With a background in professional dance, Luis Alberto Rodriguez implements physicality into his photos. He tells the story of the human experience through the natural instincts of his subjects. Though he despises the idea of returning to the stage as a dancer, he gives kudos to the artistic eye he gained from his try at casting calls and modelling auditions. His focus on detail creates a cohesive message that goes beyond words, and his newest photo book O, published by Loose Joints depicts this story quite literally from head to toe. Rodriguez looks forward to the Hyères Festival this October, where he will have a solo exhibition as the festival’s president of the photo jury.
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Congratulations on your newest book. We last connected with you in 2020 to speak about your previous book, People of the Mud, which focused specifically on one group of people in rural Ireland, while O focuses on the expression and individuality of the human spirit, both physically and emotionally. How did you change your approach between these two projects? And what did you learn?
First of all, thank you for the very thoughtful questions. My first book project People of the Mud came out of the residency I was awarded from the Hyères Festival. As such, I was given a specific topic to work on. I was to interpret it freely, but the framework was already made for me.
In contrast, O was really coming from my own desires. The initial conception of this new body of work stemmed from an aching and nagging feeling that had infiltrated my everyday life during the beginning of 2020 when the world went into absolute overdrive-chaos-panic mode. In some ways, I think the approach was similar in that in both projects I tried to create an environment of trust and learning. In a weird way, I think the people I photographed in both projects choreographed me. My direction to them was heavily led by their response to what I offered. It was an intimate conversation where both parties gave themselves to the moment.
I learnt to have a plan and also be ready to trash it all. More than anything to stay present! Being married to an idea of something or someone can have you missing the magic being created in the moment. There isn't a perfect beginning. Just start.
People of the Mud featured a text and a poem, while O only contains a single quote that opens the photo book. What was the intention behind this choice? Where do you see the line between an image requiring a text or caption and an image being able to stand on its own?
I read Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, and I was heavily inspired by her ideas of emptying oneself of all pretension and ego so that you can be a vessel or a light for a higher purpose. I felt the quote used in O really set the tone for the work and felt like a foreshadowing of what’s to come; an emptiness so immense that it’s like a cloud hovering over us ready to take hold and embrace us. An almost inexplicable lingering feeling of an end awaiting us all.
I prefer to leave an image without much information text-wise and let the viewer bring their own experience to the encounter.
The models in O are positioned in very specific poses. I understand you have experience photographing dancers, like those in the New York City Ballet. How do you incorporate choreography and physicality into your craft, and how do you use it as a means to add more depth to it?
Movement has shaped how I see the world. I cannot divorce myself from my history. I use my experience as a tool to direct what I need in any given moment - of course, in constant dialogue with my subject. The body doesn’t lie. All gestures are full of information based on how we read them. How we read them depends on our own experiences. I try to dissect the physicality of the person I work with to get to a place where I feel it is serving the work. I prefer not to think of movement as [quote unquote] poses, as it is something that is alive, breathing, in process, and in transition to the next moment.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
You are a dancer, having worked professionally for fifteen years and trained for ten. What first got you interested in photography? And what was the transition like between being the subject of art (as a dancer) and being the catalyst of art (as a photographer)?
As a dancer I was really in a bubble. It was an all-consuming career and lifestyle - one which started at such a young age and really shaped me. When I was of university age, I’d get approached on the street by modelling agencies, but nothing ever came of it. I’d go to castings and see these models all holding their portfolios, and I’d be very curious about the photography within as these guys were getting cast, and I wasn’t. It felt like this deep mystery to me at the time. It was the height of the Abercrombie and Fitch years. That was maybe an initial introduction.
Eventually, I’d move to Europe to dance, and my biggest inspiration was the choreographer William Forsythe who led a company in Frankfurt, Germany. He is someone who really influenced my ideas of what ballet and contemporary dance could be - always pushing the envelope. The photos for his company were like nothing I’d seen before within a dance context. Bodies were blurred, twisted, collaged, flipped - all rules were broken, and I was fascinated by their freedom within such a disciplined context.
I’d eventually get a small camera and bring it everywhere from the rehearsal studios to the street and spend countless hours making portraits of people I found interesting. I was very naïve as I’d never picked up a photobook or knew really anything about photography. It wasn’t until much later that Richard Avedon’s American West was shown to me, where my life really changed forever.
Dots were connected, and it became a key to a world which I was very much in the periphery of but came to fall in deep love with.
Do you ever see yourself returning to your previous career as a dancer?
If someone drugs me, and I lose all consciousness, maybe. I did what I was going to do within dance. I’m not looking back.
In addition to physicality, you yourself are a very multicultural individual, having been born in NYC, growing up travelling between NYC and the Dominican Republic where your family is from, and being based in Berlin. Because your photography in O is very universal, exploring humans as a whole and the spirituality of it all, the photo book seems more of your commentary on society instead of a personal extension of your own individual. Is multiculturalism an aspect of your art that you are conscious of? If so, what steps do you take to implement this? If not, what do you focus on instead?
I grew up in New York City; Manhattan to be exact and have been entrenched in multiculturalism all my life. It’s the lens through which I view the world. Two things can be true at once. O is a commentary on society, while at the same time an extension of my personal story.
The impetus for the work came from an uneasy and agonising feeling of dread and anxiety I was experiencing the past 3 years. I’ve intentionally included my parents in the work and this experience has been monumental for me. To me, O is a portrait of humanity in transition and in transcendence. Although I do not want to dictate an experience for the viewer, I do not want them to be busy with multiculturalism. I exist in the world as a brown man; something which I cannot escape, nor do I want to.
Historically, whiteness has been the centre. Everyone else is othered. So, I think the question of multiculturalism is probably better asked to a white person. I prefer focusing on connecting with my subject and following a guttural impulse triggering an emotional response from me and eventually the viewer.
This is something that was mentioned in the previous interview with you, but O brought up another curiosity about the subject. You take a lot of pride in your fashion photography, having been published by several internationally-recognised brands. In O, the models are all nude, which takes away a large component of your craft – the clothing! What was it like exploring this and finding a way to compensate?
My first love was dance and the body. Fashion was something that came into my life more recently. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had within fashion; however, clothes are rarely what I value most in a photo. For O, I’m interested in thinking of the flesh as a map of and a guide to our own personal histories. In having the bodies stripped of all external decoration, my aim was to come closer to the core of each individual.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
From start to finish, O engages its viewers with stimulating and intriguing photos. You create parallels between photos and even have a transformation from still, stable models in the beginning to blurred, unbalanced models by the latter end of the photo book. The very first image shows the portrait of a man’s face, and the last photo shows the bottom of a person’s foot. It is clear that you’ve meticulously laid out the dynamics and order of your photo book. What was your mentality behind all of this? What were factors that were important to you and things you felt were necessary to put an emphasis upon?
The book starts with a quote by Simone Weil which foreshadows what’s to come. It then follows with a portrait of a man staring at us. He is looking at us looking at him; however, he is blind. As an opener, this portrait felt appropriate for his lack of vision. As we move through the book, I wanted to create a dynamic of ascension and decline where gravity has a major role in inevitably crashing us down.
I asked myself if these photos had sound, what would that be? If the people in the book made a sound, what would it be? An inner scream. As momentum builds along the book, the pages feel louder, crashing, urgent, eventually ending with the soles of feet, our destination. From this angle we can look upwards into the abyss of our lives.
Your work is very multidisciplinary. You are able to take everyday themes about the human experience and add elegance to the perspective of a third party viewer. Where do you find inspiration? And who are some people in your life who inspire you?
More and more I find inspiration in my dance history. As a younger person living in NYC, I was exposed to a lot of incredible dance artists, which I maybe took for granted. I now see how my experiences with them back then influences how I connect with my subjects today. From a photography standpoint, I love the great masters of portraiture such as Hujar, Avedon, Penn, Sander, Goldin, and Lixenberg to name a few.
What’s next for you? Are there projects and or exhibitions that you are currently working on?
I was a finalist and one of the winners of the Hyères Festival in 2017. They have invited me to be the president of the photo jury for the upcoming festival which is an incredible honour for me. As such, I will have a solo show in the upcoming festival which I am currently preparing for and am very excited about.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.
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© Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2023 courtesy Loose Joints.