A middle-aged man unlocks the door to the towering, hundred-year-old building. In a room to the right, four men discuss hair extensions as they sweep up strands of hair and rose petals that have fallen around bright, red cushioned barber chairs.
The last door to the right looks like a utility closet, but this is where they gather.
A woman with green hair and spider-bite piercings. A man in a business suit cradling a Bluetooth headset. A woman with frizzy, dyed-blonde hair wearing chunky white sneakers and tube socks. A mother bouncing her 4-month-old baby.
“Welcome to Guerrilla Photo Group,” founder Rip Williams says.
Guerrilla Photo Group is an artists’ collaborative where photographers, models and stylists gather every Wednesday night to use photographer Rip Williams’ studio and equipment in half-hour sessions. Artists do not have to have any experience.
Everyone meanders around the studio, tromping up and down the stairs that lead to Williams’ apartment above. They laugh about a long-ago flashing encounter in the bathroom. Some people drink wine, others prefer Natural Ice. Smokers gather in the parking lot near a dilapidated community garden.
The surrounding 2nd Street neighborhood seems dead; a few brown-stained heroin spoons stick out from under a chain-link fence on Coal Avenue, and silhouettes stand under a far-off streetlight.
Inside, the mother of the 4-month-old strips to pose partially nude with her baby.
Williams said nudity is not uncommon, but everyone on the premises must be 18.
“Everybody goes through this period where they shoot things they feel are beautiful and for every human being – boys, girls, straight, gay – which invariably comes down to a pretty girl naked,” he said.
The models challenge the meaning of beauty. From 100-pound, 5-foot tall nothings to 200-pound, mature women to mohawked, muscular men — the models are anyone the artists can get in front of the camera.
Williams does advertising and fashion photography. He briefly studied at UNM, and he said a mentor of his gave him access to professional equipment when he was only 17. He started Guerrilla Photo Group to provide that type of mentorship to others.
“When I got in the position of having my own space, the first thing I was thinking was ‘How do I pay this karmic debt,’” he said.
Williams does art photography primarily as a hobby. He said his style is modern and edgy.
“It’s sort of like Nike meets ‘Blade Runner,’” he said.
The photo shoots flash by as fast as the frames capturing them — a girl in purple dress with purple hair squints at the camera through her purple-rimmed glasses; a young couple makes out.
Participants are expected to help out with shoots besides their own, but anybody is welcome to just hang out.
At 10 p.m., the group convenes in the main room for a series of announcements as Journey plays softly from a boom box perched in the corner. Everyone pitches in with a brief tidy-up session — brooms run across the concrete floor, bags of empty beer bottles are carried outside and stray cigarette butts are returned to the ash tray.
The gathering slowly quiets as 2 a.m. rolls around. A man upstairs discusses sadomasochism with his former “slave.” He said he would slap her around once in a while to improve her self-esteem. He said domination can be empowering for the dominated.
Downstairs, the studio is dark. A tall, blonde model poses seductively for Williams, who sits pensively in a chair without a camera, but she stops when she notices me watching. I take my cue and leave.