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…

IZDA6008.jpg

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.

Similar.

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…

Similar.

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.

Here:

Love that.

But seeing the similarity across the span of days bugs me because I get frustrated when 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

hard at play…

running...

“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…

GRAAH! HULK SMASH!!!!

*ahem*

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.

thanks that was fun…

Brolly Shoot

I had four shoots in four days last week. I can’t speak for anyone else out there but it’s a record for me, anyway. Not only am I pleased with the results, not only am I pleased that nothing went especially wrong but I was paid a huge compliment by a new-to-me makeup artist who thanked me for “making photo shoots fun again.”

I’ll take that. Though I can’t imagine what the hell their previous experiences had been. I can imagine creepy, sadly enough. Cliched, sure. Possibly flat out incompetent or workmanlike. Beyond that… ew.

Shoots should be fun. Even if they’re serious or creepy or somber or whatever emotion I’m working towards, I like having a soundtrack of laughter. It’s real and it shows if we are working towards genuine emotion and pleasure. Not because I said “cheese” but because I just told the world’s worst knock knock joke ever and it just dawned on the model that… yeah, I just asked her what was brown and sticky*. Or started talking like the most stereotypical photographer this side of an Austin Powers movie.

Potentially immature? Damn straight. Work with what you’ve got.

But this should be fun, full stop. If you’re not, I think you’re doing it wrong.

And I made it fun. More than that, I have some repeat collaborators on other odd ideas I have and they have and who knows what else we dream up. I can’t wait.

This was a big shoot for me not only because it was more involved than anything I’ve done in a long time (burlesque performers tend to be so self-contained, I’m spoiled) but because it got an idea that I’ve had for the past three or four years out of my head. Finally! No, it’s not exactly what I imagined. No, it’s not precisely right. Yes, I can see room for improvement and finesse.

Like, you know, the next time I work with this model and makeup artist again, which may be… next week?

I’ll take that too.

*- A Stick!

rules for photography (or, a simple preposition)

The Party

I credit grammar with saving my bacon as a photographer. And if not my bacon, at least my energy and sanity at times. It’s a simple trick so I’m going to share it with you. When considering large social events (i.e. your local pride parade, folk festivals, etc etc), are you

A) Going to take pictures, or
B) Going in addition to taking pictures.

And that has made all the difference.

During my last year in burlesque, when the burn out was building, I found myself going to shows that I absolutely did not give a fuck about. Whether it was lackluster performers or… no, actually that was about it, really.  When the thrill of nudity is gone, you’re left with the talent brought to the stage and a lot of those burlesquers didn’t bring much more than enthusiasm and a willingness to get (mostly) naked on stage.

But I went! I made myself go because I felt I had a reputation or an obligation. Because I wanted the ego stroke of “Oh my god, thank you SOOOO much” and I didn’t want anyone else to get that rush I needed. Insecure much? Oh yeah.

When I was done and caught my breath again, I felt such a relief from that lack of responsibility that I started to apply it elsewhere in my photographic sphere. Did I want to go just to go and also have my camera? Or was I going specifically to have my camera with me? Was I going to Pride to celebrate and eat crappy festival food and party or to take pictures of the colorful people like I was on safari? Was Folklife for me or my camera?

Burning Man is the most extreme example of this for me. Every couple of years, someone I’ve met recently will pitch the idea of going to Burning Man as an amazing experience and, oh, “could you imagine the pictures you could take?!” And yeah, I can. I’ve seen a lot of them and at their best, they’re amazing and inspiring. But I don’t want to go to Burning Man, ever. The desert, absolutely, but the idea of camping out for a week with a crowd I’ve never wanted to be a part of? No thanks. I’d be on safari, play acting, never actually playing.

Life’s too short. Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely try new things and you should definitely push your comfort zone on a regular basis. But if you’re staring at your camera with a sense of dread because you’re going to the Albanian Headcheese Festival only because, hey, you might get a good picture? Give yourself a break, get a coffee and read a book. You’ve earned it.

not my club

I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.

–Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me

The internet is a powerful tool for bringing people together. Sometimes I think it may be too powerful. Let me explain.

I had two shoots yesterday (pictures forthcoming) that were absolutely amazing. One of them was a collaboration with a flow friend that was probably half improvisation, the other was a collaboration with a make-up artist and a model to shoot an idea that I’ve had for years out of my head. They were great fun, we laughed all the way through, the pictures I’ve worked on have been impressive and I would work with all these people again in a heartbeat.

But to be honest, the best part was the conversation. Not just laughing with a friend and making new ones, but snarking about a Facebook group we’re all in eccentric orbits around. That on top of everything else was worth a fortune and was a tremendous relief.

I like groups mostly. I like meeting people and sharing interests and discovering some new thing or another. Hell, that’s how I’ve fallen in to so many different scenes and hobbies since I moved to Seattle: samba, burlesque, fire spinning, toy photography, gaming… the list goes on. I like that there’s a social structure I can take part in when I want and can (usually) take time off when and if I need it without it becoming A Thing. And online the conversation ebbs and flows and you jump on and off as you’re interested. They’re great!

But I get frustrated when the group feels limiting. Especially in creative groups where the dominant conversation seems to be how everything is swell and golly where did people get their ideas. Creative groups where styles seem static. Now, I don’t want to be a jerk, I don’t want to make it personal, but I do want to say we can do better. More than this. More than the same. That we can flip the tropes and twist the cliches and maybe try to do more and better, right? Maybe?

It reminds me of some of my first encounters with deep geek culture online in the early days of the Internet. Where the thrill of finding others like you was quickly tempered by the schisms of disagreement and, in the name of civility, we will all agree that we like everything. EVERYTHING!

I tend to leave because I can’t shake the feeling that I’m the only one raising even a tiny fuss. Or, more recently, asked to leave because I rocked the boat and challenged some really silly ideas (a photo of a Lego cat is not animal photography! Ahem).

So this group we’re all in is devoted to open shoots and TFP (Trade For Print) exchanges so people can build their portfolios. We’re all in it for similar reasons at different parts of the process.

But the group feels monotonous. It’s filled with the same calls for boudoir shoots. Lots of pictures of women on beaches looking out at the water with bored expressions. A couple of weeks ago when someone posted a picture of a “milk bath” shoot (bath tub filled with milk or cloudy liquid, usually with flower petals or glitter for contrast), there was a run on that style and it seemed like every other day another photographer posted their take on the subject, which never seemed too different from the previous picture.

Was it me?

So to have three conversations, all of them at one point or another filled with laughter at the expense of the tedium of the group was so god damned reaffirming. What, another picture of a girl in a bikini on a motorcycle? Wait, it was a milk bath but with glitter! Goddammit, why was I not sitting down?! No wait, it’s a milk bath on a beach with a motorcycle… perfect!

I’m not keen to join online groups anymore. I don’t like that feeling of isolation in the face of unyielding and unchanging enthusiasm. I want to find the other malcontents and the weirdos and people with darker ideas and work with them in the face of homogeny.

So those shoots? Well I’ll be a little less involved in the day to day “activity” of the group, but I found a few more freaks and a few more oddballs, so I’ll chalk it up as a win.

Sometimes the best thing isn’t changing a group from the inside or reinventing the wheel. It’s just finding out you’re not alone with your opinions. That’s how you find real collaborators.