Amanda Lopez’s personal and commercial photographic storytelling is a tribute to community, tenacity, and patron saints.
Amanda Lopez’s portrait and lifestyle photography looks to her family, religious iconography, and living in LA. Her most recent personal series and zine, Guadalupe, balances warm, LA-light soaked portraits, still lifes, and reportage as an homage to the patron saint Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Brands and magazines are consistently drawn to her sensitive eye for light and gesture – she collaborates with Instagram, Luna Bar, and Xprize, and has shot for The Washington Post, VICE, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, and XXL.
The Luupe speaks with Lopez on the flux and challenge of the commercial grind and photography as a welcome distraction, savior, and personal motivator.
The Luupe in conversation with Amanda Lopez
The Luupe: You’ve built an exciting career with range and style. What were some of your early photographic subjects?
Amanda Lopez: I’ve always been drawn to people. I’m attracted to portraiture because I love the connection that can come from the artist-subject collaboration.
The first people I photographed were members of my family, specifically my brother and sister, and then eventually members of my extended family. I believe I was drawn to photographing them because subconsciously I really wanted to see myself reflected in the photo community.
In college, I majored in photography. As part of the program, you studied art history and learned about fine artists but I never felt a connection to what I was seeing in class or in my books. I craved learning about other Mexican and Mexican American artists and photographers but it wasn’t something that you had access to in the required curriculum. You had to seek out alternative classes in the Raza studies department or research on your own. Photographing my family was my way of bridging that gap for myself and validating my desire to be a photographer.
The Luupe: You mention in your bio that photography has been a “savior” throughout your life.
Lopez: The summer before I left for college my high school photo teacher gave me a darkroom kit with everything I needed to make prints at home. He came by the house to deliver it and told my dad that this would not only keep me busy but also keep me inspired. And he was right. Photography has been a beacon for me and given me the tools to help me navigate my way in this world.
I feel lucky that I found something that I was passionate about at a young age because it kept me focused and driven. Photography has filled my life with creativity and adventure and saved me from some of the lulls and sadness that life can bring. Whenever I find myself in need of inspiration or to lift my spirits, I know I can pick up a photo book or a camera and life starts to slowly recalibrate.
The Luupe: What was your first editorial assignment?
Lopez: My first editorial assignments happened in 2004 from Vapors Magazine, an art and skateboard culture magazine that was based in Sacramento. I interned for them one summer and would shoot all the products that came in for their sponsored content section. They knew I liked photographing people so eventually they started sending me out with writers who were covering musicians.
My very first assignment was to photograph a hardcore group at Slims in San Francisco. I remember that gig being a hot mess. The bouncer at the venue didn’t want me to shoot photos. It was impossible to move past the mosh pit to get to the front of the stage, and to top it off I shot slide film and it came back terribly underexposed. Luckily I got a few usable shots that the magazine liked so they kept hiring me after the internship was over.
Working with Vapors helped me build my confidence and develop my photo style. Every assignment had its own set of challenges so I learned to move quickly and how to technically respond to a wide variety of settings so that I could create the maximum amount of images for my client.
The Luupe: We talk with a lot of Luupe photographers about the role of mentorship in helping get their name and game up. Have there been any pivotal figures in your life who helped shape your work, connected you with clients, or were a sounding board for ideas?
Lopez: I went to San Francisco State to study photography but I always say the best education I got was working as the legendary photographer Estevan Oriol’s assistant. I remember seeing his work in the pages of the Fader for the first time when I was in college and being completely blown away by his photo style: moody, bold, raw, and heartfelt. This was also the first time I remember seeing someone’s work that I could relate to.
Estevan is a Chicano photographer who creates beautiful photos of his community and was absolutely killing the photo game. His work was in magazines, billboards, album covers so that really inspired me and gave me the confidence to pursue photography as a career. After I graduated I reached out to him to tell him how much his work meant to me and asked if he needed an assistant.
The Luupe: How did he respond?
Lopez: To my shock and delight, he took me on. I worked with him for a little over half a year in L.A. and it was one of the best learning experiences on my photo journey because Estevan demystified the world of commercial and editorial photography. He showed me how hard you have to grind to be successful in this industry.
Estevan would take me on fashion shoots with Kim Kardashian, editorial shoots with 50 Cent, and on personal sessions to photograph models and boxers. That time in my life was invaluable. I learned a lot about photography from Estevan but the most important thing I learned from him was that you don’t have to change who you are or your style to be successful.
I’m grateful to call Estevan not only a mentor but a friend. All these years later it’s still so exciting for me to see my work published alongside his in some of the same magazines and books.
The Luupe: Your style has a distinct balance of editorial, commercial, and personal storytelling. How much does your approach shift between different kinds of work?
Lopez: I try to approach each photo session in the same way. I create mood boards and come to set with some ideas but I’m open to whatever may unfold with whomever I’m working with because the best photos are created when there is mutual trust and understanding between the photographer and the subject.
In terms of style, I tend to gravitate towards bright colors, contrast, and clean lines so you’ll see that in all of the work I create. I believe it’s a sign of a strong photographer to have a recognizable style that shines through no matter what type of work you create.
The Luupe: You’re now also doing some product photography – has this changed or influenced how you think about your work?
Lopez: I never thought I’d like photographing products as much as I do but it’s been a lot of fun to add this work to my repertoire. I feel like my product work is similar to my other work but with a bit more kitsch.
One thing I will say is that product photography slows me down a bit so I think my attention to detail has gotten even more fine-tuned, which is both a gift and a curse.
The Luupe: Do you see a difference in the way you work with photo editors, creative directors, and art directors at brands vs magazines?
Lopez: I don’t see a big difference in the way I work with photo editors or creative directors. Typically one of two things happens: either a client gives me an assignment and gives me free rein or a client comes to me with a concept that they’d like me to execute.
There are opportunities in working both ways. Ultimately photography is a collaborative process so whether I’m working with just the talent or an art director and production crew, a little piece of everyone involved shines through in the final image.
The Luupe: You often reference religious iconography in your work, most prominently in your series Guadalupe. Does this overlap in your editorial and commercial portraiture?
Lopez: I grew up in the Catholic Church for the first 15 years of my life so religious iconography is deeply ingrained in my visual lexicon and informs how I look at the world. I’m at a point in my journey where I am reimaging those symbols to better suit my current definition of what the divine means to me. You can definitely see this in my series “Guadalupe” and even in some reference in other parts of my non-personal work.
The Luupe: In SF Weekly, Hiya Swanhuyser described you as “…this decade’s answer to Tina Modotti…” Amazing! Do you see a kinship to Modotti’s work?
Lopez: That was a wonderful compliment to receive and one that meant a lot to me as an emerging photographer fresh out of college. She didn’t know it, but that compliment was a full-circle moment for me.
When I was in high school my photo teacher gave the class an assignment to write a report on a photographer. I was uninspired by the list he shared so he suggested I look up Tina Modotti. I feel a kinship to Tina Modotti because she was the first women photographer I learned about and her work would be the first photo book I would own. I admired the work she made in my family’s home country, Mexico, where she spent time creating portraits of the people and documenting the emerging art and political movements happening at the time.
To have someone compare my work to hers, years later, was an honor. I’m superstitious so I took that as a sign that I was on the right track.