Photographing the Femme Fatale on Film - Part I

Rita Hayworth 
Credit: CC0 
Hamid Amirani -7.18.19

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any film photography, when it was a course unit of my media and communications degree. However, writing about it and interviewing highly talented professionals for this blog has inspired me to try my hand at it again. 

But before I get to that, what about my previous foray? I found scans of the photos and, many years later, I think they hold up reasonably well. We were tasked with coming up with a theme for our photographic project. I decided to capture a subject in unexpected scenarios. I found a goth student to photograph doing mundane things like buttering a slice of toast, creating the juxtaposition of her in her striking attire set against banal surroundings and doing an ordinary activity. 

Things like aperture, shutter speed and darkroom developing were obviously brand new to me, which showed in the results. Some images were over or underexposed and some were ridiculously blurry. Nonetheless, a sufficient number came out satisfactorily. 

Goth girl buttering toast
Credit: Hamid Amirani

At the breakfast table
Credit: Hamid Amirani

One happy accident was that the negatives were slightly damaged before the darkroom stage of the unit. I panicked that all my images might have been ruined, but it actually ended up working in my favor, as the dirt and scratches that appeared on some of the photos added to the rough, grungy look I was aiming for, rather akin to the music video for Stupid Girl directed by Samuel Bayer, who "cut the film into pieces, and soaked it in his bath, applying deliberate fingerprints and abrasions to the footage before putting it back together by hand." 

This is most noticeable in this low angle shot.

Credit: Hamid Amirani 

Although I carried out the shoot with pre-planned ideas in mind, I allowed myself to be open to something that I hadn't envisaged, even if it didn't necessarily fit with my theme. While at the student's apartment, I saw she had a massive poster for the film Star Trek: First Contact, which had the tagline "Resistance Is Futile." I thought it would be perfect if she stood against the poster with a stern expression on her face. I got the shot standing on a chair to get the overhead angle.

Credit: Hamid Amirani 

So, what about now? Writing these posts was the first trigger that inspired me to think about taking up film photography again. The second was a selfie pic taken by a friend that she used as her Whatsapp avatar. I immediately found it redolent of the femme fatale archetype.

Credit: Chelsey-Ann Stuart 

Femme fatales are of course most associated with film noir – captivating, alluring and dangerous characters who seduce the male protagonist and draw him into lurid mysteries. A number of legendary Hollywood actresses became identified with the femme fatale, such as Claire Trevor, Lana Turner and Gene Tierney.

Claire Trevor
Credit: CC0

Lana Turner
Credit: CC0

Gene Tierney
Credit: CC0

Perhaps the most famous and iconic femme fatale actress was Rita Hayworth.

Credit: CC0 

One of the earliest examples, before these Hollywood sirens, was German actress Betty Amann. She found stardom in the 1929 silent film Asphalt.

Credit: CC0 

As a fan of the iconography, I decided to do a photo shoot with my friend Chelsey-Ann on the theme. But I decided straightaway that I'd go old school, which meant 35mm film. That had been my previous experience, and as I had enjoyed the darkroom experience of developing the prints, I wanted that organic hands-on approach again. I'm no luddite. I love my Netflix, Blu-Ray player and smartphone, but some things I prefer analog. Just as movies shot digitally never look as good as those shot on 35mm film, I wanted the rich grain you can only get with black and white negative film and the joy you get seeing your images emerge in a darkroom.

My first task was to get a working camera. Luckily, my brother still had his Canon AE-1 Program that he bought in the 1980s. Getting a battery for it initially proved tricky, as I had naively assumed that the A544 would be widely available in stores. Visits to several different shops proved me wrong. As with so many things, e-commerce was the answer and I ordered it online for next day delivery. Much easier to purchase was the roll of film. I opted for the Kodak T-MAX 100 B&W.

Credit: Hamid Amirani 

The manual for the Canon had been lost many years ago, but I was fairly confident that I'd find information online and, sure enough, a PDF of the original 1981 instruction manual has been uploaded to the internet. I read up on the basics and also visited sites to learn about setting aperture and shutter speed. In the course of doing that, I discovered that the AE-1 was one of the most popular and beloved cameras of its era, especially as a first camera for many budding photographers in the 80s.

Finally, I drew up a shot list of what images I wanted to capture that would best represent the femme fatale archetype. I decided to take the photos at a coffee shop and then in a park. I asked Chelsey-Ann to wear the same outfit from her selfie. Neither of us smoke, so I bought a packet of cigarettes for a few of the shots to attain the consummate femme fatale look, particularly as I wanted to capture a smoke cloud.

In the next part, I'll find out if my return to film photography has been successful when I visit a darkroom to develop the negatives and print the pictures.

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