Luis Alberto Rodriguez, O.

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Loose Joints (here). Section-sewn debossed cloth hardcover with ribbon (27 x 32 cm), 156 pages, with 80 tritone plates. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by Loose Joints Studio. (Cover and spread shots below.)

O. is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a signed book housed in a hand-made blind debossed clamshell box, a signed hand-stamped certificate of authenticity, and a choice from two silver gelatin fiber handprints (10 x 12 cm), signed by the artist. Each print is in an edition of 12+3AP.

Comments/Context: The new photobook by the Dominican-American artist Luis Alberto Rodriguez takes inspiration from the philosophical ideas of the French philosopher and mystic thinker Simone Weil, the “chaos and uncertainty” of our times, and the artist’s heritage. The result is a book that offers an intense study of the body and spirituality. Rodriguez’s intimate black and white nudes portray the human form using a cast of diverse bodies, ages, backgrounds, and identities, challenging his subjects to let go. His background as a trained dancer (he graduated from the Juilliard School and performed worldwide for over a decade before pursuing photography) is reflected in his image-making practice. He says that he uses “the knowledge of the body I have to get a bit closer to some kind of honesty.”  

The title of the book, the simple letter O., evokes many symbolic meanings. It resembles the shape of a mouth, references the idea of a circular cycle, and speaks to transcendence. The book is beautifully printed and all of the small design decisions reinforce the idea of spirituality and essentiality. The title, appears in the center of the cloth cover in red, and is repeated together with the artist’s name on the spine in all caps; a red cloth ribbon bookmark is another thoughtful design element. Inside, most of the photographs are the same size, and with just a few exceptions, are placed on the right page with a thin white border. There are no page numbers, captions, or texts, immersing the viewer in a continuous visual flow, and the book easily lays flat, making the interaction even more enjoyable. 

Rodriguez started working on the series during the pandemic and the project took roughly two and a half years to finish. At that time, the artist lived in Berlin, away from his family in New York City. Initially, he was photographing his friends, and through various conversations, met more people who he photographed for the project. Each photo session was individually tailored, through dialogue and a trusting atmosphere. “I am cognizant of the fact that everyone I photographed has different physical capacities and I encouraged them to use their lives as a starting point for any kind of beginning.”

The book opens with a quote from Simone Weil, placed right on its red endpapers, “The divine emptiness fuller than fullness, has come to inhabit us.” Rodriguez’s stunning black and white portraits capture people in moments of stillness and movement, many appearing to be levitating or suspended mid-air. They are all shot against the same softened gray studio background, creating a sense of continuity. A portrait of a man crossing his hands on the chest opens the visual flow. He calmly looks straight at the camera, his right eye is cloudy, signaling he might be blind. His body shows the signs of aging, but his age also brings in a quiet sense of confidence and security. It is followed by an image of a person laying on the ground, with the bottom of his or her feet in the foreground while the body is left to darkness behind. We can see the details of the feet, each toe and its prints, the peeling skin, etc., pulling us into an engagement with the physicality of being human.

The people Rodriguez photographed are not dancers, and in documenting their movements, he lets their bodies choreograph themselves. His photographs capture the bodies as they twist and collapse, exploring the feelings of power and a loss of control, leading to surprisingly raw and open-ended encounters. In one photograph, a woman’s body moves in a certain rhythm, with her eyes closed and her braids following the movement of her body. A couple of pages later, a nude man lets his long dark hair, caught up in the air, guide his movements. 

A number of photographs capture coffee cups, as a reference to Rodriguez’s Dominican heritage. His mother practices tasseography, a method of fortune telling through coffee-cup reading, and while she declined to be photographed for this project, Rodriguez included the cups to incorporate her presence. The first time we see the coffee cup, it appears resting on its handle, filled with coffee ground patterns and a fly siting on its rim. These images of cups engage in a formal dialogue with the nudes, the curves and edges creating visual echoes.

As we move through the book, the photographs become increasingly cropped and abstract. One image captures a wide open mouth as white teeth stand in contrast to its otherwise black surroundings. In another shot, intertwined fingers take up the entire frame, reminiscent of a sculpture. There is also a photograph of a coffee cup caught in the moment it breaks into pieces, in a way resembling some of the more violent or startling movement of the bodies in Rodriguez’s photographs. In the second to last shot, the broken shards of the cup are neatly placed together, like the petals of a flower, and an image of wrinkled feet filling the entire frame closes the visual flow. These are the same feet that we saw at the beginning of the book, symbolically closing the full circle. Rodriguez says that by ending with feet, he “wanted to return to the essence of what grounds us to the earth we all share.”

Another recent photobook, Heat of Sand by Satoshi Tsuchiyama (reviewed here), captures life in Israel and Palestine through the lens of contemporary dance, drawing visual parallels between physicality and movement. And Lotte van Raalte captures a wide range of female bodies, finding beauty in both formal lines and natural imperfections, in her book Body (reviewed here). These books show us the body without sexualizing or commodifying it, inviting us to simply observe and admire it.

As a photobook object, O. is well-conceived and elegantly designed. Rodriguez delivers an arresting visual flow of powerfully raw portraits and nudes, their unexpectedly graceful movements evoking unresolved emotions and reflecting our human search for purity, especially at a time of uncertainty. These memorable forms make O. stand out as one of the strongest photobooks published this year.

Collector’s POV: Luis Alberto Rodriguez is represented by Second Name Agency (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Blow Up Press (here). Clothbound hardcover with embossing and tipped in photograph, 160 x 220 mm, 100 pages, with 54 photographs. Includes ... Read on.

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