Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Bristol based photographer David Hammonds gives you a run down of life from behind the camera.
Growing up an only-child in the middle of nowhere – a village at the time rather like the one in Straw Dogs – I devoured far too many goofy horror movies, books and comics. I’d always been drawn to the impossibly kitsch and hokey, be it John Waters’s schlocky movies or the gloriously cheesy horror of Hammer Studios, euroschlock, amazing scream queens like Ingrid Pitt and Soledad Miranda, through to American grindhouse flicks, Blaze Starr and Bettie Page.
Enjoying burlesque, for me, seemed a continuation, somehow, of all this quirky stuff. See, people in the burlesque world tend to be more on my level… not always… but quite often.
So I thought what could I do to support this emerging burlesque thing… me, a poor, humble boy from the sticks… Then I remembered… I was a photographer! And so I set about documenting local burlesque superstars as best as I could, taking pictures at shows before moving on to promo shots for performers.
Not all burlesque venues are easy for photography without a degree of technical skill. For brightly lit theatres I can sometimes get away with faster zoom lenses but where low light all that’s available I tend to shoot with extremely fast ‘prime’ lenses to really suck in as much light as I can. I try to keep shutter speeds fast enough to freeze motion consistently, but in extreme cases may have to use slower speeds, take a bunch of images, and hope the heavens align for one or two and I get a great keeper.
I’ve grown familiar with the way burlesque artists move through their routines over the years. It’s not just about following their twists and turns but pre-empting what they will do next so you can brace yourself for striking poses and decisive moments and capture them on camera.
I think it helps that I started out as a burlesque fan that happened to also be a photographer. I think you have to have a real affinity for the genre to photograph it really well. You don’t need to take 100s of shots. You can sum up an act in one or two killer photographs – that’s all it needs. It’s extremely rare that a performer doesn’t like a shot I’ve posted online (enough to tell me about it anyway!).
As well as shooting live shows, I’ve also taken promo shots from some talented performers in the South West, from Keda Breeze, who led the charge for neo-burlesque in the West Country, to Voodoo Queen Tuesday Laveau, Lou Leigh Blue, Ally Katte, Lily Belle, Penny Bizarre, Tiger Tiger, Frankie Van Tassel, Kitty Ribbons – the list goes on and on. Many of these were shot in my home studio (AKA the living room) but you wouldn’t know as some of the results can be quite fantastic.
My burlesque promo shoots are fun and informal and I tend to be quite economical with words when working and try to avoid micro-posing the subject. Even seasoned performers can sometimes be a touch camera shy or feel exposed if they haven’t done an arranged shoot before so you have to loosen them up, play some music, sometimes talk more before snapping away. For burlesque I like shooting with euroschlock movie soundtracks in the background more often than not but I remember one local performer really came alive when I put on some punk, as she’ a big fan of that style.
I’m pretty ‘broad brush’ when it comes to photography – I’d sooner have a great vibe, a good energy transmitted through my images above anything else. I see a lot of photographs where the subject simply looks tense or disengaged so I try and avoid that. Sometimes you need to take a whole bunch of shots to get warmed up, sometimes everything’s in the can fast. It’s about getting those one or two great images, not using up an arbitrary amount of time or number of shots.
When using my big studio lighting gear I like to give a crisp, almost hyper-real look to the images, which I think works well for show flyers and posters. As the shots are for promo use I quite often shoot against a white background, as the images will often be used on bill posters and flyers and a plain background means they are easy to integrate into graphic designs. More recently though I’m preferring to use locations and different background textures, bringing in elements of my portrait and fashion work, just to keep things fresh and interesting. I’m quite a contrarian so if I see a lot of one sort of style or look going around, I’ll instantly want to do the opposite.
As I started off taking photographs in the film days and I think that’s given me a healthy scepticism of ‘too much Photoshop’. I’m not into this current trend of making women look like they’ve been generated by Pixar with that weird plasticky computer-face, which makes them look like some strange bruised peach. I rarely heavily process my images – there’s some terribly eye-gouging stuff out there produced by amateurs and big name professionals alike that just gives me a thumping migraine.
I’d sooner use interesting lighting, cool styling, fab makeup and a decent idea to make the image pop rather than Photoshop or digital effects. Also, while I’ll tidy up a body curve (nobody likes armpit boob, do they?) I’m philosophically opposed to taking loads of inches off people – especially in neo-burlesque where celebrating different body shapes is a part of the appeal.
I enjoy burlesque photography as it gives me a large degree of freedom and it’s a way to scratch my itch for kitsch. In my commercial photography and portrait work to a large extent I have to follow current trends to keep a busy calendar and not fly off on some anarchic tangent. The burlesque side of things is a kind of photographic release for me… a place where anything goes!
It’s also fun to meet up with some talented and interesting people – it’s a real education to watch Lily Belle do her makeup meticulously, talk to Lou Leigh Blue about her latest costume work, while Tuesday Lavaeu seems to share some of my interests. There’s a whole laundry list of people I’ve met briefly or are on my social networks that I’d love to work with.
While the burlesque stuff is largely a hobby, I’ve integrated some of the pinup and vintage elements of the genre back into my portrait business, offering high-end vintage/pinup makeover experiences. So burlesque has in part become a definite influence on my wider photographic work these days.
For me, the real satisfaction comes from people simply loving the images I’ve taken, or even being genuinely surprised at how fabulous they look. With the rise of social networking we’ve all suffered from deplorable camera-phone shots of ourselves being shared around so no wonder many people claim to not like having their photo taken. Everyone should have a proper shoot and see the difference.