Legendary photographer Estevan Oriol has taken more than a half-million photos throughout a career that has spanned over 25 years. The legendary photographer sat down with us to talk about his most iconic shots.
Born at Saint John’s hospital in Santa Monica, Estevan Oriol, a Mexican-American photographer and music video director, will not let you forget where he comes from. He’s been living in Los Angeles his entire 52 years of existence. (The only exception being his short stint as House of Pain and Cypress Hill’s tour manager in the early ’90s.)
He’s become a legend in the city. Throughout his three-decade-long career, he’s been around the world a couple of times — traveling to 56 countries — and has gotten to see a lot of “cool shit.”
But LA is his home.
If you live in the city and had a chance to visit the Contact High exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography you immediately recognize the iconic photo of a female’s hands spelling “LA.” Oriol shot that. Right next to it is a classic black-and-white shot of Cypress Hill and an iconic throwback collage of 50 Cent getting his “South Side” and “50” tattoos done by Mister Cartoon.Oriol shot that also.
During his teenage years, Oriol would listen to KDAY on AM. While his peers went to parties on Saturday night, he stayed at home to tape the Saturday night mix show on his cassette player. He would sit there and wait — as soon as the commercial started, he’d press stop and rewind. The result? Going to school the following week with a perfect Saturday night jam with no commercials. That was his intro to hip-hop.
The first songs he heard when he was of age was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” To him, it was fresh and incredible. Nobody had put out something like this before.
“When hip-hop and the B-Boy movement came out, it was something more for the hoods. A lot of people from different hoods were mixed in with different cultures,” Oriol said. “I was around when hip-hop first came out. I loved it the first time I heard it.”
Soon, he discovered artists like Schooly D, MC Shan, and Roxanne Shante. So how did Estevan get into photography? The credit goes to his father, who lent him a spare camera and told him:“You live a cool lifestyle. One minute you’re on the road with House of Pain. The next minute you’re lowriding in East LA with your car club.”
Estevan’s beginning photos were lowrider and hip-hop culture. While tour managing House of Pain, he was backstage, rubbing shoulders with the artists — the type of access photographers dream of.
Estevan somehow miraculously examined over 25 years of history — over a half-million photos taken — to decide what made it into his landmark book This Is Los Angeles, which came out at the top of the year. Serving as a visual history of his most well-respected and recognized shots, this is the third collaboration with Roman publisher Drago (following their two previous works 2013’s LA Portraits and 2015’s LA Woman).
In October a limited edition box set bundle will be released, featuring iconic shots of legends like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Al Pacino, and more.
We were recently able to sit down with Estevan where he told the stories behind some of his most iconic work.
Read what he had to say, in his words, below.
[That] night 50 [Cent] was getting the second half of his tattoo done. The first half was “South Side” and “50.” The second half was a collage inside the numbers. That night [earlier] he went to a meeting with Jimmy Iovine. They were signing the record deal. At that time, he’s the biggest mixtape artist in the world. When he came back, he called us and said: “Hey, I’m here.” [Mister] Cartoon and I were eating, went back to the studio to finish his tattoo. Six or seven cop cars pulled us over because we fit the description. A motorcycle cop got hit by two guys who looked like me and him in a brand new white Escalade on 22-inch rims. They thought it was us but it wasn’t.
The cops put us down on the ground, put a shotgun at my head. Rodney King type stuff. Cops said, “What’re you guys doing out here?” We said, “That’s our building right there. We’re gonna tattoo some customers.” Cops felt stupid. [50 Cent] saw the whole thing, them roughing us up. It was 50 Cent, Sha Money XL, and two of his homies.
But the tattoo came out amazing. That was the first and last time he got tatted by Cartoon. We saw him again because I did photoshoots of him for Rhyme Magazine. We went on tour with him because I was a tour manager for Cypress Hill, and I’d bring Cartoon with me all the time. He went with me on the Anger Management Tour in Europe with Xzibit, 50 Cent, and G-Unit. Cartoon tattooed every single day. The whole tour got tatted up.
We did a couple of shoots for Nipsey [Hussle:] Rhyme Magazine, XXL, foreign magazines. I was working with him, Jay Rock, and other young, up-and-coming LA artists. Whatever magazine I was working for, I’d pitch them. Pitched Jay Rock to Rhyme first, pitched Nipsey to another one. After their stories came out, I switched the magazines with the artists. Jay Rock to that magazine, Nipsey to Rhyme Magazine. [I] was always promoting the local young artists coming out.
That was the beginning, it was 2008. Right on his block where his store was — shot it in front of Hungry Harold’s and Slauson Donuts. Behind him is the Marathon building he ended up buying. It’s cool. I shot him in his hood on his block with the building he opened a business in later on.
I Always thought he was dope…Nip was into helping the community and other businesses. He was an entrepreneur. Not every rapper goes through with that. They have ideas. “I wanna do my own clothing line. I wanna do my own this, my own that.” But they don’t follow through with it. He’s one who followed through, always moving forward to bigger and better.
Prodigy is the shit, shot him 20 times in New York and LA. Did the video of The Alchemist and him in New York, “Hold You Down.” Cartoon tattooed him up a bunch of times. Whenever he came to LA, he’d come hang out with us. Alchemist would always bring him over — I kind of helped raise Alchemist in the business. Alchemist and Scott Caan had The Whooliganz, who came out on the Soul Assassins Tour.
After The Whooliganz came out, we brought Alchemist out with us, who became my right-hand man on the tours. That’s how he learned the touring game Went to New York, started producing. Got in real big with Mobb Deep. It was all one big family.
First time I saw Eminem was at my friend Bigga B’s club called Unity. I saw Em perform at a show there. He hadn’t even died his hair blonde yet, still had brown hair. He’s doing “My Name Is.” The second time he did the chorus, the whole crowd was singing the chorus with him — first time they ever heard the song. Ever since, I knew he was gonna be sick. That shot right there is from Encore studios, around the same time as that shot with Snoop [Dogg], [Dr.] Dre, and Nate Dogg.
He was brand new. A cool dude. He wanted tattoos so we took him over to the shop, Spotlight Tattoos in Hollywood. Mister Cartoon did most of his tattoos, 80 to 90% of them. Then we went on the Anger Management Tour because Cypress was part of Goliath Management, in the same building as Shady Records. Cypress, G-Unit, and Eminem’s camp were all managed by Paul Rosenberg, so we’re a real tight family.
I did 12 music videos with Cypress. My first music video outside of Cypress was D12’s “I’ll Shit On You.” They wanted a grimy black-and-white video. Shot on real black and white film. We rented a flatbed truck, put the band on the back of the truck, sat on there with a camera and drove around Detroit. The next day, we went and picked up b-roll footage of the city and all of Detroit’s iconic places. Did our thing. It didn’t get played much because the word ‘shit’ was in the title. No internet or YouTube back then, only place videos got played was on TV. It’s hard with a cuss word in your song title.
So I rode my Harley to the projects (in Watts), had my little camera in the bags. Did Jay Rock’s album cover with 50 to 100 Bloods out there. Did his album packaging photoshoots in the projects. Ended up shooting him for a magazine and Kendrick was there. [Jay Rock] said, “can we get him in one of the shots with us?” I said “yeah sure.” He was a young kid at that time, so I didn’t really take advantage of it. When he said a couple of shots, I literally did two.
You never know. There’s so much going on. We’re so busy with people who already were a force. When you hear “oh this is the new guy rapping,” you’re like “oh cool.” You’re not pumped up like “oh, let me get this guy because he might be the next guy.” [We’re] more focused on the guy who had the record deal already, the guy you’re there to shoot.
DJ Quik is a living LA gangster rap legend, master producer, DJ, and musician. He can play, I don’t know, how many different instruments. Ended up doing album covers for him: Trauma and BlaQKout with Kurupt.
Big Pun was a magazine cover called Industry Insider. They wanted to shoot all the Latino rappers together, extended the invitation to everybody. Half of the Mexican or Latino rappers showed up because the shoot was in New York. The rest of them cried because they weren’t in the picture. Big Pun was one who showed up, with Fat Joe, and Cuban Linx from Terror Squad. Shot a couple solo shots with him and his son, who’s a pretty sick rapper now (Chris Rivers on Mello Music Group).
Method Man is the shit, one of the coolest dudes in the game. He’s always the same. Whether he’s got a big movie out, a number one record, or nothing, always acted the same. Sometimes people are in certain positions in their life, they have a hit record out, they might change up a little bit and act a little funny with you. But he’s always the same. Big movie, big record, he’s always cool as hell.
Ice Cube’s always cool every time we shoot. Even when there was a Cypress Hill, Ice Cube beef— I’m from the Cypress Hill family, he’s from the Westside Connection family. By the time I’d go shoot him for business and professional work, that shit had all been water under the bridge. Just cool hanging out with one of the godfathers of hip-hop from LA. He’s so talented. He’s another one who never acted big time when you chopped it up and talked. You have to talk to these people to get some kind of comfort zone with them. Otherwise you just tell them “look here, look there, do this, do that,” that’s uncomfortable. I try to chop it up a bit with the artists so it’s a little more personable.
Kim Kardashian was a good one, that was her early days. Kim happened through Travis from Blink 182. He had his clothing company Famous Stars and Straps, that was part of his line.
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, one of my biggest shoots to date. When you’re stressed out because you’re not only a fan, but you’re getting to work with someone who you’ve been a fan of all your life. I used to wait every week in lines to go see their movies. Pay to see their movies multiple times. We didn’t have DVDs or computers back then. If you liked someone’s movies, you’d go to the theaters to see them multiple times in there. We’d go see Star Wars literally 100 times.
Another favorite was C-Murder, did some album covers and a video, “Posted on the Block.” That was amazing. To me, one of the coolest dudes in the game. Real street dude but super hospitable, treated you like the homie — not some photographer working for hire. Shot him here and in New Orleans when he was on house arrest. His album cover and packaging in his backyard because he wasn’t allowed to leave. Brought in a friend of mine in the art department, we got a bunch of props from Hurricane Katrina. A phone booth, a fire hydrant, we built this three-way wall. He added a brick texture to one, a different rustic look on one, and a plain concrete side. Like a T-shape, we did his album cover on those three things. We put the phone booth there. We put the fire hydrant. And you couldn’t tell where it was.
Did the same with a video during that photoshoot. He wasn’t allowed to do videos, the court-mandated him no music videos. That’s when digital cameras were first coming out. I put it on high speed and held my finger down, shot multiple frames of him doing a performance. Someone from court came and watched to make sure we weren’t doing anything. I couldn’t bring a film crew but we wanted to do the video. Brought this camera called a Gold X 16mm, they thought it was a still camera. We stitched together all the singles, made it look like a steady flowing shot but they’re actually photographs edited together. Then I went out through New Orleans and shot all the Hurricane Katrina damage. That was the video.