There was always something about Estevan Oriol's portraits of Los Angeles gang members that mesmerized the eye; a combination of a direct, knowing gaze towards the viewer, the starkness of black and white, and hard shadows that underlined the tough exteriors of his subjects. He and father Eriberto Oriol, a photographer and painter, are both cut from the same cloth; while Estevan documents the lives of inner city gang members, Eriberto has documented graffiti and street art, as well as the urban expanse of Los Angeles.
Both artists have curated their work into a traveling art show that has made hits in both LA and New York in a show called "Like Father Like Son." Joining together some of their most iconic works, from the elder Oriol's abstract paintings and photo prints to Estevan's infamous gang portraits, the show comes to Costa Mesa's Dax Gallery this Saturday, with both artists in tow to sign prints as well as Estevan signing his latest book release LA Portraits.
I spoke with both artists on their art and was surprised by the differences between their practices; from Estevan's purist stance on analog film to Eriberto's history of activism; both artists' paths and styles are deviations from each other but are suitably cohesive works of two like-minded artists from different generations. Presented here is a compilation of both their interviews.
OC Weekly [Aimee Murillo]: Can you describe what's going to be in the show?
Estevan Oriol: My dad's been shooting photography for thirty-five years, and I've been shooting for twenty, I started out doing street style. I shoot a lot of different things, but my dad pretty much shoots the downtown LA area mostly, so this is a type of work that we have mostly in common, and we got a good response from the first two shows, so when Dax Gallery asked me if i wanted to do another show with them, I thought this would be the perfect one to bring there.
I have a book out right now called LA Portraits, and since I'll be doing a book signing. I'm also gonna have a small collection of photos as well.
OCW: I'd like to know a bit about both of your guys' backgrounds. Eriberto, when you were growing up, were you interested in being an artist?
Eriberto Oriol: No, not at all. I started when I was living in San Diego, and the particular community I was living in which was called Barrio Logan, which is known for murals under the bridge, and after living in LA for a while I returned back to San Diego and they were doing a community plan of that area I grew up in, so I started checking it out and I ended up doing a photo essay of the whole community, basically showing what was there and what needed to be maintained, and all the assaults the community was receiving from the heavy industry there on the water front.
So through my photos and the photos of another photographer, we were able to open up a whole can of worms as to how that community was being assaulted and nothing was being done by the officials- even the governor came down and he was embarrassed.
OCW: Did you study photography before that?
No, I tried going to school but I think I lasted about a week, it just wasn't my thing being in a classroom. I just didn't like the idea of doing student projects, I liked going out and doing my own thing and whatever happened happened.
I'm not a technical person so I do mostly everything on digital, so I just set the camera on automatic, especially since I'm out in the streets, I never have time to be playing with the F-stops and all that other stuff. I don't even know them all that well, so why even go there? Most of my photos are kind of over exposed or underexposed so I take em to Photoshop and that's where the picture happens, its just like being in a dark room and that's where you make your image.
OCW: What about you Estevan, did you grow up with an interest in art?
Estevan Oriol: No, at the time I was taking photographs I was heavily into low riding and was the tour manager for a rap group and I was always in East LA with my car club and when I was not in LA I was on tour with House of Pain. My dad liked the stuff I was telling him, so he handed me a camera that he and his wife had, and he said 'You know you're around a lot of cool stuff, take pictures and document it' and at first I didn't really want to. Even though my dad was a photographer I thought photographers were kind of like, either paparazzi types or tourists. I couldn't see myself walking around with a camera.
Once I did it a few times and I got good responses from the photos, I did it more times and got more responses and then my photo lab from the time, which was the same lab as Helmut Newton's, the woman who owned it asked if she could put some of the photos in the lobby area of the lab and I didn't have to pay, she said "I just really like your art and I want to show it.' Out of the eleven pictures she showed she sold eight of them and she said, 'You know most of my photographers shoot celebrity types or beautiful women, that kind of thing, I usually sell some pictures but I've never sold that many pictures from one photographer, and the people weren't celebrities.' So she said 'maybe you should stick to this, I think you're on to something,' and from there I got a little bit of confidence and kept shooting and shooting.
And because I was the tour manager of Cypress Hill I would always set up the press for the band and I was the guy who always set up the interviews so the magazines would come and they weren't really at the time getting good photography so I offered to get them backstage photos or live shots. That's how I got introduced into the music magazines, that turned into doing album covers, and videos and concert photography.
OCW: How would you describe your style of photography?
I'd just describe it as rough, rugged and raw. I'm not a fan of Photoshop and fancy tricks and lots of production. I can do all that, but I think what you see is what you get. It is what it is. I don't like to doctor it up. To me, when you're taking a picture you're capturing a moment and that's the photography, that's the art of it, its not what you do after the picture's taken already. Nowadays people use a digital camera and they're like 'oh I'll fix it later in Photoshop' its just like they take half- assed pictures and they kind of work on it right after, whereas I like to take a good picture and not worry about fixing it later.
OCW: Do you still use analog film?
Yeah every shoot I do, every time I do photos, I bring my analog camera, and I bring my digital camera, 'cause people are too cheap now, they don't wanna pay for film, so I do everything digitally for them and I keep the film shots for me.
OCW: A lot of film companies are going out of business, does that worry you?
Yeah, it does. Once I find out that one of the films I use is gonna be discontinued, I go and get a new credit card and buy the rest of it. And then I just store all my film. My wife thinks I'm a little bit crazy but maybe I am.
OCW: Eriberto, what was the interest for you to come to LA from San Diego?
The arts- in San Diego there's some very good artists there, but the projects that I was trying to do just weren't going anywhere and for me the arts wasn't as open, there was more opportunity in LA. And what I loved about LA is that its so wide open and there's no schools of thought in terms of ways they do it in other places, you do what you want to do and some people care and most people don't.
OCW: When did you decide that you wanted to capture the murals in Los Angeles?
Well I do everything- most of my stuff is a cross section of street photography, so I don't just do murals, I do everything. and since I live downtown my focus is in rivers in downtown and the streets, and I just capture life, I don't use reflectors. Now I'm not thinking about whether the picture comes out just right, the main thing is whether it generates emotion, is it engaging, hat type of thing. so when people ask technical things about photography, I don't even know what you're talking about. Most of the time the lenses -I don't even know what lenses I use. I just put the lens on, put it on Automatic, and go. And for me its intuition; you know its gonna work, and you have to make some adjustments, but you know its there.
OCW: Estevan, I have to say that I admire that you're able to get so close up to your subjects, I worry that I'm going to bother some people if I get that close for a photo.
Yeah, well you get 'em comfortable and they're cool with it. I don't walk up to just anybody and say 'hey!' and they turn around and I take a picture of them, everybody that i take photos of I ask permission first. Say 'excuse me is it cool if I take a picture of you,' and if they say yeah I just pop one or two, so its not a pain for them, I don't have time to get self conscious or think about it too much. I just take a couple shots and say thank you very much and keep it moving.
OCW: I know that a lot of your subjects are gang members, have you ever heard a response from them after they see your photos?
Oh yeah, they love em. I have one friend who the other day, I shot his picture twice in the past twenty years and he was dying of cancer, and one of the last things he told his brother is that if he would contact me to get a picture made up of him that would go on his casket. To me, that was pretty heavy that that's what that guy was thinking in his last moments of life, that he wanted one of my photographs of him to go on his casket.
Another guy who's in my book, he was also dying of cancer, but he just wanted to see the book before he died. So its just a picture of him with the book, holding it above his head in the hospital. It was pretty sad but it was a good feeling, like that's the last thing they want to see or have is my photographs.
OCW: Tell me about the decision to team up with your dad for an art show, how did that come about?
Well it came about real naturally, because he's my dad, he's the one that started me in photography. And our photography looks real similar, even if its real different. And when i look at some of his pictures, I think 'man did I paint that or did he?' but I see that it's [perspective] further away. Like you know how you said you're up in people's faces? So that's how I can tell its not mine because his are like a little bit away from people. Its a no brainer for me, because if I'm going to do a show with somebody, I wanna do it with my family, our styles and our photos compliment each other.
OCW: Eriberto, I heard you walk around Downtown LA everyday, is that right?
Eriberto Oriol: Pretty much, yeah, there's so much material there within a two block radius because its constantly changing. People, I just love looking at people and their expressions, how they walk, how they interact with others, and down on the corner on 7th and Figueroa during traffic hour I hear all these incredible conversations about peoples' lives, and how their lives function and their issues at work, etc.
OCW: And you're a painter as well, correct?
I was a painter a while back, and I'm at the point now where I want to get back to it, and I have been getting back to it for the last month or so, I was so into the photo zone, and that's been torture 'cause I really wanna paint and draw. I'd rather spend eighty percent of my time painting. In three of my lifetimes, I wouldn't be able to create all the photos that I have.
OCW: And what do you like to express in your painting that can't be expressed in photography?
Well the difference with photography is that I've never felt like it was my true art form, just a substitute, and that's why I started shooting also because for a while I couldn't paint and i couldn't draw so I got pictures.
What I'm working on now is abstract, and a lot of my drawings from before I started to stick around here are also based in the streets because when I was living in the Skid Row area, I couldn't take pictures of what was going down there because you just don't walk around and take pictures there; they don't like it, and they'll take action against you. So somehow all those spaces that I'd see I thought there were some really incredible faces and expressions. I tried to transfer that into drawing, and so a lot of my drawings reflect the street in some form or another.
Also I love working with modern dancers so that comes in and the influences of Africa, the Asian countries, and the Pre-Columbian era. My work is a cross cultural representation, i don't believe in an idea where I'm a self-made artist or that I'm self taught, because I've spent months in libraries looking at books from around the world, and everything that I see and all the influences that I have, that has made my art.
Also I know a lot of artists say they're self-taught, that's not true, because we need other people to make us who we are or to help us create out work. We create our work for people, so how can we just be – we're not living in a bubble. So everything that we create is done in conjunction with other people.
OCW: How would you say living in Los Angeles has inspired your work?
I love the dynamics of living downtown, especially since I live two blocks from 7th and Figueroa. I guess what inspires me about the whole area is the architecture, the people, the changes that are taking place, and I love walking over the bridge, so when I see all those cars in traffic, I think about I used to be that person sitting in a car going to work and I don't have to do that anymore. I can just go around taking photos of everything that is going on around here.
Another part of it that I like is the engineering and all of the incredible ideas that went into creating our city. And that's what blows me away when I see huge buildings and the billions of ideas of creating this physical environment… because at one point it was nothing but dirt here. I'm always looking at how people interact with each other as well. I'm always looking at that. And that's why I carry a camera because there are those moments, you never know when they're gonna come, or when they're gonna happen, and sometimes I catch them and sometimes I don't. I don't go out looking for a specific thing, I just wait til it presents itself, and it happens, fast.
"Like Father Like Son" opens Saturday May 17th at Dax Gallery 2951 Randolph Street, Costa Mesa, Estevan's Book Signing at 3-6pm, Open Reception at 6pm.