From a very young age, it was obvious that I was destined to be involved in the cabaret scene one way or another. With a history of performing arts in practically every stage worthy discipline other than burlesque, a collection of sparkly Dorothy shoes in every colour and an entire drawer in my bedroom just for pots of glitter, it was no surprise to my mother when I told her I was going to be a burlesque photographer. In fact, I don’t think she even batted an eyelid.
Although the word ‘burlesque’ hadn’t yet made it into my vocabulary, it played an important role in the shaping of my artwork throughout college and university. The major transition to burlesque came in the summer after my final year of university, when a friend invited me down to a burlesque show at the King’s Theatre in Portsmouth. As a ‘burlesque virgin’, I suddenly felt an overwhelming affinity for the genre, realising that this was my career calling. With the remnants from my very last installment of student loan, I bought a Canon 450D, a Speedlite and an umbrella, and decided to set up Tigz Rice Studios.
The next eighteen months are a bit of a blur, but a quick glance at my tax suggests it was mostly spent investing in equipment and traveling all over Europe to experience the very best of the burlesque industry. By April 2011 I had finally built up the business enough to become a full time photographer, working throughout the UK and most of Europe as a burlesque specialist. However, never one to rest upon my laurels, I began thinking about other ways I could improve the studio, attract more clients and gain an advantage against other photographers in my industry. The answer was so simple – why not take up burlesque? Taking lessons would teach me more about the art of posing and striptease, whilst putting together a full routine and costume would allow me to experience exactly how a burlesque performer forms a relationship with their stage persona. Perfect!
It was an obvious choice to make, but definitely not an easy one. The thought of being alone on stage in not much more than a skimpy pair of pants and some double sided tape – knowing full well that nothing escapes some form of social media (and therefore my technologically up to date mother who would be far less pleased about the performing aspect of my new career) – was rather daunting. As an established photographer in the field, there was also no way I could be on both sides of the camera without being recognised. Several glasses of wine and some soul searching later, I picked up the phone and gave The Cheek Of It! Burlesque School a call, booking myself onto their next available course.
With fifteen years of intermittent stage time by this point, I was able to skip the beginners course and enrol straight onto advanced, which prepares ladies for their first solo performance. Most of the girls had already done the beginners course so it really did feel like being the new girl again, but specifically like the new girl in PE class. You know. That uncomfortable moment when you have to take off your clothes and everyone is staring and comparing who’s got what assets? That. Unless you’ve been fully immersed in a naked-with-strangers situation, its impossible to understand how important positive encouragement and praise throughout a shoot is! Luckily, Cheek Of It! director Lady Cheek (also an accomplished performer) had just the technique to put us all at ease, which has since become a routine element of warming up for a shoot at Tigz Rice Studios.
Whilst overcoming nudity in public was a major milestone for me personally, preparing a stage name and solo act was probably the most vital learning curve as a photographer. Although many people think of stage personas as alter ego’s, it was great to find out that for burlesque performers their stage name is often based on an exaggeration of real life personality traits, which in turn moulds and shapes them as a performer. As an example, my stage name – Raven Six – was inspired by the Tower of London and combined my passions for mythology, old architecture and birds of prey. Suffice to say, my debut burlesque act featured black feather fans, two (artificial) human skull and was set to Greig’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King. A performer’s name gives you a silent clue as to what they will be expecting from their studio experience with you, including their personality traits and how you might interact with them to get the best shots possible during the shoot.
The entire burlesque course ran for twelve weeks, which sounds like a lot of time to put together a three minute performance but actually was a real struggle on top of a demanding day job, which many performers have also. My outfit consisted of a custom embellished corset (twenty-one hours of painstaking work with a gem picker and fabric glue) custom made pasties (four more similar hours) and a pair of knickers, which I ran out of time to customise. To save money I also sourced the ostrich feathers from South Africa, which took five weeks to deliver and then an entire day to assemble and string with a friend. My one act alone racked up a couple of working weeks in preparation time and I’ll be honest, there’s not a lot of it either – not in comparison to some of the elaborate creations I’ve had the privilege of photographing. Add to this about thirty hours of lessons, another thirty hours practicing at home and of course all the other little things like sorting out hair, make up, costume jewellery and music… Once you realise just how much time and money the girls go to with their costumes, it really puts into perspective why they are so passionate about their acts and expect the same amount of dedication and investment from you in return.
On November 27th 2011 had my stage debut at Volupte, one of London’s most prestigious cabaret venues. Arriving at 5PM for sound checks and a technical run through before disappearing downstairs to wait several hours for my first performance, I realised I’d just spent three months working towards the promise of three short minutes on stage… and yet it was unbelievable. The adrenaline, the music and the whole atmosphere was amazing and a totally different feeling to being sat in a crowd watching. I’m not sure there’s anything I can compare it to really. All I can say is, it was only three days before I got back on the stage again!
Up until this point, a lot of the knowledge I’d picked up was really more relevant to working with boudoir and new performers. Continuing on with the performing was where I really started to understand the needs of my professional burlesque clients and what they need from publicity images to convince promoters and venues that their acts are worth booking. Although it’s a great privilege to photograph a beautiful performer in her final reveal, it not only spoils the punchline of the act but says very little about the style of performance. Actually, what is more beneficial to a performer is setting the mood or tone of a performance, which is often supported in the top and middle layers of her outfit. Sometimes, not photographing the final reveal makes a much bigger statement – although chances are in the studio that the performer will want a few ‘modelling’ images in her portfolio too, so you’ll still get some of the glamourous lifestyle! As a result, this January I revised my studio packages more suited to the needs of performers I work with and the new concept has been well received throughout the industry.
So what have I gained from this experience? Being a new performer has given me the opportunity to become more involved in the underground UK burlesque scene, where many new performers start out. Spending quality time backstage with other performers has not only broadened my client potential massively throughout the UK in a matter of months, but has gained me more credibility and respect as both a photographer and a peer within the burlesque community, opening doors I never even knew existed. It has also given me the experience of being photographed live by a whole host of other photographers in a niche industry, who normally I wouldn’t get to meet (burlesque photographers are rarely out in numbers unless a festival is occurring!) Despite being an accomplished extrovert for the majority of my life, I’m also a natural avoider of the lens, so it has been a real learning curve for me being on the other side of the lens. Experiencing the relationship between photographer and performer, I feel I’ve got a better understanding of how performers ‘look’ at images of themselves in comparison to how a photographer sees an image. Yes, it has been an expensive journey, but being actively involved in a community has far more longevity than many forms of marketing and advertising. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, although I’d probably aim for a couple thousand more Swarovskis…