El Dîa de los Muertos Aztec Style

by George Murphy on November 5, 2012

The Mexican born celebration of El Dîa de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – is commonly associated with elaborately decorated alters honoring the memory of passed loved ones and, of course, the proliferation of skulls in the form of sculptures, candles, artwork and especially as face paint. It is a visually rich and intriguing tradition. What I didn’t appreciate until now, was that despite the holiday’s observance as an apparent extension of the more Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, El Dîa de los Muertos has its origins in pre-Columbian Mexico and the Aztec culture (See photographs below).

Petaluma’s Day of the Dead Celebration:  This past month alters and artwork could be seen popping up in stores and window all over town, as more and more of this Sonoma County community, located just north of San Francisco, have embraced the holiday. Echoing a trend in some other parts of the country, the celebration has found a growing and culturally diverse following here in the arts-oriented residence of Petaluma; one that extends well beyond the Latino community.  Perhaps, it is in part, because El Dîa de los Muertos seems to be as much about creative expression as it is about remembrance, or rather it is supports remembrance and healing through creative expression.

These aspects all came together last week, as a large crowd turned out to celebrate the culmination of the month long observance by taking part in the annual Dîa de los Muertos procession through Petaluma’s downtown area. Many wore the iconic skull makeup, while others carried decorated images of loved ones who had passed. The candlelight procession, a quiet spectacle in itself in the fading dusk light, culminated in a vibrant gathering of food, music, and art…and as I would soon discover: ritual Aztec dance.

The parking lot and grounds around the Petaluma Art Center (a refurbished train depot from the town’s past) were awash with food stands selling traditional Mexican delicacies, alongside booths offering gifts and t-shirts. Inside the center, art exhibitions focused on the theme of El Dîa de los Muertos were on display and mariachi music could be heard spilling through the doors. Nearby, a small outdoor stage had been set up for the event, where other bands and dancers were performing under the blue-white glare of a portable arc light crane.

I found myself at the outskirts of the event, in a dimly lit section of the blocked off parking lot. Here another group of performers had gathered, dressed in the most amazing feathered headdresses and elaborately embroidered and colorful costumes. These were the young dancers of Danza Coyolxauqui Aztec (as I later learned) and I was entranced as they moved in rhythm to the beat of drums and flutes in ritual dances inspired by Aztec tradition.

From a storytelling point of view, I’ve had a growing interest in the local manifestation of El Dîa de los Muertos, but so far, have resisted focusing on the holiday because I haven’t wanted to be a tourist merely skimming the surface with my camera, and have not yet been ready to take the plunge into the labyrinth of emotional human stories that I know I would have to explore to do this subject any justice.

Having said all that, I found myself last weekend, unable to leave my camera at my side as the young dancers wove their story, honoring spirits and ancient customs. As a visual artist I was drawn in by the powerful visage of the shadowed dancers and backlit forms, echoing the intensity of the ritual performances. As I focused on the dancers through my viewfinder, I realized I didn’t know anything yet about the meaning of the costumes or the ritualistic dances being performed, or even more so, the dancers themselves. Still I was mesmerized by a sense that there were deep traditions and complex meanings being hinted at.

So I am still just a spectator, only taking my first glimpses at El Dîa de los Muertos. But perhaps that is how one starts, just dipping a toe into the waters. As next year’s celebration comes round, perhaps I will be finally ready to further explore this visually rich tradition in earnest. We’ll see!


 Danza Coyolxauqui Aztec Performing Traditional Aztec Dances at the Petaluma Art Center
Saturday, Oct. 27th  2012 

























Technical Notes:
All of the images were shot using a Canon EOS-5D Mark III camera, using a Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS lens. All shots were handheld using ISO sensitivities ranging from 400 up to 25,600.

LIGHTING – The lighting in the parking lot area where I first encountered the dancers was daunting to say the least. There was an arc light on a crane in the distance that offered some backlighting, but the fill was only from some dim and very orange sodium vapor lights. I knew it was going to be a challenge to see if I could pull enough of an image from my exposures to keep up with what I was seeing with my eyes. This would definitely be a test of the 5D Mark III’s ability to work in low light.

Things got a little better when I followed the dancers over to the main stage, where the lighting became even more intense, more graphic. The bright stage lighting was more interesting as a back light  (I really liked the way it defined the feathers and costumes from behind) so, still ended up having to contend with a very underexposed shadowed side if I was going to keep my highlights from completely burning out.

Certainly a bit of flash fill might have helped–I did have a flash unit I could have grabbed from my gear bag in the car nearby; but I wanted to be less intrusive, to retain the feel of the immediacy of the moments. The image stabilization on the 24-105mm lens came in handy, but I also really pushed the ISO sensitivity so that I could keep my shutter speeds reasonable–sometimes going as high as the 5D’s max of 25,600. For the most part, I wasn’t going for heavy motion blur in these shots. There we too many interesting detail I wanted to retain. I opted to rely on my ability to rein in the image noise to an acceptable level, later in post.

HIGH ISO NOISE – You can judge the results for yourself. I was reasonably successful in controlling the worst noise, though it adds quite a bit of extra work on the back end, getting rid of the noise while while selectively masking to retain details in the image. For the most part, it’s negligible in the web-sized images and I quite liked retaining a little bit of that texture in some of the shots. Much like old fashioned film grain, it hints at a level of detail that would otherwise be lost. Certainly a large print would reveal the noise in ways that are not visible here.

I developed the images in Adobe Lightroom 4.2 which handled the high noise levels reasonably well. For the most extreme noise issues I used the Topaz DeNoise5 plug in applied selectively in Photoshop CS6. As a side note: when trying to pull image detail out of the deepest shadows (i.e. very under exposed parts of the image!!) you may start to see striation or banding patterns in the noise. The Topaz plug-in has some specific tools that help get rid of this banding in ways that Lightroom couldn’t.

The noise reduction, color and exposure balancing, cropping, and some dodging and burning (to bring visual focus to the image) were the only techniques applied in post. That’s right…no retouching.

All images copyright © 2012 George Murphy. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without express permission. Direct inquiries to photoquery(at)firsthandpictures(dot)com.

One response to “El Dîa de los Muertos Aztec Style”

  1. Jan Grokett says:


    Such beautiful photos. Loved your essay as well.

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