Darling writer, Tia Janowski, spoke to North East-based photographer Jessie Gaffney who recently created her first collection of Christmas Photos. Inspired by the awkward family photos of the ‘80s, we’re so here for these retro vibes.
How did this photoshoot come about?
Well, I've always wanted to do a photoshoot like this. Looking at family photos and cheesy ‘80s portraits on the internet always gave me so much delight - there's just something brilliant about the look and it's nice to take a break from more 'serious' photoshoots that I usually do.
Who was involved?
Well I actually contacted a plus size vintage seller, Hannah Gowland, who suggested we do a Christmas jumper photoshoot as it was near to Christmas jumper day and she had some extra to sell - it was perfect timing. I put out a casting call on Facebook for diverse make up artists and models as that's always been important and especially working with a plus size seller and being plus size myself it's nice to make a campaign with clothing I can try on too! We had a couple straight size models (Laura and Dana), plus size model and all round talent Hildy Harland and a token cis male Duncan Paylor - make up was by the very talented Huanran Pang.
Where was the photoshoot?
Hidden Heights Creative Studio in Gateshead. I've been a loyal customer of Hidden Heights for years, Marie is such a lovely human who runs the show and will always help with back drops and my obscure lighting requests!
When it came to producing the photoshoot, how did you come up with the idea and what was your process with developing this?
Well I have actually wanted to do a shoot like this for years - ever since I first came across cheesy 80s portraits I just knew it had to happen. Originally I thought it would be a fun way to do family sessions but I have yet to come across a family who don't take themselves too seriously, but I would love it if I did! There's just something wonderful about doing something just for the fun of it. In the past I have loved shooting comedians and this shoot was somewhat similar to those - laughing the whole way through.
I normally do whimsical fantasy style shoots and it's quite healthy to turn everything on its head and do something completely out of my own ‘norms’. Pinterest is always my first port of call for any photoshoot, and of course I had to have a few meetings with Hannah about the shoot to discuss ideas. Part of my creative practice always often includes cosy meetings at local cafes with tea and (vegan) cake - I find it helps the ideas come out sweeter.
From this, what was your main inspiration for the project and the specific photographic style of the images?
I've come across some photos on my news feed a few times of 80s portraits and also 70s style mens fashion shoots. But what inspired me most is looking at friends and family photo albums and just how much joy they gave me. It's interesting to think that in 20 years time how our photos will be seen, will selfies be seen as cringeworthy? I really wanted to create something with a lot of joy and that is fun just for the sake of having fun.
Growing up in the 90s there were so many questionable hairstyles that are all back in fashion now, as fashion seems to be on a constant loop. For this photoshoot I have drawn inspiration from quite a few places, mainly places where people have very big hair such as game shows I grew up with; Gladiators, Fun House, Art Attack and so on.
Were you influenced by any specific photographers and, if so, who and how did they influence your collection?
In this instance I'm going to say any fabulous portrait photographer from the 80s. I couldn't pick out anyone in particular they have all given me buckets of inspiration.
When coming up with the concept, was there a specific story or messages you wanted to tell with the photos?
Just the pure joy of creating something cheesy and historical - getting models to try something different and get out of their comfort zones.
I had sort of thought that the images would be of a dysfunctional family photoshoot - or even a shoot of 'flat mates'. There were a few scenes - with different 'couples', friends settings, one where I told everyone to pose as if they were in their own 80s TV sitcom - there were many different scenarios that popped up in my head and I tend to work quite organically so really they just sort of happened.
Hildy and Dana ended up being skiing instructors at one point, it was all good fun. There were however some poses I really wanted everyone to try such as being lined up in height order, all facing different directions and looking thoughtful, and posed like the members of B*Witched in the music video to Rollercoaster - simply epic amounts of unironic cheese.
When it came to the styling of the photos, what were your inspirations and ideas for the outfits and set design?
Hannah (Pre Loved Vintage Plus) and I had a few glorious meetings before the shoot - she had said she would get some Christmas decorations from her grandma which were aptly of the right era. There was a Christmas tree, giant box gifts, those silver decor things you can only imagine you get in the set of Only Fools and Horses or some social club stuck in time.
Most importantly, however, was the textured background that you get in old school photos - I really wanted to capture something authentic and luckily Hidden Heights had the perfect backdrop. When it comes to outfits that was all Hannah's doing - she is an absolute vintage style artist and this shoot truly could not have been done without her. We had gone shopping for a few extra accessories such as the glasses and scrunchies and it all came together beautifully.
Similarly, what were the inspirations and ideas behind each character in the photos and how did you select each outfit to reflect this?
I had to come up with characters when I found the models - I'm someone who will strive for diversity in every shoot and will never just go for conventional looking people - plus our fashion stylist specialises in plus size fashion.
We had a few different outfit changes and a few different scenarios, Hildy Harland was 'the saucy aunt', 'Skiing instructor', and 'cutie member of a TV sit com'. Dana was 'Second place winner of the German skiing Olympics', and 'cute member of the TV sit com'. Duncan, bless him, the only cis male of the group was a few people's 'boyfriends' it seemed, among 'generic family member/ friend'. Laura was 'cute girlfriend', 'tv sit com girl', 'Disney fan' among other things. Hannah popped up at the end and had a big shoot with everyone so it all came together in the end. Hannah was the style director the whole way through - instinctively knowing what outfit should be worn next.
How did colour play a role for you in this photoshoot?
Colour played a main role in the post production part of the photoshoot - I had wanted to give everything a soft hue and sort of orange tones to make it really look like an authentic photoshoot from the 80s.
Something that I could have done if I used a film camera but I'm hoping to do that next time. For this however there was a sort of faded grey theme with the background, and lots of garish reds in the jumpers and decorations. A fabulously shiny decor you can see hung on the backdrop in the background that you would absolutely see on the ceiling in an old pub from the set of Coronation Street or something.
How did the camera angles and set up etc influence the photoshoot as a whole?
For this shoot we used big bright lights, nothing was mysterious or shadowy - all very bright and sunny, I didn’t want anything too dynamic, just a classic studio set up to try and stay authentic to the aesthetic.
Camera angles were mainly straight on, but I do always end up jumping up and lying on the floor to get lower shots - for this I find it easier to work in my socks so movement isn’t as restricted and for some reason I feel a little more creatively free? I’m not sure why, perhaps there is a study somewhere about the creative restriction of shoes but all I know is it works for me. I also brought home made vegan banana bread to the shoot along with other snacks, I find keeping energy up is important and if you’ve ever worked for TV or anything you will know how much this sort of thing matters.
How did editing play into the overall nostalgic and whimsical effect of the photos?
Oh there was quite a lot of editing, and there is still more editing I want to do!
That is odd for me as I normally am a very minimal editing type of photographer. This however needed everything to look faded and old, with that wonderfully terrible white faded frame. Basically had to make it look like it was captured on the latest 80s film camera which is a very specific kind of editing. Perhaps a Nikon FA, Canon F-1 or a Contax AX to name a few. I had tried to avoid editing altogether by trying a trick I saw on the internet by sticking a pair of nude tights on the lens but I got the wrong denier it seemed as you could not see a thing - note to self, try before you buy!
Finally, What was the hardest challenge when it came to producing the photoshoot?
Honestly we all had such a wonderful time - Hannah got us some extra studio time because we were just having such a blast and hadn’t managed to photograph all the jumpers yet. Both Hannah and I have ADHD so we get on like a house on fire but it does have challenges too, luckily neither of us mind!