Mastering Calligraphy: From Buenos Aires to New York

In seeking the perfect for Ceci’s birthday I wandered the bookstores & art stores of Manhattan. On a gray Saturday afternoon last month I sought out Rizzoli Bookstore for its reputation of specializing in illustrated books. Rizzoli is a very special bookstore located in a fashionable townhouse around the corner from Central Park. Heading up the lovely wooden staircase I found the graphic design books near the front window of the upper floor (pictured below).


I ended up buying two books: a practical book and an inspirational book. The first was the just published Mastering Calligraphy: The Complete Guide to Hand Lettering. I was afraid that the book might be too basic for Ceci, who is already quite experienced and studying with a calligraphy teacher in Buenos Aires. However, Ceci tells me that the book is quite good. Despite the rather dull book cover, the page layouts of the interior are very well conceived and the content ranges from beginning to advanced.

The most exciting part of the Mastering Calligraphy book (and I didn’t even realize this until after I purchased it) is that it features work from our friend Yanina Arabena, a Buenos Aires-based calligrapher who is making quite a positive reputation for herself with her distinct lovely style of hand lettering. Yani’s lettering is featured on the back cover of Mastering Calligraphy as well as on one of the first interior pages. Always a thrill to unexpectedly open a book and find references to someone you know. Congrats Yani!

The other book I got for Ceci was an elaborately designed book by Marian Bantjes titled I Wonder, which is truly a gorgeous book.

Farewell to another bit of Buenos Aires

Last night I carried my two year old daughter down the steps of the Primera Junta subway stop in the neighborhood of Caballito. Mila had never ridden a subway before. I wanted her first experience to be on the wooden old cars of the A line. We’ve been intending to take her on that line for months, but the city’s recent decision to replace the wooden cars with new cars from China prompted me finally to create a memory for myself and my daughter.

We descended the steps to find an empty line of wooden cars encased in their steel frames waiting at the platform.




I wasn’t the only person feeling nostalgic. A couple of young guys milled around with very nice SLR cameras. Down the platform a woman posed in the window of one car while her husband snapped a photo. A few minutes later an older couple arrived with their grandchildren.

This particular train already was out of service. We waited across the platform for the next train. Unfortunately, the next train was not an old one but a partly now disastrous set of subway cars from the 1990s. So we waited some more. The next train was yet again a ’90s era model. I was beginning to get worried that the city had stopped the older trains a day earlier than announced. Mila at least enjoyed the graffiti splattered appearance of each train, then she thrilled with excitement as each train sped off. Another train came by with a “newer” set of cars. Finally, after about 40 minutes of waiting an old set of subway cars came to a stop.

These older cars don’t have automatic doors, so an older gentlemen slid open the entrance to the wooden car so that I could enter while carrying Mila in my arms. We found a seat and I took a few photos of her as the train left the station. With the movement she nestled in my arms. Initially, her face expressed a bit of concerned but then it she figured out everything was safe and fun while she looked around taking in everything. I held the iPhone in front of her and records several minutes of video of her  enjoying her first subway ride. At only two she’s unlikely to actually remember taking this ride. But with the aid of photos, videos, this posting, and my telling her about this adventure in the future then perhaps she might be able to pull out fragments of this nightly ride on the last of the A line.

You’ll tell me years from now, my child, if you remember any of this night.


An incredible photo tour of Buenos Aires

On Saturday I went on a photography tour that is a great way to experience Buenos Aires, and I strongly  recommend that everyone place Fota Ruta high on a list of things to do in Buenos Aires. I put tour in italics since this turned out not to be a guided tour at all. Plus, it’s not just for photographers.

Every Saturday afternoon Foto Ruta has a gathering that explores a different neighborhood of Buenos Aires. This past weekend focused on San Telmo.  The meeting location was a small restaurant on Balcarce. When I first got the email indicating the starting point I knew this was going to be slightly different from other encounters with touristic operations. Balcarce is one of my favorite streets in San Telmo but absent the large crowds that stream down Defensa. A few people were mingling in front of the resto when I arrived and a couple more soon joined. I was expecting Joss, one of the people who runs Foto Ruta, to appear, chat with us a for few minutes, and then lead us down the street. After all, that’s the typical walking tour routine.

Instead, we went into the restaurant where Foto Ruta staged a much bigger production than I imagined. On a table were nicely spread out several photography books for us to browse and an abundance of handouts, even including a lanyard (which doubled as a camera strap). I had to inquire who was their graphic designer since all the Foto Ruta publications were extremely well designed as is their website. Turns out the credit goes to Joss, who has a background in graphic design and photography. Her photographic understanding became even more evident as the afternoon went by.

The first forty-five minutes of the tour is spent sitting in the restaurant, which offered a good opportunity to get to know the others who have come on the tour that day. In my group were a guy from Iceland living in Sweden, two young women from the UK, and two other expats residing in Buenos Aires. Joss presented an overview of Foto Ruta, explained the concept of the tour, a brief history of the barrio, and then proceeded with a wonderfully illustrated presentation (on a large screen) about ways to compose better photographs that was filled with really useful advice and examples.

The innovative approach of Foto Ruta is that it’s not a guided tour showing you a dozen picture perfect spots for taking those quintessential photos of Buenos Aires. Rather, Foto Ruta is about helping you see beyond the touristic surface of a barrio and along the way you find the wonderful images that resonate with you.  On a Foto Ruta excursion you go off on your own or with a small group if you so choose, then meet back at the restaurant in a couple of hours to review a selection of photos that everyone took that afternoon. To aid that process of discovery Foto Ruta provides a map, a list of useful phrases in Spanish, and, most importantly, a set of ten clues to stimulate your visual thinking. These clues are not the mundane “Find the old bar at the corner of Plaza Dorrego”, but a brief phase: Dorrego Daydreams. The interpretation is yours. And isn’t that the key to a great travel experience? We’re each internalizing our own encounters with a place. And photography can help express that in imagery.

On Saturday I teamed up with Oli, the Icelander residing in Stockholm. That’s also the great benefit of Foto Ruta: a chance to make new friends. Over a couple of hours of wandering a neighborhood you have a lot of time to talk, maybe sit down in a cafe for a coffee. Oli turned out to have a fantastic eye for photography (not surprising that he carried two film cameras and one digital). Here’s a photo Oli took for the clue “A pigeon’s picada”.

Even though I know San Telmo incredibly well, having lived in that barrio from 2005 – 2008, I still encountered new sights. And the neighborhood has changed in the last few years but much has remained the same. We wandered in a bookstore filled with old books. No other customers in the store but in the back was an old man with long white hair. After glancing at him I had to turn and look again at the object in his lap. He was making shoes. After a conversation it turned out that he’s a custom shoemaker who will measure your feet and craft a pair of shoes by hand. Stumbling across that type of encounter makes for a memorable afternoon.

Oli and I returned to the restaurant where Joss and her Finnish assistant Sari had bottles of wine waiting. The others soon arrived and everyone selected a photo that best matched each of the ten clues. Even if you’re not so into photography this made for a wonderful Saturday afternoon. You don’t even have to take photos; you can team up with another. And there’s no wrong answers when seeking out photos for the clues. You can be quite abstract and conceptual, plus most clues are quite broad and open to interpretation. As we’re sitting around drinking wine and chatting Sari copies the photos from everyone’s digital cameras and then Joss turns on the large screen monitor so that we can see the photos. Joss provides an excellent but gentle critique of the photos. This is not a graded exercise and she deftly finds something good to say about every photo. Indeed, some of the photos are quite remarkable. Check out the gallery page on Fota Ruta.

Seriously, if you’re into photography and you’re in Buenos Aires or visting the city then you’re going to enjoy the Foto Ruta experience.  In addition to the Saturday excursions Foto Ruta also offers half-day and full-day workshops on street photography, a half-day on iPhoneography, plus a full-day post production workshop. That’s an exciting set of opportunities for anyone interested in photography.

I love Fota Ruta’s concept for getting people to truly experience the streets of Buenos Aires. You won’t learn anything about the history of a 19th century military leader and politician named Manuel Dorrego, but you’ll surely come away with lasting memories and new insights in photography.