That Ernesto Roxas Cordero nearly sold all 16 of his photographs in his debut exhibit, “Postcards of Perspective,” at Artprints Alley of Makati’s LRI Design Plaza, isn’t the unusual detail of this story. Rather, it’s the fact that he’s a priest.
Cordero, or Fr. John as he’s better known, chuckles when close friends react, first with disbelief, then with admiration, to his sensitive snapshots of people, landscapes, scenery and architecture.
“You did that?” he imitates their comments with a laugh.
Even the pros are impressed. “I don’t have anything else to teach you,” veteran photographer Sonny Joaquin was said to have told the priest when he was approached for his opinion on his works.
And when Fr. John presented his portfolio to Ross Capili, the artist and gallery-owner began curating what would be the priest’s exhibit—lining up pictures on the gallery floor and replacing some of Fr. John’s original choices with other pieces from his extensive array of images.
Stunned by response
From the look of things, Fr. John himself seemed stunned by the public’s positive response toward his works—or the thought that his pieces might even be worthy of a show.
The priest, who donated all of his exhibit’s proceeds to financing a missionary center in Marikina for his congregation, the Marian Missionaries of the Holy Cross, explains that “our initial fund-raisers for our seminaries were art exhibits or art auctions, and usually after the show, the exhibiting artists would come up to me and ask for help to sell their other works. So I saw myself as an art patron, but I never really envisioned myself as an—” he says, stopping short to use the word “artist” on himself.
Even the word “photographer” seems too grand a word to claim.
“I started taking pictures 30 years ago,” says Fr. John, one of five artistically inclined siblings: an older sister paints, and three brothers were keen in photography.
It was from the brother who apprenticed under the late actor and director Nestor de Villa that Fr. John borrowed a Nikon camera and began shooting away.
Classmates were an early subject; some of his shots landed on the batch’s yearbook, while others appeared in a slide presentation he and close friends put together for their high-school foundation day.
In the seminary, he was more cameraman than photographer, documenting the congregation’s many activities on film and in slide form.
“There was no chance to be creative,” he says, “because the film was not mine.”
A personal trip to Rome in 2000 for World Youth Day, however, saw him shooting whatever and however he wanted. Though clearly adept in capturing a variety of subjects—his best-selling “Santiago de Compostela” features a stunning view of the sky; and his take on a “Venice Beach Sunset” seems almost otherworldly—Fr. John finds the most personal satisfaction in people.
“I like emotion,” he says, “anything that speaks to me with emotion.”
In turn, his pictures can’t help but elicit emotion. Viewers smile when they see a barefoot child peering into a fence in “Curiosity” or the charming grin on a guitarist’s face after his street performance in “Encore!”
Both are Fr. John’s favorite photographs.
Unexpectedly, being a priest has given this self-taught photographer “more confidence to move around freely. I’m not threatening,” he says, and adds with a laugh, “and I have a certain kapal ng mukha.”
As to how he manages to snap his camera at just the right moment, Fr. John neither takes endless shots and pinpoints the right one after, nor does he devote hours painstakingly setting up and waiting for the perfect picture to appear.
“It’s actually somewhere in the middle,” says the photographer, who relies on some Photoshop the way old-school lensmen turn to the darkroom.
“Ansel Adams spent hours inside a darkroom,” says Fr. John of the famous American photographer and environmentalist. “If he had Photoshop, he probably would have taken a shorter time.”
Employing various cameras—the point-and-shoot kind as well as models that aren’t necessarily top-of-the-line, and equipment purchased second-hand—Fr. John summarizes his photographs as “blessings from a good shoot. I’m blessed!” He shrugs and smiles.
Indeed. The priest, who has been asked by a major land developer to create an audiovisual presentation of its high-end leisure properties, will mount his second show in Negros this June. When that happens, Fr. John, who is in charge of his congregation’s foreign missions, would have just concluded a two-and-a-half-month assignment in Holy Family Parish in Artesia, Los Angeles, CA.
Good-naturedly dismissing any plans of assuming a higher calling in the Church—Bishop or Cardinal John, perhaps, or maybe even Pope?—Fr. John says, “It’s a different mentality when you enter the priesthood. It’s not a career. We have a different timeline, a different vision of what we do. Are you called by the institution—or are you called by the mission?”
By contrast, this priest’s face lights up when asked how far he intends to go with his photography.
“Oh, that’s limitless,” he says.
Eager to find ways where he can improve, he’s ready to take his style beyond what he calls “the mandatory picture.”
“I enjoy doing what I do. And if I see that people like it, connect to it and respond to it, then I’m happy with that. That in itself is a great source of joy.”