The girl with the sodas, I said, “Hey, do you mind if I get a picture of you?” I had already ordered food, and she said, “Yeah, sure.” And she was actually going to give those sodas to somebody, and I said, “Oh, wait, hold it right there!” The people that were gonna get the sodas, they were patient: “No, go ahead.” They were right out of the frame right there. She let me get a couple of snaps of that, and that was it.
There’s a bit of conventional wisdom that says to be a great photographer, one should carry a camera at all times. Los Angeles-based photographer Rafael Cardenas is the living embodiment of this methodology. One can, it appears, become a great photographer simply by shooting every day. In the process of trying to learn photography, he happened to create the definitive body of work depicting life in East Los Angeles.
Cardenas cultivated an interest in photography as a child, but he’s only been shooting seriously since 2010. He took pictures in elementary school and even developed film and made prints in the darkroom.
“When I was a little older, I got myself a Rebel,” he says, “a Canon film camera, and I would shoot around with that. But I never really had enough money to develop film all the time, so I would shoot one roll, like, every six months. Little by little, I’d see friends with nice cameras, and I would say, ‘Wow, can I play with that?’ And people would let me use their equipment. A friend’s dad had a photo business, and one day he said, ‘Just grab that bag of gear from the closet, and you can use it for a while.’ I went in there, and there was a ridiculous amount of lenses and cameras. It was pretty amazing. People trusted me, and I was able to learn that way.”
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Cardenas as a self-taught photographer, even a bit of a renaissance man. He has worked for law offices, doctors’ offices and an architectural firm, acted on stage and screen, fronted a popular Los Angeles band (Slowrider), gigged as a graphic designer and eventually landed a job writing for a local art magazine called Citizen LA. It was there, in 2009, that he reignited the dormant love of photography that had simmered since his youth.
“I was writing for them,” he says, “and I started to want to take my own photographs. So I talked to the photo editor, and he sold me my first Canon digital camera, the 5D. I still have it. It’s great. He sold me only the body, and I used the lens from my old Rebel film camera. And, so, with that thing I shot my first year. That was 2010.
“As 2009 was winding down,” Cardenas continues, “I decided to do a photo blog in 2010 so that I could shoot every single day. The photo editor gave me the greatest advice I ever had, because nobody had ever really taught me. He said, ‘You have to shoot manual.’ I met him at a bar to get the camera, and he was, like, ‘Look, you have to keep this thing on manual, and you have to learn what this is and you have to learn what this is,’ and I went home and I wrote down all those things, and I started to research and research. So 2010 was when I said, I’m going to shoot every single day so that I can, you know, use this every single day. That was when I just started to really dig into it, and it picked up rather quickly where people started to notice. People started wanting me to do exhibits and things like that. It’s ridiculous. I know how lucky I am, because from that time to now, and I’m having my first museum show; it’s ridiculous.
“I consider myself a newb still,” he adds, “but people are telling me, ‘You’re already getting shows, so you’ve got to stop using that. You can’t say that you’re new to this anymore.’ But I still feel very new to this, and I still feel like I’m learning every single shoot. I’m still figuring things out.”
Cardenas does the occasional studio shoot for bands and customers who request it, but, in general, he says, he prefers to work in a simpler, more straightforward way. From the gut, he says.
“I tried street photography because it’s just me and the camera,” he says. “When I do other kinds of shoots, studio shoots or portraits, there’s a lot more thinking that goes into it than turning and clicking. I’m not a technical photographer; I’m very much from the gut. I like to just feel things out and shoot. But when I get into a studio, it’s different. I think theater informed the way I shoot as well, because in theater, I learned to live in the moment and be in the moment. That’s one of the biggest exercises you do—where did you come from, where are you going, and why are you here? You’re always asking that question as an actor. So when I see things in the street, I kind of interact with them that way, and thinking like a writer and all that, it all fits in and you get kind of a little narrative that I try to tell in the photo.”
Over more than half a decade, from 2010 through 2015, Cardenas carried his camera practically everywhere. He lived his life and took pictures along the way. And it turns out when you do this—carry a camera and look actively everywhere you go—you find a lot of moments to photograph. And if you’re gifted and deliberate, as Cardenas clearly is, you create a beautifully full and complex picture of the life you lead and the people you encounter.
“For the first three years,” he says, “I just kept shooting as much as I could. I needed to shoot every day. People would ask me, ‘Why do you shoot East LA so much?’ Well, I shoot wherever I’m at, and I happen to be at East LA a lot, so.…
“Some of my photos,” he adds, “a lot of them are like stolen moments. They don’t see me, and I don’t see them, for the most part. I’m just stealing these little moments.”
These stolen moments happen with strangers in a fleeting glimpse, as well as with friends and family in more intimate settings. At his family’s Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, he stole a moment with his niece and her cousin as the elder got ready in her room.
“They were getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner,” Cardenas says, “and the little cousin in the back, she isn’t allowed to put on makeup, so she’s just looking out. And then this older cousin is right at the age where they allowed her to put on makeup, so it’s her first time putting it on around the family. This was taken from the back of her head into the mirror.”
It’s images like these that make Cardenas’ work so complete in a way very few photographic studies can be. He depicts life as a whole—the good, the bad, many just fleeting moments, from birth to death and everything in between—instead of aiming for a sensationalized sliver that would mischaracterize the whole of life in his neighborhood.
“There are definitely people who have done this before,” Cardenas says, “but it’s usually been… I had some people from VICE magazine call me and they wanted to do a story on Chicano culture. It never happened, but I was going to be interviewed on camera, and I said, ‘Did you just Google my name and find me, and have you looked at my photos? Because you talk about Chicano culture, do you want me to show you, like, lowrider culture and all that, because that’s not my photography.’ That’s something that I respect a lot, and I respect the people who have covered that tremendously. It’s not that I don’t love that, but I’m not around that. I don’t see that. Some people go to those things every day, every week. But I don’t do that.”
Gentrification is altering the fabric of many regions throughout Los Angeles, so it might be natural to assume Cardenas was on a mission to document his neighborhood before it disappears. But, no, in fact.
“I didn’t set out to do the gentrification thing,” he says. “A lot of times, it’s kind of like now, no matter what kind of art you do, people will say, ‘Oh, are you sculpting this statue because of gentrification? You live in Boyle Heights; are you trying to express how gentrification hurt you?’ No, it’s not always about gentrification. This is even amongst each other, even amongst us artists. It’s the question and the word that we just… It’s just ridiculous right now, this whole gentrification thing. I don’t have that mission, but in shooting every day I did capture a lot of gentrification.”
What was Cardenas’ mission, then, if not to paint a deliberate picture about life in a part of Los Angeles that may be fundamentally changing? His only mission, he says, was to become a better photographer.
“I was really just documenting life,” Cardenas says. “Every single day, every nook and cranny that I could find. And it was really like whatever caught my eye, you know. Little, tiny things. I don’t think I was looking for anything, in particular. I would a lot of times think, ‘Make an insignificant moment significant.’ That’s something that runs through my head. Just, like, trying to make little tiny things bigger.”
When his project began, Cardenas used his gut instincts to react to subjects that presented themselves. He possesses a natural affability that makes subjects comfortable with him and lends itself to many of the great portraits in his portfolio. And although he was never a “shoot from the hip” sort of photographer, he still enjoyed the anonymity that allowed him to—as he puts it—steal moments unobserved. But as his project grew, so did his notoriety. Ultimately, it became more difficult to observe life through his lens. Suddenly his camera was altering behaviors rather than simply recording them.
“I don’t know if this is exactly what happened,” he says, “but I would be able to pull out my camera and people didn’t expect anything, and I was just able to do whatever, right? But now I pull out the camera, and I don’t feel as, like, hidden from sight. I used to feel like a fly on the wall no matter where I was. And now I don’t feel that way anymore because people will ‘know’ me, and be, like, ‘Oh, there’s Rafa and he has his camera.’ So it’s kind of different now.”
From the start of his project, Cardenas may have dramatically improved as an aesthete and a technician, but his tools and techniques have remained simple and straightforward. He upgraded to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II for much of the project, and his lens preferences are simple—usually, the Sigma 50mm or the Canon 24-105mm. He’ll sometimes deploy fill flash if needed, but his kit has remained streamlined. The same goes for post-processing, where Cardenas eschews Photoshop in favor of Lightroom.
The photo editor who sold him his first digital SLR also turned him on to Lightroom, which is the post-processing tool he still uses today for all of his organization, editing and black-and-white conversions. He took a decidedly unscientific approach to learning it—playing with buttons and sliders, and learning about them on YouTube—but all with a specific aesthetic direction in mind, that of one of his favorite photographers, Sebastião Salgado.
“There are people that just click the black-and-white button,” Cardenas says, “and you can see that when you look at an image. I want to get the darkness in there and bring up the shadows sometimes. I just play with the sliders until it feels good, until it feels like it has some kind of weight to it. Salgado’s photos have this intense feel, and that was sometimes what I tried to capture when I started to edit the black-and-white stuff. And how sharp he gets with his images, I would do that a lot in the beginning, I would try to imitate that. I didn’t know this at first, but I would just keep editing until it felt like me. Until it felt like, ‘Oh, that’s me. Yeah, that’s how I want it to feel.’”