Icon for a day: Mary Pickford

She was known as America’s Sweetheart, the girl with the curls and the first real movie star. She starred in hundreds of silent movies (and a few with sound) between 1909 and 1934, and for a while every woman wanted to be her. That’s 100 years ago now, and since then movies got sound, cameras became digital and ringlets went permanently out of fashion. So I knew that styling the shoot in the honour of the Queen of the Movies was going to be a challenge, but there was no icon I’d rather be for a day.

To me, Mary represents the qualities of determination and girl power. The movie roles given to women in the early 1900s were usually simplistic and passive, but Mary challenged that and rewrote many of her roles to create stronger female characters. She came from a poor background and had to act to make a living even as a child, but she knew her worth and refused to accept the peanuts that the production companies were offering her. Instead she renegotiated her pay when ‘ box office sales grew, and eventually she broke loose and started her own production company with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

Photographing Mary I absolutely adore the old studio portraits taken of Mary in the 1910s and 20s, and would love to be portrayed in a similar style, so the first thing I did was enlist an equally vintage photography obsessed photographer (and from the US), Tamara Kwan, who had an old Coronet 020 Box camera (albeit from the 1930s). Although we did want to try to recreate some of our favourite Mary Pickford portraits as accurately as possible, we also both wanted to get creative, play with

Photoshop and add our own personalities to the shoot. So as well as the old Coronet, Tammy brought her workhorse, the 5D Mark II with a 100mm and a 50mm lens.

We booked a day at UniqueCapture Studios in Milton Keynes, where we could make use of a big, dark corner for the Moody headshots, an antique-looking frame for the mirror shot, and a white infinity cove for the brighter backgrounds. Tammy said: «The lighting we used during the shoot was kept quite simple, at most we used just two lights and, towards the end, I was just using ambient light. I usually work with colour, but for this collection I turned the camera’s settings to monotone so that I could see the black and white image on the back of my camera, and you can immediately see where the lighting is falling. I actually found it easier shooting that way, because when you’re shooting in Raw the colour can be distracting and makes seeing the effect of the lighting more difficult.»

Charity Shop Challenge

Minds connected by a shared idea, Tammy and I had planned the shoot for weeks on Pinterest and Google docs, discussing the viability of the various portraits and building storyboards for each image with details of the props we needed, what we had in our own drawers and what we had found in shops online.

J With Downton Abbey being such a viewer magnet and Titanic having resurfaced in 3D you would think that fancy dress stores were fully stocked with Edwardian gowns for pre World War 1 themes parties. Not so. Type in 1920s and you’ll have flapper dresses galore, but Mary Pickford remained a fan of gowns and long hair way into the 1920s, so to get a wardrobe that resembled the real thing without costing a weekly wage of a Hollywood actress, I scoured the local charity shops as well as Ebay and Amazon. We resorted to Gothic fashion for a few of the items as that style borrows elements from the Victorian era. Thus, a Gothic-style dress from a charity shop (£4.50) with a hired tutu (£5) and some borrowed shoes made up the outfit for the mirror shot, my absolute favourite of all portraits taken of Mary.

Black and White Styling

While PM’s Jessica Bracey got busy adding ribbons to garments and adjusting the clothes with pins, Sabina Yunusova was our hair and make-up artist for the day, tasked with making my slight, Scandinavian locks look like the ringlets that earned Mary the nickname ‘The Girl With the Curls’. Having gone out of fashion about 100 years ago, a credible wig with ringlets at a reasonable price was impossible to find, so my Mary Pickford hair was made up of clip-on extensions with my own hair showing at the top. At the time we didn’t realise that the long extensions, which were lighter in colour than my own hair, gave off a lot of sheen and proved difficult to make darker in Photoshop. It didn’t help that the texture of my hair was visibly different to that of the fake hair but luckily, the difference wasn’t as stark in black and white.

Sabina also taught us some great tips on applying make-up for black and white photos. ‘The more contrast the merrier’ was the general gist, but it was also important to think of the colours applied. Black, dark blue and green (even for lips and cheeks) are picked up much better than reds when shooting black and white (Sabina told me that TV presenters in the days of black and white TV wore green lipstick). I looked a bit scary when I walked out of the dressing room, but to my great surprise there was no trace of Dame Edna once the camera had been set to monochrome, and if you look at our version of ‘Little Mary’, Sabina’s application of extra eye liner on the inside of the lid really made a difference.

Post-Production

Tammy kept things simple in Photoshop; first she converted her Raw J files to black and white, using the Black & White Adjustment Layer, adjusting the colour sliders until she was happy with the effect. Then, to soften the images, she made a duplicate background image and applied a Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur), then lowered the opacity of that layer until she liked the effect.

To add a film grain effect Tammy made a blank layer, filled it with 50 per cent grey (Shift + Backspace), changed the blend mode to Soft Light, then added noise to that layer (Filter > Noise > Add Noise > Monochromatic) and adjusting the opacity of the layer until the image looked suitably old.

With special thanks to:

Go online to see the behind-the-scenes and out-take movie www.photographymonthly.com/PhotoTV

The curls were particularly challenging to edit; «The hair extensions used were of a much lighter colour than Kathrine’s own hair and the texture of these curls were quite shiny and a bit translucent,» Tammy said. «I tried several methods of darkening these curls but in the end I found the best way was to make a second black and white Adjustment Layer and slide the yellow adjustment to the left making the yellows quite dark. As I didn’t want the entire image darkened, I reversed the mask to black and then used my white paint brush to paint the curls darker. This worked well.»

Lessons Learned

Photographs from the early 1900s tend to be more sombre, but as I realised, that doesn’t mean you have to put on an act of being miserable. When you look at Mary’s face, it’s amazing how relaxed and natural it was — I don’t think I achieved that look in all my pictures as I was too concerned about looking like something I was not. Toward the end when I felt more relaxed, I tried to imagine being Mary, acting the part of a sombre heroine thinking of her lost love (failing that, think of dead puppies). I do think it shows and that my expression in the last photos we took are better as a result.

The mirror shoot demanded some of that stamina you hear is required of models; I kept falling through the pretend mirror and it felt like my limbs were all over the place, until Sabina whispered into my ear, «be an artist, straighten your back!» and with those simple directions in mind I felt so much more like a Hollywood actress.

Tammy, meanwhile, was finding it mentally difficult to age the photos. She said:

«Shooting in the style of another photographer from another era was quite a challenge which I really enjoyed but had difficulties with. After you spend thousands of pounds on equipment to get nice crisp sharp images it’s quite difficult to soften and add noise to them!» She added, «The biggest piece of advice I can offer on shooting a style such as this is to have fun and to do research on your character. Working with Kathrine, considering she hasn’t done much modelling, was fantastic as she was really good. The biggest challenge was getting her to act sombre as she has such a smiley personality.»

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