Debra Thornton thinks that deep inside every woman, there's a pin-up dying to get out — a sweet and sexy image of herself on the best day of her life, projecting fun and innocence.
Thornton, an Ashland photographer, has made a career out of that desire, re-creating the iconic cheesecake images of the pin-up era, the 1930s through the 1950s, before the women's movement pushed the look aside. She throws pin-up parties complete with champagne and chocolates, so women and their girlfriends can get pin-up shots to suit the best fantasies of themselves and their sweethearts.
Thornton shoots the usual wedding and graduation pictures but says nothing can touch what emerges when women start putting on her array of inspiring pin-up costumes under the lights.
"When women look at themselves (in pin-up shots), they say, 'I had no idea — I never saw myself that way.' A lot of them say it puts a spark back in their relationship or marriage," says Thornton, a native of Cave Junction who caught the photo bug in high school.
A pin-up, says Thornton, is very different from the familiar portrait, where you dress nicely, look your best and smile.
For inspiration, women get out Thornton's big compendium of classic poses from the past and do a lot of joking and laughing as they get made up and try various outfits. Thornton encourages them by teaching them how to pose and how to step into that fun look of a true pin-up.
"They see that pin-ups have fuller figures and are playful, with sexuality," she notes. "We're not trying for the flat-stomach look that gets thrown at us all the time. We have shapely bodies. We're moms, career people, we go to the grocery store — and when we look in the mirror, we focus on our flaws. But when we're pin-ups, it's a time to be playful and in our soft, feminine selves."
As she gets her pin-up shot taken, nursing student Clarissa Showers warms to the task under the bright lights, learning how to arch her back and cross her ankles (with red, spike heels) just right, so as to emphasize all the comely curves — and then comes the playful but challenging part, how to get that radiant, fun but slightly naughty look to the lips and eyes.
"You can get into your feminine self and not give up your power," says Showers, adjusting a revealing garter and hose under a flashy red dress. "It's not cheesecake. That looks cheesy. This is cool. You get your own style. It's also hard. It takes trust."
With the immediacy of digital photography, Showers gets to study the shots Thornton has just taken, and she comments, "I'm starting to click into that sexy, flirtatious part of me — innocent and fierce at the same time."
With more poses, Thornton encourages her to "really look" at the camera, noting "it gives more life to the eyes."
She prompts, "Imagine you're looking at your boyfriend. There it is, ooh, gorgeous, honey."
The "pin-up look" is hard to define, but, as they pose a while, they start finding it, says Thornton. It's "innocent on the face, fierce in the eyes."
Thornton got the idea of shooting pin-up portraits while partying with friends years ago, trying to catch the "Daisy Dukes look" — in very short Levi's cutoffs and buxomy top "standing in the door of her trailer."
"Everyone loved it and word got around. They all wanted to be pin-ups from a time 'when sexy was classy,' " which is the motto of her pin-up business. It's a photographic niche she seems to have to herself.
"You gotta grab it while you got it," she says with a laugh.
Pin-up parties can be themes for bachelorette or graduation gatherings, says Thornton, who charges $150 per person. Private sessions are $250 and, with a second costume, $350.
Her gallery at www.debrathornton.com shows the range of pin-up possibilities — as mermaid, sitting in a hatbox, offering a fresh-baked pie, showing off a roadster bike, the Marilyn Monroe icon with the wind-blown skirt, a valentine, a nurse, the tutu, the elegant evening gown and many that are simply women looking their beautiful, sexy best.
Thornton can be reached at 541-621-9463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland.