CritiqueMe #2: Gustavo Mondragon

Eric’s Note: CritiqueMe is an on-going street photography critique series by Ollie Gapper, a street photographer based in the UK. 

Ollie: For this weeks CritiqueMe I chose to comb through the work of prolific Tweeter, Gustavo Mondragon. I was sucked into the portrayla of life Mondragon presents from his hometown of Mexico City. I always find it interesting to see, not only different lifestyles, but those lifestyles presented by someone who actually lives them.

Heres a brief Bio by the man himself:

“Born and raised in Mexico City. I started to get more serious in photography, around 1996, at first I bought books to learn the craft, and books to see the art. Then, as I had time in the afternoons I enrolled in one of the most known photography schools in Mexico City. With time this hobby became an infatuation until the kids arrived at my house and my wife and I had to change priorities and left a side the shooting, again a hobby. Now, the kids have grown (8 and 5) and I can return to my passion and keep developing my craft.

I have learned of a lot from people like Erik Kim, Thomas Leuthard, Alex Coghe, who with their blogs spread the art around, for this I thank you.

I love street photography and respect a lot all the photographer that go so close in to shoot their subject, but for me, Street photography is not so close in, although sometimes I have to do it, I prefer a street photo from a little further.

Photography helps me to have order and meaning in my life, without it I am a lost dog.”

This image works fantastically due to a couple of crucial factors. The dust and smoke being kicked up from the background gives a feeling of movement, drama and help separate the central subject from his surroundings. The exposure allows the highlight on the subjects face to stand out just enough so as to not blow out, but to just outline the subject, again allowing for a separation and visual hierarchy causing the scene to be dominated by the powerful worker. The composition is on of the only areas of this image that I would like to approach differently. I would like to have seen more of a righthand weight to this image, possibly framing the subject further the the left third of the frame, creating a more pleasing and flowing composition.

This is an image that works great for what its trying to say, its not an image that is simply poking fun at society, rather critiquing it. I can see from the title you gave the file “Double Reading” that you wanted to show the two men, almost polar opposites in terms of lifestyle, clothing, etc, sharing a common ground, but for me the image doesn’t quite show this due to the relative importance you have given the show polisher and closest man in relation to the other man having his shoes shined. For me, when I look at this image, I see a man having his shoes shined, but not wanting to see the man who is serving him. Its almost as if he is ashamed to be on the pedestal, as if he feels hypocritical (he looks like someone who may have worked that job in his past, or a similar job of graft). This image does have a visual aesthetic that reminds me of Lee Friedlander, with the composition cut and chopped numerous times throughout the frame, never truly allowing the audience the chance to rest their eyes anywhere in the composition. Your exposure again is perfect, with a full range of tones and highlights just where they should be.

This image has shadow/highlight or tone mapping aesthetics that verge on killing the photograph, yet they don’t. Its so close to being an obvious HDR for the sake of being a HDR (which I dislike with a rather strong passion) but it is just within the threshold of being acceptably non-HDR (in my eyes). The range of tones is great, and acts as a real treat for the eye – I find my self feeling greedy, relentlessly scouring every inch of the image to try and gather as much information about the scene as possible – which we can thanks to your excellent exposure (again) and choice of aperture. The nitty-gritty details become so important in this image, I find my opinion and view of the subject being formed not so much through his appearance or pose, but through his surroundings. I would have like to have seen a lighter tone of grey on the subjects face, to give him more of a presence in the image but i personally feel that your exposure is spot on, so other than using a flash (why not try?) I can see no way of really overcoming this.

This image is an image of unease – disequilibrium even. It shows for me that tense moment after being spotted taking a street photograph where the situation goes one of two ways, either he smiles and we all go back to work, or we face confrontation and the pre-recorded excuses and get out of jail free cards come into use. The proximity you have with your subject is so intimate and personal that its hard to relax when looking at the image, which is good as through this we notice the secondary element of the image, the man in the background who looks as if he is wearing skeleton makeup or something that makes his face out of the ordinary – a perfect jux-ta-position to his mundane body and posture. Your composition allows us into the scene and grants us knowledge of all that is happening in it (apart from the man in the background) which really helps secure an audiences position in the image, and through having the man standing in the background the image avoids being boring and instantly readable. The best street photographs ask more questions than it answers.

I must say, I really do see a lot of Friedlander style compositions running through your work, its a wonderful style that is hard to pull off but incredible when done right! This image is so full of captivating elements for the audience to study and read. First is the obvious central subject, propped casually against his wagon, then we have the female behind giving that intimate stare into what looks like our protagonists face (excellent choice of depth of field by the way), then the old lady wrapped up in her wheelchair waiting to be served in the background. Its a visual feast for the audience, with just one snag – the horizon. Now I know that having a straight horizon isn’t always important nor suitable for some images, but the tilt here just seems to be a bit too much. It begins taking over the image, making it hard for me to truly immerse myself in the scene. Having no tilt wouldn’t have worked either though, I see that we really do need some movement to the framing to visually rhyme with the messy and disorganised stall in the foreground, but too much and the image becomes uneasy, as is the case here. In terms of exposure, im splitting hairs here but it looks to me to be about 2-3 tenths of a stop dark, the highlights just need an extra ‘pop’ that the rest of your images exhibit so beautifully.

This final image again transimts to me that feeling of unease in waiting for a reaction after getting caught. The subjects face (especially the moustache!) looks fantastically timeless, its an image that seems to be full of Mexican clichés yet its not too “obvious”. From the proletariat car in the background to the clothing of our subject to the job he is doing, the image really makes me feel as though I am there. I can feel the heat and smell the meat (completely intentional poetry there) a really great image. The only point I would like to make here is that it seems to me like you’re deadly scared of blowing a single highlight. Yes, detail is good, but sometimes an image just looks better with a few rules broken, some highlights lost, some shadows thicker than they should be, a wonky horizon here or there, sometimes imperfections should be embraced and utilised. Id like to see this image puched up about 1 and a half to 2 whole stops, allowing the background to blow just a bit, and pushing some of the highlights onto our subject.

From studying these images along with some more of your work, Gustavo, I can see you’re pulled to the working man. Its a noble motivation, to want to document them and what you do, and doing so in a way that is not cruel, but not glorifying – you have achieved a great balance. I would love to see what you could create with some much older gear, something like a Leica iiif or Zorki 1, loaded with some HP5 pushed to 3200, so you are forced to make use of and embrace the inherent imperfection and limitation of your gear, rather than avoiding them – which will make you a stronger photographer when you come to using a more refined camera. Perhaps even something like a Zenit E or FT N would work, it doesnt really matter, I would just look for tan old, crappy/tatty (I’m in no way calling the aforementioned cameras crappy, I lust over them on a daily basis (apart from the Zenit, that is a POS)) camera that pushes you to taking images in ways you would never have dreamed before.

Ill be making Gustavo a print of his chosen image “Iron Horse” – a truly fantastic image that I cannot wait to see printed. Remember, if you get chosen for critique, you’ll also receive one of your prints professionally printed by myself and a highly trained technician from a fully colour controlled print lab at my university (no, not boots or costco), along with a mystery image of mine, signed and dated on verso!


Thanks for all your entries, keep them coming! (please remember, one link maximum per email (, I prefer if the images are sent as an attachment or organised on a singular webpage).

Heres Gustavos fantastic 500px site, definately worth a look!

On a side note, David Gibsons street workshops in London this february are now sold out (I look forward to seeing those lucky enough to land a place there!) but he has opened up for a second workshop weekend on the 3rd/4th of march, get in touch using these links:

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What do you think of Gustavo’s work? Leave a comment below and let us know your feedback! 

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  • georg

    Puh, you are really good at giving qualified feedback. I would really like to participate with some of my pictures.

  • Lchata

    love this pictures!!! lots of Mexico spirit !!!!

  • Manu

    Ollie Gapper, I can’t help saying this. You are not doing Gustavo or anyone any good by writing these kind of critiques. Just out of curiosity, after “relentlessly scouring every inch of the image to try and gather as much information about the scene as possible”, please tell me what all things you found out from the 4th image. Can you at least tell me the names of those fruits ?

    @Gustavo, Imo, you need to work on composition and lighting. Most of these shots are taken in shadow or poor light or against the light (not saying you can’t make photos in such conditions, but it isn’t working in your photos). There are too much clutter. I will suggest you work on simple scenes and move up the ladder of complexity.

    • Gary Gumanow

      Agree with Manu here. Ollie, you are fence sitting and not giving critique, but a description of what you see, or how it makes you feel. Can you tell me how this relates to Friedlander? I don’t see it. There is no sense of irony whatsoever. Friedlander is all about the irony or juxtaposition.

    • Ollie Gapper

      Again appreciate the critiques of my critiques here. Im new to this, and I still maintain that this is a series that is aimed at helping the community. If everyone wanted me to stop, of course I would, as there wouldnt be any point in me doing this anymore, but I will continue to write these critiques and I will continue to become better at offering my critique. How would one of you like to assist me on a critique one week? I’d love to have a second opinion in the post itself, and as I said, I’m still new to all this.

      I thank you both for your honesty, and will continue to improve and mature in my critiques.

      • Manu

        I have no right to tell you what to do or what not to do. All I am asking is to be strong with your critique. Like Gary said, avoid sitting on the fence. I felt that you are ignoring many obvious fundamental flaws of the picture and highlighting only the good aspects. For me, developing any skill is a process of eliminating the mistakes. You pick them up one by one and remove it. Eventually, what remains will be essentially good. And you can improve on it. But if you are ignoring the mistakes and admiring only the good aspects, you will be satisfied very easily and there won’t be a lot of room for improvement. You can’t even develop what is good, because it is being suffocated by the garbage which surrounds it and eventually it will sink in the same garbage.

        Photographs should be visually appealing. A photo with flawed composition can’t be redeemed 99% of the time. Go back to the fundamentals. Make it strong. Eliminate mistakes. Start with simple scenes. Train your instincts. Look at many photos. Someone gave me an advice sometime back, which I think is quite sound. Start with non-peopled scenes. Take your time and train yourself with composition, pattern, color etc etc.. Once you feel like you have a good grasp with it and you can deal with them at a level of instincts, slowly let people walk into it.

        It is good that you are training your skill in critique. I’m sure that a lot of people are following this blog, believing you blindly. It is so easy for them to be misdirected, if your critiques are off the target. One day you may become very good at critique. You may realize that your previous critiques were wrong. But it will be loo late to fix it. There will be a bunch of people practicing the wrong habits. ( I maybe exaggerating, but you get the idea, I hope ) You said that you are new to ‘this’. Do you mean photography or critique ? If you are new to photography, I recommend you not doing any critique until you are sure about what you are doing.

        None of these will be a problem, if you belong to a group of people who are giving critiques. If something you are saying is generally wrong, there will be others to counter argue and it is relative easier to steer in the right direction, as a group. But here you are the sole person giving critique. If you are wrong, it is highly unlikely that you will be corrected, every time.

        Now, if you are thinking that things like clutter are not an issue in photography, then kindly ignore everything I said. Good and bad are relative, after all !

        • Ollie Gapper

          Im new to critiquing, and believe me all this advice will really help me, I really cannot thank you enough. Would you be interested in partnering up on a critique with me? I’ve always planned to run them in partnership with other photographers.