Sean Scheidt and the reality of burlesque

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Sean Scheidt captures the transformation of burlesque performer Doctor Ginger Snapz. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Victorian era illustrator and artist Frederick R. Barnard is often credited with coining the phrase, “A picture paints a thousand words.” Lost, unfortunately, to the sands of time is the name of the photographer who came up with the idea for the “before” and “after” pictures.

Before and after shots have been around since the days of the daguerreotype. Long a staple of the health and fitness field, baby-boomers may well recall how the late Charles Atlas built a fortune from matchbook muscle-building ads which featured a cowering runt-to-robust transformation. Almost unheard of however are artfully crafted celebrity counter-shots which strive to showcase the reality behind the Cover Girl glamor. Catching that qualitative change in the burlesque world is an ongoing project for Baltimore photographer Sean Scheidt.

Transformation for the cost of a stamp.
Transformation for the cost of a stamp.

For the past year, Sean Scheidt has been creating comparative compositions of Baltimore area burlesque performers. The unique and fascinating project has garnered accolades and received international attention. This Tuesday (April 22), several of Scheidt’s provocative burlesque portraits will make their debut at the Lyric Opera House as part of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) exhibit Workin’ The Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque. The exhibit will run through May 11.

The invitation to showcase his comparative work in this first-of-its-kind exhibit will create something of an arc for Scheidt and his unique undertaking, as a number of his subjects will also be appearing at the Lyric in an opening night burlesque show.

For those unfamiliar with the 30 year-old artist, Scheidt is an established fashion photographer working primarily in Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York. Baltimore audiences have enjoyed his work in shows at the Hexagon Gallery, Creative Alliance and The Windup Space. Along with contract assignments for entities such as the Baltimore Ravens (he will be in Jamaica later this month working with Shawn Hubbard, who will be snapping sun-drenched shots of the Ravens cheerleaders), Scheidt’s upbeat images are regularly featured in Girls’ Life Magazine.

Segueing from wholesome teen models and peppy cheerleaders to the bawdy world of burlesque may seem like a stretch to some, but for Scheidt, “It’s about creating a narrative”. Still, this series differs, because Scheidt has added an abstract dimension to this project.

“In most of my work, the model is representing something: a product, a short story, a fashion line. In this series, the model/performers are representing burlesque; but more importantly, they are also representing themselves.”

So, how did this burlesque series come to be?

Judy Garland at the Greek Theater circa 1957 (Wikimedia)
Judy Garland at the Greek Theater circa 1957. (Wikimedia)

“It was really a confluence of two separate things. First, I was hired to do a shoot for DNA theater. This allowed me to go backstage and get a glimpse of the transformation of the actors. About this time, I was also reading Harpo Marx’s autobiography. Marx talked a lot about Judy Garland, which sent me to search her out on YouTube. I was amazed to see how, even in her declining years, Garland lit up, once she stepped onto the stage. I guess it was then that I realized the stage has the power to transform a person into someone else. The question I wanted to explore was finding the reality within that transformation.”

Scheidt could have used the cast from DNA or solicited actors from other theater companies, but he intuited that burlesque performers could offer the clearest contrast.

“I remember my first burlesque experience was at Ottobar to see Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey. Monkey was swinging from something above the stage while throwing ‘poo’ at the audience. This was clearly not a Christina Aguilera burlesque routine.”

Running with this memory in mind, Scheidt contacted a good friend, Baltimore burlesque favorite Marla Meringue.

Meringue loved the concept and suggested a few other burlesque performers for the budding project. In time, Scheidt had assembled a portfolio of astounding transformations.

“I use basic lighting and a black backdrop. Black is emptiness. You place a person there and they are who they are. The interview process is really as much about getting the person comfortable as it is about getting to know them. As the shoot progresses, they transform into the persona they portray on stage. I do ask them, ‘What defines you on stage’ but otherwise try to stay back and let the narrative develop. You’re inviting strangers into your space. It’s intimate and informal. I just try to create an atmosphere where the performers may be themselves. For me, the key thing is to just step back.”

Sean Scheidt shares a series of images with burlesque model Doctor Ginger Snapz. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Sean Scheidt shares a series of images with burlesque model Doctor Ginger Snapz. (Anthony C. Hayes)

“One of the great rewards of what I’m doing is the way the burlesque community has embraced this project. I don’t insist on nudity or pasties; I want them to feel comfortable in character and in person. It’s been nice as this series has developed to get feedback from other performers in the community. For example, someone said, after seeing Mourna Handful’s shots, that she does little things with her gestures in real life you never see in publicity pictures. Apparently, I was able to capture some of those personality-defining movements.”

“Capturing those moments, I believe, helps to humanize these performers. If you were just seeing the “after” shots alone, you might make certain pre-conceived judgements about the person behind the make-up. I hope this series gets people to think about their reactions to these men and women.”

Scheidt maintains that seeing the person behind the persona has ramifications beyond his burlesque series; not only for the performers but for the people you meet everyday.

“The amount of covering up they do in their 9-5 routine is remarkable. It’s interesting to see how the burlesque performers are dressed when they first arrive for the shoot, especially compared to the fantasy figure they portray on stage.  But who is the real person?”

“Paco Fish has almost completely merged his stage persona with his off-stage life. Kay Sera even changed her name  What you see in their portraits is the person they are all the time. For other performers, the contrast can be astounding. Yet if you think about it, you realize that most people who work 9-5 jobs are transforming themselves, too.

"You can see her leaning forward.. not holding anything back" (Sean Scheidt)
“You can see (ShortStaxx) leaning forward; not holding anything back” (Sean Scheidt)

The costume may be a business suit if you’re a banker or a pair of overalls if you work in the trades. But everyone is playing a part. Maybe the burlesque performer in make-up is just freely expressing the core of the individual behind that mundane office persona.”

When asked about his favorite composition, Scheidt smiled and replied, “I love ShortStaxx.”

“Everything about Staxx is in effect saying ‘screw you’ to society’s norms. She is an incredible, confident woman. When you look at her pictures you can clearly see this. You can see her leaning forward; not holding anything back.”

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Finding the heart of each subject he has photographed has opened many avenues to the affable artist. It has also challenged him on a very personal level. While Scheidt’s work with the burlesque performers has been well received, one dissenting voice came from an unexpected corner: his church family.

Scheidt makes no secret about the fact that his Christian convictions are central to his everyday life. Raised Lutheran, Scheidt embraced the charismatic movement during his college days  Five years ago, he was a founding member of a congregation which mixed a modern praise-centered worship with the celebratory aspects of a mainline church.

Scheidt says his pastor became concerned, after viewing Sean’s website and several Facebook posts, with the direction he perceived the artist’s semi-nude studies might lead.

In March, Sean Scheidt visited the ancient Biblical city of Petra. (Sean Scheidt)
In March, Sean Scheidt visited the ancient Biblical city of Petra. (Sean Scheidt)

“I explained that I’m well aware of the reality of temptation and the admonition not to cause someone else to fall. My pastor didn’t understand that as an artist, I’m not dealing with my subjects on a physical or emotional level. For me, this is no different than doing a shoot for National Geographic Magazine. That’s pretty much what I told the pastor, but he said I’d still need to sit down with the church elders.”

“I didn’t tell the pastor this, but I have given up on a few project ideas because they had the potential of crossing a (prurient) line. I’m not looking to strike some obscene nerve. That’s a different conversation. I have no problem with burlesque performers or with shooting nudes of beautiful women. But as a professional photographer, people have to realize that, just because you are documenting something, that doesn’t mean you are endorsing it.”

“The photographer is powerful. I get to point my camera and record history. I have a responsibility to accurately represent the truth of what I am shooting. If I hedge on that duty for personal reasons, then I miss the mark. It’s like a reporter taking a quote out of context.”

Pitting his professional standards against his faith community’s objections put Scheidt at a painful impasse. In the end, he decided it was best for his spiritual life to move on to another congregation.

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To date, Sean Scheidt has documented the transformations of more than a dozen different burlesque performers. With luck (and a little financial help), Scheidt hopes to expand this project to include performers from all over the world. There could be a book in the future, but Scheidt acknowledges this effort is open-ended.

“It might be interesting to see some of the performers I’ve already captured a year or more from now; to see how they have grown. Even if there is a book, I’m not ruling out revisiting the series sometime in the future.”

Clearly, Scheidt’s burlesque transformation series has taken on a life of its own.

The burlesque transformation of Marla Meringue (Sean Scheidt)
The burlesque transformation of Marla Meringue. (Sean Scheidt)

“I thought I was getting tired of this, but with each new shoot, I’m re-energized. That’s part of the reward.”

And the rest of the reward?

“I’ve never gotten so much attention for a personal project. I guess people find Burlesque compelling. I’m just hoping they find the idea of transformation compelling, too.”

Scheidt’s transformation project does not have an official moniker. But an apt sobriquet may be the suggestion posited by his friend, Marla Meringue:

“This is the illusion to which you subscribe.”

Sean Scheidt’s provocative burlesque transformations series debuts Tuesday evening, April 22 at 6pm as part of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) exhibit Workin’ The Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque. The exhibit will run through May 11 at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W Mt Royal Ave, Baltimore, Md. More information about the exhibit and the opening night burlesque show may found by visiting the WTT event Facebook page.