Modern Day Pinup

July 1, 2012

By RF Staff

The classic pinup—which many of us remember sneaking peeks of in our grandfathers’ colorfully illustrated magazines—began as early as 1890 as a way to entertain soldiers and sailors who literally “pinned up” images of flirty, voluptuous women on the walls of their barracks.

But in the past seven or eight years, everyday women want to see themselves in the same way. Inspired by classic 1940s and 50s pinups such as Bettie Page and Jean Harlow, and now Dita Von Teese and Christina Hendricks, women are purchasing packages to be made over in vintage costumes with false eyelashes and pin curls, and then photographed for their partners (or just for themselves). A growing sub-genre of the traditional boudoir or glamour portrait has evolved into the pinup shot.

“Pinups have always been about control, and about constructing a theatrical sexuality, but one that could only go so far in revealing anything that couldn’t be ‘pinned up’ in polite company,” says Maria Elena Buszek, author of Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality and Popular Culture and associate professor of art history at the University of Colorado, Denver. “These classic pinups seem like ‘the realest’ kind of sexual imagery of women because of the range of body types one sees. The fact that in their heyday, classic pinups were expected to be big and curvy is also appealing to women. Pinup history seems to provide them with models for, on the one hand, being their sexual selves in a very authentic way, even as, on the other, it’s completely about the tease, the costumes, the ironic and knowing expressions…that’s a very exciting, dynamic paradox.”

We spoke with three photographers who have not only embraced this trend, but have also turned it into a business.  

Celeste Giuliano
Celeste Giuliano Pinup Photography

Philadelphia-based portraitist Celeste Giuliano is perhaps best recognized for her work in photographing in the iconic “Pinups for Pitbulls” calendar for the past two years, not to mention the 88-page special edition issue of Retro Lovely magazine devoted to her work in December 2011. Well-known within the pinup genre, Giuliano came to the subject after being inspired by her grandfather’s extensive collection of calendars. “When I was in college, I rediscovered his collection and I was inspired,” Giuliano says. “I worked for a weekly newspaper as a photographer and photo editor through college and I really wanted to get into fashion and editorial work, but how do you get into that when you [first] graduate? I had interned, but I figured I needed to build my own portfolio.”

In search of models, Giuliano contacted the local radio station (then Y100), which hosted a “Philly’s Hottest Contest.” “I contacted them in 2004, and said I was trying to build a portfolio and thought [their contest] would fit with pinups,” she explains. “It was everyday people who were entering, and I could offer the winner a photo shoot. That’s how I started.” From there, Guiliano’s popularity snowballed; The Philadelphia Inquirer did an article about her work, as did the local CBS TV affiliate and several Web sites. She opened her studio in 2005, while continuing to work at the newspaper until 2007, when her business grew enough that her studio would sustain her income full time.

Since then, she has transformed about 2,000 clients into pinups, and shoots 6 to 10 portraits a week, ranging in price from $350 to $1,000. Clients have flown in from as far as Europe to pose in her home-adjacent studio, and her work has been published internationally. “It’s such a difference from when I started [in 2004],” Giuliano says. “I said ‘pinup’ and people looked at me and said, ‘is that porn?’ I was even kicked out of my first studio because people thought I was shooting porn!”

Giuliano—who points to Mad Men as one pop culture influence adding to the genre’s current popularity—typically has a consultation with clients a month prior to the shoot to discuss their ideas and costume choices. The day of the shoot, Giuliano’s hairstylist and makeup artist are on hand to complete each client’s look. Half-day packages include two themes/sets/outfits of the subject’s choice, professional hair and makeup done in-studio, the pre-shoot consultation, a “huge” selection of vintage-styled wardrobe, lingerie, shoes, hosiery and props, 40 to 60 proofs of the best selected images in a private online gallery, three fully retouched and airbrushed images and Web versions of final ordered images for online or e-mail use.

 There are “women who come in and say, ‘I want to look like I’m sitting in a martini glass’ or ‘I want to be a retro-style 1930s magician,’” the photographer says. “Where else can you get that done? They can come in with an idea they could never be in everyday life, and we’ll build a set, find costumes and cater to it. I think it’s pretty amazing.”

Sasha Dobies
Sherbet Birdie

While Giuliano has conquered the U.S. East Coast market, Sasha Dobies of Sherbet Birdie rules the territory across the earth in Australia. “The [pinup] scene is very vibrant in Australia, yet is still only found in smaller pockets, whilst the American scene appears to be more prolific,” Dobies writes via e-mail. Nevertheless, influenced by Gil Elvgren and David Lachapelle, Dobies opened her business in 2006, and has solidly doubled her client base each year since 2008. (“Business was very slow and sporadic while I was still in the development stages, between 2006 and 2008,” she explains.)

Dobies—who previously worked in the magazine industry, art-directing photo shoots—was inspired to go retro after discovering what she calls a “nudie girly” magazine under a stack of books belonging to her partner.  “It was both hilarious and a bit shocking!” she says. “So, I thought, ‘Well…why not create a lovely shoot of myself so he can peek at photographs of me instead of icky nudie-mags.’ I chose retro portraiture as I felt I’d be able to create photographs for him that were seductive, tongue-in-cheek and elegant.”
As Dobies goes on to explain, “If I’d given him hyped-up, over-sexualized, staged photographs of myself, well, it just wouldn’t fit with my personality.”

After giving her beau the gift—which he loved—friends started approaching Dobies to shoot their own retro portraits. After about a year, she was able to leave her full-time job and pursue Sherbet Birdie. Now, she shoots about three clients per week, and uses the remainder of time for post production. She’s recently breaking into the commercial market as well, and would love to take her touring studio abroad to California some day.

“Don’t we all look at the studio photos or beach-side photographs of our grandmas proudly and think ‘golly I wish I could have photographs just like these that one day my children or grandchildren will too be proud of?’ ” she says of the appeal of her portraits. “Many of my clients feel an affinity with the curvy, full-figured shapes of women pre-1950 and want to rediscover and celebrate their curves.”

Sophie Spinelle
Shameless Photography

For the bi-coastal photographer Sophie Spinelle with studios in both New York City and San Francisco, her “Shameless Photography” is “a business with a mission.”“My purpose is to accomplish real good in women’s lives and try to combat some of the self hatred and truly crippling insecurities that many women carry with them,” says Spinelle, who opened her business in 2009 after working for a nonprofit social justice organization.

Having studied painting in college and being fixated on glamour from a young age, Spinelle dabbled in different genres of art, eventually sketching and painting pinups. She discovered photography and, using a Nikon D40, experimented with bringing her drawings to life by asking a close friend to model for a portrait.

“I went over to her house and gave her a makeover and shot her in her living room,” Spinelle says. “She posted an image on
Facebook, and the response to that image gave me the confidence to believe I could start the business.” Only three months later, Shameless Photography, which was originally based in New York City, became Spinelle’s full-time job. “It was very fast,” she says. “The dream had been brewing for a long time, but I was concerned about starting a business in this economic climate.”

Three years later, Spinelle, who has upgraded to a Nikon D700, opened a second studio in San Francisco in 2011. She returns to New York for “photo tour” shoots once a month, typically doing 14 in a single week in her East Village studio. (In San Francisco she’s able to spread out to two or three shoots a week because she has more time.) Ranging in price from $395 to $895 per package (with a $75 surcharge for photo tour appointments), Spinelle’s clients are public school teachers, lawyers, mothers, fellow photographers and even writer Emily McCombs, who blogged about her pinup experience for the site.

While Spinelle is all about empowering her clients, she says there’s an inevitable amount of retouching that goes into each portrait. “One thing I’ve been pretty firm about ethically is that I never change body types,” she says. “I really want people to be able to occupy the realm of fantasy, but also accept themselves as they are, and that’s fine line to walk when you’re doing retouching. I communicate with clients and give them a list of everything that might be retouched, asking them to tell me what things they would like to have enhanced or left untouched. It’s also useful for them to know that these things are happening to all the images they see in magazines and billboards—the images they’re comparing themselves to—and to find some power in that.”

For Giuliano, Dobies and Spinelle—all with overwhelming closets of authentic vintage or retro reproduction dresses, lingerie, shoes and props—the appeal is about making clients feel as beautiful as possible in a way they may not be able to ascertain in their everyday lives.

“I think that the reason [pinups] really stuck in the popular consciousness recently is that the subcultural phenomenon of women in the punk, rockabilly and Riot Grrrl scenes has crossed over into the mainstream,” Buszek explains. “Thankfully, not just the aesthetic, but the sense that the aesthetic is something particularly geared at and embraced by women seeking an alternative to the increasingly homogeneous ideals of beauty in pop culture.”

And as Spinelle puts it, her business’ success is simple: “I have done wedding photography, and there’s a certain kind of stress to it,” she says. “But my shoots feel like we’re all on holiday.”    

Jessica Gordon is an associate editor at Rangefinder magazine and long-time contributor to Nielsen Photo Group publications. E-mail her at