Renowned burlesque photographer Don Spiro talks the burlesque revival, Tease O Rama, King Kong, Doris Eaton and Jennie Lee’s vision.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
You’ve been interested in cinematography and filmmaking since you were a young boy. At the age of only six you were shooting movies with your father’s super 8. I’m curious to know which films you found particularly inspiring when you were a child. How do your childhood film inspirations compare to those you had as an adult studying film in college?
I think that most people who are inspired to be filmmakers at a young age are informed by films they saw as children. The 1933 King Kong did it for me. NY Channel 9 showed it every Thanksgiving, followed by Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. I saw it when I was six and wanted to make films ever since, a desire that was only reinforced when Star Wars was released. I had the benefit of having parents who were interested in avante garde and classic films, so I grew up with Saturday afternoon Universal horror films, Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and screwball comedies, MGM musicals, Warner Bros film noir and the rest from local New York and Philly stations. Also, my father was into Charlie Chaplin films, so we would go to whatever colleges in the tri-state area were showing one, and soon started going to other films they programmed. The Seventh Seal, Pandora’s Box, All Quiet on the Western Front, and O Lucky Man! All stand out. And they took me to R rated movies, so I was well aware of modern releases. By the time I got to college I wasn’t only already familiar with most of the curriculum, I’d already done research on my own.
Unless I’m mistaken, you first began participating in the burlesque community in 2001 with the now legendary Velvet Hammer Burlesque. According to many performers I’ve interviewed, the year 2001 was pivotal in the development of the now booming burlesque revival, mostly due to the first Tease-O-Rama. Being that you’ve been not only a witness to but a participant of both the L.A. and New York burlesque scenes for arguably the entire burlesque revival, I’m curious about your take on how burlesque has evolved in the last decade.
You’re correct, I didn’t actively participate until 2001. The ladies (and gents) in the Velvet Hammer were friends of mine, I’d been seeing their show for years and had been going to their personal side projects as well. I didn’t get involved until they were accepted to perform at Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans and they staged a benefit to raise travel funds. Augusta, my girlfriend at the time decided that documenting the Velvet Hammer would be a fun project and a good excuse to go to New Orleans. The project expanded to a few years of work and ended up as a feature length documentary, “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque.” It was in New Orleans that we became close to the Velvet Hammer’s ‘sister’ troupe, the Va Va Voom Room of NYC, which included Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, the World Famous *BOB*, and Miss Astrid.
In New Orleans I didn’t just shoot the Velvet Hammer and Va Va Voom Room, I shot the Lavender Cabaret, Tigger, the Pontani Sisters, Dita and Catherine, Dane’s Dames, and anyone else I thought fun. Remember, this was before digital, so there weren’t many photographers and I thought it would be good to shoot for posterity. I shot with two cameras: one loaded with black and white and one with color film. I shot boxes of film, had them processed in New Orleans and printed in Los Angeles…it was very expensive!
That show introduced regional performers to others around the country (and world) for the first time. Thanks to that, and to the online community, everyone was able to share ideas, cross promote, and take burlesque to a new level.
Before TOR everyone involved in new burlesque had a more vintage aesthetic, they appreciated the glamour and art of the past and paid tribute to those that came before. Some were just fans of the art form, some had a rockabilly or pin up background, some theatre or dance, and some had come from the tradition of stripping. After TOR there were a new crop of performers, inspired not by Blaze Starr or Tempest Storm but by Dita von Teese and Dirty Martini. Many of them stayed with burlesque got to be great performers (and got to know the history), but at the time there were a lot of people who were using burlesque to conquer their fears, build self esteem, or use it to further some personal agenda. I got to see people, working out their issues on stage in front of an indifferent crowd, on the same bill with established talent and ambitious up and comers who are headlining today.
Over the years, as burlesque became a buzzword almost synonymous with performance art, it seemed like anyone felt they could get up on stage and do burlesque or worse, teach it. The genre, as a traditional American folk art, seemed to get lost and the quality was diluted. As time has passed that is happening less, and a lot of the participants who have stuck with it have improved to the point where I am in awe of some of their accomplishments. The reputable teachers have outlasted the less qualified, and have genuine respect and camaraderie for each other.
My focus has always been on documenting burlesque, archiving the history as it is made. I’m curious what direction it will take, and how it will evolve, but I like my role as a passive observer. I know that some of my work has inspired others, and my involvement with some events and groups has helped keep burlesque alive, but other than that my interest is in seeing where others take it. Christopher Isherwood, one of my favorite authors (and another inspiration) wrote in Goodbye to Berlin, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” and I feel that is an appropriate motto for a documentarian. As a photographer, I will always still have my own personal style, but as a witness to burlesque as a subject I like to stand back and see what happens. I’m involved with the movement, but I can’t control where it goes.
I’ve always been impressed by how genuine your backstage burlesque photos are – how candid they are and the apparent level of comfort between the subject and the shooter. What’s the secret to capturing that essence? Or rather, as a photographer, what are your suggestions on how to ensure that the subject is comfortable enough to produce a genuine shot?
There’s no secret. A reputation as someone who respects performers is the best way to get the kind of shots that I do. The community is really small, and someone who is disrespectful usually isn’t tolerated. I rarely shoot backstage unless I’m asked, or happen to be there and see something worth documenting. For the novice, make sure you have permission, be prepared to stop shooting the moment you are told, and keep any promises you make.
In most cases, I am just taking pictures of my friends backstage, and they are already comfortable with me. It’s years of mutual feeling, and it’s why I don’t usually shoot people I don’t know. If I do, I usually ask permission, and in many cases either the producer or one of the other performers introduces me, but if I don’t see that level of comfort in a person’s eyes I don’t take the shot.
Burlesque people are always confident and self aware, so they are comfortable with who they are already, and are used to having cameras around. As a photographer I don’t have to deal with insecurities or pampering that you might need to do for someone else. However, through experience I am also aware of which performers do not want photos taken until they are in full make up, or when a backstage area is too crowded for me, or when some external situation may be causing tension backstage.
Over the years you’ve chronicled tons of important BHOF figures and events. What have been some of your most memorable moments as a participant? What about the most challenging moments for you as a shooter?
Shooting film was always the most challenging, you had to be experienced to know how a particular image would look when it was developed and printed, and any situation with low light was a challenge, particularly at live events where I didn’t get a second chance for a shot. An example is the Velvet Hammer Burlesque show at the El Rey Theatre November 2001, which had the Va Va Voom Room as guest performers and Miss Astrid as host. I’d watched the rehearsals. I wanted a crowd shot and positioned myself to the side of the runway, waiting for the moment when Michelle Carr would walk to the middle and be cross-lit by the follow spot and backlights. I knew when I took the shot that it would be a favorite. A shot I like looking up at Kitten de Ville at an outdoor show was similar…I put myself in the right place and waited for the right time.
Digital changed all that, but I still rely on my experience with film to get good shots without needing to fix them later. One of my first digital shoots was of Julie Atlas Muz as a mermaid in the saltwater aquarium behind the bar at the Coral Room. I had to climb above the tank to set up lighting gear to create shafts of light that would illuminate her and the fish that swam around her. I’m really proud of that shoot.
Most of my favorite shots, though, are the studio portraits I’ve done. Usually they are for promotion and publicity, but after we get what we need I like to experiment and challenge myself, working at odd angles or with dramatic lighting to get a particular effect. Those are often the most rewarding, and most fun.
I was interested to read about a project you worked on for years (are still working on?) which is inspired by E.J. Bellocq’s 1912 book of New Orleans bordello photography. You mentioned wanting to one day turn it into a book, and I wondered, do you still hope to do that?
I did that for over a year and would still love to get back to it full time but real work has gotten me a bit distracted. I have tons of negatives from that project, and would love to shoot more, but since it’s a personal project I don’t have a deadline to force me to commit to it. That project was and still is shot entirely on film; the goal is to someday print it as a portfolio book but without ever going through a digital medium, although now that may be cost prohibitive. There are fewer and fewer labs today that print directly from negatives, so I plan someday to learn platinum and palladium printing. I still shoot for the project when I get time, and if anyone wants to participate and is in NY or LA, let me know.
Do you have any stories about any ridiculous set up that was necessary in order to pull off the perfect shot?
There aren’t any situations that I would call ridiculous to get a perfect shot, but I’ve been in plenty that others may consider ridiculous. For years I’ve been shooting burlesque Mexican wrestlers at Lucha Va Voom around the country. I’ve been doing it for so long the safety guys know me and know that I’ve got experience. I’ve gotten to get a feeling for when the best shot might present itself, and often that means putting myself in a precarious position ringside close to the action. I’ve had them land very close to me and some of them land outside the ring right beside me! I’ve seen photographers next to me get kicked in the head (or worse, the camera) and have even seen wrestlers land on them. But I never fool with my own safety, I can anticipate when to get the right shot, or what last possible moment I can stay in one place without getting hurt. The only disappointing time is when I need to be in certain place and I see someone else already there, getting the shot instead of me.
I suppose one kind of ridiculous job was when my friends Ron Lynch and Craig Anton had their show “The Idiots.” There was a point early on in the script where they shake hands and smile at the audience like a photo op. I don’t use flash when I shoot live shows, but they asked me to stand up and take their picture with a flash when they shook hands, so I became part of the show.
Many who only know you as a burlesque photographer might be surprised to learn that you’ve been a professional camera assistant and lighting technician for film and television for the last twenty years! Could you share some of your career highlights for our readers to give them a sense of the scope of your work?
Most of my credits are on IMDB, if anyone is actually interested in my resume. My very first job in Hollywood was camera work for a documentary about the Ed Wood film, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” I got to meet everyone associated with Plan 9 who was still alive, and have great memories of Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira.
I worked a lot in TV, lighting shows like The Shield, Malcolm in the Middle, and others, as well as lots of feature films, both low budget indies and big budget blockbusters. I spent six months on B unit for “Deep Impact.” I was on the lighting team for “Memento,” and one of the only crew members to be on the show from the first day to the last, and it all shot close to my apartment, so that was a big plus.
Besides having friends who helped start the burlesque revival, I have also been friends with a lot of people who are actors and writers in Los Angeles, and much of my favorite work has been collaborating with them. I’ve shot short films with and taken portraits of people who later went on to do work on Mr. Show, The Simpsons, Carnivale, and some amazing shows. If I wanted to be a writer or performer I would have great connections!
Do you have any plans to do a retrospective of your work or anything of that nature?
I’ve thought about it, but every so often I’m asked to show work in a gallery or group show and that works just as well for me. I’ve also realized that curating my own work would be a full time job and I’m too close to it; I would need someone else to come in and do the actual labor. Maybe someday I’ll compile all the projects into compendiums and publish them individually, but since I feel I’m still involved with my subjects a retrospective wouldn’t be complete. Anything I would do would have to be of an incomplete, work-so-far nature.
I’ve shot literally thousands of photos since Michelle Baldwin’s book “Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind” was published, but if someone wants to see the type of work I was doing then that has a lot of my shots and is pretty comprehensive. Anyone who wants to know the origins of new burlesque should read it anyway; it’s a great primer.
What’s next for Don Spiro?
I’m working on a new documentary for a Los Angeles production company and that is full time. In addition, four years ago my fiancé Diane and I started a monthly hot jazz club called Wit’s End at a former speakeasy in Manhattan; I’ve gotten to know a lot of great jazz musicians as a result. As a labor of love, I’m also editing Zelda Magazine, which Diane started two years ago that celebrates the jazz age and vintage lifestyles. Because of Zelda Diane interviewed and I was able to conduct the last photo shoot with Doris Eaton, the last living Ziegfeld Girl, just weeks before she passed away. She was 106, lovely, and had a better memory than I do now.
I don’t shoot much weekly burlesque anymore unless I’m asked, there are so many people shooting I feel I don’t need to anymore. They days of being the only one taking pictures at a show are gone. My main interest is in the Burlesque Hall of Fame and the New York Burlesque Fest, and those jobs also entail helping coordinate photography policies as well as shooting the events. I’m also looking forward to the next Tease-O-Rama, because that show originally opened my eyes to burlesque as a world-wide phenomenon.
Anything you’d like to add?
We’re reinventing the wheel with burlesque. We’re taking a great art form and recreating it for modern audiences and sensibilities, but the aspects that make burlesque unique have a direct line to the past. You can’t have a general definition of burlesque anymore than you can any other art that lasts, but like jazz it has definable eras. Burlesque in the 30s was different from burlesque in the 50s, or 70s, and today it’s certainly not the same as it was in the 1880s. We know this because we can look at ephemera, posters, photos, and read stories and articles about it. With the internet this has gotten easier, but a lot of the past is disappearing, so documenting and archiving is necessary now. I’m hoping the Burlesque Hall of Fame can eventually fulfill the vision of Jennie Lee and be a true museum. Just as live events keep burlesque alive as living history, seeing a clear vision for the Hall of Fame as an ongoing non-profit repository of burlesque is important to me.