Luis Alberto Rodriguez, a self-taught photographer on life-changing experiences
Luis Alberto Rodriguez is NYC-born artist with Dominican roots. He’s been a professional dancer for 15 years, a job that took him to many countries in Asia and around Europe. In 2011 he finally moved to Europe and settled in Sweden. His next stop was Berlin, where he moved almost five years ago, at first still commuting between Sweden and Berlin. Looking back at his career he realised he needed a change. Despite having a good contract with his dance company and being able to live a good life, he felt like something was not quite right. He decided to leave the company and relocate to Berlin. He sold his apartment in Sweden, bought a camera and has been photographing for two and a half years. This year he won the Public and American Vintage prizes at the 32nd International Festival of Fashion and Photography, which took place in Hyères, the south of France, at the end of April.
When I saw his work at the festival I fell in love with it immediately. Its unique combination of references coming from different disciplines, including fashion, sculpture and dance, made it feel very fresh. The covered human bodies in his photographs were perfectly made extractions of a movement that preserved the energy generated by the moving bodies. Although the bodies look like sculptures, they don’t feel cold and frozen, but alive and full of energy. In Rodriguez’s work, the movement and the energy that should be impalpable due to its nature becomes solid and tangible. As we cannot see the models’ faces or clothing wear we are not distracted and forced to see the movement as a whole. These living sculptures force us to ask questions about the identity of the hidden bodies and they become a paradox: we can see the bodies, but they are covered and thus remain a mystery that boosts our imagination.
Shortly after the festival, I met Rodriguez in a cozy cafe in Kreuzberg, Berlin, to talk about his experience at Hyères and his work.
How did you get into photography?
“It goes back to when I was still working at the dance company. We were on tour in China and I had this idea of taking pictures of women’s shoes, cropping them at the ankles. I had never been in China before and it was extraordinary to see how differently people dress and behave in China. So I was chasing people on the streets, constantly taking pictures. Then I started posting the pictures from my trips, the pictures of shoes and old ladies – I like eccentric old ladies very much – and I was surprised to get good feedback. To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just knew that it was an interesting approach. And I just carried on. I even started a Tumblr blog. My idea was to do the same thing in NYC, Barcelona, Berlin and other cities in Europe, but when I moved to Europe I soon realised it wasn’t working, because everyone looked kind of the same and you couldn’t tell if the picture was taken in Berlin or Paris or elsewhere.
“A friend of mine, a stylist from New York, persuaded me to get into photography. He said I have a talent and should go for it. I started taking pictures of my family and friends and people on the street. From that moment, my life started to shift. I started meeting people who worked in photography and fashion. I made the decision to quit my dancing job. I bought a camera and dedicated myself to photography. From 2015 I started getting obsessed with it. Some of my photographer friends helped me with the technical aspects I needed to learn first.
“My idea was to translate my dancing experience into photography. I always liked fashion, so I wanted to combine fashion and dance and focus on the body and the clothes. I wanted to work with people, with bodies – basically everything I knew so far and everything I had worked with during my dance career.
“I am not looking at my photographs as fashion photography, though. It’s not my interest. I am looking at clothes not as fashion pieces but as the raw material to work with. When I work with clothes I always ask myself how I can expand them. I am trying to look at the photographs as movements, but they don’t have to show a movement. Photographs are often considered as something static, as a way to capture and seize the moment. I am trying to think about the images as energy. I am asking myself questions like, ‘Where is the body going?’ and ‘Where is it coming from?’ Some people ask me why I’m not doing film. At the moment I am not interested in moving pictures. I feel that a still image gives more room for imagination. While taking a still picture I can be completely honest or I can lie, I can manipulate the reality that the spectator sees and then it’s the spectator’s job to think the story through the end.
“I think a lot about what I am doing and what I am saying with my work. I think that, as an artist, you have to be aware of what you are contributing. There are so many images out there. When I look at those of old masters such as Avedon I see complete commitment. These images are not trendy, they are timeless – they were good in the ’60s, in the ’80s and today, and they will still be good 20 to 30 years from now. This work doesn’t come from following the latest trends. This is something I would like to achieve with my work.”
Why did you choose to apply for the competition at the Hyères festival?
“I hadn’t heard about the festival until a friend told me that it is the[itals] competition to go for. I completely forgot about it until last autumn, when a professional I met during the portfolio review at Helmut Newton Foundation [in Berlin] mentioned it. So I applied without really knowing much about the festival and the competition. Ater I sent my application, I started to do a little research and realised it would be a great opportunity.
“It was at a moment in my life when it felt like I was going through a sort of crisis. I had no job and had to sleep on a friend’s couch. I started to look for jobs but as I’d been a professional dancer for 15 years I didn’t have any other experience. I didn’t even know how to make coffee! I got offered a job at a photo-service place, but it was full-time, 9am to 7pm every day. Eventually, they said they didn’t think it was for me and that I should focus on my creative work instead. And it was definitely better that way. Shortly afterwards, I found out through Instagram that I had been selected for the Hyères competition. I was tagged in a photo, but since I didn’t get any message I thought I was one of the highlights from all the applicants. I couldn’t really understand what was going on, but I was kind of guessing that I was one of the 10 shortlisted photographers. And the next day, I finally got a message that, yes, I’d been selected. It was a big moment for me.
“It was so impressive to see my work being showcased at the festival! I also really enjoyed talking to the audience and seeing how the public reacted to my work. And the fact I got the Public prize means a lot to me, because it meant I have made a connection with people through my work. Participating in the festival was a life-changing experience for me.”
What was it like being selected among photographers whose background was in photography? Did it make you feel insecure?
“I think we all have very different languages when it comes to work. When I first started photography I was trying to hide from dance. Now I try to use my dance background in my work because it made me who I am now. The other photographers don’t have this sort of experience.
“I am really trying to think about what I am doing. Sometimes it starts with a concept, sometimes I just like the clothes or the model or the location. But since I found this one thing, I have been trying to understand what I am actually saying with this. For instance, I started to realise that I am drawn to a certain aesthetic – that I like to cover the bodies that I show in my pictures. Through this, I am questioning identity and through questioning identity, I am making it even stronger.
“Regarding the series of images I showed at Hyères, I wanted the pictures to be very large because I wanted people to see the tension between hiding and being so visible, to show something that is actually impossible. I wanted my images to provoke a lot of questions. But even if you as a spectator don’t understand what is going on in these pictures, you can still feel a connection. Even if the bodies are covered, you still feel the movement – you might even imagine the expression the models have on their faces. Or you can think about who those covered bodies are – is it a girl or a boy, are they white or black?
“I titled this series Patina. I wanted to take one emotion and see what happens with it over time. It wasn’t my intention to confuse people but I liked the fact that many people couldn’t really understand what is happening in my photographs.”
How long does it take for you to create one photograph?
“The three images that you can see here belong to the series of seven or eight photographs. I created them within two days. There were many reasons for me to work so fast – first of all I was shooting in a public space and it was February and it was very cold. Also, friends were modelling for me for free and they had to hold these crazy positions, so I couldn’t make them suffer for too long. Often, I would try the different possibilities of the movement at home before going on location to shoot.”
“I want to continue working on my ideas and developing my signature work. I have also started working on a personal series, which is going to take some time because I am also making clothes for this project. And this is more like a dream, but I would love to travel to Africa and collaborate with people who work with local artisanal materials. I would also like to start showing my work in galleries.”
Words by Veronika Dorosheva
All photographs by Luis Alberto Rodriguez