burlesque: a personal history

The Atomic Bombshells - Jazz FuneralThe Atomic Bombshells @ The Triple Door

In writing here, I realize I’ve written around my burlesque experience more than I’ve written about it. Christ, if I’ve made a post without referring to it…

I spent six years shooting Seattle’s burlesque scene before burning out. I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for it anymore (much to the chagrin of some of my friends) but I can’t deny that it spoiled me in a lot of ways. More than that, it’s where I made my bones as a photographer. It’s how I learned, how I built my skills to capture movement and dance that still serve me to this day, not least of all in shooting fire.

So let’s talk about it.

I first learned about burlesque in the late ’90s when Dita von Teese was just starting to make waves and I was honestly captivated. It sounded titillating and captivating and classy as all hell. It also sounded like something that would never come to my college town. So file that away and move on.

Fast forward several years, I’m living in Seattle, playing in a samba batería when I meet a woman who says she dances burlesque and she’s doing a show that week. I’m the only one from the group who shows up and it was remarkable and mind blowing and I definitely felt out of place and impolite for the act of seeing someone… you know… in… *ahem* that is to say… she wasn’t… with the clothes? Eventually I got comfortable with it. Eventually I could enjoy the show for what it was, the nudity for what it was and cheer with the best of them.

Belle Cozette - Urban Fan DanceBelle Cozette @ The Pink Door

A year later, I’ve actually taken a class to perform burlesque and, in conversation with a local producer, I mention that I like taking pictures. When she asks if I’ve ever considered shooting burlesque shows, I think she’s kidding. And like that I’m the official photographer at the Pink Door for two and a half years. Everything followed from there.

I shot the first four years of the burlesque Nutcracker, went to Las Vegas to see Miss Exotic World, met up with performers from across the country and took probably hundreds of thousands of photos of it all. I was on stage, off stage, back stage, worked with burlesque related events like Dr. Sketchy’s and more.

And I was spoiled by it all. How could I not be?

The Heavenly Spies - Welcome to CampThe Heavenly Spies @ The Can Can

I loved the dramatic lighting (although those bastard orange spotlights could die the death). The performers were fantastic and gorgeous and the personalities they displayed were spellbinding. Never mind the energy and vitality to boot!

This is why I get frustrated by photos staged like water colors, lacking life or motion. Fine the composition is great and the exposure and blah blah blah. Why is she just standing there? Hell, why is she there?

For about three years, I was everywhere. Almost literally. I’d see more shows in a month than most fans would see in a year. And as the scene grew, I went to even more shows. Which is when the burn out really started to kick in.

Paula backstage
Paula the Swedish Housewife in the wings @ The Triple Door

I can’t say precisely when I started to burn out, but I think it related to the growth of the scene. We went from one or two weekly rooms with three (or so?) semi-regular troupes to more and more of both. What was once kind of rarified became commodified and with that, the standards changed as the audiences grew. For every show that pulled from the cream of the crop, there were two more

I started to feel like I was seeing more burlesquers and fewer performers. Most of the performers I’d seen had a background in dance or drama before they started bedazzling and stripping so the show had more to offer than just casual nudity. There were tap dancers and torch singers and vaudevillians and just plain weirdos on stage making it about the journey, not just the destination.

But with more eager graduates from the “academy” forming troupes and taking the stage, the bar for entry was lowered. All you needed to perform was be willing to take off your clothes. It felt like a ritual. Because the audience cheers when a stocking is removed Just So, more people would remove their stockings Just So. Tassel twirling went from a signature move for one or two performers to a common standard because it was expected. All you had to do was take off your clothes.

I knew it was over when I got sick of hearing emcees telling the audience: “You might even see some titty!!!!” And as the audience roared, I found myself thinking “Yeah but you probably won’t see much talent.”

Because I’d seen those tits already. Hell, I’d seen plenty of tits. And when that was boring, what were you left with? Everything else that was brought on stage. Terrified eyes, half-assed routines, cliched scenarios, the same moves, the same journey, the same destination.

And, yes, I know, nudity is great and sexy and all that. But without the context of intimacy or, at the very least, interactivity (*ahem*) it felt like gross anatomy.

So I left after a spot of personal drama. I left because I was tired of being told that this thing was sexy, told that the only polite response was a rousing cheer (because criticism wasn’t welcome in the community) and that the best thing about burlesque, when it wasn’t being vaunted as a historical art form of great esteem and culture, was that you got to see tits. The same tits. Artlessly. Again.

If I miss anything, I miss the personalities and the stage lights. I miss the big, bold moves and kinetic dance acts. I don’t miss the polite applause or the acts that endured due to inertia. I certainly don’t miss the ritual of it.

I actually went to a show about two or three years after I quit. A good friend was performing and I went to support her and, yep, ritual. Sexy because it was. Sexy because the ritual. Sexy because.

And that’s burlesque for me. It was real, it was fun, it was informative and it’s something I’m glad I don’t have to go back to any time soon.

Randi Rascal - GiftingRandi Rascal @ The Jewel Box


same as it ever was…


Ever feel discouraged that you’re taking the same picture over and over again?

I try to take at least one picture a day.

It’s not a planned thing, no Instagram challenge where you’ll see me tagging images “x/365” or apologizing because yesterday was busy or whatever. I’m not trying to create Art or prove a Point about creativity, the pictures are candids as often as they’re Lego displays as often as they’re a moment that caught my eye. If anything, this has become a mental health check during the past two years of craziness. Taking a picture means I’m doing OK. Not taking a picture means either I was insanely busy (which happens) or I was so wrapped up in my head that Something is clearly Amiss.

But I’m starting to wonder.

The picture here is one I took today at a cafe I frequent. I’m pretty pleased with it, it’s got a nice feel and mood for me. But I took one very similar to it a couple days before because I was there having coffee, sitting at the same table and someone was sitting there and, lo.


Not exactly the same. Different time, different person, they were sitting in a different stool. But they were hunched over their books and their computers and wrapped up in their work and I shot it in black and white and…


I believe there’s value in taking the same picture over and over again. It’s how you learn what all the buttons and settings on your camera or flash do. It’s how you figure out that this is almost the right moment and this is the best moment. It’s how you can chart your life, selfie after selfie. It’s how you can record a neighborhood. Hell, I love the movie Smoke specifically for the scene with the photo albums, year after year of the “same” photo that changes over time. That’s absolutely beautiful.


Love that.

But seeing the similarity across the span of days bugs me because I get frustrated when I feel like I’m just seeing the “same” photo again and again. The photographer who takes pictures of models and motorcycles almost all the time. The trend in boudoir that any woman in lingerie on a red satin cloth is sexy. It’s a naked woman in a forest. But this time, she’s blonde.

So it’s not good to bore yourself with your own work.

It’s time to train my eye away from this particular tendency. Refocus, in more ways than one. Either go to new places (which would probably be good too) or take in a different view, look for something different than profiles and people.

Is it weird to see this as a challenge? Is it weird to find it kind of exciting?


don’t say cheese

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me for years:

A camera can capture moments that are measured in hundredths if not thousandths of a second. So why does so much studio photography look like it’s been posed to display all the energy and vitality of the Mona Lisa? Or a bowl of fruit in a still life in oils?

I do get some of it, of course. The poses are part of an artistic (Western) tradition that goes back over five hundred years and not only do they work but they’re kind of hard to break from. I mean, not without pulling out your mad PhotoShop skills to turn a photo into something truly surreal, which isn’t to my taste. Lacking those skills, I do what I can to break from the mold as best I can, but it’s not long before I’m back to “leaning on couch” or whatever. And, yeah, damn me if they’re not good pictures too.

I guess I’ve gotten spoiled shooting moments. Between the fire spinners, my time in burlesque and working in street photography, I live for that hundredth of a second. The sense that an image captures the energy of a continuum: the poi will be caught, the feather fan will swoop, the conversation at the bar will continue into the night but this moment… this moment was caught.

And studio photography feels so posed and composed, the images lack that sense of continuity. This woman is leaning on a wall because she is leaning on the wall. The smile, the fence, the chair, the whatever is not a moment to me. There’s not much emotion either, just… model. It wasn’t caught, it was prepared. It just is.

Say cheese.

I think I’m going to have to try harder. Some of that is going to be just remembering this idea, some of it will be being more proactive.

And the rest… I’ll make up as I go.

Jesse Belle-Jones

shooting fire

Spinurn 05/24/17

Ah fire. If there’s anything that comes close to the fun of playing with fire, it’s photographing it. But it’s not that close. I mean, close, sure, but… c’mon! There’s pushing a button and there’s commanding the elements. Tough call?

I didn’t think so.

And now that I’ve been going there for about a year and a half, I get questions about it, whether about the bare bone basics or the relative esoterica of apertures and noise reduction. So with that in mind, here are my notes for shooting fire spinners. These are basics pointers that should be fairly universal regardless of camera make. You’re on your own when it comes to which buttons to push.

1) Think for yourself
As I wrote before, your camera is stupid and it is particularly stupid in the dark. In bright sunlight, it can suss out the situation with speed and grace. Put it in a dark room with a light source that is inconstant and/or moving and it will turn into the equivalent of a thousand dollar moth, albeit a moth with none of the natural instincts inherent to the little beasties. Or the ability of flight, now that I think about it.

In my experience, the autofocus tends to try to hunt for likely points of focus in the dark, often deciding that the brightest part of the frame is the most important, whether that’s your point of interest or not. As a result, I limit the autofocus to one point of focus usually at the center of the frame, dialing out as I feel the need to change the composition. No more hunting, the camera is (ideally!) locked in on the center and you’re left to fiddle with, oh, say, everything else.

Spinurn 03/22/17

2) Start high and wide (and fast)
Shooting at Spinurn, I’m out to stop the motion and capture the moment as much as possible. I’m still figuring out the finesse of that, but as a starting point, shoot with a high ISO, a wide aperture and a fast shutter speed and go from there. I’ll shoot an ISO of 3200 (the highest my camera manages and it works fine) with my f/2.8 lens with a shutter speed around 1/100th of a second.

This is my starting point, you’re going to have to find your own by mixing and matching, but start high and wide and fast and figure out the finesse you need. You’ll do that by fiddling. A lot.

Spinurn 08/24

3) Fiddle while poi burn (sorry!)
Fire is an awful light source, especially in this setting. Not only is the fire being thrown around (tricky as it is), but it’s burning down from the moment the wick is first lit. This light starts as an inferno and ends in embers, which requires finesse. That wide open aperture I recommended works great with a fast or dim light source, but that same setting leaves me with grossly overexposed images when someone burns the excess fuel from their poi on the ground or pulls off an impressive light show with a staff.

So you fiddle. You’ll have to. I had to when I shot burlesque and I’m doing it again down at Gas Works, opening the aperture as the fires burn out and resetting a bit when someone new takes the performance area.

Also, I’ve figured out when to not try for a shot. Some performers simply spin too fast to bother. They’re amazing to watch, this isn’t personal, it’s just that the flames are so dim and so fast that even shooting with some high speed burst mode, I’m lucky to catch anything. Or the flame isn’t in a position to provide good or dramatic lighting so I don’t bother trying to shoot a dark figure in a dark space only to have to delete the photos when I get home.

Spinurn 03/08/17

I definitely have some preferences as far as props go. Fire fans and poi are pretty easy to shoot. Staff isn’t too bad until the performer starts spinning really fast. Leviwand is challenging as it tends to move quickly and be in less than advantageous places as far as lighting is concerned and long string leviwand is currently making me up my game. Hoops vary from performer to performer, depending on their speed. The two props I tend to disregard are nunchucks (too close and too fast) and fire swords (the light is too dim while in motion) but once in a while I surprise myself and catch something when I least expected it. Everything else you’ll figure out on your own, just as I am. I’m thinking I can step down the ISO a bit, especially early in the burn, but I won’t know until I get to the next spin session, which is also the next time I get to play with fire. Which I am totally patient for. Absolutely. Are we there yet?

Spinurn 03/22/17

hard at play…


“So,” she asked as the shoot was winding down, “what’s the deal with the Lego?”

When I’m not playing with fire, pouring paint on models and shooting candids on the streets and cafes of Seattle, you can probably find me stooped on the edge of someone’s front yard taking pictures of Lego. I have a bunch of minifigures that I carry with me, creating tableaus and telling silly stories with them, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, usually silly.

It all started because I was bored. And frustrated.

I love collaborating on studio shoots. It’s such a thrill to bring different creative sensibilities in to one project and seeing what the hell happens. It’s great, I’ve had amazing times running that. But then there’s the matter of scheduling and, worse than that, when you have to reschedule after a cancellation. The reasons are invariably understandable and I’d have to be a complete asshole to not be sympathetic, but it doesn’t mute the frustration of trying to make the social calculus work because I’m free on Fridays, the model works Thursday nights, the make-up artist is busy every day but Tuesday and then there’s Jupiter in the seventh house and… and…



After a steady series of these scheduling tangos, I just wanted a project I could do on my own. Something I could pick up at a moment’s notice, that didn’t require the right weather or the right crowds to finish.

And one day someone left a toy dinosaur on a table at a coffee shop I frequented and, suddenly, I had an idea. I had my iPhone, I could put the camera at a super low angle and… well…

ganging up...

It was so simple, so satisfying and so utterly self-contained. Throw a couple toys in my bag and head uphill to a park and suddenly I’m shooting in Jurassic Park. Eventually I started making a webcomic in my phone called Adrift, which I eventually printed as an actual book.

Last year I rediscovered Lego and, well, this silly thread has continued with different properties, different stories and a lot more freedom than simply staging the same contests between predator and prey that I felt limited to with dinosaurs. There were faces and moods and buildings and you could have Batman interact with the Doctor and robots and… well it was practically a gimme since I love using toys to tell stories and capture moments.

“Houston, we have a franchise…”

It’s my fun. It’s my “stupid” (in the appropriate Doug Stanhope sense of the word (not even close to being safe for work, but hilarious). It’s my area of unfettered creativity where I can throw characters together and see what happens. Or follow a moment of whimsy and be stared at by the homeowner…

Oh yeah, that happens on a fairly regular basis. Nothing bad has happened, but I’ve had a few moments of incredulous stares as I explain what I’m up to: “Really? You do this?” Although the last time, the guy remembered that I’d shown my work in a local cafe a couple months before, so I’ll call that a win and be happy with it.

That’s the thing with the Lego. And it will probably be my thing with the Lego for a good long while to come and I’m really looking forward to the next thing.