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.
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.