“I can’t do a 10-minute picture,” said photographer Tina Gutierrez. “Making someone’s portrait is a collaboration. If they want to do it in 10 minutes, that’s not a collaboration. That’s a snapshot.”
If you’re a regular reader of Movers & Makers, you have almost certainly seen Gutierrez’s work. Her portraits have been featured on nearly every M&M cover since February 2016.
There have been dozens of them: John Morris Russell (Cincinnati Pops), Colleen Houston (ArtWorks), Raphaela Platow (Contemporary Arts Center), Neal and Donna Mayerson (Mayerson Foundation), Rob Richardson (attorney), Ellen Katz (Greater Cincinnati Foundation), Carl and Michael Solway (Solway Gallery), Mu Sinclaire (entrepreneur/philanthropist), Heidi Yenney and Coleman Itzkoff (musicians), Damian Hoskins (Elementz), Laura Mitchell (Cincinnati Public Schools). The list goes on and on.
For all the differences of those subjects’ personalities, though, you can see Gutierrez’s hand in the process. Look more deeply at the images and you’ll find subjects who are alert, but relaxed. Clear-eyed. Determined. Present. She makes it all look so effortless.
“It was very comfortable,” recalls choreographer/dancer Heather Britt, the cover subject of our February 2020 edition. “And it was uncomfortable, too. Me, I like to get in and out. I asked her if we could do it real quickly. But we were there an hour and a half. For me, that was the uncomfortable part.”
After a moment of reflection, Britt adds, “I would do it again.”
“Tina is a master of her craft,” said Britt. “She’s like a director, completely wrapped up in the process. She’s on a mission. She wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than authenticity. She was pretty adamant about it. ‘Soften your jaw,’ she’d say. ‘Soften your jaw.’ She would do exercises with me to get me to relax and be more pliable. It was like she willed me into posing for her.”
Raised by enterprising spirits
Gutierrez was raised on a farm in rural Clermont County, midway between the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em towns of Monterey and Marathon. Her father is Cuban, her mother from Beattyville, a tiny town nestled in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
But despite her distance from urban life, Tina managed to be very connected to the world outside. Her father owned an engineering firm, her mother was a visual artist. And both of them had enterprising, entrepreneurial spirits.
“They put on antique shows, so we met all sorts of different people,” said Gutierrez. “And my mom introduced us to all kinds of different art forms.”
When Tina was 10, her sister received a camera for her birthday.
“I was not into owning stuff,” said Gutierrez. “But a camera? I cried. We grew up with National Geographic and I thought that photography was something only these rare, select people could do.”
To her, a camera represented an entrée into the alien world beyond the farm. Her parents gave in and got her one of her own, just a simple point-and-shoot film camera. But when she picked it up, she was in control. The image was all hers. It gave her a whiff of the independence she longed for.
An appetite for learning
After college in Evansville, Ind., she returned, not to the farm but to Cincinnati, where she leapt into a series of dead-end jobs. She waited tables at Bacchus (“I was terrible”), and leased apartments. She studied movement with Fanchon Shur and learned about the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique.
Despite the dyslexia that plagued her high school days, she seemed to have an insatiable appetite for learning about … well, just about anything. Music, dance, photography, the history of costuming – you name it and she wanted to know more about it.
She and her husband, luthier Larry Brown, danced with the Flying Cloud Academy of Vintage Dance and helped found the Tango Society. Later she would become the director of The Shakespeare Band, playing early music of the English Renaissance.
“I’m not afraid of working hard,” she said.
“I just wasn’t great at working for other people.
I needed to be in charge. I needed to have my own businesses.”
Before she threw herself into photography full-time in 2014, she spent 23 years as the owner of European Bridal in Reading’s vaunted bridal district.
“Going into the wedding business was not because I liked weddings,” cautions Gutierrez. “It was because I liked the gowns. I love dressing the brides. The wedding gown is the ultimate expression of fashion. The fabrics and the embroidery. To me, they are the ultimate expression of fashion as art.”
But as the business grew and she brought on more staff, she found herself increasingly removed from the hands-on work with customers. Ever so gradually, her employees were getting to do all those aspects of the job that she loved so much.
Except the photography.
“I realized that this was the personal connection I’d been missing for a while,” said Gutierrez. “I realized that this – photography – was what I wanted to do. So I sold the business.”
Setting the bar high
As good as Gutierrez is, becoming a professional photographer has meant a massive learning curve.
“People warned me. They said it would be like someone who decided to retire and then gets depressed. But I was sure I could do it. I just had no idea how hard it would be. Here I am, seven or eight years into this new business and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. There is so much more to learn.”
Of course, she’s set the bar exceedingly high for herself. It seems that she wants to shoot everything, from musicians and underwater movement to ballet and social justice.
She created the “Covid-19 Coronavirus Art Response Project,” in which she asked volunteers to depict – in clothing, costumes or wearable art – how they felt about the virus and social distancing. Over the course of several months, she photographed them in various locations around the city. You can still see more than 120 of those images on her web site.
Then there was underwater photography. The work is grueling. But, like her dance photography, it offers her a way to keep gravity at bay, if only for a moment.
“I’m at the mercy of people who will lend me their pools,” she said. “I’m always looking for heated.” Sessions can last five to six hours. But Gutierrez describes it as “exhilarating.”
“That’s a perfect word for her – exhilarating,” said photographer Michael Wilson, who has become something of a mentor to Gutierrez. “From the time I met Tina years ago, she seemed to have a limitless appetite not just for making her own work, but for consuming other people’s, too. She feeds on it. She just wants to know everything she can about it. She’s tireless.”
And then there is her activism, exhibited by her photos of artists creating the Black Lives Matter mural in the summer of 2020, or the memorial service for young, black violinist Elijah McClain, who died as the result of a police altercation, or her more artistic figures blending white, black and brown bodies. These are all intended to shine a light on racial issues and to break down barriers.
Control over the image
“The camera lies,” said Gutierrez. “The camera can also tell many truths. But it often lies.”
She’s not talking about the camera as a malicious thing. She’s talking about its technological limitations. Each lens bends and manipulates light in different ways.
“I’m not trying to tell lies with my photography,” she insists. “But a camera often makes people look the way they don’t look at all. It’s my job to make the camera see what I see. The camera and lenses are just tools to accomplish that.”
Ultimately, it’s a matter of her having complete control over the image.
Look at her self-portrait.
It’s filled with multicolored splotches of light that seem to have leapt out of the background of a luminous Klimt painting. There is so much visual activity that it’s hard to know precisely what part each element of the photo is supposed to play; the patterns, the shadows, that bright yellow parasol, that shock of white hair. And those sunglasses.
But make no mistake: Gutierrez is in complete control here. Look down in her right hand (the only part of her untouched by the light projection) and you’ll see the remote unit that controls when to take the image.
In the digital age, the takes could be limitless.
But this is the one she chose. This is Tina Gutierrez as she wants you to see her.