Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gypsy Rose Lee & Her New York City… Uncovered

(Picture 1: "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare")
(Photo 2: Author Karen Abbott)
(Picture 3: Ms. Gypsy Rose Lee)

Gypsy Rose Lee & Her New York City… Uncovered!
     “You gotta get a gimmick, if you wanna be a star!” As we learn in Karen Abbott’s New book, “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare”, the late performer/personality Gypsy Rose Lee did have a gimmick, and it did indeed make her a big star. The most fascinating thing I walked away from after reading Abbott’s book, however, was how “Gypsy”-- the beloved musical and movie based on Ms. Lee’s memoirs-- was indeed a “musical fable”, which was actually how the play was subtitled upon its release. “Gypsy” may have been based on fact, but the sweet-as-honey 1959 stage adaptation and subsequent 1962 movie were neither the whole story nor even overwhelmingly based on fact. “American Rose“ is a biography of the Queen Mother of Burlesque, and it’s also a vivid look at the Golden Age of burlesque in the (ahem) Naked City, from the ’20’s through the ’40’s. Author Abbott handles the two interwoven stories with an unorthodox approach. Chapters bounce between the story of Gypsy’s colorful personal/professional life and the history of New York City which paved the way for her star to rise. The two stories meet somewhere in the middle, when Gypsy Rose Lee strutted into the burlesque scene just when it seemed to need her most. Abbott describes the environment in The Big Apple post-stock market crash: “These days a man couldn’t spare $5.50 for legitimate theater, not even if he wanted to, but for just $1.50 he could see pretty women taking off their clothes-- prettier, now, than ever before; all of those aspiring actresses who once dreamt of applause on stage were now settling for whistles along a runway.“ In Abbott’s book, be prepared to meet the famous Minsky brothers. Be prepared to learn about “cooch dancing” and “showing the knish“. Be prepared for an exposé about American sexual mores as our nation inched its way towards the sexual revolution. And… did you know that a G-string was likely named after the lowest string of a violin?

     Abbott’s book couldn’t be more timely. If it seems like burlesque is everywhere again, my humble theory is that it’s because we Americans are searching for new ways to appreciate and enjoy our sexuality. Just where do you go in the digital age, where we have lost our shockability, and satisfaction of any sexual craving is available at the click of a mouse? Back to “old school“ sexiness, of course! Many admirers of both the male and female form may agree that performers who leave something to the imagination-- some vestige of fantasy-- can often be more sexy than those who show it all. (Although I do admit, I’m partial to both!) Put another way, the essence of eroticism is often gauged by what is NOT shown. In addition to skin, burlesque also incorporates comedy into the act, which Gypsy herself knew so well. With its focus on pageantry, spectacle, raunch, a little bit of glamour, and the art of striptease, burlesque had its heyday in the early 20th century before dying out in the 40’s. However, the art form not only survives but is thriving in a particularly vivid underground subculture in New York City, where it is sometimes called “neo-burlesque“. It is vastly appreciated by audiences who are inclined to appreciate it. Performer Dita Von Teese has seemed to have inherited the crown as the new Queen of Burlesque for our time. Julie Atlas Muz is another popular artist who has achieved noted stature in the burlesque world. The regular “Sweet and Nasty Burlesque” shows are one of New York City nightlife’s best kept secrets. Jonny Porkpie, the self-proclaimed Burlesque Mayor of New York, has one of the busiest itineraries in the Naked City.

     So, boys and girls, here’s a bit of history: Performer Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970), born Rose Louise Hovick, was perhaps the most famous burlesque artist of them all. Her self-styled routines seem tame and even campy by today’s standards. Years ago, however, both the art of burlesque and Gypsy herself were considered to be quite risqué and controversial. Gypsy was branded as a “stripper“, but she was far more than just that. As anyone from her era remembers (and anyone with access to YouTube in 2011 can see), Gypsy Rose Lee’s emblematic act was more “tease“ than “strip“, and she incorporated comedy and smart banter with her audience into the show. She was not considered a great beauty, at least by Hollywood’s monopolistic standards-- but back then, she was considered one of America’s reigning sex symbols. Abbott says of Lee: “She was no bombshell; her breasts were small and her rear pear-shaped, but her waist was tiny and her legs epic, two pillars astride the entrance to some secret, exclusive city. Five feet nine and a half inches and 130 well-distributed pounds.” After retiring from burlesque, Gypsy achieved a different kind of success as a writer of fiction (“The G-String Murders” in 1941) and a TV personality. She knew the value of humor, as when a reporter asked her, “What do you expect to accomplish in your cinema career, Miss Lee?” She responded, “I could do straight drama because I believe in stark realism. I could do comedy because I have learned to grin and bear it. After all, a girl can’t be both long-faced and broad-minded. Also, I should be a fairly good imitator because I know how to do take-offs.“ However, Gypsy Rose Lee’s larger-than-life, unique persona did not translate well to the movie screen, partially due to the dictatorial Hollywood standards at the time. Gypsy was not allowed to use her adopted name or even hint at the profession that made her a star to begin with. The star’s biggest mark on pop culture turned out to be her 1957 memoir “Gypsy”, which was adapted into what some people have called the “greatest musical of them all”.

     So, how did Ms. Rose Lee‘s real life compare with “Gypsy“, the musical and the movies? Through Abbott‘s book, we revisit the world of “old school” burlesque and nightlife. It’s characterized with some titillatingly darker, grittier details than any movie or play in the ’50’s would depict, and it’s flavored with political and social undertones. We also learn much more about Gypsy’s life. A big part of this is seeing her Mama Rose (Rose Hovick) in a far less sympathetic light than the way she was portrayed by Ethel Merman on stage or Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler in the movies. More than just an overbearing stage mother, she’d be more accurately described as a manipulative monster who may have actually murdered two people. Put another way, she made Faye Dunaway‘s Mommie Dearest look like Florence Henderson.  Nevertheless, Mama Rose was indeed one of the major figures in Gypsy’s life, as was Gypsy’s sister June Havoc-- an underused performer in her own right. (Camp movie lovers may know Havoc as Steve Guttenberg’s endearingly doting mother in 1980‘s “Can’t Stop the Music”.) One things for sure, kids: both the art of burlesque and Ms. Gypsy Rose Lee are ripe for further re-discovery… as long as, in Gypsy’s own words, we leave something to the imagination. At least, at first!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Interview With Mark Krieger: The Photographer Invites You to View His "Maleography"!

An Interview With Mark Krieger:
The Photographer Invites You to View His “Maleography“!

     It’s mid-week, early evening at Mark Krieger’s New York City studio. Adorning the walls of Krieger’s creative space are framed selections from his portfolio: stunning portraits of some amazingly fit and sexy men, proudly displaying all their naked glory for the world to see. (Hey, I’ve always believed that the best way to decorate your surroundings is with your own art!) If you can get past the eye-popping photos which greet you in the hallway, you’ll notice Krieger’s small library of coffee table-quality books: most of which are collections of male erotic photography by his fellow artists. One of the books is “Exposed”, by one of his role models, Dylan Rosser. The small Hell’s Kitchen studio is the where Mr. Krieger shoots most of his photos for his website,  Krieger calls Maleography a site in progress, but there’s already plenty of eye candy to satisfy admirers of the masculine form, with a wide variety of male beauty on display. If you haven‘t yet checked out his site, here‘s some advice: Be prepared to dedicate a good amount of time for your viewing pleasure… and be prepared to be, shall we say, swept away! The layout of Krieger‘s photos are simple: most of them use a minimum of props or photographic gimmickry. The effect of his lighting and direction on his models, however, is profoundly vivid. On one of my visits to his studio, Mark animates his computer screen and shows me some of his work. The portraits are no less than astonishing. One sinewy model displays his athletic, acrobatic talents in some seemingly gravity-defying poses. Another model, a Latino 20-something, is completely nude unless you count his expert ink jobs-- and he conveys a NYC “outer boroughs”-type attitude that says a thousand words with one quasi-intimidating look. Daring the viewer to stare at the photo, the sexual tension is almost too unbearable for the (ahem…) naked eye. Mark also shows me his shots of a popular adult film actor. Freed from the leather and S&M trappings which he usually wears in his movies, the star’s bare magnetism stands up, you‘d agree, very well on its own. Mark is wondering out loud about what to do with some of these photos: Should he keep the studio backdrop for this one? Should he keep natural lighting in that one? Is this a better angle than that? I think to myself, How do you pick the most flawless pictures from a perfect collection? It’s like trying to pick the winner of a beauty pageant where all the contestants are equally beautiful and smart too. 
     Looking at Krieger’s photos, the average person would never know that the end result-- the photos that end up framed on a wall of a gallery-- are the result of hours of work and skill. It’s a tough job taking pictures of superbly built naked guys, most of whom clearly spend a great deal of their time pumping iron at the gym, or sweating it up at a boxing ring, or stretching at a dance studio … and only about a million other guys would love the opportunity to do it! But I doubt that those million other guys could make the pictures looks as phenomenal as Mark Krieger does. Granted, these guys were pretty hot to begin with… but this shutterbug clearly knows how to bring out the “Wow!” in every picture. I spoke with the man who states that his focus is, simply, “capturing bits of light on things of beauty"…

JR: Hi, Mark! So, I’ve seen the guys on your site and the first question that came to mind was, Where do you find most of your models?
MK: When I started, I found them on Craigslist or Model Mayhem or, or anywhere on the Internet. I did outreach that way. After posting a couple of ads and showing some of my previous work-- because I got into this after a ten-year hiatus-- I got a couple of good models, and I started promoting myself that way through those channels. People started seeking me out. I get a dozen or so requests a month for shoots now. So, that's how I started: Craigslists, Model Mayhem… those photographer/model networking sites.

JR: When you are shooting a model, is there a specific feeling or vibe that you are aiming for?
MK: Well, it depends on the model. Everyone is going to bring something different to the table. I know what I like, but it might not always be what the viewer on the other side likes. So, I take the time to get to know the model-- finding out what they want out of the pictures, going through my photos with them and seeing what they like or don't like, and even going through other people's photos too. I try to gauge what the model likes, as the subject. That always works best for me. The model is going to give me more, because they want to see those types of pictures. So, I go with what the model wants. Certainly, I have a certain aesthetic-- but I'd say it's 60 percent the model and 40 percent me.

JR: I've seen you and other photographers work your craft. It's not exactly glamorous or easy: the twisting and turning in all these different directions to get the perfect shot, and trying to capture just the right moment, and taking maybe 25 shots where maybe you will use one or two out of them. When most people see the pictures in the magazine or on the computer, they'd never guess the amount of work that goes into the shot! 
MK: Well, there are two styles of photography that I have seen, especially in the age of digital technology for photos. You can do what I do, which is take the time to set the backdrop, and set the lighting, and be really meticulous on how I frame the photo, and capture a particular moment... so when I hit that shutter, I know what it's gonna look like when it pops up on the screen. Then, there are photographers who keep that shutter pressed the entire time-- and they get 3,000 shots in an hour. After that, the work begins-- hopefully trying to find something that works, by chance! I would say that typically, in a two hour photo shoot, I take about 200 photos, about a hundred an hour. Certainly, some of them are rapid-- especially if there's any movement going on or something like that, or if I just see something I need to capture. But, other photographers may take about 2,000 or 3,000 photos in that same two hours. I usually yield about ten percent of them that I am really excited about, which then go to processing and post-production.

JR: It sounds exciting... and a lot of work!
MK: It IS a lot of work... Each two hour photo shoot represents about 20 or so hours of work for me.

JR: Wow! So, this is something of a perfunctory question I ask of every photographer: Is there a famous or well-known person who would be your dream photo shoot?
MK: I don't think so. I think that everybody has something to offer. I've had models who come in who I have seen pictures of, and I think "Oh my God, these are going to be the most fantastic photos I've ever taken in my life!"... and then I get them in front of the camera, and nothing works-- whether it's the connection between us, or the connection between the lens and them, or whatever... and I usually end up just not using the photos. Some of the most interesting photos I've ever taken have been of people who I kind of looked at and wasn't overly excited about, for some reason.

(Mark proceeds to tell me the story about one stunning model-- who shall remain unidentified!-- who was "dumber than cabbage"... and had a hard time following directions to boot. That photo shoot was almost called off. But Mark adds that when the model finally started to relax, about an hour into the shoot, “the good shots just started happening!” )

You never know how it's gonna turn out. It's an exploration that you do with the model. But back to your original question: I guess there's really no one famous person I'd like to shoot. Not yet at least.

JR: You've mentioned that a lot of your photography work is done at your own expense. Is that the hardest part about being a rising photographer: not making a profit from your work, at this stage at least?
MK: Right now, I am not in it to make money. I've always said, this will probably be how I retire. If I can make enough money in my retirement to support everything, that would be great. But right now I'm nowhere near that! So, I don't look at it as a money-making proposition or enterprise for me. I'm doing it mostly for fun and to build up my portfolio... so that when I do decide to make money, I have 300 people that I shot recently. I know that there are some people who do make a living at it. One of my inspirations is one of those people.

JR: Who?

MK: Dylan Rosser. He is based in the UK. I came across one of his books, and I wrote him years ago. That was actually the catalyst that got me back into photography. Years ago, I used to print photography, with chemicals and all that good stuff! But I developed an allergy to it, so I had to stop... and there wasn't any really good digital cameras that could do the same thing until just a few years ago. But I saw Dylan's work in a magazine at first actually, and then I sought him out... and we became pen pals. I said, "I really like your stuff, and I have all your books," and he just started talking to me. We've built quite a nice little rapport over the years. Getting "back into it", I get a lot of my inspiration from him. He does the same kind of stuff that I do, and he's got the same eye that I do for form. So, there's a lot of synergy there between us. He's been my "silent mentor", if you will, in the photography business. He works in London, out of a spare room in his apartment-- or "flat", I guess! He worked in the design and fashion industry. If you really want to make a good living out of it, that's what you gotta do. You gotta shoot for the "Vogue's", you gotta shoot for this and shoot for that, and get your stuff printed in magazines. That's how you usually take off as a big photographer. That's certainly what Dylan did. He started like that. He's been doing this since '98, so he's only been at this for about 13 years or so. He got into it right when I was getting out of it, sort of! So, there are certainly ways to make money out of it. But one of the things he said was, "Don't do this to make money". That was never my intention to begin with, because you won't. You won't make money off of this. You might GET money, but in the end you're not gonna make it. But, there is certainly a handful of people who have made a lot of money!

JR: Most of my friends are artists, or musicians, or performers... and I have learned that you really have to be motivated by your love of what you do. The money, if it comes, is just a nice side effect!
MK: I'm a firm believer that "Money taints art"... because I've seen it happen. I have a lot of actor friends. I went to school for theater. As soon as I started "singing for my supper", the magic and the art went away. I saw that happen to them a lot too, when they were working and trying to do a show, or booking a gig because they needed to survive. It became a job. I never want this to become my job. Because then, you are then doing it for different reasons. You're doing it for that paycheck. You're doing it for that dinner. So, I never want to shoot a photo for my supper. You're on somebody else's terms; you're on whoever's terms is giving you the money. If you like to shoot nude men of a specific type, then that's what you like to do... but as soon as somebody starts paying you, then you have to shoot what they want to see. Then, that magic and that exploration comes away from you. You're driven, instead of doing the driving!

JR: How true! Now, lastly, you're a guy who has seen and worked with a lot of really sexy men. As an expert on male beauty, what do you personally find sexy?
MK: Confidence! First of all, the process of the photo shoot is very mechanical. It's not at all sexy, it's not at all luxurious. There's a lot of work-- and there's lights, and there's angles, and it's a very mechanical process. I'm usually not attracted to the model, because I am in my mode and I am doing my thing. It's like any other job that you're doing. But what I find attractive is confidence. I like somebody who knows his body and is confident about it, who can take my direction and yet input theirs in, because that's going to be the most comfortable scenario. Somebody who is just gonna do what I say is great, but I'm not doing photography for puppets. I'm doing photography for people. So, somebody who has their own spin, their own creativity... that's what attracts me!

You can see Mark Krieger’s work at