Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It can be divisive, ridiculous, and enraging all within a single swipe of your finger. It wasn’t always that way though, but human nature being broadcast across the planet has made it so. The benefits and pluses are still there, just much harder to see through the fray. Occasionally, one of the benefits is that you spot and immediately respond to imagery that stands out above the crowd. While I cannot recall the exact instance this happened, this is when I first discovered the work of Monica Orozco. I know that it wasn’t even one time, because it was occurring daily, and all those images had an immediate effect on me. As it turns out, Monica had adopted a daily practice of creating a unique image and posting it on Facebook (and later, Instagram). The images were always of her, but also always playing a character or bringing attention to social issues, or both. In addition, they were all framed a specific way, with titles that were often as provocative as the images. You could not miss them, and I quickly realized that I was watching what amounted to a year-long (and then some) solo exhibition online. Being fed the image one at a time made you look forward to seeing them, which seemed wildly successful to me. Little did I know that this was all just a beginning of an avalanche of creative, thought-provoking, and brilliantly produced photographs.
As is often the case when you look at a lot of photographs over time, you tend to forget for a time about certain work that you liked. The deal with Monica, however, is that she won’t let you forget, because she simply doesn’t stop. You can tell by all of these self-portraits of hers that she is a controlled mass of boundless energy that cannot be ignored. She has brought a plethora of issues to the forefront of her imagery and done it with so much grace and style that it’s hard to believe that one person is behind these projects. Colorful, vibrant, and full of life are all words that come to my mind when I think of Monica and her work. Comparisons can easily be made, but she is truly one of a kind, and certainly not someone who could ever slip my mind. She deserves all the credit for keeping the humor, social awareness, and an in-your-face kind of photography alive more than anyone I know. I’m incredibly happy to have a venue to help spread the word about her, but I have a distinct feeling she was going to find you with her photographs anyway.
My photography focuses on reflecting and exploring multifaceted human experiences through the lens of the contemporary moment. My work is enriched by my multicultural roots - fundamental to my desire to capture the universal in the subjective. I am constantly inspired by what is around me. I love to shoot both in vivid color and black and white. I am a portrait photographer who also specializes in documentary photography.
Center to my fine art photography work is my alter ego - deMonica - a perpetual shape-shifter that continuously meanders through a spectrum of life's sentiment and experience. At times emotionally challenging, while also mischievously inquisitive at others. deMonica’s visual epilogs explore a wide spectrum of contemporary socio-cultural conditions.
I use a lot of humor and irony, but also drama and subtle or provocative images that state how I feel, see society and the world. I share my vision about important themes I care about seriously. It is how I reflect what is inside as well as what is all around me. I think that is the essential role of the artist. Some of the major themes include the rights of the LTGB community to live freely in contemporary American society, the changing landscape of Los Angeles and the impact of that evolution on all of us living here, and of course, women: identity, equality, sexuality, political status and power, ageism, and the unrealistic expectations of contemporary society.
My first breakthrough was a show at the Palos Verdes Art Center in 2015, “The Marrakesh Series.” I also had a 2016 show at the Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs, “Mid-Monica: Photographer Monica Orozco Takes A Whack At Modernism”, followed by “Mid Century Crisis” in 2017. I have a number of group shows, including “Doyennes of Photography in L.A. at the Castelli Art Space in 2018, and recently, “WAV Venice Audio-Visual Show, at the Palazzo Micheil, Venezia, Italy, 2019.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and was there a person or event that inspired your beginning?
Monica Orozco: It took me a while to figure out what was my calling in life. Thankfully, I found it by the age of 28. It all started with me wanting to be like my friend, who was a graphic designer. He was doing work that was creative, made great money and worked from home, all very appealing to me. I took a graphic design class at Los Angeles Valley College. It was mandatory to use a manual film camera. While I sucked at Graphic design I fell in love at looking at the world through the camera’s viewfinder. It was the first time that I wanted to learn more about something. I love to create and document, play with themes and shapes, so, this medium delivered on it all. As an artist it takes time to realize what you are trying to express and for me, it took years to find a distinct voice. It started with a simple Photo a Day challenge in 2012, the theme was “Something You Don’t Know About Me”, that jump started my desire to share more about myself via photography.
MK: I know you as Monica, but there is an alter ego named deMonica - tell me about her and where she came from. Is she dangerous? (Please say yes).
MO: I wouldn’t say she is dangerous but she is definitely a hoot. Zero-fucks-cool-kind of character. She was actually born during All Hallows Eve, back in 1997? She was put together very organically, in an instance, as a costume with clothing that I would wear to a Goth-Industrial West Hollywood S&M club called Sinematic ( I mention this because I owe it to some pretty fabulous visually stimulating LA nightclubs, they started my “dressing up” phase). DeMonica was a combination of drag queen (I honestly believe that I was a drag performer in another life), a dominatrix, purple haired vixen, fun character. I had not done any acting or performance, it was the first time, that I got into character. She was spunky and outrageous, flirty and naughty, strong and sexy, and very entertaining. I remember someone asking me, “Who are you supposed to be?” and the first thing blurted out of my mouth was, deMonica! Her name might initially sound like some crazy Satan worshipper but the reality is that I like the play on words and for me, deMonica is derived from the Spanish preposition de, which means “of” or “from” Monica. I didn’t think much about her as a persona but I did like the sound of her name. DeMonica was always sort of with me, deep in my subconscious. When I decided to name my photography business, I called it deMonicaPhoto and just left it as that (back then, I found my given name to be rather boring). DeMonica, as my alter-ego, came back in full force when I started to shoot the Photo a Day series (2012), the prompt for the day was “Something you don’t know about me”, that jump started my self-portrait project.
It was easier to shoot “her”; she had strength, something to say, was not shy and she didn’t care about what people thought of her. She helped free me. I think everyone should have an alter-ego they can count on.
“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, 'Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.”
― David Bowie
MK: Normally, I’d ask you who you are influenced by artistically, but some of your work mimics and recreates the images of many of your heroes and influences, while simultaneously injecting yourself into the photographs. Is this nod to your heroes a necessary part of your process? Is it important for you to recognize them and share them with your viewers?
MO: Yes, it is important for me to acknowledge those who have inspired me, I owe it to them. I’m a visual learner, they taught me so much about the world we live in. Two years of following the Photo a Day challenge lists, the themes/words were becoming redundant and I was becoming bored. I decided to ask close friends for “words”, what I found was that the words given to me reminded me of certain iconic photographs, and that became the basis for this Photo a Day sub-series. It was also a study, an exercise to really observe these famous images. It was a way of training myself to be a better photographer. I also think it taught me how to “act/perform” like the subject in the photos, “What were they thinking? What was going on when the shot was taken? How did the photographer bring out certain emotions from their sitters?” The magic came when I would put my own spin on those images.
MK: I was recently telling someone about your work, and found myself describing it as Cindy Sherman self portraits mixed with the shock value and wicked humor of David LaChapelle. In doing so, it made me think, are these selfies or self portraits? Is there a difference.
MO: I love those two photographers so much, Michael. Thank you for thinking that. Interesting side note, halfway during the photography program at Santa Monica College, I realized that I wanted to be the female version of David LaChapelle. I loved his sense of humor. It was crass, it was pop art, outrageous. I loved it all. Unfortunately, after assisting a big celebrity/advertising photographer, I got completely turned off from pursuing that type of career. I did not feel confidant or diva enough in that line of work.
I never thought that self-portraiture would be something I would get into but once I started to explore that, I dove into the Queen of Self-portraiture, the almighty Cindy Sherman. She wasn’t the first but she was committed to saying something about the female psyche and find her work super empowering.
To me, self-portraits are more methodical, and selfies are casual snaps of your pretty “duckface”.
MK: Are you searching for identity in your photographs, or are you hiding the real you behind all of the outfits, wigs, and props? What do you hope to discover with this work?
MO: I can’t get away from being a part of my art. I think I reveal myself in every work, no matter the identity in the photo. It was even more clear to me, during the time I was in the midst of shooting the series “Mid Century Crisis”. I was going through a really rough time. My original intention for those portraits was to be fun and quirky, but I just couldn’t fake it . I didn’t want to shoot anything, I felt broken. Everything was dark, I’d see my face in the mirror and I was disgusted with myself. I was also stressed because that work had a deadline, an exhibit during the Palm Springs Modernism Week 2017. A really great opportunity. I was very lucky to have had a gallerist that was supportive and understanding, Bruce Bibby from T CG, he told me to just shoot what I felt and he also gave me an out, and for some reason that motivated me even more to complete the project. I realized that it was important to document that period of my life, because life isn’t easy and we all go through hurdles. I’m very proud of myself for doing that. It also triggered something in me, that I can no longer shake off: what do I want to say with my art?
MK: Beyond feminism and female empowerment, you often delve in social themes. Do you feel it is important to start a conversation about the topics you often address with your photographs? Where should we go after viewing and understanding what you are saying in your work?
MO: I've never thought of myself as being political, mainly because I've always had a hard time expressing myself with words, but as I've gotten older I find the slogan "The Personal is Political" dead on. If it affects my sisters, it affects me, especially during this current political climate in our Country. I can’t help wanting to say how I feel.
I document the emotions that I’m going through in being a woman of a certain age, it’s an interesting journey and I believe that my work will only get stronger as I get older.
MK: You have a background and thorough knowledge of the commercial photography world. Light, color, and composition are all apparent, and everywhere, in your work. Has this background helped or hindered your travels within the fine art realm?
MO: It has of course helped and stimulated a greater desire to learn more and keep improving. I do everything in my self-portraits. The make-up, the styling, the lighting, the shooting, the retouching. The next big thing would be to work with experts in each of these fields. Anything that would take my craft to the next level.
MK: Beyond the oftentimes seriousness found in much of your work, there is a fun, quirky, full of life aesthetic that is clearly you in a nutshell. How much fun is it to produce and create these images? Or, is it not as much fun as it seems?
MO: It used to be way more fun at the beginning, there was not as much expectation from my part in creating “solid photos”. Photo a Day was playful and I really miss that part of it. Once I started to exhibit my work I found myself being a lot more critical of my images, it stopped me from just posting stuff. You can’t really sustain highly produced images on a daily basis. I suppose it’s what happens with anything, you want to become better, the challenge is good but I don’t like that it stops me from shooting just random shit for fun now. The random shooting was the Just Do It part, the momentum of doing something was key in creating at all.
MK: For you, what is it that makes for a successful photograph?
MO: When I can make someone giggle at one of my photos. When I get a reaction from the viewer. When I nail the lighting. When I nail what I’m trying to say. When I surprise myself.
MK: Growing up in L.A. and documenting a lifestyle and a city that is rapidly changing, is yet another topic you address with your work. (side note: Monica produces A LOT of imagery, so these questions continue to come up). I live here too, and thoroughly love this city with all of its pluses and minuses, so is this simply a love letter to the city you adore? Is your environment a distinguishing factor in your creative process?
MO: I absolutely love that I was born in LA. She has shaped who I am but believe it or not, I haven’t created a series in my own hometown. My love for LA is so huge and the nod to it has been one of my biggest hurdles. There is so much to say about being born in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley to then growing up and finding other villages in LA, always in search in finding the hood/the village you click with. That’s what makes LA so special. So many different types of places. Also, the LA I grew up in is changing at a rapid speed. I have to capture her before she becomes unrecognizable to me. Or before it is all gone.
MK: I know you had undertaken a Photo of the Day Challenge some years ago, which resulted in so many iconic photos of yours. You had also indulged in this demanding way to work before and since then, so I wonder if you’ve ever kept count and have some idea on how many versions of yourself you’ve created so far?
MO: Honestly, I’ve lost count. The great thing about shooting this series it that it has had me look at the style and photos I like shooting. Certain characters keep appearing; the vixen, the chapstick performer, the vintage women, the homage, the colorful, the black and white; the Mexican, the American, the lesbian, the gloomy, the anxious, the doomed.
MK: Was there ever a specific job or event that became a turning point of success in your career as a photographer?
MO: My intention was not to become a fine art photographer, but the universe sort of guided me in that direction. It was the year 2015, I had stopped working as a photographer for Boeing, at the same time I had people wanting to exhibit my work. The “big one” was at the Palos Verdes Art Center when the director Joe Baker asked me to showcase the self-portraits I had shot in Palm Desert. That exhibit changed it for me. Shortly after I was represented by Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs. The first image that was sold there, “Divorce”, made a huge impact on me, the woman who purchased this piece told the gallerist that she had recently gotten a divorce and felt that this image would help her though the process. Knowing this was powerful, my art had purpose and I think of this every time I question what the F I’m doing with my life, haha.
MK: Creating all of these personas, with you as the center of attention, creates just that, attention. One would always hope that this attention leads to more opportunity and more growth, but has this attention ever brought about a darker aspect, unwanted, from all of the social media denizens?
MO: I’m sorry if it offends you, not my intention. I recall reading a couple of nasty comments on one of my pieces. It was hurtful and made me rethink my work and then, I was like “fuck that, if someone doesn’t like my work, it’s not my problem, they can stop following my ass.”
MK: If you were to provide insight into the photographic world to a class of students, what would be your most important points to make?
MO: To just do it. An advice I have to remember myself. Don’t compare yourself to others, you are unique, you have your own voice, be true to it.
Focus on your passion. See as much art as you can, so much good stuff out there. Learn the business of being an artist. Share your work, especially with your peers, your mentors, they are your biggest supporters. Build your network. Have fun. Play!
MK: I know you have more for us coming up in the near future. Care to tell us a little about it, or will you make us wait and see? What about appearances, exhibitions, etc.? How can we get more Monica (or deMonica) in our lives?
MO: Follow me on IG @demonicaphoto! Your support pumps me up. I have many projects in the works. The one I’m super excited about is the self-portrait series on Perimenopause/Menopause. I’m using anecdotes by women that have undergone this stage. This series will educate me and also help me cope with entering this next stage of my life.
MK: This is not a question, but more of a statement about how easy it is to come up with myriad questions for you, simply because you do and cover so much in this industry. I feel like we will need to do an update at some point in the future to keep people abreast of your continued path through this industry. My gratitude to you, Monica, for your time and effort here. I know others are going to learn and enjoy your work and your words. Until next time, thank you.
MO: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share. I find these interviews to be very helpful, they tend to reset me, they pump me up, they remind me of why I do what I do :-)
You can find more of Monica's work at her website here.