Photography is about light and timing

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo’s nephew, is a well-known Mexican portraitist. “When I take a picture, I try to reflect someone’s personality, find the essence of things and capture what is most important”, he says in an interview with Outriders.


How did you get your first camera?

I found my first camera during a trip under the pyramids. But I think that I started taking pictures much earlier. When I was small, I went to a scout camp. One day I saw a strange looking man. “What is happening?”, I asked the another scout. “He doesn’t have a house and lives on the street”, I heard. It sunk in my memory and years later I started looking for the impression that this view made on me that day. That is one of the reasons why some of my photos depict homeless people living in front of one of the museums.

You are mainly involved in making portraits. What do you notice when you press the shutter button?

I see the light, it has always fascinated me. What is it doing? How does it beautify someone’s face? How does it create the atmosphere? In my opinion, it allows us to simplify the world and tell a story with as few elements as possible. For me photography is about light and timing.

Why “timing”?

You create a portrait in a split second. The question is: how do you show the person on your photograph? What is the story that you are telling? When I take a picture, I try to reflect someone’s personality, find the essence of things and capture what is most important. I want to leave a lasting impression that will overcome the passing of time.

We are now in the Blue House that your great-grandfather, Guillermo Kahlo, built. He was also a photographer.

My great-grandfather, father of Frida and my grandmother Cristina, worked as an accountant in a jewellery shop when he arrived in Mexico. It was his father-in-law who introduced him to photography. Guillermo made very good portraits, he was one of the best portraitists of his time. It was said that he was very patient. When he took pictures of architecture, he could wait hours for the light to fall at the right angle.

I was at this home for the first time when I was six or seven, but it did not look like it does today. It was neglected. Frida’s dresses were hanging on the mannequins. I didn’t manage to get to know her because she died in ’54, but my dad spent a lot of time with her.

Today, this house is the Frida Kahlo Museum. It is visited by thousands of tourists every year.

For this reason, this place is very distant and close to my heart. When I go there and sit, I can identify myself with this house, because it was built by my great-grandfather. I have memories connected with it. However, I only feel this way for a moment. I don’t pay for the entrance but when I see hundreds of people in front of the house…

Did your last name help you with your career?

Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband, was a famous painter. He worked in the United States and Europe. Frida became famous in 1980s, when Hayden Herrera wrote a book about her. I was already an adult at that time. That’s why I can’t say that I owe something to my last name or that her art has influenced me. The images I saw in my mother’s house were important to me. She traded art. Picasso and Chagall were hanging in the living room and the original sketches of Diego Rivera were deposited in a safe.

Do you remember your first photos?

I don’t want to remember because they were not good [laughter]. On a serious note, of course that I do. All my life I have been telling stories about the world through people. The human face is unique. There is nothing more mysterious, fascinating or emblematic about it.

What faces attract your attention?

Faces of pretty women [laughter]. I have a lot of pictures in my archive of people I used to meet on the street. When someone interests me, I take him to my studio and separate him or her from everyday life. The closed room deprives my models of their context. It is unknown whether they live on the street or in a palace.

You have also photographed the President of Mexico.

People usually find me and order portraits themselves. But I also like to realize my own ideas.

How important in your work is intuition?

It appears sometimes. I used to work on a project with the ministry. It was titled “The human face of the village”. We went with the team to the village of San Luis Potosí, one of the poorest regions in Mexico. In front of the school, where I arranged one room for the studio, there was a long queue of people willing to pose. There I saw an Indian woman standing at the end of the queue, holding a plastic bag in her hand. For some reason I thought: “She is interesting”. I immediately took her inside to photograph her. In my photo she looks exactly like she stood. When I later enlarged the face of this woman on the computer, I saw that she had pride and sadness in her eyes. I thought: “This is Mexico”. Such epiphany happened to me for the first time.

You have also made a project about people in a psychiatric hospital.

I was fascinated with this subject and wanted to know what mental illness is like today. In a psychiatric hospital we were supposed to spend a week but we were asked to leave after three days… Well, during the session we showed one patient sample photos taken with Polaroid. Then my assistant asked her to give it back. Our model complained to the director of the hospital that the photographer stole her photos.

Your portrait exhibitions were presented in the United States, Africa, and Europe,= but you are also a commercial photographer – there are a couple of cookbooks in your resume.

A picture of food is shot in a completely different way than a portrait. I remember that working on these projects I was wondering how to simplify the dishes I photographed. At that time, I thought, as the Japanese would say, that “empty means full”. I tried to give up elements that were unnecessary and find out what was fundamental. While taking pictures of food, I was removing something until almost nothing was left on the plate. The cook told me: “There is no more dish”. And I just tried to see how the food in the picture looks like in different set-ups. In total, we have published eight books with food from different places. They are designed as I like them in a simple way and on a white background.

However, I consider myself to be a portraitist. I try to understand who we are through the portrait. In the United States, the cult of personality is very important and that is why many great portraitists live there. In my opinion, Mexico lacked someone who could give a broad context to Mexican society because we talked about portraits through culture. I believed that this country had potential and it took me 30 years to understand how big it was.

The picture presents Guillermo Kahlo and Honorata Zapaśnik.

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