History Repeats Itself with the Help of David White

November 9, 2012

By Barbara Goldman

© David White

 C. Robinson mug shot.

Prohibition has never looked as alluring as it does with the blurring of lines between fine art, fashion and portraiture from New York-based photographer David White. White got to pitch an idea for a campaign that blended the old with the new and incorporated his love of vintage style and interaction with live subjects.

White has been shooting still life, foods, liquor and cosmetics for advertising and editorial clients for 25 years.  He has a love for the alternative processes, which gives a painterly feel to his photography. He grew up in New York and comes from an artistic family of commercial and fine artists and sculptors.
Recently he wanted more interaction with subjects and started shooting people and fashion.  This new direction brought him to a prospective client where he could promote his love of the vintage look for a new and emerging vodka company.  Bootlegger 21 NY Vodka from the company Prohibition Distillery in upstate New York was looking to create a strong company identity.  White met Brian Facquet, one of several owners of Prohibition Distillery, at a wine and liquor benefit and the two of them hit it off. White proposed the idea of shooting period images that could be customized for the specific vision Facquet wanted for the company’s new branding campaign.

Bootlegger 21 New York Vodka is gluten-free and made from 100% American corn grain. The company has a romantic reverence to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 30s and loves the idea of a locally crafted spirit that emulates the American entrepreneur.  It is a spirit that gave birth to the romantic but rather notorious fame of Bootleggers, brought about the glamorous cocktail and the excitement of the backroom speakeasy. It helped pull the country out of the Great Depression and may just help to renew our spirits in this time of our Great Recession.  The company’s name Bootlegger 21 even comes from the 21st Amendment that repealed the ban on alcohol in 1933.

“The concept was about prohibition – it was worth it during the 1920s to get arrested for a good drink… or Bootlegger 21 is so good it’s worth the risk,” says White.  It also played right into the current trends and White’s love for vintage style and this particular period. With HBO’s award-winning show Boardwalk Empire, it was the perfect time to use this look to sell elegantly crafted vodka.  Actual images from the era of prohibition were used, and White then customized the talent, the fashion and the message for the company. He worked directly with the client —something he has done in the past with other liquor companies, as well as with clients as Altria and Philip Morris. He also worked closely with stylist and producer Cynthia Altoriso, who has a love for this period as well, on much of the historical accuracy for the style, wardrobe, hair and makeup.
The talent used was a combination of actors, fashion designers and real people. White felt that working with people who are not used to being photographed was helpful in achieving a “real feel” of someone being arrested and getting a mug shot. But at the same time, it can be challenge to direct non-professionals. Although he worried about some of the shots, when he did his hard edit and retouching, he got amazing results from just about all the subjects.  He shot about 12 people in a day, four shots each: straight on, side view, standing and sitting. “We did not shoot a large number of shots and relied [on] what we could get in only a few shots. The original mug shots of the day were shot with a frame camera and the arrested ones only got one shot — you got what you got,  which made for a very spontaneous image,” adds White.
The hardest part of the job was trying to make the images look and feel real from the 1920s without using pre-made filters or Photoshop filters.  Each shot is unique and has been retouched specifically to fit the person. White did not want to use an outside retoucher either. He wanted the artistic freedom to do the work and experiment as if he were making a painting for each of the portraits.  “I would have to say, this project made me a better retoucher,” quips White.  For equipment, he used a Canon 5dM11, strobe lighting and then Photoshopped all the images for the touches he wanted. “I shoot to Phase One’s Capture One where I have set a “style” that I shoot to that will give me the basic black and white feel. After processing files from Cap One, I put them into Photoshop and start the magic,” explains White. He then builds layers of textures that he has shot and has a folder full of different textures and blobs and scratches. He will combine two images and use layer masks to bring out detail and texture in clothing.  The fashion aspect of this project was very important. Much of the wardrobe was authentic and from designers of that time but also had a blend of contemporary designs inspired by the 1920s and 1930s. White likes to use other layer masks to add a glowing effect for skin tones and to darken backgrounds and retouches features on each portrait so each subject appears at his or her best. The result is a real and non-posed look for a candid mug shot — the blurring of fine art, fashion and portraiture, as White likes to describe it.
The client was thrilled with the results, “I Love it! It’s as if you plucked the vision from my dream,” Facquet remarked when he saw the pitch come to life.  White loves to get that kind of feedback and hopes the Prohibition Mug Shot series will be used for the new branding campaign. If not, the images will be part of a continuing personal project he has been working on for commercial and art purposes. He intends to promote his unique Prohibition Mug shot series as portraiture and fashion to the editorial and movie industries. We have asked White to keep us posted on the project.
You can see more of White’s Prohibition Mug Shots and some of his other ongoing portraiture  at his site, and read about his latest news on his blog.
Down the Hatch and Cheers to you David White!

David Hart aka Slippery D.

Syrie Moskowitz aka Bathsheba.

Taken at Central Station. R  Keenan aka Pretty Boy Rodney and David Hart aka Slippery D.

Eamon J. Fahey aka Jellybean.