In Revealing Images, photographer Don Spiro dishes up sweet photographic treats and the stories behind them. Today, Don aims his lens at 2008's Miss Exotic World Valentina Violette of the Velvet Hammer.
I’ve worked with a lot of people in various subcultures, and one of the most interesting and influential has to be Michelle Carr, who in the mid 90s co-founded the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, the troupe that inspired many performers around the country to become burlesque dancers or create their own troupes. Michele had already gained notoriety in the in Los Angeles as one of the owners of Jabberjaw, a coffeehouse that served as a venue for musicians like Beck, Kurt Cobain, Hole, and many others. The Velvet Hammer started because she wanted the glamour and tease that were missing from modern LA strip clubs, and wanted a show that would entertain her and her friends. At the time audiences and club owners did not know what burlesque was. Heavily immersed in nostalgia and vintage culture, she re-imagined it to develop her own lifestyle.
Michelle’s stage persona was Valentina Violette. This shoot was for promotional material for the November 2001 show at the El Rey in Los Angeles. We were all excited about it, we had just returned from the first Tease-O-Rama convention in New Orleans where the Velvet Hammer had joined forces with its east coast sisters of New York’s Va Va Voom Room. It was the tail end of the swing revival, which meant that audiences were still dressing up in suits and ties and vintage dresses to have a night out on the town.
Unlike many performers in burlesque, whose big reveal is a pair of pasties, Michelle often removed her top early in her dance. Her big reveal was her thick black mane of hair that cascaded down past her waist, often held in place with chopsticks until the climax of her number. The image we shot is just as risqué, heavily teasing the viewer into enticement while still being tasteful enough to display in public. All she wore as Valentina were gloves, stockings, a feathered hairpiece and a small bolero vest. Otherwise, she was nude, to best show off a body covered in ink.
This was a group shoot. You can’t tell from the photo, but I had just finished shooting one performer and several others were just out of view, talking, rehearsing, adjusting wardrobe, putting on makeup and getting ready for their turns in front of the camera. Music blared, as it usually does during my shoots, but everyone was focused and dedicated to creating art.
Michelle sat in front of a dark grey background on a small stool facing just to the right of camera at forty-five degrees. Her jacket was revealingly open and her hands were crossed over her knees, discreetly covering herself enough that the viewer could see she wasn’t wearing anything. I used two lights with no diffusion, one very high off to camera right, directly facing her, and one on the left side of the camera, very low. She lowered her head into shadow. I exposed for her face, bringing out details in the blacks of her costume and hair and letting her exposed skin go almost white. The final resulting image has a terrific range of contrast. It has a tone that reminds me of a fin-de-siècle print.