Amanda Lopez is a Mexican-American editorial and commercial photographer. Her work has been shown at The MoMa, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and has been collected by The Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
She is a member of Diversify Photo, Women Photograph, and The Luppe.
Her clients Include: Netflix, Instagram, A&E Networks, ESPN, PBS, TIME, Wired, Adobe, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vice, Global Citizen, Christie's, Tribeca Films, Beauty Inc, Guitar Center, and Redtone Records.
Art reflects its creator, casting its shadows on cave walls lit by their motivation, their pain... their soul. Amanda Lopez uses photography to reveal her experience and celebration of Chicano culture. Her bond bleeds through the frame, drawing the audience in through color, shape, and form. We enjoyed getting to know Amanda and better understand her perspective of her work, her culture, and its impact.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
No, I’m actually from Sacramento. Cali girl, born and raised in Sacramento, I left when I was 18 and went to San Francisco.
Yeah, I have so much pride for my home town, though. I left when I was 18, I’ve been away from the city longer than I lived there now at this point, but those formative years are when I picked up the camera in high school. My parents were creative in their own ways, and in Sacramento there’s a really strong art community.
And as a Latina, I was super-influenced by The Royal Chicano Air Force, I went to school with a lot of the members’ kids and so I grew up seeing their parents’ artwork and that was really formative for me, to see other Mexican folk, Mexican-American folks, making art. Because though my parents are creative in their own ways, there are no artists in my family, no one took that career path, right.
So to see that…my mom would take me to shows when I was little, that was really impactful. So, yeah, I got a lot of love for Sacramento!
That’s recent. I lived in LA until very recently. Before that I was in San Francisco for 10 years, I went to school there and stayed and worked after I graduated.
Yeah, I studied photography. I love San Francisco, I lived there and a lot of my friends from Sacramento also moved to San Francisco, so it was a very creative time. But then at some point I felt like I did what I could do there. So my partner and I moved to LA in 2013, we were in LA for nine years.
I always had jobs when I was in San Francisco, art-related jobs.
I was working at Galería de la Raza, a predominantly Latino art gallery in the Mission in San Francisco. And I worked at an Air Force base in Fairfield in their photo department.
I worked at a photo studio when I was in college, I always had an art-related job. So still learning the ropes, right, like how do you make a living as a photographer.
It was really challenging and I felt like maybe I’d have a better chance if I moved to LA.
And so after I got laid off from my Air Force job, and had unemployment and was able to kind of figure out what I needed to do. My partner, he’s from New York, also a photographer. And we were like, “you know what, let’s try LA. If we don’t like it we can always move back.” As a Northern Californian, I don’t know if I’m going to like it, even though I actually had lived in LA before, I had come to LA…oh man, 2006, maybe. I came to intern for the photographer Estevan Oriol. I always talk about him as a major influence…he is quintessential LA. He makes beautiful work documenting lowrider culture and musicians. He did a lot of work around documenting gang and street culture in LA. His work is phenomenal, and it was the first time I had seen another Chicano photographer killing it professionally.
Every magazine I looked at, his work was in there and that was very pivotal to me, so I reached out to him when I was in college and was like, “I would love to intern for you,” and he said yeah come on down. So I moved to LA for 8 months.
Yes! My dad was born in Mexico in Guadalajara. My mom is Mexican, she was born in an Air Force base outside of Sacramento, but both her parents were born in Mexico. I’m so proud to be who I am and of my culture, and I don’t think I was conscious of it at first, but the first people that I was documenting were my family: my sister, my brother, my mom, my extended family, my cousins, my friends, and thinking on it later, I realized what I was doing. I was so desperate to see myself reflected that I was just photographing everyone around me.
I’m very proud of where I come from and I love my culture. I think my work is culturally bold in those ways, I think even in my editorial and commercial work, I think clients hire me, because they see some of that in the personal work.
Yeah, yeah, thank you, I’m glad you said that. That’s my hope! I want to reflect something very specific and positive, the joy, the beauty, the energy. I think some of my earlier work though was a little more melancholy.
But through the process of making personal work and exploring different ideas, now I’m at the point where, yes, I’m celebrating. I think my early work, like 10-15 years ago, it was a little more serious. You wouldn’t see anyone smiling in my photos. I was really processing some childhood things, things I wasn’t even conscious of. I was putting that in the work and then I got to a point, someone mentioned to me once, I was working on a book project with somebody, about women sneaker collectors, and I was really attracted to making photos of people who kind of looked more serious.
She said, “oh let’s see some smiles, these are women that are happy about their collection,” and then I realized, oh that’s really interesting, the work I had been making up until that point, was really a little more serious, and then now…
Yeah, I do know why, growing up in a gigantic Mexican family, you know, my grandma has 12 brothers and sisters. My mom had six brothers and sisters. I have hundreds of cousins. Over the years, just as I’ve peeled back the layers, the more personal work that I’ve done, it’s helped me to better understand my family and the dynamics that shaped me. For better or rose. When I was in high school I couldn’t really put words to those things, but photography always helped.
Yeah! We were here for nine years, and we’re still back and forth. We were here for a minute. And this is where I was able to launch my freelance career. I had never been able to go freelance before, until we moved to LA. In San Francisco, where I had felt like I had reached the ceiling, and there’s plenty of photographers who make a living in the Bay Area, but I couldn’t figure it out.
Yeah, totally! So we thought let’s go to LA, try it out. And LA, it worked for us. We were both interested in editorial photography, so as soon as I got to LA, I started to work for the LA Weekly, my partner got a job, freelance work with this non-profit doing really interesting work. And we thought,” okay, LA was the move,” there’s so much opportunity in LA, and you know, it’s sunny, it’s nice. So much creativity, so much energy in the city, he was already freelance in San Francisco but like I said, I hadn’t quite cracked the code. And then in LA, everything fell into place and we were really able to dig in and make work. And you know, everybody shoots in LA, so if you’re trying to be an editorial photographer, there’s a lot of opportunity.
I don’t think consciously, but I’m really attracted to a certain kind of image. And so I just kept shooting my style. I just do what I do, do what I know, I wasn’t necessarily trying to stand out. I just was trying to be true to myself because I think when you’re early in your career, or at least in mine, I was trying to figure out what my style is. You see trends in photography, and you think, “oh, should I shoot more like this, would I be more hirable if I did X, Y & Z?”
And I thought, maybe. But I wouldn’t feel good doing it. To me, a successful photo or a successful project is if I like it. And so, that’s my meter. Because I think if I let myself get too invested in what other people might think, then I don’t think I would enjoy my practice. So I try and be as true to myself in the work as I can be.
There’s some of the work on there. They reached out initially I think just to gather information about a future exhibit. And in fact, I mentioned the Royal Chicano Air Force. I got to know some of the members over the years, through some of the kids I went to school with but also, when I was working at the gallery in San Francisco, there was one particular member Rudy Cuellar, he’s an amazing printmaker. He would come in all the time and sell t-shirts and come to exhibitions. I got to know him. He’s such an awesome person, talented artist, but he’s also such a supporter of the arts. If you go to his Facebook page, he’s sharing everybody’s work, everybody. It’s really awesome. So he happened to share one of my photos of four girls in a lowrider and that’s the image that the Smithsonian saw, so they called me. And I think they just wanted to chat, like, “what’s this, what’s this photo about,” and later, they put me in touch with Shannon Perich and we chatted and then I asked her if I could send them, a zine.
Then a couple months later, she reached out about acquiring some work for the museum.
They acquired 33 pieces and half of them were lowrider photos and the other half was my latest personal project, which celebrates the Mexican saint Our Lady of Guadalupe.
But yeah, lowrider culture is another extension of me celebrating my culture because the art is a very Chicano art form.
Yeah, but now it’s global right, it’s in Japan, it’s everywhere.
I grew up with my cousin and his dad, they were always fixing Impalas. In Sacramento where I’m from, there was a huge cruising community, it was later outlawed, there was a ban on lowriding, nobody could do it anymore. But I grew up on seeing them on Broadway. On Sundays cars would cruise, and just seeing that, and just being around super-fierce Mexican women was inspiring. So my work, a lot of the lowrider stuff that I’ve done has been very women-centered, that’s just another way for me to rep my culture.
I think it’s all subconscious, really, to be honest with you. Initially I was attracted to it because it is a part of Chicano culture, and so when I was first learning, I reached out to my cousin Jose, and I was like,” hey can we use your car in some photos, I’ll bring my sister,” I would gather my community, and be like, “okay let’s shoot some photos around your car.” And then later one of the photos the Smithsonian picked up, that photo was part of a fashion shoot that I did. And so there was different ways that I was trying to incorporate this imagery into my work.
So very much personal stuff, but also fashion stuff and then later, some of the more recent stuff that I’ve done was for a friend, he’s a lowrider and he wanted to photograph women lowriders. We did a shoot in Newark, California, a year and a half ago. He gathered all of these amazing women that he knew in his community and was like, “hey can you come through and take some photos?” I was like, “yes!”
I was like, “thank you so much!” And so over the years, since I started until now, I’ve been collecting and making this work.
Yeah, I would say so. Lowriders are so colorful, I love color. If you go to my website you can see that. I love a bright backdrop, I love, you know, just color in general. I think that also comes from my film background though, because I went to school pre-digital cameras and so I learned to shoot on film. When I was in school, cross-processing was huge. So saturated and so bold. So I think a combination of that and growing up in a home where every room in our house was painted a different color. My mom loved color. Color was so prevalent in every house that I knew growing up. Then learning film and learning I loved cross processing, I was a junkie for it when I was in college. And so all those elements and then the lowriders, beautiful colors. Just stunning colors.
Yeah! Like the candy colors, the pearlescent, the two-tone. I think all of those in combination, it’s so ingrained in me, I don’t even think about it.
Yeah. I mean I think that the personal project is really what feeds me. Potential clients will see the personal work and say, “oh we’ve seen this project of yours, we’d like you to do something similar for us.” In fact, I was just on a call last week with a book publisher. They were talking about me photographing one of their writers, so I asked, “where did you find my work?” Because you never know if people go to your website.
And this particular publisher said, “I saw your Guadalupe work, we really liked it.” And that was so fascinating to me. It was the personal stuff that they see that translates for them and that attracts them to my work. Personal work is what feeds me, what keeps me creative, and what keeps me excited about photography. When I first started I would just, wait, like I guess I’m not picking up the camera until someone calls me. And then I realized, that’s silly.
You can make your own work and you know, maybe down the line someone will like it, but again, I always go back to my personal ethos: if I like it, that’s enough. I’ve been working on personal projects since I picked up the camera and the lowriding series is this ongoing, probably forever project. The Guadalupe project is something that I worked on unconsciously for a couple years, and then in 2019 I really went for it.
And now, I’m actually working on a new project! Different from what I’ve done in the past, I’m documenting underrepresented voices in country music. I am really interested in underrepresented communities. I fucking hate the word “minority,” I hate that word because it feels othering, but also not true, because if you say that someone is a minority then they’re less than…
And that’s not true!
And so I also am interested in, just as a photographer I think, “what can I do to bring things to light?”
I can take pictures of folks. I can put them out into the world. My cousin, Ruthie, she passed away when I was in college, but she was the first person who introduced me to country music and I have such a core memory of sitting with her and she introduced me and my sister when we were 8 to the Judds. And it was just such a happy memory. And then I got older, and went to college and met a kid from Alaska who was super into country music, and really proud of it. And growing up in Sacramento, I didn’t know anyone who liked country music. As a Latina, I was embarrassed to admit I liked the music. I thought the music was only for white folks.
But the truth is it’s not. There’s so much, through diving into this project, that I’ve learned, there are so many amazing artists. I met this Latino country singer from Texas, she’s in Nashville, now, and her voice is incredible! And she’s so proud of where she comes from and her culture and to see that reflected back, it’s amazing. There’s so much more that we don’t see, and so how can I bring that more to the forefront, you know. I’m interested in representation.
Always as honest as possible and also with a lot of care, I really want people to be comfortable. And I want to show them in the best light possible, that’s what I’m interested in, “did I do this person justice, what could I have done better?” I put a lot of thought into when I’m photographing someone.
Yeah, there’s a period of my work that’s very natural light. And now I’m really interested in strobes and lighting people in a more controlled way. Because you’ve got to know what you’re doing with the strobes. Natural light, I love working in that way, but right now, I’m in a strobe phase. I’m really interested in colored gels, and adding an element of color through the strobes, you know. When I photograph people, I want it to be as luxurious as possible for the people I’m photographing. We’ve got a makeup artist on set, we’re working in a studio, or wherever they feel comfortable.
I always ask, “where would you like to be photographed? It would be awesome if it was some place that meant something to you and if that place isn’t available I’m happy to rent a studio.” I like to bring a makeup artist on set when I can because I think it adds an extra level of care and I think it makes people feel good.
The first time I did the project I photographed this amazing artist Jamie Wyatt and I rented a studio and I brought on a makeup artist. The process, it feels very glam and celebratory.
Yeah! Totally, so many interesting stories, that don’t get told if you don’t look a certain way or hit certain numbers, so I’m interested in covering those stories and celebrating those people.
I wouldn’t consider myself a journalist, but I am documenting folks. Maybe not from a photojournalistic standpoint. Because I am very involved in the direction of it. I like to direct people when I’m working with them. If you’re not used to having your picture taken, and since I don’t know most of these people, so there can be this level of nervousness.
I’m going to go back to Nashville in two weeks and photograph some folks. I’m interested in photographing musicians, but also writers, and podcast hosts who are telling these stories. So for example, I photographed Hunter Kelly, he has a show on Apple Music and his show is all about elevating LGBTQ voices in country music.
You know, a lot of Mexican regional music has a country twang to it, the style, cowboy culture, that comes from vaquero culture, which is very Mexican. I grew up around my uncles all wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats. It’s this engrained, subconscious thing, and now it’s coming out in the photos for me. Maybe folks might think, “oh that’s out of left field,” but it’s really not. There are a lot of parallels.
I never know until the end, you know. The Guadalupe project, that was a really healing project for me, and I think ultimately, that is what photography is for me, a very cathartic, healing process.
That particular project, and I didn’t know until I finished, is about exploring our Lady of Guadalupe, an iconic Mexican saint. I grew up in my grandma’s house, with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe all around me. But it wasn’t until someone asked me to be a part of an art show that explored the politics of womanhood that I began to think about Guadalupe’s influence in my life. So I sat with it. I’ve always been kind of making photos of her, subconsciously. And then when, 15 years later, I was asked to be a part of this show, and I started to really explore, like oh shit, this symbol has been so ingrained in my subconscious about what does it mean to be a woman, and a lot of it was from this imagery that I saw.
And then I went through a phase where I couldn’t even look at it!
I could not look at that image, and that was really painful, because I grew up around it. So this particular project was me reconstructing what she meant to me, away from the church. Because the church’s meaning of her and my representation of her, I came to understand was not aligned with anything that I believed. That was where that rejection came from. Like, “oh, that image, I’m not really down with.”
And then, coming back to it and realizing, “oh, but she can be anything I want her to be, it doesn’t have to be in that context.” And so that work is about exploring those feelings. Now I’m with it again, but I had to process it.
Yeah, and had to process it through the work, and so now, to me, she’s like Mother Nature, sacred femininity, strength, beauty. And anyone can be that, it’s not just a woman or you know, someone who goes to church.
For me, she’s this more universal symbol. So that’s what all my personal work is. I did a project about the Day of the Dead, which is also a very Mexican tradition. And that was me working out death, since I was a little kid, I was traumatized by death. Especially growing up in a Catholic house, if you’re trying to go to heaven, you’ve got to do certain things. And that really messed up my psyche as a little kid, so I did this project about Day of the Dead, and photographed all of my friends, put all my friends in the project. Showed it at a couple different places, and really processed that idea. It’s very complex, but I mean, death, who knows what happens to you, right.
The project helped me feel less scared of whatever the unknown is, and so the beauty of photography, well for me, anyways, it’s a very healing practice, you know.
I think photography says what words can’t sometimes. Sometimes when people will ask me to talk about the work, or write an artist statement, it’s so painful for me because I can say it in the photo, but then when it comes to writing it down, it feels painful because it’s not how I was thinking about it, I wasn’t thinking in this analytical way, it was very emotional.
Hmm, initially, I was going to say the process. But I’m feeling like it’s the result, because I’m so tactile, I want to see the final result. The process is fun, the journey is the reward as they say.
But I think maybe for me, right now, the reward is the result. For example, making a zine or a print, seeing something tangible, I’m like, “ah, this is the result of years of work.” So I think I’m going to say the result.
Cool, thanks Lou!