Harvinder Sunila: Backstage portraits of burlesque dancers (NSFW)

Misty BW

Misty Vie Va Voom and her feathers waiting by the stage door about to go on at Jaks.

Today's guest post "Backstage Portraits Of Burlesque Dancers" by Harvinder Sunila contains some images that are NSFW (Not Safe For Work). In order to see some of the NSFW photographs, you will have to click on the indicated links at the bottom of this post and by doing so agree that you are at least 18 years old.

 A variety show, typically including striptease, that's the dictionary definition of burlesque. To me it's something else. To me it's about the dancers, their art, their passion and how much it means to them beyond the ten minutes you get to see on stage.

I'm a portrait and music photographer based in the UK, I've been working on a series of backstage portraits of burlesque dancers, and here's a small insight into the project.

Most of the burlesque photographs you come across are either pin up style glamour or live stage shots, they serve a purpose but I have no interest in those type of images. For this series I wanted to photograph what you don't see, what you don't get access to, maybe what the dancers don't want you to see. It's been a difficult series to organise, sometimes frustrating, but also enjoyable and rewarding. I've met some wonderful performers who have been so understanding, so accommodating and so helpful, I can't thank them enough for allowing me to photograph them in such an intimate way.

Miss Hells Bells BW

Miss Hell's Belle making final adjustments to her hair band side stage at The Gatsby Club.

This being nikonrumors let's talk about Nikon. My equipment for this has been a Nikon D3, a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AF-D, Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G and Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. I also use a SB900 on the rare occasions I'm able or allowed to use flash, most of the time it's available light in poorly lit changing rooms. The D3 is an astonishing camera, it may have been replaced by other models and we're now at the D4s, but for stills there isn't a lot between them up to 6400. I've never been one for pixel peeping and I don't care much about 100% side by side comparisons, I'll leave that to others. My D3 has never let me down, produces beautiful files and does everything I ask of it. Lately it's been covered in feathers and glitter thanks to one Lady V having a bit of fun at my expense, it came off easily enough but I do make sure I'm nowhere near glitter when changing lenses backstage. Throughout my photography career I've always used primes and I found it hard to get comfortable with the 70-200mm at first, but now I've worked out how to use it in a way that works for me. Instead of doing what most do, which is looking through the viewfinder and zooming in or out, I decide a focal length before hand and then use it as if it were a fixed prime. I know from experience what a certain focal length will look like as far as compression, field of view etc. is concerned, so I'll set the lens to 105mm and move myself back and forward as if it were a fixed lens. I do the same at 135mm and 200mm which are the lengths my eyes seem to gravitate towards. Some changing rooms are tiny and there's no way I can use a lens as big as the 70-200mm, it's a fantastic lens and the VR comes in useful. Sometimes I'm at 6400 ISO, f/2.8 and 1/15th sec, but at those speeds you will get blur even with VR enabled. I love my 50mm f/1.8 G, if I only had one lens to use the 50mm would be it. I did own the AF-D version and was genuinely shocked by how much better the AF-S was. It's one of those cases where you have to try it, and then you'll see the differences jump out. The 24mm is my oldest lens, it's not quite as sharp or fast to focus as the other two, but it's still a good lens and I get great results with it. Again it's a focal length my eyes seem to like, I enjoy framing within that field of view. If Nikon were to bring out an AF-S 24mm f/1.8 G I'd most likely upgrade to it.

Miss Hells Bells COL

Miss Hell's Belle after she had finished performing, backstage at The Gatsby Club.

The beginning of a burlesque shoot isn't me turning up backstage at an event, the beginning is countless emails, phone calls and meetings with a particular dancer weeks or months beforehand. Even if everything comes together and I have permission from both the dancer and the venue to take images backstage, I then have to get that same permission from all the other performers who will be in the changing rooms that particular night. I talk to them all as a group when I arrive, explaining what I'm doing and what I'm not doing. Only if everyone is happy with me being there do I open my camera bag. It's made very clear that at any stage of the night, if anyone wants me to stop taking images, or delete an image, for any reason at all then I will. Sometimes there's a change of heart, I get there to find out I'm not allowed backstage, you just have to accept it, let it go and think about the next dancer on the list.

Rosie BW

Rosie Whine in the changing rooms, a few minutes before stepping on stage at Jaks.

Once I get the camera to my eye and start to see what's going on I'm happy, then the really hard work begins and I can start chasing the type of images I'm looking for. I will pull the dancer aside for one on one portraits throughout the night and I'll take some more reportage type images too. Often I'll take shots of other people backstage, when you see an interesting image through your viewfinder you've got to take it, you'll regret it if you don't. I'm always aware that the dancers are there to perform, so I have to be careful not to get in their way or to annoy them. Depending on the situation I may only get a few minutes backstage or I may get the whole night. The most difficult thing is getting the dancers to drop their burlesque mask for the me. Many find it difficult to do, for some it's their protection and others just don't want that part of them seen. It's also about trust, I'm not there to make them look bad and often when I've taken an image early on I'll show them on the back of my camera to reassure them. When I do it's as if a penny drops, they understand what I'm trying to get, and from there on it becomes slightly easier.

Cat Aclysmic BW

Cat Aclysmic getting ready in the changing rooms at The Gatsby Club.

My editing and processing is done in a combination of Lightroom, Photoshop, ColorEfex and SilverEfex. I learnt how to process and print from a couple of music/portrait photographers I assisted in London. They worked as master printers before being known for their own images and printed for some of the world's greatest photographers. I use all the skills I learnt from them in my digital darkroom, any retouching beyond traditional darkroom techniques are minimal and is normally just spotting. I'm not taking fashion or beauty shots so I don't smooth out skin, manipulate body shape or anything like that, I may take out a small blemish if it's too obvious.

Link to NSFW photo

Link to NSFW photo

Up until recently all the images I'd taken still felt like a collection of single photographs, but now it's starting to fit together and feel more like an actual series. I can now see the thread that runs through them all. Maybe further down the line I can think about a possible exhibition and book.

My burlesque images can be seen across my blog www.harvindersunila.tumblr.com (just hit the archive button) and my portfolio is on www.harvindersunila.com.

After talking to Peter (admin) regarding nudity the main images are posted behind links to protect those accessing the site from work. Please do not click on the links if you feel burlesque images may offend you.

Thank you for taking the time to read the article, I hope you find my images and the story of the series interesting.

Harv.

All photographs © Harvinder Sunila 2014 all rights reserved, no reproduction without permission.

This entry was posted in Other Nikon stuff and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Back to top