Special effects artist creates portraits using early photo techniques

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By Jean Lotus

Forest Park Review Editor

Former Oak Parker Geoff Binns-Calvey is used to creating magic in photographs. When a Chicago ad agency is shooting a commercial featuring sizzling hamburgers, for example, food stylists cook the burgers to precisely the right appearance. Then they summon Binns-Calvey to create the illusion of flames, the vapors of barbeque smoke and the splatters of beef juice — all without actually heating the perfect-looking meat. He also builds props of every imaginable sort – including pieces used in the new movie Divergence, filmed in Chicago, and creates realistic-looking rubber food.

But as green screens and computer animation have taken a bite out of the tabletop-effect business, Binns-Calvey, now a Forest Park resident, and his long-time colleague, Chicago photographer Martha Schrik, have branched into more artistic projects. Both experts of illusion, they have experimented for years with the earliest photographic techniques: capturing how light reacts on a subject when shot in the dark with a long exposure.

Women (and they're mostly women) are photographed in vintage costume pieces with industrial backdrops such as rusted steel arches. With the right makeup and costume, they resemble early silent-film starlets, except with anachronistic contemporary props, like coils of wire.

Not to overthink it, but Binns-Calvey calls it, "sort of a proto-steampunk, industrial, Grecian, fantasy bordello aesthetic."

He adds, "It's a pre-Raphaelite look."

Thus were invented Light Painting Salons and the duo's company, Tesla's Lens.

Schrik and Binns-Calvey host these evenings of photography in Schrik's Belmont Avenue photography studio in Chicago. They are billed as a "girls night out." For a sum starting at $200, female guests sip wine, nibble gourmet snacks and dress up in fantasy costumes. They go home with a flash drive of up to 50 images. Just like their great-grandmothers in turn-of-the-last-century daguerreotypes, they maintain a perfectly motionless pose while the camera captures them.

Using a long exposure, the team shoots subjects in the dark. As the models stand perfectly still for up to 30 seconds, Binns-Calvey dances around them dressed in dark clothing and then "paints" them with a flashlight, modified by a tunnel of dark paper to shine a precise beam.

The final photo doesn't capture Binns-Calvey at all. Only the illuminated portions of the subject appear in the picture. The resulting photos have a surrealist feel.

"It's like a Maxfield Parrish look. The skin just glows like ivory," Binns-Calvey said. "It looks like there are all kinds of different light sources."

Light photography has been around since the early days of photography. American chemist Robert Cornelius created "the first light picture ever taken," a portrait of himself in 1839.

Schrik and Binns-Calvey have been experimenting with such techniques for a long time, even shooting Schrik with a backdrop of sparks flying from an industrial die grinder. "I'm used to explosions and things on fire," she said.

The two realized they had something magical and decided to try to market the look to women who might hesitate about participating in "boudoir portraits" but would like something bold, unusual and artsy.

"We are not a portrait mill," Binns-Calvey said. "We're two independent artisans who make portraits that look like nothing else."

"We've found that when women are together, there's not as much inhibition. Women are transformed and it brings out their confidence," Binns-Calvey said. "That's what's amazing to me."

A visit from the Derby girls

On a mild summer evening last week, Schrik and Binns-Calvey prepared the studio for a special portrait. Five coaches from Oak Park's roller derby fitness organization, Derby Lite, and their founder and president, Barbara "Queen B" Dolan, had scheduled a Light Painting Salon session.

Binns-Calvey and Schrik had never photographed six subjects at the same time, and it presented theoretical challenges — how long exposures could last and whether the models could hold still long enough to keep the images in focus.

Bottles of red and white wine were uncorked. The coffee table supported a platter of delicacies: lychee fruits, hummus, brie, roasted garlic bread, bacon-wrapped figs, pickled beans, grapes, salami, dates, pineapple, Japanese edamame, and chips.

The coaches began to arrive, introducing themselves by their "derby" names: Smaxl Rose, Li'l Mo Peep, Foxy Balboa, Mimi Furst and New York Doll.

It became clear in this photo session that inhibition and lack of confidence on the part of the subjects was not going to be a problem.

"We are all goddesses," declared Dolan.

"When you skate derby you become confident with your size and shape," she said. The six derby women brought their own costumes: Matching stretchy pink sports bras and "booty shorts."

"We offer support to women," Smaxl noted. "We applaud when they fall."

"The bad-ass part of derby really appealed to me," noted Mimi Furst.

The derby women struck their poses for a chorus-line shot against an exposed brick wall, framed by a scarlet velvet drape. Assistant Britt Barton extinguished the lights and the women stared straight ahead as Binns-Calvey swept the beam of light over each of them.

The finished image, displayed on a computer monitor, drew gasps of excitement from the women.

"You see how I can emphasize the muscle tone here," Binns-Calvey said, pointing to Foxy Balboa's abdomen in the image.

"Can you just follow me around all the time?" she asked him, laughing.

As the night progressed, even the uninhibited derby girls became even more comfortable in their poses, each one composing herself in the dark before the shot took place.

"This is when the magic happens, when the group just sort of relaxes into it," Binns-Calvey said.

Wine was imbibed; teeth ripped peels off the lychee fruits.

The women posed in a pyramid, they crouched in skating positions, they formed "planks" and backbends.

"Your natural athleticism is really helping you maintain the pose," Binns-Calvey said.

"Very Xena," said Dolan, approvingly. "I'm so in love with you girls."

In the end, the women had a digital folder of images to work with.

Creativity and the economy

What does it mean when grown women will pay to have themselves memorialized half-undressed in art portraiture?

"We've decided the recession is over," Schrik said.

"People are starting to come back around and take risks to start their own businesses," she added. "Maybe we all got kind of lazy and needed a kick in the pants. I totally had to reinvent myself."

"Creating our own work is a real break from shooting hamburgers and bottles of perfume," Binns-Calvey said. "I've just loved getting more creative and making our own images that aren't commercial. No one's saying, 'Where's the spit bucket for the bite-and-smile?'"

And for the women in the photos, the experience is also creative.

"A great night," said Dolan. In addition to creating a portrait, Dolan said she wanted to submit the finished photos to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which features women who do not look like professional models.

"Derby is all about women of all sizes and ages colors and shapes," she said. "It's all about acceptance and confidence in yourself."

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