Antonio Lopez was an artist. He ran with Bill Cunningham and dated Jerry Hall. He was a legend, an idol. The kind of man people moved to New York in the hope of meeting. He shared models with Robert Mapplethorpe and fell in fast with Andy Warhol. They “were a mutual admiration society; they exchanged portraits and liked to compare notes, poring over Polaroids and dishing the dirt. They were wary of each other too,” writes Paul Caranicas – fellow artist, friend and now guardian of Lopez’s estate – in the original introduction intended for Instamatics (Twin Palms) which he kindly shared with us. “Each recognising the talent as well as the drive of the other, they carefully chatted in code.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Lopez soon found himself in NYC. He left school when Women’s Wear Daily absorbed him after a work experience stint of sorts. The kid, it seemed had talent. That kid went on to illustrate for Vogue, Harper’s and The New York Times among many others. Lopez’s works – always signed ‘Antonio’ – were “actually a collaboration between Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, his life-long creative partner,” Caranicas explains. “Juan and Antonio masterminded each drawing with Antonio as draftsman and Juan as art director and colourist.” In 1969, he moved to Paris and ran a salon with Karl Lagerfeld, for models and their kind.
So Lopez started out not as a photographer, but an illustrator. In the introduction Caranicas wrote to accompany the original book, “Thrust into the scene at the age of 19, his became the name to look for in The New York Times’ Fashion of the Times magazine, where he illustrated entire issues, including the cover. By 1966 Antonio was everywhere in American fashion, and by 1970, he was famous in Europe and Japan.”
Caranicas met Lopez and Ramos there, in Paris, where they were all students, around “’71 or ’72,” when he was DJing – and bartending – at a club. That is “probably” where they all met. This was before Lopez’s Instamatics, “he was just drawing then … and then Juan became my boyfriend” and eventually they all moved in together.
The pair drew from live models, not photographs. Their studio was – makeshift or otherwise – constant chaos. Hall, often the model, was Lopez’s “blonde American”. He’d found her, before she was Jerry Hall. She lived with him, they were engaged even.
The growth of Lopez’s recognition meant little to their daily lives. “Nothing really changed,” he laughs. “Everything stayed exactly as it was, I continued painting and working and they continued doing their work, of course once we all started living together then there were more parties and that kinda stuff, but basically it was just sort of an addition to the everyday stuff that I did anyway. They were workaholics and they worked all the time so work and play … The line was completely blurred between the two.
“They would work constantly, all night. If I was out working too, then I’d come back they’d still be at it, models would be coming in and they had deadlines and so on to meet and they were very, very busy.”
A year and a bit later, on “one of his trips back to New York”, Lopez was given an Instamatic camera and that’s when he started to take pictures. It was less an abandonment of illustrations, more that “he wanted to sort of keep a record of the goings-on in the studio,” Caranicas explains. The camera came as close as anything could to keeping up with Lopez. “In the beginning he would do a series of photographs of whoever would come in the front door practically. I mean there was this series of people either posing or taking off their clothes or whatever they did in those particular pictures, but Juan and he would put them into albums, they would make these photo albums that Juan would actually art direct, sort of, and that’s sort of what eventually became the book.”
Writes Caranicas: “As the 70s progress and we move from Paris to New York, what began for Antonio as a visual diary is refined into a highly sophisticated system of expressing an obsession; each time a roll of film comes back from the lab, Antonio fixates on a certain image and then re-shoots it a hundred times, elaborating on that theme. This repetitive method allows him to deepen his ‘portraits’, turning them into a series and forcing the person being photographed, often naked, to try on many faces and gestures, until a kind of truth is revealed.”
“It’s different with each one,” Caranicas says of Antonio’s girls. “Jerry was his girlfriend for a year and she lived with us, other girls or other boys that he shot were, you know they could be models or the window washer, it didn’t matter, it was anyone that caught his fancy at the time, and he would just go for it.”
Each page of Instamatics opens your world that little bit wider. Jessica Lange – with her Working Girl tight blonde curls and rose-tinted glasses – against a neon light, Grace Jones, her teeth bared, eyes fierce, and Jerry Hall – always smiling – just about everywhere you wanted to be. Each grid of images is unhindered, honest, real. The light, the colour – it was all there. Late into the night, Lopez pulled these take-me-this-is-how-I-am vignettes together to make a story. In each of them, though, there is the same frantic energy – the same more-more-more – as his and Ramos’ marathon drawing sessions on the floor of that Parisian apartment.
Writes Caranicas: “As Antonio continued to explore the body, it became objectified and fetishised: the nude is covered in plastic or wrapped in a coat or bursts from a specially-crafted human-sized candy bar wrapper. A broom-closet in the hallway at 876 Broadway in New York becomes a setting for the playing-out of strip-tease fantasies. A black-and-white tile bathroom in Paris (later recreated in New York) is the backdrop for erotic shower or blue-tinted water portraits. Often these themes are combined, a naked body draped in transparent plastic and posed against the bathroom tiles.”
The most beautiful thing about the shots, though, is the ‘just because’. Instant gratification in the truest sense of the phrase. “I would say that 90 per cent of the Instamatic photographs are just personal work,s” says Caranicas.
“It’s hard to describe which one is my favourite … Probably the funniest or the kinkiest or the heartiest. I think that they’re the ones where he would definitely go out on a limb and challenge himself and come up with something, like, ‘I’m an artist so I see things in this way’.” Like Warhol said, “Everybody must have a fantasy.”
Still, as commissions for his illustrative works grew, the Instamatics’ prolific nature slowed. Writes Caranicas: “They represent the most creative years, which end when the studio is moved to Union Square in 1978.” They were never truly abandoned, though. When Anna Piaggi gave over the pages – cover included – of Condé Nast’s then new Italian venture Vanity to Ramos and Lopez, the Instamatics edged their way in.
Instamatics was, in gestation, Caranicas’ and Ramos’ idea. The original project, though, was much bigger than the 152-page book. “There’s actually thousands and thousands of photographs”, many of them still in the envelopes they were stashed in by Lopez and Ramos along with their good intentions to turn it into an album. “They were so busy they didn’t have a chance to keep up with everything.” After Lopez’s death, Ramos and Caranicas attempted some sort of catalogue, an order of sorts, but then Ramos passed too. “They’re still in the envelopes, the little Kodak envelopes that would come back from the printer.”