by Charlotte Force
“Aesthete” is a photography and makeup project by LaGuardia High School senior visual art majors Ursula Bowling and Sam Barron. After several months of navigating makeup palettes, Photoshop, early morning shoots, and sheets, they finished the first major project of their careers. The project is now available as a book, “Aesthete,” and has been exhibited in LaGuardia’s gallery in the third Senior Art Show, “Home”. I met with Ursula and Sam to learn more about their process...
The beginning, inspiration, and inception of the project. What’s the story there?
Sam: That was all Ursula.
Ursula: So, I was watching a lot of America’s Next Top Model, in my house, as one does. Most of my photography projects have been just going out and taking pictures with friends, or when I was travelling, doing photojournalistic photography. I’ve always really liked watching America’s Next Top Model because of the photography - the editorial style of things. I knew that I wanted to do something like that, but I also knew that I definitely didn’t have the resources to do full body shoots, so I figured it would be cool to do beauty shots, which would still look professional and editorial.
Around that time, Sam and my mutual friend Audrey Nieuwenhuizen introduced us, and Sam had talked about how she wanted to work as a makeup artist. We thought it would be cool to do a collaboration, because I know nothing about makeup at all - I don’t own it, wear it, or anything.
In terms of the theme, I was with our friend Molly Doomchin watching America’s Next Top Model. Molly is an art enthusiast, and as we were talking about art while watching the show, I thought: “Oh, there’s an idea! Paintings on girls’ faces.” I wasn’t sure if that concept would actually work, so I sketched it out, and decided it actually would look cool. Then I talked to Sam, who approved it, and said she would do it. That was the inception of the project.
Sam: And then we started sketching.
So Ursula, you told me you chose all the paintings.
Ursula: Yeah, after I talked to Sam.
So afterwards, did you guys sketch out all the portraits before
So what was your process for the interpretation of the paintings on the models’ faces?
Sam: It depended on what sort of painting it was. If it was something more abstract, I usually planned on doing something more full-face, like the Rothko and Mondrian. It just made more sense to do full-face.
Ursula: We also wanted to have some more obvious pieces so that the collection is clearly paintings on people’s faces, and the abstract is more obvious to recreate.
Sam: It was easier to do a full-face abstract painting and represent the painting fairly. Them there were certain ones like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” and the Matisse Cutouts that seemed better with a partially bare face that was more glamorous, with something interesting in addition.
My process consisted of just going home and sketching a bunch of things and seeing how the objects within a given painting would fit on a face. I was really just trying to work around facial features. All of my interpretations were very loose. I would go in with Ursula, who would have some sort of vision too. We would combine our ideas, and I would execute them.
How much time passed between your agreement to do the project and the start of the photoshoots?
Ursula: A while, but I think that’s partially because of the way school works. I think the idea began around March 2015, in Spring. When I talked to Sam about it, we agreed it would be really cool but she’d have to get supplies first.
Sam: Ursula spoke to me a little bit before August 2015, and I had to order some things. I remember the first shoot was around August 28th.
Ursula: Yeah, we were on summer break, and we were both away, so we started at the end of the summer. I think the first shoot, which was the Monet “Water Lilies” shoot with Joanna Wagner, was after August 15th (right after my sister’s birthday).
What was your selection process for the works?
Ursula: There were a couple things I kept in mind when selecting the works of art. The first was the colour palette. I wanted the photographs to vary in colour so I tried to make sure there was a balance of cooled toned pieces and warm toned pieces in the project. The second was the time period. I tried to select works from several different periods in art history. I wanted there to be modern, cubist, impressionist, post impressionist, etc. The last couple things I thought about were the gender and location of the artists. Although it was difficult, I didn’t want to there to only be male artists in the series. That’s why I chose to do a Kusama and O’Keeffe. I also wanted to make sure the artists weren’t only European or American which is why I chose to use Hokusai and Kusama.
I decided which artists I wanted to use before deciding which pieces of theirs I would have Sam do makeup for. The series is a little bit about the influence of artists on people today (which is why all the models we used are practicing artists). Because of this, I needed to make sure all of the artists had some personal connection to myself or someone I knew. Basquiat for example is extremely influential today with several communities of artists especially for artists of colour…
After deciding which artists I wanted, it was a mixture of picking a piece that would look good on someone’s face while being recognizable to people even if they aren’t part of the art world. (ex. Monet is known for his waterlilies not as much for his train stations you know)
Did you figure out the paintings right when you started the project, or did you decide on them as you went along?
Ursula: We had a plan. We had a nice Starbucks date where we sat down and figure it out. Sam and I didn’t really know each other that well.
Sam: It was only the second time we had hung out.
Sam: After the shoot we did with Audrey, on a mountain in Woodstock.
Ursula: So we met at a neutral location - the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble - and I had a folder of paintings I liked, and prints of the style of photo I liked, and examples of makeup photography I was interested in. I had examples of cropping and lighting, so I could explain what I had in mind. Sam came with a few of her makeup template sketches, and explained “Oh, I could put this there, and…”. I wasn’t really sure what she was talking about [laughs], she could explain that better.
At that time, we had 12 or 15 paintings. Around there. Both of us assumed we wouldn’t finish the project at the time. We were thinking, “We’ll just see how the first one goes, we’ll be lucky if we have two of them.” I don’t think either of us imagined we’d have a finished project.
How many portraits are there now?
Ursula: We did a total of 17 shoots. For the final book and presentation, we have 13. Well, thirteen right now, and there’s one more we may add. Those are the ones in the show, currently.
We wanted to have a mix of full face, mixed face, cool colors, warm colors, and pieces that are strong without the painting next to them. The three portraits that we took out had really bad lighting conditions that we couldn’t fix.
Sam: Some of the shoots took longer and we lost natural light.
Can you talk about the shooting process?
Sam: Oh my god.
Ursula: Low budget. That should be the title of your article. “Photography on a Low Budget”.
And by low budget, I mean no budget.
Sam: I have a video of Ursula from the very first shoot duct-taping a sheet to a wall, and sitting on a stool trying to iron the sheet on the wall [laughs]. We didn’t know what was happening at all! We knew we wanted a white background and a clean look, but we didn’t know what to do to make that happen. We didn’t have a studio to work with, or lighting equipment. We had Ursula’s camera and what was around us.
Ursula: The project was shot digitally and on film, digital for Sam and film for me. This was something we didn’t want a flash for - we wanted to avoid harsh light - which meant, for doing film, we needed natural daylight, and we were shooting indoors. My house is pretty dark, and the only room with a window next to a wall is my sister’s room. That was the original idea: to pin a sheet to my sister’s wall and shoot the photos there. That’s where the first four were. Then we moved to the stairwell outside my apartment, because there’s a window there and the walls are white.
Sam and the model(s) would arrive early in the morning (between 9:45 and 10:45). Again, we had lighting issues, so Sam would have to be done with the makeup by midday so that I could shoot when the light was just right. I would mostly roll around on my bed while Sam did her thing, until it was my turn to bring the model to my hallway to shoot. Every 20/30 minutes or so Sam would show me the progress she made and I would give her my comments if I had any. I trusted her work and talent, so most of the time I just chilled out while she did the makeup. When she finished her work, I would bring the model to shoot. I would usually shoot digital first to let the model get comfortable with me taking their photo by taking a lot of photos. The nice thing about shooting digitally is that you can take as many pictures as you want - with film photography, all you have is a roll of film, which has a specific number of exposures. Once I transitioned to film, I only had 18 tries to get the shot. All the shoots went the same way. Each girl would first get a basic forward facing shot and then I would work with them on different angles and positions. At the end we would have subtle changes in position and expression from photo to photo even though they all had the same cropping and concept.
What was the editing process like?
Ursula: Time consuming. The shooting conditions we were working under were definitely not ideal [laughs] and I had to make up for all of that in editing. Each digital photo probably took 2 to 3 hours to edit and each film photo took 4 to 5 (no exaggeration). Photography requires a lot of patience. Digital photos have the tendency to look really flat when you first take them so when I was editing those files I mostly worked to give them more of a 3D quality and greater contrast. Film was a completely different story. Film photos don’t have the problem of looking flat and tend to have way more texture and depth than digital. The challenge with the film negatives was the colour and the additional steps of converting them to digital files. I had to scan each film negative onto the computer which takes about 30 to 45 minutes per roll if you want to get a high resolution scan. After I got the files onto the computer I had to get rid of dust that fell on the negatives in the scanner and then fix the color. I could go into boring photo editing talk for hours but the gist of it is that it took forever. The process was basically me grabbing a box of popsicles, putting on a movie (or 12) and staring at a screen until my eyes fell out or I fell asleep.
Did you originally plan for it to be a book?
Ursula: I did originally plan in the back of my head for the series to be a book. I’ve been super obsessed with zines and self published artist books recently and I knew that I really wanted to make one of my own. The series wasn’t necessarily about making a book but I knew that if I ever finished, I would want to turn it into a book.
What were the things you were prepared for when you started this project? What did you discover/learn along the way?
Ursula: Good question. Honestly, there wasn’t much I was prepared for. I was prepared to have fun!!! [laughs]
I think we figured out most things along the way. Before we started, I knew I could take photos and Sam knew she could do makeup, but that was it. We didn’t even know much about each other’s talents, since we weren’t particularly close friends and neither of us had ever taken on a project of this scale before. What made us good partners is that we were both prepared to figure everything out despite not knowing what we were doing at first. Our motto actually became “the show will go wrong,” a phrase we stole from the show Parks and Recreation. We would just show up on the day expecting something to go awry, and then we would roll with it and have fun!
To be more specific, though, these are a few things I learned along the way:
A sheet can be ironed and scotch taped onto a wall to act as a background for an editorial fashion shoot.
A lightbox can act as a spotlight if you diffuse it with a piece of loose leaf.
Creme makeup does not stain clothing if you wash it out right away.
Creme makeup can stain your face. Especially if it is blue or red.
I am not qualified to style hair.
Stray hairs are the most annoying thing in the entire world to edit.
I’m not the only person obsessed with touching fan brushes.
Most people are actually down to sit still for three hours and have their face painted if you ask them nicely and tempt them with pizza!
What materials (cameras, makeup, etc.) did you use?
Ursula: Here’s my list:
Digital Camera - Nikon D3200.
Film Camera - Minolta x700.
Film - AGFA 200 speed.
Editing Software - Photoshop.
Sam: And my list:
Makeup Forever Flash Palette
Kat Von D liquid lipsticks
Makeup Geek eyeshadows (wide variety)
Morphe Brushes 35B palette
What advice would you give to people who want to undertake a big project like this?
Ursula: Go for it and be patient. If it doesn’t work out, then who cares. You had a fun afternoon of chilling with friends and trying something new. If it does work out, then you’ll be so happy you actually did it. I promise, it will feel amazing!!! And of course, you have to have patience. You need to understand that things won’t go the way you planned in your head, “the show will go wrong”, and that is okay [laughs]. You can’t let that discourage you. Set the bar low. Expect that someone will move their neck and smudge makeup, and people will be late, and the sheet you spent thirty minutes ironing will fall because scotch tape sucks… Just relax and work with things as they come at you and it will all be amazing and you will be super proud.
You can see the photos from Aesthete on Ursula’s website here.
Ursula Bowling and Sam Barron are now graduating with diplomas from LaGuardia’s art department, and going on to pursue degrees in the arts. Ursula will be attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts, in the Film and Television Production Department. She wants to work as a cinematographer. “Aesthete” was her first fashion photography project, but she has completed several short films including “The Pursuit of Happiness” and “Published”, and is currently working on a Super8 short film called “Five Senses”. Sam Barron is attending SUNY Purchase for Interdisciplinary Visual Arts, and wants to work as a makeup artist. She is currently working on a project called “Delectation”.
Ursula’s Email: email@example.com
Sam’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org