Inspiration to Process: Joseph Michael Lopez


Many photographers talk about their passion for the craft. They all need to get in line behind Joseph Michael Lopez.  It took about zero seconds into our conversation to see that he wears his passion for photography and for authorship on his sleeve.

"What I strive for is an absurd level of old-school greatness."

His commitment to film photography, to the frame, to Leica, to being a "Photographer" with a capital P, and to street photography points to this ambition and to the old-school part, as well. I applaud the dedication and the gusto.

Union Square, 2013. From "Dear New Yorker" © Joseph Michael Lopez

Union Square, 2013. From "Dear New Yorker" Joseph Michael Lopez

"I'm not crazy about the phrase 'street photography,'" Lopez comments when I mention the genre for which he's most associated. "I call it a kind of personal reportage."

Why do all good street photographers want to call it something other?

In contrast to our "What is Photography?" series, for this project Cory Rice and I met photographers on their turf—their studio, home, a meaningful location—but for Lopez, his turf is the streets of New York City, so… what? So, we agreed to meet near Union Square, because Lopez often photographs in this part of town and because it was the location of Kelton Labs.

"Thirty-two Union Square East had a huge impact on my evolution as a black-and-white film photographer. Chuck Kelton has been a mentor, he's given me so much technical and spiritual guidance, and he, the great printer for Helen Levitt, Danny Lyon, Cornell Capa, Saul Leiter, gave me access to a darkroom at night. As long as I cleaned up and had it ready for him the next day."

© Cory Rice
Cory Rice

We started our conversation in a cafe, I just pushed Record on my portable Zoom; Lopez did most the rest. It was a good coffee. We then walked around the neighborhood, through the park, past the building where Kelton Labs was located, and we continued to chat, while Cory shot photos of Lopez and Lopez photographed pigeons and people. It was invigorating in the way photography should be—reflective and collaborative and engaged.

"I only photograph to find truth. My best pictures are more about connection, gestures of the bodies, and vulnerabilities in public space, that are then amplified by the mysteries of light and the narrative suggestions that light creates. Light becomes a character itself within the scene. That's what I'm after. I'm always looking for a place that has seductive light and then I wait it out or if I'm lucky, something is already happening there and I'm in it."

Union Square, 2013. From "Dear New Yorker" © Joseph Michael Lopez

Union Square, 2013. From "Dear New Yorker" Joseph Michael Lopez

In street photography, or whatever you want to call it, inspiration and process can be tied together tightly and I'm curious about his decisions to stay or go, to fish a pond of light or to move on. I ask Lopez about "waiting it out" and "getting lucky" and he describes how he made a recent image.

"I saw these three boys walking, and their pace and spacing caught my attention. I followed them a bit and saw a very graphic advertisement, I moved ahead of them quickly, framed it, and boom. You pre-visualize, it's about physically getting there and timing. It's like, 'how can you stop this!?' It's all about energy."

34th Street, 2016. From "Dear New Yorker" © Joseph Michael Lopez

34th Street, 2016. From "Dear New Yorker"Joseph Michael Lopez

Finesse, street smarts, and an ability to juxtapose urban tropes are crucial tools for any photographer who works in this context, but perception, anticipation, and reaction aren't inspiration. Is there more?

"Photography is an act of asking questions. That's what I find satisfying. My bar for a good photo is to make me rethink my relationship to the world. They'll be photographers who say they don't think about anything when they shoot. That's bull****.

"When I'm in the street shooting, yes, I'm caught up in the moment, suspended out of time, but I'm conscious of everything. I'm thinking about context, about my last photo that really moved me, and how can I add to that and grow forward. Practice, resilience and pushing yourself to have the most possible options to find the best shot. I can't repeat myself, and that's a motivation."

Clearly, Lopez is not just out for a stroll with his camera, although he does bring it with him almost everywhere. I asked him specific film process questions, because this is now an expensive enterprise.

© Cory Rice

Cory Rice

"My process is I shoot. I currently have about seven rolls that need to be processed. When that happens, I scan. And then… editing; I do spend a lot of time on Photoshop, sometimes weeks. I sit with it. There isn't one part of the frame that isn't essential and that is pure joy. It's geeky, that old-school formal rigor, but if it's off by an inch, it doesn't work, and I ditch it. There needs to be tension within the frame."

I ask him about repetition when photographing in the streets and how to avoid a replay of not only the chestnut ideas of the greats, but also one's own ideas, especially if you're not on a specific assignment.

"What I am focused on is authoring my project. I made the pictures and I'm trying to synthesize them into a language that has an intention of authorship. I'm talking about really [expletive deleted] editing my pictures to match my logic, my language, it's a puzzle I figure out."   

We do our best to gather pigeons in the park for a portrait suggested by Lopez. I'm enjoying the spectacle, and the coffee cart guy helps by donating muffins to the cause. What is Cory thinking, I wonder? After several takes of pigeon flutter, Lopez changes the roll in his Leica with that old-school dexterity and gets back to the question about repetition.

Cory Rice

"Look, I'm either looking for a picture or yearning to take a picture, but I'm also hypercritical before I take a picture. From shutter to final successful photo, I'm thinking about it all, even where I hold the camera is important to me. If I go to bed knowing that I didn't take any risks…"

He doesn't finish that sentence immediately, but it's plain to see the sincerity and the reverence with which he holds the photographic process, and that alone is worth recognizing, old school or not, great or not. He adds a little humor to where that previous thought was going, "but I've taken the suffering route."

His rich monochrome images don't shy away from suffering and his tableaux and portraits reveal a range of urban experience, joyous to alienated, but I'm equally drawn to the palpable presence of the formal, the black-and-white, the contrast of his prints. Like the city or light can be a character in photography, the blacks and whites, loaded with contradiction, are also a character in his images. Spending an afternoon in the city with Joseph Lopez was exhilarating; it was also replete with these contradictions.

"I take pictures for me, I take pictures to keep growing, to connect with people, it's the only thing I know how to do. I'm like a ninja of reading emotional and psychological vulnerabilities in the public space or moments of human connections which are so separate from what people think I am doing as a photographer. I'm giving out love. I'm understanding how my camera work can be of real value, not just in an artistic sense."

Midtown East Tunnel Exit, 2011. From "Dear New Yorker" © Joseph Michael…
Brooklyn, 2020. From "Dear New Yorker" © Joseph Michael Lopez

Paradox from an artist? I wouldn't want it any other way. "My impulse comes from an obsessive place. I'm always on. I'm a photographer 24/7. I move my car, my camera's with me; I get a gallon of milk, my camera's with me. My camera's with me all the [expletive deleted] time. I take pictures because of this relentless passion, and determination to arrive where? I don't know, but I've learned how to live with this uncertainty. Does that make sense?"

I believe it does.

The photos of Joseph Michael Lopez can be seen here. And his work is part of this recent New Yorker series on the coronavirus in New York.

Original images for this article were taken with the FUJIFILM GFX 100 Medium Format Mirrorless Camera.