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No smiling: Ray Carofano’s “Faces of Pedro”

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Eddie. Photo by Ray Carofano

From Street to Studio

Ray Carofano’s “Faces of Pedro” shows the essence of lives lived

by Bondo Wyszpolski

It’s easy to be flippant about someone’s looks, as when Oscar Wilde wrote that “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” While that may be good for a chuckle, when we turn to Ray Carofano’s new book, “The Faces of Pedro,” we have to take a deep breath and recalibrate our approach.

Carofano has been circulating through the harbor city of San Pedro in search of compelling faces to photograph since 1998, and 56 of his portraits are included in this slim but potent volume. These are, for the most part, older men and women, many of them on the last lap of their race, so to speak; and while the majority are to some extent marginal by societal standards, they aren’t necessarily unattractive but rather weathered. They’ve all been around the block.

You don’t need to get past the cover to see my point. The fellow there, glaring at us, doesn’t have the visage of someone charmed by what we’ve just said. It is, rather, an expression that might imply he’s about to rip our car to pieces and eat it for breakfast.

“Faces of Pedro” – the book. Images by Ray Carofano

Maybe not above the sofa, but…

Pre-pandemic, almost everyone who’s wandered into Gallery 478 during San Pedro’s First Thursday Art Walks would gravitate to the rear wall where Carofano’s portraits are hung en masse. Grouped closely together, the impact is riveting. On the other hand, nobody’s ever bought one, Carofano says. “No one’s ever taken one home.

“And there’s a reason behind that. When you look at the faces, a lot of them are a little spooky, a little tough-looking, and I can’t imagine somebody bringing one home and hanging it in their bedroom or even over their sofa.”

Collecting them into a book, however, was something else, and whenever Carofano shared his intention of doing so the response was always enthusiastic. If the pandemic hadn’t hit, Carofano might still be photographing and talking about doing a book one day. What happened is that the pandemic brought his picture-taking to a halt but gave him the time to realize his project and bring it to fruition.

Captain Lyle. Photo by Ray Carofano

There’s a story in their eyes

“Why am I interested in the human face?” Carofano says, before answering his own question: It’s because no two faces are identical (not even the faces of twins) and the face is the only part of the human body that tells a story.

“If you look at somebody’s legs or their arms it doesn’t really tell you anything about the person. But the face…”—and Carofano mentions a study where 93 percent of the recipients said they could tell what a person was like by looking at their face.

“We can all look at somebody and go, That person looks like a nice guy or a nice lady, or somebody who’s nasty. Looks cannot really tell, but it does tell you a story. It might be wrong in certain areas, but still you’re going to find out the most about that individual probably by looking at them closely.”

“When I walk around,” Carofano says, “when I ride my bicycle, I go through the homeless areas down here and I know some of the people. Maybe I’ll meet a new person. I’m always looking at the faces whether I want to photograph them or not.”

These aren’t exactly pretty faces in the conventional sense, not the handsome hunks or pinup girls that Herb Ritts might have photographed but, to quote Ron Linden in his introduction, “Irving Penn more so than Richard Avedon.” To put it another way, these are the Morlocks, not the Eloi: beings with character etched hard into their faces. So how does Carofano find them? And, finding them, how does he lure or entice them back to his studio?

Cesko. Photo by Ray Carofano

“In the early days, when I was 20 years younger,” he replies, “I would hit some of the dive bars in San Pedro, most of which are gone now.” He’d meet the locals, start up a conversation, and want to know their stories, their background: One might have helped build the Vincent Thomas Bridge, one could have been a cowboy, and one might have done time for robbing a bank. And, indeed, these are some of the people in the book. If it got late, midnight or after, Carofano might say, Look, instead of spending money here let’s head back to my place; I’ve got a refrigerator full of cold beer.

Well, you’re thinking, that sounds, umm, a bit suspicious. But by this time Carofano has also shared his own story in turn, that he’s a professional photographer, gathering images for a project he’s working on, “Face of Pedro,” which he’s already explained to them in some detail.

“I tell people that, if I do photograph you, that means you’re going to be around for a long, long time—long after you’re gone, and even after I’m gone, your photograph’s going to still be here.”

Not everyone will take him up on his offer, but roughly 80 percent of them do. That number wouldn’t be so high if it wasn’t for Ray’s wife, Arnée. Carofano admits that “Sometimes I don’t look like a real sweet guy,” but Arnée is as charming as she is down-to-earth, and if she’s with her husband then the person is more likely to believe that the invitation to return to the studio to be photographed is on the up and up.

That was often how it was in the old days. These days, as mentioned, Carofano may come across someone homeless, camped out nearby, whose hardships literally advertise themselves. “If they’re homeless I usually offer them some money to help them out, and it helps me out too.” For various reasons, though, pride or a streak of independence, not all of them accept it. They’ll wave away the offer: No, I don’t need it.

Audrey. Photo by Ray Carofano

Lifeforces

When Ray Carofano invites someone into the studio for a session they aren’t just sitting around while he fiddles with his equipment. He’s taken care of all that beforehand. And it’s not easy.

“I have my own way of lighting the faces,” he says, “and it takes me about four or five hours to set it up and do testing until I get it where it’s just right. Then I’m ready to roll. You’ve got to have all that set up because if you go out and find somebody you can’t say, Oh, maybe in a week or two I’ll be set up. I don’t do it that way. I get everything ready here, so that when people come in we’re ready to go.”

What Carofano says about the lighting cannot be overemphasized: His subjects have a special glow, almost as if they’re partially lit up from within and at the same time emerging from the shadows. Furthermore, the camera gets into the crevices and sweat pores of the faces—many of which are like lunar landscapes. No one else I can think of captures his subjects in quite this way.

Naturally, barring sheer luck, it can take several shots to find one that’s as near-perfect as possible.

“When I was shooting film all the time that gave me 12 images to a roll,” Carofano says, “and I probably shot four rolls on the average.” Then he’d pour over the proof sheets, and the process of narrowing it down to just that one ideal image can take time. The picture has to look natural, as if it was taken during the course of a conversation or during an unguarded moment when the person wasn’t thinking about the camera or what impression he or she was making, even if they were looking straight into it. No one’s smiling or saying cheese. No one seems to be pretending. There’s only one image, where somebody has inserted a cigarette into his nostril and is giving an offensive gesture, that feels out of place. Other than that, as Ron Linden writes in his astute introduction, “Each subject carries his/her own little universe of vulnerabilities, real and imagined.”

It should be emphasized that “Faces of Pedro” isn’t a collection of freakish people, despite a number of them who wear their addictions or their hard luck stories like a mask, but rather a tribute and a compassionate nod to those who’ve hit a bad patch, self-imposed or otherwise, who’ve yet managed to pull through, to survive. Some of these people may be difficult to look at, but this is humanity confronting the viewer in many guises from inside what is a compelling, sobering, and yet exquisite book. It may be dark, but this little volume is a gem that glows.

Faces of Pedro, by Ray Carofano, is hardbound, with 57 images on premium paper. $60. CA residents add sales tax. Shipping and handling, U.S. flat rate, is $15. Book with 8×10 archival paper print, $160. Contact ray@carofano.com. ER/PEN

Ray Carofano and his San Pedro faces. Photo by Arnée Carofano

Street Fare

Looking into Ray Carofano’s “Faces of Pedro”

by Bondo Wyszpolski

“It’s not really about the homeless,” says Ray Carofano, “although there’s a number of them in the book because they’re in town here and I find them interesting, interesting in their lifestyles and what they’ve gone through and how they’ve survived.”

While he explains this, Carofano is pointing out different subjects in “Faces of Pedro,” his most recent publication, which highlights 56 black-and-white images of San Pedro’s denizens, past and present. Carofano began this series in 1998. As he’s noted elsewhere, “Shortly after moving to San Pedro I became aware of the many different cultures and interesting people surrounding me. I befriended many of the locals here and began taking photographs of them in my studio, sometimes long after the bars have closed.”

Mavrick. Photo by Ray Carofano

It should be clear by now that Carofano hadn’t set his sights on high school cheerleaders, gym rats or ballerinas. Coco Chanel has been quoted as saying, “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty, but it’s up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”

Speaking of 50, it turns out that 39 of the subjects depicted in “Faces of Pedro” have crossed that Rubicon, with 18 of them younger. “A lot of these people look older than they really are,” Carofano points out, adding that the median age is about 60. Of course, by that point in life, Nature has already scraped away some of our initial, rosy-hued beauty and begun laying in the wrinkles, the gray hairs, and the liver spots that will make us almost as generic at 80 as we were as infants.

That’s not to suggest that this is a collection of unattractive people. And what do we mean by “unattractive” anyway? These are, rather, weathered faces, some a great deal more than others, but what draws us to these portraits—apart from the exquisite use of the camera and Carofano’s skillful lighting—is that each visage seems to convey a life story, a short autobiography in code.

“If you look at somebody’s legs or arms it doesn’t really tell you anything about the person,” Carofano says. “But the face. We can look at somebody and go, That guy looks like a toughie or looks like a nice guy or a nice lady. Looks tell you a story (although) it might be wrong in certain areas. Still, you’re going to find out the most about that individual probably by looking at them closely.”

Candyman. Photo by Ray Carofano

A pause in the action

Ray Carofano and his wife Arnée own and work out of Gallery 478, located on Seventh St. near Pacific Ave. For the past several years, and especially during the San Pedro Art Walks (remember those?), anyone from the merely curious to the connoisseur who wandered into the gallery would almost always single out the wall where Carofano has been displaying some 40 images from his “Faces of Pedro” series (images which he rotates periodically). It’s been the Rembrandt in the room, so to speak, the parts congregated into the whole that was for many the highlight of their initial visit. People would regularly comment on them, perhaps compliment them is a better word, but Carofano reveals that nobody has ever laid out a few bucks in order to buy one:

“There’s a reason behind that. When you look at the faces, a lot of them are a little spooky, and I can’t imagine somebody bringing one home and hanging it up in their bedroom or even over their sofa.” But to own a book or a portfolio of these images? Well, yes; people have responded positively to that idea.

Now they’ll have a chance to respond with their billfolds. However, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, it’s likely we’d still be talking about the prospect of a publication rather than the volume itself. As Arnée made clear, “You’re not bringing people in here who we don’t know,” and so the indoor photography came to a sudden stop. Theaters call this “the great intermission,” and for Carofano, as for many artists of whatever medium, blocks of time became available that simply weren’t there before. And thus Carofano was presented with a golden opportunity—although who doesn’t wish these opportunities didn’t have to come at such a great economic cost to the entire country.

Gene. Photo by Ray Carofano

Don’t hold that pose

Where does Carofano find his subjects? After all, these men and women tend to have distinctive facial features that for better or worse elude the normal person.

In years past, Carofano found many of them hanging out in the neighborhood or in San Pedro’s dive bars. He’s always been affable, and he’d strike up conversations with the regulars, many of whom met his criteria, people whose faces revealed or suggested a story.

New York Pete. Photo by Ray Carofano

“That worked out pretty well in the old days,” he says. In more recent years, during his walks or his bicycling around town, he’d spot folks out on the streets or he’d skirt the homeless camps. “I can find people there or talk to them,” and that led to additional subjects for his portfolio. “If they’re homeless I usually offer them some money to help them out, and it helps me out, too.”

Back in the studio, the lighting setup would already be in place if Carofano was expecting to shoot, and it’s a process that takes him a few hours to get just right. “If you look closely on the floor there’s little circles that tell me where the light’s going to be, where the diffusion’s going to be… I’ve got it all written down, the power of each strobe, it’s all set up. I have a piece of tape on the floor and I like them to stand on that position because I don’t hold the camera, it’s on a (tripod).”

As for getting a “pose,” Carofano says that “I don’t really tell them what to do,” but it’s evident that he wants them to be natural and relaxed and then engages them in conversation. What he’s looking for is a candid shot and not one where someone has put on their best but artificial smile. “When you look at some of those faces, somebody’s got their mouth open because they’re talking to me and I’m talking to them, and the camera’s rolling while we’re doing that. I like that look. It’s not fake, it’s the real McCoy; it’s what that person looks like when they’re having a conversation.”

Early on, Carafano often revelled in the stories he heard, but he didn’t write them down. “Then I bought a pocket recorder, and we’d sit around and talk, either before or after” a shooting session. Later he began video recording, which further documented the occasion. As he explained to them, “When I photograph you that means you’re going to be around for a long, long time. Long after you’re gone and I’m gone you’re still going to be around.” And I believe the new volume will back him up on that!

Phil. Photo by Ray Carofano

The final touch

The effectiveness of the portraits resides in the detail, the veritable landscape, of each face along with the tonality and the lighting that enhances it all. Of course, as Ron Linden writes in his introduction to the book, it’s also a collaboration between photographer and subject. Linden refers to it as a negotiation, with “the photographer searching for the essence that words can’t describe.” It’s there, we all have an essence, and if you want to liken Carofano to a miner he’s chipping away until he finds the diamond in the rough. Maybe it’s taken 20, 30, or 40 clicks of the shutter, but find it he does, and the conclusive proof is now waiting, between the covers, for everyone who ever admired them on the wall, but never wanted one above their sofa.

Faces of Pedro, by Ray Carofano, is hardbound, with 57 images on premium paper. $60. CA residents add sales tax. Shipping and handling, U.S. flat rate, is $15. Book with 8×10 archival paper print, $160. Contact ray@carofano.com. RL

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