L.A.’s Finest … Estevan Oriol Goes Behind The Lens

Words: Jonathan Rheingold, RESPECT. Founder

Credit: Jonathan Rheingold
Credit: Jonathan Rheingold
Credit: Jonathan Rheingold

Almost a decade ago, as RESPECT. was working on its second issue, we designated 50 Cent as the cover feature. Head editor Kris Ex was soon to conduct an interview with 50 by phone. The call ultimately happened, and legend has it Ex ended up with an inaudible recording of 50 not providing much of a story. In that very issue, we laid out a photo-archive feature slated to celebrate the work of photographer Estevan Oriol. RESPECT.exclusively published classic photo archives by some of the greatest image takers of the culture. Sally Berman, RESPECT.’s first photo editor, would feverishly dig in the crates to decide which photographer we would celebrate each issue. We featured about six greats in every issue, one of them being Oriol. In the selects for our second issue, there was a powerful image Oriol had shot at renowned tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon’s tattoo parlor, right after 50 got inked on his back. RESPECT. Art Director of the time, Adam Levite, along with Berman, Ex and I determined that we would use that 50 image as the cover, scrap the interview and instead convert the cover story to an interview with the photographer. RESPECT. was the only hip-hop magazine ever to do this — celebrate a photographer on its cover. RESPECT. was the Life magazine of rap culture. Oriol was a part of RESPECT. setting itself apart in the history of Hip-Hop magazine publishing, being the first true fine-art publication of its kind. For the 10th issue of RESPECT., Oriol also donned the cover with his incredible shot of Brian “Baby” Williams.

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In my 10 years of publishing the RESPECT. brand, there have been countless photographers we’ve paid tribute to in our pages and online, but Oriol always stood out. Upon recently receiving a press release from respected industry publicist Richie Abbott about Estevan’s new book, This Is Los Angeles, I did something I typically wouldn’t do. I reached out to Richie directly instead of passing the story to the editor and said that I personally wanted to do a piece about Estevan’s new book, published by Drago. This curated masterpiece is a follow up to LA Portraits (2013) and LA Woman (2015), also published by Drago.

A couple of weeks later, I met Oriol in the Box Hotel lobby in Williamsburg with my camera. He was in town for “Beyond the Streets,” an epic street-art exhibition on a scale no one had ever seen before. Oriol’s work was part of the installation, so he came to town and Abbott invited me — on its opening weekend.

When he entered the lobby, he had a cane and looked exactly how I remembered him, except now he had a painful-looking limp. “What happened to your leg, my man?” I asked.

“I got a really bad infection, and there’s a hole in my foot,man,” he said. “Hoping they won’t have to amputate it, but if they do, I figured I’ll get one of those legs like the Blade Runner guy has.”

I’d be tripping out at the thought of losing a limb, and to Oriol, this was just something he’s got to deal with and get out of the way, should it have to happen. That truly signifies the toughness and grit of this gent — whining is a word he doesn’t understand.

I should have released this article earlier, but I think the timing could be no better since the 10-year anniversary of RESPECT. is on the horizon. Here’s my sit-down with the legend and photo great. Not just a hip-hop photo great, but a true fine artist that has documented people in places that only he could have access to — with lens in hand.

JR: Now, my recollection — if I’m not tripping, you have always used emulsion.

EO: Oh, yeah, and I still do.

JR: I figured, ’cause I know you’re a purist. And it’s still the thrill of not knowing what you capture, right? You’re going through the whole exercise of waiting to see what you recall you captured.

EO: Yeah.

JR: I remember you talked a lot about your dad in a video for RESPECT. in 2010. And that he was highly impactful, suggesting your path to photography. My understanding is that you were out there in the unique L.A. scene you rolled through, and he was like, “Yo, you should start documenting it.”

EO: Yeah. Exactly.

JR: Do you think you would have ever really taken on photography had it not been for him?

EO. No. No way.

JR: And he was a professional photographer, correct?

EO: Not like I am, but he has gotten paid doing photography. But he wasn’t out there hustling as a steady job. My dad has kind of like a hippie mentality.

JR: But you always admired his work.

EO: Yes. He never was out there, like, hustling and bustling. You know, knocking down doors or politicking at events, trying to get work. If somebody brought up the word “photography,” he would engage in that. But he wasn’t, like, “You know, if you ever need any photos” or anything like that.

JR: And did he hand you one of his cameras?

EO: Yeah.

JR: What happened to it?

EO: I have it. It’s my main.

[Estevan continues to talk about cameras and mentions to me the Canon AE-1.]

JR: So, not to get too technical, but I’m interested in hearing your perspective on the AE-1. I own one. What is it about the AE-1 that made it special? I just ran into a young kid on the street recently who had hunted for it and found one. I saw him using it on the train; I was like, “Oh, where’d you get that?” He said he had done a lot of research and determined it’s what would be best for street photography.

EO: It was just the simplicity of it. It was so easy and so simple. I just ran with that one for so long. I got used to it.

JR: You know, back in the day when I used to work the Magic fashion show convention floor, making deals for XXL, I used to always go by the Joker booth. I think that’s probably the first time I actually discovered your work, because I recall you shot their early ad campaigns.

EO: Yeah.

JR: The Joker ads that we would run in XXL.

EO: Yeah.

JR: So tell me about the book. RESPECT. is a big fan of these types of books being the preeminent voice for hip-hop photography. I recall books like Hip-Hop Immortals. You know, obviously, I grew up with Jamel Shabazz’s book, and there’s now Contact High. I think it’s great timing for you to have the book out now. You’ve released books before, if I recall.

EO: Yeah, it was the third one. The first one was L.A. Woman, the second one was L.A. Portraits. L.A. Woman was all girls. My publisher wanted to do a gangster book, but at that time, I was on that whole RESPECT. thing, and I didn’t want to do what anybody else was doing ever. And I always felt like that’s biting. You know, we come from that era, the biting era. And it’s, I feel like, what you’re talking about. You don’t do it. But those days are gone. And at that time, I had a bunch of … I was in the Navy. No. I mean a photo agent in Japan. But he’s like, “Hey, this needs to be a book. Would you want to do a book here in Japan with your L.A. gangster lowrider photos?” And I said, “Yeah, that would be great!” So we’re putting it together, like designing and everything. This guy Rodriguez wanted to do a book of all L.A. Chicano gang members. And I wanted to do a book called Ink. Before all the TV shows, we started a website called Ink. We had the documentary, we had the book, and we were going to do this package. And they hit us up to do the first reality shows. You know the very first tattoo reality shows? They came to us, and I turned it down. “Why don’t you want to do reality shows?” they asked. And I go, “These reality shows are boring to me. I don’t want to do them. I think they’re patronizing the culture.”

JR: Reality TV is like art imitating life, life imitating art … it’s essentially prefabricated.

EO: So I kind of told them, you know, “I don’t want to do it.” And they ran with the name. And they started, you know, Miami Ink, New York Ink, Memphis Ink, Texas Ink and all that shit. So they burned out the name to where we didn’t even want to use it no more, and my publisher’s like, “Hey, do you want to do this Ink book that you have?” And I said no, you know. Because now I was like, turned down another conceptual work. What do you want to do? I want to do a book on girls because nobody knows I shoot women, because I have been shooting a lot of girls from touring, you know. So I had a lot of hot girls come in from …

JR: Not staged, though. None of your work is staged.

EO: No, they were groupies, to keep it real, you know. They were all groupies that I was bringing backstage, and I would be in the hotel with them, and I’d be, “Hey, can I take a picture of you?” And, you know, some of it was at night, some of it was the next morning. So they all had this cool look about them, and then I ended up doing that book, L.A. Woman. And we made 5,000 of the book and they sold out. And my publisher’s like, “Hey, now can we do the gangster books?” And I go, “Yeah!” Now, you know, it’s 15 years after that book came out, and that guy’s … I’ll do it, but I don’t want to do just Mexican gangsters; I have loads of Crips, Samoans, Asians and Mexicans, you know? He goes, “Yeah, let’s do it all!” So that was different than his Mexican thing. So we did L.A. Portraits. He made 8,000 of those. Out of those 8,000, we sold 6,500. So then we made this book and we printed 6,500 of these.

JR: So there’s only 6,500 of this book?

EO: Yeah.

JR: What’s it retailing for?

EO: $100.

JR: It’s gorgeous. But how do you distribute it? Who’s putting it out for you? Is it your publisher or is this DIY?

EO: No, this is me and the publisher, Drago, from Italy.

JR: You’re sincerely one of my favorites — and not of hip-hop photographers, one of my favorite photographers of all time. Period. When I look at this book, that’s the thing … I’m not saying you’ve pigeonholed yourself, because this is your body of work, but your expertise goes well beyond the subjects. You’re not just some guy who was in the right place at the right time taking photos; you’re a great photographer. Truthfully. Clearly.

EO: Thank you.

[We move to the hotel cafe for coffee and sit down. Oriol’s publisher rolls through.]

EO: That is Parker, my publisher.

JR: How did you meet him?

EO: They got me to do that Ink book online, I think email. And then they came to L.A. and then, you know — I’m just a regular artist. I get kind of weird. And he came all the way to L.A. to talk about the Ink book, and I was like, “I don’t want to do it.” And he was, like, “Fuck, man, I came all the way out here and you don’t wanna fuckin’ do it?” Like…

JR: You just got indecisive.

Copyright Estevan Oriol

EO: “Fucking wasting my time!” You know, I just didn’t like the way … by the time he had come home, I really was seeing all the “Ink this,” “Ink this.” You could tell I got burned out on it all.

JR: But he found you, he discovered you.

EO: Yeah. Then we started talking, and they go, “Let’s do a girls book.” And there’s a hundred thousand girl books out there. And then he told me when the book came out, it wasn’t selling that good. And he goes, “You see? I told you — you should have fucking trusted me! I know books; all I do is books. You should’ve just fucking listened to me.” And I go, “I’m sorry,” you know? But two years later, the book was sold out. Now they’re like $400 to $1,000 online.

JR: Really? I love it.

EO: And every time I bring that up, he gets pissed.

JR: Tell me about this shot. [JR points to a page in the book]

EO: That was for some magazine.

JR: So that was a shoot?

EO: Fader. That was in the back of his Rolls, and we went to Hollywood. And there was this old house in Hollywood this crazy lady — she was the designer — she used to walk around in these felt outfits that she made. Like this felt, big bell bottoms with super-high heels. And she was maybe 100 pounds. The house was on Melrose and La Brea? In Hollywood. She had a house right there in that neighborhood, and she had covered her whole house and property with lava rock and painted it all matte black. So it was like, you would just drive by and go, “What the fuck?”

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JR: Who’s the crazy person?

EO: A fuckin’ weirdo. And then you would see her walking out of there, and you just see her — she would just look. So I got to shoot there, and that’s where I shot a lot of photos. That was my location.

JR: Gotcha. So that was your spot for good light. You knew what time to be there and everything, right?

EO: Yeah, the wall was facing this way. So the sun would go down this way. Over the house, it’s going right down here, so the wall was shades. But the light would bounce off the building here, and there’s an alley. So it was perfect lighting.

JR: How did you discover that?

EO: I was just driving by and I needed a black backdrop with some texture.

JR: You were like, “Whoa, the holy grail.” Like Indiana Jones found the rock, the gemstone. That’s amazing. Is there any work you use flash on?

EO: No, not really.

JR: When you shoot inside, you just go really wide on the aperture? I mean, that’s your thing, right? How do you get the stability? Is that a technique that you don’t learn?

EO: You just don’t go below 60.

JR: Thanks for that advice. [Laughs]

EO: You have to see the flavor of this. Google “Crazy lady lava house.”

JR: What’s up with that lady?

EO: She’s a crazy lady. A designer from the ’70s. And she was real big and then she fell off like that. [Snaps fingers] And she went crazy.

JR: And that’s the story. That’s your narrative. So funny. That’s hilarious. Does she know that you’ve done these shoots?

EO: No.

JR: You should drop her a photo one day.

EO: She died.

JR: She died?

EO: Yeah. Because if she didn’t die … I was so fucking stupid. I should have shot her. You know, I should have shot her … but she died. I never got to talk to her. I used to use her wall.

JR: It’s like breaking the fourth wall though, no pun intended.

EO: You know, I wish I had gone in her house and done a shoot.

JR: You had some connection with her, whether you knew her or not. Something drew you there. There’s no one shooting street work like this anymore. What’s your take on the whole instant generation of Instagram photography?

EO: They’re all biters. The whole lot of ’em.

JR: You just raised a great thread of a story quite frankly.

EO: I shot Taraji P. Henson in the truck, and I don’t even remember what the fuck that shoot was for, but now she’s in Empire and a big movie star. But you see the lighting and the texture, you know?

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Copyright Estevan Oriol

JR: Incredible. Perfect. Who are some of your most memorable shoots? I mean, there are so many. I love that none of them are in the studio. That’s what I really also love about your images.

EO: The ones closest to my heart are all the Cypress Hill photos, ’cause of all the camaraderie and family and brotherhood that we have. ’Cause we toured for 10 years together. So those are the most meaningful to me, but then there’s, you know, the people that you grew up looking at. Like Robert DeNiro and Pacino, you know? Like, I told my wife, I was so happy that I shot Dennis Hopper. I told my wife, “If I ever shot Al Pacino or Dennis Hopper, I could quit photography.” Like, I made it.

JR: You got Pacino, right? You didn’t get DeNiro?

EO: I got both of ’em.

JR: The diversity of the book is incredible; I agree with you. So all those days journeying with House of Pain and Cypress Hill, and just seeing where music and all this digital photography has gone, the whole world’s become so synthetic … who stands out to you now as an artist? Who would you like to shoot?

EO: Remember her story? Ali Larter. She’s a huge actress. I don’t even know who took these. This is my car.

JR: Beautiful. What happened?

EO: She was a girl that was friends with the editor of a men’s magazine. And she was like a hot model.

JR: Maxim? Details?

EO: Something like that. She was friends with one of those editors, and he goes, “Hey, let’s do something and see what happens. I’ll write a big story on you just like the gas story. And let’s see what comes out of it. And they did like a 10-page story where she’s growing up and is the hottest thing in Hollywood. She took off.

JR: So it was almost a stunt.

EO: Yeah. And it was a known thing. This was my favorite picture from that. And it’s on the back of my car. She was on Heroes. She was the star of Heroes, Obsessed, Legally Blonde. Final Destination, she was the main star. Varsity Blues, Resident Evil.

JR: There they are. [JR points to photo of DeNiro and Pacino.]

EO: Righteous Kill, with 50 Cent as the bad guy. But the cool thing is that I didn’t know when I was laying out the book, I put Dre and Eminem together, and I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t notice till after. Danny Trejo and them were heaped together, but I didn’t notice. And this is Travis Barker’s baby’s mom.

JR: So you have this whole Instagram generation of these photographers who have all these followers. They have no technical 101 skills. You think 101 skills are absolutely necessary to call yourself a professional photographer?

EO: No, I don’t feel that. To call yourself a professional photographer, you would make a living at it. You need to get paid. There is no plumber out there going around doing a plumbing job for free. And you know doing it for cheaper than anybody else, that’s like a handyman, you know? But the professional plumbers, they’re the ones who make a living out of just plumbing. They got the truck that says “I’m a plumber,” and all they do is lay pipe, you know? I’m a photographer. I make a living out of it. All my bills are paid by photography. For me and my whole family. I have four kids, three grandkids, a wife, you know?

JR: So how do you handle social? If I go look on your Instagram, are you prolific on it? Or are you very low on the digital? If I go to your page, are you consistently communicating with your followers?

EO: I don’t post consistently. I don’t communicate with everybody that comes on there. I try to repost everybody’s stuff on storyboards, you know? Just to give them a shot on you.

JR: People have birthed success from social media, so they’re dependent on it.

EO: And I came into it late.

JR: It’s generational, man.

EO: Yeah … there were kids that were on there. There are photographers that have over a million followers. And I’m better than them. I work more than them. A work-for-hire type of thing. But again, I don’t have the following that they have.

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JR: So I had this conversation with Jonathan Mannion not too long ago. He did a program with Reebok that took these young kids out, and he does, like, a master class, and one kid had like … he was a major Instagram photographer.

EO: Yeah.

JR: Jonathan is not only a great photographer, he is a master of technique.

EO: He’s like the poster boy for how to be a photographer, and — that’s it, man. He’s the poster boy for how to be a photographer. He started it the right way. He went with [Richard Avedon] and apprenticed with him. You know, that’s how you fuckin’… that’s how you become the shit. You go and apprentice … the best thing to do. He apprenticed under Avedon. He learned everything that he got from him, and he applied it to his own career. But he didn’t bite his style. None of his pictures look like an Avedon shot. The great thing for me about him is he went and apprenticed under the best dude. He got everything that he could get from him and applied it for his own unique style. And nothing of his looks like Avedon’s. But you know that he knows he could copy Avedon all day long.

JR: All day long. So he said he had this thing with this kid in the class. The kid was incapable of using a manual camera and staging and setting proper light. That was the moral of the story. He’s like, “Fucking kid has, like, 1.9 million followers. And all the ads and sponsorship programs…” It’s crazy, and he can’t even understand aperture.

EO: I remember someone telling me to come down to the studio. GZA was coming. I shot four rolls of film. They all came out laughing. I don’t know what the fuck happened. It looks like … if I showed it to a photographer, and I was like, “Hey, bro, what do you think happened here?” Well, you had the lens cap on. But there’s no way I could have, because on those four rolls of film, there’s one shot, here and there. “So what do you mean?” I don’t know what the fuck happened. But there’s no answer for the film. How could four rolls do the same thing? But if you look at the pictures, there’s one shot here of GZA and Hugo, I’ll show you. This is the only fucking picture on the roll of film.

JR: All of these images have such a big story.

EO: See, this is B-Real in the studio with RZA.

JR: That’s incredible.

EO: And this is like ’95, ’96. But this is no. 2 on the proof sheet, right?

JR: So how did it…

EO: All the other 35 shots come out black. But that’s no. 2, and no. 1 was black. No. 35 was black.

JR: Completely black.

EO: Not like just dark and you can’t see the image. Fucking black. And there’s three more rolls like that.

JR: That’s crazy.

EO: Yeah.

JR: And you still, to this day, have no idea what happened.

EO: I have no idea.

JR: Do you scan your years and years of works, or are they sitting in folders?

EO: I’ve got about 500,000 negatives.

JR: Fuck!

EO: So what I’m trying to but Imagine how much money I spent already. My fucking film, processing, proofing? And now scanning!

JR: But your best work and your personal favorites, you should scan. I got a guy for you. He’s very good. Maybe while you’re in Brooklyn, you should see him. It’s really good to see you, brother. I’ve never really gotten a chance to sit with you one on one. I got a lot of shit I want to talk to you about. The story behind the photos … you know that’s what I’m all about, so I look at this book. A spark goes off in my mind that because you have endless stories, as an extension to this, when you have the time — I don’t know if you Instagram so much — but people want to hear your stories.

EO: Yeah, yeah.

Buy a copy of Oriol’s book, This Is Los Angeles. Click this link to buy now.