José Gutierrez


On a rainy day last month, we chatted with Atlanta photographer, José Gutierrez (known on Instagram as @errez) over a cup of coffee at Ebrik Coffee Room. Read on to get to know José, what inspired his #weareanartform movement, and more. 

Photo by @mercedesbleth

Photo by @mercedesbleth

FH: It’s been a while since we last saw each other! I think it was back at our Mutiny show in October. What’d you think of that by the way?

JG: It was a very well put together show! It was also my first official show. I usually just post stuff on Instagram and don’t really think about physically showcasing any of my work. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I was anxious because I didn’t know what type of photos I should put together. But I got to see a lot of faces I follow at the show, so that was cool.

Overall, I think art is just about meeting people, chatting about what inspires you and what made you start art. I would say art in general, whether you’re good at it or you’re just starting, is this big puzzle, right? And you’re just a piece of that overall puzzle, trying to figure out whether you’re in the corner, the middle, or wherever you fit in. It’d be really boring if all you admired was your own work. It’s a lot more interesting meeting other people to see what goes through their head, what moves them, and what keeps them going. I would say what I do is very supplemental. It’s like the biggest handshake in the world.

FH: Let’s take a couple steps back. Can you give an intro to who you are, where you’re from and how you came into photography?

JG: I come from a pretty big Mexican family. All of them are immigrants from Mexico so I’m a first gen, or an experiment baby. I’m 25 and I majored in Psychology. I’m not sure why… just had to major in something. I got into photography in college because I didn’t really like what I was studying. I also played the cello for eight years. I’m really obsessed with classical music, so I’ve always been interested in the arts.

I first started shooting on an iPhone, and among all the random shit I would shoot, the most interesting shots to me were the shadows. I was always thinking about how cool my shadow was – how it morphed into different shapes and expanded when I jumped or bent back. It’s always been the groundwork of my projects. Then I shifted from shadows to people and eventually tried to bend them the same way I used to bend the shadows. That’s how “#weareanartform” came about. I see people as shapes or forms. When you’re in front of my camera, you’re not a human. You’re a form. You’re a shape. I guess that’s where it all started. An iPhone and a shadow.

Photo by @mercedesbleth

Photo by @mercedesbleth

FH: It’s pretty incredible to see art that depicts humans in such a way - as an art form. What kind of influences led you to look at people that way?

JG: I have this tendency when I’m really stressed to listen to my favorite classical tunes and count the beats in my head. Being able to understand that flow and rhythm seeped into how I move people. When I’m playing the cello and feeling the music in that emotional state of mind, I can sort of transfer that into how I see people.

One of the first things I do when I shoot someone is get to know them first. I don’t just say, “Stand in front of my camera and let’s start.” I’m a big talker. I want to get to know who they are and get an understanding of what they do and what inspires them.

What I created with #weareanartform is just an accumulation of experiences, so there’s no perfect answer as to why this came about, and I wouldn’t say I’m the only person who sees people this way.

FH: Do you communicate the #weareanartform concept with your models?

JG: Yeah. I tell them, “Look, we’re not here to make you look pretty. That’s not what I do. You gotta take yourself out of context. You have to realize when you're standing in front of a camera that this isn’t a modeling shoot.”

Photo by @mercedesbleth

Photo by @mercedesbleth

FH: How do you usually find your models or “shapes”?

JG: I really love shooting dancers. The first dancer I shot was signed to an agency. Through her, I was able to meet and connect with other dancers at the ballet company here in Atlanta. It just sort of grew from there. This isn’t to say I only want to shoot dancers - I want to shoot all types of people. But capturing certain positions is easier with people like dancers that can put their leg all the way up. For a while, I thought deep fashion photography was something that I wanted to do, but then I found this to be a lot more interesting to me.

FH: Do you pick out the clothes the models wear? Your colors are always awesome.

JG: Yeah, I’d say they’re pretty primary. I always tell the other individual to bring anything with stripes and primary colors. Nothing too dramatic. The thing with fashion photography is that you’re emphasizing the clothing, right? The textures and the weirdness of it. In my case, I’m emphasizing the human shape. So if I have them wear something where you can’t really see the human lines - the long legs or hands or whatever – it takes away from what I want to capture. It’s about finding the balance between what clothing I find interesting and them being able to flex the way I want them too.

FH: Do you have any kind of influences for your art? Some kind of mentor that inspired you to look at people as art forms?

JG: When I went to D.C. to be a White House intern for the Obama administration, I got to meet Amanda Lucidon. She was the primary photographer for the former first lady, Michelle Obama. We worked in the same department, so I knew we were bound to run into each other. I asked her if we could have lunch one day and she agreed.

I asked her questions about photography and what she thinks about her work and she told me, “You’ll never truly be happy with your work,” which has stayed with me throughout my photography career. She said she only has one out of the many thousands of photos she took of the First Lady that she’s truly proud of.

She looked at my Instagram page at that point – and she didn’t say I was a Picasso or anything – but she did say, “Your composition, your placement of people, and the things in your environment are incredible.” That’s where the highlight was for her. I wasn’t that intense with the whole #weareanartform thing then, but having a professional photographer compliment my composition meant the world. I took it as a motivational tool and asked myself, “If she likes this now, what could my work look like three or four years down the line?”

Photo by @errez

Photo by @errez

FH: Did she have any advice about getting over the fact that you might never be truly satisfied with your work?

JG: I don’t think she gave me anything to really overcome that feeling. She just said, “If you move forward as an artist, this will be your mindset throughout your lifetime.” Instead of seeing that as a negative, I choose to see it as a positive because it keeps me constantly thinking, “I know I could have done this better,” and helps me build off of my insecurities. As long as I’m insecure, I think I’m good moving forward. If a day ever comes where I think, “I’ve made it”, it’ll be the most boring day of my life.

FH: How do you personally deal with or get over creative ruts, and do you have any advice for others?

JG: I don’t get over ruts because I think being frustrated can keep you going. This guy Nate Schultz said, “There are many artists that have higher taste levels than their current state of work.” I know I can always do better because I see so much great work out there. I think it’s difficult when you’re trying to find your own creative voice but also trying to be a good person at the same time. To me they go hand-in-hand. It sounds dramatic, but when I die, I don’t want to be known as ‘Jose the good photographer.’ I want to be known as ‘Jose the good human being.’ So my advice for people is to ask themselves if they’re happy with who they are as a person. Because if you’re an artist, you may come across someone who’s really into your work and is really inspired by you. But if they meet you and you’re a douchebag… what kind of perspective will they have about other artists that they hope to meet some day, you know?

FH: Yeah, essentially if you practice being a good person, that can bleed into your work, right?

JG: Yeah! Just be a good person first. Don’t be a douchebag.

FH: Got it. What other artists in Atlanta do you look up to or admire?

JG: I think mostly people like Matthew Warren, because when I look at his work, I feel like he creates for the sake of creating. His work is very culturally driven, and when I see it, no matter what it is, I always feel like how he feels about his past and his present spits out into it. When you meet and get to know him, you understand him - it all makes sense.

I really don’t have a favorite photographer in Atlanta. Going back to the good person thing, I’ve met many people who are great photographers, but they’re not great-spirited. I don’t know where to place them because I think, “Ok I like your work... but you’re a douchebag at the same time,” so I don’t know how I feel about the overall persona that they present through their work. I think Matthew is a great influence for the general photography population here in Atlanta because he’s a great photographer and a great person. There are two other people whose work I love: Michelle Norris and Forrest Aguar (@tropicophoto on Instagram.) They’re a couple and they create really minimal, colorful images. They’re very symmetrical, I love their work and they’re great people, so it makes their work even greater.

I’m kind of an outsider to the city. Being raised in the suburbs and just barely seeping into the Atlanta scene, I feel like I’m not really in a “clique” yet, and I don’t want to be. I feel like it can be very cliquey here in Atlanta. People are always around with the same people. To me that’s a little weird, because as an artist you want to branch out and grow within your own work. Maybe meet a painter, or someone who does sculpture or something. I think as an artist, you should always create for the sake of creating, not for the sake of Instagram likes and following - all that’s supplemental. If you’re not enjoying the things you’re creating, and instead thinking about how many likes you’re going to get, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s just me from an outsider’s perspective, but when you’re voted “best photographer” and all that I think to myself, “That should not be so relevant.” People should go through your work and think either ‘I connect’ or ‘I don’t connect.’ They shouldn’t connect with you because some website says you’re the “best photographer” - they should connect with you because your work makes them feel something.

Photo by @errez

Photo by @errez

FH: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a distinct difference between creating art for the sake of it, as opposed to saying, “I’m an artist” for self-promotion. How do you feel about people calling themselves artists?

JG: It’s a very superficial take on the art world, going around and saying, “I’m an artist.” It’s hard for me to say that I’m an artist. You’ll notice on my feed that I don’t have ‘artist’ or ‘creator’ or anything like that. It’s just one of those titles that comes with a lot of responsibility. People throw it around like a chain around their neck, as if they can just buy the title and say they’re an artist or influencer. I say that I create art, but for me to say that I’m an artist is such a hard thing to cope with. I ask myself, “Am I an artist?” often because it’s so subjective.

FH: How do you stay true to your own originality, and what do you do when you start catching yourself doing things that are influenced by others?

JG: I think that when you find someone that excites your imagination, you want to be like them in a way. Instead of copying exactly what they do, I continue what I’m doing and try to decipher what they’re thinking. For me it’s the psychology behind it - what they’re seeing about that person/ perspective and trying to figure out what that formula it is while asking questions about my own work. I like using other people's work to keep my imagination excited. It sounds so kiddish and Disney channel, but it’s true. People that constantly stimulate my imagination with their work keep my own creativity flowing.

FH: So what work are you most proud of?

JG: I think towards the end of 2017, I got the hang of #weareanartform. It came about from a lot of insignificant moments that are now so significant when I look back at them. I now understand the tagline even more. The difficult part was having the subjects and knowing I wanted them to bend a certain way, but figuring out how to do it in a way that wasn’t so typical. The shoot with the two people wearing yellow [see photo below] was the highlight of the year because I was able to really experiment with the human form while shooting with primarily dancers. Not that the standard human form isn’t exciting, but dancers can just bend at will! The first time I shot a dancer I was like, WHOA that’s really awesome. So that’s the highlight of all my shoots because it was an eye-opening experience I had about the human figure. I believed the whole “#weareanartform” thing, but because those dancers were able to break the obstacles I had with trying to make people move certain ways, they were the highlight. It wasn't even the photos, just the moment of understanding what the human body could do.

An older lady walked by while we were shooting and was staring at us because she didn’t know what was going on, and to me that was so exciting because that’s the feeling you should get when you look at art! Remove the camera from the equation and present something that’s unique. I’m trying to shoot first without the camera. You can get so wrapped up in trying to capture the perspective, but if you can create something without having the camera in front of your face, I think you start to merge with your art. The camera should always be supplemental.

Photo by @errez

Photo by @errez

FH: What do you want your viewers to get out of your work?

JG: I guess the takeaway I’d like people to have from my work is that you can do more than just walk. You can do more than be pretty or handsome. I think that’s what they highlight in the modeling industry, and I don’t blame them because that’s what you’re supposed to do: capture “beautiful people.” But I want people to know that you don’t need a 6-pack to be art. I want people to be able to take themselves out of context. To be able see a pole, and say, yeah that looks like a pole, but could it be something else too? Or like, I know this is just a fire hydrant, but can I use the color of the fire hydrant to do something different? I want people to see my work and try to view the world a little less standard, a little less manufactured.

Photo by @mercedesbleth

Photo by @mercedesbleth

FH: As you know, FamilyHood started in Atlanta, and we’ll probably be in Atlanta as long as they let us. We love being in the art community here because it’s different than a lot of bigger cities. What advantages and disadvantages do you think Atlanta has in respect to the art community?

JG: Well. NY and LA will always dominate the art scene, in my opinion. But I think that makes it so hard for people to showcase who they are because everyone who goes to NY and LA wants to be a model or an actor. It’s really saturated. But when people come to Atlanta it’s different. Certain things are booming, but not so loudly that you can’t hear someone who has great talent that would most likely be overshadowed in more major cities. Atlanta provides a platform for people who are really talented but may be overlooked in New York or Los Angeles. It’s a small community which has its ups and downs. It may not be recognized globally, but people have the opportunity to spring up from Atlanta because it’s so small.

FH: What opportunities do you think Atlanta has to become a major art city and what should Atlanta be doing to cultivate that positive community? How do we avoid becoming another shadow of NY or LA and really become our own?

JG: I think it’s simple: as an artist, you should get out of your head and meet other artists. If Atlanta can present itself as a community of artists instead of just an “art scene” (because I see “an art scene” as very individualistic) and focus on connecting people, it can avoid becoming like the other major art cities.

It took me a while to not be a mystery. I didn’t mean to be. It was just really hard for me to reach out to certain people and ask to meet up. You can get so sucked up into what you do sometimes. But being able to hear other people talk about their work has really cultivated my own work. Be a good person, be a part of the community. Don’t feel like you’re too good for it or feel like you’re above anything.

If people know you’re a douchebag and you do become successful… you’re just having wine by yourself, you know? There won’t be anyone there to celebrate your success with because you were never genuine, and you just used people to put yourself in a good position. Even if you’re on a different “level” as someone, go and get coffee with them. Don’t be afraid that you’ll be copied or anything. At the end of the day, communities thrive and that applies to the art scene. Be cohesive about who you are.


Photos by Mercedes Bleth.
Copy Edit by Mercedes Bleth
Interview by Marcus Whitaker & Mercedes Bleth

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We recently got to kick it with the incredibly talented Niki Zarrabi and learn everything from her beginnings as an artist,
to her process, to her family background and some of her favorite Atlanta artists. 

nikki zirabbi_edits-13.jpg

FH: To start things off: who are you; how long have you lived in Atlanta; and how long have you considered yourself an artist?

NZ: I'm Niki Zarrabi, and I was born in New Jersey but only lived there for maybe a year. I don't remember any of it obviously, and then I moved and grew up here. I pretty much only know Atlanta. As far as when I started considering myself an artist... officially it would be after I graduated from art school at Georgia State. Even though I was involved in everything art related in high school and college, I was actually never planning to be an artist.

My dad and sister both went to Georgia Tech, and I didn't really know what I was going to do (and I still don't understand why 18-year-olds are expected to know what they're going to do for the rest of their lives.) My sister suggested I go to Tech and do industrial design, and I was like "okay, totally I'll do that.”

When I got a conditional acceptance to Tech, I thought, "ok, I’ll go to Georgia State and do what I do best and always do, which is art." I figured I’d take whatever classes they require and transfer over.

Then I just got so comfortable and kind of fell in love with the atmosphere of the art classes and the professors and my peers; so I just stayed. After I graduated, I thought, "Wow this is what I'm doing. I'm an artist I'm going to give it my all.”

FH: Did you have an instructor or mentor that helped you discover new things? Who's the first person who comes to mind?

NZ: Pam Longobardi is an amazing artist. You should look her up. I had an installation class with her, and that’s where I fell in love with installation work. That's actually my favorite kind of thing to work on, even though I don't get the opportunity very often.

She’s a hardcore environmentalist and collects trash out of the ocean and makes art out of it, and her work is... I don't know; it's just so dope! She was so awesome. I feel like I learned so much from her class. I always painted and drew realistically and did studies of objects, but I didn't really understand abstract art until art school; and she was one of the teachers that really opened my eyes and gave me appreciation for it.

I was always intimidated by abstract art, but after learning about it, I told myself, "That challenges me, so that's what I'm going to try and do.” I can paint realistically; I can draw; I've been doing that all my life; so the teachers that push me to explore more are the most inspiring to me.

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FH: I know you said you like the challenging aspect of abstract art, but what made you appreciate it?

NZ:  That would mostly be art history courses I took; once you start understanding what a Jackson Pollock actually is, or even Duchamp’s work. You know, a lot of people outside of the art world are kind of like, "What the fuck, this is a urinal. How is this art?" But when you study the course and understand the conceptual part behind it; you really understand the power that art can hold. I just feel like abstract art has a bigger outlet for creating a message -- not to undermine realistic painters at all, -- but I feel like it has more of a dialogue.

FH: Do you feel like going to school ever hindered your own originality?

NZ: Yes, but only towards the beginning, which makes sense because the intro classes are all pretty much just teaching you. There'd be an oil painting class where they're teaching you how to work with oil paint; and there's water color, and that's fine because you're learning different mediums. Toward the end of senior year, you have a lot of freedom because you have to come up with an entire thesis and write about your statement and create a series based on that. They give you the tools for it, and then at the end they're like, "see what you can do with it," which I feel is a good way to go about it because I had no idea how to use oil paint correctly when I went into art school. All I worked with in high school was acrylic paint.

FH: I feel like oil paint is the one thing I always hear people say, "ahh, fuck oil painting!”

NZ: I love it! If you're familiar with my work, you know that I have my abstract layered Plexiglass pieces, and the other series that I do is the oil paintings of flowers and plants on wood grain.

FH: How long does it usually take you to create one of your Plexiglass pieces versus one of your oil paintings?

NZ: The oil paintings actually take longer, but that's only because oil takes so long to dry. Sometimes I have to wait for it to dry a little bit before I can go in and add some details and do the background. That's the only reason. The plexiglass pieces used to take me a while in the beginning because I was trying to figure out how to do it! I had this idea of layering all of these pieces. I didn't really know how to go about it. Now that I finally have the formula down, it doesn't take too long. It depends on the size of the piece. If it's a really large piece; it can take one to two weeks if I'm working on just that. If it's a small one; I can usually finish it in a week or less.

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FH: How does your creative process go from idea to completion?

NZ: My creative process is very much about the actual art itself and the meaning behind it. My abstract pieces are influenced by science and biology, in particular. It's about the atoms, elements, and energy that come together to give us life; and how they connect us because we're all made of the same fragile and delicate elements.

For my plexiglass pieces, I have a macro versus micro concept of the universe [where a bunch of small things come together to bring life to one big thing]. Like the universe itself; it's all just a big circle, really.

The wood pieces are about reincarnation. They're a lot more straightforward, but go hand-in-hand with the same idea of us all being connected. The flowers and plants are supposed to represent life, and melting into the wood grain is death, but going back into the wood grain is also like us going back into nature and so forth. It's reincarnation.

I got really into that whole concept. I had to choose a science class in school and I thought, "Well, I guess I really like animals. Maybe I'll do Biology." I actually fell in love with biology and was inspired by all of it.

Usually people use science to defy spirituality, but for me it confirms it. You can use science to prove that we're all somehow connected to one another because we all come from the same things. It's really spiritual in that way, and I think that's kind of awesome.

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FH: How long have you been working out of your studio?

NZ: Since I graduated school. My apartment is small, and I didn’t want to pay 500 dollars to rent a studio. My parents are really supportive and let me take over this whole area in their garage.

I’m first generation American. My dad came from Iran when he was 17, not fluent in English. He taught himself everything and made it his own. I’m very grateful and privileged, and I think knowing that history also pushes me to make this work. I don't want my art to be meaningless; I want people to look at it and really think “what is this about?”

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FH: Are there any particular art organizations, galleries, or groups of artists that you love working with?

NZ: What I like about Atlanta is that we have these niche, more well-known galleries like Hathaway, Mason Fine Art, Kai Lin... you know, the list goes on. Then there are artists who say "Wait, I can do this too. I can put together events, curate shows and make things happen," and open their own spaces. There are Mammal Gallery, Kibbee, and Facet Gallery now. Those people are so fun to work with because they're actual artists themselves and understand both sides. It's not just money to them; they're not just business men trying to sell work because they really care about the art community. I think they're creating opportunities for their friends to have places to showcase their work; it really does feel like an awesome family.

FH: Are there any particular Atlanta influencers or people you've been inspired by in Atlanta?

NZ: Peter Ferrari has been doing a lot for the art community with Forward Warrior and opening Facet. He's definitely influential one, and I think the guys from Mammal are awesome.

FH: In the Atlanta community as people or as a whole, what do you feel is the one thing that you hope to see more of, and what opportunities does the city have?

NZ: I would love if more galleries threw happenings. I'm biased because I love creating interactive installations, but I think it's a great way to get people who are not super into the art world to be more involved in the art scene, so they can experience it in a more powerful and different way. What if we took it to the next level and had more of these huge interactive art galleries? Similar to what New York and LA are doing. The artists there are creating these awesome huge funds, and I believe Atlanta can do that too.

It's going to take a while, but it would be awesome if going to art openings and being a part of that art experience became a normal, lifestyle thing to do for people living in Atlanta.


Photos by Mercedes Bleth.

Copy Edit by Mercedes Bleth

Interview by Marcus Whitaker & Mercedes Bleth


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