‘Unsettling and arousing’: The imaginative gymnastics of Luna Lopez’s portraits

All images © Luna Lopez
This article appears in our 2023 Ones to Watch issue. Secure your copy via the BJP Shop, limited stock available

The Danish Ones to Watch photographer grew up in a world of activity and dance, informing her tender images which evoke the early experiments of Sally Mann

As an only child, Luna Lopez spent a lot of time on her own. Raised by her single mother and grandparents in and around Copenhagen, she attributes her “big imagination” to those formative years. Growing up, Lopez was always very active, playing the drums and practising gymnastics most days of the week. But that all came to a halt when she turned 14 and was diagnosed with arthritis. Unable to use her body like she used to, she turned her creative focus to photography. In 2015, she attended Fatamorgana, the art photography school in Copenhagen, then moved to Sweden to study fine art photography at HDK-Valand in Gothenburg from 2018 to 2021. 

Lopez’s mother is a dancer. Contrasting her mother’s fluid movement with her own severely restricted motion led to the photographer’s fascination with the body and its expression. “When my body stopped functioning in my teenage years, I became aware of how fragile it is and how easily it can get damaged,” she explains. Lopez uses her lens to explore that fragility, and trace a multitude of bodies and forms. She frames them as artworks; the contours of reclining limbs, the crevices of folded skin. “To photograph the body in a sculptural way has become a way to really study it and maybe even to normalise and alter the sides we don’t normally show.”

Lopez’s practice is rooted in classic documentary – she names Sally Mann “as a person whose work lives within me. She was the first photographer who really moved me.” As her work evolved, Lopez preferred to practise in a more controlled and staged environment. Her process is slow, intimate and playful. Working solely in analogue, she photographs friends and people who move within similar social circles. Her favourite subjects are people she feels she can connect with personally, describing her photography as “driven by emotions”.

“To photograph the body in a sculptural way has become a way to really study it”

Rather than working in series, Lopez considers each image as a standalone piece before folding it into a sequence. She is inspired by “pictures and videos of random things, like eating contests, pranks, the Olympics, blowing bubblegum, hula hoops – you name it,” she says. “It might sound stupid, but these absurd things awaken my imagination.”

Forms and faces are often found in tense dialogue with everyday objects: hairbrushes, wheels, flowers and springs. In one unnerving portrait, a woman presses two metal forks against her closed eyelids. “It symbolises looking within yourself, to examine or observe your innermost emotions and behaviours,” she explains. “I don’t think it’s always an easy task to do, and not pain-free either. Sometimes it feels like thoughts and feelings can eat you up – hence the forks.”

These underlying metaphors create depth. Even in the more delicate portraits, Lopez plays with ambiguity. “I believe that my pictures can be perceived as both unsettling and arousing, a pleasant discomfort,” she says. “Something that I find very interesting and that keeps recurring in my pictures is the dynamic between intimacy and violence. They are complete opposites, but somehow they often go hand in hand.” She adds: “I prefer it when people have to look twice at my pictures. I’d rather that people leave with more questions than answers.”

Photographer Emma Sarpaniemi, who nominated Lopez for Ones to Watch, first encountered her work when Lopez was studying at HDK-Valand. “I was fascinated by her raw and beautiful visual language, the way she portrayed people and everyday life,” says Sarpaniemi. “It’s hard to capture the essence of her work in words. I wanted others to experience the beauty of it.“ Lopez is preparing for a group exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall in June, and a solo show in Copenhagen at Oblong gallery. She also hopes to publish a photobook soon.

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.