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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