Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fiesta en la Coffee Table

Do you remember coffee table books? Yes, I know, I’m showing my age, but that’s what we used to call them in my day. My parents always had a collection of glorious, large-format hardcover tomes filled with rich artwork spread across our Herman Miller coffee table. Even as a small child I liked to flip them open, careful not to tear their precious dust covers, and peak inside at the big pictures.

I think the preferred term is now “gift books” and I rarely see them on actual coffee tables anymore. Pity. Though to be honest I can also understand. In those days homes often had formal living rooms for entertaining and the kids confined their messes to the den or their own rooms. Now I wouldn’t dare leave my favorite “gift books” on the table for fear of desecration by my son’s fruit juice or cola (it’s never him, you see, it is the drink itself that propels itself toward the tan living room rug). So my favorite coffee table book is carefully stored away, taken out whenever a visitor arrives who I know would appreciate it, or when I simply want to revisit it. My favorite is called Fiesta en Puerto Rico and represents a collaboration between photographer Paola Nogueras and writer and graphic designer Tere Dávila. It offers a bouquet of rich colors, heart-warming images, and a detailed history of the island through the lens of its many and varied festivals.

I just reread it for the second time as there is so much to take in. The first time through you are so stunned by Nogueras’ glorious images of revelers of every age captured in moments of festivity, their heads covered in tiaras, masks or ribbons, their feet frozen mid-dance step. But the second time through you’re able to focus on the words that complement the photographs like sand and sea, and you can’t help but be drawn into this lush and vibrant world. While describing the history of the different festivals of Puerto Rico, Dávila touches on so much about culture, religion, sociology and more, and the images of costumed children, elaborately masked vejigantes, flower-draped religious figures and life-size caricatures conjure a feast for the eyes as well as the mind. It makes me want to plan a trip to the Coffee Harvest Festival in Yauco (as café-obsessed as I am) and the San Sebastian event in Old San Juan with its participants sporting massive heads of Juan Bobo or Maximina La Loca.

The printing quality is outstanding, and at 240 pages it is substantial. Its text is in English and Spanish broadening its readership beyond language borders. I recently had the pleasure of talking to the photographer, the delightful Paola Nogueras, and wanted to share her thoughts with you today. And after visiting with Paola why not order a copy of Fiesta en Puerto Rico , maybe even for your coffee table!

How many festivals did you attend to gather the photos for the book?

I attended about 47 different festivals over the course of three years to collect the material for Fiesta. Some of the festivals are not represented because we found better photo opportunities at other festivals or because the theme of the festival simply didn't fit into our concept.

The diversity of festivals you cover is quite impressive, between religious, cultural and harvest festivals they are all there. Which one of all those you covered was your favorite?

I really enjoyed covering Carnival in Ponce. The color and visual aspects of the carnival are really spectacular. Everywhere I turned there was something else to photograph. I was born in Ponce and I visit frequently since a lot of my family still resides there. I was really proud of my home town for the way they ran the festival and the richness of the cultural display. It is also one of the few celebrations I attended that started on time. Many times I would show up to the festival and festivities wouldn't start for another 2 or 3 hours. I especially felt bad for the "reinas" who are outside in the sun with dresses which often weigh 30-40 pounds waiting for the parade to begin.

I also loved the celebration of La Virgen del Carmen. To witness people's profound devotion was a very moving experience. The same is true of the Three King's Day celebration in Juana Diaz, when they raise the baby and show him off to the crowd calling "Que viva el Niño Jesús."

In reality many of the festivals had something special that really made the work enjoyable whether it was the cabezudos dancing through the streets of Old San Juan or the Enmascarados singing as they paraded through Moca. These were truly magical experiences that I won't forget.

Have you returned to any of the festivals again, this time just for fun?

I have returned to several of the festivals including the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian, las Fiestas de Santiago Apostol, los Enmascarados de Moca and the Fiesta de Reyes in Juana Diaz. I have also gone to some festivals that I didn't get to during my work on Fiesta.

La Bloga will be speaking with you at length about your latest release next month, but can you give us a small taste of what the new book is about?

The new book Manos del Pueblo: Artesanos de Puerto Rico was a natural follow-up to Fiesta. Artisans are present at almost all the festivals on the island. While I was presenting Fiesta in Borders one of the artisans, Ibsen Peralta approached me and suggested I do the book on artisans. After several tests I realized there was ample material to publish another book. We were lucky to find sponsorship for the book from Mapfre so we overcame one of the harder hurdles right off the bat. Many people say they actually like Manos del Pueblo better than Fiesta. But for Tere and me Fiesta still holds a special place in our hearts.

This is your second collaboration with writer Tere Dávila, how did you two coordinate the writing with the pictures? Did you attend some of the festivals together?

Tere agreed to write Fiesta after most of the photos had been taken, so we didn't go to the festivals together but she did attend several on her own. I actually stayed at Tere's house while doing the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian because Old San Juan can get pretty crazy during the festival. It was great to be in Old San Juan and not have to worry about parking or traffic jams in and out of the city.

Because Tere and I have known each other for most of our lives and have been very close I had complete confidence in her. She not only wrote Fiesta but she also gave her creative vision to the book. Many of the ideas of the layouts came from her expert sense of design. She was too busy to write Manos del Pueblo but instead introduced me to Gloria Borras who did a wonderful job of capturing the experiences of the artisans in her text. But Tere did design Manos and it is a tribute to her skill and vision that even though the book deals with similar subjects she never allowed it to become photographically monotonous.

Did your son Gabriel accompany you to any of these events? If so, was his child's eye take different from yours?

Gabriel actually accompanied me to many of the festivals. He really loved Carnival with the vejigantes. One of the traditions in Ponce is that the vejigantes carry vejigas (pig bladders which they dry, inflate and paint) and they go around chasing and hitting the teenagers (especially the girls) with them. Gabriel was around 5 at the time and was disappointed that the vejigantes wouldn't chase him so I asked one of them to swat Gabriel a couple of times with the vejiga and he was very happy to have been included in the fun. He accompanied me to several of the Three King celebrations as well as the Enmascarados in Moca.

After the book was done Gabriel really took ownership for the project. He was very proud of what we had accomplished and shared those experiences with his teachers and classmates insisting we donate a book to his school.

In your short book jacket biography you mention you hoped to leave Philadelphia and return to Puerto Rico to live one day. Has that day come yet?

I still live in Philly and probably will until Gabriel leaves for college in another 6 years. But we do spend a considerable amount of time in Puerto Rico which makes the separation from "mi islita" a little easier.

Tell us something that's not on the official bio.

I took 13,000 photos during the years I worked on Fiesta. I'm an avid scuba diver and a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.


Anonymous said...

O.K., I'm going!

Lisa Alvarado said...

Ann -- I also pour over what used to be 'coffee table books!' Sigh....those ultra large, glossy, beautiful photographic trips around the world...

Great interview that encapsulates the heart of what the book tries to capture.

And I know you're going to P.R soon, I won't say I'm going, but I will say I AM jealous! : ).