The photo-shoots that have become commonplace – not to mention creative and often times, risqué – for Neverland Productions date back four years, when the Chicago-based party planners were trying to reinvent themselves after a Halloween party that, admittedly, flopped.
And it was spontaneous that photo-shoots even developed in the first place.
Neverland had only been advertising with a poster, like most parties do, yet the creative brain-trust at Neverland wanted to create promotional imagery that told a story. So, at a random house party, Martin Luna and Anthony DiFiore started dressing up a group of their friends in white costumes, then invited their photographer over to capture the moment.
He took photos for a couple hours, with party-goers posing in the dining room.
That became the promotional photoshoot for Neverland's first Purity Ball in 2012.
There were all sorts of reactions to the photos, DiFiore said. "Some people loved (the photos); some wondered what a naked guy sitting in a white Marc Jacobs shopping bag had to do with a dance party. It didn't really matter. The point was to grab people's attention."
And yes, the Neverland photoshoots have always done that.
But the photoshoots also have changed over the years, sort of a metamorphosis of what their photography looks like. In their first year, for instance, it was grittier and more experimental. "We turned models into zombies for our Contagion party in June 2013, and turned drag queens into clones of Amanda Lepore, (including) Kim Chi and Pearl (who) were in that photoshoot long before they got on RuPaul's Drag Race," DiFiore said. "In our second year the photoshoots became more of a fantasy, with ultra-photo-shopped backgrounds and effects. We gave models wings and made them fly. Our photography became like a fairy tale."
In December 2014, Neverland shifted the photoshoot focus to become more high-fashion and editorial, and Adam Ouahmane led the change that's carried through its current incarnation. The result has led to their photos appearing in magazines all over the country.Building the photo-shoot
Once the theme for a party has been established, the Neverland creative team starts to brainstorm ideas for what the photoshoot will look like, spearheaded by Luna and DiFiore, with aide from the photographer. They conceive the concept, then move to costumes/outfits, securing models and a location. Everything is carefully planned, nothing is left to chance.
Photoshoots usually happen a month or two before the event, though it can be a few weeks, if there are scheduling conflicts.
And they happen anywhere and everywhere, all around Chicago. DiFiore said that one of his favorite settings was a statue factory in West Chicago. "We had to shoot on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m., before it opened to the public," he said. "A massive snowstorm hit the night before the shoot; I still remember loading our cars and driving in thick snow to get there on time. The venue charged $100/hour for every hour we went over the time limit, so we had to act fast despite the rough start."
Neverland also held a photoshoot at the Indiana Dunes for its "Gravity" party (Market Days, 2014). "We had to trek up this insanely steep hill, and Kim Chi was in full drag. She works hard for those gigs," DiFiore said, laughing.
Then there was the photoshoot for Queen of Hearts, a shoot held at a restaurant after it closed to the public. "The restaurant was on the first floor of a hotel, and we booked a suite that acted as the dressing room," DiFiore said. "After we wrapped up, everyone went back to the hotel suite and we partied until the sun came up over Lake Michigan and filled the suite's giant windows with light. That night has a special place in my heart."
Another memorable photoshoot was in the suburbs at an actual video arcade, fittingly for Neverland's "Arcade" party in early-2015. "We had to shoot before it opened to the public on a Saturday morning, (but) the shoot ran overtime, and all the sudden the doors opened and there were little kids pointing and saying 'Mommy, is Megaman really supposed to look like that?'"
After all, Neverland photoshoots highlight skin; lots and lots of skin, meaning, very little clothing. Abs, pecs and sculpted legs are the norm ... even if it's a winter-in-Chicago shoot, with temps in the teens and snow on the ground.
For the 2014 Purity Ball shoot, for instance, the team went to an abandoned, deteriorated church in Gary, Ind., in the middle of December, and it was freezing cold. The models were wrapped in fluffy robes, and would throw them off to do rapid-succession shots wearing practically nothing. "When you see the pictures you'd never realize they were posing in frigid, 10-degree weather," DiFiore said.
For the "Alien Invasion" (Halloween 2015) photoshoot, the team had to endure wind issues off the lake, so strong that costumes and props were blowing all around.
Neverland works with several local photographers, including Adam Ouahmane and Fernando Castillo, as well as Befockus (Andres Silva and Jose Rondon), and others.
"Our goal is to create intriguing promo photos that attract people to our events," DiFiore said. "The actual experience at the events is what keeps (party-goers) coming back for more, (not the photoshoots)."
Carlos Tejero has appeared in many of Neverland shoots, dating back several years. Luna also is regular in the spotlight.
Neverland, in late-July, staged a photoshoot for a late-November party that, well, shifted the company's home for a weekend from Chicago to Miami. And not just any weekend in South Beach. Yep, we're talking White Party Miami weekend, which is Nov. 23-28. The Saturday pool party in Miami will be a Neverland event.
"We've worked with many great people (on past shoots), and the ones who haven't worked out have been those who are averse to teamwork. Neverland is a team process that relies on a lot of different people doing different things, and bringing it all together for photoshoots and events," DiFiore said. "We've had staff that feel threatened by the presence of another team member doing a similar job, or who want to take full credit for a photoshoot, and those people didn't last very long. One of the more disappointing parts of the job has been watching egos change people. All of us started out with no name and no brand. As Neverland grew and we all promoted each other, certain people became more interested in promoting themselves and taking credit away from the group, despite the fact that the group gave them the platform to create their brand in the first place. There were some people who were extremely nice when we started working together, who became divas as they gained more recognition in the community and on social media. It's sad to witness that, especially when you thought the person was a friend."
Neverland photo-shoots have, without question, created memories, DiFiore said.
Let's see, there was the time they were chased off property. OK, that's happened several times. For both the "Summer Olympics" and "Purity Ball 2015" shoots, the models got dressed in the car; Luna and the photographer would pull up to a location, jump out, and get the shots just in time before a security guard would come running over. "It's funny to look at some of the finished photography and imagine a burly security guard off-camera hauling ass to break up the party," DiFiore said.
Then there was the time, while shooting "Alien Invasion," when two security cars pulled up. "We had a troupe of drag queens and half-naked alien men. To our shock, the security guards got out of the cars and asked to take selfies with the models," DiFiore said.
For the "Contagion" photoshoot, it was done at DiFiore's Lakeview home, which quickly turned his house into World War 3, he said. "We had turned a large group of models into zombies, courtesy of special effects makeup artist Nick Fischer; and on the same day and time, we were taking headshots of 10 drag queens for our very first Drag Carnage.
"So we had two photographers, stylists, a bunch of zombies, 10 drag queens, and more, all running around taking photos in my living room, dining room, roof, and even the back alley behind my building."
Clearly, the Neverland photoshoots are the pre-party, filled with memories, laughter and lots of fun.Coming up next is Neverland's Market Days party, "The Imperial Harem," which will be a mix between Aladdin and the movie '300.' The event will be at the 1,200-person concert hall Metro, and $50 pre-sale tickets are available at www.NeverlandMarketDays.com.Photos by Adam Ouahmane, Befockus, Fernando Castillo, Fierce Finder Studio, and Mauricio Zapata.