Anatomy of: Sex With Strangers

Throughout the month of September I’m blogging about the making of a black and white project I recently shot with Ogilvy Mather, Chicago. This print campaign was for Steppenwolf Theater Company's 35th season entitled Public/Private Self. Updates will be posted each Tuesday afternoon in the month.

In the play, Sex with Strangers, a young blogger's telling of his sexual exploits launches a hugely successful book-writing career. When his sex life intersects with that of a 30-something writer who’s career is on the rocks, the younger man shows his new love interest how to get noticed on the internet.

The final image

Using two characters and a laptop, the objective was to create a metaphor that told of a sexual relationship that gets corrupted by the desire for microfame. The picture had to be highly sensual but foreshadow the mistrust that later develops.

This production was the first in my series of photos for Steppenwolf's next season. I was then uncertain of what tone the pictures would take or how I’d work with the seasoned actors, most of whom don't do photo shoots. I felt a little out on a limb actually. My subjects, Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush met me in a third floor bedroom of a bed & breakfast on Chicago’s south side.

An 1870's mansion served as the location.

In the tiny room, the walls were painted deep red, the heavy curtains drawn and a single yellow lamp was lit at the beside. As we talked about what I had planned, I quickly learned that Sally and Stephen were in fact strangers themselves. They’d never met or rehearsed whatsoever. This photo shoot was going to be an ice breaker and be their virgin professional experience together.

The room color was red. Very red.

After make-up, they both undressed on set and changed into the wardrobe we brought. Early on, Sally was wearing pajama pants but asked if I might want her to strip down to her underwear because it would be more realistic. The ice was already beginning to thaw. A few shots later, my stylist found a patterned pajama short and black tank worked best.

I used their reflection in the mirrored door of a hand carved armoire to be the source of their image. Much in the play revolved around ones own perception of self that the furniture's framing was at once beautiful and conceptually right.

Directing them required a different solution than most of my jobs. Their initial discomfort was of course felt in the room, but after a little giggling and joking around, I talked them through how their character’s were to be feeling. Using a slow monotonous voice I guided their hands around each others bodies, and their faces into expressions of pleasure and apprehension. Between takes we all climbed on the bed and looked at the shots on my laptop. It was an unusual place for a creative meeting but was a great way to bond.

A range of expressive positions were tried.

Back on set, I coached them to the point which they became familiar enough to take charge and try positions I had not asked of them. At which point my coaching only encouraged their movements on each other, and told what gestures I wanted repeated. My assistant joked that he had to remove himself from set because he was feeling like a 5th wheel.

The computer screen was shot dark and we had a few ideas how to treat it in post. Originally we considered presenting a naked torso and breasts, suggesting that the computer stripped Sally naked. For this I cast a traveling model from Dallas to shoot some nudes in my studio for later use on that screen, but it was later decided that an ambiguous glowing screen would focus the viewer better.

Not Sally Murphy

My retouching notes

I love the final execution because Sally's character is into it, but doesn't really know what to make of this new person she's becoming. I am especially looking forward to seeing this on stage.

Sex with Strangers opens January 20 at Steppenwolf's upstairs theater.

Written by Laura Eason

Directed by Jessica Thebus

Equipment: Multiple Speedotron packs, Hasselblad H4D, Hasselblad 35-90 zoom,
Crew: Annika Howe, Russell Lord, Mark Doddato, Courtney Rust, Morgan Blaul
Retoucher: Studio Satellite
Ogilvy Mather: Allie Armstrong AD, Gabe Usadel CD
We ate: Potbelly sandwiches and an ice tea bottle was

accidentally broken on the bathroom floor.