Mumbai Taxi Ceiling Photos: Interview with Rachel Lopez

Rachel Lopez's Instagram feed.
Rachel Lopez’s Instagram feed, @thegreaterbombay


Rachel Lopez lives in Mumbai, India, where she’s been shooting a photo series: self-portraits where she is barely visible, most of the frame devoted to the vibrant, ornate patterns of the taxis she rides in. The series is on display now—her first ever photo exhibit—at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (through February 10th, 2019). I interviewed her recently via email:

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez

Jim Newberry: The head scarf you have on in the photos—is that a dupatta? I love the interaction between the scarf fabric and the ceiling patterns.

Rachel Lopez: Hahahah, I love that people ask me that. Mine is a proper scarf not a dupatta. I wear it because I prefer traveling with the windows rolled down and the scarf prevents my hair from flying all over my face and getting stuck on to my lipstick! Everyone thinks this is some great matching conspiracy theory—that I find coordinating designs. But I assure you, my personal taste is as loud as those ceilings, so it’s quite easy to find common design ground during the ride. Also after this series, my friends have been giving me scarves as presents!

JN: I understand that this series began serendipitously; had you done much art or photography before?

RL: Not at all. I took my first picture only because I noticed that that taxi I was in had a particularly hideous ceiling—strawberries in ghastly colours like blue and purple, against a chocolate brown background. It was a bit of a WTF moment. And it struck me that I could photograph more of them. Almost two years later, I have 400 images and haven’t even seen them all!

JN: Have you done any photo series before, or any plans for another one in the future?

RL: I debut at the Kala Ghoda festival Feb 2-10. It’s the largest cultural neighbourhood festival in Asia. I have 300 pictures right on the street and I’m headed to set it up today.

JN: Is every taxi ceiling pattern unique, or do you see duplicates?

RL: Oh there are duplicates aplenty. And i don’t choose which taxi I take (that would be unfair to the cabbies who make their living from my commute). I only notice the ceiling once I’m inside. So there are plenty of repeats. Florals are the most common. Some designs I’ve only seen once. And to my great dismay, I seem to catch some really pretty designs at night when it’s too dark to shoot!

JN: Do you have any idea how this convention started, of using vivid ceilings with such a multitude of variations? Is it one taxi company that does this, or many?

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez.

RL: We have only one public taxi service—the black-and-yellows are all licensed by the Mumbai Road Traffic Org. The colourful coverings have been there as long as anyone remembers. But the older car models are being phased out so there are a lot more new taxis on the road now. That means there are more factory-fresh cabs to cover up, and that’s why the designs have exploded. As far as I know, the mechanics get these coverings from China. I suspect they just repurpose shower curtain and tablecloth patterns for this.

JN: Your first exhibition of these photographs opens at the Kala Ghoda Festival. How did that come about?

RL: The KGAFis the largest street festival in Asia. I knew my first public showing of the works couldn’t be in some sterile gallery, with a handful of viewers over-intellectualising the work. While they are certainly worthy of close study, I wanted thousands of ordinary people to enjoy just looking at them. And that’s what the festival has done. There’s nothing like looking at your own city folk take in the images and watching the penny drop as they realise these are ALL ceiling shots. It’s the best thrill!

Rachel Lopez. Photo by Bhushan Koyande.
Photo by Bhushan Koyande.

Rachel Lopez is an editor and columnist with the Hindustan Times, and also produces the IVM podcast Wordy Woodpecker.

Happy Accident: Head Transplant on Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard street photo by Jim Newberry.

I shot this picture on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame last week; shooting passersby reflected in a shop window. What at first seemed to be a pretty standard reflection turned out to be more interesting upon closer examination (I didn’t do any Photoshopping, other than basic brightness/contrast/color adjustments).

Here’s another shot, taken a few seconds before the above photo:

Hollywood Boulevard street photo by Jim Newberry.

Women’s March, Los Angeles

I photographed protesters at the Women’s March in Downtown Los Angeles yesterday, and it was glorious. Peaceful, joyous, celebratory, energized, inspired.

Mind Meld in 3D

3D animated GIF photo of Los Angeles band, Mind Meld. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Here’s a portrait of Los Angeles band Mind Meld that I shot last month with a Nimslo 35mm film camera. You can catch them live at Echo Park Rising next month.

Behind The Scenes: Director’s Cut

On the set of Director's Cut
Adam Rifkin directs Missi Pyle
Adam Rifkin directs a scene with Missi Pyle and Harry Hamlin
Scene from Director's Cut
Harry Hamlin, Missi Pyle, and Hayes MacArthur
Dave Anthony
Scene from Director's Cut
On the set of Director's Cut
Director of Photography, Scott Winig
Director Adam Rifkin on set
Director Adam Rifkin
Director Adam Rifkin on the set of Director's Cut.
Hayes MacArthur
Penn Jillette, who acted, wrote, and produced Director's Cut
On the set of Director's Cut
Cheeseburger wired for detonation
Hayes MacArthur
Producer Peter Adam Golden with Penn Jillette

Director’s Cut—a film directed by Adam Rifkin and written by Penn Jillette, and starring Missi Pyle, Jillette, Harry Hamlin, and Hayes MacArthur—premiers at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this Friday, January 22nd. There will also be a special premiere screening in Los Angeles on February 2nd, at Arclight Cinemas.

I was booked for six days on the movie to shoot unit stills; here’s a selection of images I shot on set.

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Beverly Boulevard

Girls in school uniforms walking on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Jim Newberry.

January 14th, 2016. Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles.

Studio Portrait Workshop in L.A. on December 13th

Portrait of Nora by Jim Newberry.

On Sunday, December 13th, I’ll be conducting a studio portrait photography workshop in downtown Los Angeles. Nora (pictured above) will be gracing us with her presence as a model (more Nora portraits here). RSVP here, and stay tuned here for other upcoming workshops (click “join us” to be updated when new workshops are scheduled).

Also, I’m available for one-to-one tutoring; more info, as well as free tutorials, at