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Flaco Jiménez

35 mm black and white film

This photo of Conjunto great Flaco Jiménez is in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and it’s got an interesting backstory — a combination of equipment failure, on-the-spot inspiration, and determined darkroom work.

I had been taking photos in my studio for Flaco’s new album, for Arhoolie records. It was the first time I had met him, and after the studio session, I decided to catch his performance that night and get some photos of my own. 

This was back in 1988. I was working with a film camera, a Nikon, in low light, shooting black and white film.

This particular camera had a mechanical problem. It always worked fine up until just about the end of the roll, and then, without any warning, it sometimes stopped advancing the film. It didn’t prevent me from shooting, but any additional shots were double (or triple or whatever) exposures. 

I was aware of the problem, and usually I was pretty careful, but I guess my mind was on the challenging lighting conditions or something, and I lost track of my shot count.

By the time I noticed, I had already shot five or six exposures of Flaco on the same frame. But I decided the shots didn’t have to be wasted. Because of the low light, it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage something interesting.

So I decided to make one more exposure.

This time, I reframed the shot a bit, so that this last exposure wouldn’t precisely overlap the others. I wanted Flaco’s face to be outside the boundaries of the earlier exposures, up above them. Then, holding that framing, I waited. And waited.

Finally, he looked my way and I snapped it.

I had the raw material, but it wasn’t exactly print-ready. I developed the film, and then I spent a lot of time in the darkroom, dodging and burning different areas of the shot, until I got the print that I wanted. That print — in a wood frame that was hand-carved by my dad — is now in the Smithsonian.

See more of Al's work on his website.

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