From Street Life to Hollywood: The Father-Son Photographers Capturing L.A.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes father knows best. And sometimes son does.
By Jennifer Billock
The second time Los Angeles street photographers Estevan Oriol and his father, Eriberto, had a joint photography show, the gallery owner chose to mix their work together instead of separating it by person. That particular show in the series, called “Like Father, Like Son,” visually illustrated just how similar the two artists are, even if they hadn’t realized it themselves.
It makes sense, though. The Oriols are a photography powerhouse. Estevan grew up seeing his father’s work firsthand when he visited from his mother’s house in L.A. during the summer and holidays. In the early ’90s, Eriberto and his wife gave Estevan his first real camera outside the Polaroid he was using to take candid shots. The initial advice Eriberto gave his son — and really, the only advice he’s ever given him about photography — was minimal: a two-minute lesson on how cameras work and a suggestion to document everything. Now the two have high-profile careers; Eriberto as an activism-oriented photographer, and Estevan as a celebrity and counterculture photographer.
But it didn’t start out quite so easy. Estevan only saw his father’s photography when he visited, and that lack of persistent influence made him trepidatious about the career. At the time Eriberto gave him the camera, he was touring with House of Pain and Cypress Hill, working as a tour manager, and heavily involved in lowrider culture — things Eriberto suggested he document.
“At first I was not into it,” Estevan says. “Even though my dad was a photographer, the majority of photographers that I knew of were paparazzi and tourists. I didn’t want to look like any of those guys walking around with a camera.”
That is, until he realized he might actually have a talent for it. He had some photos developed at a lab and the owners asked to blow up some of his work and sell it. They sold eight out of 11 of Estevan’s prints — more than they’d ever sold for one artist. He began to get paid work after that and switched to full-time photography in 2005.
Eriberto’s career had a bit of a different trajectory. He began taking photos seriously while living in San Diego, using the camera as an activist medium to document social-justice issues like the local homeless population and a lack of health care — challenges that continue to this day. When Estevan was young, Eriberto would sometimes take him along on photo trips to see how these issues affected his area. Estevan’s current work reflects that influence: He also photographs the homeless and does some work with skid row inmates.
Now the two work together whenever possible, doing joint photo shoots and shows. They cite each other as inspirations in their own work. The concept of giving minimal advice, though, continues with the pair today. Eriberto doesn’t really critique Estevan’s work, opting instead to share positive comments that show appreciation for the framing and style of his son’s photos. And in lieu of advice, Estevan offers opportunities for his dad to come out and shoot with him, chances Eriberto jumps at because he knows his son has an impeccable eye for what could be important work.
“He knows I’m good enough to where he doesn’t have to say, ‘Hey, man, you need to do this,’ ” Estevan says of his father’s input on his work. “It’s not like a sport where you’re like, ‘If you would’ve given more uppercut and a left hook, you could’ve won that round.’ He’s more likely to tell me I’m really doing nice work and he likes looking at my pictures.”
Both try to make a difference with their respective photography, capturing what Eriberto calls “the forbidden” — issues society might choose to try to forget, like homeless veterans or gang culture or protests. But the main difference between the two, something you can see if you look closely past the eerily similar styles, is distance. Eriberto focuses on more landscape-style shots, while Estevan gets right up into people’s faces.
“What he’s been able to do is bring out their character and show them in a way where you can appreciate them as human beings and also as an art form,” Eriberto says. “There have been others to shoot gang members, but not like he did. He made it into an art form.”
That’s why Estevan has also become a powerhouse in the celebrity photography world — he’s shot everyone from Eminem to Dennis Hopper to Kim Kardashian. Hollywood elite recognized in his work his skill at getting to the essence of a person, and soon they were approaching him to capture them.
The differences between father and son go a bit beyond just the photos too. Estevan is always thinking with a business mind, Eriberto says. When Eriberto was starting out, Chicano works were not in any exhibits anywhere.
“We didn’t even think of being in the gallery,” Eriberto says. “We just did our artwork, whatever that was. That stays in the back of my head, so it’s really hard for me to be a businessperson and a hustler for my work. Estevan’s got moxie at that.”
And that’s part of what makes Eriberto even prouder of him.
“I didn’t pass the baton on to my son,” he says. “He just took it and ran, and he’s done a great job with it.”
- Jennifer Billock, OZY AuthorContact Jennifer Billock