With an eye for warm and textured aesthetics, Spanish photographer Pia Riverola guides her lens toward the hidden details that make up our world. Here, the Urth ambassador discusses the gear that helps her create, an upcoming photobook and striking a balance between personal and client work.
After a quick glance at Pia Riverola’s fashion, travel and architectural photography, it makes perfect sense that she grew up surrounded by Barcelona’s soft and hazy tones. Her obsession with light and colour started as a 12-year-old, as Pia’s grandfather gifted her a point-and-shoot film camera, which she used to capture her friends at school. Although she initially went to university to study documentary filmmaking, this camera became an important part of her creative identity.
As she began making trips around the globe, Pia’s film camera went with her. Before the rise of Instagram, analogue photography was her preferred way to showcase her travels to friends and family. After moving to New York City and then Mexico City, Pia discovered her reason for getting on the plane had become just as much about the photographs as anything else.
“I had started taking photos to document my reality – mostly of things I saw during my daily routine or when I travelled. But then I moved to Mexico City,” says Riverola. “This is where I realised what I really liked. I became incredibly inspired by the city – the culture was so new to me, the landscapes were so different, and the colour and architecture were like nothing I had seen before.”
“I’m always looking for shadows, shapes and interesting colours to see how light plays differently with certain places.”
These days, Pia bounces between Mexico City and Los Angeles. Her candid style, soaked with tinted pastels and distinct textures, has caught the attention of numerous leading fashion and editorial outlets, including Balenciaga, Vogue UK, Google, Wallpaper and the Wall Street Journal. Across most of her shoots, Pia’s favourite time to shoot is during golden hour, as the orange and pink hues naturally emerge and shadows start to stretch. Always searching for poetic glimpses into the world, Pia also has a genuine commitment to shooting on film, which infuses an expressive pop into her work.
“I love waking up early to catch the first light and I’m always out at golden hour. I think my eye has naturally gotten used to seeing certain things,” says Riverola. “I’m really interested in architecture, so I’m always looking for shadows, shapes and interesting colours to see how light plays differently with certain places.”
On Her Style and Creative Spirit
Pia is constantly on the move between shoots around the world, but she always makes time to squeeze in some personal work along the way. Whenever she touches down in a new city, she immerses herself in the local culture by wandering the streets, chatting to strangers and stumbling across eye-catching architecture. As Pia explains, some of her favourite projects are ones where she arrived in a place without a goal, simply letting her unrestrained gaze direct the focus of her lens.
“I was in India for only a short time, but I remember being so drawn towards the hairstyles of the women there. The way they decorate and tie their braids is very specific. Instantly, I set about taking photos of all the braids I could see during the week, which I think became a really beautiful series,” says Riverola.
“I look at some of the photos now and I remember exactly how I felt in that moment.”
Another theme in her work that has developed into something more personal comes from the period she spent living with a florist in Mexico. Introduced to the world of flower markets, she still tries to find the best of them in almost every city she travels to. Recalling one of the most special experiences she’s had as a photographer, Pia describes how she retreated to a flower market in Hong Kong at the end of a particularly stressful day.
“It was raining and everything was ugly and difficult – I’d just fought with my brother. I randomly came across this flower market and it was so peaceful and inspiring. This series has a more personal feel than others, but I think the mood that you’re in is really important to the photos you take. I look at some of the photos now and I remember exactly how I felt in that moment,” says Riverola.
“For me, it’s about recognising how life moves around everyday things.”
Being conscious of these fleeting moments is especially important to Pia when she is shooting portraits. Many of the subjects she works with are high-profile artists, but it’s always her intention to capture them at their most natural. “I shoot a lot of portraits of artists in their studios or with their families – but I always let them do or be. That way, beautiful things can happen,” describes Riverola.
This idea sums up Pia’s creative philosophy, as she’s always on the lookout for candid moments that otherwise get lost if you aren’t ready on the shutter release. Even on the way to her favourite coffee shop every morning, she keeps an eye out for the shifting light and landscape, enamoured by how previously unseen facets emerge.
“There’s a beautiful tree that sometimes has flowers, but other times it doesn’t. Depending on how the light hits it, the tree can change so much. For me, it’s about recognising how life moves around these everyday things,” says Riverola.
On Professional Challenges and Working with Film
Finding the ideal balance between personal projects and commercial work is a constant challenge for Riverola. Although she’s grateful for the highly regarded projects she’s shot, the demands of clients can leave her feeling detached from the work. To counter this reaction, Pia always brings extra rolls of film to use on her own projects after the shoot wraps. Spending so much time away from home is another concern, as she says there’s virtually no way to establish a consistent lifestyle from one month to the next.
“[Being a professional photographer] can be amazing because you’re always seeing new things and feeling completely inspired,” says Riverola. “But you also can’t have the routine of going to the same gym,” she adds with a laugh.
“I’m always out at golden hour.”
Conversely, the question around whether to keep shooting film is simple. Compared to digital, Pia finds it especially helpful to be limited in the scope of her shoots, forcing her attention on the light and moods that matter most. A less expected benefit is the ability to reflect on a project while she waits to receive her scans.
“Even if it’s just a couple of days, it’s great to get disconnected from what happens on set so you can see the work with new eyes. It helps a lot with the selection process,” explains Riverola. “When I work with digital, I feel like I keep shooting more and more. Clients also tend to have new ideas on set – they always want to expand the shoot.”
“There are a lot of moments that happen on the go, so it’s great to have something other than a heavy medium format camera.”
On Her Photographic Gear of Choice
Riverola’s affinity for analogue photography has seen her collect a variety of cameras, which she mostly loads with Kodak Portra, ranging from 160 to 800 ISO depending on the light conditions. For shooting medium format film, she prefers to use her Contax and Pentax cameras. On days that she’d prefer a more streamlined approach, her 35mm cameras of choice include both the Contax T2 and G1. Lately, she’s also been using a Fujifilm medium format camera due to its small form factor, making it easy to travel and shoot large negatives at the same time.
“[The Fujifilm] is very useful when I want to shoot something for an exhibition. There are a lot of moments that happen on the go, so it’s great to have something other than a heavy medium format camera. With this, I can keep shooting all the time,” explains Riverola.
“Your work doesn’t have to be perfect all the time, so it’s good to discover what you like.”
Lens filters are another essential part of Riverola’s kit. She finds polarising filters particularly helpful for working with clients who want images that are free of reflections. However, Pia says there are also plenty of occasions where she needs to use them for personal projects.
“When I use them in my work, it’s usually to do with the sky or the landscape because they help a lot when it’s really bright,” explains Riverola. “I almost always have a UV filter on to protect my lenses – I only change it when I want to use a different filter. I also use neutral density filters when I want to have more control over the light.”
For photographers who are considering using lens filters for the first time, Pia offers some straightforward advice. “You just have to try them – it’s really important to play around and see what works for you. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect all the time, so it’s good to discover what you like.”
On the Plans for Her Debut Photobook
Between upcoming trips to Japan and her first time in Cuba, Riverola continues to work on her debut photobook. Supported by three exhibitions held in Barcelona, Mexico City and Los Angeles, Pia is keeping some details about the book secret until its release later in 2020. But she reveals the project offers an intimate reflection on her time spent living in Mexico.
“It’s basically a love letter to Mexico about how the country inspired me so much – it’s where I realised that I wanted to be a photographer. However, I also found it really lonely being in a new country; it was very tough on a personal level,” says Riverola. “The book explores this fight, but also the beautiful moments when you manage to move forward and just start doing what you enjoy most.”