Maria Louceiro sits in a tiny café on Bergmannstrasse in Berlin’s Kreuzberg borough with two cameras tucked in her white leather purse. Her dark curly hair is twirled in a loose knot and the blonde faux-fur coat she wears nearly swallows her small frame. I sit, too, as Louceiro tells me what brought her here from Portugal—the electronic/techno music scene and a design job with new classical music app IDAGIO. She talks about her first impressions of Berlin, how each street seems a universe unto itself, the mysterious neighborhoods full of the echoes of history. That, and the portrait shoot she is about to do as a favor for a friend. The subjects are late, but the coffee is hot. So it’s all good.
Our cups empty, we head out to the street corner, where we meet them: striking Serbian musicians Lidija Andonov and Laslo Antal, who perform as electro pop duo Sixth June. The musicians’ long legs take them up a steep hill to the top of Viktoriapark at an impossible pace. The path weaves, and Louceiro hurries past straggly bushes, graffiti-covered park benches, lost-looking dog walkers. Up top, the musicians wait: black coats on black shirts on black pants, perfect smiles and perfect hair. Louceiro starts shooting, quietly chatting and finding the natural moments to capture between her subjects’ poses. She takes out a little piece of broken glass saved from a shattered picture frame. Holding that in front of the lens, Louceiro shoots some more, gradually drawing the musicians into an avenue of trees, up the stairs to a monument and into a wild, mess-making wind where any remnant of stiff poses blows away.
“I really don’t like to photograph people when they are posing, … when they are aware of the camera, because they are showing part of themselves, but hiding something else,” Louceiro confides later. “I think that’s what drew me to photographing musicians during shows. They are so focused on making music that they’re not thinking of the camera. The expression of the music is in their bodies, their faces, their presence. It’s just for me to communicate that in my pictures.”
Communicate that, she does—and much more. In the three years that Louceiro has been shooting music photos as a freelance photographer for clients like the online magazine Pitchfork, Red Bull Music Academy and VICE Media, she has altered the music-photo landscape into a dreamscape of pastel colors and shifting moods. “I first found Maria in 2013 when we were looking for a photographer to shoot the NOS Primavera Sound festival in Porto [Portugal],” recalls Erik Sanchez, former photo editor for Pitchfork Media and current photo editor for Lucasfilm. “I was awestruck by her point of view, how refreshing and way, way different it was from the straightforward, journalistic approach everyone else was taking with music photos.” When Sanchez suggested hiring Louceiro for the shoot, some editors worried that people might not recognize the artists or that her heavy abstraction would be too much. But in the end, the photos were game changers for Pitchfork. “They were just beautiful, with such unique color, texture and light,” says Sanchez. “Publishing them really shook things up, making our magazine more cutting-edge. Plus, Maria’s photos definitely inspired a lot of other photographers to be more experimental.”
Trying to describe her work is “a personal thing, probably different for each person,” says Alexis Sevenier, founder of Paris-based ORA Artist Management and manager of Swedish band Cult of Luna. Sevenier flew Louceiro to Stockholm to shoot the final performance of the band’s 2016 tour. “But for me? There is a strong nostalgic feeling to the images. She translates perfectly the essence of what a band is live, but she adds something more. It’s like when you hear music and it creates a feeling and images in your mind. When you look at Maria’s work, you’re not just looking at the picture in front of you—it’s like a portal that takes you somewhere else, to more. That’s very rare, for a photographer to have the ability to do that with an image.”
This transcendent, ethereal moodiness characterizes all of Louceiro’s work: the cover for Dead Neanderthals’ album Craters; the live shot of Caro Tanghe, lead vocalist for Oathbreaker, a metal/hardcore/punk band from Ghent, Belgium; even the portrait of Berlin-based DJ and producer Joe Seaton, aka Call Super, for a Pitchfork feature.
Preparing for shoots, Louceiro does what she can to learn about each band or musician, listening to their music and reading. “I look for the little idiosyncrasies, how they move, how they position their hands—little quirks,” she says. “But so often, there’s no time to really get to know them, so I find it’s best to just go with my gut and watch for the best moment to catch them off guard.” Whether she’s shooting portraits for magazines or shows for social media, Louceiro blurs lines. “When I’m shooting concerts, I’m actually trying to make it seem like the photograph wasn’t taken at a concert, as if it’s truly a candid portrait of just the artist. The stage doesn’t matter. The gear doesn’t matter. In fact, if I can eliminate all that, that’s perfect.” And when shooting a portrait? “I like to create an ambience that has a painterly feeling—that makes it something more than just a headshot.”
If the work seems more mature than what you’d expect from a just-out-of-art-school practitioner, it is. Louceiro took awhile to find her path, initially sidestepping photography and even a career in art. “As a child, I was always drawing or painting,” she recalls. “But when it came time for college, the painting wasn’t flowing. And my parents didn’t want me to starve, so they suggested I do something else.” Her choice? Mining engineering. Louceiro laughs. “I know that sounds odd now, but then it seemed practical.” Getting an engineering degree was as challenging as it sounds. “It was really difficult—I’m not naturally a good student—but I was determined to finish.”
With the diploma in hand, Louceiro told her parents she would be miserable as an engineer and went back to school for a degree in communication design. Along the way, she took photography—and dropped it. “It was a disappointment,” she says. “I wanted to learn analog, and [the school] only taught digital photography. Also, the focus was always on technical perfection, not the story and philosophy behind the photos or trying the experimental things I wanted to do.”
But she went back to it. Teaching herself techniques, Louceiro liked the spontaneity and flaws of lomography—a colorful, blurry style inspired by the Lomo LC-A film camera—and created photographs with a variety of digital and analog equipment as well as with a toy camera she got at a supermarket as a little girl. At the same time, Louceiro’s passion for classical and post-rock music propelled her to shows and concerts in Porto. Shooting post-rock shows had an added appeal: “I’m naturally shy and a little introverted, and I didn’t own a lot of equipment, so [these] shows were perfect for me. I didn’t have to go up and ask people if I could photograph them, and I didn’t have to bring lighting.” Going home after the shows to read music magazines, Louceiro was surprised by how similar so much of the photography seemed. “The pictures were all the same,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘There must be a new way I can portray musicians.’”
Thinking of the shadowy, misty landscapes in films by her favorite Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, and of the collages and paintings she loved, Louceiro’s style emerged. She started shooting through little found objects—a cup, a prism, a plastic ring—to blur, distort and refract. She layered digital photos of musicians with analog shots of textures she had taken.
The more Maria shot at shows, the more music promoters noticed, befriending her, posting her pictures and introducing her to others in the industry. “Maria sent me her photos after every show, and we used to put them online at our website and social media,” says André Mendes, Porto-based music promoter and founder of Amplificasom.
Eventually, the shy girl who didn’t want to talk was making backstage visits, getting to know the musicians she was photographing. “That was a big shift for me,” says Louceiro. “I don’t think it made me take more risks with my photography, but it really built my confidence and belief in what and how I was shooting.”
“I always felt she had something special,” Mendes continues. “But it wasn’t until after Amplifest 2013 [Amplificasom’s annual festival] that I saw with my own eyes: Maria had found her own way. She found her own language. She’s one of the best photographers out there.”
“Maria is an excellent photographer with an eye for detail, a professional demeanor and an enviable flair for composition,” agrees Kim Kelly, editor of Noisey, VICE Media’s music channel. “She’s also got tons of great connections in the rock/heavy metal music business, so she gets killer access.”
Relocating to Berlin this year has been another big shift for Louceiro. “I knew there was a good music scene here, and I’ve been shooting every week, which is what I hoped for,” she says. As she sets up a studio in Berlin, Louceiro also hopes to do more vinyl and CD covers and return to some of the early work she did, blending Lomography with digital photography and collage. She also hopes to further the evolution of music photography in portraiture. “I’ve been doing a lot more portraits rather than live shows, which is challenging in a good way,” she says. “In press shots, you traditionally have to just show the musician’s face and can’t be as experimental. But I think that’s changing. Now it can be about finding a balance between showing the artist and finding a creative way to make a visual association with the music, bringing ambiance into the photo. That’s what I like to do.” ca