Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pagan Photoshoot

It's something I've been wanting do for 10 years now. Every since the Internet happened and we all started digitizing our photos I've been thinking "Wouldn't it be nice to have some really good, professional quality photos taken of us all?"

No, not some hokey Olan Mills / Sears Portraits abominations, full of frozen deer smiles, uncomfortable clothes and seething artificiality. Those pics are only good to laugh at in subsequent years.

That was the reason why Admiral Karen and did not go for a 'real' photographer at our Pirate Handfasting. The last thing we wanted was standard 'wedding photos'; canned, cramped, pinched. Not for us.

Candid photo from the finale of
our Pirate Handfasting.
We just had 3 friends with cameras follow us around all day as we decorated, dressed, rehearsed, stood around, did the ritual, sword fought, toasted, danced and laughed and laughed and laughed. (look for that blog post soon!)

Our candid photos came out great; relaxed and REAL, and I would put them up alongside anybody else's "The-Bride-just-won-the-Preakness" dying-flower-encrusted formal portraits.

But some fun photos, done in a studio, with my rowdy and wacky witchy friends? Sign me up! Because to be totally honest, my thinking always went something like this: "Let's get some GOOD photos of us, before we fall apart completely from old age."

The basic stage. Yes, that is the 'flash' on the right.
So when my good friend Jason Mankey said that he was doing just such a thing I jumped at the chance, canceling appointments and spending money that I really didn't have on gas and the pass-the-hat-fee. (My new job started the next day though.)

His idea was that he wanted some headshots for his excellent blog Raise the Horns, as well as some photos of witches doing ritual things that he wouldn't have to steal from the 'net, get permission for, etcetera. His lovely partner Ari wanted some new photos of her belly dancing.
The Album Cover shot, as we all pray to Jason's hinder.

So they contacted a Photographer that Ari had worked with before (Michael Baxter, who she had heard of even back when they lived in Michigan) and negotiated an all-day fee. 

Then they invited all sorts of pagan friends to the shoot. Each of who would contribute to the group ritual shoots, but would also grab a half-hour or so of solo time with the lens jockey. We each threw in $50.00 or so into the pot for this, which is a bargain of epic proportions.
View from the stage. Staircase to the dressing room
at top, kitchen is around to the right. Peanut gallery
 seating behind Ari and Michael.
Pagans being pagans there were date changes, delays, life happenings and other things that happened when one attempts to herd the cats. We ended up meeting on a Sunday, the day after Lughanasadh rituals (for many of us), with a couple of folks popping in after work shifts and other activities. The final guest list was a mixture of San Jose and Santa Cruz folks, some coven workers, some solitaries, and a couple of folks who had never met each other before.

The photography studio was a small warehouse in an anonymous business park near the San Jose airport. There was a small reception area that opened onto a kitchen (without a sink!). Above the kitchen, via an exterior staircase, was a large living room and a large bathroom that functioned as a dressing room. The other half of the warehouse was the studio proper, mostly a large, blank white space with curving plaster that joined the floor to the wall, creating that seamless backdrop that you see in all studio photos.
Michael Baxter, the photographer, checks
lights as Ari puts some makeup on Jason.

Behind the white space were four tall, folding directors chairs and some smaller chairs and boxes to sit on. To the left and right of the stage were boxes and containers of lights, cords, scaffolding, filters, bulbs and a few interesting props - including two female mannequins that got way too much attention from us, because we're pervs.

The living room was inhabited by the landlord of the place, a taciturn fellow with an oxygen tank who watched golf on TV all day. We all brought food and drink and set up an ongoing buffet, with all of us at one time or another looking earnestly in the kitchen for the sink.

The first wave, at 11am, was Ari and Jason and Me and Alisa. Ari stopped and picked up Michael the photographer along the way. Now Michael had worked with Ari before and so knew the ropes of taking photos of belly dancers. He was used to working with solo dancers, for short amounts of time, under very controlled conditions.

Fine, hair looks good, but we need
some energy here.

I guess he figured shooting pagans would be like that. But he was so, so, hilariously wrong.

But before we got to that free-for-all, he had to take a moment to adjust that Ari was not the only beautiful redhead in the room. Alisa pretty much took his breath away, as she does everybody's.

Soon after the initial foursome arrived Matt and Jen appeared. And now Michael had THREE hot redheads to contend with. It was not yet noon, but he went straight for the wine.


We didn't have enough people yet for the 'Spring Ritual' set piece, so we did some of the solo work first. Jason, being the organizer had the honor of going first, and being the guinea pig.
There! Much better. Print it!

Michael set him up on the stage, asked some questions about preferences, adjust the lights and flashes and began. And then he about jumped out of his skin when he noticed that all the rest of us were NOT in the sink-less kitchen, applying make-up or upstairs watching golf on TV. 

No, we were all in the directors chairs behind the photographer, shouting out X-rated comments, making Jason laugh, and generally being brats about the super-serious photo shoot.

The Peanut Gallery, currently holding Ari, Alisa, Matthew and Jason.
There were times when Michael would have to stop taking photos so he could just helplessly giggle for awhile. And I think we got Jason to relax and perk up and get some sparkle in his eyes, which made for some great shots.

(I'll leave it to the man to use his photos as he will, so look for some great new head shots on Raise the Horns.)


Next up was Alisa, and here we pagans were surprised. Turns out she was a seasoned
Hmmm.....might be a dancer, eh?
veteran of pro-photo shoots, knowing all the requisite moves, expressions and distances. She instructed the photographer where to stand, what she wanted and what she was going to do next.

The peanut gallery pretty much shut up while we watched a real model who knew how to strut her stuff. I, for one, was busy taking lots of mental notes, as I was up next. Michael, for his part, was clearly IN LOVE with Alisa.


I wanted some headshots too, and just some general good photos of me. But I didn't have a real plan for how to do that, and I always clam up for photos. See, I don't have a great natural smile, or great teeth, or 2% body fat. Posed photos are rarely satisfying for me.

First test shot.
Oh, I wanna come to YOUR seminar, sir. 
I discussed this with Michael, getting a good background and some more dramatic cross-lighting on me. We decided to go with "serious story teller" as our theme.

He sat me down and took some test photos, and I guess they were okay. The 8 foot high flash just out of frame was amazingly bright, and it was a typical
My photo of Michaels photo at the moment
the flash unit detonates. POW!!
day in San Jose (85 degrees). He did get the 'smirk' shot, which I think is the best of the first bunch. But I wasn't happy with how this was going. I didn't have any energy. People always remark how animated I am in live performances, but there was no ooomph here in this studio.

Jenya saw this happening and came to my rescue. "Hey Ang! Tell us a story!"
the smirk shot. Much better.
Ah, now we were talking! I stood up, which caused Michael to yelp in dismay. I explained that I can't tell a story sitting down, so he reluctantly ditched our careful focus and lighting design. I told the story of the worst wedding I ever attended - a horror tale that unfortunately I can never publish, because I am still friends with the groom.
Storytime? Yaaay!!
And the peanut gallery came to life and interviewed me as I was relating the tale. And I completely forgot Michael was there until he would yell at me to hold that expression, or do that gesture again, or that I was too far outside of the lights and background. I even forgot about the gigantic flash going off as I went on and on about the wedding from hell.
Quick change of outfit, and we're off again.
"And then this other thing happened!"
"Oh, but that's not all....!"
Once I get wound up.....
And these are some of the best photos of myself ever taken. I couldn't be happier.

Jenya (and Matt)

Jenya was up next, and it was obvious that she had just been using me a warm-up. She attacked her photo-shoot, preaching a millions miles an hour, strutting around the backdrop, all righteous posing and glorious empowerment. Michael struggled to keep her in focus and in frame.
Boom! Off and running.
I wish we had a recording of her 10 minute sermon, because it was beautiful, heartfelt and complete gibberish. We were her eager disciples of course, hooting and hollering and "Halle-fucking-ujah-ing" her on, but every so often the peanut gallery would stop and look at each other, like "Wait. That didn't make ANY sense, whatsoever. BWa-ha-ha!"
Out of the light, but still a great shot.
It was pretty obvious that our photographer was in love. Again.

Jen was so economical that Michael had all the shots he needed in no time. So we drug Matthew up there for a few pics. He did not disappoint.


Spring Ritual

Right on cue, Amanda now showed up, straight from her opening shift at a coffee shop, tired but game to help. Now Amanda is not a redhead, but is nonetheless a celebrated beauty and I thought for awhile that Michael was going to need some oxygen or something with having four hotties around him.

And it wasn't so much that the pagans were that much more attractive than the belly dancers he was used to - I mean, come on, BELLYDANCERS for gods' sake, but we witches were so much more open, free, dirty-minded, spontaneous and silly. The poor man was having a rough day, and we were just getting started.

While Jenya had been going under the flash Ari and Jason had been setting up the 'Spring' altar offstage. This was now brought forward. The ritual photographed here would be a generic planting / sowing / spring /
daylight / ritual, and the photos would be suitable for blog posts about Imbolc / Ostara / Beltane / Litha, etcetera.

The fun part was that Jason didn't have anything planned for this. We just dressed in Springy clothes and faked our way through casting, calling, working ("um, Dance Party!"), dismissal, great rite and closing. Our quarter calls were earnest but nonsensical - the casting, straight-faced gobbledygook. But it looked good!

Spring Dance Party! (without music!)
150 or so photos were taken for this part, but I'll only show one here. Again, this was Jason's show, and I don't want to give away his goods.

Amanda (and Alisa)

While Jason and Ari redressed the Altar for Wintertime, it was Amanda's turn under the spotlight. I knew from experience that she can be very picky about photos of herself, and sure enough, she seemed a bit apprehensive and closed about her shoot.
Fine, fine, but we need some energy here....
So I jumped in, surprising poor Michael again, and led her in an impromptu waltz for a bit. But I knew who would really get her motor running: Alisa.
Now we're talking.
This lead to my favorite photo of the day. The two of them spent several shots making out and examining each others breasts before Alisa decided to get a bit more aggressive.
Oh, my!
I think we just blew up the photographer....
Michael gave a tiny squeek of surrender at that and then stood straight up, like he was catatonic. The photo he took then is my favorite, because it is the two ladies just looking at Michael and saying "Hey, are you okay?" as he slowly settled down to the ground and took a little break there on the floor for awhile.

While Michael recovered I raced out to my car's trunk and got out the feather boas. The ladies took to them immediately, even though they made a mess all over the pristine whiteness of the stage.
Boas = fun

Peanut gallery: "You look like gay eskimos!" 
Alisa and I then took off to unSafeway to get some more food and beverages for the
Setting up for the Winter Ritual
crew. Amazing how much Pagans can eat and drink when we get all riled up.

Winter Ritual

When we returned the Winter ritual was all set up. We quickly changed into our 'dark time' clothes and got to it.

This one covered the reaping part of the agricultural calendar: Lughanasadh, Mabon, Samhain and Yule. The set looked great. But something was missing. Or rather, someONE....

And right on cue, Amber arrived, making a total of FOUR hot redheads (out of 5 beautiful women) on the scene. And while we had spent our morning getting rowdy in San Jose, Amber had been busy running a half-marathon in San Francisco. (show-off!)

trying to keep straight faces during the Winter Ritual
But now she looked fresh as a daisy and she jumped right into our pulled-straight-out-of-our-asses Winter Ritual. 150 more pics were taken of this, including some great ones of situations that we thought up on the spot. Again, I'll leave it to Jason and his blog to reveal these as he thinks is appropriate.

But I will say that any day I get to wield a sword is a good day.

After we had served the dark time sufficiently we were all a bit drawn out and weary. Did I mention it was 85 degrees in San Jose that day? And we were in a small, un-air-conditioned warehouse?

We needed a pick-me-up. Jason to the rescue. "Let's do some photos on the annoying things that happen in ritual!"
Amber, second from right, steals the altar candle while I fiddle with my earbuds.

This quickly devolved to all of us goofing off behind Jason while he looked serious out in front of us. My bit was going to be listening to my music during ritual, but I couldn't untangle my ear buds fast enough - we were all jazzed up again and shooting photos fast - so I just stuck the tangle in one ear and looked perplexed at my iPhone.

Amber (and Amanda)

The shot she wanted.

We cleared the stage and retired to the peanut gallery to egg on Amber's solo shoot. She was going for a serious tarot reading vibe, but we just wouldn't let her get away with it. We kept calling for more and more cleavage until she would crack up and show those to-die-for cheekbones again.

And the cheekbones we wanted.

Michael, one more time, was in LOVE with his model.

We were moving so fast now that we quickly exhausted the tarot scenario. Michael then suggested, in a teenaged-boy-whose-voice-is-changing tone, that we try some with Amber, you know, lying down?
Uh-huh. Like we're just gonna let that one lie there.
Well, THAT went well, as you might imagine. So much so that it was Amanda's turn to rush the stage and get down between Amber's legs. The peanut gallery of course responded like this was a birth scenario: "Push! PUSH! Breathe like they taught you in the class!"
Hottest delivery room EVAR.
And that pretty much ended that segment of the shoot. What else could they do? Blades were handed out....
Oh the drama.....
Oh the hilarity......
Amber went off to a fan to cool off, and Amanda went off to attack a napping Alisa. Michael didn't know where to point his camera first: all this action was going on, offstage, away from the lights!
Amanda (top) and Alisa (bottom)
The Amanda attacks Alisa sequence was creepy cool. They were on a small cushion, next to a workbench, and Alisa had just woken up to Amanda's endorphin rush, so it quickly turned Dom and Sub. Dark and sexy.

Jenya Dancing

Jenya was up next, because she always wanted to get some good photos of her dancing. I took over the boom box (which hadn't been used much at all during the day), cued up the Black Eyed Peas, and she was GONE. Some of my favorite pics of the day.


But Ari was always going to be the headliner of this day.

Her photos were mesmerizing, not only because of her natural beauty, but because she knew exactly how to work a flash rig.

She would be in the middle of a spin, or a shimmy and just when she was facing Michael she would pause and hold perfectly still for just a moment while the rest of her outfit swirled around her. Total pro. It was hypnotizing to watch.

And Michael was in LOVE.

But this was the end of the day, even as Ari danced and smiled and beguiled. The group stuff was over, it was getting on towards 6pm, we'd been there for 7 hours, and so one by one the peanut gallery all said our goodbyes (with lots of kisses) and then drug ourselves out to our cars.
My last photo of the day. Ari in the sink-less kitchen,
framed by the 'spring' and 'winter' flowers from the altars.
The phrase most heard that day (besides, of course "Take it off!") was Michael saying "This is the most fun I've ever had on a shoot!" And we all believed him. The dude was the ultimate kid-in-the-candy-store all day long.

And now that I've done this, I totally want to do it AGAIN. With other friends, and more props, and maybe outdoors in the forest or something.

It was not only a total blast, it was productive. I now have a whole folder full of good photos of myself to use, and I got them before my face totally falls apart from old age. (Maybe just before.)

Everybody should do this. Contact a professional photographer, or a really good amateur, offer them $500 for an all-day shoot, gather your friends (and pass the hat), grab some goofy props, and have a party on the whitewhitewhite stage. You'll have memories and really good photos that will last you a lifetime.

Do it NOW, while you still have your looks (*wink).

Angus McMahan

P.S. Amanda is now a redhead.

(All the good photos are courtesy of  Michael Baxter Photography All the crappy photos are from the author's iPhone. Please do NOT reproduce any of these photos without permission.)


  1. That Amber... you couldn't get me to STAND, much less vamp it up after a half-marathon!

    If she sees this (and I'm betting she will), she is now Officially Reminded that we're living in the same time zone again and she has good reasons to visit Seattle!