By Emily Clingman-Johnson
Boldly turning regular folks into rock stars and movie stars and sometimes even hanging them from stars, Darren Mahuron has photographically transformed dozens of local bands, icons, rebels, families, well-knowns and unknowns into surreal characters that look like still shots from boundary-breaking, counterculture movies.
“I don’t consider myself a photog-rapher first,” Mahuron says. “I use the camera and the lights to get an image into Photoshop to play with it. I think I have a painter’s mind, but [I’m] probably not good enough to be a painter.”
Owner of Summit Studios, Mahuron has become increasingly popular here in town. Known for his edgy, eye-popping, dreamlike portraits, Mahuron is paving his creative way through the art community.
“I could have never gotten away with displaying some of my edgier work where I’m from in the South,” says Mahuron, speaking of Pensacola, Florida. “There were too many close-minded conservatives.”
After viewing some of his work, it’s hard to believe that he evolved from an audio store salesman six years ago.
“They had some lighting gear, a computer and a camera. They needed someone to take pictures of CDs for the catalog,” Mahuron recalls. Wanting to get out of sales, he gave product photography a shot. He gave himself a crash course in digital SLR photography and Adobe Photoshop.
“After about six months of doing that, I started getting pretty bored of shooting CD players and wanted to start shooting people,” he says.
So, in 2004, having been daydreaming of cool mountain air, Mahuron decided to give Colorado a shot, landing in Fort Collins and opening a studio in the basement of his house.
Giving the business a shot…twice
“I was doing really boring K-Mart style family portraits,” he says. After about a year, he decided he didn’t want to do photography anymore.
“It was pretty lame,” he says. “I wasn’t doing anything interesting or artistic at all.”
He hadn’t figured out that he could be artistic with photography…yet.
“There’s a lot of artistic photography out there now,” says Mahuron. “But in 2005, people were mostly shooting really boring stuff like train tracks and spider webs.”
Meanwhile, Mahuron had been tending to another passion of his – bicycling – taking advantage of the city’s bike friendly culture and volunteering at the bike co-op. He decided to can the photography business and open a bike shop. He secured a commercial spot downtown, but it was above two flights of stairs.
“I knew nobody would bring their bikes up there,” says Mahuron.
So, he reconsidered the photography idea again, mostly just to keep the coveted Old Town space. This time around, Mahuron worked on his own terms.
Starting out by doing press photos and album cover shots for local bands, Mahuron was totally in his creative element. Word – or his images, rather – spread, and business started booming right away.
Using Photoshop, he experimented with merging different background images into the originals, playing with bright or ominous color schemes, intense contrast adjustments and other “fun stuff” to make his otherwise lackluster photos incredibly stunning works of art.
Each image might take six to 12 hours to create. It’s meticulous work.
“I’m very detailed. There’s no magic button to push. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be getting paid the big bucks,” he laughs.
“Being able to get as creative as I wanted to showed me the potential,” Mahuron says. “I could start getting the ideas out of my head.”
It wasn’t just his technical talents that made him stand out from the crowd.
“I’m a conceptual photographer,” he says. “I don’t take 200 photos. I really take the time to draw out the shot and plan the lighting before I even shoot.”
His extensive use of props and scenery creates very unusual images, yet all of the photos are extremely captivating.
“I think that lends well for CD and magazine covers,” says Mahuron, who really enjoys photographing bands. He would like to spend some time in L.A. or Austin, Texas and tap into the music scene for new photo opportunities.
“Working with any musician would be huge, but someone like Tom Waits, who has so much of a story just in his face, would be a fantastic thing.”
Mahuron knows he put himself out on a limb in this community. Many of his images are edgy and politically challenging.
“I just had to not care,” he says. “I needed to put it out there and see if I could connect to the Fort Collins art scene – and I did. I realized that I could be myself here.”
Who is Darren Mahuron, really? He’s not really sure these days.
“I’m kind of in my own little bubble down here,” he laughs.
“Down here” refers to his new upgraded basement studio located in The Gallery Underground, another project of Mahuron’s. Part Summit Studios, part community gallery for other local artists to set up shop and display their work to the public.
“All of my friends who were good artists were showing their art in coffee shops, as was I,” he explains. “So, in October of 2007, I decided to open Gallery Underground as a way to have a place where artists could show whatever they wanted to.”
The G.U. started with two artists – now there are 20 resident artists.
“I wanted to offer a spot where people wouldn’t be censored,” he says. “People pay rent for the space and handle it in whatever way they want to. It connects them with the art community and they get tons of exposure because of the crowd we get down here on First Fridays,” Mahuron says, referring to the self-guided tour of Old Town art galleries open in the evening of the first Friday of the month.
A call to the community
Mahuron is passionate about supporting local artists. He sees firsthand how hard it is to make a living being an artist.
“In this economic climate, when money is tight, it’s hard for people to justify spending what little they may have on art. However, I feel like we all have a social responsibility to help support artists,” he says.
“I think people should understand that without sales, we will continue to lose our artists to larger cities and the gallery will close,” he says. “I’m not telling folks to spend a giant wad of cash on art and skip dinner, I’m simply suggesting that even a small, inexpensive print purchase may be enough to help us retain these artists.”
His true inspiration
Mahuron works mostly by himself. He has a make-up and hair artist that assists on most of his shoots, but he can usually be found alone in his studio, cranking the music up and transforming photos into masterpieces.
He does have two pint-sized associates that come around occasionally that he’s pretty smitten with.
“My kids help me out a lot,” Mahuron says, beaming. Jocelyn (11) and Sierra (9) frequent Summit Studios and help their dad with whatever he needs. Sometimes they push the shutter and sometimes they push the broom. Last month, they were by his side when Mahuron donated his time and talent to the community and offered family portrait sittings to those who were struggling financially during the holidays.
“I try to involve them as much as I can,” he says, and smiles as he tells about how they play the guitar and piano, write and do their own illustrations and model for photoshoots.
“I can’t get over how brilliant my kids are,” he says proudly of them.
Mahuron is pretty brilliant, himself. From thinking of a name for a non-existent photography business in Florida six years ago to establishing a reputation for artistic excellence and a heartfelt commitment to the Fort Collins community, you’d think he planned all this.
While listening to a recording of his new punk rock band Black Sunday Social, which was originally formed to appear in an upcoming New Belgium Brewery movie – yet another project Mahuron has thrown himself into – he edits a new photo project.
Clearly, he fuels his own fire. Nobody could plan this kind of success.
“I don’t really think about what I’m doing as much as I just kind of get out of the way and let it happen.”
Summit Studios and The Gallery Underground are located in Old Town Square at 109 Linden Street. They are open every first Friday evening from 6-9 pm. Check out Mahuron’s website, www.summitstyle.com, for more information.