Inside Tijuana Photographer Josue Castro’s New Photo Series: Puro Hedonismo. Hedonismo Puro.
TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA – Photographer Josue Castro’s Tijuana studio – The Kitchen – is similar to Warhol’s 60’s era Factory in a number of ways. Josue and business partner Andrew Sheiner opened the space in 2012 after they outgrew their studio La Tentación in Tijuana’s Pasaje Gomez. The Zona Centro-based location on Constitution & Seventh has since become a thousand square foot romper room in which the artist can “play” – fostering and executing upon a number of creative multimedia projects.
Unlike Warhol’s parade of drugged-out debutantes, wannabe artists and sycophants seeking their 15 minutes, however, The Kitchen has played host to and engaged the “who’s-who” of Tijuana’s business, music, media and artistic community during events such as local craft beer tastings and a series of invitation-only clandestine dinners.
And lately, Josue has welcomed some of Baja California’s best chefs, winemakers, craft brewers and choclatiers to The Kitchen to pose for a series of photographs he’s titled Puro Hedonismo. Hedonismo Puro. (Pure Hedonism. Hedonism Pure.). El Gringo has been following the series on Facebook and wanted to get the story behind the lens from the man himself, so we met Josue recently on a Saturday afternoon in TJ and sat down at The Kitchen table to chat.
Rock Stars, Identity and Bondage
Originally from Mexico City and having lived in Tijuana in the past, Josue has spent most of the last decade in San Diego. “Three years ago, I chose to come back to Baja California because everyone is paying attention to the region – The New York Times, Playboy, airline travel magazines and many other international publications,” Josue began. “The chefs here right now – everywhere due to the media and television – are becoming like rock stars. The chefs here in Baja California really ARE rock stars.”
Josue continued, “Most of my projects start by accident. I’d been talking to some friends at a party about doing a series on Baja California chefs. I started with Karla Navarro, the cook for our WTF (Where’s The Food) clandestine dinners. She was at CECUT (the Tijuana Cultural Center) and saw some of my work – the ‘Equals. Secret Identities.’ series. The images were a bit dark and she liked that.” Indeed, Josue’s starkly contrasted black and white portraits depict a series of models in various stages of facial bondage, seeking to portray the secret identity or mask that we all wear.
Josue’s transition from the Equals to the Hedonismo portraits occurred quite naturally. “One of my last Equals models was Hanis Cavin, the chef at Kensington Grill in San Diego. Hanis is Jewish, so I asked him to pretend that he was getting ready to cut his tattoo (of a sectioned pig) off his arm, because his mother hates it. Then I covered him with a (bondage) mask to hide his identity.” The portrait of Hanis is featured on a large 6’x10′ canvas in The Kitchen and serves as a dramatic focal point.
Josue had already worked with chef Chad White of Común in San Diego and La Justina in Tijuana. “That was on assignment for a publication. They wanted me to shoot more chefs from San Diego, but all of the restaurants they referred me to had Mexican chefs working in the back. Chad was one of the only American chefs there I could find at the time!”
“Our next chef was Miguel Angel Guerrero,” of El Taller and La Querencia in Tijuana and La Esperanza in the Valle de Guadalupe, “and he brought all his toys with him- the bow and arrow, the antlers.” Props are a central part of the photos in the Hedonismo series. Josue explained his process, “The chefs bring what they want to play with during the shoot, their props. We put them all on the table and they tell me a story about each item. We sit down and talk first to break the ice. Who they are, where they’ve worked, where they came from. Sometimes they come 2 or 3 times, so it’s a progression.”
When I asked Josue about some of the other memorable subjects in his series, he enthusiastically listed Baja California’s most revered culinary artists without skipping a beat…
“Ryan Steyn from El Jardin de Adobe at Adobe Guadalupe is one of my favorite chefs now after my experience with him. It’s funny because I haven’t been in the Valle de Guadalupe lately and I’ve never eaten his food, but I really liked working with him.”
“Sabina Bandera from La Guerrerense in Ensenada is always happy, always laughing. So when she was here, I asked her to try to stop smiling. She brought clams, a fish and even an octopus and we started to play with them. At the end, I just asked the question, ‘Do you want to put the octopus on your head?’ She didn’t mind so we put it on her like a wig.”
“Drew Deckman of Deckman’s en El Mogor in the Valle de Guadalupe seemed a little uncertain at first, but by the end he really got into it and we were having a lot of fun.”
“The young ones are kind of crazy, the Tijuana Culinary Institute graduates who are typically 26 to 28 years old. One that I photographed the other day (Ian Ciapara formerly of Los Danzantes in Oaxaca) is a young chef whose mother was one of my first models in TJ. Her mom is very fit because she’s a dancer, so she asked her to get on the table so she could act like she was going to cut her like a piece of meat. This was one of the most creative ideas somebody has come up with.”
Other chefs who have appeared in the series include Edgar Chong, Moises Valencia, Daniella de la Puente, Jaime Galindo and Flor Franco.
The Problem with Winemakers as Models
Josue’s amigo and colleague Fernando Gaxiola of Baja Wine + Food suggested he aim his lens next toward the Valle de Guadalupe’s top enologists and winemakers. Josue smiled, then sighed and confided, “The problem with having winemakers as models is that they bring a lot of wine with them to the studio. We open a bottle to pour in a glass as a prop and it starts there. With two photo shoots a day, there are some mornings when I wake up a little hungover.”
“The winemakers are also a little more challenging to shoot, because they tend to be older and it’s difficult for them to get into the mood. Victor Torres Alegre of Torres Allegre y Familia vineyards was the opposite. He’s 72 years old, he has great hair and he brought a football helmet, so we put his wines in it.”
“I was supposed to photograph Alvaro Alvarez of Alximia a week after he’d injured his back in a hang glider accident. His brother Manuel Alvarez called to cancel, but then eventually Alvaro was better and able to do it. We photographed him with his walker and a hang glider in the back like he was crashing. But he was laughing about what happened and trying to save the bottles at the same time.”
“Abel Bibayoff of the Bibayoff Vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe brought his little baby in. You know, they are Russian, and there’s a long Russian heritage there in the Valle, so the baby and the bottle in the photo with him represent another generation.”
Josue has also photographed notable winemakers including Phil and Eileen Gregory, Julio Benito Martin and Hugo D’Acosta – widely considered the father of Baja California’s modern winemaking techniques and processes.
The Power of Equality
Eager to get to our Japanese Baja fusion lunch at the new restaurant Punto Siete located just downstairs from The Kitchen, we concluded our talk with Josue, who emphasized the artistic and creative goals of Puro Hedonismo. Hedonismo Puro., “I take a lot of photos from low to high, so it’s like a saint in church. Catholic churches move away the images so you have to look up to them. They are not your equal. They are saints. In Chiapas, there is a church with Catholic saints at a high level. But the indigenous people are not into looking up to other people. For them there is just god. So there is a mirror that you look into that reflects the image of the saint (in front of you), so they are saying, ‘you are no better than I am. We are equals.’”
“Every time I put a photo in an exhibit, I don’t give it a name. I just title it ‘Chef’, ‘Winemaker’ or ‘Accountant’ or whatever. So there is no notion that this person is bigger than you. My images are not for a culinary magazine. Some may not understand that this is an artistic project. It’s not something that you have to do really fast to hit a magazine deadline. I’ve done 47 portraits so far. The goal is to have 99.”
Once Josue creates that 99th portrait, the series will be curated by MOPA (San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Art), projected for students at the Culinary Institute of Tijuana, exhibited at one of Mexico’s largest food shows and the portraits will also be on exhibit at CECUT.
Your Gringo in Mexico,