Why Burlesque? I am often asked this. Of all the subjects, of all the vintage subjects, why Burlesque? Honestly Burlesque wasn’t the top pick when I came up with the idea of creating a photo series while using my vintage Widelux camera. I had thought of roller derby, rodeo and bowling also. When the art form of Burlesque came to mind, I really didn’t know if it still existed. Boy, was I naive! What I knew about this form of dance was minimal. I thought it was an old form of theater usually performed in old, dark, smoky halls with ladies of questionable character undressing in front of screaming drunk men. This is where I admit I was entirely wrong. This is where I explain, why Burlesque?
I met a television celebrity entirely by chance one weekend at a vintage sale. Her name was Danielle Colby of “American Pickers” fame. This History Channel reality show has brought her into living rooms all around the country for many seasons. As she teams up with Mike and Frank to search for rusty gold very week, she also is deeply involved in the world of this vintage art form named Burlesque. While the other potential photo venues faded in desire due to camera limitations or popularity, Burlesque just seemed to make sense. If my goal was to pick a subject slow enough for my old camera’s swinglens to catch up, if a vintage look was desired, if accessibility was needed, then Burlesque was the choice. So in the Spring of 2014 I contacted my casual acquaintance, Danielle Colby, via email and pitched her my idea. I explained the limitations and benefits of this fabulous camera and how it would portray what was shown onstage. I also expressed my desire to do with Burlesque what the artist, Degas, did with ballet. This was the thought that intrigued her. She has many photographers in her family so the idea came across as a natural fit. She performs with her own dance troupe titled, Burlesque Le’Moustache. Then Danielle not only invited me to photograph an event, but the annual Iowa Burlesque Festival. In October, the beautiful Davenport Adler Theater was to be my palette. It was six months away but I accepted the invitation with excitement.
It was during this waiting time where my doubts began. It seemed logical for a photo series but I wondered if I should photograph a performance I wasn’t all together comfortable with. Now keep in mind, at this point, I had never seen Burlesque and was only familiar with what I thought I knew. Dark theaters, people with questionable character, drunkenness and debauchery. Not necessarily my kind of place. Was I nuts? What would friends think? Had I slipped to the dark side? But then the question I asked myself was this. What is the true role of any photographer, especially a vintage photographer? Did every correspondent agree with every war he covered? Does every reporter agree with the subject of every story he writes? Maybe I was missing my own point. All I originally strived to create was my own type of vintage art using this fabulous tool of panorama. I wasn’t trying to judge the subject but to paint the subject on film with integrity and beauty. I was making this too tough. I decided to proceed with the schedule and shoot the festival without hesitation. I would find beauty as I saw it and I would photograph with integrity. While photographing sunsets and street scenes would be safe and more widely accepted, frankly, they have been done. I just wanted something that, even I, had not viewed before.
The day (or evening ) arrived and I entered the hall leading to the theater box office to meet Annie Wren, Danielle’s sister, who was to take me in. She handed me the all-access pass that would allow me anywhere at the Adler. Back stage, on stage, dressing rooms, green room, cat walks, everywhere. She escorted me downstairs to the inner sanctum of the theater. Down the stairs and around the hallways to the first dressing room. From the hall I could see on into the crowded, narrow room banked on each side with counter vanities and make-up lights. It was like being on the sun bright. I stood at the door while Annie leaned in and got the ladies attention. “Girls,” she said, “This is Ray Harvey. He is a photographer and he is here with a really cool old camera to shoot your performance. He will be all around here. Does anyone have an issue with him taking your photo? If you do, speak now. But if you do, then you may want to think about a different line of work cause there will always be someone taking your picture.” No one shook their head and I was greeted with a “Hi Ray” as I walked into the room. And that was it. I was in the dressing room. Much like being in a girls locker room or daughters bedroom, I suppose. Make-up, bags, purses, hair dryers and candy wrappers were thrown about. I needed to step over clothes as I entered. The best thing was that they couldn’t care less about me being there. They rarely looked my way. They were just in their moment having fun and I guess an old guy with a camera was just part of it. As difficult as it may sound to you, I wasn’t looking at the nudity, lack of clothing or their costume process. In fact, it was only later when I reviewed my own photos did I really see what was in the dressing room. I was concentrating on the location of the camera and it’s angle to the subjects. I needed to be aware of possible glare to the camera lens as it moved from left to right. Was this a low angle or high shot? Was a close-up appropriate? Lots of decisions and no do-overs. This was a chance of a lifetime!
For more commentary on the night of BOLD’E BURLESQU’E, stay tuned!