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Every fall, María del Río and two friends set out on their annual road trip across America. They rent a car and start driving with a simple agenda: share some laughs, meet new people and see the country in a way that del Río says is “completely random and free.” The trip offers the Oakland-based photographer, who spent her childhood in Santa Fe, New Mexico, long walks in the desert and a return to the spirituality of the Native American and Mexican cultures that have enriched her life.

© Ellen Marie

Following a rising career in social services and nearly a decade as a photo intern, del Río established herself as a commercial photographer. Since 2010, she has been shooting fashion, editorial and portraits for clients that include Benefit Cosmetics and Glamour and Lonny magazines. A del Río photo has a strong graphic quality, one that plays with shapes and shadows, contrasts the human form with the straight lines of signage or architecture, and adds warmth by juxtaposing hard and soft textures. “I look at classic photographers like Edward Weston, and they were shooting women very abstractly like this,” she says, “more about the shape and the light.”

Breaking the norms of standard beauty, her models promote inclusiveness, authenticity and a subtle, sensual presence. She will frame an intriguing gesture to create a mood, and may also crop off a leg, hand or head or shoot fashion with the model’s back to the camera. “She has a very unique and artful style, and I love how she uses hands and brings them into her shots in unexpected ways,” says Danielle Moore, creative director for design firm DM & Co. “María is so passionate about it. She wants to see the mood boards and wants to be involved with casting, and she wants to be able to weigh in and bring her ideas into the photography and really make it a collaboration. I think that’s really valuable.”

When del Río was commissioned by Vogue Ukraine to shoot a six-page feature on Dores André, principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, she knew André would be a compelling subject. Dressed in high-waisted Balenciaga tights attached to pointed, spike-heeled shoes, André is discreetly topless, looks as formidable as a bullfighter and is also very feminine. “We were going back and forth about what top works with the tights,” del Río says, “and Dores said, ‘No. No top.’” During the shoot, a stream of sunlight cast a glow on the ballet barre, and del Río’s direction to André was simply to “go to that sliver of light and dance.”

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“It’s not just that my models are pretty women,” she says. “I love women like Dores, who are really creative, interesting and bring something to the story. The model who isn’t secure about her body and wants to show only her best angles is the opposite of what I want. I don’t ever want
a model to feel pressure to look a certain way, and I don’t ever want to contribute to that.”

Today’s trend toward a more natural street style versus a runway-ready look has enabled del Río to show the scars and freckles in her shots that she was once asked to remove. “It’s a little grittier now,” she says. And gritty she likes. Influenced by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, del Río describes Iturbide’s shots of Indigenous communities as “timeless in a very raw way. She’s been a huge inspiration to me.”

Born in Cuautla, Mexico, del Río was deaf at birth and communicated with hand signals until she was four years old. Her mother brought her and her older brother to Santa Barbara, California, where she had surgery that corrected her hearing problem before starting school. Three years later, the family settled in Santa Fe with her stepfather, Jonathan, and her new baby sister. del Río, her siblings and her mother relocated frequently, and they eventually moved in with her mother’s new partner.

Growing up in an artistic household, del Río remembers seeing her stepmother, Barbara, taking photos—her first example of a woman using a camera—and her mother painting, but with a distinctly different temperament than her own. “I’m very methodical, and my mom’s very wild and passionate,” she says, recalling when her mother experienced emotional moments and would suddenly exclaim, “I have to paint!”

del Río’s diligence became evident during a high school photography class, when her used camera failed to produce any film. She was unable to afford another, and her teacher encouraged her to use words instead. “I was obsessed with doing all the assignments, and he’d see me constantly setting up my shot,” she says. “So, he basically let me talk to him about the composition. I just didn’t have the means to accomplish it.”

“I look at classic photographers like Edward Weston, and they were shooting women very abstractly like this,” she says, “more about the shape and the light.”

Anxious to pursue her dream of moving to California, del Río began studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, becoming the first in her family to attend college. Her degree in Latin American and Latino studies included self-guided internships at a migrant shelter and a gang prevention program, where she found she preferred photographing people instead of writing about them.

She discovered the work of surf photographer Patrick Trefz, who agreed to let her intern for him. His job was shooting in the ocean, and hers included cleaning his garage, but a dead rat convinced her to limit her labor to organizing the office. “I didn’t know anything about surfing, but I loved his work. It’s very cinematic,” she says. “He’d also be deep in a project and then say, ‘The tide is good and I need to go surfing. You’re done for the day.’”

After seven years, the cultural appeal of living in a larger city lured her to San Francisco, where she found work at Larkin Street Youth Services, which helps young people experiencing homelessness. Realizing that journalistic photography was too heavy to add to her daily social service work, she answered Craigslist ads looking for a photographer to shoot weddings or parties, anything for experience.

A photo taken by Alex Farnum that had been published in San Francisco magazine had a powerful effect on her. His lighting and colors of a lake in Golden Gate Park called to her: this is what I want to do. Needing on-set experience, she began an internship with Farnum. “I kind of had to fight my way to get there, but he started bringing me on, and it was very much a boys’ club,” she says. “There are always reputations—the photographers in town who don’t hire women—but Farnum was a good-hearted, gentle person and hired good-hearted people. So, it always felt really supportive.”

She also began working with Refinery29. It started as unpaid, but there were perks, like taking home all the burritos from her best burritos in San Francisco shoot. Her enthusiasm and willingness for hard work were soon noted, and she moved up from intern to freelance contributor, photographing a great variety of subjects and meeting creatives and business owners across the Bay Area.

I don’t ever want a model to feel pressure to look a certain way, and I don’t ever want to contribute to that.”

As her network of contacts grew, del Río found herself defining her ethics and the type of client she felt comfortable working for. “As a Mexican woman, if I go to a website and I don’t see diversity, I click close within the first ten seconds,” she says. “On my first few big jobs, it was an issue. They were hiring seven models, and I remember during the first phone call, I asked, ‘Why are all the models White women?’”

Now, she says she’ll happily walk away from a job if she doesn’t feel her values are compatible. “I’ve had to have a lot of tough conversations with clients around race and stereotypes,” she says of what her agent Katie Patterson at LOLA Creative Agency calls “having the talk.” “To hear them say, ‘Oh, we didn’t think about it,’ I say, ‘That’s because you belong to the majority, but people who don’t belong to the majority are always thinking about it, always noticing it,’” del Río says.

Creative director Hawa Arsala, who has worked with del Río on several exploratory projects, says, “When we first met years ago, we shared a vision for a more inclusive industry. Not just in how we are represented in front of the camera, but also behind it. What I love about María is that she treats every single person as part of the creative process, with respect. It’s why we work so well together.”

It’s important for del Río to feel reinvigorated, and she tries to constantly be shooting. Juggling a number of creative projects keeps her brain flowing. A frequent traveler, she visits family in Mexico City about twice a year and feels the country is a major inspiration for her work. She also plans on spending more time in New Mexico and Arizona, photographing women who have a strong connection to their Native heritage. She wants to bring those faces into the fashion world. That vision is part of her goal to do more editorials and photo shoots of women activists, women of color and Native women, “merging fashion with social activism in a really cool, creative way.”

del Río has never forgotten the first time an image she shot felt like a real photo. Once, when she was a teenager, she went hiking in the desert at sunset and captured a rock carving in the waning light. That photo ended up being displayed in her family’s home, and it was her first validation that she could make something beautiful. Now, after years of financial struggles, her work has given her tangible security. “Our housing was unstable for part of my childhood, and I was recently able to buy a house,” she says. “I’m beyond grateful for that.” She’s also reached a major milestone by setting up a retirement fund. “I’m adulting,” she says. “I think I’m doing OK.” ca

Ruth Hagopian began writing about fine art at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she received her MFA. She was a cofounder of Visual Strategies, a design firm in San Francisco, and writes about art and design.

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