From Eliza French. Follow her on Twitter @elizaenbref; email her at eliza[AT]borderstan.com.
Local photographer Betto Ortiz has avidly photographed everything around him from a young age. He approached photography as a hobby and began to document his travels through the medium as a young adult. The Colombian artist exhibited his first show in 2003, and ever since then he has been pursuing photography professionally as an artist and travel photographer. Borderstan asked Ortiz about his evolution as an artist, his photographic style, and how living and working in DC has influenced him.
Borderstan: How long have you lived/worked in the DC and specifically in the Dupont/Logan/U Street area and how did you come to live here?
Ortiz: I have been in the DC area since late 1990, right after graduate school. ….I have always lived in the Dupont/Logan area; in Logan, in particular, since 2000. I visited DC for the first time when I was 10 years old, it was then when I felt in love with this city. When I finished graduate school at the National University of Colombia, and after deciding not to finish my last rotation of veterinary medicine, I moved to DC to do some modeling and attend the University of Maryland. I soon decided against studying there but continued modeling …. I also worked for many years with Gala Hispanic Theater on many productions, from small parts to big roles.
I wanted to live here because of its international flavor, its small buildings, and big green areas. I love DC because it is a city in the States where having an accent is cool, [and] it is common. In DC, everyone is from someplace else, from other countries, from different cultures. It is a city of power but our voice does not matter because we have no representation. It is in these contradictions that I find myself loving to be here. No other neighborhood has seen more change and exhibits more contradictions than Dupont/Logan.It is the place I call home, where I want to come back after traveling the world.
Borderstan: How and when did you discover your affinity for photography? What first attracted you to the medium? I’m also curious about why your first show in 2003 convinced you that photography could be more than just a hobby.
Ortiz: I have always liked photography. I remember being a kid in school and being fascinated by photography, in particular those photographs that had people in live actions. I got my first camera, an Instamatic, for my eighth birthday. I took photos of everything and everyone. I drove everyone crazy. When I was 12, one of my aunts got a camera for her graduation…. I was enchanted with that great Minolta. So, I took my first class in photography with the newspaper of my school, I was the only “young boy” among all the juniors and seniors of high school who were running the newspaper. To my surprise, and everyone else’s in class, I was the best photographer of the class and… joined the newspaper. I was in heaven! …Photography became then one of my strongest hobbies.
In 2003, a couple of friends were at my place for dinner. They asked to see my photos from some of my trips, [since] everyone was always talking about my photos. These friends were impressed. Two of these friends were gallery curators who were moving to New York City. They told me that my talent was more than just that of a person with a hobby [and] that I should explore it. One of them pointed out what I still believe it is true today, that I capture in travel photography what people think they did but never could in their own trips. I was happy but truly skeptical. So, we agreed that I would put together… the duplicates of 100 photographs they [could select] from my boxes. Once I got the matted photos, I was to take them to their gallery to be sold, but I was afraid of rejection. So, I first took them to my office to show my coworkers and to see their reactions. I sold almost all of them in two days. I could not believe it. I then created another set for my friends and arranged my first show.
I would say that it was that broad acceptance to my natural art of taking the photographs on my trips [that convinced me to pursue photography seriously]. The “wow” reactions of people …motivated me to open my photos to others and to explore this artistic side.
Borderstan: Which cities and towns have been particularly inspiring for you or been particularly challenging to photograph? How do you go about choosing locations and finding subjects to photograph?
Ortiz: Italy is enchanting and a photographer’s dream in my opinion. It does not matter where one is there is always an interesting landscape, an old building, people with character, crazy fashion, old people beautifully dressed, families enjoying the afternoon, towers, parks, and food.
I think that locations choose you. It is true that one has to be there first but sometimes the smallest piazza one goes by becomes the largest photo studio. I normally go to places where I can stay few days, where I can sit down with the locals and have a cup of coffee or a drink. That first encounter is crucial for me, it is when I see all the things I do not want in my photos, such as electric lines, commercial signs, tourists, bad shadows, political propaganda, etc. Then the next day the space becomes mine and my camera can freely shoot within the limits I have set for my photos. I have been called a “purist.” I still believe in the importance of composition and framing before the picture is taken. Even with digital photography, I do not believe in cropping and retouching photos. ….Artistic photography is not to make a photograph already taken look the way one wanted it to be or remembers it to be by using digital adjustments. Digitally and artistically modifying a good photo is art, [but]…cropping and adjusting a suboptimal one [is not].
There are many good tricks to capture people going on with their lives. One of them is to have someone who sits, or walks, or moves closer to the real subjects of the photo. Then, the game is on, so one can shoot people while they believe one is working with someone else. Another [trick] is to set your tripod with the camera on a busy corner of a piazza, just next to the table one is having coffee, and then wait. People just naturally walk into one’s photo and completes it naturally.
I have found that I need to be in the mood of photography, that I must have that sensitive eye to capture truly artistic photos. Photos taken without that instinct while they may be technically good, they lack the artistic touch and become commercial travel photography. This artistic touch is the innate capacity to shoot at the moment one can accurately capture the serene smile of an old lady, or the proud posture of a strong soldier, or the passionate expression of a couple in love. I want in my artistic travel photography to capture the beauty of a place and its people but with the touch of art that gives, that makes the viewers of my photos wonder about the story behind the photo.
Borderstan: In what ways specifically did your background and upbringing help you develop your photographic eye?
Ortiz: When I was a kid, my father had an approach to educating his children based on one phrase: “Do not say ‘no’ to something until you have tried it.” We traveled to so many different places, tried so many different foods and met so many interesting people. I always felt that the stories were not complete when we told others our adventures; I wanted to show them rather than to say tons of words. It is in this desire to tell the stories with one image that I found myself liking photography.
Working for the school newspaper for a couple of years cemented my desire to be good in photography, to bring to others the beauty and magic of other places. … I created more than one problem with my out of the box photography in a high school newspaper within the walls of a Catholic institution. The brothers of La Salle loved my energy and helped me as much as they could to develop my crazy ideas. I then decided to photograph every event I was involved with. ….. I wanted to be a photographer but a scientist at the same time.
Borderstan: How has living in Washington DC and the Dupont/Logan/U Street area and interacting with other local artists and institutions influenced your art?
Ortiz: [T]the most direct influence in my work, in the last few years, has come from joining MidCity Artists. Before being in an artistic group I never felt I was more than just a good photographer. [Since participating in] the Open Studios twice a year, when hundreds of people see my photos and my latest work with mixed media and photography, I have seen the faces of approval and have received the compliments that fuel the desire to be more involved with my art. Yes, I feel I can call it art these days. I believe that some artists are who they are no matter what, big geniuses of the present and past. Meanwhile, others respond to the approval of their fans creating wonders of today that may see the glory of tomorrow. I am one of the latter ones. People on the street around my place and other areas of the city, where my shows have taken place, recognize me as a Betto the artistic photographer. It is important to feel that approval and to respond to it with better work.
It is also good to hear from other artists when MidCity has shows together or when someone comes to one of my openings. In part staying in pure photography was safer because I knew how to take the best photo, but now integrating mixed media to the presentation of my photos has not only moved me into a more artistic identity but has also offered me to others so they can talk about me in a new dimension. If you know what I mean!
The other influence in my work comes from the commercial side of being an artistic travel photographer; so, sometimes, what people want has a direct correlation of what gets printed for sale. Both sides, artistic and commercial, need to be addressed always if one wants to remain relevant. So what people buy has to be available even if my artistic mind has other ideas for a new collection.
Borderstan: What are your other interests and hobbies outside of art?
Ortiz: I think I can say without fear that I am a true renaissance man. I have tried many things in life: scuba diving instructor; dog breeder and trainer; counter tenor soprano singer for ceremonies at weddings and funerals; TV reporter for a gay magazine; model for many years; and other [occupations]. Today, I like to take things a little slower, but I still seem to have more energy and get involved in more things that your average person. I like it that way. I love to travel and to repeat the same spot several times, to get to know peoples cultures and lives. …. My curiosity surpasses photography, but it is in photography that my soul finds a new religion.
Borderstan: Please let us know anything else you would like to share about your current work or future projects.
Ortiz: My last big series of acrylic matting and selected photographs was launched late in 2009. Then in 2010 and 2011 I produced only three small series of photographs from Africa, Europe, and Colombia. This break was needed due to illness in 2010 and family in 2011. It takes… time to put a big series together. These days, I am now working on my next big project which will involve acrylic work with pure photography. I am thinking it may be called acrylic dilution. I am in the process of completing the actual idea to then move to produce the pieces. I will then have to negotiate the venue. Additionally, I have more than seven trips I have yet to catalog and reproduce for this fall’s MidCity Open Studios.