Ten Thousand Cups of Tea

Louie Villanueva’s “Ten Thousand Cups of Tea” links a considerate grammar of image-making to his pleasing aesthetic, self-assuredly defying reduction. His photographs excite me, probably because I don’t exactly understand them. I am far too literal, Louie is subtle and complicated, confident, and his pictures exhibit a range of emotions that an elder voice in our community referred to as poetic. I am challenged by a picture of a bumper sticker in this book that asks the witness to “honk if you know that you don’t exist”. The dyad of possibilities puts me at odds with what may be Lou’s way of looking at things, given that I am hard as stone on the issue, like Dr. Johnson’s famous “appeal to the stone” (big fan). All’s that I know is I sure as heck love these photos, and I am proud to sell this book at the store. And I own a copy of it. I am privileged to be able to ask Louie some questions about this work. So, I sent some questions:

JV: What kind of camera do you use? (kidding, not kidding… How does the choice of the camera make photography media specific?)

I had dropped a Leica MP at the end of February which had served as my everyday carry camera until that point. As a result of that expensive mistake, I took the opportunity to try different formats and systems. In rediscovering the square format through a Mamiya 6, I found myself playing with a linear perspective and appreciating the craft of developing C-41 film at home. Borrowing a Ricoh GRiii brought the speed and appeal of a digital compact to the forefront.

Once the MP returned from repair, I returned to horizontal, center-weighted, and contextual compositions that a rangefinder with a 35mm lens draw from me. All that said, the aspect ratio or method of photographing might restrict my take on different subject matter — fast-moving or still, panoramic or dense — but the camera does not dictate the selection or sequence, the photographs do that.

JV: Working with a rangefinder can be demanding, the perfection of a composition is always a little out of reach. Tell me about sequencing. I love the order you’ve imposed on the book. Is the capture-making part of making the order to you? Can you talk a little about the form of the book, and what you think about photobooks? Do you have memories of shooting those images? Whenever I go back to look at pictures the order becomes a bit jumbled, like the memories of place. There is an image of a woman holding a squirming kid in one of your frames, I think one of the strongest in this book, it is a profound image. Timeless. Seems like I had seen it before, but never had. Fresh, filled with implication, meaning (to me). I could go on forever, I love it so much. Can you tell me about it?

For me, sequencing a project isn’t a conscious part of photographing. Every punctum or personally compelling composition I come across dictates when I make photographs. The order of the photographs is a loose appropriation of a road trip — although I did not undertake a literal one.

A self-imposed time constraint — one evening — dictated much of the design of the book; the minimal layout and simple cover happen to align with my aesthetic preferences. The softcover and perfect binding were the result of a lower budget. Handmade slipcovers were a craft project and were intended to add a bit of flair to the print-on-demand book. I am a fan of tactility, and after seeing embossed labels at a stylish friend’s home, I decided to put the title on the spine that way. Right now, my preferred output is a sequence, which lends itself well to bookmaking. This seems mirrored in the contemporary photographers I admire — Sophie Calle, Alec Soth, Teju Cole, and Rebecca Norris Webb.

Like many photographers, my memories center around the photographs I take, which is a danger — confusing important memories with photographed ones — but I like to keep my archive organized which helps when I’m parsing through my memory collection too.

A photojournalistic style is what I gravitated towards in the beginning and continues in my client work. The photograph you mention falls into that documentary tradition. It was a moment in San Francisco I noticed outside the tram I was on — both in the moment and now, I recognize it as a facsimile of some sort of decisive moment.

JV: Why did you include a quote from Matsuo Basho at the end of the book? Do you know how beautiful I think it is? Also Ryokan? What exactly is it about this aesthetic anyway, that I think it is so beautiful? Would you honk at the bumper sticker you photographed? What do you think your photographs, or photographs, have to tell me? You seem to pay a lot of attention to photography, why?

I loved how Teju Cole integrated text into Blind Spot. Subtle, poetic work such as his, started influencing me more and more — to a point that the single-image, in your face, commercial appealing photographs weren’t something I wanted to consciously make anymore.

Alec Soth mentioned that the idea that photography is anti-Zen — in the desire to stop time or possess. I often feel the same, so in analyzing myself, I find that the act of looking and photographing gives me a lot of joy, whilst I try to keep the photographs themselves an afterthought until I’m looking through them as separate objects. Basho and Ryokan are there to support the order and peace I find making work.

I would refrain from honking, I wouldn’t want to confuse or startle anyone.

About Louie Villanueva:

Louie Villanueva (b. 1995) is a documentary and event photographer based in Calgary, Canada.

In his personal work, Villanueva explores the connections between class and culture. An emphasis on social vignettes highlights the relationships people have with their geography, others, and themselves. He works in a documentary style and applies this way of seeing to his everyday activities — walking to work, running errands, and parties.

Villanueva uses his personal photographic practice to inform his professional work and explores the dialectic of art and craft in photography.

Currently an independent photojournalist for the National Observer, he has also had work featured in the Calgary Herald, Sun, and the CBC. He is a preferred photographer for the University of Calgary.