Behind the Scenes at the glamorous photoshoot for SWAN Day CT

Madelynn Brown dances.
Photo by Mandi Martini

A woman in white whirls by as I crouch in the underbrush.

I’m along on the promo photoshoot for a music-and-arts festival, SWAN Day CT (which you can stream free on April 17). Today, pro Mandi Martini is taking glamorous pictures of five intriguing women performers from the festival’s larger slate: singer-songwriter Jennifer Hill (founder and organizer of the event), modern dancer Madelynn Brown, and burlesque artists Harley Foxx, Mistress Leona Star, and Vivienne LaFlamme.

As an arts fan, I’ve wondered what goes into creating the great photos in artists’ promo kits—not so much the technical photography methods, but how the event works, beyond aiming the right camera at awesome people.

That’s how I ended up watching badass women putting on their performance looks. I’d envisioned hours of people posing, holding onto the perfect smile, and the reality is totally different. The closest approach to a “pose” wasn’t about giving good face at all.

First, a little background. Connecticut’s SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day is one of the largest events in this celebration that spans thirty-plus countries. Founded by singer-songwriter Jennifer Hill, SWAN Day CT is on its fourteenth year, following a pandemic hiatus. On April 17, a free livestream will showcase women musicians, modern dancers, and burlesque artists, plus an appearance by Sarah Gallardo of Sarah Speaks Up and live painting by Kerry Kennedy.

“SWAN is the night we all get to perform together and catch up on each other’s lives”—Jennifer Hill

Mistress Leona Star gives good face.
Photo by Mandi Martini

This being 2021, both the photoshoot and its prepping have to be outdoors and mostly masked. Make-up is DIY. Camaraderie after a year of isolation is as much a relief as the spring sunshine. Both Vivienne LaFlamme and Mistress Leona Star reflected on how backstage esprit de corps is likely to change with covid precautions: part of the fun is catching up with your friends, sharing tips, and just hanging out to beat pre-show stress. For a while, it’s going to be fewer people, further apart, spending less time together.

We talked a lot about what artists have been up to during the year without live shows. Streaming is obviously a partial answer. Harley Foxx participated in virtual plays, a sort of Zoom reader’s theater where everyone performs their part at home. Jennifer Hill is working on her new album at a New Haven-area studio.

Meanwhile, Mandi Martini is excited because without live events, she hasn’t been out doing this kind of photoshoot this year. She values SWAN Day CT itself—which she photographs—for its togetherness, with women supporting one another.

“Without the creative outlet of performances, it feels like part of me is missing”—Mistress Leona Star

Harley Foxx is ready to take on the world.
Photo by Mandi Martini

I’ve been torn on whether to admit my fascination with watching people put on their performance “looks.” Obviously, women’s excellence isn’t defined by appearance. At the same time, watching people whose job is to transform into beings of mystery and glamour is all kinds of awesome.

A burlesque look isn’t putting on a conforming shell, the way I saddle up with lipstick for work Zooms. It’s more bursting out of the chrysalis as this fabulous and creative being with a story to tell. Nobody wants to reveal what their performance at SWAN Day is going to involve, but hints dropped suggest social commentary, wit, and insight are on the agenda.

“As artists, we can create a new world”—Vivienne LaFlamme

So off into the wilderness we go, on foot and carefully distanced. If you’ve ever wondered why indie bands seem attracted to abandoned railroad tracks, here’s the scoop. That kind of setting gives a visually interesting—but not too interesting—neutral background, without needing permits or a lot of fuss over strangers wandering through.

Mandi has set up a pair of reflectors and a flash, so everyone’s going to be positioned between them.

“I’m looking forward to being able to embrace art again”—Harley Foxx

Vivienne LaFlamme works that skirt.
Photo by Mandi Martini

When I say positioned, though, it’s not about posing. It’s about movement. It’s about putting on music (have your devices fully charged or bring what you need to power them) and vibing to it.

What kind of vibing depends on personal style. So there’s a range from Mistress Leona Star giving her red carpet pivot to Madelynn Brown posed upside down to Vivienne and Harley dancing to show their flaring skirts to best advantage.

A professional dancing by, while the camera clicks fast and furious, comes much closer to the experience of concert photography. It’s not about the pose. It’s about catching the personality in the moment.

Some really neat things turn out to be happy accidents. Harley Foxx’s beret is what she showed up wearing as ordinary daywear, and it looked so cute that everyone urged her to keep it on.

“As a young feminist, it’s really special to be part of SWAN Day”—Madelynn Brown

Jennifer Hill (Murderous Chanteuse) – Mama Swan in a moment of repose
Photo by Mandi Martini

Hanging out with badass women is an afternoon I don’t want to have end, but it gets chilly, it gets dark, and we’re ultimately out of things to do (and lingering is so not-2021). People will come together again (distanced) for SWAN Day CT itself—and you don’t want to miss this special event. As well as the performers at the photoshoot, there’ll be musicians Lisa Lawrence and Gracie Day, dancer Linalynn from the River Valley Dance Project, and more.

To watch SWAN Day CT on April 17, head to SWAN Day CT on Facebook (link) at 3 p.m. If you’re a little late, check it out anyway: there’s a lot to see!

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