Jim C. Hines is a writer that’s been discussing sexism and the impossible-body-posing fetishism found on book covers. He’s been doing it mostly by personally duplicating book covers himself, posing and writing about how ridiculous and painful the postures are. You can check out his blog and see a bunch of his own crazy photo shoots.
As the discussion goes: Book sellers want skin and out-thrust bosoms and butts on their covers, so artists provide them by contorting their figures to crazy and impossible extremes. There’s also a tendency to wear ridiculous clothing, like all those nearly naked warrior women wearing metal bikinis in the snow. What does this say about us?
I became involved in the conversation when Jim proposed doing a group photo using science fiction authors to raise money for charity. If people donated enough he’d pull in some of the new big names in the science fiction field and do a group photo, reversing the genders. Well, the money came streaming in, three times what they expected was raised, and Jim contacted me to do the shoot at one of our local science fiction convention here in Michigan called ConFusion.
Within the fantasy and science fiction community these are all very well known folk. All are fun, generous, and active in the genre. All were also very willing to put themselves out there to raise money, join the discussion, and let everyone enjoy them stepping way out of their own comfort zones for a good cause.
Jim secretly sent us all the photo we’d be using. It was the cover art used for the Poul Anderson book “Young Flandry”, a James Bond styled action adventure in space novel. Jim gave everyone the option to say no way, but instead out came the cry, “Let’s do this!”
Well, I sat and analyzed the painting Jim sent us with a photographer’s viewpoint. Instantly, I saw the impossibility of fully duplicating this particular shot. It didn’t so much matter that I’d be working with authors, not models, because there were poses in this that would be somewhere between impossible and torture even for a stick-insect yogi. This was going to be fun!
For a moment I considered taking green screen shots of each model and composting the shot digitally. Perhaps if we used supports like green cloth covered stools and chairs that could be digitally removed, and got rid of the necessity of mass and distance using Photoshop, we could position people exactly like in the cover. No way! that would bite into the fun and spontaneity of the event. We needed to capture it live! As uncomfortable and difficult as reality.
The weekend before the shoot I painted a backdrop on an old drop cloth that had been died for a project years earlier. It was suppose to have been black, but came out purple, as dye sometimes does, and the color was perfect for us! I cranked up the music and tossed on acrylic paint to create a very rough and DIY approximation of the original artwork’s well-painted background.
The day of the shoot we discovered we couldn’t get in the room as early like I’d hoped. Amy Sundberg had volunteered to assist me, so we scrambled to get everything together while the authors were arriving.
I was surprised when the men actually started stripping. I’d thought they’d be too bashful to fully commit, but no way! Mary did apply a little makeup to reduce the glare.
Amy searched out some scissors so we could cut off the water to better position it.
Mary Robinette Kowal actually brought along her metal Hugo award and volunteered the rocket for the shot. Yes, that’s a real HUGO! She also brought along cloth for the vapor trail. Unluckily, the screw thread was not the standard photo equipment size we’d thought it would be. Mary is a puppeteer and puppet maker along with being a wonderful writer and voice actor. The ultimate professional, Mary just shrugged and started digging around. A mic stand, allen wrench, and plenty of duct tape later, we had our rocket ready.
“That’s one heavy rocket. Not going to fall on anyone’s head?” I asked.
“It’s on there good,” Mary replied.
“The rocket is mounted!” I announced… and you know how that comment was interpreted. Yes, this was definitely going to be fun.
The set was ready.
The models were ready.
“Now what?” they asked, looking at me.
Time to direct!
We fetched three pillows from a room couch to put under Pat on the raft to bring him up higher. We also worked on trying to smash everyone as close as possible like in the shot. They’d try a pose, and I’d show them a print of the original painting and point out their lack of spinal twists, arching backs, leg cramps, and of course, the pouts and gazes. One by one we started to find the postures and expressions.
The problem was, the positions were way too uncomfortable to hold for more than a few seconds!
What were we suppose to do with John’s legs? (He’s top left.) In the painting his legs were either dangling in the water, under his body, or imbedded in concrete. We couldn’t agree on which. To keep the woman on the raft close in the artwork perhaps her legs been cut off? Hmmm… we decided to have him kneel, otherwise we’d have to push Pat (on the raft) further away and risk focal distance problems.
Jim (Top right) wasn’t too bad. He was bendy and used to being in painful positions. He could have used a bit more spinal cord dislocation for the amount of bend to his neck, and he’d have to hold quite a good balance on his pelvic bone, but he was used to all this. It was just hard to keep his face in the shot. His shoulder kept getting in the way.
Charlie (prone right) had the problem of his arm. He needed to twist his arm behind his back and lay his head on it with his hand “casually” reaching out toward the wrong side of his body. While we couldn’t dislocate his shoulder to get his hand quite that far, we did manage to get his fingers past his head. “Now hold it there, Charlie!”
Patrick (on the raft) had the curviest posture of them all. If you do yoga, the pose he needed to be in is called the: “Don’t Do That You’ll Damage Your SPINE!” pose. Legs bent up. Butt in air! Arch like a snake! Compress that neck! More! More! Tilt!. Now duck lips! BIG DUCK LIPS!
Of course, comically to all of us, our mighty central hero being performed by Mary, welding a phallic symbol with another phallic object souring above, needed the super power to hover in a sitting position in mid air. What power! What impossible sitting power! How. Can. Anyone. Do. That?
“Good, now straighten your back, Mary! Catch her, John! Back in position. Now squat! No, don’t kneel. Sit. In mid air! Yes, sit squat! Lean back! Farther! Catch her, John! Watch that rocket!”
“But in the photo he has a shelf to sit on!” Mary laughed at some point. “How else can he have his hovering butt in front of that woman unless he’s sitting on her!”
We laughed. They’d grimace. Laugh. Make cracks. Pause to shake out cramps. We played some more with nailing the postures as best we could.
“Positions everyone! I’ll shoot fast! One… two… three… balance!” Flash. Flash. Flash. “Be ready to catch her, John! Watch that rocket!”
I’d snap some shots. We’d take a moment to recover. I’d put them back in position.
Pat’s adjusted his shirt to be over his shoulder. Again! Squat! John worked on his distant gaze at Mary.
“Bring the gun closer, Mary. No closer. Closer. Up to your face. Unnaturally close!”
That’s what this was about. Creating the unnatural.
I had my photos.
They were free to dress again. They all went off to entertain the convention attendees, socialize, do panel discussions, and have the party weekend of a science fiction convention.
I sent an early image to Jim so he could mock up a book cover for the presentation the next day.
There were a few good shots to choose from. I went over the photos the next morning, doing some touch-ups and processing and then printed canvas and art board prints that could be signed later that day.
In this photo I think I better matched the lighting to the original book:
It was good, but another one that had flatter lighting we thought actually caught the poses a little better. You could see more of Jim’s face, Pat had his over the shoulder shirt and spinal curve. John was looking a bit more longingly. Charlie was pouting so nicely. And Mary was sit squatting while looking dramatic. We had our shot. I prepared it for printing.
The laughter at the standing room only reveal during the convention was a loud and continuous roar!
I produced two canvas prints which were signed by everyone.
The other print will be auctioned off by Pat Rothfuss as part of his Worldbuilders charity.
If you’re wondering, the book publisher for the book used, Baen Books, enjoys Jim’s photo posing projects. A signed print is being sent to them for their enjoyment. Jim has also heard back from various artists. Most love the discussion this creates, and only a few find the discussion difficult to internalize or even objectionable. The topic has been getting plenty of good discussion, which was always the point.
All in all, so much fun! What a great gang of people to do a project with, and all for good causes.