Luis Alberto Rodriguez’s study of spirituality and the body

The artist’s new photo book of intimate black and white imagery draws on philosophy, divinity, and his own heritage

Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing two nude bodies embracing one another with blurred effects
All images © Luis Alberto Rodriguez, 2023, courtesy Loose Joints

Luis Alberto Rodriguez’s background as a trained dancer reverberates throughout his image-making practice today. The Dominican-American photographer’s last photo book, People of the Mud, portrayed sports players, dancers, and workers in Ireland’s Country Wexford with a lyrical beauty. His eye for expressive, unexpected body movements that he revealed in People of the Mud also comes through in latest book, simply titled O.

It’s inspired by Simone Weil’s philosophical theories, in particular how she thought of the body as “being a shell to be emptied of all ego and all pretense in order for light to enter us”, according to Rodriguez. “She believes we are born the wrong side upwards and we spend a lifetime reversing this order,” a concept that he was fascinated by from “a visual and philosophical standpoint”. It perhaps explains why, in the book, many participants appear to be levitating, suspended mid-air between two states.

Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing a person appearing to be mid-fall
Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing a person's face and torso, with one eye paler than the other and their hands pressed to their chest

O brings together austere black and white portraits and nude photographs that become increasingly abstract as the book goes on. It features a broad cast of subjects that began with friends and gradually extended outwards. “It became a domino effect as one would then recommend the next,” he says.

“I see this work as a portrait of humanity in transition and transcendence. And as such I wanted to show humanity; people from all walks of life, backgrounds and gender identities. While viewing the work I don’t want representation to be a question one is busy with. Rather there is an understanding that as people we are diverse. There is no othering.”

Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing a person bending over with their hands dangling by their legs
Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez of a coffee cup covered in residual coffee grounds and an insect on the lip of the cup

The photographer aimed to cultivate a trusting atmosphere by discussing his intentions with the particpants and tailoring the session to each person, maintaining a dialogue throughout. “I am cognisant of the fact that everyone I photographed has different physical capacities and I encouraged them to use their lives as a starting point for any kind of beginning.”

To him, nudity felt like an essential component of the project, explaining that “we come naked into the world”, he says. “I’m interested in thinking of the flesh as a map of, and a guide to, our own personal histories. Our flesh and bones carry us through borrowed time. By having the bodies stripped of all external decoration my aim was to come closer to the core of each individual.”

Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing a person lying on their torso facing away from the camera
Black and white photograph from O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, showing a person crouching on the ground leaning backwards with their arms raised in the air

The name of the book carries many symbolic meanings, from the curve of a mouth when it gasps to the shape of a zero, a reset. But the most obvious, and perhaps most relevant here, is the idea of a cycle, and O is interspersed with nods to the generational cycles in Rodriguez’s own life. A photograph of his father appears in the book, while still life images of cups tilted or broken into shards evokes his mother’s practice of tasseography, which involves reading coffee grounds as a form of divination. These references, though subtle, opened up a new chapter in his career.

“I spent many years compartmentalising my life and not sharing my creative world with my family due to various forms of shame. This created a void within myself and a pattern of continuous hiding and normalising that behaviour,” he reveals. “At this stage of my life, I felt it was imperative for me to honour my roots and my history; my parents being where I started.”

Photograph of the cover of O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, featuring the letter O in red font against a pale grey background

 O by Luis Alberto Rodriguez is published by Loose Joints;