An iconic Colombian photographer finds new life in NYC at 92

Nereo L贸pez (Courtesy Facebook)

Nereo L贸pez in Queens, New York. (Courtesy Facebook)

Nereo L贸pez isn鈥檛 a typical 92-year-old; he鈥檚 more like a typical young, starry-eyed artist who wakes up at noon and gets inspiration from everything around him. His small frame is overpowered by his bright blue eyes anxiously anticipating what is about to come next in his life. L贸pez has not only rediscovered his art, he has gotten a second chance at a successful career and fulfillment.

The Cruz de Boyac谩 winning photographer 鈥 one of the highest honors in Colombia 鈥 who had traveled the world taking photos, giving nearly 20 exhibitions, and published more than 10 works, saw his career plummet 12 years ago. 聽The man who met Gabriel Garc铆a M谩rquez聽and Pope Paul IV had his center, the Nereo Center of Teaching and Culture of Photography in Bogota, Colombia, shut down due to lack of funds. He says after the age of 40, in Colombia, it is very hard to find work because you鈥檙e considered too antiquated.

L贸pez says he was having thoughts of ending his life when a friend called from New York. She heard the distress in his voice about not being able to find a job, and how he was feeling depressed, so she bought him a ticket to the city that never sleeps 鈥 arriving the next day 鈥 to see if he鈥檇 like it better. He says he didn鈥檛 just like it better, he found another reason to keep living.

鈥淎s soon as I arrived, I ran to all the photo galleries,鈥 says L贸pez, describing his eagerness like a kid in an amusement park.

The title of his photo book published last year, called 鈥淣ereo L贸pez: Un Contador de Historias,鈥 describes what he is precisely 鈥 a storyteller. He says there was a time he used to have 14 cameras of different sizes to tell his stories. Now, he just uses one to make his life simpler and lighter 鈥 a compact Canon G9.

鈥淧hotography still fascinates me,鈥 says the man who one day started observing the faces of people leaving the subway and started a series of photos of just that. 鈥淲hat I have learned is to see.鈥

The talented L贸pez wasn鈥檛 always a photographer. He lost both parents at age 11, and started working when he was a teenager in a movie theater in Colombia, where he was promoted to manager after 10 years.

鈥淚t was World War II, and you couldn鈥檛 travel in a plane with a camera during that time,鈥 says L贸pez, explaining how his photography career began. 鈥淎 friend asked me to watch his camera while he went on a trip, and I started to practice with his camera.鈥

He says he learned on his own with a book and a correspondence course that he never finished, and he was always asking questions.

鈥淚 started taking photos in a series 鈥 like a movie,鈥 he says. Still today, he says he鈥檚 always thinking in series 鈥 perhaps because of the many years of films he鈥檚 seen in the movie theater where he worked. 鈥淚 always have my photos in my head, and I figure out what series they will go in later.鈥

When he was 27, he quit his movie house job, and started working as a photojournalist at one of Colombia鈥檚 largest newspapers, El Espectador. That is when he says he started to travel all over Colombia and started his photo collection for the book, 鈥淐olombia: Que Lindo Eres鈥/鈥滳olombia: How Beautiful You Are.鈥

鈥淭he subjects I most gravitated towards were children,鈥 says Lopez who also has a series called, 鈥淣i帽os Que No Rien鈥/鈥淐hildren Who Don鈥檛 Laugh.鈥 鈥淧erhaps because I didn鈥檛 really have a real childhood.鈥

In 1957, he became a chief photographer of the photographer鈥檚 magazine, Cromos, in Colombia. He says he was a photojournalist for 15 years before he started his center of photography where he taught up to 100 students at a time.

Since he鈥檚 been in New York City, he has not wasted any of his precious minutes. He鈥檚 been recognized by the New York City Council and has shown his work at the Queens Museum and El Museo del Barrio.

鈥淚t hasn鈥檛 been easy, because I don鈥檛 speak English,鈥 says L贸pez in his native Spanish.

He says he鈥檚 happy to not have to develop photos the old-fashioned way anymore. He鈥檚 well-equipped in his new one-bedroom apartment, in a building for the elderly, with bare white walls lined with varied books, including 鈥淢acs for Dummies.鈥 The centerpiece of his living room is a shiny new 27-inch Mac computer, complete with scanner and printer. He explains he loves his craft even more now with modern technology.

鈥淔or me, paper is obsolete,鈥 he exclaims, laughing.

One of the highlights of his week is going to a senior center in Queens, NY. Even though he moved to a different neighborhood, he still goes on Tuesdays, because that鈥檚 the day the seniors dance after lunch.

鈥淭o see these seniors dance and have fun is life,鈥 he says, joking that no one is older than him. 鈥淭hey have a desire to live. I take photos demonstrating their desire to live.鈥

He says he would like to publish a book of these photos called 鈥滾a Primavera del Ocaso鈥/鈥淭he Spring of the Sunset,鈥 but he鈥檒l only do it if it can have that name. He also started making goals for himself again 鈥 to be featured in a large museum such as, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and to live in Spain and Paris one day.

鈥淲hen I came to New York, I said to my friend, 鈥業 came to New York too late,鈥 says L贸pez, eager to start on a new project with some young artists he鈥檚 encountered. 鈥淢y friend responded, 鈥榊ou never arrive too late to New York, you just came with less time,鈥 but I hope to live 100 years more鈥 haven鈥檛 arrived to where I wanted to arrive, but I鈥檓 on my way.鈥

L贸pez says when he came to the U.S. and obtained his residency, and citizenship five years ago, he saw a new horizon.

鈥淲hen one sees a horizon, one sees life,鈥 says the photographer with never-ending vision. 鈥淗ere is where I鈥檒l stay.鈥

This article was originally published on NBCLatino.com聽on January 10, 2013.聽

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