Capturing the Soul of Brazil

When David Whitman Isn't Staging Music at Hertz,
He Becomes a Not-So-Amateur Photographer Down Rio Way

by Cathy Cockrell

After more than a dozen years as manager of Hertz Hall, when David Whitman attends a performance he's not in charge of, he is always acutely aware of a late start or an irritating light near the stage.

Not that he's complaining. Whitman oversees more than 100 performances, rehearsals, recording sessions, lectures and workshops a year and says he has witnessed "so many amazing events" in the process. Opera diva Cecilia Bartoli "made her West Coast debut here to a half empty house." Jazz pianist Billy Taylor, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are among the "greats" he has met while making sure their events went smoothly.

When not doing what others in the music department sometimes refer to as "the glamour job" ("they're not here at midnight," he comments), Whitman's passion is photography.

The subject he has trained a painterly eye upon most frequently to date is Brazil. What that means to him, it seems, is not so much a geographical as an emotional locale where warmth, violence and vibrancy coexist intensely.

His first trip to Brazil was in June 1991. He went armed with 20 rolls of color film, a 35 mm camera whose manual he read on the plane, and an idea of Brazil derived from the '50s film classic "Black Orpheus," which he now thinks fails to depict "the reality of poverty."

Whitman returned home with a "great stack" of photographs-mostly of people he had met. "I see my travels through people and not through landscapes. It was overwhelming,"

Only a few months later, he lost those photos, along with all the rest of his possessions, in the Oakland fire. In the aftermath of the disaster, he was going to cancel a return trip to Brazil-until a Red Cross worker counseled him that doing so was a prescription for depression.

He went. As it turned out, it was on that second trip that he "began to move" in photography. One of the images he captured-of a pair of Brazilian fishermen plying the surf on their log boat at dawn-was among 35 winners-out of a field of 20,000-in National Geographic's annual international photography competition for amateur photographers.

Whitman has been back to Brazil three times since-with each return, he says, gaining a deeper understanding of the culture.

"I have a portrait lens so I have to be up close. I can't take surreptitious pictures and my subjects can't ignore me.

"I look for things that are Brazilian-a way of standing that looks different from our culture, the colors in the background."

With his subjects' permission, he photographs them, typically, over the course of an entire afternoon. In exchange for their time and friendship, he believes in reciprocating with copies of the prints. "Months later, from a faraway place, they get a packet of photos."

Five trips south have not satisfied Whitman's pursuit of things Brazilian. Last summer he and a friend nearly drowned on a beach in the Caribbean. The experience left him even more eager to experience life intensely. So Brazil is calling.

This fall he is scheduled to take a six-month leave from Hertz Hall. Camera in hand, he wants to explore Rio, the upper Amazon and the northeast, as well as to contribute to the Brazilian lesbian/gay news magazine Sui Generis. "I almost lost my life last summer," he explains, "and there're all these things I haven't accomplished yet. One of them is living in Brazil."



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