[Photo Credit: Whitney Conner Clapper]
“Are these all vintage cameras?” I inquired. Claudia’s collection wound its way through several rooms.
“Mm-hmm,” she nodded. “Some of those are from the 30s. I have some that are older. They all work, actually.” Wistfully, she paused. “They are really beautiful, aren’t they? They don’t make cameras that beautiful anymore. It’s a different kind of aesthetic. A different kind of beauty. But there’s something about the weight and the heftiness of those cameras… Something so tactile about the old technology.”
Listening, I nodded back. I couldn’t have agreed more.
A different kind of beauty. Tactile with weight. Drawn upon the face of culture largely unseen. That’s the puzzle postured in Claudia’s photography. It’s what moves me in her work, and it’s why I was compelled to tell her story.
Born in Bogotá, May 1968, eight thousand feet above sea level. Claudia’s mother and father were still in school, so her grandparents raised her instead. Amid a backdrop of coffee crops and cloud forests, she played in the courtyard all day, and awestruck through her bedroom window gazed at Nevado del Ruiz. This place was her wonderland, her self-described stage. Claudia was the only kid there. It’s also where exploration began for the budding mountaineer.
Claudia’s grandmother was a devout Catholic. Her grandfather an eccentric businessman. She took Claudia to church and taught her to keep house. He snuck her into cockfights. Together, they went with Claudia on her first mountain hikes. They’d go up sixteen thousand feet, carrying a pot of potatoes and whole chicken soup—the classic Colombian picnic. There in the Andes, high above the trees, savoring this feast, soaking in the view, Claudia began to understand her taste for altitude.
Growing up, Claudia’s parents were mostly absent, though her mother visited from time to time. And when she did, she brought gifts. Chance catalysts in Claudia’s life. Her mother gave her a radio when she was five. It connected to stations all over the world. A handheld projector when she was eight, showing faces far different than hers. When Claudia was eleven, her mother gave her a camera, as if predicting something no one else did. Unsure of what to shoot, landscapes or animals, Claudia chose a human subject. Her first photographs snapped were of her grandfather in his candle factory. His wrinkled face, poetic stance, his rough, overworked hands. These qualities caught Claudia’s eye. Even as a child, she identified them. We still see this in her style today. Her lens a link between interiors.
I’ve sort of always had this fascination for looking through these things, getting into others worlds. Seeing how other people live. Seeing people who look very different. Different colors.
After college, Claudia left war-ravaged Bogotá and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There, she shot commercials and IndyCars, then pivoted toward philanthropic work. Activist assignments have brought her all over the world—from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan to Kashmir. Everywhere she goes, the eternal mountaineer builds community through art and climbing. She’s gone on several expeditions through the Himalayas and photographed them extensively. Claudia’s the first Colombian woman to reach their summit, Ama Dablam at over twenty thousand feet.
That was probably the beginning of me taking my camera into the mountains. When you go to the Himalayas, there’s just nothing like it because of the scale. I went from photographing cars to photographing sherpas and porters. That process was really challenging and puzzling for me, and I was really excited.
Today, Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado—she hesitates to call any place “home.” How’d a Colombian girl wind up there? That’s the greatest puzzle of all. I sat in an armchair in her living room, sipping a freshly brewed cup of tea. With two questions left before we wrapped our interview, the conversation continued.
“Do you think of yourself as a journalist?”
“No,” Claudia said with zero hesitation. “I put too much of myself in that work. I think journalists need to be a little bit more objective, which is something I do not believe in. I have a hard time jumping into something and taking random photos. I need to observe, and I need to interiorize my surroundings and have a sense of place, rather than just pressing the shutter.
Photography is an exercise in problem solving. I’m interested in things that start and end. I can see the process. I like that putting together. Building and rebuilding and destroying. Destroying is probably part of the thing that I like the most, because it allows me to rebuild.
I see all of these polarities in myself. I like things that are very logical and things that are very random. I try to control a lot, but I also kind of enjoy when things go to Hell, you know. When things go kind of disheveled, I think they put me into high gear to think and to problem solve. There is order in chaos, an underlying logic and reason. I guess it makes me feel more alive.”
“I get the feeling that you find beauty in friction? I see this in the faces of those you photograph. There’s weathering, there’s wrinkles, sun damage. These aren’t exactly airbrushed beauty shots, yet they’re very beautiful.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it friction,” Claudia explained. “I think it’s more in contradiction, and juxtaposition, and opposition, and difference. It’s not intentional, but when I look back, I’m always looking for what is different from me. I guess that’s the little explorer and curious kid in me. But I’m also looking for what is similar, because I guess I’m always looking for home.”
To view Claudia’s portfolio, visit claudialopezphotography.com/