Luís Monteiro, London

Classic nouveau

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

By its nature, fashion is elegantly sexy and timeless, irresistible and without obfuscation. Alive, fresh, stimulating and mysterious, just like the route that took him to the top.

“It is hard to explain the love of photography,” he says, adding: “I never touched a camera before I was 22. I had no interest. I didn’t take a single picture”. It all changed when he took a one-week black and white photography course at the Portuguese Youth Institute. “Luís Fardilha ran the course, and he became my mentor throughout my career. I knew little, and he always helped me a lot. My love for photography is in large part down to him.” However “the real story is not quite so straightforward. I had a serious accident when I was 22 that could have left my left leg paralysed. For several years I could hardly walk and learned to overcome many obstacles, personal challenges, pain and limitations. It all turned out well in the end.”

Originally from Aveiro, he intended to continue studying photography: “I was travelling between London and New York, but because of the accident it was too risky to return to New York”. At the age of 25, with his leg giving him some respite, he headed off to London, “I couldn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t like it. I had studied French”, he said. “I always had confidence in myself, so I didn’t care what other people thought.” This willpower and resilience was half the battle. He was greeted with “brutal conditions” that placed him “at a very high technical level”, and again he had a teacher who believed in him: “I always said I wanted to go back to Lisbon, that I didn’t like London. But every week she asked me to stay”, and on the eve of his return, he stayed. He was warned that “the market penetration rate was close to 0.02%, and that it would be very difficult for any one of us to achieve success”, but Luís set to work.

He did not become a photographer’s assistant, at a time when this apprenticeship lasted four or five years. “I needed to develop my confidence and technique”, he explained. At that time he didn’t photograph and immediately confirmed the quality on camera. In Portugal there was “not much or practically nothing in the area”, and he progressed without contacts or sponsors. Self-made, his first work was based in India, in Goa, for an English client and a Japanese brand. “It was a unique experience. It could not have been a better way to start”. At that time, Mario Testino and Nick Knight “and all the top photographers” went to the best laboratories in London, the Metro, and hired lights and equipment from Direct Light. “They told me that to be accepted I had to be recommended by two top photographers and that this was how the industry was protected from newcomers. It was almost impossible to get a foot in the door”, he recalls. Once again, however, destiny favoured him. The manager of Metro offered him a two-year grant. “He told me I was the only photographer who managed to get the exposure right in every frame!”

On another occasion, he had an appointment at British Vogue with Anna Harvey who, until her death, kept a keen eye on Portuguese Vogue, where Luís Monteiro produced a number of fashion editorials with the creative director, Paulo Macedo, “a very talented person” who has also since disappeared, the make-up artist Cristina Gomes and the hairstylist Miguel Viana. He liked Anna Harvey very much and had “a great deal of respect” for her. So he used up all his savings and took an A3 leather portfolio to show her. “I printed the whole book. It was all hand printed. I think I spent 3-4 million escudos (£24,500–£32,700). It left me penniless.” At that time he only had one pair of “pretty worn-out” trousers that he wore on his way to the very elegant Vogue House. “I thought she would understand and appreciate the effort. And she did, and she helped me a lot.”

It is now 20 years since he went to London, and he is now a regular contributor to such prestigious magazines as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler and How to Spend It by the Financial Times. His images exude a timeless elegance, with striking colours and an exceptional brilliance, achieving the right balance between fantasy and reality with an exquisite technique. He says of his works that “they are all special for different reasons. Some because of the experience itself, others for the honour of meeting certain people. It was strange to meet people who really are someone but who behave like they are nobodies: simple, kind and attentive.” And more than capturing the perfect photo, “the image is overvalued”, Luís Monteiro enjoys the “process of taking a photograph. I always value the work everyone puts in to create the image more than taking the credit. They are fashion images created by a team.”

If when he set out he was fascinated by the deliriousness of Guy Bourdin and Nick Knight and the elegance of Sebastião Salgado, he now has few defined references “trying not to see other people’s works”. He admits that the emotions of cinema have a significant impact on him, through films like In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai, Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn and so many by Wim Wenders. He is also inspired by “the landscapes in some films and books, a trip to a museum, and sometimes a report, a trip, a glimpse”. Like all good photographers, travel nourishes him, the opening to the world that is needed to distinguish and appreciate its different tones. So he keeps getting to know people, “TO LIVE! Always! Discovering new cultures, learning I know less and trying not to judge others for their money, culture or religion. One of the things that inspires me the most is speaking passionately and honestly about our work, or friends showing things they like, what they feel, see and hear, it is often contagious.” His first exhibition was to be held this year, “a complex project involving lots of funds and travel”, but it has been postponed because of the virus. “We are in a new phase of humanity, facing new challenges. One day I would like to create projects that are important to society. It is well defined within me. But I will only do this if I have something to contribute.”

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