Note: This profile of the Colombian photographer Nereo Lopez Mesa was intended to be part of a book with a selection of his pictures. The book was never published and this text remained unpublished for three years.
Nota: Este perfil del fotógrafo colombiano Nereo López Meza fue escrito para un libro que se proponía reunir una selección de sus fotografías. El libro nunca fue publicado y el texto permaneció inédito por tres años.
By Gustavo Arango
“Here,” says Nereo, pointing with the finger that has done all the work, “I want to publish my pictures here.”
The finger presses onto the fancy letter “T”, like trapping a rare butterfly. He resembles a relaxed Don Quixote, free from the metallic paraphernalia, but yet moved by visions of greatness. At his side, a tired Sancho Panza commits to writing sentences and details. They are seated in a reading room of the Queens Public Library, at
, surrounded by little kids who feel torn between reading or playing. Every now and then a clerk exercises her small portion of power by asking everyone to keep quiet. Even the two old guys stop talking. Corona
The one that trapped the butterfly is eighty eight years old, but he seems more alive than most of the kids around –at least more than the ten year old boy who suffers with his math homework, helped by a patient teenager. The other old guy is half Nereo’s age, but he seems twice as tired. It has been three days of walking around and writing down everything his master says.
They have a plan. They are waiting for the lady that will help them conquer the City with a book. The book will have pictures taken by Nereo over the last six decades and an introductory note written by the scribe. Both of them think they are good at their craft and both feel unappreciated (although the older one has much more right to think that), and while they wait for the lady to arrive, they are seated near the newspaper sections, browsing pages, wondering if there is anything else to say or to ask.
“I don’t see why my pictures can’t be published in the New York Times.”
Neither can the guy taking notes. They have moved back and forth through eight decades of life, while walking throughout the four boroughs of the city, and he can mention at least ten good reasons to publish Nereo’s pictures in the newspaper he is pointing at. One of the least important reasons is precisely the one they have chosen to promote a book they expect to sell like hot cakes: a series of pictures of Gabriel García Márquez taken by Nereo at different moments of the writer’s life. Keeping the quixotic tone, it’s like if Cervantes wanted to find his way as a writer with a short play, having Don Quixote in his backpack. Curiously enough, the short play seems the only key that can open the doors of success.
Years ago, after looking at Nereo’s pictures of the
Magdalena River, the river where El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera) has its glorious ending, a publisher from replied: Spain
“They are great, but won’t sell. If you manage to get at least a sentence from García Márquez
supporting the images, we will publish the book immediately.”
It was in the
where Nereo took his first pictures, in 1947. Since then, he has taken hundreds of thousands of images of the very same landscapes that inspired García Márquez’s works: the jungle, the small and dusty towns, men falling in love with violins, youngsters flying around, people feeding stones, and many other incredible things just happening inadvertently under the tropical sun. Magdalena River
Nereo managed to get the sentence he needed, but not in writing. Last year, they met at a private party in
Cartagena de , the city where Nereo was born and the setting of three of García Márquez’s novels. The writer had returned to his favorite place in the world, “the most beautiful city in the world”, and stayed for almost three months, to celebrate a series of anniversaries: sixty years of the publication of his first short story, forty years of the publication of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred years of Solitude), twenty five years of receiving the Nobel Prize, and his eightieth birthday. Although he was tired of greetings and pictures, García Márquez was affectionate with Nereo: Indias
“What are you up to, Nereo?” he asked.
Nereo considered for a second to mention his many projects, but realized that the encounter wouldn’t last long. They had met for the first time more than fifty years ago, when both of them worked for the newspaper El Espectador. At the time, García Márquez wrote a short note praising Nereo’s work, but the note didn’t have his signature. When they met in
Cartagena, they talked about Nereo’s pictures of the Magdalena River, and the suggestion of the publisher from . Spain
“I need your
support with that,” said Nereo. “I can give you as compensation a series of pictures I have taken of you over the years.”
That was like offering some golden coins to King Midas, but it was also a display of Nereo’s dignity. Nereo has said many times that what García Márquez did in writing, he had done with pictures. Alongside García Márquez, Nereo feels like an equal.
“That won’t be necessary,” said García Márquez. “You have my permission to use the descriptions I have in Love in the Time of Cholera.”
“Can I do that?” asked Nereo, looking around for a piece of paper.
“Sure you can” said García Márquez before being taken hostage by a crowd of fans asking for pictures and autographs. Nereo raised a napkin towards the smiling group, but understood that the meeting with his majesty had already ended.
Days later, Nereo called Jaime Abello, the director of García Márquez School of Journalism in
(Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano), to explore the possibility of having the authorization in writing. Abello said that it wasn’t necessary, that he and Mercedes –García Márquez’s wife– were witnesses of what they had talked. Cartagena
Nereo closes the García Márquez chapter almost without having opened it:
“It’s kind of dumb for me to say: ‘Call Mercedes, call Abello; they are witnesses.’”
But the guy taking notes doesn’t want to close the chapter. They need to say something about the pictures of García Márquez. For three days he has tried in vain to have Nereo say something interesting about the pictures that will make the difference.
“Those pictures taken in 1966 are great. Where were they taken?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You see? The gestures, the mixture of accomplishment and exhaustion, he had just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book hadn’t been published yet. He probably didn’t know what he had just done. This is the face of a genius right after having written a masterpiece.”
There is no use in insisting, although that series is probably the best existing set of pictures of García Márquez before the glory came. One could not tire of telling the story of that difficult period of García Márquez’s life. At the time he had done everything to be a successful writer. He had tried journalism, to get discipline and craftsmanship. He had tried cinema, to learn to tell stories to remain in the memory of his readers. He even had published a book of short stories and a couple of novels; but his literary career could only be summarized as a dignified failure. If it weren’t for the commercial slogans he was writing in
, his family would have starved. Precisely at the moment when he was considering quitting, and saying goodbye to the literary dream, something magical happened. He was taking his family on a modest vacation, the road was monotonous and the weather incited daydreams. Nobody had said anything in a while, and García Márquez traveled back in time to his childhood in Aracataca and remembered the enchanting manner in which his grandmother would tell stories. Suddenly, he knew that if he was ever going to be a successful writer that would only happen if he employed her method of charm to captivate his readers. The rest of the story is relatively known. When they returned home, García Márquez gave Mercedes all the savings he had, and asked not to be disturbed with practical matters for the upcoming twelve months. Then he entered “the cave”, the only room available in their house to write masterpieces, and poured both his mind and his soul into his novel. The process of writing took him sixteen months, and when he came out of the cave his family was at the end of their rope. When Nereo took those pictures, in 1966, García Márquez was an empty and happy fellow still recovering from a creative fever. A year later he would be rich and famous. Nothing would be the same as it was in those days. Mexico
“And these other pictures?”
“That was a party that my friend Manuel Zapata Olivella threw for García Márquez, in Bogotá.”
Leaving a lot of things aside, Manuel Zapata Olivella was the writer of the only existing epic of the African people in
, Changó el gran putas (Changó, the Holy Motherfucker), a masterpiece that will remain in oblivion until a dedicated scholar unburies it and exclaims: “Look what we have here!” America
Manuel Zapata Olivella was also a mentor for García Márquez. In 1948, Zapata Olivella helped him get his first job as a journalist in El Universal, in
, when García Márquez was just twenty one years old. Almost twenty years later, with this party, he was helping him to build a public persona; because it is not enough to write a masterpiece, you also have to do some marketing and public relations. Cartagena
The pictures at Manuel Zapata Olivella’s house are more social ones, and Nereo has always hated to take pictures of social events. On one occasion, in the 1950’s, when he was the most prominent photographer of the Colombian magazine Cromos (his salary was second best, after the director’s), an editor asked him to take the pictures of a wedding. Nereo took pictures of the most ridiculous aspects of the ceremony: the pompous ladies hat overflowing with flowers, the fat ladies stuffed into strapless dresses, the supernatural make up. His editors never asked him to take pictures of any social events again. But when Manuel Zapata Olivella asked him to take those pictures, he couldn’t refuse. Manuel was one of his closer friends. His death, in 2004, was one of the most painful moments in Nereo’s recent years.
The only thing Nereo finds remarkable in the pictures at Manuel Zapata’s party is the presence of Mario Vargas Llosa. The friendship between García Márquez and Vargas Llosa was a close and short lasting one. Vargas Llosa was the author of the first complete study on García Márquez’s narrative, Historia de un deicidio (Story of a Deicide). A few months after the pictures were taken, that blossoming friendship abruptly and angrily ended with Vargas Llosa’s fist striking, and blackening, García Márquez’s eye.
“I have been an orphan for almost all my entire life,” said Nereo the first day, after recovering from the awe inspired by crossing the
. “My father died when I was five, and my mother when I was eleven. One of the lessons I learned since I was a kid was that anybody can turn against you at any time. I remember an occasion when I had just shaved my head, and a group of kids began to wet their hands with saliva and smack my head. A guy came to defend me, and he tried for a while, but when he saw that it was impossible to stop them he himself wet his hand with saliva and joined the party.” Verrazano Bridge
“Who are the other guys in these pictures?”
“I don’t remember.”
There is another group of photographs. This is a public place. García Márquez has abundant, undulated hair. You can see that his star is rising. He is only a few years removed from the first pictures, but he is already another person: more conscious of being observed, in some sense less expressive. García Márquez is in the company of León de Greiff, a great poet who will never make it to the pages of the New York Times, among other reasons, because his poetry is impossible to translate; actually, it is even almost impossible to understand in its own language. The only thing Nereo remembers is the place where the pictures were taken.
“Those were taken in Campo Villamil, in 1970 or 1971.”
The reason why Nereo finds the place worth mentioning is because the negatives are now at the Biblioteca Nacional, in Bogotá, and the place and characters are misidentified in the library catalogs. Actually, most of Nereo’s pictures at the library are misclassified.
“They mixed names, places, dates. I am the only person who could disentangle that.”
“What else do you remember of those pictures?”
There is no use. Nereo doesn’t recall the moments when he took the pictures. He doesn’t give any special meaning to those images. The García Márquez chapter is a very small one in his life as a photographer. Only the trip to
seems to have significance for him. When García Márquez received the Nobel Prize of Literature, in 1982, he was accompanied by a colorful and noisy entourage. There were musical groups, dancers, and heavy drinking friends. Those days were probably the most festive in the history of Stockholm . Sweden
“The organizers told me: ‘We can only give you the airplane ticket. Do you want to go?’ Of course I went. I assigned the social events to another photographer, and I took the pictures of the cultural presentations. The guy in charge of the entourage fell in love with a Swedish guy, and forgot to get me a pass to enter the royal banquet. I had to disguise myself as a musician to enter. I had to take the pictures while dancing.”
That is really something; finally there is an interesting anecdote related to García Márquez pictures. But still, the millions of readers will have to relay on their own sensibility in order to appreciate those images. If they wanted some advice, it would be worth suggesting that they take their time with each picture, as they really portray the soul of one of the greatest writers of our time. In some sense they tell the story of the voyage from creation, in the middle of poverty, to glory and success; but the guy who took them has taken so many good pictures that he fails to value his own work.
“Only now am I becoming aware of what my life has been.”
“Do you have a philosophy of life?”
“What I have learned in all these years is to live and let live. I compare myself to a trunk in the stream of a river. The only thing to do is to be careful not to collide with other trunks or get stranded in the banks. That’s it. That’s all. That’s all you need to know.”
The image of the trunk and the river comes from one of Nereo’s most beloved projects. For decades, he has registered the devastation of the rain forests in
South America with his photos. Some of the images are very depressing and show how fifty years ago it was possible to predict the green alarm which rings in the world today. He has considered contacting Al Gore to publish his book on the destruction of the rain forest. That’s one of his projects for the future, because, believe it or not, at his eighty eight years of age, Nereo thinks more of the future than of the past.
“Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of the many ideas I have.”
But not all his works about nature are alarming. Another one of his series tells the story of a tree and its journey from its indigenous mountain to its service as a canoe for a family of fishermen in
. That series is an ode to the human capacity to build beautiful things: canoes, bridges, dances. Colombia
“If I weren’t a photographer I would have liked to be a ballet dancer; but not a gay one.”
Almost half of the things Nereo says are unsuitable for print. They are politically incorrect, but at the same time are filled with an understanding of human nature that many people lack. Political correctness, we all know, can be just another form of hypocrisy. One could conclude that frankness and ripe old age are in some sense related.
Nereo has the libido of a teenager, many of his jokes and comments are sexually charged. One of his most recent projects is a series of pictures in the stairs of the subway, trying to get a peek of the ladies’ panties. One can’t but wonder from where that energy comes.
The scribe has restrained himself from asking Nereo the secret to reach his age with the enthusiasm he has; because, if there is something really important in this book that will sell like hot cakes, that thing isn’t García Márquez’s face, or the amazing world that inspired his work, but the story of an artist who at his eighty eighth year demonstrates an eighteen year old’s passion for life. The day before, in Midtown Manhattan, when he asked Nereo why he chose to live in
, the scribe received an astonishing answer: New York
“When I get old I might prefer a more peaceful place. But now, this is the city I want. This is a place where everything is happening.”
After many years interviewing very old people, the scribe has concluded that none of them is aware of the real secret. Once, a ninety something year old guy told him that the secret to live long was to have a bowl of soup every day. Another very old guy told him that it was to sleep at least eight hours at a regular time. But he concluded that, if there was a secret, it was hiding in between the lines of what they said.
“Do you believe in God?”
“No,” says Nereo. “But I believe in a force and I have a profound respect for life. I have failed many times, but every time I failed I found a solution.”
“Have you ever considered committing suicide?”
“Yes,” says Nereo, not surprised with the question. “Ten years ago, I thought that that was it.”
Ten years ago, Nereo López faced one of the biggest adversities of his life. He had used all his resources and energy in the creation of a school of photography in Bogotá. He was one of the most prestigious photographers of the country and the success of the enterprise seemed guaranteed. He had worked for the most important magazines and newspapers of the country. He had won international prizes, like the one Kodak gave him during the New York World Fair, in 1964, for one amazing landscape of balconies taken in
. On that occasion Nereo had triumphed over more than fifteen thousand contestants. During the fifties, violent times in Colombia, Time magazine had reproduced some of Nereos pictures. But life gives no guarantees—not even for the talented– and the school of photography was a failure. Nereo found himself in bankruptcy. He was seventy eight years old and he thought that he had exhausted his reasons to keep living. Cartagena
As he stood at the edge of this abyss, his guardian angels (“I have my guardian angels, but I can’t just sit and wait for them to do the job”) started to look for solutions to the problem (“There are three expressions I hate: ‘No’, ‘It’s impossible’, and ‘Problem’). A Colombian ex-president influenced the Biblioteca Nacional, the main library in the country, to buy almost a hundred thousand of Nereo’s negatives. Two years later, the government gave him La Cruz de Boyacá, the biggest distinction existing in the country for their citizens, an honor established by Simon Bolívar a century and a half earlier.
“I’m not a good reader. In my life I only have read five books. One of them is García Márquez’s book about Bolívar, El general en su laberinto (The General in His Labirynth). Reading that book I understood why
is the mess it is today. The other book I read is your novel about the crazy trees. Man, you deserve to be on the New York Times Best Sellers List.” Colombia
“Thank you. We will, Nereo. We will.”
The scribe doesn’t recall the exact words they said at that moment. Moreover, they were talking in Spanish and some things might be lost —or found— in translation. But he is sure that he is being faithful to the ideas they expressed during those three memorable days that he shared with Nereo in the City.
After the realistic failure of his school of photography, and the magical intervention of his guardian angels, Nereo decided to come to
and stay for a while. He already had some familiarity with the city. Almost half a century early, he had come here to get a quick diploma in a school of photography. At that time, he also had a quick marriage, after a three week acquaintance, with a girl whose name he doesn’t remember. They lived together for six months, but then Nereo returned to New York . The only thing he remembers is that years later some divorce papers were sent to him and he signed without regret. After three marriages –the other two were a little bit more lasting– and many love affairs, Nereo seems happy being alone. Colombia
“The problems of the world are not because of Capitalism or Communism, but because of the human being. It is our condition to be always dissatisfied, and disagreement generates violence. In marriage, for example, while the couple is in love there is a very important thing that unites them: sex. But when sex fails, the drama begins. While there is sex everything is beautiful.”
Nereo has two main contacts to earth: his daughter, a forty something year old physician living in Colombia, who always try to remind him in a sweet manner that life is going to end; and the lady behind this project that is going to sell like you already know what, another guardian angel who takes care of Nereo in New York City. Nereo and the Mysterious Lady (because she doesn’t want her name mentioned here) have been cherishing this dream for a while; they only needed a scribe to conquer the City. The only hope of the scribe is that the project really works; otherwise, he won’t pay his many debts.
“I don’t have debts,” says Nereo. “The other day a lady called me to say that regrettably they would have to change my golden card to a silver one if I didn’t use the credit they had given me. I answered that they could change the card to silver, bronze, or tin, but I wouldn’t spend more than what I had.”
Nereo opens his eyes behind his big glasses with a malicious smile.
“I still have my golden card.”
This is one of his characteristic gestures. The other one could easily be called a distant contempt, if it weren’t that Nereo doesn’t seem to have contempt for anything. In fact, this distant air could just be an effect of his still brief short-sightedness. Nereo only has the pride of an artist fully aware of the value of his art.
At the beginning of the last day, the scribe discovered that they hadn’t talked at all about the art of taking pictures. He thought that it would be good for the book to have a small philosophical reflection about photography: the battle of darkness and light, the encounter of the temporal and the eternal, the magic of the instant; you know, that kind of stuff. The answer, of course, was a straightforward one:
“I don’t know.”
Not knowing things seems to be also a healthy habit. The scribe had questioned many artists –especially writers– about the secrets of their art. A friend once called what he did “industrial espionage”, but he preferred to see that as a learning of the craft. About ten years ago he had the chance to hang around for a few days with Gabriel García Márquez, trying to learn something from him. The secret he stole was biblical and powerful: “There is a time for everything, and only life determines who is an artist and who is not.”
The scribe remains in silence. He knows that some of the best things that show up in an interview rise after long silences, when nothing has been asked. He is also playing with Nereo’s guilt after such an uncouth answer.
“Ask a singer why he sings,” that was at a Colombian restaurant in Roosevelt Avenue, in
Queens, where Nereo devoured slowly and implacably one of the biggest dishes of the local cuisine. “I can say that most of the best works I have done I did them without thinking.”
When you consider the supernatural precision required to take some pictures, like Nereo’s image of the three young guys jumping into the
, you only have the option of agreeing with what he says. Only the finger knew the perfect moment. Had the order been sent from the brain, we wouldn’t have witnessed the plasticity of that human tree. Had the picture been taken one hundredth of a second before or after, we would have lost the chance to see the photographic evidence that humans can fly. Magdalena River
“When you are young you think that you have to take many pictures; or write down many notes, for that matter. But now you rarely see me with my camera. Well, here, in
, there are many interesting things. But still, I don’t use my camera all the time.” New York
The scribe recalls that during those three days he hasn’t seen Nereo taking a single picture, even though he has carried his small digital camera with him at all times.
“Sometimes I just take pictures for myself, with my eyes. I walk by and think: ‘Look, Nereo. What a beautiful picture over there.’ I talk to myself all the time: ‘Hey, Nereo. What’s the matter? Why are you feeling bad these days?’ ‘Nothing special, Nereo, it is the stress of having changed from PC to Macintosh. Now I need to learn to use these new programs, and I want to do that as soon as possible. I don’t want to waste time.’”
That explains the fact that Nereo has a habit of talking about himself in the third person. He tells, for example, that when he came to live to
he visited hundreds of art galleries, and visited libraries, to see what the world had been doing in the art of photography: New York
“There are very good photographers in the world, and Nereo is one of them. My only wish is to be alive to see that recognized.”
But Nereo is not the only person with whom Nereo talks. He also talks with his mother, almost eight decades after her death.
“I invoke her every day. She taught me that rancor is evil.”
Today Nereo lives in a rented room in a family house, between Brooklyn and
Queens, but almost no one knows exactly where. He is obsessed with learning all the secrets of the digital era. Recently he found, through the internet, an old flame, a French painter of whom he took “one of the most beautiful portraits I ever made”. But, although both live alone, they haven’t thought about getting together. They both concluded that living alone is the best way to live.
And alone is Nereo, alone is the scribe, alone are the kids in the city of the hermits.
At the end of the trip, they are in the Queens Public Library, in
, waiting for the Mysterious Lady. She has promised to meet them there, because she has some news about the book they are preparing. Corona
They have talked about almost everything. Nereo told the story of his life as an orphan, how he used to live and sleep in buses —that could explain his passion for the subway—, he has talked about his many trades: mechanic, administrator of a theater, film actor; until he found photography, like a mystic finds God.
They have talked about politics:
“The Nordics found the formula. They use taxes to prevent capital from getting voracious, and use those taxes to give opportunities to the people. The mistake of the
Soviet Union was to think that everybody, the enthusiast and the lazy, deserved the same.”
Latin America is becoming aware of its own value, and Capitalism feels threatened.”
“How could you live with that woman for such a long time?”
“I don’t know,” the apprentice, apparently, was beginning to learn.
About old age:
“Anyone is younger than me.”
And about pictures, of course:
—I did a picture like this one fifty years ago —Nereo’s finger is glossy and his fingerprints are almost erased by effect of the chemicals used for developing pictures.
But the scribe knows that there is still something lacking. Years of journalism have taught him to wait, to listen patiently, to be tolerant with digressions and repetitions, to be alert to the unexpected moment when miracles happen.
“I told you that only a few things really surprise me.” Nereo is reading the section of Arts and Culture in the New York Times. “When I saw Don Quixote, by the American Ballet Theater, I didn’t know if I was on drugs, or if I was in a cloud, or if I even existed. But when I finally got to the street, after walking and leaning against the walls, I raised my eyes and thanked God, the Divine Providence, the guardian angels, or whatever force that moves the universe, for having permitted me to live long enough to see that.”
After hearing those words, the scribe knew that his work was done. He understood that the key to all, be it good pictures or lives, is a compound of appreciation and gratitude. He closed his notebook, smelled his pen before putting it in his pocket, and sighed.
Later that night, while eating an ice cream in
with Nereo and the Mysterious Lady, the scribe learned that he would have to write the text for the best seller in English. He thought that, after having spent his life trying to say things in Spanish, his task would be like writing with his arms tied, while pressing his nose against the keyboard; but he was also grateful about that. Astoria