looking back on burlesque

The other night at my regular fire spinning gathering, I was talking with a friend I’ve not seen in months and I mentioned burlesque in passing.

“Don’t you miss anything about burlesque?”

This being a very amorphous group with people coming and going I didn’t actually get a chance to answer, but I did think about it.

And to be honest I do miss parts of it. But not necessarily the bits people think about.

 

The Red Queen

Kitten LaRue, Burlesque Through The Looking Glass, Triple Door

 

It’ll come as no surprise that I miss the spectacle and grandeur of the best of it. Productions by Verlaine/McCann or almost anything at the Can Can would leave me breathless. Or the performers who brought such a strong dance background that what they did could transcend “just” burlesque.

But I also miss the joy of the people who couldn’t perform and owned that shit. I shot for Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque for about five years, which was a mixed bag. There were experienced performers and neophytes. Some could rock the stage, some had never even considered it. And oddly enough, the students who knew their limitations and embraced them were phenomenal and memorable. Hell, I remember an act from the very first graduation class ever simply because it was so simple, silly and joyous. They may not have had the chops, but it was clearly fun, which was the best.

And as much as I loved the Triple Door, I missed the intimacy of places like the Pink Door. I hated having to shoot on the floor and management could be flighty, but the pictures were amazing.

 

Aerialista Ornament

Aerialista, Triple Door

 

I miss the variety of some of the venues. The ones that would bring in opera singers, aerialists, actors or even (ugh) performance artists to break the sameness of evening. Burlesque, burlesque, burlesque… and now a blues singer? Cool!

I miss the good emcees, whether classy like Jasper McCann or crass as fuck like Armitage Shanks. The ones who gave the audience a chance to breathe before the next Big Number. And I miss the time Jasper helped me mess with my parents when they came out west to visit me one time.

I made a lot of friends and I miss them. But I couldn’t share their enthusiasms anymore and it was painful to have to bite my tongue.

Belle Cozette - Bedtime for Belle

Belle Cozette, Pink Door

I miss the weirdly wonderful surreal experience of backstage or post-show conversations. It’s where the ephemeral and the mundane collided. Beautiful women, scantily clad, it’s a teenage boy’s wet dream… and they’re talking about the weather and holy fuck, that coworker? Or talking with Vienna la Rouge, a gorgeous and amazing performer, at the bar at the Pink Door about traffic. It was rarely about anything truly bizarre but it never felt normal either? So it was wonderful.

I’ll admit that selfishly I miss having a pool of talent to work with in the studio. But can you blame me?

Jesse Belle-Jones

Jesse-Belle Jones, in studio

Beyond that, I don’t miss anything. Granted, a lot of that is a function of having been intensely active in the scene for six years. I was on and off stage. At some points, I was going to more shows in a week than most people would see in a month or two. Familiarity bred contempt, weariness, boredom…

I don’t miss the de rigueur nudity or the hype. It’s too much like being shocked to see a fight at a hockey game, and the odds of that happening aren’t as good there. The odds of a fight are more like 90%. Or the crass, long-winded emcees who relied on that hype.

For that matter, I don’t miss the performers who only brought a willingness for a certain, specific form of exhibitionism and nothing else. Half-assed props, flimsy costumes and no choreography to speak of? Pass. Hard pass.

I really don’t miss the hypocrisy of such an “edgy” scene. You know, the kind where everyone wants to push buttons and test boundaries until they’re the ones who are offended? I saw a lot of that there.

I don’t miss the feeling of obligation to go to every show.

And ultimately I do not miss the culture of extreme politeness that seemed to preclude any kind of criticism. That everything was OK. Don’t believe me? Go check out Dan Savage’s review/critique of three shows in three nights from 2010 and then go read the comments. I love the people complaining that he didn’t go to have fun but, oh my, to be critical? How dare he!

Vienna backstage

Vienna la Rouge, Re-Bar (backstage)

Don’t get me wrong, for all my grousing on this topic, I neither expected nor wanted every performer to have Juilliard training or corsets covered with Swarovski sequins. But we are talking about an artistic community whose only real barrier to entry is a six week course. After that, you can perform for a long time.

On the one hand that’s great and encourages steady growth in the scene. On the other, would you see a band that had only ever played their instruments for six weeks? Really?

I think I’ve been in karaoke bars that had higher standards.

Would I go back? No. I did go to a show to support a friend of mine three or so years ago, but apart from her act, it was so ritualized and anemic. You know. Tits. Except my friend’s, which was about her breast cancer, so… kind of different emotional arc there.

Of course I miss the spectacle. But now I shoot fire. Hell, I play with fire. When I want to. With no expectations and no need for an audience.

Perfect.

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fake nudes

ERCV1461

I’ve got to get this off my chest.

My name is Chris and I’m bored with nudity as a transgressive act. Or even as an inherently sexy one.

No no, I like the view. This isn’t about being prudish or me trying to pass myself off as someone who has transcended such carnal needs as lust. Nonsense, I’m another lump of hyper-evolved protoplasm with the same biological drives the rest of y’all have. I want to procreate so my next generation of offspring will thrive. NYAR!!!!!

But I’m no longer that hormonal teen who hoped for a lingerie catalog to sneak in to my bedroom for… personal growth *cough*.

What bugs me is when nudity is the hype… and that’s it. Yay hot naked girls!

It’s what turned me off of burlesque towards the end. The emcee would announce that the audience might see some boobs and all I could think was that not only had I seen plenty of boobs before, I’d actually seen those boobs before many times and… well, what else was there beyond that? Ideally there would be talented performers with well constructed acts. Realistically, there were fewer of those than the swelling ranks of performers who took the stage hoping that nudity would disguise the terror in their eyes as they gamely aped the moves they’d learned from others before the audience cheered.

After a while it felt like a kind of “lowest common denominator” of sexiness, this institutionalized expectation that seeing a naked woman was inherently shocking and titillating and thereby trumped anything else about the work. Ignore the subject or the emotion or the narrative because we’re looking at tits, people! It’s bold!

Really? Is it?

After a certain point, can’t we admit that we’ve all seen enough nudity in our lives that the fact itself is no longer shocking?

Or that we aren’t inherently shocked by seeing pictures of what we can see and know of ourselves? It always cracks me up when I collaborate to have to label risqué photo references as not safe for work. The warning is fair, yes, but that nine times out of ten, I’m not sharing a picture of anything the models can see of themselves in the mirror. “Fair warning, Jenny. This picture has some nudity…”

So yeah, I’m kind of jaded when it comes to the sexy and kinky. I mean, you spend six years shooting burlesque and another five years adjacent to the kink scene, of course you’ll have seen a few things. Over and over again. To the point of ridiculousness.

So I try to ask questions.

Why is this sexy? Is it sexy because it is inherently, universally sexy or is it something that we’re being told culturally is sexy and it’s easier to go along with it rather than make waves?

Like porn. How much of that industry’s troubles stem from the fact that they’re not producing what people really want and instead produce something that the most people kind of want with the least amount of hassle and embarrassment? Do we really want those Olympic level fuck fests of bad acting and clearly uncomfortable positions in eerily empty bedrooms? Or two (or more) people who have clearly found a moment of lust and go at it for three minutes like a Bernie Mac routine?

Like strip clubs. The strip club a couple blocks from my house (the sign up top is outside it) has a sign that says “No Teasin’, Just Pleasin'”. But that’s their business model, isn’t it? Look but don’t touch. Enjoy talking with “Candy”, who’s real name is Joan but you’ll never know that and isn’t it hot just watching what you can never have, gentlemen?

Like the photo sets a friend and I swap back and forth, ripping them to shreds for bad costumery, incompetent staging and the most lifeless “hot” poses ever… but they’re naked and they’re supposed to look like they’re making out so, hey, it’s obviously sexy!

Like a hot naked girl.

Don’t you want to see the girl of your dreams? Naked? How about if she just stood in front of you with all the inherent warmth and dynamism of a mannequin? Would that still be sexy? Really? Because clearly that’s all that matters.

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That’s right take it off, take it all… ummm… actually… can we walk that back?

And yet we live in a world that has an erotic carp calendar (the link is work safe). Really. Because hot girls are hot.

Look, nudity without context is Grey’s Anatomy. Not the TV show, the medical tome. Nudity without intent is the Visible Woman. It’s just what’s there when people don’t wear clothes and the audience isn’t looking at them in a sexual context. Like life drawing or modeling for medical conferences or being backstage at a theater, there may be a moment or two nervous discomfort but pretty soon you get used to it.

Despite what Republicans would have you believe.

To make nudity sexy, you need conviction and context and a lot of the erotic photography I see lacks that. It’s just hot girls and aren’t you shocked by looks that we’re pretty worn out when Suicide Girls first became a thing?

I’m thinking about this again because the Seattle Erotic Arts Festival is accepting submissions again and I’ve always been of two minds about it.

On the one hand, I definitely think that there should be more exploration of the erotic arts and a safe space to share all the myriad things we find titillating, even and especially when they are not universal. We need to be able to talk about our sexuality freely and openly.

On the other, having attended a couple of times, I’m left wondering if it has to be naked all the time? After a while isn’t it kind if deadening to see, yep, another cock and balls. Another bit of pubic hair without a hint of humanity. Woman tied up like side of beef, yep. Again. It’s funny to consider how frequently these erotic images feature only one person at a time. Not sex or a relationship or even the interplay between two people, just one body frequently after something has been done to it: arms in bondage, ball gag in a mouth and that’s it. Probably because he viewer is meant to see themselves as playing a part in the image without the artist’s participation. It’s just the audience and the subject of the photo… and that’s not creepy at all!

How cool would it be to just imagine what’s going on? Or see the real, wonderful, human story without seeing every damn thing? I want to see the process of bondage, not the end result.

For the record, I’ve shown and sold at SEAF before and I’m chuffed as hell that not only did I do it with a fairly tame image, but it was purchased by a photographer whose work I admire greatly.

the peep

the peep

And I’m submitting again this year with a couple of ideas I’ve had rattling around in my head. I have no idea if I’ll make the cut but I’m really curious to see what happens.

Beyond that, I want to see what I can do with and about this. I want to see what I can show without showing or seeing too much.

Live! Nude! Girls! Need! Not! Apply!

toy story (or, why I hate moss)

Last time I wrote here, I was talking about using photos to tell a story when you can’t capture a moment. This becomes important when I’m working with Lego minifigures that, let’s face it, tend to just stay there without a lot of inherent dynamism. So Batman v. Joker or robbers robbing or even a staged “conversation” can make all the difference.

But crucially, I think the story needs to be explicit in the photo. It’s not enough to simply put an action figure on the ground and say “Oh yes, it’s Daredevil and he’s running from the Hand and…” without anything else in the frame to fill that narrative out.

Case in point, here’s a picture I took earlier in the year.

to the temple

It’s pretty, the red and green are a nice contrast and the composition is OK. But what’s actually happening in this photo? Yes, I had a story in my head, something about a noble lady going through the woods to a temple somewhere but without that, what’s really in this photo? Minifigure. Moss.

I don’t think I would have noticed this if I hadn’t taken two pictures that, despite featuring different figures, were essentially the same. Minifigure on moss. The story I told was different, the images were the same.

By the way, this is something I find frustrating with a lot of things, seeing the same cliches and tropes treated mostly the same with only cosmetic differences. In burlesque it was  performers who used essentially the same choreography for most of their acts or the same set-up of “She’s an innocent little $JOBTITLE but really she wants to be $BURLESQUESTAR!” In pin-up photography it’s the same ten poses but different hair colors. In genre fiction it’s particular set ups or character types. It all adds up to a point where I can only see the cliches.

In toy photography… moss and minifigures.

Moss is great for toy photography because it serves as natural scenery at any scale. It looks right, it’s not jarring, it’s just green and lush and beautiful. It’s great.

Until you see it in almost every photo.

Which happens, especially in the Instagram tag communities that ask people to post their favorite photos of the month and you get layouts like this:

unnamed.jpg

Each image on their own is fine. Seen en masse and I feel overwhelmed by sameness despite the slight differences.

Moss. Minifigure. No moment. No story. You could swap the subjects around without losing a thing.

And dammit, the most polite I can be when confronted by tedium like this is silence, which can be frustrating when I think everyone can do better or at least push their art in different directions than this.

We all love a visual art, yeah?

Then next time, show me.

 

 

moments in miniature

such a sweet heist

Someone complimented one of my photos on IG saying that it seemed like all my photos told a story. I thanked her but really I was thinking “Of course! Why bother otherwise?”

I’ve written before about how, most of all, I want to capture a moment. If my camera can capture thousandths of a second, why am I setting up shoots like I’m going to be working in oil paints? It’s why I love shooting fire and dance and burlesque.

And you can do that with toys. Kind of. It’s tricky. Photoshop is helpful, or patience and a bit of wirework.

good hit

But lacking that, what am I doing with toys where moments as such don’t really exist? And, let’s face it, Lego is not known for its “lifelike” range of motions. Well, you stage them, obviously. But what better way to do that than to set up a story? It doesn’t have to be an epic generational tale, something simple. Whether it’s with established characters:

oh dear...

Or, y’know, just a common idea.

here comes the DRAGON!!!

Do I need to tell you precisely what’s happening here? Well it helps if you know Harley and the Joker, but apart from that, I think it’s pretty clear, yeah?

But this is why I got in to toy photography in the first place. I love the story telling. A single picture can hold what my most sappy writing could never convey. Or at least enough so that I don’t have to write descriptive text about how he walked in to a room that was so big and yea high and… nah. Here’s a picture. Hell, here’s a comic. Have fun.

That’s why Lego really opened things up for me. Two dinosaurs fighting are interesting but limited. But a Doctor Who fig and a Batman fig and… well how would that work? What about the Joker and Emperor Palpatine? I did that one, it was fun!

Remember, if you can’t make a moment, tell a story. You’d be amazed how easy it can be.

Mostly.

[to be continued]

new tricks…

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Learning curves are fun. Mostly. And terrifying. Usually.

At the beginning of the summer I started selling some of my Lego photography as blank cards at a local(ish) bookstore and I’ve had a relatively strong response to them. If I’m not rolling in the cash, I’m making my costs and expanding the line a little each time.

A couple weeks ago, I opened up a shop on Etsy (which you can find at BlakeleyPhoto.Etsy.Com) and, again, not lighting up the skies yet but I’ve enjoyed sending out a couple cards to complete strangers. And this week, I’ve arranged to drop off some samples at another local bookstore with a price list and, well, you never know. And I’m certainly hoping. Who knew you could type with your fingers crossed?

Just a quick update. I’m still taking pictures and thinking about this weird stuff. Had the strangest experience of doing a headshot shoot for someone a couple weeks ago and another friend is picking up her first dSLR, so I’m going to be… teaching-ish? Teaching adjacent?

Stay tuned. I’ve got some brainstorms…

 

calm

profiles

I volunteered at PAX West again this year. I spent four days demoing games and helping sell things to a vibrant, shifting mob of cosplayers, game fans and nerds in all their lifestyle plumage and loved it, taking pictures as I could while on my break or as someone caught my eye in the crowd.

Needless to say this may be my favorite picture from the weekend. It stands out in its simplicity and quietude. This was taken in an adjacent location that was just a little quieter, just a little more reserved. As usual, I guess I was looking for the out of place.

Street photography for the win, even when its in a hotel.

And now that I’ve recovered from PAX and its attendant con crud, I’ll get back to this, shall I?

eclipsed

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I take a weird kind of pride thinking that while most people were looking up to the eclipse, I was looking at the ground.

Lacking the fancy glasses or a pinhole box/”camera”, there wasn’t much to see here in Seattle. Which is weird if you think about it. I mean we were at something like 92% totality and yet apart from an eerie diminishing of light, it was essentially a Monday. At least, if you didn’t look down. All those tree leaves served as pinholes, all those shadows dopplering at the edges.

I may have looked out of place but damn me if this wasn’t cool!