Lope Navo on the Evolution of Photography, the Lasting Appeal of Printed Work and More

Photographers, according to Lope Navo, are storytellers. Born in the Philippines and trained initially in painting, Navo has always had an eye for visual storytelling. Eventually, he traded his paintbrush for a camera and became a master of capturing the beauty of the male human form. Navo would then travel around the world.

Photography MJ Suayan

At the age of 20 he migrated to the Middle East for more than four years, then Berlin for six long years, New York City for five, followed by Los Angeles, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. Wherever he went, he would create stunning images featured in campaigns of major fashion brands and editorials in major publications. Below and in the following pages, the storyteller shares some insight into the mind of a top-notch photographer.

DA MAN: Great to have you with us. What keeps you busy these days?
Lope Navo: For the past three months, during the whole unprecedented quarantine period, I was busy working on my new online magazine called MAN. On top of the magazine I was busy curating and selling my photographs as fine-art prints finally. I am also working on my pop-art collages that I started so many years ago when I was living in Europe. Before I moved there, Instagram was fairly new. Around 2013, a magazine editor friend in Manila asked me why I’m not on Instagram; back then it was just like totally a new thing.

So, I joined and posted backstage photos of my photo shoots during Men’s Fashion Week in Milan and Paris, where I’ve visited many times, as you know. Then I started creating this pop-art simply by putting two usually disconnected ideas online. A photo and a brand logo, and putting them together, as if I’m the advertising director of each brand and this is my take on how I would I interpret their products as an artist. There’s a touch of Andy Warhol in it, and also a lot of humor, too. It’s like breaking down these internet images into tiny little pieces and putting them back together to create something new and interesting.

DA: Let’s start from the beginning. What was it that prompted your interest in photography?
LN: I was a classically trained painter. So, from day one I’ve been a visual storyteller. As a fine art graduate, my basic training was art and beauty. My first big paychecks came from selling my oil paintings during college. Coming from a very unprivileged background—mind you, in a Third World setup—I worked hard from the very start, but I used art as my tool to survive. I wasn’t dealt so many cards to begin with, so I used art as my tool; first with the paintbrush and then later on with my camera.

That’s why Photoshop was really an extension of my work from the start. It is like an electronic paintbrush that gives a painter-ly feel to my earlier works. Although my new works are more raw and closer to what my camera produces, I’m exposed to the full spectrum of all kinds of styles of photography out there—from classic to modern to the obscure and unclassifiable—having had the opportunity to live in North and South America and in the heart of Europe for decades.

My training was back in fine arts, so I basically encountered all kinds of art forms. From photography, sketching, oil painting, typography and Photoshop. You name it, I’ve done it! During that time, I was the first generation in my country to learn computer software as an oil painter, which is so modern. I’m a classical thinker when it comes to beauty, but half of my brain is digital. Quite a deadly combination if you are great at both. Very rare that kids nowadays perfect both.

DA: How long would you say did it take for you to realize that photography was something that you wanted to pursue in earnest?
LN: It was a gradual process. Like I said earlier, I was a classically-trained painter and while travelling the world, I tried different ways of expression trough media—like the paintbrush—and through the introduction of the Apple computers, I gradually became a graphic designer. Then at one point I went back to doing photography like my earlier subjects in college when I started working for a magazine. So, it was a full circle, all art-related.

I realized I love taking pictures when I saw my work on print, in the magazines or photo books I created and my name on the by line. Like an author of a book or a novel, I created something literally out of nothing. It is like magic.

DA: When you were just starting out as a photographer, which parts of the job did you find particularly challenging? And conversely, which came natural to you?
LN: Great question! When I started taking pictures, the part that is particularly challenging is trying to break through all the noise. Of course, there are less photographers compared to now, but there is this yearning to produce a style that is just yours. Something that is difficult to copy, or reproduce, because it is so personal. So. I guess it is about your personal voice. How can your voice break through the deafening barrage of images left and right shouting at you? Once you know your voice and where you stand, the rest is just secondary. It is the most beautiful thing to realize as an artist … to know who you are.


DA: What would you consider the biggest highlights of your career so far?
LN: The biggest highlight of my career is when I shot for Christian Dior, and also L’Officiel magazine—no comparison. I was published in many franchises of L’Officiel, from Brazil, Thailand to Korea, and there was a time when I was shooting special calendars for Têtu magazine.

There was a time when my work was all over the streets of Paris, being consumed by Europeans. That was a fantastic feeling. Undeniably, these are the biggest brands in the world and I did it when I was in my 20s. I also published a hardcover book called “STARK” at that same time, published by Bruno Gmünder. I can say that was the highlight of my entire career so far. Almost like a fairytale story from another lifetime.

DA: What does photography mean to you now? Or perhaps: What is it about photography that keeps you passionate about it?
Photography is a means of self-expression. It is a gift that many don’t have—to express yourself in more forms than just the human language. Some people can’t even speak. I’m lucky to have the skill to see beauty and capture it, with or without the camera, since I was also a painter and a writer. Photography is about showing another perspective that other people won’t see if you haven’t captured it. It is like interpreting what you call “the reality” around you, freeze-framing it with a click of your fingers and forever it can be an object that can be owned and reinterpreted, like a piece of history … human history.

DA: You’ve famously stayed in various big cities all around the world. Which were the most eye-opening places for you?
LN: I’ve lived for two decades in almost all the continents. Every city is like a person, a stranger or a new friend or an ex-lover—unique in every possible way and I have so much memories of each. There are also the nightmares, of course. No city is perfect. What makes the city special is if you can actually call it your home, especially for people like us, who are born and built in a different way due to our circumstances we didn’t really ask for.

Like I’ve mentioned on my other interviews, I can say New York has always been my old stomping grounds when it comes to fashion photography. All the things I know about fashion photography I started there. Before NYC I just knew general photography. I owe so much to that city—I have great memories and very dark ones too. Maybe this contradiction makes you creative and always hungry. New York is a special kind of animal, because it is the city of the world. It is what I call “a magazine heaven” that is filled with so many artist from every walk of life. It was very exciting when I was living in New York City. So, I guess my photographic eye was opened wide in NYC but it was sharpened even more as I travelled the world. I lived in New York when I was in my mid-20s, so I was very young. Brazil reminds me of a much more exotic America. Much wilder and chaotic and dirty.

But sometimes this wildness has its own bite. And I think you will never burn-out if you have this passion like the Brazilians do, with almost everything. They love sex. And as you can see my work is mostly all about that, I have nothing to hide. I’ve never felt so much more welcomed in Brazil and the fact that I can go there without a visa is like an open door for me, like any home would be. Many of the best work in my whole career I shot in Brazil: The Lady Dior exhibition and the L’Officiel cover with Marlon Texeira. It was, like, a 400-page issue. How can you ever top that?

DA: You’ve worked with a lot of top models, brands, publications and personalities. Are there any particularly funny, challenging or otherwise memorable behind-the-scenes moments that you can share with us?
LN: I think I’m blessed to have a talent that open doors for me. And it’s all about taste, too. I’ve seen so many good photographers who lack taste. So, even if they are given great models and the opportunity, their work is underwhelming and irrelevant, to say the least. It is great that I have been given a chance to work with great models and muses the likes of Marlon Texeira, Matvey Lykov, Thomaz de Oliveira, Seijo Imazaki, AJ Abualrub, Josh Wald, Troy and Travis Cannata, Aitor Mateo, Miguel Sanchez, David Jensen and—the biggest so far—Tony Ward, who dated Madonna when he was 17, and the American beauty, Taylor Fuchs.

You have to be ready for this, always, especially when you are an international photographer. Most photographers are insured in case the worst happens and I’m just a fashion and art photographer, not a photojournalist. Can you imagine the life of a photojournalist? Travelling in the most dangerous areas in the world with their cameras … basically their whole life. The most challenging thing, I guess, is the socio-political dynamics of traveling looking like me, since most published photographers I know who travel the world don’t look and sound like me. And to add more to that, I hold a Third-World passport—and one of the worst passports on the planet to boot. With this arrangement you are very limited in the way you can move around. All eyes are on you, on top of other things I don’t even want to talk about. I’m just grateful that I’m still alive after all these years, through all the various cities I’ve lived in and visited.


DA: In a nutshell, how would you describe your style of photography? And what usually inspires you?
LN: Vogue Italia editor Riccardo Conti described my work so eloquently: “When studying Navo’s photography, I immediately notice that what I’m seeing has nothing to do with desire, with sex or with eroticism. To the very core of his existence, Navo is a young sculptor, talented, tenacious, passionate, who always places the human body at the center of his scrutiny. He works with forms common to the unnatural architecture of today’s male body. Or better yet: His particular idea of how today’s male body should be—abstract, unattainable, unnatural in its proportions and its sleekness. Navo is aware of his common ground and with the guise of a non-Westerner he sees and reflects upon these images.”

And I think that is quite close to how I can describe my photographs—not to sound too narcissistic, mind you. But to add to that, my imagery is all about men and their beauty. Men have always been my muses, in terms of photography or art. Although I photograph women very well, and I give them justice, but with men it’s different. It is how the shadows and light fill in the flesh in front of me; how you can literally paint with available light around you. It is the push and pull of light and darkness shown in the naked male body.

DA: The effects of this pandemic we’re in has, of course, affected media companies, fashion houses and more. How has it affected your profession? Say, how will the typical photoshoot set look in the near future?
LN: Of course it did. The world stood still and everyone became almost a germaphobe in a way. How can you go back to your profession that mostly deals with people? I don’t’ know any photographer that can work in fashion—unless they are product photographers—who can work without models. So, of course a multi-billion-dollar industry was greatly affected. And it is the youth culture that had suffered, since it is all connected and inseparable: fashion and its youth. I think we creatives will always find a way, like we always do. That’s why we are creatives.

So. In case I can’t photograph models in the future, there are many other ways to interpret fashion. But I’m lucky to be a writer, a painter and digital artist on top of being a fashion photographer. So, I can find many ways to interpret fashion in the post-COVID era. I have a good feeling, though, that it will all go back to normal once all this is over. Like after many other calamities that happened before, fashion always comes back with a vengeance, stronger than it was ever before.

DA: A rising trend these days is doing virtual photoshoots for social media. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
LN: Virtual photoshoots are as cold as they can be. The human factor is a bit distant when you’re literally connected just by electricity and machines. The personal touch is gone, it’s a bit cold and robotic. Of course, it is still a form of art, since everything these days can be called art. But these virtual photoshoots are similar to virtual sex or long-distance relationships or virtual robotic boyfriends that always doesn’t work. Because human relationship is tied by many other human senses, more than just what the eyes can see.

Humans have five basic senses—touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste—to help us understand and perceive the world around us. Art, Netflix, literature and the Internet limit us to just two, the sense of sight, and hearing, leaving out the sense of touch, taste and smell. And for many millennia, health and beauty are only defined by the boundaries of what the naked eye can see. Maybe in the near future, our modern fashion magazines and technologies will allow us to actually smell, or even taste, photographs, music videos or Hollywood movies. And it will probably change our many opinions about the things we passionately care about today.

DA: Earlier this year, you released limited edition prints of your work. Can you tell us a bit about this project and how it went?
LN: I was asked by many clients years ago about selling my prints, but I didn’t have time since I was very busy with fashion that I neglected the art side of my career. So, during the quarantine I found time to go through all my archives and recent works, and curate them as special limited-edition prints. Each one museum-quality, uncensored, hand-signed, individually titled, numbered and sized at 9×12. Dozens of my prints were sold worldwide, from Cambodia, Sydney, Milan, Manila, Los Angeles, Amsterdam to NYC. So, it was an international success, even amid COVID, where most countries were closed.

DA: Based on this—and also your extensive experience in the media industry—how do you see the future for printed artwork in this increasingly digital age?
LN: I think like everything else—Vinyl records versus iTunes, hand written letters versus email, oil paintings versus digital art, print magazines versus PDF files—it’s the same thing: One is more personal like a gift, it has sentimental value when you can hold it in your hands and you can collect them not only in your laptop or hard drives but in the comfort of your home. Imagine a future where all pop culture only exists inside our machines? Our apartments and homes will literally be empty and we will only have a lamp and desktop for everything. What if there’s no electricity? What would you do to entertain yourself without anything existing outside of the Internet? It would be a great monopoly and it will be a dark and cold future if we only have our laptops as our source of culture or entertainment.

DA: It’s almost a cliché these days to decry to ubiquity of self-styled photographers, especially on social media, who undermine the work of proper professionals. On the flip side, there are also voices hailing the increasing interest in photography as decent cameras become more affordable and user-friendly, and anybody can share any level of work to the world. What is your take on this?
LN: Yes, great point! The novelty of photographs is almost gone and we tend to become desensitized by the flood of images. I have to say that I’m lucky that I’ve lived in the pre-Internet era. And I’m only 40, so not that old. But we are robbing this new generation of a different world where everything is much more personal. Everyone can take pictures these days, yes. There are millions of photographers and their noise is a tidal wave of information. It can be scary to think about it. But every piece of knowledge or style or taste must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system. Otherwise it will be a disaster.

That’s why we have magazines like Vogue or GQ that are the leading voices of fashion for men and women. But even they are losing their footholds. They are the authority in fashion but without evolving just like Facebook did they will become obsolete like Friendster or Myspace.

DA: In an interview with our sister publication, Prestige, back in 2012, you mentioned that “photographers have always been storytellers.” What are some of the most important stories that you still want to tell? Your dream projects, if you will…
LN: Painters, poets, filmmakers, singers or dancers—all these forms of self-expression are always telling a story. They have many layers and context, and it will be really interesting where this will all take us in the future as we harness this side of human complexity.

I wish we have more time, but to tell you a short story, the first time I had an infatuation with photographs was when I was a teenager, in Manila. I used to collect fashion magazines from Hollywood celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jared Leto and Justin Timberlake. I would go to a dodgy hole-in-the-wall in an alleyway—a little dangerous for a young kid, but I couldn’t afford to buy new magazines in the mall, so I bought those used ones sold in the street. Whenever I see the face of Leo on the covers smiling back at me, I felt that there’s a larger world out there that is waiting for me, and I felt everything will eventually be okay.