(Author/Illustrator photo by Sophie Spinelle)
A couple of years ago I approached Sophie Spinelle about doing a special photo shoot which included photographs of my husband and I in retro clothing, as well as individual shots for each of us. I knew that I would be needing an artist headshot for my graphic novel, Secret Agent Moscow, so I pulled together all the Russian items that I owned, including a red communist party membership book from the 1960s I found online (See above photo), for the perfect shot. As we were setting up in her studio, Sophie mentioned that she spent some time in Russia in the early 90s and took a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I felt like I found the best photographer on the planet to take my artist portrait. Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway are featured in Secret Agent Moscow.
If you do not already know Sophie Spinelle and Shameless Photography, her work is not only beautiful and amazing, it also helps women feel good about themselves by promoting positive attitudes towards women’s bodies. She is “a feminist in high heels.” She also has a story to tell. Behind the photographer is a world traveler. Here is an exclusive interview with Sophie Spinelle about Shameless Photography and her memories as child in Irkutsk, Russia. The interview includes images of Sophie’s own self-portraits and illustrations of the Trans-Siberian Railway from my graphic novel, Secret Agent Moscow.
Questions about shameless photography
Can you tell me about Shameless Photography?
Shameless Photography is a feminist, body-positive pinup photography studio that provides a space for people to lift out of their everyday lives and be transformed in old Hollywood stars and classic pinups.
How long did it take to create Shameless Photography?
Shameless was a dream for five years before I started the business in 2009. Once I started shooting, however, the momentum built quickly. I was working full-time within 3 months, and last June I hired Carey Lynne to be my partner photographer.
What has been the most rewarding part about taking pin-up photographs?
I’ve gotten to meet such amazing people in my studio! It’s a thrill when clients write afterwards and share that the experience was transformative in some way for them. Recently a woman wrote to tell me that she found the strength to leave an abusive relationship because of the empowerment she found through her photo shoot. Those are the experiences I live for.
Questions about Russia
When did you go to Russia and why were you there?
I lived in Irkutsk in 1991, just before the fall of the USSR. My parents, who are artists and writers, were invited to teach art, landscape architecture, and literature at the Polytechnic. I was nine at the time.
Was it difficult for you? How did you adjust?
I was disoriented but excited by how strange and new everything was. The smells, the sights, the streets, the people — everything was different from back home in Oregon. Even simple tasks like grocery shopping became adventures. There were long lines, an hour or more, for rationed food like cheese, meat, or vegetables, but we would never know exactly what special food was in stock until we got to the front. Sorting through the rumors and daydreaming while waiting in line was half the fun. School was also very different. I loved my brown wool school uniform. Every girl was allowed to sew her own unique lace collar onto the uniform, and my mom found beautiful antique lace for mine. Many of my classmates were curious about me because they’d never met an American before. Children wanted to know if I had a real Barbie, or a pair of Levis (I didn’t). One thing that really helped with the culture shock was my deep friendship with a girl named Lena. Because of her, I felt less out of place.
Can you tell me about your experience on the Trans-Siberian Railway?
For our journey across the USSR and into Siberia, my parents accidentally purchased tickets on the notorious train #76, which was teeming with illegal activity. We had a “luxury compartment,” but luxury was relative in this setting. Duct tape lined the walls, precariously holding the electrical wiring in place as the train lurched along. All day long, men went in and out of the compartment next door, and my parents eventually realized it was a brothel (though of course they didn’t tell me at the time). Bribes were required to use the sole functional bathroom, and according to my parents black market activity seemed to be behind every corner — although as a child I was a oblivious to all of this. I spent most of my time holed up in our compartment, reading and rereading the two books I had with me: Matilda and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Periodically a man with dwarfism entered our compartment and tossed us packages of black and white photos. The photos portrayed a strange assortment of things: an idol of the Virgin Mary, an American muscle mag, a recipe for cake, a woman’s enormous bare breasts. The man would come back some minutes later and ask, insistently, which ones we were buying. In the dining car, we were unlucky enough to witness an episode of sudden and violet emesis. When we finally arrived in Irkutsk, my mom’s friend Dr Galazii greeted us with the horrified exclamation: “Not the 76!” We were happy to have finally arrived.
Have you kept in touch with people you met there?
I’m still in touch with my dear friend Lena.
How has Russia changed since then?
Corruption was rampant under communism, and from what I’ve heard and read, it is even more rampant now. Many people are fighting for change, but cases such as Pussy Riot and Shatto show that there is still much to be accomplished.
Did your time in Russia influence you as an artist and photographer?
Absolutely. It was a formative experience in which I realized that I could take nothing for granted.
How do you feel about Russia’s policy on human rights?
I’m very concerned. It’s hard for people in the States to get accurate and complete information about how bad it really is. I hope we can find ways from afar to support the efforts of folks who are in the thick of it, working for change.
Anything else you would like to add about Russia?
In his time lecturing on art at the Polytechnic, my dad was struck by the fact that art historians in the USSR had little or no exposure to Western art after 1907. They literally hadn’t heard of Pollack, Rothko, Warhol, etc. They knew who Picasso was, but had no knowledge of anything after the Blue Period. Censorship had locked out news of any developments in the art world that didn’t fit squarely within the socialist realism framework.
How can people get in touch with you about Shameless Photography?
Don’t forget to contact Sophie for your next photo shoot and please help back Secret Agent Moscow on Kickstarter by August 7th 2003
~ Jennifer Jigour
Jennifer Jigour is the author/illustrator of Secret Agent Moscow. Please visit:
Secret Agent Moscow on Kickstarter