"Am I breaking the rules?" asks Amy Tischler. She has strayed into the center of a workshop in the Santa Fe Opera's brand-new props department. The rest of the tour group clusters at one edge of the cavernous room, snapping photos with their phones as she poses beside statues of massive winged figures that will appear in this season's production of Romeo et Juliette. The tour guide, Maya Rose Tweten, directs Tischler back onto their sanctioned route with a good-natured wave. Such shenanigans are expected from this gang: They are avid contributors to the unbridled photography app-cum-social experiment known as Instagram.
"Social media is like the Wild West," says Tischler. "There really aren't a lot of rules, so you're not boxed in with this traditional method of what you should be doing. We're only limited by our imaginations." It's an apt observation for an event with a strong spaghetti Western flavor. Later this evening, the group will view and photograph a rehearsal performance of La Fanciulla del West. Puccini's opera in three acts, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, follows frontierswoman Minnie on a series of gunslinging adventures during the California Gold Rush. Tischler and her collaborator Caitlin Elizabeth Jenkins have also mastered the art of the quick draw, albeit with their iPhone cameras.
The duo founded the Instagram account @SimplySantaFeNM in December 2014, challenging photographers to label their best local shots with the tag #SimplySantaFe. Less than two years on, they've shared more than 1,000 of their favorite photos from an ever-growing pool of nearly 50,000 images. Their account boasts over 16,000 followers, and that number grows with every post. The success of the project inspired Tischler and Jenkins to launch a social media consulting business called Simply Social Media. For their flagship events, referred to as "Instameets," Tischler and Jenkins convince renowned local businesses to let them gallop around behind the scenes with their camera-wielding friends.
The concept is a new frontier for the Santa Fe Opera. “It’s all about giving Instagrammers an opportunity to have access to something that is not open to everybody,” says Jenkins. “That’s one of the reasons we love the opera Instameets. Backstage tours are open to other people, but photography is not usually allowed. For our events, it’s encouraged.”
On a sprawling deck that hides just behind the opera’s famous open-air stage, the photographers hover around set pieces for tonight’s show. There are several sections of a saloon that will interlock onstage, and a cross-section of a two-story cabin where Minnie will rendezvous with a mysterious lover. They look surreal on this concrete expanse, as though they were deposited here by a high desert dust devil. “You never know what can happen, the possibilities that come from Instagram,” Jenkins says with amazement.
It all started when Jenkins reached out to Tischler—through Instagram, of course—to arrange a photography excursion. They had been aware of each other's posts for a while (Tischler's personal account is @amytischler, and Jenkins promotes her freelance photography business through @caitlinephoto), though Tischler never thought of her hobby as something that could launch a business. "I was just editing photos and trying to see what I could do with my phone," says Tischler. "Smartphones and Instagram gave me new access to creating images. Then I realized that this is more than just an editing tool, it's actually a community."
"I had started the @SimplySantaFeNM account before we even met," Jenkins continues. "I had only done one post, and we started brainstorming about what it could become." They planned to spread the word about the project in early 2015, but a few local Instagram accounts caught wind of it, and @SimplySantaFeNM was already gaining buzz over the 2014 holidays. Local businesses and organizations caught on too, and soon they were working with the Canyon Road Merchants Association, Santa Fe Paws and Modern Folkware.
The Santa Fe Opera contacted Tischler and Jenkins before their 2015 season, with an interest in collaborating. “It was a huge deal. Honestly, the Santa Fe Opera Instameets were what really exploded the account and what we were doing,” says Tischler. “It’s still a passion project, but that was the turning point of when we formed a business together.” It was a coup for both sides: The opera wanted to connect with a younger audience, and @SimplySantaFeNM’s fans wanted to explore hidden corners of the opera. Projects with the Santa Fe Arts Commission, David Richard Gallery, Art.i.fact and other local organizations followed. “It’s absolutely possible to create legitimate art with and through Instagram,” Tischler says. “It’s much more than a platform for selfies.” The tour group has ascended to the Opera Club, an exclusive bar for high-level donors that was also part of this year’s off-season renovation project. Jenkins aims her lens over the balcony at some stragglers, who eagerly return fire. French conductor Emmanuel Villaume arrives to discuss his work on
La Fanciulla del West
. “It’s quite extraordinary. Puccini did a trip to New York and wanted to do something that captured the American spirit,” Villaume says, waving his arm at the glowing Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east. “It’s great to be here and to work on this great West idea, and then go out and see this landscape. Santa Fe is a magical place. All the ingredients are here except an audience, and tonight we will have that.”
Later, the photographers settle into the opera’s balcony seating and peer down at the Polka Saloon, now assembled onstage. “Please be aware this evening’s performance contains multiple gun shots,” read the surtitle screens in front of each seat. The opera’s public relations team looks more nervous about flashbulbs than gunpowder, but Tischler and Jenkins have some good news for them: In addition to hundreds of images that have already appeared on Instagram, under the tag #sfoinstameet, the event is also trending on Twitter. The opera’s guerrilla marketing experiment has undoubtedly paid off.
A voice booms over the intercom: “No photography or video recording is permitted during the performance.” Tischler, Jenkins and their friends grasp their phones and grin like outlaws as the stage lights come up. In the Wild West, the rules were made to be broken.
@SimplySantaFeNM’s final Instameet for the Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 season takes place on Thursday, July 14, at 5:30 pm, and features a rehearsal performance of Romeo et Juliette . It’s RSVP only, so email
to get on the waiting list. Operagoers are encouraged to use the tag #sfoinstameet on any Instagram posts from this season. Posts that appear before July 14 will be considered for a juried photography exhibition at Iconik Coffee Roasters, opening August 20.