How the young Frida Lopez established her career as a fashion photographer

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

[ Over the last 20 years I engaged in interviews/conversations with many dozens of female artists, and from the stories they shared with me I drew the anecdotes that went into creating the characters in the Anna Barnev book. What follows is an excerpt. ]

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Children accept what seems omnipresent, until the moment they realize that alternatives exist. From farmland, the smell of manure saturated the childhood of Frida Lopez, so much so she assumed the whole world shared one fragrance. Her father would wake early and put on stained clothes and a droopy leather hat. He would go to the big field far away, and her mother would go to the small field outside the house. In those days, Frida didn’t like being far from her mother. On her knees, her mother would go from row to row in the garden, pulling the weeds, moving the hose. When she stood, she washed the dirt off her hands.

Frida would follow, barefoot, her toes digging into the dry, sandy soil. Sometimes her mother harvested a tomato or an onion. The vegetables would go into their dinner, their taste fresh and sharp and expanding on the palate.

On sun filled days, the ground was hot, but then Frida’s toes pushed into the earth and underneath the surface, it was cool. None of this was disgusting, or at least, none of it seemed to her to be disgusting at that time. She was a child, and she didn’t know how others might judge. Only later, when she went to school, did she realize how clean some of the other children were; how early and new, their blouses and skirts and bracelets; how soft the silk of the ties in their hair; how their new leather shoes shined. She noticed how her classmates’ eyebrows went up when they saw her — no silk to tie up her hair, blouse faded and rough from too many washings, her belt, a heavily marked and crimped leather strip her father no longer used.

Only at school did she understand that her life was something ugly. Once she learned to see herself as other children saw her, she was unable to channel the joy of sitting next to her mother in the garden. It would be many years before she allowed herself to remember that she had once been happy.

Frida’s father was clever. His cousin had been hired to work a booth at a farmers’ market near Santa Barbara, selling vegetables at what seemed to him astounding prices. The two would joke about it. “They paid that much for scallions? Did they think there was gold in those scallions?”

But her father did more than just laugh. He loaded a pickup truck full of vegetables and drove to the market five hours away. The effort seemed ridiculous, until they saw the money coming in. After that, life became easier for her family. Her father got a nice suit. Then her mother got several dresses, very different from what she’d worn before. Eventually, they took Frida to a shopping mall close to the coast, near the affluent suburbs. Now they could shop at stores such as Sears and JCPenney and Kmart and even Nordstrom. From her mother’s point of view, they’d reached the pinnacle of American culture.

Frida was happy. Now she had new blouses and skirts and a bracelet, a soft silk ribbon for her hair, and new leather shoes. But even then, made fancy, and liking fancy things, she was still the daughter of her parents. The real break didn’t come until later.

Lacking formal education, her parents were limited in what they could do. They’d come to the US as adults, and they’d been slow to learn English. Every day, they’d give thanks to God for revealing to them how much money they could make selling produce. Though the effort was exhausting, the money gave them a certain sense of security. Once they had enough money to hire help, they could think about the future. They were determined that Frida and her sister would not live as they did. Their daughters would go to college.

At the end of high school, her best friend Margaret was going to college out east, in Chapel Hill, to pursue biology and then medicine. By that point, Frida was living every day with a new sense of shame about her upbringing. If Margaret came for a visit to her house, Frida’s mother could, with quiet pride, make her an excellent dinner, cooked in newly bought Teflon-coated pots, and served on beautiful hand-thrown ceramic dining ware they’d bought from a sculptor they’d first met in Santa Barbara. Yet Frida worried that the dirt had not washed off of them.

When Margaret’s parents invited Frida for dinner, there was never any question of them being dirty. Margaret’s father was President of Logistics at a battery company that sold to both Toyota and General Motors; Margaret’s mother was a professor of Latin American literature. They didn’t know what dirt was. They had not been dirty a single day of their lives. And they didn’t cook. Their maid cooked.

Without a clear direction of her own, Frida went to UNC, but only because Margaret had decided to go there. She thought she might become a teacher, so she studied history, but she had no real love of the subject in its standard form. Wars, recessions, revolutions, economics — none of that mattered to her.

She had a second-hand film camera and found that she loved taking photographs, but she was nervous about becoming a photographer, or being involved in the arts in any way. It seemed too risky. She knew she never wanted to be poor or struggle as her parents had. She craved the security she saw in Margaret’s family.

And yet. And yet. What is the real power of a photograph? Frida went to exhibits, she took classes, she spoke with professors. Some images stuck with her, would always be with her, she felt them as deeply as she felt her own memories. Eugène Atget’s photos of Paris, the city at dawn, hazy under the coal smog, an empty courtyard, old wooden doors so decayed they tilt on their hinges, some ancient history waiting to be known, how many feet have walked these stones? Dorothea Lange’s photo of Nettie Featherston, standing in a coarse white dress, a sunburnt woman, the desolate beauty of the plains behind her, body language that communicates sacrifice beyond the ordinary understanding. Henri Cartier-Bresson, an image of a child running with a baguette as long himself, a smile, new summer clothes, joyful in the warm air, racing down the sidewalk to where? To click the shutter meant some fleeting moment was redeemed from death. Nothing felt more to weighty to her, nothing so full of meaning. To hold a camera is to hold the power of immortality.

If she would pursue the arts, was there a way in for her? A path that was safe? Could she find evidence that her voice was so unique she would earn a warm reception?

By the time Frida graduated from UNC, she found herself serious about photography, but still unable to find a subject that she could own daringly enough so as to demand an invitation from the wider world. Hoping a new city would open fresh perspectives, she made her way to Los Angeles and fell in with a woman named Dulce Moreno, an adventurer of many diverse scenes.

One day, an invitation came for a party far up the coast, at an extravagant house with tennis courts and two swimming pools: one to catch the morning sun and one to catch the evening dusk. Dulce wore an Isabel Marant suit of tan wide-legged pants, cinched shut at the ankle with small white leather belts, and a matching jacket. Underneath she wore a simple white tank top from Old Navy — one of her signature moves was to combine expensive items with cheap ones. Simple leather sandals demonstrated that she had painted her toenails to match her suit. The billowy quality of her outfit played to maximum effect at the party as the sun set. Nearly every time that Frida looked at Dulce, the tailoring of the outfit was underscored by the wind, which pulled the clothes against Dulce’s skin with excellent effect.

The next night, they were at an opening at a gallery downtown. Frida made the mistake of trying to imitate what she’d seen the night before — a suit of matching jacket and ultra-wide-leg trousers. When Dulce saw it, she lowered her eyebrows, half smiled, and shook her head, “No.” Frida had lost the match.

Dulce’s sartorial effort that night was in an entirely unexpected direction. An absolute classic in green, her suit looked like an actual Elsa Schiaparelli from 1953, or a very close imitation. The initial effect of her outfit was countered by the fantastic number of necklaces she was wearing: some of faded silver that clearly needed to be cleaned, others of copper that had tarnished green, and others of plastic, like children’s toys. This unusual combination of elements made clear that each had been a calculation of nuance: references that communicated taste, sensitivity, and intelligence.

A few nights later, Frida was invited to a party in Compton. Trying to keep up to Dulce, Frida wore business-like slacks and a blazer and tried to throw in a daring fashion choice by wearing a man’s button-down shirt. But at this party, for a hip-hop artist of Dulce’s acquaintance back in Compton to celebrate with his old crew, the predominant fashion was actual poverty and street. Dulce wore a bikini and wrapped herself with a trench coat that reached halfway down to her knees. The raw sex of the outfit — the suggestion of debauchery, the deliberate raunchiness — was as adjustable as the trench coat, which could slip open when she wanted to entice or intimidate, but when a man bored her, she could pull it tight, visibly cutting him off from everything that her skin was meant to imply.

They drank whiskey and pretended not to study each other, but at some point Frida saw that half-smile. Dulce had won again.

It took Frida a few weeks to fully understand the parameters of their game: what was allowed and what wasn’t, the kind of originality that constituted a good score. Neither of them was trying to recreate an exact outfit from the runways of Paris or Milan; they didn’t have the money, and it would have suggested a lack of originality anyway. What they both valued were original fusions of diverse influences.

A month later at the birthday party for a once-popular 1990s actress, Dulce wore skin-tight black leather pants, a black Lycra blouse that was semi-sheer across her back and most of her abdomen, exaggerated padding around her breasts. Heavy black eyeliner, thick eye lashes, and contact lenses that made her pupils appear to be enormous gave her the appearance of being heavily strung out on drugs. The effect was a cross between punk rock outrage and Halloween costume horror. She could have been Siouxsie Sioux in 1979 or Lady Gaga in 2012, or Lady Gaga making a retro reference to Siouxsie Sioux. It was a perfectly competent costume, but it was more of a costume than an outfit, which violated one of their unspoken rules. It also lacked any truly original element that might have established Dulce’s ownership of the look.

Meanwhile, Frida arrived in a vintage 1950s white dress printed all over with strawberries; a dainty black leather handbag triple stitched with thread that matched the strawberries; her fingers, toes and lips painted the same shade of red; and eyeglasses with wing flairs at the top, a signature of 1950s women who wanted to say, “I’m an intellectual, too.” Her hair was pulled up into an elaborate bun. The whole outfit bordered on nostalgia, with the possible exception of the intense matching cosmetics and reddish eyeshadow with glitter, a decidedly modern touch. Plus one very big belt. Very loud, slouched askew, very gold, suggesting something hip-hop — and a huge belt buckle with the word “Bling!” The aggregate effect communicated that her choices were deliberate, her references carefully considered.

Dulce nodded with admiration. Frida had won the match.

They were never actually friends, but rather like tennis players who disliked one another yet enjoyed their matches because they were so well paired. Dulce had a bit more money than Frida, but not so much that she could win by simply outspending her opponent. Dulce had the creativity to conceive of something original, the commitment to pull together the pieces, the discipline to avoid the fun but distracting accessory, and the confidence to go out in public wearing exactly what she’d imagined. In that sense, she was an actual peer.

Moreover, their fashion choices photographed well. Frida was astounded when wealthier women came in with outfits that detracted from any photo they were in. But Dulce was a reliable partner. The morning after, Frida could scan the gossip websites that covered the party, and there the two of them were: interesting, intelligent, daring, creative. Above all else: vivid. In a room full of people trying to impress, Dulce and Frida were still able to define themselves in a way that set them apart. They looked important, as if they had something to say. And self-aware. Everyone at these parties understood what it meant to pose for a camera, but Dulce and Frida went beyond that. They understood what it meant to be understood to be posing for a camera, and a part of their performance included the performance of ironic detachment from the spectacle. Implied in their posing was the message, “We are not like those other people, who fail to realize what it all means.”

Yet Frida was leaning on the talent of the people she photographed, and she didn’t know what exactly she could add as a photographer. A photo of Dulce would vibrate with Dulce’s personality, but the photo had no personality of its own. They both knew how to perform for the camera, but Frida didn’t yet know how to make the camera perform.

Margaret, her old friend from college, was about to turn twenty-five, and her new-but-very-serious boyfriend was planning a huge bash out east. Soon Frida was on an airplane, heading back to Chapel Hill. At the party, she sat next to a woman of remarkable quiet intensity, easy to ignore, until she spoke. Then suddenly she emerged, with such directness and precision, one had to take note of her. This was how Frida first met Mariah Dasashi.

The Triangle region of North Carolina consisted of three cities: Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. It was an area known for its cultural liveliness, partly due to Duke University in Durham and UNC in Chapel Hill. While there were multiple groups doing a great deal to advance the arts in the Triangle, Prodigia had recently emerged as one of the more successful. At least, it had risen above the background noise, sufficiently that Frida recognized the name when Mariah mentioned it.

After hitting it off at the table, Mariah put Frida in touch with Karla Werner, who invited her to spend the summer as an artist-in-residence. Perhaps Prodigia was a place where she might develop her own visual voice. At the very least, she might enjoy the stimulation that comes from being at such an avowedly international place, a congregation of artists from all over the world.

And yet, an uneasiness attached itself to Frida, and it grew worse the more she got to know the other artists at Prodigia. Something about the way they talked infuriated her. But what, exactly? She couldn’t say. None of them seemed to understand fashion and style the way she did, nor was there a fashion scene in Chapel Hill that came anywhere close to the scenes she’d gotten know out West. As a college town, Chapel Hill’s demographics tilted toward the age group that Frida was trying to get away from. She wanted to discover real life, which is to say, the world of adults. Being in a college town pulled her backward.

How to comprehend Prodigia? Here was Karla, sipping tea with Allicin in the kitchen, the two of them talking about the real meaning of massiveness in sculpture. What was space? What was emptiness? What did it mean to be heavy? How important was verisimilitude when carving? Good lord, wondered Frida, who really takes anything so seriously? If Dulce were here, we’d have a good time making fun of these pompous loudmouths.

When Frida got back to Los Angeles she felt the relief of arriving back home after an uncomfortable encounter with the strange. An invitation arrived in her inbox, then another. She was back in the game.

When she saw Dulce at a party and they eyed each other’s ensembles, it was like old times. Yet alone in her apartment, Frida found herself examining her clothing. She held up a shoe and asked it a series of questions: “What is this space around the toes? What is this emptiness above the ankle? What does it mean to be heavy?” And all of those questions now seemed relevant. Sometimes she favored a heavy combat boot that communicated toughness; other times she wanted a light shoe, with silk laces that went up her leg, and which emphasized her feminine calves; other times she wanted a simple sandal that demurred as much as possible so she could pull people’s attention to the work she’d done on her toenails.

A gossip magazine, too poor to pay her in cash, hired her to cover a party and later paid her with Audrey pumps from Amélie Pichard, which she fell in love with and wore on every occasion she could. Could she say precisely what made the sum total of choices of this Amélie Pichard such a perfect balance of aesthetics? Or why, exactly, had she regarded Karla with such disgust? Maybe the tone of voice was overly earnest, but the questions Karla had posed clearly had some value. Sitting on the floor in front of her open closet, Frida was struck by a thought: How can I appreciate my shoes, or my dresses, or my belts, without asking the kinds of questions that Karla had been asking about sculpture?

A few months later, Frida returned to Chapel Hill. Something drew her back.

One day, Allicin and Karla were driving out into the countryside to pick wild figs, and they invited Frida to join them. Somewhat warily, she went along.

Karla knew of a grove of Celeste figs that grew in a state park. The sun was blazing hot and the mugginess was intensified by the dryness of the dirt and the billows of dust that sprang up after each scuff of their feet.

Frida cut her finger while reaching into a tree that beckoned with its fruit.

“Are you okay?” asked Allicin.

“I think so,” said Frida.

Karla glanced at her and then away, having decided in an instant that even if Frida was hurt, it wasn’t serious. Allicin, always more human in her approach to others, studied the cut carefully, if only to assure Frida that someone was looking out for her. After a moment, Frida felt she was all done with this excessive nurturing routine and pulled her hand back to herself.

“I’m fine,” she said.

They soon had three baskets full of figs. They found a large, clean, mostly flat boulder, which gave them a good view of the forest as it spread down to the nearby river. The flavor of the fruit was astonishing. In the distance, clouds were gathering, one layer piling up on top of the previous.

“That’s going to be quite a thunderstorm,” said Allicin.

“The farmers need the rain,” said Karla. “There hasn’t been enough this year.”

Mildly annoyed, and hoping to catch Karla in a moment of ignorance, Frida asked, “Do you know anything about farming?”

“My older brother lives on a kibbutz in Israel. They grow figs for export. A different species, but every time I’m here, I think of him.”

“Are you close with your brother?” Frida asked out of politeness.

“I’ll be happy if we never speak again,” said Karla.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Frida. “Families can be complicated.”

She thought she’d phrased that as an invitation for Karla to expand upon the situation with her brother, but nothing else was forthcoming. As she would later learn, most conversations with Karla ended awkwardly and abruptly.

That night, they were invited to a dinner at the house of Susan Wells, the UNC professor who had arranged some of the original grants that had funded the establishment of Prodigia. Mariah was there, and since she was the only person in the whole crowd that Frida respected, Frida took a seat next to her.

“How are you?” asked Mariah.

“I’m leaving,” said Frida. “I really can’t stand these people, Mariah. How do you tolerate them?”

Mariah was clearly startled. “What did they do? What happened?”

“I…” Frida shook her head. “Look, I don’t why I’m so angry. I just am. There’s something about these people… and Karla… I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Whatever it is, whatever the reason, you should be saying it to Karla,” insisted Mariah. “I mean, really, why are you saying this to me? Am I someone convenient that you feel you can vent to? I don’t mind you venting, but your anger seems exaggerated.”

“Exaggerated?” Frida was astonished by this accusation. “I think you are one of the most sophisticated people I’ve ever met. You don’t find these people a little bit ridiculous? So earnest. So sincere. Oh my God! Let’s sit around and eat figs and talk about Real Art! They are so full of themselves!”

“I respect these people. You think they’re too earnest? How can anyone be an artist today, in this crass and commercial world, without a bit of idealism?”

“Yes, but they’re all fakes, don’t you get it?” Frida was almost pleading. “Let’s all sit in a circle and hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”! Who does that?”

“Did anyone actually ask you to do that?” Mariah was puzzled. “Or is that another exaggeration?”

Now Frida turned away and spoke to no one, or perhaps spoke to the world. “This cloying community spirit… Like we’re all supposed to be friends.”

“Not friends!” Mariah insisted. “Professional colleagues. There’s a difference. Peers who might admire each other’s work, but who don’t otherwise necessarily get along. I get frustrated when someone as smart as you fails to understand the distinction.”

“Well,” Frida started, dropping her voice, “this isn’t my thing. I’m not cool with this.”

For the next two years, Frida traveled around Europe, spending most of her time in Berlin. Luck was with her. A charismatic fellow named Hanz was doing his best to find resources to convert one of the abandoned Communist spaces, a shuttered factory, into a workspace for artists. Many beautiful speeches, regarding the role of the arts in the construction of a humane society, mobilized the community of creative souls in Berlin to volunteer their time to Hanz’s vision. Committed to democratic governance, the group held long meetings and tried to make every decision based on consensus. Frida was not in love with any one person, but she was in love with the whole scene, the hopefulness of their goals.

For awhile she was dating a photographer named Jakob. Thrilled to meet someone who understood photography as she did, she cheered as his reputation grew. Months passed before she began to understand how competitive he was. Her rare successes were not moments for them to celebrate, but instead became moments they fought. He thought the way she framed subjects was conventional and weak. She agreed, but she hated the harsh way he critiqued her. She began to wonder if she wanted to be with him at all. A magazine offered her a surprisingly lucrative contract to go to Italy and photograph several fashion shows, but Jakob went to talk to the editor and convinced them that he would do a better job. The magazine shifted much of the project to him. Livid, she knew she would break it off with him, but she wanted one last conversation when she could explain to him how hurtful he was. But he wouldn’t give her that satisfaction. He sent her a text message letting her know that she was too weak as a photographer to deserve his respect, and also that he’d already left for Italy, and also that he never wanted to see her again.

One man who misbehaves was not enough to put her off the whole scene, but the way other people defended Jakob disillusioned her. She would repeat what happened, expecting a certain amount of sympathy, and instead people would point out that he was a very good photographer, with symptoms of a famous career in front of him. She was sickened by the dishonesty of it all, the craven way people deferred to anyone who showed signs of great success. Where was the idealism that had started this scene? Where was the sincerity that she felt she had been promised?

Looking to escape the bitterness she felt, Frida returned to the States. Margaret, her old friend from college, had given birth to a baby boy, so Frida went to visit. Out of curiosity, she stopped by Prodigia. Something was different, though she couldn’t say what. Allicin was still too pleasant, but Frida had learned to appreciate what kindness she could find. Karla still seemed riven by some internal conflict that caused her to be far more abrupt with people than Frida preferred, but she found herself more tolerant of this flaw.

What was the meaning of culture? How was it produced? Who was allowed to produce it? The questions asked at Prodigia had once struck Frida as overly earnest, too academic, too removed from the reality of people making real artistic choices. But now she found herself inspired to interrogate fashion and design at a much deeper level than before. And finally, she found herself producing the kind of work she’d always dreamed of creating — work that documented both the production of fashion as well as the many different ways people perceived it in their own lives. Her reputation in Los Angeles and New York changed. Suddenly the major magazines treated her as something serious.

And now, finally, she understood why she had initially found Prodigia so infuriating. So many years before, when she first arrived in Los Angeles, and she first met Dulce, they had understood what it meant to be understood to be posing for a camera, so a part of their performance included the performance of ironic detachment from the spectacle. At the time, she thought this is what made them real artists. And when she’d first arrived at Prodigia, she had looked for that irony, yet neither Allcin nor Karla had it. Frida therefore decided that they were idiots, a bunch of pathetic losers pretending to understand art but in fact ignorant and naive. Only now, with the passage of years, did she realize that Allicin and Karla had been far ahead of her. Perhaps when they were young they had passed through an ironic phase, but they were on the other side of it by the time Frida had met them. And having outgrown irony, they came back to the basic questions of art, and they asked them again, in all simplicity, in all sincerity, in all earnestness. Theirs was not a youthful or ignorant idealism, but rather a commitment made fully understanding the disappointments of the world.

And having undergone her own conversion experience, Frida now wanted to teach others what she herself had learned. This was how she came to be offering classes for people like Anna.

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