In Revealing Images, photographer Don Spiro dishes up sweet photographic treats and the stories behind them. Today, Don aims his lens at The Velvet Hammer.
The first burlesque photo shoot I ever did was for the Velvet Hammer back in 2001. Each year the producers would ask a new photographer to shoot images to keep a consistent appearance throughout their program. In 2001, however, several performers from the Velvet Hammer’s “sister troupe,” the Va Va Voom Room of New York, would be joining the LA show and they each had promo shots from other photographers. To keep their photos from seeming out of place, the producers decided to give each promo shot a unique look, and asked me to shoot them. I am experienced in old photographic techniques and work in the film industry, where we are constantly working in different styles, so I was perfectly suited for the job. I asked each performer how he or she wanted to look and to bring visual materials that inspired them.
The shoot took place at what would become my studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the “Studio With No Name,” identified by my handwritten sign in the window. The Velvet Hammer rehearsed there and Princess Farhana held classes in belly dance, and size and hardwood floors influenced my preference for shooting in dance spaces.
The very first subject of my very first burlesque shoot was the bandleader, the Millionaire, leader of the Velvet Hammer house band “The Millionaire and his Maharajahs of Melody.” I had been a fan of his from the first time I saw his former band, Combustible Edison. He is a seminal influence in reviving cocktail culture, and coined the term “cocktail nation.”
He wanted a mysterious, moody image that would invoke Orientalist kitsch and memories of early Korla Pandit. I knew exactly what he meant, I even had a Korla Pandit autograph.
Mil wore a shiny turban and had large rings on his fingers. I believe the previous owner of his jacket was Sammy Davis Jr. I stood him in front of a black backdrop and decided under-lighting would give me the best picture.
In those days I shot old school: I shot on black and white film with film/video lights, which strobe-light photographers call “hot lights” or “continuous lights.” I used a 1000 watt open face light on a very short stand directly underneath him, pointing up at a sharp angle. This lit his face and gave me the moody look I desired. I added a 650 watt light on a very tall stand behind and boomed over the backdrop, angled onto his back and shoulders to separate him from the background. I adjusted the barndoors to keep the light from flaring the lens, making sure just enough hit him to create a sharp edge of light on his shoulders and turban. He gave me his best mystic pose and I captured my first burlesque studio shot.