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Retro Pin-up Photographer Don Spiro:

Photo by Don Spiro
     We've featured quite a number of great retro photographers here at Java's Bachelor Pad. Time to introduce you to one more. His name is Don Spiro. He is a multi-talented photographer who explores the intersection of pin-up, glamour, and burlesque. He has a knack for capturing the energy and personality of performers both on-stage and off. Here now is an exclusive interview between Java and Don Spiro.

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Java's Bachelor Pad: What really intrigues me about your photos is that you seems to have two distinct styles. You have you glamor studio work and then your burlesque performance photos. Tell about these two different styles of yours.

Don Spiro: Those are genres in which I have done the most of my work simply because I've been doing those two the longest and have been exhibited the most, either through my own efforts or through the subject's self-promotion. As to style, I try to use techniques that are unique and separate my work from most others, but I like each photo to tell the story of the individual photo. That is why I try to be well versed in all types of lighting and camera work to do each image justice. I got my first Nikon in 1978 and I've studied all kinds of photography and am knowledgeable about a large range of photographers and other artists through history, so if a client is describing the look or mood he or she wants I can generally take the image the subject envisions and translate that into a print.

I am most comfortable in a studio since my day job was camera work and lighting for television and movies. I love having the control over how the image looks. When I shoot events like a live burlesque show I don't have so much control so I carefully consider how the stage is set up and how the lights are functioning. Experience shows where to go and wait for the right moment. I am familiar enough with performances that I can anticipate where a dancer may be and what moves may come at certain times, so I position myself so the subject passes through the best light, or wait for the subject to hit a particular spot in my frame to get a compelling image. That's how I can control the look of the shot.

When I shoot backstage I have the advantage that most of the performers know me and are comfortable enough with me not to feel my presence as intruding. I can get great candid shots as they interact with other performers, get ready to go on stage, or relax after the show rather than have them be self conscious.

But for me studio glamour shots and burlesque performance shots are only the tip of the iceberg. Although I love old Hollywood glamour and have been involved with burlesque for years, there are several who only know me for my pin up photos, my bellydance photos, my sideshow/cabaret photos, or a number of other subculture genres. And my personal work is different from all of that!

JBP: With the performance photos, it's not just about the gal on the stage, but the people in the audience watching her. Or it's about life backstage. How did you get interested in this aspect of the burlesque performance?

DS: What really sets my live shots apart from my studio shots is that they tie the performer to a specific environment. Every picture I take is an attempt at telling a story, and many times with a live performance the audience is an important part of that story. The audience reaction is what informs the viewer as to the success of the performance. My friends used to have a troupe in Los Angeles called the Velvet Hammer Burlesque and when I got involved with that what struck me most was the interaction with the audience. Even if you have something choreographed you still have to play to the audience, and when you are dancing freestyle it's really all about the audience. Burlesque isn't always a mode of self expression, although it can be. However, it IS always about entertaining. Without that audience connection it's just a dance recital.

Backstage life interested me because at first I was taking pictures of my friends, they just happened to be the performers. But my training from college photo classes would kick in and I always would look for interesting angles, unique lighting, or aspects of human interest in much the same way a photojournalist would. Many of my favorite shots may be slightly blurry, or at odd angles, or exposed in an unusual way. And since I was part of the scene I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with them, or they with me, so my backstage shots tend to be very candid.

JBP: Your studio work is very posed ala classic Hollywood glamour. There's always a sense of mystery and detachment in your models. They're almost always looking away from the camera. It gives them an aura of un-attainability. Is this something you consciously do?

DS: When subject is looking at viewer it should be for a reason, so when I shoot pinups they are almost always looking into the camera to try to get the connection with the viewer. Even if the subject isn't directly facing the camera, her eyes are looking into the lens. I've read Bunny Yeager's books on pin up photography and am influenced by her work, especially with Bettie Page, and I think this helps attain  "girl next door" look of those old pin ups.

With a lot of my glamour photos I usually have the subject looking away from the camera because it reminds me of old Hollywood portraits. Also, I like images that's tell a story and, being from a film background, some of my work is like a motion picture still, so the subject is often looking at something that is off camera.

With my burlesque photos the aura of un-attainability is desired. These are not the girls next door, these women are fantasies who will tease and tantalize but who you may not speak to or touch. On stage they give the illusion of the woman you will never have, and the photography is an attempt to replicate that elusiveness.

Of course there are always exceptions, and you'll find some of my pin ups looking off camera and some of my glamour shots with a direct gaze. I try to mix it up and not get stuck with any one theme.

 JBP: How did you get started in photography? And when did you start focusing on pin-ups/burlesque?

DS: I've always loved movies and wanted to be a cinematographer since I was a little kid. I was one of those kids that used his dad's super 8 camera at 6 years old and made a lot of little movies for my family. I would also take it to family functions and on vacations.

My parents bought me my first still camera when I was 9, a Nikon FE that is still my main film camera. I went to college to get a degree in film and took my first classes in photography. After college I started doing camera work and lighting in the film industry and did stills in between jobs to keep in practice. So when my friends in the Velvet Hammer burlesque troupe needed new photos for their 2001 program I offered my services and haven't stopped since.

I was uniquely suited to the 2001 program. Previously there had been a cohesive theme to the program shots, but that year several of the performers were coming from New York and they all had different style photos. So in order to make their photos fit with those of the LA performers, it was decided that each photo in the program would have a different look (almost as though taken by different photographers) but all still look vintage, like an old burlesque program from the past. My training in lighting different film styles made this easy for me. Some of these vintage looks were my first pin ups.

Many years ago I took some photos for Barracuda Magazine of my friend Paget, who at the time was the magazine's primary photographer. The editor is also a friend of mine and he was doing a piece on her so I took the photos of her and the original Batmobile from the 60s tv series. I've occasionally had work published in Barracuda ever since, and that got me enough attention that other models and magazine's have sought after me for pin ups.

 JBP: What is it about this genre that attracted you to it?

DS: I was originally attracted to it because so few people were doing it. The number of pin up and burlesque photographers in the early part of this decade was very small. I would often see burlesque shows and I was the only one with a camera. So in addition to finding a unique niche for myself I also felt it was important to document the culture and besides, these were my friends!

Once it got popular and reached the point where I would go to a show and there were dozens of photographers I tended to not shoot live shows so much, I figured someone else could document and I could sit back and enjoy the show, and just concentrate on studio work. But I got so many requests for live shots that I picked it up again. Although there are now a lot of people at shows with cameras, they weren't giving the performers any photos.

Studio shots of burlesque comes easy to me, each performer is unique with his or her look, costume, and story. Because a lot of burlesque performance sometimes tells a story I try to make that carry through in my work.

Pin up is much harder these days not to be repetitive. Also, there are so many great pin up photographers today I feel I don't need to do it so much. I like to make original photos because no one else is doing it, so I don't shoot much pin up unless I can bring something new to the genre. What keeps me interested are the times I can discover a look or mood that hasn't been done to death, or if I can evoke a response in the viewer that makes him or her more appreciative of the genre.

JBP: What sorts of themes do you like to explore in your photography?

DS: I try to deal with the relationship between the viewer and the subject, but also the subject and his or her environment. That relationship, whatever story it is, is the theme of most of my work. I like story telling. If I can tell a story with one image, or even a series of images, then I've done a good job. Even in my representational work if the image can convey a message or provoke an emotion, that's a form of communication.

I try to tell the story in whatever way I think best suits it. This may mean shooting in black and white, indoors or outdoors, digital or film. Then of course there is lighting, which is the main tool in my kit. I mainly tell the story with light. Technical skill is also important to me. Using selective focus to direct the viewer's attention to a particular point in a photo, or choosing deep focus to let the viewer make decisions, or constructing the composition so elements are in balance or off kilter are things that aren't obvious to a viewer but are necessary to my work.  Often even the lighting is invisible, many of my apparently sunlit scenes are actually contrived with artificial lighting.

 JBP: What are you working on now? Where can people go to see more of your work?

DS: Vintage--this is the first time I'm announcing it, you've got a scoop. I've been working for a few years on a series of portraits of women in their own environments, homes or workplace, that remind me of the bordello photography in New Orleans in the early 20th century. It isn't easy getting subjects who fit the criteria of the perfect vintage look, but so far I've gotten quite a bit of success. I have been showing examples in some group shows over the years, I hope to someday work on a book.

I also have a series of artistic nudes that deal mostly with the interplay of light and shadow, and a series inspired by vintage drug advertisements from the days when such things were considered glamourous.

Okay, that's the short version. Here's how the bordello work came about:

I was working on taking photos of women artists I know at work, usually in their homes. It had no cohesion and I wasn't sure how to make the series unique. Then I found a book of 1912 New Orleans bordello photography by E.J. Bellocq. What set his work apart from erotic photography of the era was that, although many of the photos were nudes, they were not artistic poses, nor were they sexual. The subjects, prostitutes, obviously knew him and had a look of being candid, almost comfortable. Of course they were also in their own surroundings, and very much tied into their environment, which also impressed me.

Having moved to LA from the east coast I missed the places I grew up, and these photos reminded me. As a kid I took for granted all the ironwork on balconies, the 100 year old wall sconces, Victorian wallpaper, carved wood banisters and ceiling moldings and other things I saw in these old photos, so they were nostalgic for me.

Using this as inspiration, I started a new series of women in their environments inspired by Bellocq's photos. They would be modern photos (I'm not trying to fool anyone into thinking they are actually period) but would have the same mood. The subjects would be in their own homes, or workplaces, wearing their own clothes, in order to get that same look of comfort. Also, because this series is about being candid, they wouldn't have to be concerned about poses, or being sexy, or glamour in any way. In fact, I wanted the opposite. To get a cohesive visual theme I limit the subjects to those who naturally have that vintage look and have environments that can approximate it.

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