What’s his problem? Behind the scenes with POC.
Every so often a photographer comes along that plays such an integral role in a movement that their presence is about as natural and vital as breathing. Someone so embedded in the arts that they become a pivotal part of it- effortlessly flowing through changes in performers, styles, and locales, taking it all in, and giving back a photographic history of a very specific time and place. New York City’s rock and rollers had Bob Gruen in the 70s, and Seattle burlesque for seven years and counting has had POC.
Let me begin by stating the obvious: POC- or Paul O’Connell- is my longtime partner here at Burlesque Seattle Press. Without his iconic images and unique point of view, BSP wouldn’t exist. Paul’s contribution to not only this blog, but to putting a face to the vibrant world of Seattle burlesque can’t be overstated. For that reason, I felt like it was high time to shake a little history out of the man himself.
But asking where he comes from, like many things when talking to Paul, leads back to burlesque.
When we met for a “formal” interview in April we were, as usual, in a time crunch. Paul was scheduled to shoot the Academy of Burlesque Museum Archive Benefit, but before show time we sat down for some biographical questions (or to find out “what’s his problem?” as Paul so eloquently put it). Instead of the standard “I was born in…I’m originally from…” he launched right into when he first picked up a camera at 9 years old (as it turns out, this was in New York). Paul took pictures that summer but didn’t pursue it actively until years later, though photography always remained in the back of his mind. “I studied film production at Brooklyn College and finally graduated in 1999. In many of the film courses we were studying angles, depth of field…everything that fills up a frame to tell a story. The Mise En Scéne, for all you film nerds. So this knowledge was easily transferable to still photography.”
“For years, I always wanted a camera,” he continued. “I would be walking down the street and would see something that I thought would be a great photo – and I would say ‘when I get my camera I’m just going to take it everywhere so I can be ready to grab that perfect shot’.”
Paul visited the Northwest and recalls thinking Seattle might be a place he could live. “I had also been thinking about starting something new, a new adventure somewhere out of NYC where I was born and raised,” he explained. “When the show I was working on at Oxygen Media got cancelled I was out of a job- so I figured ‘now’ would be the best time to move.” Photography meshed with his desire to explore a new direction, so he bought his first camera in April 2003 and moved to Seattle two months later. Once here, Paul began to avidly shoot everything from skies crossed by telephone lines to buildings and musicians.
In 2005, a friend by the name of Ruby Caliente was performing in an Academy of Burlesque recital, and asked Paul to be her personal photographer. It was the first burlesque show he’d ever seen. Ernie Von Schmaltz, Ultra Vixen, host Miss Indigo Blue, and a fresh crop of enthusiastic students and their attendant screaming friends left quite an impression. “I left the show thinking so many things- this is so funny, and vibrant, and sexy, and silly, and dirty…” he remembers. Paul was intrigued. A few months later, Ruby asked him back to shoot an entire show: a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina featuring Tamara the Trapeze Lady, Lydia McLane, and Vienna La Rouge. By 2006 he was plugged into a hotbed of burlesque, taking in shows as often as he could from the Columbia City Theatre to the Fenix Underground and everywhere in between. At Rebar, he met a performer called The Shanghai Pearl who would later become a good friend and Paul’s very first studio model. (The makeshift shoot took place at Julia’s on Broadway using a few costumes, simple lighting, and Shanghai’s magical burlesque makeup). Throughout 2007, Paul continued to make a name for himself as he was invited to take pictures at more and more shows. His images were not only visually striking, but his familiarity with the performers’ acts helped hone his ability to capture the perfect moment or expression.
Since then, Paul’s live performance images as POC Photo (finished with a “special magic recipe”) have become his trademark, but he has also amassed a goldmine of studio sessions with both performers and non-performers. To an observer, the studio images are identifiable as Paul’s work- the movement and expression still dialed up to maximum volume- only the colors and finishes are richer, more dramatic and artful, and when he’s given license to go there, more provocative. Paul certainly loves those expressive eyes.
I asked Paul about the dynamic of a one-on-one shoot as opposed to being a stage-side photographer; in his experience it’s always been comfortable and relaxed- especially if he meets with a potential subject beforehand to talk about what kind of images are desired. In a live setting, Paul is often so familiar with who he is taking pictures of that he instinctively knows when to snap the perfect shot (“When shooting Heavenly Spies, I know they’re going to do a leg kick,” he laughs). In the studio it’s more of a two-way partnership, plus Paul has another secret weapon in his corner- friend and stylist The Shanghai Pearl. Shanghai lends her invaluable hair, makeup, and styling expertise to many of the POC pin up shoots, helping to ease clients that have never previously posed for pin ups into striking a pose in style.
Paul wouldn’t say that what it takes to ‘capture the moment’ is easy, but he’s definitely been at it long enough to recognize the value in self-editing and a good economy of shots. He also loves burlesque more than anyone I’ve ever met.
And finding a beautiful person to photograph doesn’t hurt a bit, either.
Currently, Paul O’Connell can be found scribbling notes, doing interviews, or taking photos for POC Photo and Burlesque Seattle Press. He can occasionally be found in various states of debauchery on stage as alter ego Man Johnson. He is at work on an ongoing series of pulp novel re-creations and is developing a series of famous works of art including Pre-Raphaelites, the first subject of which was Jesse Belle-Jones. For studio inquiries, email email@example.com or call 206-849-7817.
“I feel lucky to consider Paul one of my dearest friends. He is one of the most exceptional humans I know. He is so gentle, generous, and kind. He lives his life on his own terms and treats others as equals without an agenda or angle. He’s also a talented photographer who works tirelessly on his craft and a smart, hilarious, and perverted performer. I love shooting with him. I trust him implicitly.”- The Shanghai Pearl
“Paul is a delightfully imaginative human who creates photos that are a charming mix of old Hollywood drama and polished burlesque glamour! Paul has perfected the art of capturing the magic moments in live burlesque shows. He is a beloved gem in our dazzling community.”- Kylie Koyote, Stripped Screw Burlesque
What follows is a mix of my favorite icons, performers, non-performers, and pulp images from POC’s collection: