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Last-Minute Holiday Gifts: DIY Famous Photographs

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[Editor's note: We're reposting this feature from last year due to popular demand and the fact that we're wondering if most of you got to see it the first time around. Enjoy!]

On a recent holiday shopping trip uptown, in order to escape the hordes cascading down 5th Avenue, I ducked into one of New York’s contemporary art museums. While sauntering through the maze of galleries I came upon a certain photograph that gave me pause. I studied the slap-dash camera angle and the basic lighting, and thought to myself: “Really? This is what it takes? I can do that!”

And then it hit me like a bolt of lightning: Not only can I do that, I will do that, and then I will pawn off the results on all of my unsuspecting relatives. Why give a Richard Avedon poster, when I can make an original Adda Birnir knock-off? Thus I enlisted the help of my trusty co-conspirator Tom Starkweather and together we picked five masters of photography (Cindy Sherman, Steve McCurry, Philip Lorca Dicorcia, Richard Avedon, and Ryan McGinley) whose work we felt was just begging to be re-created.

Detailed instructions and the results, after the jump.

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills are hands down one of the greatest bodies of photographic work ever made. They’re smart and funny and critical and yet so simply made. Very little art has been able to say so much (about women and media and fiction and film) using so little — she shot the series herself using only a 35mm black and white camera and some basic costume changes.

In order to recreate Untitled Film Still #21 you will need the following:

1 Cindy Sherman look-alike (My good friend Erin Smith)
1 woman’s blouse
1 woman’s blazer (a small men’s blazer will suffice)
1 straw hat
A sunny day (or a powerful flash)

To successfully execute this piece, you will have to make use of a very special secret ingredient that only we here at Flavorpill can tell you about. The secret ingredient? Location, location, location.

Cindy Sherman took the original image right in front of the Custom House building located right outside of the Bowling Green subway stop at the very tip of Manhattan. (The building is now home to the National Museum of the American Indian). Once there, have your model face the building and spend a little time experimenting with where exactly to have her stand and perfecting Sherman’s discerning gaze. Then voila!

2. Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, 1984

Magnum photographer Steve McCurry’s portrait of an anonymous 12-year-old Afghan girl was taken in a refugee camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 1983. The image, famous for the girl’s piercing green eyes, originally ran as the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic and since that time has become one of the most iconic, recognizable photographs ever taken.

Now, to be fair, it took a lot for Steve McCurry to get this picture. At the time, Afghanistan was under the rule of rebel leaders fighting off the Soviet invasion, and McCurry had to don native garb in order sneak into rebel controlled territories along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When he left Afghanistan, he sewed his rolls of film into the fabric of his clothing and smuggled the images out of the country. When he returned to the United States he was, deservedly, awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.

In order to re-create this iconic work of wartime journalism, in the comfort and safety of your own home, you will need the following:

1 brown haired, green-eyed girl with long-hair (The wonderful Robin Pearce)
1 turquoise green background
1 red Indian cloth scarf (cut your own holes)

The only trick to nailing this image is to get the right angle and arrangement of hair and scarf. Print out a copy of the original and just keep tweaking the set-up until you get it right. Have your model practice opening her eyes as wide as possible; if she’s not getting the job done, consider having an assistant slam a door or jump out from the shadows to get the desired effect.

3. Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Mario, 1978

For most art photography students who came of age post-1990 (like Tom and I), Philip Lorca DiCorcia holds a certain vaunted place as the photographer for simple but brilliant lighting set-ups. DiCorcia’s early images are known for their hyper-realistic lighting, which imbues the work with a magical, cinematic quality. According to photography lore, this image of his brother Mario was DiCorcia’s first venture into staged photography. So of course, we picked it.

To re-do this image, you will need:

1 Mario look alike (Our own Tom Starkweather)
1 modest kitchen
1 green or yellow tinted light

When we first looked into setting up this picture, we thought that DiCorcia had hidden a light in the fridge in order to get that great yellow glow. As it turns out, the fridge light was sufficiently bright, as long as we exposed the photograph for long enough. Tom used a 1/4 sec exposure to accomplish the right eerie quality of light.

4. Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City, May 6, 1957

Richard Avedon’s famous image of Marilyn Monroe was taken at the end of a long photo shoot with the actress in 1957. As detailed in a feature on the image in New York Magazine, Avedon described how “for hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s — she did Marilyn Monroe.” Then, right as they were finishing up, she sat down and relaxed. This photograph was the last frame he snapped.

If you want to remake this image, obtain the following:

1 Marilyn Monroe look-alike (I had the honor for this one)
1 sparkly black low-cut dress, or
1 yard of sparkly black fabric
Lots of make-up

Ironically, the poignant combination of ease and vulnerability that can be seen on Monroe’s face is extremely difficult to attain. Tom and I spent almost an hour taking picture after picture where I had to tilt my head, slightly relax my face, look up, look down, etc. etc. If you are going to make this picture, make sure to block out plenty of time. Or nail it. Either way.

5. Ryan McGinley, Running Fireworks from I Know Where the Summer Goes, 2007

I have always had mixed feelings towards Ryan McGinley’s work. On one hand, I really love it — I mean who doesn’t like hot naked people running around having adventures? On the other hand, I sometimes feel that’s all the pictures are: hot naked people running around having adventures. So I started to joke with Tom that all we needed to make a Ryan McGinley were some fireworks and a naked person. Tom and I decided the idea was too funny to pass on.

In order to re-create this image you will need:

1-2 naked people (Thank you, Funny Clown)
3-5 firework fountains
1 safe, legal, outdoors space to do the shoot

As it turned out, this was the most difficult to photograph to pull off. The actual shoot happened in five minutes in an undisclosed location in Baltimore, but the planning took weeks.

Our first roadblock was that fireworks aren’t legal in New York. The nearest place that would sell us fireworks legally was in Easton, PA, so Tom and I spent the better part of one Sunday trekking out to Phantom Fireworks to get our loot. Luckily they had a buy-one, get-one-free special going to make the trip worthwhile. If you live in New York, click here for driving directions.

The second roadblock was that since fireworks aren’t legal in New York, we needed to find a safe place to do the shoot.* After exploring a number of options including a co-worker’s roof (too flammable), a friend’s backyard upstate (too snowy), and an abandoned stretch of industrial East Williamsburg (too illegal), we ended up doing the shoot quick and dirty on the mean streets of Baltimore, where fountains are legal. You can read all about your state’s firework laws on Wikipedia.

This image resembles the original the least, and I almost got frostbite on my butt, but I think it’s my favorite.

*In no way is this piece meant to encourage the setting off of illegal fireworks. Or the ripping off copyrighted images for that matter…

SPECIAL THANKS: The production of this piece could not have been possible without my collaborator and co-producer Tom Starkweather. Tom handled all of the technical lighting and photography elements and is just an all around great guy. Erin Smith and Robin Pearce’s patience was remarkable, thank you! To my roommates, who allowed us to invade our apartment with our traveling photo studio. And to the inhabitants of the Comfort Dome, thank you! Without your generosity of time and space this piece would not have happened.

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