Creating the Photograph: James Andrew Ridley’s “Zoe Ziegfeld as a Menorah” (NSFW)

Creating the Photograph is an original series where photographers teach you about how they conceived an image, shot it, and edited it. The series has a heavy emphasis on teaching readers how to light. Want to be featured? Email chrisgampat[at]thephoblographer[dot]com.

Photographer James Andrew Ridley and I have known each other for a while now, and like me, he has involvement in the NYC Burlesque community. He’s a serious photographer, not only in the sense of his work, but also from the fact that he understands and values the idea of relationships. He works to develop a rapport with subjects and he keeps their comfort in mind. Sometimes, in order to make a subject more comfortable you’ll need to do things like working one on one. For part of a series that he’s working on, he did just that with burlesquer Zoe Ziegfeld. Then they turned her into a human menorah.

Here’s their story.

The Concept

This portrait is a part of a large project of New York City burlesque performers. In this project I am exploring the relationship of the performer and the character in a studio environment. I am interested in the colors of costumes, the exploration of light, mood, and creating a challenging yet positive representation of contemporary burlesque. In this particular image, Zoe Ziegfeld has a Menorah act. Her costume is of the menorah candle. A key part of her costume is a series of LED lights that she has sewn into the candles on her arm as well as the central candle that forms her headpiece. The challenge in this particular image was getting the LED to mix effectively with the strobe to give the impression of lit candles.

The Gear

Camera:

Canon 5D III (100 ISO, f/14, 10 seconds)

Canon 50mm L 1.2

Manfrotto tripod legs with Manfrotto geared head

Laptop for tethering

Strobe:

Profoto Acute w/ single head

Profoto 5 foot octa (both baffles and grid in place)

Pocket Wizards

Matthews Medium Roller light stand

Matthews Mini Boom

A couple of sandbags and assorted grip

C stands for backdrop and superior 9’ paper

The Shoot

I have been photographing studio portraits of burlesque performers for a couple of years now. For this series, I shoot in the living room of my apartment. It’s extremely common in New York City to work out of one’s living space, and while the space is tight, we make it work. It is always a bit of a production, not only due to the space constraints but also because of the sensitive nature of the work. To make the performers comfortable, I often shoot alone, instead of having a team, and have the performer assist me in changing backdrops. It’s worthwhile to note that these are performers I have met in the burlesque community and I develop rapport with them before asking them to photograph with me.

In this particular image I used a five foot octabank in paramount / butterfly position. This is a very simple, classic beauty light that looks amazing and fits well with this piece without becoming about the light.

For this series, I always use the actual costumes they use for each act and this influences our poses. Together, the performer and I work through the act in sequence or even reverse sequence and from there the shoot evolves organically. Whenever possible, I love to work in some motion or movement into the images to break up the stillness that often accompanies portraiture.

Zoe is a secular Jew – this act is a nod to her Jewish heritage and is a beautiful and non-traditional tribute to the Menorah. It is a celebration of her culture. I have been fortunate enough to work with Zoe once in 2015 and she continues to be a favorite performer of mine. She has evolved beyond burlesque and performs in various roles, from performance artist to circus and sideshow performer. She is at heart a performer who is evolving beyond roles and labels. In late summer we had talked about capturing another act of hers (Lolita) and she mentioned wanting to photograph her Menorah as well. We photographed these images in October 2016.

Zoe and I had worked together to create a series of images without movement; however, I felt something was still missing in the image. To combat the stillness, together we worked on capturing the act as it would appear on stage with the LED lights on. The trick for this was to use the strobe to freeze her motion and then allow the ambience of the LED lights to come through, but not so much that the image becomes discernable or becomes about the movement itself. I photographed with the modeling light off and the room in complete darkness except for her LED lights. I used a flash light for focus and then made an exposure. We experimented with exposures ranging from 2 to 10 seconds in length. We experimented with different motions and dance movements eventually deciding that just a simple rocking motion of her body and arms made for the most convincing and effective light.

Post Production

Post for me is always a nightmare: I like to shoot, not to edit. I tethered into capture 1 and processed my raws into tiffs. At this point there is only some color correction and a minor contrast curve. Once in Photoshop I don’t do much if possible. I’ll remove dust if there is any, remove my mark from the backdrop, I may touch up some skin if it needs it, and I often extend the backdrops to my intended crops, but I prefer these to the image itself looking natural. I don’t want them to look over edited. I hate that really.

If I look at someone’s photograph and I am thinking about what he did in post, I am not really thinking about the image. As you can see from the non-retouched image, I am shooting out of my apartment, which in New York City is a huge challenge. I make it work, but it’s tough. The most challenging part of this image was the color. Blending the strobe with the LED was tricky. Low quality LED’s can have a really funky color balance, which by itself can be tough. Then I mixed it with the strobe. My layers usually consist of levels for black and white points, a contrast curve (this particular image has a very minor flattening curve), a color curve, and a few hue/sat layers for different things (for example I will desaturate the blues from the background, desaturate some red/yellow from skin, and saturate some red/yellow in her costume). Sometimes, if I am not happy with the natural vignette that occurs, I will burn a little bit around the edges though I rarely dodge and burn on the subject. Overall, given the challenges of making the image, I am satisfied with the final images.

Before/After

Before

After