Nereo López gazes out the window as an afternoon light bathes Harlem in a soft glow. His gaze, at times, looks like that of a Roman Emperor, or a senator taken from the pages of Plato. Above the sirens and screams from a nearby basketball court, I try to decipher his words through a costeño accent; as rhythmic as when he was growing up eight decades ago in Cartagena.

Born in a small town along the Colombian coast in 1920, Nereo López is widely considered one of the pioneering greats of Colombian photojournalism and a man who shaped the visual history of an undocumented nation.

At age 94, Nereo’s mind is lucid and his words peppered with localisms and phrases still widely used in coastal speak. After 12 years in New York, he grants me a rare interview, recalling precise details of a life lived as a darkroom technician, movie administrator, aspiring cinematographer and eventually, a master of photojournalist whose images took over the pages of the most prestigious glossies in the world.

Orphaned at age 11, Nereo, was forced to face the world alone and admits that he had to “take charge of his destiny.” Existing by frugal means, at age 17, he ventured off to Barranquilla, where an uncle introduced him to one Miguel Arenas: owner of the Rialto movie theatre. Fascinated by the gules of light which moved pictures, he landed his first job learning how to project the handful of movies which arrived by boat to these shores.

He was such a keen student of the craft, that Arenas promoted him to porter of the Barranquilla movie house, and while enrolled in high school to finish a formal education, he began to help distribute silent movies to other theatres eager for Hollywood’s grainy moving pictures.

Watching up to two movies a day, and receiving a pittance for his managing the Rialto, he began to explore the universe of sound editing and production, thanks to vanguard equipment which was also arriving in Barranquilla from the United States. It was the early days of Cine Colombia, and as audiences became more eager to see Chaplin and spaghetti westerns, Nereo was promoted to Manager of Cine Colombia’s southern region of the Santander department.

Fishermen in Taganga.
Fishermen in Taganga. by Nereo López.

He traveled by land and water to arrive at the steamy port of Barrancabermeja at a time when politically-motived fighting between Liberals and Conservatives was raging in the countryside. The year was 1948 and the populist liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, had been gunned down in the capital.

While Bogotá burned, Nereo was thrust into a world of white-suited oil workers and pious coronels hungry for official portraits. Packaging his own Black and White film to keep the ego centric military “elite” satisfied, and a form of payment for keeping the angry mob outside his movie theatre at a safe distance, Nereo, admits that he loved photography because it always took him back to cinema. “Many of the pictures that I have today, of the River Magdalena, were taken while I was a keen student of photography.” In the pages of a used book by Kodak, he learned about apertures, speed, focusing and film processing. “The drug had been injected.” His other great passion, baseball, became the subject of many of his first pictures.

A young assistant who oversaw the store next to the theatre, helped Nereo master the darkroom and process the pictures he was commissioned to take for the first photo identity cards, the Cédula de ciudadania. In his free time, he snapped dockyard workers, fishermen, and stoic state officials. “There is always an angel,” claims Nereo, of the first steps he took in becoming a photographer and who would go on to capture with his square-frame Rolleiflex the workings of everyday life in an industrializing Colombia, and strained by the weight of the impending military dictatorship of General Rojas Pinilla. During a half decade, after leaving the movie theatre business to become a news and feature correspondent, he amassed over 100,000 negatives, many housed under strict conservation guidelines by the state’s national library, Biblioteca Nacional.

In 1952, Nereo’s dream of working as a correspondent for the country’s leading dailies, came true, and he quickly was in demand from El Tiempo and El Espectador for his striking black and white images of personalities, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel José Olivella, John F.Kennedy and Pope Paul IV. As he outgrew his Rollei, he took up 35mm film and worked incessantly to create indelible pictures of the common man, the dispossessed, the unfamous.

Coming of age during photojournalism’s golden era, Nereo López, was documenting his nation, with the same determination as his global counterparts, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn and Eddie Adams. He was not a war correspondent, but Colombia, as Nereo states, “has always had its share of conflict.”

With an empathetic eye, and a quixotic quest to tell the lives of unsung heroes, a whole generation of aspiring photographers began to take up their own cameras and learn the secrets of a man whose images were now gracing the pages of Look and LIFE.

Celebrating mass in canoes.
Celebrating mass in canoes.

As the Cartier Bresson who navigated the Magdalena to Barranquilla, creating in-depth photo essays for the Brazilian magazine, O Cruzeiro, López’s eye became more acute, more poignant, yet markably inspired by his youthful dreams of becoming a cinematographer. Editing with a lens and developing his images at night with plates and bowls for chemicals, after years on the coast, the essayist was asked by Cromos magazine to become its chief photographer. He left small town Colombia for Bogotá.

In 1987, the photographer, keen to pass on his knowledge of the craft created a photographic center in the capital called Enseñanza y Cultura Fotografíca. It would change the direction of his life. “This took me to the crisis,” states Nereo. Many of the very students he taught, set up their own studios nearby, and began to undercut the price for photos published in magazines. He fell on hard times and couldn’t keep the cash flowing. The crisis was cutting deep and hundreds of folders of negatives were not moving with nation’s photo editors. The “golden age” of Colombian photojournalism had run its course, to be replaced by uninspiring commercial images for mass consumption. He surrendered his cultural center and moved to New York. He was 80 years old and broke.

Settling into a new life in a city he had often visited, another “angel” appeared on the horizon: President Ernesto Samper Pizano. As a great admirer of Nereo’s work, Samper convinced the National Library to house and protect the historical archive of this master storyteller in exchange for a fee, which would guarantee a simple, yet dignified existence overseas. As a proud U.S citizen now, Nereo looks back on his years in Bogotá with certain regret. On several trips back to the capital, he has been mugged while taking public transport.

After more than a half century with film, the photographer gloats at the possibilities with today’s compact digital cameras. Even though he has returned to photography as a “hobby,” his large format prints are coveted by art collectors, book publishers and prestigious galleries.

He affirms, that since he has left Colombia, little has changed. “If you want to suffer, just watch the news from Colombia.” But he does harbor a deep sense of gratitude to a former president who gave him a second chance to keep a life in photography going. “The pictures I take on the street are still accidents,” he remarks. And with a heavy dose of humour which characterizes the costeño temperament, his stature as one of the great image makers is reaffirmed. “I’m still called Nereo,” he said with a chuckle.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nereo López passed away August 25th 2015 in an old age home in New York City.