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Our Corsets, Our Selves

A Journey Through The Local Pinup Revival Scene

Photos By Uli Loskot
CAMERA READY: Atomic Cheesecake Studios' Stacey Barich applies makeup to a pinup girl about to be photographed.
COME ON, VOGUE: Barich demonstrates a pose for a pinup client.
SHE'S GOT THE LOOK: Barich says being a pinup means remembering that feminine beauty is power.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 1/2/2008

In a suburban basement in Parkville, women are taking off their clothes. They're ducking behind a sheet strung up by the minibar and wriggling out of thongs and elasticized bras, only to clamber quickly into the fortified lingerie of a previous generation--girdles, cinchers, bustiers, corselets, all as stiff and formidable-feeling against the body as the designation "foundation garments" implies. Nearby there's a rack of fur shrugs, cinched-waist dresses, feather boas, and half and full petticoats, their hems hovering over a jumbled pile of strappy platform heels and winklepicker pumps ranging in vintage from the Truman to the Kennedy administrations. Underneath the velvet Elvis painting to the right sits a card table arranged with delicately scented silk hair flowers, ersatz tiger lilies, and hibiscus blooms as bright and Technicolor luscious as the illustrations on vintage produce crates. A ream of pink photographer's seamless paper cascades down the far wall, spilling out onto the floor like a giant tongue. And hunched behind the sewing machine in the corner, putting a few emergency stitches in a red negligee, is model and photographer Action Girl, aka Stacey Barich. This basement is the headquarters of Atomic Cheesecake Studios, and the women emerging from behind the impromptu dressing room are here so she can document their transformation from girl-on-the-street to pinup star.

Pinups, those pulchritudinous distillations of feminine perfection festooning girlie calendars, are making a comeback--sort of. Half revival, half re-imagining, this resurgence of the naughty-sweet genre is equal parts nostalgia and psychobilly, with a hearty third-wave wink at feminist maxims such as thou shalt not aspire to being attractive to men. While some models, such as Bernie Dexter (a dead ringer for that patron saint of kinky cheesecake, Bettie Page) and Cherry Dollface, have turned their time before the camera into lucrative careers, there's hundreds more women--models and photographers, mind you--just in it for the fun. And while this generation of pinups often sports body modification such as tattoos and piercings that would have relegated them to the sideshow 50 years ago, there's a philosophical similarity to the old and new vanguard of va-va-voom.

The women in Barich's basement studio today approach that understanding with varying degrees of trepidation. While Barich attends to her mending--"I'm dealing with a wardrobe emergency over here," she notes dryly--her friend Cheriti Sneed, the self-described "fluffer" for the photo shoot, attends to the first model of the day: Nicole, a slightly plump blonde who looks puppy-fat adorable in a pink and black babydoll negligee. She's having some photos taken as a Valentine's Day present for her boyfriend.

"I don't know how I've kept it a surprise," she smiles. "I'm so excited."

Right now, however, she just looks nervous, even though Sneed is making sure her garters and vintage-style sewn-heel stockings are on straight. Sneed's hairdresser mom, Kathy, and sister Cori have transformed Nicole's hipster shag into a soft, blowsy pageboy more appropriate to the pinup era, while Barich adjusted her makeup, giving her delineated eyebrows, rouged lips, and huge flirty fake eyelashes. As a final concession to authenticity, Nicole's removed the jewelry from her navel. The stainless-steel barbell now rests on the coffee table, next to Kathy and Cori's tip jar and the veggies and dip Barich has provided for refreshment.

A huge heart-shaped candy box is arranged on the pink seamless paper, in keeping with Valentine's Day. It's big enough to hold bonbons the size of bowling balls, and be mine is written in girlie script on the lid. Nicole steps into the candy heart box like a kid easing into a kiddie pool. Sneed, sensing Nicole's trepidation, quickly takes charge, issuing commands with the authority of a sheepdog nudging the flock into line. "I want your feet in that corner and your knees here," she says, pointing to the heart's corner. "There's a trick to this, to make your ass look really good. Put your ankles together and sit back, but keep this much air between your heels and your ass." She sits and demonstrates, and Nicole complies.

Barich peers through the viewfinder of her professional-grade digital camera and frowns. "She's blocking the be mine entirely," she observes. After some trial and error, the three women find a position that flatters their model and the prop equally. Barich sits down on a handy ottoman and snaps off a few preliminary frames.

"We're having fun, got it?" Barich teases. "You know how to be sassy, right? I'm going to be really straightforward. If you need to suck it in, I'll tell you. And relax. Give me big eyes, head up, and smile."

Nicole tries her best. They shoot a few pics and change her position. Nicole fidgets with a roll of fat that appears around her waist, but Barich assures her it'll look fine once she Photoshops the final picture. "I got them, too," she assures her model. "I know how to fix it. Make your eyes real big," she commands. Nicole rolls her eyes skyward and parts her lips, and she really does look cute--angelic and saucy, just long enough for Barich to capture the fleeting pose in a snap.

Pinups may share some common ancestry with porn, but the two genres diverged into separate species decades ago. Pinups can be sexy, but delicately so--saucy enough to be titillating but tame enough for public (or semipublic) display, and inexorably intertwined with the glamorous, pre-mainstream porn era in which they were created. Think Betty Grable jauntily peeking back over her shoulder, or Rita Hayworth rearing elegantly on a satin-spread bed, her face a Mona Lisa mask of bemusement and invitation. While pinups can be nude (topless, never bottomless--pubic hair, or any body hair, in a pinup is grossly anachronistic) they're never vulgar. Instead, they aim for a well-mannered carnality, a healthy milk-fed vitality that's more suggestion than promise.

Illustrators such as Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas and photographers such as Bernard of Hollywood became famous in the 1940s and '50s by perfecting that idealized and vital ideation of womanhood, but the market for their subtle style died out as an increased cultural hunger for realer and rawer sex put more value on porn's unflinching realism rather than pinup's light touch. It wasn't until a wide net of enthusiasts from the overlapping, nostalgia-related subcultures of rockabilly, burlesque, and kustom kars started photographing each other in homage of the older pinups--many women switch-hitting as photographer or model as the occasion sufficed--that old-school pinup got its second wind.

Barich and Sneed agree to meet me for lunch at a Mount Vernon coffee shop to discuss the fine points of pinup. They're coming from their day jobs at Agora Publishing, but their office clothes are styled with vintage flair. Standing together, the two women have the Bert-and-Ernie physical symmetry of partnerships meant to be--Barich's curvy proportions and '50s starlet makeup make her resemble Edith Massey's much, much prettier sister, while the tall and narrow Sneed wears the cat's-eye glasses of a secretly wild librarian. Even their lunchtime order of the roasted chicken and gravy hot plate is retro. Their interest in all things Populuxe extends to their membership in the Karb Kings hot rodders car club, and not just as hood candy--Barich has rebuilt her own 1951 Chevy Styleline Deluxe, including a complete rewiring of the car's electronics as well as doing something called a "drive-train swap," an advanced procedure that, even after squinting at several auto restoration how-to sites, I'm too mystified to explain. (Apparently I'm not the only one confounded by her grease-monkey credentials. "Once [guys] find I built the car," she gloats, "they don't know how to handle it.")

"I want to honor the pinup tradition," Barich says about her other avocation. "The look is authentic--not six-inch stripper heels. It's subtle, sexy, traditional, vintage. My clients can look back on their photos in 20 years. You don't want to look at your Glamour Shots from the '80s with your collar tipped up."

Her attention to detail means not only making sure hairstyles and makeup are authentic, but also doing her own retouching--an essential component to pinup, and part of what made those historical models look superhumanly comely. Back then it was scraping on the negative, but for Barich it's Photoshop. "I know what a woman would want retouched," she says, talking about the inescapable rolls and dimples of female flesh. Her one inviolate rule is that the client never sees the original photo, just the retouched final picture. "I want them to look at the picture and feel like a million bucks."

Barich started her studio in October 2006, making her one of the first pinup nouveau photographers in Baltimore. Now she's in such demand that her Atomic Cheesecake Studios is commonly booked three months in advance. Does she ever shoot nudes? "I don't," she replies. "Not because I wouldn't. But I prefer implied nudity because it's sexier. It's not a gynecology exam. It's about the woman as a whole, not about the parts." She pauses. "The parts are great, mind you."

The local pinup community is part of a network of enthusiasts scattered across the country. It's difficult to pin down an exact number of people involved in this loose and pseudonymous scene, but a few clicks through the more than 1,500 friends on Barich's MySpace page starts to sketch out the social map. Some names recur--Sable Sin Cyr, Mabel Syrup, Ida Von Mew, Bombshell Mandy. Here's Uncle Fezter, purveyor of the faintly perfumed hair blossoms Barich made available to her models. Here's Jimmy C of Luminous Impression Studios in Northern Virginia--some of the models raved about his work. Here's a notice that the 2008 Pinups for Pitbulls calendar, created by Pennsylvania model Little Darling to benefit pit bull rescue organizations, is finally on sale. Here's Mode Merr, a rockabilly couture dressmaker who sews completely adorable pencil skirts and off-the-shoulder peasant blouses "in every size from XXS to XXXL!" And sure enough, on ModeMerr.com there's local face Sin Cyr puckering up in one of the custom-made dresses.

The constant back and forth of shoot dates and new photos isn't only played out on MySpace, though. The other hub of activity is ModelMayhem.com, a half social networking, half professional site where models and photographers create pages, scour the searchable database (need a bald Asian man between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-4 for your next shoot? Here's where to find him), and comment on each other's photos.

Less than a year or two ago, Baltimore's pinup scene was practically nowheresville. But interest bled over in part from New Jersey photographer Viva Van Story, who in turn inspired first Jillian Teague of Bombs Over Betty Photography and then Barich's Atomic Cheesecake. Teague, Barich, and Sneed work together at Agora Publishing, so it was only a matter of time before a fourth co-worker, Maria Bella, got into the action--but in front of the camera, not behind it.

"My grandmother was a huge influence on me," says Bella, a petite olive-skinned brunette with a decidedly old-world aquiline profile. "I spent every weekend with my grandmother. She had a lot of props around from that era, and I was just enthralled by it--the music, the glamour. We come from an Italian background, and so Sophia Loren to me was the epitome of exotic--and her body type is perfect."

Bella's lean gymnast build isn't the stuff of pasta-fed vixens like Loren, but there's something similarly defiant of the Malibu Barbie mold in her photos, like a recent shoot where she's lolling with a ceramic leopard on saffron-colored satin like Theda Bara. "After a while you look at these models in Elle and Cosmo and the celebrities, and they're all--the new size 2 is a size 0, and they're all supertall," she says. "And when I saw the pinup magazines, the women are full-figured, beautiful, and in my personal opinion more beautiful than some of these models that are out there nowadays. It was inspiring, and I thought, These women can go out and be beautiful. I have a different body type, I would like to do the same thing."

That's fine and good, but there's something about the whole pinup phenomenon that sets the hairs up at the back of my neck. I can't put my finger on it, but no matter how much Barich tells me about how she loves photographing women or Bella insists it's empowering being a pinup, I can't surrender to agreeing with them. What's worse, the hypocrisy of my unease is staggering, since I've been a willing and uninhibited nude artist's model on many occasions, including some fetish photography I hope my grandma never sees.

What is rubbing me the wrong way about this? I think about the original pinups and remember their ubiquitous presence in WWII Army barracks and warplane noses, how their beaming smile wasn't just jerk-off fodder but implicit approval of whatever atrocities it took to beat the Japs. The most alluring thing about a Vargas girl isn't her shape but the blank slate of her personhood, the unchallenging Stepford smile that beams, "Anything you want is fine by me." In an era when we're currently also at war, the idea of women with choices and education knowingly presenting themselves as sunny-cheeked wombs for returning soldiers sickens me.

Then again, this tactile revulsion may be the ultimate postpartum sour grapes of a once red-hot momma who became a real momma, and in doing so completely destroyed her body.

I don't even know where to begin when I regard the havoc pregnancy unleashed on my physical self. It's beyond the typical complaints of the weight gain, the scarlet stretch marks, or the C-section scar that stretches across my deflated belly like a sickly, shiny smile. Something about the hormonal imbalance of gestation and nursing has triggered an autoimmune reaction that covers my hands, arms, face, and neck in an alternately inflamed or cracking rash. Some days I wake up with my face the texture of extra-crispy fried chicken, and some days I wake up with my eyes swollen shut and a raw patch between my eyebrows oozing serum. At night, when I'm not jolted awake by a screaming infant on the hour, every hour, I lie in bed and claw at my seething skin unconsciously in my sleep.

I do not feel sexy. I feel like sex hit me like a Mack truck, and I'm hobbling away from the scene of the accident into a lifetime of feeble Kegels and Wal-Mart comfort-fit jeans. Somewhere my fetish photos still circulate, my tongue licking my lips in perpetual promise, and I'm currently stuck at home inside some other woman's flaccid and alien body. It hurts to be so ugly, so used up, so unlovable. Now I know why the 83-year-old Bettie Page balks at letting anyone photograph her as she appears today.

"There's different way to be feminists, and there are lots of ways of looking at a pinup," says Maria Buszek, assistant professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute and author of 2006's Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (Duke University Press), a historical dissection of the pinup as well as an analysis of its current postmodern incarnation.

"The pinup is about hiding as much about revealing, where porn is about giving it all up--which is fabulous," she explains over the phone from her home, where, coincidentally, she's also in the first months of her own maternity leave. "But the pinup's a different animal altogether. The very word, `pinup,' is about display, as opposed to something that's covertly looked at. The pinup is this balancing act that draws a particular kind of woman who's interested in constructing their sexuality. It's about theater and masquerade."

Buszek started writing her book after noticing how young feminist artists such as painter Lisa Yuskavage and photographer Tammy Rae Carland started appropriating "cheesecake imagery and bending it for political purposes" in the mid-'90s. "I also thought it was interesting as an art historian," she continues, "that not only was no one paying attention to this, but I was openly being told by historians that `feminists don't like pinups, feminists don't like porn.'"

The truth is, it's a slippery balancing act for women between self-determination and self-exploitation, and nothing could illustrate that more pointedly than the saga of SuicideGirls.com. Founded in 2001 as "a project of passion to celebrate the diverse and beautiful real world women," as founder Missy Suicide puts it on the alt-porn site's FAQ page, the company has recently come under fire from former models who claim that behind the scenes it's just more of the same digital pimpery.

"I'm really torn about things like Suicide Girls," Buszek says. "On one hand, I'm all for all different kinds of beauty. The fabulous thing about the pinup is that it tracks how unruly the idea of beauty is, which is why I think feminists have always been drawn to it. The pinup has always been about contemporary sexuality, period. Playboy and Hustler used to present this radical range, but if you go to the Suicide Girls site and really look at what's there, it's standard porn bodies with tattoos and piercings. They don't have plus-size women, women of color, butch lesbians--it's a superficial indie-rock glamorization of the same-old pinup."

So when Buszek had pinup photos of herself taken as part of her research, how did she negotiate that tricky divide? "In both cases, it was with women artists who I knew and loved, and wanted to photograph me because they knew and loved my research," she replies. For one of her photo shoots, she chose to be photographed surrounded by books, as homage to her life in academia. "This is playing sexy in an area women aren't allowed to play sexy, which is as an intellectual. This was my femininity, and it had to be carefully planned. I knew it was out to be a collaboration of how I wanted to be represented, and in the book I argue that most feminist pinups usually are. It's a dialogue."

That's an idea that Barich agrees with wholeheartedly. "The idea that you have to burn your bra and wear a potato sack to be a woman is ridiculous," she sneers. And rather than just being another permutation on the constant pressure put on women to disrobe themselves in an increasingly pornographic culture, Barich contends that pinups are more than choosing the terms of their own inevitable objectification. "It's more of an anti-porn statement," she emphasizes. "Being a pinup means I can be hotter than that chick right there spreading the meat curtains and I don't have to do anything."

Being a pinup means remembering that beauty is power, and feminine beauty is its own kind of neutron bomb. "If you look good and feel good, that's power in itself," Sneed says. "Nine out of 10 girls leave their makeup on when they leave a shoot."

I go home and ponder what they've said. A few weeks later, I make the inevitable phone call to Barich. "I want to try it," I say. "I have to know what it's like to be a pinup."

A few weeks later, I'm the girl standing on the seamless paper unrolled like a tongue in Barich's basement. I am wearing a black dress and actual, real, nonmaternity underwear underneath. The impractical heels are not hurting my feet at all. I am arching my back, pursing my lips, sticking out my juiced-up cleavage. "That's one lucky baby," Barich cracks, and I laugh. The photo lights feel delightfully hot on my powdered face. I'm like a snake recharging in new June sunlight after a long and taxing hibernation.

What surprises me the most is how unconflicted I am about this process. I was hoping that, while being photographed, I would achieve a blinding flash of satori I could report back proudly to my readers, a perfect distillation of principled objection and do-me feminism that would tie together all my contradictions into a morally squeaky-clean conclusion. The truth is, I am eating this up. I am relishing every moment of being fussed over and adored. I am totally thrilled to be a sex object, and not in any way the Redstockings would approve.

Maybe some women are self-sustaining enough to not give a shit about the male gaze, but I am realizing very quickly that I am a big fat sucker for the thumbs-up that only comes with knowing that you're nobody till somebody loves you. It's inescapable--like some poor sickly houseplant in a photosynthesis experiment, I will never, never, never be able to sustain myself on my own self-love. I need the nourishing UV of other people's approval. But the light in men's eyes goes in and out like the sun on a cloudy day, so the best thing to do is tap into the inexhaustible torrent of support really good women can manifest for each other. That way we can all stay green and watered and happy. Me? Really? I'm pretty? Gosh, it feels good to be valuable again.

Being a pinup doesn't feel like I'm back on the treadmill of perfection that bedevils all women. Is that photo of me? Yes and no. Barich will Photoshop out the imperfections, smooth the still-distressed skin of my face, and whittle out an hourglass from my lumpy waist. But the photo she's taking is more like those false color weather reports stained rainbow hues to better see the approaching hurricane. My pinup is an X-ray of my inner feminine goodness, the beautiful core of me that's untouched by the relentless receding of my fertility into menopause and death. It's all fiction, but all human culture is fiction. I'm not just an otter churning out litter after litter until I die. I'm Homo sapiens. I invest material objects with meaning, and when I apply them to my body I transform myself. Everyone told me being a pinup would make me feel pretty and glamorous and powerful, but that's the least of my revelations. I feel human again.

And sure enough, when I leave, I keep the makeup on.

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