Moments of Beauty, Stolen: Dirty Lights Photography

Image from Black Swan from Matthew Libatique .jpg
Image from 'Black Swan' by Matthew Libatique

Photographs aren't just pieces of paper; they're slices of life, fragments of time captured in amber forever representing an instant into infinity. In the age of Instagram, Facebook, and cameras mounted on every conceivable device or apparatus, it feels like anyone could take a picture that impresses for a second. But in this world where everyone has a camera, it seems that there are fewer photographers, real photogs with an eye for beauty and the capability of snapping an image that steals the oxygen from your lungs or the breath from your lips.

Enter the Dirty Lights photography exhibition opening at Swing House studios in Hollywood, Saturday September 8. The series co-curated by photographer/ director Piper Ferguson, Paul Solet, William Rot, Jason Alvino and presented by Filter Magazine, assembles a group of fine photographers ranging from journalists, musicians, actors, cinematographers, and directors. It's a group that sees the world differently; where life is a series of sacred moments to be savored.

But an image doesn't always tell the whole story. To find out what really happens in front of -- and behind -- the lens, Artbound asked a few of Dirty Lights' photographers to select one of their photos from the exhibit, and give us a story to go with it.

'Marilyn In Front Of Her Trailer' by Tamar Levine
'Marilyn In Front Of Her Trailer' by Tamar Levine

Tamar Levine

I have been photographing Melissa since my last year at Art Center, seven years ago. The series began as a study of the characters of Hollywood Boulevard--the people who walk around in costumes, for the tourists. Although I had fun shooting "Elvis" and "Michael Jackson," the moment I walked into the Chinese Restaurant and saw "Marilyn," I knew I had to change my series: to fully devote attention not only to this character, but to the fascinating and eccentric woman behind the character.

When Melissa introduced herself, she was in full costume, wig and all. She took out old photos of Marilyn and immediately began to point out poses she could do that would be thoroughly accurate, with back story for each image. She was amazing, and thus my series, "Marilyn," began.

After that initial photo session, I met Melissa every year for another session. Each time, she showed up in a different outfit; Black Swan, White Swan, Pirates of the Caribbean; even new facets of Marilyn. Although Melissa moved to Las Vegas about two years ago, she still visits LA every so often, by Greyhound Bus. We meet in various public areas of Los Angeles. One year she showed up at the Griffith Observatory as Natalie Wood, from "Rebel Without a Cause;" the next, at a church (she was the Virgin Mary, plastic Baby Jesus doll and all). She always shows up immersed in her character, and tells me why the character resonates in her soul.

This particular photo is "Marilyn In Front Of Her Trailer." We had planned to go to Hollywood Boulevard that day, but the moment I came to her trailer to pick her up, I knew this was the spot. Newspaper clippings covered the walls. Bios of Marilyn filled the corners. Bags and bags of clothing and makeup were neatly stored, and photos of Melissa's family were taped to the door.

I began by shooting Melissa getting into her role, applying fake eyelashes and drawing on a large mole, with black eyeliner pencil. From there she got right into character as Marilyn in "River of No Return."

I asked Melissa to write up a little paragraph about the photo. Here is what she said:
"For my Certificate in Fashion Merchandising, from Lowthian Business College, I studied Modeling; I smile and pose for my career. Here I am dressed as the sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, in the showgirl dress from River Of No Return, a serious drama about love being like a river, a part I can relate to because of my past relationships. The burgundy showgirl dress, is a vintage shop bargain, that I altered and modified. I am photographed by my friend Tamar Levine, in my trailer, that someone baught me as a gift."

Unfortunately Melissa doesn't own the trailer any more. It broke down and was impounded shortly before she moved to Vegas. Luckily I have it documented. I plan on continuing to document Melissa and her things, as long as she allows me to.

Emma Garr
Emma Garr

Emma Garr

The story of this photo starts on Josh's most recent birthday, which was in May of this year. As a surprise, I had enlisted Josh's best friend Casey Wescott to fly down from Seattle, and had maintained perfect secrecy regarding the matter until the morning of, at which point we took our white 1968 Cadillac Deville convertible to LAX before cruising aimlessly up Highway One until late in the afternoon. Arriving at the Chateau Marmont for the second half of his surprise, a night at the famed hotel (a place that we frequent often despite the fact that we lived up the street) we were all informed that reservations had accidentally overbooked the hotel and the only room available was the $4,000 a night suite, known as Bungalow Three and that the hotel would gladly have us spent the night there instead. We were quickly bustled up to the suite, Casey Wescott in tow which we realized upon arriving was in fact a house, perched on the very top of the hillside, complete with living room, dining room, kitchen, three bathrooms with deep soaking tubs, two bedrooms (one of which was a massive suite equipped with king sized bed and floor to ceiling sliding glass doors) as well as a private backyard. We were also informed by the bellhop, as well as the valet who drove our Cadillac into the private garage, that this is also where John Belushi died.

After wandering aimlessly around the place for a good twenty minutes, checking closets and sofa cushions and fireplaces and mattresses, we called Jonathan Wilson and proceeded to have the night of our fucking lives.

At 4 AM we retired to our respective bedrooms and at 6 AM I put Josh in a taxi in order to arrive on time for a 7AM radio performance at KCRW. This photo was taken shortly after he left.

It's a self-portrait, taken from Josh's side of the bed. The sun is rising over the banana plants in the private backyard and making its way through the sheer mid-century drapes.

Dream by Paul Solet
Dream by Paul Solet

Paul Solet

I had come to New York from LA to research a directing assignment, but it was a great excuse to hang out with my father, who came down from Boston to walk the city with me. My father and I like to walk. It's something the men in my family do a lot of. Our pace is too fast for civilized company, and we'll cover eighteen miles in a day, mapping our routes according to the food we intend to eat along the way. We'd spent the last few days walking the streets and exploring the more obscure corners of the art world, where the film took place, but today, the last day of our trip, was reserved for the Bridge.

It was rainy and cold, but we were on a mission. As we reached the Manhattan side of this timeless icon and started across into the February gloom, a thought came up from when I was a little kid playing jazz around Boston. It was about the blues; how the chord changes are pretty much the same every time, but Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson are going to give you two very different takes on the same song, and a lesser musician will just find himself stifled by the confines. Photographing the Brooklyn Bridge poses a similar challenge. Will you be able to see something new here, or just fail completely?

My dad and I joked about this as we took a series of uninspired shots. I tried to get away from the form of the thing and into the texture that has grown upon it over the last century like some man-made urban moss. The first thing I noticed was the locks. There were hundreds of them, little master locks, each inscribed with the names of lovers or friends, clipped around the suspension wires spanning the walkway. I shot them, hanging over the side and waiting for cabs to cruise through the backgrounds, wiping the rain from my lens and blowing into my hands between shots to warm them. They were fun images, and I was grateful to have found them, but they weren't anything more. I turned to my dad, accepting my failure.

He was photographing across the ramp, looking like a street shooter from decades past in his trench coat and scally cap; he could be Brassaï himself if not for the little G12 I got him for Christmas. I grinned, and shot my father instead, knowing this is why I was in New York. Not the research, not the movie, but my dad. He smiled back. And then we were shooting each other, a grinning duel along the walkway, closer and closer, under way, until finally we busted up laughing. We'd finished for the day. It was time to meet uncle Frank for a final deli gorging before heading to Boston to see the rest of my family.

As we walked back along the bridge toward Manhattan, though, I saw one last picture. There on the iron rail amidst the rivets, was an ice cream cone. It was almost entirely melted, even the waffle wilted and sagging from the rain. But, its American flag wrapper was still holding up. As the rain came faster, I laid my camera along the wet iron and shot, the figures beside us just faceless silhouettes hurrying back toward the city where that most famous of dreams was born and is rumored to still reside. I turned to my dad, his collar up against the wind. He was grinning. "Great shot, kid."

But I had already gotten the shot I came for:

By Paul Solet.
By Paul Solet.

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