FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
You’ve seen his work from the rap album covers you’ve bought, music videos you’ve watched, and the infamous “LA Chola” fingers that grace thousands of t-shirts. We sat with OG and L.A. legend Estevan Oriol to discuss today’s photographers, biters and his vantage point of West Coast culture, and why he wants to show us what his world is like from the outside looking in.
Words by: Richard Coyle
Snaps by: Leah Moriyama & Estevan Oriol
For those who know, Estevan Oriol is a certified ed OG in the game whose photography transcends genres from the grittiness of boulevards to the corporate boardrooms. Estevan Oriol is a visual artist, a global icon, and tastemaker whose works of art and influence has been seen from Estrada Courts in East LA to the Museum of Contemporary Arts. Estevan’s works have allowed millennials and white collar suburbanites entry to view Los Angeles street culture through his lens. Much like his predecessors in the game like Helmut Newton, Robert Frank, and Irving Penn, Estevan has changed the black and white photography forever. Today’s photographers still reference Estevan’s body of work as he remains the gold standard in black and white photography. But as you’ll soon find out, he’s much more than a photographer. He’s the conduit between a cultural translator, curator of the west coast street scene and corporate America. When we asked what was the main differentiators were between himself and contemporary photographers, he said,“Sure, there are all kinds of new photographers now, but they could never get the content I can. I can go from the hood to a corporate boardroom and be respected.“ That couldn’t be any truer because he has definitely earned the respect of the streets which allows him zero barrier of entry to the most perilous and sketchy neighborhoods you wouldn’t dare get caught slippin’ in. In direct contrast, he’s also shooting on the set of Hollywood’s ruling elite. In the early 90’s Estevan started off as the tour manager for the legendary Los Angeles rap groups Cypress Hill and House of Pain. Estevan developed his passion for photography by way of touring the globe coupled with an early influence along with an old camera his father gave to him; photographer Eriberto Oriol. Estevan began chronicling life on the road and developed a name for himself during the golden-age of hip-hop. Almost 2 decades later, Oriol’s extensive works showcase the juxtaposition of Hollywood’s glitz and glamor along with the grit and heart of LA’s counterculture. He’s shot the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Blink 182, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dennis Hopper, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Snoop just to name a few. He has also directed shoots for globally-acclaimed photographers such as Luca Babini for GQ Italy and Ellen von Unwerth for Sang Bleu. In addition to producing campaigns for Fortune 50 companies, Estevan has designed numerous album covers and directed music videos for heavyweights including Eminem, Cypress Hill, Blink 182, Snoop Dogg and others. His work has been showcased in several esteemed galleries and institutions such as the Mesa Contemporary Art Center, the Smithsonian, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and The Museum of Contemporary Art with the groundbreaking and game-changing: Art in the Streets exhibit. If his body of work wasn’t enough, he’s also released two best-selling books: LA Woman and LA Portraits. Both of which garnered him critical acclaim and cemented him as Los Angeles’ unofficial mayor and tour guide by way of his lens. Estevan takes time out of his hectic schedule to sit with us and talk about being original and how biting styles would garner you an ass whooping back in the day.
How long have you been shooting for?
Early to mid-nineties is when I started really getting into it and realized I could make money doing it.
What are the main differentiators between photography now and back then?
It’s so much easier for photographers now. You don’t have to pay for the film so you could keep shooting until you get the right shot. Back in the day, I feel you had to have a better eye and more skill. We didn’t have the luxury then to spend endless money on film. Back then, you had to be good; whereas now, you have the luxury of software editing and endless amounts of shots to take. Nowadays, anybody could be a photographer, but can you make a living doing it? That’s what separates the men from the boys, or women from the girls. If not, half the shit you’re going to end up doing is not what you want. It’s not inspirational.
Why do you opt to shoot black and white?
I got my photography from my dad and he shot a lot of black and white. I used to go with him all the time to this lab called Focus and they used to develop and print for Helmut Newton all the big guys and Fotek for color. I always gravitated toward black and white. It makes your pictures timeless and I just like that aesthetic better.
You have traveled all over the world. Have you gravitated over shooting other subject matter?
I like to shoot everything. The thing is, people, try to pigeonhole me and label me as this photographer who only shoots hip-hop, lowriders, gangsters or girls. I can shoot anything.
What are your thoughts on people copying your style?
You see the influence I have given to people. It’s cool, but it doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t get a check for that. Back in the day, nobody bit your style. You just didn’t do it. You would get beat up for that shit. Nowadays, it’s the cool thing to do. Remember, when fitted hats were the shit back then and snapbacks were wack? Well, at one point, copying and biting were wack. To me it’s disrespectful.
Do you have any advice for an up and coming photographer?
I would just tell people now to shoot as much as you can and be influenced by people you like, but make it your own. I actually stopped looking at other people’s shit because I didn’t want to be influenced so much to the point where my shit started looking like theirs. It’s easy to copy others, but hard to do your own shit.
What are your thoughts on technology in terms of photography?
I used to be a film freak. I used to hate digital because I thought it was cheating or you didn’t have the skill. I can go out in the sun and determine my ASA or ISO on my film and determine what my F-Stop should be or shutter speed. A digital camera just does it for you. With film, you need a light meter or just wing it because you were that good and that’s where I got to. With Instagram, you now have filters and borders. When I did it back then, the sloppy borders were made in a dark room with a certain type of frame that made the border. I thought it was just foul back then.
Being in the industry for so long, how do you still manage to stay on top of the game?
You could get lost in the negative or step your game up. One time I got caught up in what people are doing now in terms of biting. I had a conversation with this old school cat and he told me, “be more Estevan Oriol than Estevan Oriol.” Shit blew my mind. Especially when an old OG tells you that. Shit really hit home. It’s a constant battle you go through in your mind to stay 10 steps ahead of everybody.
Have you ever been in sketchy situations while shooting?
I always have to watch my shit. If you’re from LA, you just have that mentality, LA came up with the term, don’t get caught slippin’. Know where you are and know your environment.
Tell us about your best-selling book LA Woman.
My publisher wanted me to do LA Portraits first. But that was when the digital age really started picking up and tons of people were shooting that type of gangster shit. If you were Mexican, you had a cousin or friend who was a cholo. I was so burnt out from that and I wanted to just go a different route. They asked what do you want to show? I said I have tons of pictures of women in LA and they thought it was a mistake, but I thought worldwide people would like girls more. For the most part, everybody loves women, straight, gay, men, women, they all love a beautiful woman and it ended up a success.
What’s next for Estevan?
Last night, I had the most amazing show at Milk Studios complete with my all my photography work and lowriders and it was a perfect event for West Coast culture. That has set the bar and now I have to figure out how to top that. I had been working on that show for a year. I had a goal of releasing 25 books in my lifetime and now, I have 23 left to do. Next year Cartoon and I are doing to be doing something dope for our 25 year anniversary of working together.
What are your thoughts on the current cannabis movement evolution?
I think it’s great that people can smoke legally now. I mean you can drink until you pass out, drive and kill a whole family? You should be able to smoke a joint, chill and relax and people that need it for medical reasons. It’s opened a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs. You can do a lot with technology. There’s a lot of money in that game.
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