Photographer Jon Lopez ’06 has turned his love of basketball into a thriving career.
No matter where he is — Rio de Janeiro or Madison Square Garden — basketball photographer/videographer Jon Lopez ’06 takes the playground with him. He calls the community basketball court a “transcendent space.” Playground ball, he says, is not about money. You’re there because, regardless of your background or circumstances, you love the game.
Lopez has channeled this lifelong passion into working with high-profile clients such as Nike, Wilson, and his beloved New York Knicks. In October, he held the exhibition Respect the Shooter: Droppin 40 in New York City, which covered “the love of the game” — basketball, of course — “and its manifestations from the playgrounds to the world’s biggest stage.” But it was also a reflection of the nonstop passion and work Lopez invested into his craft, and how that’s reflected in the work. It’s the difference between scoring 20 points in a game and, as the title suggests, dropping 40.
“Basketball is just two hoops, there’s a basketball, 10 players,” Lopez says. “There’s going to be dunks and crossovers. All the same ingredients make up these games. So, how do you keep it fresh, how do you tell the story a little bit differently? I think part of it is understanding that every game is different.”
Lopez knows. He grew up in New York City’s Lower East Side, where his mom, Edna, had to drag him off the basketball court. He would play in tournaments all over the city before heading back to the playground at night.
His introduction to photography came from Edna, the family documentarian, who always had a disposable or Polaroid camera in the apartment. That devotion stuck with him. In high school, Lopez’s grandmother gave him an analog camera, so he took Intro to Darkroom Photography. The solace he found in that tiny space was similar to working on his game alone. When he made some money after college working at The Boys Club of New York as its assistant director of development and research, he bought a digital Rebel by Canon for fun.
Around 2007, the humorous email wrap-ups of his weekly pickup basketball game caught the attention of one of the participants, Bobbito Garcia, the NYC hoops legend, sneaker scholar, and DJ. Garcia asked Lopez if he wanted to write for his now-defunct basketball magazine, Bounce.
Two loves unexpectedly aligned as a result. Photographers rarely showed up to shoot tournaments in the city’s playgrounds. Lopez decided to document that scene and capture the moments he noticed as a player: the hustle, the trash talk and comradery, the poetry of the moves. Having little formal photography training, the courts became Lopez’s classroom.
“Photography, like basketball, is a universal language,” Lopez says. “You don’t need to know about the dialects. You don’t need to have an extensive vocabulary. You just understand it. You feel it when you see it, when you experience it.”
Lopez says after his work got noticed by Photo District News and Nike, which licensed his aerial shot of a teeming hoops crowd at Monsignor Kett Playground’s court, he didn’t have to change his game. He’s still about showing the “raw and real” side of basketball mixed with respect. “I’m praising the athlete,” he explains of his style. “I’m praising the landscape, and, hopefully, truly honoring the moment.”
Lopez didn’t make it to the arena as a player, but he’s there now as a photographer. When the Knicks hired him to be a shooter/editor to create content, video, and stills for the 2018–19 season, it felt like getting drafted. Today, when Lopez sets up his equipment, he feels the butterflies, just like when he played. Then he gets to live out a hoop dream he never envisioned as a kid. “I get emotional about it,” he says, “because I’m fully aware of exactly where this game has taken me.”