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In order to capture life in photographs, you need to have lived it first. From making ends meet chauffeuring Greek royalty in a gold Cadillac during her younger years to shooting some of the world’s biggest brands in her later decades, photographer and stylist Anita Calero has certainly made her time count. Though she is best known for capturing sublime still lifes, her reputation as an artist is often preceded by her presence as a woman—she exudes effervescence and graciousness, and she possesses an invigorating aura that belies her years. At 63, Anita is now embarking on the next chapter of her personal narrative: a homecoming of sorts to her native Cali, Colombia.

After almost four decades spent living and working in New York, Anita recently sold nearly all her possessions and decamped from the frenetic city to a simpler place where her family takes priority. “I had friends, colleagues and great art directors in New York, but family was missing,” she says. “I think my life was meant to end up in Colombia.” Though a brief flirtation with retirement ignited the shift in her mind-set, this move is less about grinding to a screeching halt and more about adopting balance.

During her years in America, Anita became known for her prop styling and photography work, which runs the gamut from interiors to food spreads and product shoots. “I don’t like monotony,” she says. “In the studio, outside of the studio, I like the variety.” Regardless of her client or subject matter, Anita makes what’s opposite her lens truly shine: A freshly butchered pork chop looks as sumptuous as an Italian leather handbag; a sweatshirt from UNIQLO as exalted as linens from Missoni. “I want to bring the beauty out of the mundane,” she says. “I always compose scenes to give objects a life of their own.”

Anita’s knack for coaxing elegance from the everyday started at an early age. The second youngest of six children, she grew up in a creative household and found solace on her family’s farm in Colombia amid the vast fields, open skies and spirited horses. This stoked her love of the natural world—a through-line in her life. “I was always enamored with nature,” she says. “I’d climb trees and stay out there for hours. I was fascinated with the wind and the way trees moved.” Her father, an MIT-educated civil engineer, had a business importing motors, which often arrived in wood crates. Instead of throwing them out, her mother saw potential in the wood and saved them to build custom furniture for the house. Her parents’ resourcefulness and ability to perceive something beyond its prescribed value came to inform how Anita herself viewed the world: that the right eye can elicit beauty in the unexpected.

“I went to the school of Studio 54. If you didn’t have the little outfit that brought the circus inside, you weren’t welcome”

During her teenage years, Anita went through a freewheeling streak—one that arguably continued into her adult life. She never hewed to the rigid structure of a classroom, preferring and yearning for more freedom instead. “I wasn’t a good student, meaning I had a lot of art in me,” she quips. After she received a few failing grades, Anita’s parents decided to send her abroad. At 15 she embarked on a two-year stint in Switzerland to learn French (“Switzerland taught me organization, which I love,” she says. “It goes with my Virgo personality”), then she went on to live in England for a year. Coming of age in Europe during the ’60s and ’70s exposed her to a range of cultural experiences that she might not have encountered otherwise. “I wouldn’t say that I was rebellious: I was curious,” she says. “I was both a hippie and a punk—I went with whatever the movement was. But I wasn’t a true punk that pierced their nose or got tattooed—I picked up the nice sides of everything. Instead of being consumed by it, I took the slight beauty of it all. It was a freedom of expression.”

Leaving Colombia—and the constraints she felt from the traditional family structure—offered Anita the chance to discover who she was on her own terms: someone who was curious, free-spirited and intent on exploring new experiences. “I knew what I wanted from day one, and I went for it,” she says. “Whatever I wanted, I did. I wasn’t shy or coy about going forward in my life.” Though Anita has forged ahead steadily with her own intense focus, she also describes her life thus far as a series of fortuitous meetings and opportunities—a fated journey of sorts. Many of the pivotal leaps of her 20s went on to have an indelible effect on her personal and professional path.

It began in her early 20s when Anita moved to Miami, Florida, after meeting and then marrying her husband, Javier Rodriguez. She and Javier were shopping for sheets (intended to be a wedding present from her parents) at a local department store when she was served by a fellow young expat: Maria Robledo, who would go on to become a renowned photographer—and Anita’s partner of 18 years. Months later, after a series of near-misses—“she had a boyfriend, I was married, life went on,” Anita says—Maria happened to be living in an apartment only blocks away from the home Anita shared with her husband. It was there that their friendship, relationship and professional careers all developed in the darkroom built into Anita’s home.

“She was in college to become an architect, and I was a photographer,” Anita recalls. “My husband had built a darkroom in the house and she was very curious about photography. I was the one who put a camera in her hand—I opened her up, and now she’s the greatest photographer! We became friends, and then we fell in love with each other.”

In 1977, at the age of 25, Anita left her husband and moved to New York to be with Maria, who had been accepted into the School of Visual Arts. After going back and forth between Miami and New York for some time, the allure of the downtown creative scene eventually won her over: the fiercely independent artists, the freedom of expression, the camaraderie and, of course, the famous social scene. “I went to the school of Studio 54,” she jokes of the famed disco-era nightclub. “It was hard to get into: You’d wait in the crowd for a long time. They knew who to pick to come in—you had to have the look, because if you didn’t have the little outfit that brought the circus inside, you weren’t welcome.”

Maria’s brother, the designer Roberto Robledo, would create custom outfits for the whole crew—“the pirate look, the gypsy look,” she lists—that allowed them to explore the outer edges of their personas together. “We were all very artistic and free,” Anita says of her friends at the time, who included the likes of avant-garde opera singer Klaus Nomi and fashion designer Anna Sui. “We created our own looks or would go to thrift stores and find things to wear. Our guts spoke to our designs—we weren’t influenced by anything. It was a happy time with dancing, discos and clubs.”

Roberto contributed to more than just her outlandish fashion choices: With his help, Anita landed a job as a salesperson at Patricia Field, the storied fashion destination that, while now closed, remains revered to this day. Field is a costume designer who won an Emmy Award for her work on Sex and the City, and her store attracted cultural icons such as Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and, more recently, Lady Gaga, Missy Elliott and Miley Cyrus. Back in the ’70s, art luminary Jean-Michel Basquiat was a regular customer—he even once painted one of the store’s disposable paper jumpsuits for Anita. If she’d chosen to keep the garment as a memento of the time, it could’ve been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s art market, but money was never the point. “We all connected and treated each other like artists,” she says of her associates during this era. “We did art, but it wasn’t like it was going to end up at Christie’s.”

Anita’s casual attitude toward fame and her guileless countenance drew attention from the right people, which led her to a further succession of chance meetings, acquaintances and jobs. For example, through her connections at Patricia Field, Anita became a chauffeur for Prince Michael of Greece. “The car was a fascinating chapter!” she says. “He thought it was so fun to have this young girl driving a gold Cadillac Eldorado.” Dressed in her self-made uniform, complete with real jockey boots, she would ferry the prince and his artist wife from party to party. Thanks to him and his revelries, to which she was sometimes invited, she was able to rub elbows with the city’s elite.

“It’s about being in the right place and having some kind of a guardian angel,” Anita says of her fated run-ins. “I don’t know what it is—just some kind of luck.”

A little good fortune and a lot of unbridled talent soon saw Anita’s creative career start to swell. At this time, Maria was working as an assistant for a photographer whose girlfriend was Paula Greif, an art director at Mademoiselle. Paula noticed Anita’s work and invited her to be her assistant, and it wasn’t long before she began styling shoots for Gael Towey, the influential creative director who helped launch Martha Stewart Living, and Mary Shanahan, an art director whose career spanned fromRolling Stone to French Vogue. “Mary encouraged me to go for that dream,” Anita says. “She was the ideal art director, trusting us and giving us confidence.”

It was only a matter of time before Anita and Maria began working together professionally as an “us”: Anita would style the shoots and set up the angles, and then Maria would take over for the actual shutter clicking and technical photographic production. The two became renowned in the publishing world for their creative collaborations, forming what she says became known in inner circles as “The Maria and Anita Look.” But after 18 years, their professional and romantic relationship ended. “When we broke up people said, ‘Why? You guys were an institution!’” she says. Once enough time had passed, Gael encouraged Anita to get behind the camera again and transition from being a prop stylist into a professional photographer. It was the push that Anita needed. “Gael said, ‘When you’re ready to show your work, I want to give you your first job,’” she says.

However, Anita was wary about getting back behind the lens, as the technical part of photography didn’t interest her as much as building the composition. To re-learn the mechanics, she hired an assistant who showed her how to use a 4×5 camera properly and traveled to the south of France for the summer, where a friend had rented a château and had invited her to stay. Anita built a makeshift studio in a crumbling corner of the estate, shopped at the farmers markets for flowers and fruit and began composing still lifes. After a couple of hiccups, she finally achieved a photograph that she believed transcended all those she’d produced before it.

“It came out, and it was like having a baby,” Anita says. “I ran through the château to show an art director who was staying with us. I said, ‘Look, my first photograph!’ And she said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, do it again.’ From then on, history.” When she returned to the States, Anita assembled her portfolio and presented it to Gael. “That day I ended up with three jobs,” she says.

In the decades that have passed since Anita stepped into her first darkroom, attitudes in the trade have changed. “I think they invented egos in photography,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘Make sure when you enter this field that you don’t copy that attitude, because it’s not a healthy one.’ So I don’t allow myself to go that route.” Moreover, the industry had continued to evolve through dramatic shifts in image-making and technology, especially the move from film to digital photography. Though she uses the latter today, Anita reminisces about composing stills for her 4×5 camera—the large-format device favored by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. “I miss my film, I miss my old world—it was more intimate,” she says. “Now you just deal with the computer. I’d much rather have my film back. The sound of my Polaroid when it opened—that is one thing I’ll never forget.”

Anita’s photography mirrors the interior worlds in which she resides. Both are studies in contrasts—a medley of colors, textures and influences. In her homes, found items are stationed alongside pedigreed design pieces, insect specimens juxtaposed with books. The whole cacophony is then meticulously organized so that the assortment never veers into messy territory. “I dislike the fact that I’m labeled as a collector,” Anita says. “A ‘collection’ sounds like you don’t touch anything. I lived with my stuff—I sat on my chairs!” In The New York Times, esteemed critic Pilar Viladas once wrote that her apartment in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood was “simple and unadorned, yet quite elegant—rather like Anita herself. Her domestic aesthetic embraces materials both rugged and fine, forms both imperfect and perfect, and objects both humble and luxurious.”

“She nailed me in so few words,” Anita says.

Though she lived in that apartment for 21 years—“it was my temple,” she says—Anita sold it in 2013 along with her prized assortment of mid-century furniture, which included pieces from Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Serge Mouille and George Nakashima, as well as Irving Penn photographs and other objects picked up over the years. But it was all part of the plan: Anita always knew she would retire in Colombia and had set a target to move back when she was 60 years old. Though she still travels to the US and Europe for shoots—“it feels good to still be a little part of the map in New York; it keeps me alive, motivated and inspired”—the moment had come to return to her home country’s embrace.

After all, Anita’s time abroad had come with its fair share of character-building hard knocks. She lost many friends to AIDS in the midst of the crisis in the ’80s and ’90s (including Maria’s brother, Roberto), as well as two loved ones to cancer: one of her siblings and stylist Barbara Fierros, her partner after Maria, whom she was with for 13 years. But despite mourning the people who have left her side, she remains positive in the face of adversity—and thankful. “I’m lucky to be at this moment in my life,” she says. In the end, the decision to dismantle her temple and relocate back to Cali was bittersweet. “I was emotional,” she says, “but I was liberated, too.”

In her headstrong early years, Anita was eager to escape Colombia so that she could forge her own path in the world. But now that her journey was beginning to come full circle, her impulse for a fresh start was about just that: going back to the start. “I missed my roots, my soil, my birds, my smells, my fruit, my surroundings—my world that I left not loving,” she says. “If I had stayed in Colombia, I would’ve married a boyfriend I had at the time—I would’ve become a lady who lunches. But coming back was what I needed.”

Anita now splits her time between Colombia and Barcelona, where her partner for the last eight years—Gemma Comas, an accomplished photographer who was formerly Anita’s assistant—is based. Though Anita finds comfort in returning home, she welcomes the cosmopolitanism that globe-trotting offers her. “Colombia is nature, peace, family, roots and old friends,” she says. “But Barcelona is culture, art, different foods and the old world. I like having those two things combined—I need it.”

Though she’s parted with much of the furniture she owned for 20 years—a necessity of moving into a smaller home on a different continent—some of it came with her to Colombia, such as a table she co-designed with Mira Nakashima. With a smattering of classic pieces and personal touches, it’s an unfussy and livable space made special through Anita’s artfully displayed flea market finds, preserved butterflies, artifacts and countless family photos.

Her new home is tucked in the forest and exudes a similar sensibility as her former apartment, despite being situated in a totally disparate context. The two-bedroom house—which she designed, just as her parents did her childhood home—is open and airy with high ceilings and a mix of tactile materials like local woods, brick and polished concrete floors punctuated with river pebbles. “It’s very integrated with nature,” she says.

Decks wrap around the perimeter as a transitional space between the enclosed rooms and the great outdoors, and wind blows through the doors and windows, permeating the house with the smell of fresh, wild air. “There are birds, butterflies, iguanas, every kind of animal coming inside,” she says. “It feels very much like a treehouse.” Her garden is filled with native species such as grasses, ferns and big-leaved botanicals, as well as a few orchids near the entrance. Last Christmas she even planted an olive tree to commemorate her beloved dog that passed away—her new dog, Lulow, now spends his days running rings around the house and garden.

While her hillside oasis is modestly sized, it’s still expansive enough for Anita’s extended family to come visit, just as they did for her birthday weekend last year. Anita is very close with her four living siblings, all of whom live in Cali except for a sister who resides in Medellín, a city 270 miles north. (Her brother’s house is even conveniently next door.) Between her 10 nieces and nephews and their nine children, there’s a constant cycle of baptisms, graduations and birthdays that she never had the chance to attend when living in New York. “There were many events that I missed—like my mother’s 80th birthday and first communions—and now I’m kind of catching up with the next generation,” she says.

This year, Anita is taking advantage of having extra time by regularly visiting her beach house on the Colombian coast and re-immersing herself in painting, her first medium. Indeed, youthful restlessness and zeal for being in a perpetual state of “doing” hasn’t left Anita, and it likely never will. “I can’t imagine just sitting in a chair, reading a book, with the beautiful view from my house,” she says. “It’s not me.”

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty

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