In Revealing Images, photographer Don Spiro dishes up sweet photographic treats and the stories behind them. Today, Don aims his lens at Ursulina of the Velvet Hammer.
This was another photo from the first shoot I did for the Velvet Hammer program, back in 2001. Rita d’Albert, who now co-produces Lucha Va Voom, was a co-producer of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe and performed in it as well, as Ursulina. The number she was doing at this particular show was inspired by Marie Antoinette, and she had an intricate, period style costume to accomplish it.
For the photo she wore the costume with metal panniers and an extremely large hat with ostrich plumes. It reminded me of Norma Shearer in the 1938 film “Marie Antoinette,” and I knew Rita also loved old Hollywood glamour, so that’s how we decided to shoot it.
She sat on a stool against a black backdrop, angled slightly to the side with her feet together, holding a small cane. Her confident expression was directed right into the camera lens.
Since Rita has great natural features and good cheekbones, I placed the key light very high and to the left of camera. The direction of the beam was in line with her face so a small shadow of her nose was placed directly above her lips, reminiscent of how Sternberg lit Dietrich in the thirties. The light was hard and created great texture, with crisp shadow lines and plenty of contrast. I added a snoot to create more of a pool of light, allowing the edges by the top of her hat and her legs below the knew too fade slowly into the darkness.
I wanted to make her glow like in old glamour stills, so I added a second light to the right of frame, just at her shoulder level. This created the glow I wanted, blowing out the highlights in her hair, hand, and parts of her ruffled dress. It also accentuated her cleavage, which had been already enhanced by the corset she wore.
I set the lens so that her face would be two stops over exposed, and the highlights would be four stops overexposed. This let me see into the shadows but keep the background dark. I wanted it to be perfect because the image would not only be used in programs, but also as 8 x 10s, and this was the day before digital, when the negative had to be duped and blown up to 8 x 10 to create prints.
Rita has been one of my most critical models, both of my work and her own, and I really think it raises the bar. This was actually our second shoot for the program, she had looked at tests from the first shoot and decided the make up wasn’t up to her standards.
I miss those days, when we had to be conservative with film and try to make every picture count, then wait several days to receive and examine every frame of a contact sheet, debating which image to circle with a grease pencil and pick for printing. You never knew if you really had the shot until then so you had to rely on your talent, skill and experience. I’m grateful that I started in that era: I think it makes my current digital work better and informs my style.