This story first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
Local photo group reflects on 10 years of creating art.
It’s a cluttered room. A red light outside – the kind that suggests deeply mechanical processes at play – marks the front door. A bicycle hangs above the entrance. Inside is a crowded mess of people and equipment: It’s a bit overwhelming, and seemingly haphazard.
And yet, the work produced here is nothing short of exquisite.
Outside, photographers Rip Williams and Mark Lies discuss the most readily accessible solution on hand to create an effect to denote a tractor beam being emitted from a spaceship overhead.
“Would the most powerful alien beam that we have be –” Lies begins.
“The 1600,” Williams finishes, suggesting a piece of equipment bright enough to turn night into day.
“And in full power, with a 10-degree stem … would it look like a beam?”
But Lies isn’t done. He needs his idea to come to life, to manifest itself.
“Would you have anything that would look like a beam?” Lies asks.
The two contemplate, some more photography equipment lingo is tossed around, then Williams suggests something unexpected, but utterly appropriate.
“Just do it with a flashlight,” he suggests. “A flashlight would be the narrowest beam you’re going to get.”
That’ll work. After all, Lies is already holding a silver vegetable steamer to stand in as the flying saucer. Even the Guerrilla Photo Group’s Photographer of the Year has to improvise.
This exchange, on a microcosmic level, is what GPG – officially 10 years strong – is all about: collaborating in bringing creative concepts to life in an environment where, although it’s an essential value of GPG, “education” almost seems like too formal a word to describe it all.
“Some people really gravitate toward teaching the skillset that they know, and some people really gravitate toward organizing things like the art committee and putting together the art exhibitions,” said Williams, the founder of Guerrilla Photo Group. “It gives everybody a spot, something to participate in.”
Williams, who worked for many years as a marketer of big-name liquor brands such as Bacardi and Samuel Adams, said he began the group in 2006 on ideals of mentorship, networking, collaboration and exhibition.
While GPG has remained faithful to those core values over the last decade, it has simultaneously functioned on the concept that each role in the photography process is equally important. In that spirit, the photographers are considered as vital as the models, as the makeup artists, as the hair stylists and clothing designers.
Five specific “portions of the community that we serve,” Williams said, manifest in GPG’s logo – a five-pointed star modeled after the moving shutter of a camera.
And they’re not mutually exclusive within group; it’s common for professionals of one area to become enticed amateurs in another, devoting their time and creative energy to a different aspect of the process.
Annalee Davey, who started out as a model with the group, said she eventually picked up a camera and “hasn’t put it down since.”
It’s a common sentiment echoed by the group’s active members: not only has GPG allowed them to express their creativity, using their talents in the process, but it’s offered the opportunity of exploring other avenues of photographic creation.
“The last show that we put on, I actually did makeup,” Davey said, and added that she still models for the group as well.
“I don’t prefer to model, but people ask me and I say yes because this group has helped me build a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities,” she said. “I’ve pushed myself, and Rip has pushed me to push myself.”
GPG’s five-pointed logo is, as shown by Davey’s experience, perfectly representative of the group and the experiences that can be had by participating in it. No one point on the star is greater or lesser than the others; they work in tandem, just like the different niches filled by GPG members who work to produce eye-catching photographs.
Too often, Williams said, it’s the photographers and models who have the moment of inspiration for a shoot, which they fine-tune and formulate deeper. Only after that are hair stylists and makeup artists brought in to help bring the concept to life.
The group’s recent 10th Anniversary Show, which was on display at the Albuquerque Press Club, turned that concept on its head.
In addition to providing an intimate look at the group and its members, the exhibit emphasized the group of artists whose work is just an integral to photography as the models and photographers themselves.
And the exhibit wasn’t shy about the unorthodox manner in which the works were created – it’s right there in the name.
“What we did was say, ‘We don’t want any of that. Only the makeup artists and hair stylists, you guys drive the creative, come up with what you want to do, and then you build the team of photographers and models,’” Williams said. “So we made the show About Face wholly predicated on the concept of makeup artists themselves and the hair stylists themselves.”
The group – about 60 active members strong at this point – is made up of individuals of varying skill levels and measures of experience.
But it’s GPG’s warm embrace of anyone checking out the group for the first time that is also a large part of its having lasted 10 years.
“I literally typed ‘Albuquerque photography club’ into Google, and they were the first hit,” Lies said. “So I came here.”
Lies, who attended his first GPG meeting before officially calling himself a New Mexico resident, said beyond the work he saw on the group’s website, it was the camaraderie on display that also caught his eye, a more spontaneous form of art in itself.
Those first impressions drew him to start participating in GPG, and a little more than a year after joining a photography group with not much more than “the basics I knew since I was a little kid,” his work is being exhibited in public shows, alongside works of other members.
He never thought he would reach that point, he said.
“I just thought, ‘This looks like fun, I’m going to do it,’” he said.
A Family Feel
It certainly doesn’t hurt the group that it is situated in a diverse, culturally vibrant metropolis, an easy 30-minute drive away from Santa Fe, which many consider to be the arts capital of the country – and some, the world.
The city’s diverse community of artists has helped keep things at GPG interesting, with some participants exploring a new, artistic side of themselves that they may not have been exposed to before, including dancers and athletes.
“And we maintain a very strong social aspect as well,” Williams said as he held up a glass of beer that was brought out to him just minutes before. “We have a good time in and out of the studio. We enjoy it. It’s supposed to be a little bohemian, a little subversive, a lot fun.”
That isn’t to say the group hasn’t evolved in its decade of existence. Building up a core group of members who continue to hone and fine-tune their skills, it was inevitable that some of the work produced through the group started to get some exposure.
GPG has in recent years begun to emphasize exhibitions: how to organize one and prepare pieces for it, all the way down to negotiating a location.
“It’s really kind of closing the loop on the rest of photography, the rest of that process,” Williams said. “We’ve evolved in all those processes, technically speaking, but I think the core values are still the same, like ‘let’s get together and do something fun.’”
That is, after all, how he became interested at an early age, running around shooting whatever he could in the “old ‘60s metal-body film camera” his dad had gifted him.
Eventually, that lifelong interest turned into his desire to create GPG – a place where creative minds could discuss how to bring their ideas to fruition over a beer on weekday evenings.
“I’ve always liked the idea of collaboration. I’ve always like the idea of working with people on projects, working with people in art,” Williams said. “It just sort of evolved out of the things I enjoyed and the peer group that I had.”
Shawna Cory, who has been with the group since 2008, still finds immense satisfaction in the aspect of the GPG that lies in expressing ideas within an environment completely closed off to any kind of underlying burden that may influence the final product.
Cory serves as Chair of the Art Committee, the kind of formal, business-like title she might normally feel uncomfortable holding.
But not in GPG, where it’s practically a family.
“I do this totally for the love,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to watch people grow and create amazing things. It’s so much fun to be in this constantly creative environment with all these amazing people.”
Especially for people who have little to no experience with any aspect of photography, GPG – with its passionate members, pressure-free environment and abundance of talent and imagination on hand – provides an avenue to potentially be introduced to something that might occupy a sizeable, but desired, part of one’s life.
“When people are able to just kind of go in and screw around a little bit, happy accidents are likely to happen,” Cory said.
Although Williams said that, 10 years into GPG’s life and 60 members strong, there has been discussion about potentially reaching deeper into the local collaborative arts community, there’s no pressure to turn it into something it isn’t, because what it is “just keeps getting better.”
At its core, it’s Guerrilla Photo Group’s intersectional nature that continues to draw artists – some of whom may not even think if themselves as such just yet.
“The specific mix in the environment we’ve created is attractive to all sorts of different people who might not otherwise spend time with one another,” he said, “People who are all artists in their own right and their owns ways who can link up, not to this specific common interest of photography necessarily, but the specific common interest of collaboration.”
For more information on Guerrilla Photo Group, visit guerrillaphotogroup.com.