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The amazing photos taken at Pim Schalkwijk’s mercado pop-up studio

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
U’ulab Foto lasted only five months, but took hundreds of photographs of market vendors and customers at Mercado Lucas de Gálvez in Mérida. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

To capture the real spirit of Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, Pim Schalkwijk stripped much of it away. The clutter of merchandise, the kinetic movement, the clashing colors — all gone.

The acclaimed photographer took market vendors — who work there daily selling fruit, butchering meat, arranging flowers, cutting hair — into his pop-up photo studio that operated for five months among the stalls at Mérida’s historic central market. 

An entertainer at the mercado brought his equipment into Pim Schalkwijk’s popup photo studio for a portrait. He also earned his living making announcements for vendors, and he helped Pim recruit subjects for his photo series. A blow-up of the musician’s portrait — now slightly weathered — is part of an exhibit at the train station. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Taken out of context, the portraits focus on the subjects themselves. Some have worked for decades and appear weary. Others are younger and appear buoyant and carefree. 

The concept was inspired by the mid-century work of Irving Penn, whose monumental project “Small Trades” took him through Paris, London, and New York. Pim’s project, “Báalam: Guardians of Heritage,” is like Penn’s in that it has a power that would have been lost without a clean, neutral backdrop. The photos have a continuity that make them of a piece. Moreover, the focus is on the people, not the place.  

Mérida photographer Pim Schalkwijk was inspired by the mid-century work of Irving Penn to bring his subjects out of context. Above, “Small Trades” was published in 1951. Photo: Vogue

A sample of his 250 bigger-than-life portraits is still on view along the abandoned railroad tracks at La Plancha, where the train station operates as a state-run art school. The exhibition, which opened in October for Noche Blanca, has had its run extended. It serves as a preview to a larger exhibit planned this spring at Palacio Cantón

Among Pim Schalkwijk’s mercado portraits is Emilia Chan Dzulm sells sapote negro at Lucas de Gálvez. Originally from Akil, she has 11 children and has worked for 45 years in the trade. Photo: Courtesy

The studio was simple, consisting of a seamless backdrop made of Durock and gypsum board, some lights and a printer. It was dubbed U’ulab, or “visitor” in the Mayan language. And it gave him ready access to lure in the sometimes reticent vendors to pose.

Pim Schalkwijk’s pop-up photo studio in its final hours at Mercado Lucas de Galvéz in Mérida, Yucatán. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

“It’s difficult because, in the market, people are working,” Pim says. “And usually, they are alone. So they can’t leave their work. So I needed to be there a long time, so people find the time to get to the studio.”

In exchange, they got a framed photo to take home. 

Some of Pim Schalkwijk’s portraits taken at Mercado Lucas de Gálvez are on view at the former train station, now an art school, at La Plancha. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Since the studio represented an ongoing expense, U’ulab was vacated, and the huge, seamless backdrop had to be demolished. “It’s a pity. I’m very sad,” Pim says.

About Pim Schalkwijk

Born in Mexico City in 1971, Pim Schalkwijk is the son of the late theater director Nina Lincoln and the renowned Dutch photographer Bob Schalkwijk, who has lived in Mexico since 1958 and turns 90 on May 3. Pim’s work has been published in National Geographic, México Desconocido and Arqueología Mexicana, as well as in architecture and art magazines. 

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