Nereo López began his life in photography in the early 1950s, when he went to work at El Espectador. He crisscrossed the country, going high in the Andes down into the Amazon basin, traveling up and down the Río Magdalena, capturing images of places so remote, few Colombians ever got to see them. In 2000, he moved to New York City, where he has continued to let his eye and lens rove.
The 93-year-old photographer, Nereo López, may be a well-known cultural treasure in his native Colombia, but he flies under the radar in his new home in the United States.
He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and an Internet search yields a smattering of profiles, mostly accolades for his photos of Pope Paul VI, Richard Nixon, and John F. and Jackie Kennedy on visits to Colombia.
He was a personal friend of Gabriel García Márquez and even traveled with the novelist to Sweden in 1982 to photograph his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Dig a little deeper, however, and it is clear that López’s photo essays from the 1950s and ‘60s, which he produced while employed by the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and Cosmos, a magazine similar to Life, are how he truly made his mark.
López documented ordinary people on the margins of Colombian society or in parts of the country that were, at the time, little explored and nearly impossible to reach. “López captured Colombians going about their day-to-day lives against tremendous historical backdrops,” explained Brantley Nicholson, visiting scholar of Latin American studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “López forms part of a rich tradition of using visual media to document the Colombian experience.”
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Looking youthful in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt the day of our interview, he dragged an extra chair from the bedroom over and plunked it down in front of a sleek, 27” computer drowned in cables and hard drives. Without skipping a beat, he launched into his biography.
López is all forward motion, an energy that drives his photography and something that has informed his professional trajectory since he was a boy. Orphaned at the age of 11, he quickly became “master of his own destiny,” snapping up a job at a movie theater in Barranquilla – a city that was far from his native Cartagena – to support himself. Over the years, he climbed the ranks from ticket collector to projectionist, eventually becoming the manager of a regional film distribution company.
It only seemed natural that he would become a cinematographer. For López, who feels that making movies takes “too big of a team,” his work remains deeply cinematic. A storyteller at heart, “[López] knows how to capture a moment within a larger narrative,” Dr. Alison Chang, curator of the Rhode Island School of Design, told Fox News Latino. “Like many good filmmakers, he is aware of the viewer as part of his work. It produces a sense of being enveloped by what we are seeing.”
“I do with photos what they do in the movies. I tell a story with moving images,” he noted as he flipped open a booklet from a recent exhibit in Spain. “Find the connection,” he said, indicating two photos of the corralejas in Sucre, an event sort of like a crowd-sourced bullfight in which a series of brave (or drunken) people pop into the makeshift ring in order to fight a bull. He directed my attention to the spectators in the stands. “See? There is not a single person who isn’t in motion.”
López’s photos are raw, but not tragic, and usually betray his sly sense of humor. His most recent project, Fotografía Trasera, is a series of portraits of people taken from behind.
Though he skirted the question of which series is his favorite, López seems particularly delighted by his canoe series, shot half a century ago on a trip to Cali. “First they fell the tree, and then they hollow it out to make the mold,” he described. “As they bring the canoe down to the sea, they talk to it in first person. The men from the community do this all for free.”
Flipping to a photo of five young men standing in a canoe, paddling their hearts out, he gushed, “Everyone asks how I got this shot.” The angle seemed acrobatic. “I was in a canoe, too.” Immediately, I pictured a cinematographer riding backwards on a scooter, filming a car chase.
For López, photography is a language, a conversation facilitated by modern technology. López adores his trade and has embraced digital photography wholeheartedly. López’s only age-related ailment is cataracts, and today’s lightweight, auto-focusing cameras have helped prolong his career.
And though his tools have changed—López once owned 14 different cameras—he stays true to his aesthetic. “I am like a tree trunk floating downstream.” In fact, López moved to New York on a whim, thanks to a ticket sent by an ex-girlfriend who had heard he’d fallen on rough economic times. “I moved to see if I fit in,” he said, although he is so unabashed and unafraid that it’s hard to imagine a place he wouldn’t fit in.
Like the subjects of his photos, López finds happiness in the little things: a scoop of ice cream, a trip to Lincoln Center. He doesn’t lead the sort of life you might envision for someone who has received the Cruz de Boyacá, Colombia’s highest honor, and it is shocking that he isn’t better-known. Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, curator of El Museo del Barrio in New York, where López has exhibited his work, cites timing and location. “Photography has only been legitimized as art since the late 20th century, and even [now] we remain focused on Europe and the U.S.,” she pointed out.
It wasn’t until I asked him to sit for a photo that he appeared to get nervous. He kept talking. “I like the ballet,” he said. “I like to sit far enough away to critique the choreography, yet close enough to observe the beautiful figures moving.” I asked about his family—he’s been married three times—and he scoffed, “What family?”
López has spent his life collecting photos of strangers. I couldn’t help but think that maybe in some way, they were his real family.
Leah Serinsky is a writer living in New York City.