I was introduced to Savanna a few months ago at an exhibition of my work curated by my friend and colleague Bob Neroni, owner of Prism Arts Philadelphia. When we met at the exhibit she seemed very enthusiastic about meeting me, so I reached out to cast her for The Vixens Series, a series of portraits inspired by women from all walks of life that exude; strength, intelligence, heroism and inner beauty.
We settled on a date and aligned the production crew to meet at my studio for the series of pictures that would define the beginning of a new year as we enter 2024. I contacted veteran Philly photographer, Al B For to cover the behind the scenes of the production involved in creating Savanna’s remarkable series of pictures. Al B is quite known in Philadelphia creative circles as a go to guy for candid event photography . His bubbly personality makes everyone around him comfortable as evidenced in the photographs captured on shoot day. Al B is the ultimate fly on the wall.
Many thanks first of all to Savanna, who was fabulous to work with. She’s quite daring and provocative as you can see. Thanks also to my team including: creative director KVaughn, lighting assistant Tony Colagreco, Shibari rope specialist, Scorpiana, makeup artist extraordinaire, Octavia Monroe and behind the scenes pictures by Al B For.
What does it mean to be a vixen? At first glance, the term is simple: “a female fox.” It’s the literal definition, a word often associated with Trixie from The Fox and the Hound, perhaps chosen for its closeness to “vixen.” Yet, there’s another layer to this word, one that carries a nuanced weight. It refers to a spirited or fierce woman, one often seen as sexually attractive.
When Tony Ward approached me to be a part of his latest collection, which he aptly named The Vixen Series, I couldn’t help but question its significance. My initial association with the term was not particularly flattering, conjuring images of a manipulative seductress, taking advantage of others without remorse. However, Tony’s perspective on the term shifted my perception. A vixen, as he sees it, is not someone who exploits but someone who accepts the affection and adoration that others willingly offer. It’s a recognition of one’s own allure and power, a celebration of the capacity to evoke desire.
For me, being included in Tony Ward’s The Vixen Series wasn’t just an acknowledgment of my physical presence; it was a testament to the strength, intelligence, and heroism that define the diverse women he seeks to portray. To find myself considered in the same context as such inspiring figures was deeply humbling. Often, I grapple with feelings of inadequacy, wondering if I’m doing enough to justify my existence in this world. Tony’s invitation was a reassurance that my presence and contributions matter, a gentle nudge towards embracing my worth.
The journey with Tony and his team has been nothing short of enlightening. They have taught me to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us and to recognize the potential within myself. I am grateful for their friendship and guidance, and I only wish I could have extended my stay to absorb more of their wisdom.
The truth is, every one of us harbors a vixen within. It’s not just about being attractive or alluring; it’s about embracing the multifaceted qualities that make us uniquely powerful. Our inner vixen can be bold, perceptive, empathetic, or any blend of positive feminine traits. It’s about owning our strengths, sharing our wisdom, and empowering those around us. This experience has led me to ponder how others perceive me and how I might inspire them in turn. I believe we should all unapologetically embrace our inner vixens, radiating confidence and spreading empowerment wherever we go.
Thirty years ago in 1993. I embarked on a new body of work that explored our rights in America to freedom of expression. My subjects were from all walks of life, from various races, religious backgrounds and sexual persuasions. This melting pot that stubbornly defines America formed the palette of a series of black and white photographs that defined an era. What was that era? It was the time in which sexual freedom and multiculturalism was on the rise.
Unfortunately, in these times there are certain bigoted elements of our society that continue to attempt to roll back the hands of time. Sadly, Facisim in America is on the rise. Obsessions as a body of work reminds us of what we once were and still are, a free and open society in which each individual American is free to choose and be who they are.
We invite you to join us for an exploration of human vulnerability and the timeless beauty of the unadorned form. “OBSESSIONS” is an ode to the human spirit, a celebration of the profound authenticity that lies with us.
I FELT LIKE I was Marcello Mastroianni walking onto the film set for La Dolce Vita; a colorful cast of characters assembled in slightly exotic circumstances later than scheduled. The Dolce Vita feeling stayed with me, even intensified, as the afternoon progressed.
Tony had invited me to be a BTS (behind the scenes) photographer and I did my best to remain behind the scenes. It was his project and he had a specific vision of what was going to happen, in what order. So…in that context I knew I was merely a passive participant. I had once before shot in another photographer’s studio. On that occasion, it was my show with the model. But on this day, I happily marched to Tony’s drumbeats.
I have almost always photographed with natural light, not studio lights. My eye has been trained over many decades to see the results in advance…that is to say when I deem the daylight just right. Fortunately, there were several occasions through the day to shoot in natural light…in the studio, in his house, and in the garden that separated house from garden. In those moments, between setups, when I knew I didn’t have to be behind the scenes , I was free to pick my subjects and my moments to click the shutter. Not unusual, I shot things that were totally unrelated to the goal of the day. During the shoot, I kept wishing the studio had skylights but that isn’t Tony’s artistic MO.
One of my goals was to capture Tony at work…Tony in his element. It didn’t sink in when Tony invited me to the Dolce Vita event that there would be an artistic director. But first to arrive was KVaughn, a force unto himself; high energy, purpose-driven, stylish in his attire, and from my perspective, the most photogenic character in the studio and on the property. He was OK with me taking a few snaps when he was sitting near me on two occasions, when the daylight struck me as just right. He insisted on always having his glasses on…and he won out…most of the time.
Tony, dressed like he was on vacation but worked with focus…he worked like he was on anything but vacation. He was a pro through and through. I stayed out of the way, mostly behind him as he moved about. Sometimes he was up on a low stool to explore an alternative perspective. He seemed to be in three places at once.
Frankly, I went hoping to see some skin, but I saw less skin on this shoot than in a shopping center. I like shooting nudes (a great challenge to do well), but today the goal was otherwise. Ellen Tiberino, Tony’s subject, has a face that for me, was not easy to capture in studio lighting. When she sat down for a few minutes in the soft up light of a make-up counter, I saw what I was after in reflections of her in the makeup counter’s mirror. She was not aware, at the counter, that I was shooting (happily so…because I do best with candid shots), but at one point, I let on what I was doing and she willingly responded. Those mirror shots were some of my best ones of Ellen.
I also took a few candid shots of Tracey Olkus as she applied makeup or tweaked a few hairs on Ellen’s brow or around her shoulders. Regrettably, I took no separate shots of Sam Binder as he did Tony’s bidding with the lights, the hand-held diffusing scrim, and the backdrop behind Ellen.
After the session, it was great to sit at a table under roof with everyone for a late but tasty lunch. We all relaxed and became old friends. The only person missing was La Dolce Vita’s director Federico Fellini.
About The Author: Joel Levinson is a veteran architect and photographer based in Philadelphia. Joel is currently working on a book of his photographs. This is his first contribution to TWS.