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I want to believe 

Meet a few local photographers creating impossible wonderlands in their spare time

Somewhere a record turns in the forest, playing Sigur Ros to the trees. When it stops, the man with the pipe will simply play it over again.

Somewhere an evil queen hunts a raven-haired Snow White. Her slender, pale fingers clench around a dagger.

Somewhere Frida Kahlo takes herself by the hand. Her free hand grasps a pair of scissors. If she severs the artery of their entwined hearts, we are left to wonder, will both die?

  • Photo by Daniel Ballesteros

It doesn’t matter that the record player is powered by a generator that emits a loud and constant whir, that the queen’s crown is painted cardboard, and that Frida’s real name is Mallory Ann. You don’t necessarily need to know that, were you to pan out but a little, each of these beautiful images would expand to include lights, a fog machine, a stylist, a set designer, a paper bag with unused props poking out of it, a guy whose job is to lift heavy things, and me—my eyes darting from the photographer to the scene, my left hand making illegible notes, my mouth muttering something about documenting the creative process.

I was interested in photographers’ motivation to create such elaborate alternate realities with no visible incentive (no client, no class, no paycheck, no upcoming art show), just the urge to take the beauty in their minds and make it hold still. Unfortunately, I don’t normally write about these folks. I write about the ones whose artistic expression can be experienced within the rectangular confines of a gallery, stage, or book. But I was curious, so just this once, I followed a few artists into the woods.

I.   Woodland creatures

No one knows this is here!”

Daniel Ballesteros is gleeful as I follow him from a road off of Highway 1—just where it makes its way into Morro Bay—into the woods behind a church.

“This would make a great spot for a murder,” I say, rather unnecessarily, as we approach a small clearing.

  • photo by Daniel Ballesteros

He’s not listening anyway; he’s admiring the scene he’s poured his entire weekend into: a living room in the woods.

It’s not just any living room, either, but a gentleman’s living room, with a great winged armchair, several antique lamps, and one of those fancy model boats. An elegant tobacco pipe sits packed and ready; a record player wafts music over the drone of the aforementioned generator. Several pictures in wooden frames seem to levitate where the wall should be, painstakingly suspended by clear fishing line. In the waning light, the scene is eerily dreamlike.

Ballesteros’ friend and videographer Randy Price—dressed in classy suspenders, a bow tie, and pants that don’t quite reach his shiny shoes when he sits down—will serve as this evening’s model.

Ballesteros does the wedding thing, too. “Your love is art,” his website joyously proclaims, and an ample portfolio proves that, at least in the hands of Ballesteros and his wife Kari—makeup artist and assistant photographer—this is indeed so.

But the photographer and his wife still relish the thrill of setting off into the middle of nowhere armed with costumes, friends, and an outlandish idea that won’t go away.

  • Photo by Daniel Ballesteros

I’d made the duo’s acquaintance after stumbling upon several images from one of their prior adventures: Kari, as a jealous queen—her beauty all sharp, metallic angles—poises to kill the lovely Snow White, a role assumed by the impossibly fair-skinned Jennifer Marie Hix.

“Some people look at what I do, and they go, ‘I don’t get it,’” Ballesteros says, snapping some test shots as his friend Steve Joyce attempts to make the lights, fog machine, and wind play nice.

But, he goes on, “In this moment, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

II. The Backyard Circus

  • Photo by Cameron Ingalls

It was Cameron Ingalls, local wedding photographer, and Ariel Shannon, owner of Bluebird Salon in San Luis Obispo, who first made me aware of the intriguing trend of photographers, stylists, and models staging elaborate games of make-believe.

Ingalls isn’t the type to approach a shoot with some grand photographic vision in mind. He doesn’t wake in the night with a start and some twisted fairytale redux in his head, announcing to the darkness, “What if I did a shoot of Rapunzel, but like a goth Rapunzel, in a really industrial-looking tower … ?”

No. Ingalls, whose clients are often couples getting married or engaged, is less interested in artifice and more enchanted by what’s already there, in grasping those little moments between two people that seem to encapsulate who they are. When I speak with him about his work, the key words he repeats are “candid,” “sincere,” “genuine.”

“I’m just trying to capture their unique take on love,” he says of his technique.

  • Photo by Cameron Ingalls

But when Shannon and her arsenal of stylists approached Ingalls with the idea of a “vintage circus freak show” inspiration shoot—an opportunity for them to flex their creative might with hair and makeup—the photographer agreed, if only for a chance to stretch his own artistic horizons.

  • Photo by Cameron Ingalls

The results are striking in their combination of the natural and the bizarre. The simple elegance of the dead leaves and low-lying, craggy trees of Loriana Ranch (an up-and-coming wedding venue in the hills between San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande) contrast with the colorful characters who frolic in, under, and around them. Vintage costumes and period hairdos evoke the gleeful rebellion of the ’20s as seen through the circus’s opulent outcasts. Here, a mustachioed man walks a tightrope, umbrella in hand; there, a bearded lady cradles an equally bearded small dog. Meanwhile, the Red Skunk Band serenades the wandering performers—from their perch in a nearby tree.

(“That was all their idea,” Ingalls recalls. “I just turned around and the band was in a tree, playing music.”)

As the models settled into their assumed characters, infusing realism into the fantasy, the shoot began to give him more of what he was looking for, Ingalls said: beauty, truth, and authenticity.

III. Beside herself

As a young girl, Sabina Miklowitz remembers being rather disturbed by Frida Kahlo’s gory scenes and exaggerated unibrow.

  • Photo by Sabina Miklowitz

“I was raised in an artistic household, and I was exposed to art of all sorts very early on, but one of the first artists I remember being aware of was Frida Kahlo,” the photographer wrote in an e-mail from New York City, where she was working as an intern to the commercial photographer Timothy White.

“I remember being unsettled by these strange, gruesome portraits, and for a long time, I sort of disliked her work because I didn’t understand it,” she wrote. “Still, there was something about her paintings that always stuck with me … Later, when I learned about Kahlo’s background and the meaning behind her work, I gained a new appreciation for her. She is a very unique artist in that her paintings are simultaneously universal and intensely personal.”

Even though she’s still a Cal Poly student, Miklowitz’s portfolio reveals her to be already quite the accomplished fine art and portrait photographer, among other areas of photographic expertise. The idea of re-creating famous works of art through photography had long been on her mind, but when a local model and art student with an uncanny resemblance to Kahlo added the photographer on Facebook, Miklowitz went on, “I knew it had to happen.”

“Her painting Two Fridas has always been my favorite,” Miklowitz continued. “A lot of her paintings are very direct about the subject, such as with her physical ailments associated with the accident she was in when she was young, or her struggle with Americanization and her reverence and yearning for her home country of Mexico. Two Fridas takes a little more interpretation, and I find it to be more powerful as a result.  It communicates very well the kind of split personality that she felt without hitting you over the head with it.”

To re-create the painting, Miklowitz first had to locate an open field where no hills or trees would be in view. (“We had to do some trespassing,” she admitted, before locating the perfect spot on Orcutt Road in San Luis Obispo.)

Makeup artist Loan Huynh recreated Kahlo’s hair and famous unibrow on model Mallory Ann, with whom Miklowitz worked to capture both of Kahlo’s disparate selves.

A great deal of the piece’s composition, of course, would be done during post-production: the cloudy sky pulled from a previous photo, the two Fridas digitally joined, and finally, their tangled, eviscerated hearts drawn in last with the use of a graphics tablet.

“The way the various parts of the picture are hacked together gives the image a kind of Franken-photo effect,” Miklowitz wrote—but in this case, she added, it works to the piece’s advantage: suggesting the flattened, painterly aesthetic of the original.

For Miklowitz, creating such ambitious works in her spare time is integral to being a well-rounded artist.

“Classes and internships are wonderful and have their own value, but I think the best way to learn is to do,” she says. “Plus, it’s fun! It’s hard to beat the rush I get out of a successful shoot … Honestly, I’m not sure I could consider someone a serious photographer if they didn’t do shoots on their own time.”

IV. Hairspray

People reveal their secrets in salons—something in the combination of hairspray fumes and the soft, expert caress of fingers in one’s hair. Salons are indeed, as the word used to mean, intimate conversational gatherings.

  • Photo by Michelle Warren

I think about this while watching Bluebird stylist Jessica Sauzek craft a gravity-defying beehive on the polite and unsuspecting Ryan Hostetter, who is a lady. With Aretha blasting over the speakers and a row of ’60s bouffant hairdos taking shape in the chairs, the salon feels as it might have in 1962.

Ariel Shannon and company are at it again, this time teaming up with Michelle Warren Photography to stage a glamorous early ’60s party scene inspired by, of all possible things, a commercial for Bacardi rum.

The magnitude and seriousness of the undertaking is frightening. First, the location: the beachfront home of Frank and Marbella Maldonado, a place whose architecture, while contemporary, recalls those swank Los Angeles homes you see in films from the ’50s and early ’60s: all bold angles and glass. The home itself is a departure from the ordinary.

Then there’s the work of set designer Krysti Jerdin of Orange Blossom Design, which includes such period-evoking touches as a half-filled decanter of scotch, several antique cameras, and a saxophone.

  • Photo by Michelle Warren

After the shoot’s five couples arrive, dressed and coiffed to heights of intimidating ’60s glamour, the work of husband and wife duo Michelle Warren DeBilzan and Ben DeBilzan can begin. At first, the shoot feels structured—stand over there; look happy; talk amongst yourselves—but as the evening wears on and the drinks continue to flow (yes, real drinks, for purposes of authenticity), the fake party morphs into something else entirely. The partygoers begin to sink into the illusion. There’s a transitional period, however, as the self-awareness lingers. They laugh glamorous, beatific laughs. They smile photogenically, twisting on the dance floor with one furtive eye ascertaining the position of the camera. But gradually, as the fantasy deepens, the event succeeds in inverting itself: It stops being a photoshoot of a ’60s party and becomes a ’60s party where people happen to be taking photos. Sure there are subtle contemporary touches piercing the fabric of the illusion—a tattoo here, an iPhone there, a young man’s gauged ears, a passing bit of slang. These are overlooked.

  • Photo by Michelle Warren

Humans adore being deceived, I think to myself from a considerable distance, where I am in no danger of spoiling the shot. At this moment I am hopelessly unglamorous and conspicuously sober.

Or is it more that we are fascinated with the idea of stepping in another’s life, forgetting our own boring one for a moment? Do we create impossible scenes to dissolve the strict rules imposed by physics, time, money, and geography?

But I don’t have time to think about it anymore, as the party comes to an abrupt halt. The heady illusion is popped like a bubble: Music is cut, potted plants are put back, furniture is rearranged, props are collected into paper bags, goodbyes are said, and keys are reached for, though the buzz may linger for some time.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at [email protected].


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