Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine. Discover more here.
Luis Alberto Rodriguez was born and raised in New York, and has been a dancer his whole life. His parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic not long before he was born, his father working as a cleaner in a restaurant, and his mother in a factory, settling in an area of the city where the crack epidemic was rife and a good education was hard to come by.
“I was relentless in my desire to fly away,” says Rodriguez. Enrolling on a government-funded arts programme that enabled him to go to dance school was his way out. Training first at the so-called ‘Fame’ school and then the prestigious Juilliard School in ballet, tap and contemporary dance, his drive to leave New York finally landed him a job with the National Theatre in Germany, with which he danced on some of the biggest stages in Europe.
Wherever he went, Rodriguez carried a small camera with him, photographing his friends, as well as people on the streets. One day, he noticed posters for the Forsythe Company dance troupe around the city of Mannheim. “I was fascinated with them; so different from the formal ones in the USA,” he says. “Bodies were twisted and discombobulated, the picture was cut up. I felt drawn to it.”
By the time he celebrated his 30th birthday (he is now 38), Rodriguez had been dancing professionally for 14 years, and was disenchanted with the all-consuming career. Meanwhile, his Tumblr was gaining traction, and friends urged him to pursue photography more seriously.
With no formal training, Rodriguez was introduced to past and present icons through photobooks – Richard Avedon, Viviane Sassen and Irving Penn were particular interests. “It was like a huge map opened up in front of me, and I started seeing so many possibilities,” he says. He got his break when he won the Prix du Public at Hyères Photography Festival in 2017.
Rodriguez’s photographs are informed by his past and saturated with vivacity. The body is used sculpturally, often draped in layered fabric and items of clothing employed unconventionally, or decorated with objects. There is movement and tension throughout, accentuating sinewy muscles or framing an invisible shape. “I’m so used to seeing things not used in a traditional way,” he says. “But I’m not interested in being gimmicky. I’m trying to get that emotional response, even when something is very abstract. It might be a tilt of the head, or a shoulder that’s higher – something that you feel and might not understand, but are intrigued by.”
The photographer has his first solo exhibition at PhotoIreland, running 02 May to 31 July. Shot on black-and- white lm and titled The People of the Mud, it is a clear evolution of his aesthetic investigations. “I’m always seeing how I can instruct the body in some way,” he says. “I want the work to be informed by the body, but not necessarily dictated by it.” He insists he is not interested in making dance photography: “My eye is so shaped in that way, that for me it’s too safe and too recognisable.” Despite that, he adds: “It’s important to bring your history with you.”