The article “Elarte fotográfico de Nereo. Un lente para mirar al hombre” by Manuel Zapata Olivella (1920?2004) was published in the Sunday Readings section of the newspaper El Tiempo in 1964. An anthropologist, physician, and writer, Zapata Olivella is one of the most important thinkers in the Caribbean region of Colombia. Due to his concern with the relationship between “the human being” and its environment, he studied and wrote literary texts on Afro-Colombian cultures. This anthropological vision of the universe is evident in his passionate description of the life and work of Colombian photographer Nereo López (b. 1920), with whom he felt identified due to shared humanist ethics. Zapata Olivella wrote the texts in the book Homenaje nacional de fotografía 1998: Nereo. La cámara trashumante, published with the support of the Colombian Ministerio de Cultura. Those writings place emphasis on Nereo López’s vision and sensibility, which allowed him to grasp and represent a multi-ethnic world.
Regardless, Zapata Olivella’s vision and his essentialist approach to Nereo López’s work—an approach centered on questions of ethnicity, culture, and folklore—must be critically analyzed by researchers. Nereo López’s images of the relationship between man and his environment form part of collective representations bound to a social construction that sees society as natural and essential. Significantly, Nereo López uses visual canons linked to the expansion of North American documentary photography and its way of seeing. His discourse revolves around the realist beauty of “the human.” Hence, to study Nereo López’s work requires an analysis of the context in which he produced it, which includes his studies in New York, the aesthetic environment of his times, and the discourses operative in the representations of man and society particularly in the Caribbean region of Colombia. A “photographic gospel” to be followed makes itself felt in Zapata Olivella’s texts.
From the time this article was written (1964) until 2010, Nereo López’s work has gained an important place in Latin American photography. His body of work contributes to an analysis of the visual representations of Colombia’s social and cultural life. Due to his broad vision of photography as a form of artistic expression, Nereo López’s work encompasses a number of genres with surprising results. He is deeply connected to the technical, aesthetic, and technological transformations that photography and its practices have undergone in the last fifty years.