Photographer Chris Guillen compares himself to a music collector who has watched the emergence of everything from cassettes to CDs to digital music files, but has never given up on vinyl records. The added convenience offered by the newer formats is no match for the overall quality and intangible feel of the old favorites.
Guillen’s style of photography is not overly concerned with staged scenery or added props. Kids are welcome to bring in their favorite toys, but that’s about it. He almost entirely shies away from digital technology, and prefers to shoot in black and white.
“Black and white lets the pictures tell a story,” he explains. “People tend to judge how people look in color. Everyone looks good in black and white. Everyone has that picture of grandma and grandpa in black and white, and it always looks awesome.”
Though some may call his methods old school, he is quick to point out that “deejays are still using albums for a reason,” adding that “just because they made acrylics doesn’t mean that oil painting will just go away.”
Guillen got started in photography during his sophomore year at Illinois Wesleyan University. He bought a camera for $75 at a pawn shop, and found himself spending his weekends in the dark room developing his pictures.
At the time, he said, he imagined himself working for Vanity Fair, photographing the stars. “I swore I’d never shoot a wedding,” he recalls. “But then I got married and I hated my wedding photographer, and I started thinking about how I’d do it.”
He worked his way up to studio manager in photographer Steve Gross’ then Ravensville-based studio, helping Gross shoot weddings on the side and learning to shoot in Gross’ signature black and white.
During his first year working with Gross in 1997, he photographed eight weddings. The next year the number was up to 22, and with Gross’ help, he began branching out on his own.
Around that time, he moved to Forest Park and converted his basement into a photography studio. “I’d meet people at Tutto Tapas and we’d talk about the photos,” he recalls. “I always loved the street.”
He later ended up photographing Madison Street restaurants for a feature in Chicago Magazine. He got his start with that publication in 2001, again filling in for Gross, this time shooting restaurants at former meat market sites on Randolph Street in Chicago.
The magazine, he said, was impressed with his use of cross-processed photography, Guillen’s preferred style when he is not shooting in black and white. The method basically involves developing one kind of film with chemicals designed to be used with another, creating an effect that Guillen describes as “hyper, funky colors” with high levels of contrast, allowing the dominant colors to stand out.
“I never felt that regular color film really got the right color anyway,” he explains. “It’s more about the feeling of the color, so why are we trying to be exact?”
The style has become somewhat of a niche for Guillen. He said that while some photographers try to digitally mimic the appearance of cross-processed photography, very few still do it the old-fashioned way. Though he will occasionally shoot digitally upon request and continues to experiment with newer technology, he says he will never let it replace film in his work.
“I want to keep film alive,” he exclaims.
When he photographs a wedding, he insists on developing the pictures himself rather than giving his client a disc of pictures which they can crop and alter at their leisure. He says he knows that this may repel some clients, but it’s part of the pride he takes in his work.
“If I give someone negatives they’re going to go to a cheap place to develop it and say ‘Chris Guillen shot that,'” he says.
While he enjoys taking his camera on the road and capturing his clients in their own environment, Guillen has always dreamed of opening his own studio.
“I love shooting musicians, and I love the idea of them having a place to go to get a funky musician shot,” he says.
He also enjoys the opportunity for interaction with clients that comes with photographing people, whether rock bands or young families, rather than restaurants and buildings.
“At a young age, I always loved meeting with people. I was once a bagger at Jewel and they thought I was a great worker and promoted me to a job in the back”I hated it, I had to leave,” he remembers.
His talkative, even hyper demeanor is especially helpful in getting his clients, who often include shy children, to open up during photo shoots. Guillen will go to great lengths to avoid being stuck shooting a boring, posed family picture.
“I try to get people to show their personality and not be too stiff, to get them to forget there’s a camera,” he explains.
Though it’s not always an easy task, Guillen is usually able to help his clients overcome their fear of the camera, and in some cases their intimidation at his own appearance.
“A big 6 foot 4 bald guy can scare the heck out of a lot of two-year-olds,” he jokes.
Though he’ll still gladly travel to client’s homes to take pictures, the studio, he says, provides an ideal base for his business, and will allow him to take his pictures without worrying about his own kids, ages 11, 6, and 3, getting their hands on his equipment. When he’s not taking pictures, Guillen can usually be found coaching his kids’ football teams in the Oak Park Youth League.
“The studio is between an art gallery and a hardware store. I think that’s a pretty cool mix,” he says, referring to neighboring Plan B Gallery and Schauer’s Ace Hardware.
He hopes to organize yearly photography shows at the studio which he hopes will compliment the art exhibits offered next door at Plan B.
“Photographers are adventurers. People like to see the photographs to see where you’ve been. I’ve been able to take pictures all over. It’s kind of an added perk,” he says.
Once the studio is complete, he also hopes to begin offering photography classes. The first, he hopes, will be an outdoor photography class during the fall. He introduced himself to many of the street’s frequent shoppers earlier this month, operating a photo booth during the Chamber of Commerce’s Summerfest event.
Guillen is particularly grateful to Plan B owner Jay Boeldt, who he says “has been in my corner from day one,” introducing him to other Madison Street merchants and getting him involved in the street’s tight knit community of small businesses.
The studio is located at 7451 Madison Street, and will officially open for business this Saturday. For more information, call (708) 488-1824.