Rosalind Guder, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, is wiping tears from her eyes. It’s Jan. 24, the last day of PPA’s Imaging USA 2023 conference, and she’s just met with a woman who attended her educational session the day before. “First of all, my class was on Monday morning at 8 a.m.,” she explains, “and I am thinking, I am new here, nobody knows me. Who is going to come at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning after the parties the night before?” As it turned out, a lot of people. Guder was told the room could fit 850, and it was nearly at capacity, she says, which blew her mind.
After her talk, someone on the expo floor told her one of the attendees had been crying during her session. During her class, Guder had shared a bit of her photography journey, including a story about how, after attending a life-changing photography workshop by Erich Caparas, M.Photog.M.Artist., her teenage son had experienced a severe fall, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and after many complications, had recovered. That woman had a 22-year-old son who'd suffered an accidental fall as well and had died. “She connected with my story," Guder says. "She's also had some depression, of course, and has been unable to pick up her camera, and she felt that I had given her some inspiration. So, I called her up and I said, ‘Hey, do you have a minute? I heard you were upset, and I looked up your story, and do you want to meet?’” The two of them met for a heart-to-heart and a cry. There was no way Guder would let the opportunity slip by to connect and support another photographer and mother in need. “I think I was put in her path for a reason.”
Guder has been in photography for only a few years, which makes her successes even more astounding. She first picked up a camera in 2013. She was a stay-at-home mom homeschooling her kids and was looking for a creative side gig. Her sister was a real estate photographer and encouraged Guder to give it a try, lending Guder her Nikon D300 and a 12-24mm lens. But Guder, a former fashion designer, found the work uninspiring. “I tried, but I didn’t really love it,” she says. When she photographed a room, her artistic vision would kick into gear. “I would think, Oh gosh, I wish I could move this piece of furniture,” she explains. But real estate photography is supposed to provide an accurate representation of the listing, not a fine art take, so you can’t make edits to the space. “You can’t remove electrical outlets when they are unsightly,” for example, she says. Disappointed with the work, she put her camera away.
In 2019, Guder’s children had aged into teenagers with more independence, allowing her time to explore her interests. She got out the Nikon once again. During some internet research, she Googled “IPC Diamond Photographer.” Some spectacular photography appeared on her screen, including the work of photographer Erich Caparas. “I thought, I need to study with him. He’s the guy,” she explains. “So, I stalked him on Facebook and Instagram, as one does, and I messaged him and I said, ‘I really want to study with you.’” Caparas invited her to come to his home state of Florida for a workshop, but she couldn’t leave her kids in Los Angeles. Shortly after their exchange, Swati Chakraborty, M.Photog., reached out to Guder saying she was hoping to bring Caparas to Northern California to give a workshop. Would Guder like to attend? “I said, ‘Of course I’m interested. I will be there.’ I drove up to Fremont and took the workshop, and I was so inspired. I felt that I learned so much in that one weekend.” She immediately set to work making her own photographs using Caparas’ techniques.
That was September 2019. A week later, her son was in the accident, and she turned her full attention to his recovery. It took months before he was out of the woods, but once he was on the mend, she returned to photography … just as the pandemic hit, she chuckles. Despite the lockdowns, she pushed ahead. She had it in mind to emulate one of Caparas’ photos but needed a subject for her work, so she asked a model from the Fremont workshop if she’d be willing to come down to Los Angeles and stay at her home to be a portrait subject.
The image that resulted from that collaboration was a winner—it earned awards in PPA’s International Photographic Competition, and then PPA Director of Credentialing Rich Newell reached out to let her know the image had been selected for the World Photographic Cup. “I was convinced that somebody must be pranking me because this could not be true,” she says of her shock. “This was my first shot after studying with the master,” as she dubs Caparas, and already she was competing at the international level.
Photo competition wins ignited Guder’s confidence and creativity. She knew she wanted to create stylistically dramatic portraits, so she was in search of extreme fashion. “Something that you don’t buy at Macy’s,” she jokes. She came across fashion designer Jacob Meir, owner of For the Stars Fashion House, who creates wardrobe pieces for performing artists and celebrities. Meir got his big break in L.A. when he met Whitney Houston and began designing her looks. He went on to work with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, among a slew of other artists. “He has a 35-year archive of this wardrobe that he’s created,” Guder says.
It was just the kind of fashion she wanted to incorporate into her work, so Guder reached out to see if she could get a meeting with Meir. The pandemic lockdown was in full swing, and it took a lot of back and forth to arrange the meeting. On the day she arrived at his studio, there were protests on Melrose Avenue, so she had to enter the building from a back alley. When she went inside, Meir was talking on his phone. “I am looking around and my eyes are big as saucers,” she says, taking in his fashion creations. To her embarrassment, he said, “Why did you want to see me again?” She replied, “’I’m a photographer.’ And I could see him rolling his eyes,” she laughs. Fortunately, she’d printed a few examples of her work on 4x6-inch cards, and she “low-key passed them to him. I said, ‘This is what I do,’ and he looked at the pictures and he’s going, ‘Wow, wow, wow.’ And he says to me, ‘I have been in this business for more than 35 years, and every year I must meet 100 photographers and you are the best one.’”
Meir told Guder he’d set up a photo studio with the intent of collaborating with photographer Jerry Ghionis, M.Photog.Cr., but Ghionis had moved to Las Vegas. Would she like to team up with him to create a photo studio? Guder was beyond floored. “I am like, Yes, I would like to make a photo studio with you. I will do whatever you want!”
Through this partnership, Guder has come to photograph some of Hollywood’s greatest performing artists. Meir never advertises his work; clients come through word of mouth. “The doors are always locked and it’s by appointment; you need to know somebody in order to get in,” Guder says. “I never know when I show up who could be in the shop. J. Lo could be there, Beyoncé, whoever. Just the other day it was Dee Snider, who is from Twisted Sister and his lovely wife, Suzette. It’s really fun because it could be anybody.” Since Guder’s photo studio is onsite, when clients need photographs in Meir’s wardrobe—for example, for an album cover—she’s the one to make them.
Her photography is driven largely by the wardrobe, she says. Meir’s pieces are so extreme that they naturally lend themselves to certain posing and composition. The theme of feminism runs through her work, she says. Her female subjects always appear strong while projecting efficacy and heroism.
In addition to her celebrity photography work, Guder is looking to expand her business into the consumer market. She’s hoping to launch a second standalone business for family portrait work, for which she would hire additional photographers. She’s still building out a plan for that business.
One thing that Guder knows for sure is that photographic competition launched her success. Competing has been a way to prove to herself that she has the skills to be a professional photographer; it’s something she still leans on today. “One of the biggest challenges for me, as a middle-aged mom who’d been away from the corporate world for a long time, was to find myself and feel confident in my abilities,” she says. She advises other photographers to dive into competition to build confidence as well. “Image competition is the No. 1 learning tool in my book,” she says. It’s even motivated her to study toward becoming a juror for PPA’s Merit Image Review. She hopes to not just critique other photographers’ work but to show them what changes can be made to improve it.
When Guder gave her 8 a.m. educational session at Imaging USA, she joked to the packed room of attendees that the only reason PPA had invited her to speak was because “I could be their poster child for overnight success.” After all, she began making photos in 2019, and already she’d represented the United States in the World Photographic Cup.
But kidding aside, the message she wanted the room to hear loud and clear was this: “If I can do it, every one of you can do it.” And if you need some encouragement—or someone to share a cry with—she’s here for it.
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.