Far away from the static realm of everyday photography lies the work of Rafael Octavio Gonzalez. The Long Island City-bred artist puts a luminescent spin on the lens – surrounding the viewer and bringing the past and present together in one intimate, yet all-encompassing, image.
His images are currently being presented in an ongoing exhibition at Z Hotel in L.I.C. – steps away from where the artist grew up and developed his photographer’s sensibility.
“I got into photography when my brother gave me a camera back when I was in eighth grade,” said Gonzalez, who came to Queens from Columbia at seven-years-old. “Before that, I didn’t feel very artsy or have any inclination toward art at all.”
But growing up in L.I.C.’s old days – before the condos shot up – afforded Gonzalez the types of views that builds an eye for the majestic.
“I grew up on the corner of 21st Street and 44th Avenue, back when there was roof access. I used to hang out up there and there was a full view of the city because there was nothing on the waterfront. There were no tall structures,” he said. “I grew up with beautiful sunsets and sunrises and everything that happens around this piece of the city right here.”
One image he captured was a panoramic view of Manhattan from the Queens side of the East River on December 7, 2000. In the image, the sun dramatically sets just behind the World Trade Center – creating a poignant vision foreshadowing the city’s not-too-distant future.
As any art should, that panorama always elicits a response from the viewer, and for obvious reasons. The piece, called “Sunset at the Towers,” shows a striking image of the Towers outlined in a brilliant and fiery light. Gonzalez said that no matter the reaction, he wants to reach an audience so that they feel something – whether it’s love or hate.
“I’m hoping that it does bring some kind of emotion out of people,” Gonzalez said, explaining that one of his works, “Frozen,” tends to bring out an array of opinions. “Some people love it, but others are a little creeped out by it. I like it in the sense that I got to them at some level of emotion – it means the image is strong. To be able to draw some sort of emotion from someone is a very fulfilling feeling. To get someone to react to your work is the point – whether they like it or not.”
“Frozen” is part of a series of 360-degree panoramic photographs. The images play with space and time, perception and perspective. Bringing the 360-degree view within one plane suggest a single image taken at a single instant – when in reality the image came to Gonzalez over multiple frames over a period of days.
This is where Gonzalez’s technical side comes into play. He always had a technological brain – with mathematics and engineering preceding his love of photography.
“A lot of what goes into photography is highly technical when you’re putting it all together,” he said. “In many ways I think they are very linked, mathematics and life.”
Gonzalez is the first artist Z Hotel is exhibiting in their lower level Z Lounge, and they will exhibit a new artist each month in an effort to support the arts throughout the neighborhood.
And the neighborhood has changed greatly since Gonzalez moved to East Elmhurst with his wife and brother. Large buildings have popped up, blocking the view he once had as a kid. But he is not completely against such an occurrence – in fact, he wishes he was a part of it.
“I was very sad that I wasn’t in the position to buy some parts of the land there before they built on it,” he laughed. “It was kind of disappointing to see the view go away because it was such a beautiful unobstructed view, but that’s progress.”
And if he can somehow make a return to the area, he wouldn’t mind being a part of that progress.
“I dream of one day having an apartment over here,” Gonzalez said. “I grew up with this view and the ultimate way to get that part of me back would be to have a spot right up front on the waterfront.”