question their interaction. Are they arguing? Has the smaller child been pushed to the ground? Then I see the young boy with a bowl haircut idling on a treat while focused on either the spinning ball or Alex photographing. As if these complexities weren’t enough, my eyes engage the far left to see a basketball passing through a hoop. It’s almost as if we are surveying a film set and this fine detail is just the confirmation of this slam dunk in time. As my eye travels to the far right I see a young man with his hands on his hips. Is he a Muxe? A person who is neither man or woman considered in Oaxaca as the third gender? Muxe are highly prized by Oaxacan families? As my eye wanders farther back, I see another boy with his hands in front of his crotch. The opposite of a Muxe? But what makes the photo even better is that you see the distinct dress of a Tehunan walking under the church arches. Tehunan women have a reputation as being strong and matriarchal leaders. Every part of photograph is masterfully composed and captured in that moment of not even a second.

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?

I continue to achieve and learn with each new photograph I make. I can still look back at some of my past images in disbelief – and with a large grin knowing “I actually made that.” Although I try to recreate some of my previous photos, it’s never successful in the sense of a facsimile. I’ve tried to recreate moments and the images never reproduce the same. Experientially, I know this, but I think it’s the challenge I’m also after. I know each shutter release is only that split second of time and never to happen again. The important lesson for me is to step back, rethink, make a photograph, and then review how can I make this even better. Don’t make it the same, but improve upon it. Photography for me is an open mystery.

Please tell us about the work you submitted to The Denis Roussel Award.

I am combining two alternative processes.

  • Lumen Prints
  • Cyanotype

I have been working with the lumen print process since 2008, exploring disparate materials of which some are common and others peculiar, and detailing their limitations and successes. This body of work I’ve included is an impression of my labor of love that began 12 years ago. I was introduced to the work of Jerry Burchfield during a lecture at the Yuma Art Symposium in the early 2000’s. This cameraless process captivated my imagination.

My initial foray was working to capture the spirit and energy of native plants in California and Arizona. In 2009, I travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico and this established my focus exclusively on native and indigenous plants in Oaxaca. I combine codices originating in Oaxaca: Zouche-Nuttal, Vindobonensis, Bodley, Selden, and Sanchez Solis. Progressively, I began to introduce additional iconography such as designs found at the Monte Alban and Mitla archeological sites: structural patterns and textiles. I have also been working with the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. The mass of the flora I use are collected from their compost deposits. 

Returning every summer since 2009, I have worked with a variety of black and white papers and experimenting under Oaxaca’s erratic weather conditions. In 2018, I started combining cyanotype and lumen prints – producing CyanoLumens. I continue to use Oaxacan iconography, and have also started to introduce my affection for human anatomy into the work which is a narrative of my own personal health. My ongoing work pursues internal and social struggles embodying my desire of motherhood conflicted with chronic health afflictions in myself and within my family. 

What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?

Making the picture is the most rewarding part for me. Whether it’s documenting an event or street photography or making my cyanolumen prints — it’s always the process that’s most rewarding to me. Strangely enough, I don’t like sharing or selling my work. This may be why I was so fascinated with the work and history of Vivian Maier.

How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?

When things are not working, I’ll stop and audit the technical. Firstly, I always review the condition of my light. I’ll go down a list and inspect the camera, film, the paper and all the way to the chemistry. The mystery is always challenging – becoming a game to solve. As a child, I enjoyed reading Alfred Hitchcock’s, Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries – along with Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries. Getting lost in those fictions was my source of escape and preface to problem solving. The idea of never giving up has stuck with me and has helped me to persevere even when things seemingly aren’t working. Sometimes the problem is simple and the solution very minor — and sometimes it takes decades of trial and error to figure out. 

What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?

I’m a strong believer in creativity and not equipment. What I mean by that is that I could have the best camera in the world, but still may make subpar work. Conversely, I could produce the best photos of my life using a Holga. My most successful and influential images made were made from a Holga during my time in Oaxaca, in 2006 during the storied teachers’ strike. I credit those photographs with my acceptance into UC San Diego as a San Diego Fellow. As a fellow, I received tuition, a stipend, teaching assistant opportunities and preferred campus housing. After graduating with my MFA, I then went on to become a photography teacher. Without that $20 Holga, I believe I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Is there something in photography that you would  like to try in the future?

I’m always trying new things. However, I do find it difficult to stop and focus at times. I’m easily distracted and sometimes overwhelmed with too many ideas. I would like to settle in a bit more and set my focus on the alternative process — but combining those images with a printmaking process. I’m currently making room in my home studio for a silk-screening station and a printing press.

How does your art affect the way you see the world?

Everything is an adventure. I grew up in the small agricultural town of Salinas, California. Most people know it as the place where John Steinbeck was born, “Steinbeck Country.” I remember high school friends exclaiming how they could not wait to graduate and finally leave. Contrary to my friends, I liked Salinas. I could make art in any place and be resourceful with materials. It is what I make of the situation and rethinking and calibrate my materials to my surroundings. If my work isn’t successful at the moment, then I alter my path. If that path is blocked, then I have to come-up with a way to scale over the barriers and pass through the obstacles. 

How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?

I’ve been lucky so far during the pandemic. I have my family, health and a job. Because of my chronic asthma and other health-related risk factors, I’m not prepared to leave the house to take photographs, but it is a small price to pay in order to stay healthy.

Normally I travel to Oaxaca, Mexico 2-3 times a year for the last 14 years. This is time that I devote to myself and to my work. While in Oaxaca I work on several projects at once. Being in Oaxaca and working on my art becomes my full-time job. In Oaxaca, I would work from sunrise until 10 or 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. This is a very productive time for me and not being able to do the work this year has put projects on hold. Fortunately, I accepted not going to Mexico this year early-on, during the pandemic and focused energies on creating space at home to make art.

I’m not able to make the photographs that I love, but I am staying creative and have started a printmaking series devoted to the pandemic. However, it has been slow going because the semester of teaching has also started and does become more difficult to devote time to myself and my art. I’m in teacher mode and devoting much of my time and energy to my students. Not being able to interact face-to-face with my students has been difficult. I read about their own struggles in emails and it saddens me deeply.

What’s on the horizon?

I have many projects in production. One project that I’m almost ready to have published are photographs of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico covering 2006-2019. An additional project I would like to devote more time to is my travel panorama series of images — all taken from my car. 

Thank you Lesha, to learn more about the work of Lesha Rodriguez
please click on her name.

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