The Annunciation is a key moment in Christian culture. Gabriel, the terrifying angel, travels to earth to tell Mary, a virgin teenage girl, that she will bear the son of God. It was going to inspire my fashion story with the spirit of a legend.
This is a very important and legendary moment in the history of the Western civilization, and the greatest masters of painting have created an interpretation of this scene: Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Perugino and many others.
The annunciation is a great event. But an event is not a story. The development from one situation to another is a story. If the annunciation was the peak, would it be more interesting to show what lead up to it, or what came later?
The immediate aftermath of the annunciation would show Mary being stunned or pensive, and this is, while beautiful and poetic, not really a development.
What comes before is puzzling and enigmatic and shows a true change in situation and, in Mary’s case, character. So I would tell the story that lead to the annunciation.
In almost all paintings the annunciation is all about Mary. The angel, while heavenly beautiful, is just bringing the message. I wanted the story be as much about Gabriel as it was about Mary.
Gabriel is not a typical angel, on of those beautiful, winged and brightly serene beings that glide across the painted heavens of churches. Gabriel is a character shrouded in mystery.
He only appears four times in the bible – a dark, terrifying figure who scared everybody out of their wits who were only touched by his passing shadow.
Gabriel, carrying in his mind the memory of the universe, would encounter a seventeen year old virgin, who in her whole life hadn’t left the tiny hamlet of Nazareth. The big universe, God’s working, was going to clash with the small world of a young and inexperienced village girl.
Most paintings show Mary already in all her holiness. But at the time of the annunciation she wasn’t holy yet. She was a girl of immaculate character, deeply human, and was going to change after being touched by matters of a greater, universal scale.
She had lived through tough times in a tough world. The land was occupied by the Romans and under the iron fist of their rule. Mary would be angelic on the inside, but on the outside she would have the tough skin to survive in the world she was living in.
The Fashion Style
What clothing would people wear in a tough world? Big, beautiful body installations from Oscar de la Renta? Cool styles from Prada? Ethereal clouds of geometric shapes by Iris van Herpen? Or something a little bit more practical – a style that reflected the world they were living in…
Leather it would be, leather and feathers. And fur. So Khai, my stylist started to haunt the showrooms of Los Angeles…
The annunciation told about the coming messiahs, that would bring light into the world. But as of yet it would be a dark world, a dystopian world. The colors would have weight, the shadows would drop to black. But I wouldn’t have the usual furnishings of a dystopian world. No ruins, no shabby industrial buildings. We’d create this world on top of a mountain, an LA version of mount Sinai, where the urban sprawl eats into the wide country as a symbol of our present darkness.
Gabriel touches ground. He has no considerations for human feelings. He is on a job and has to touch down on earth – a location he doesn’t very much cherish. And then there’s that girl… a dear virgin, but so clueless he can’t even start to think what to say to her. Would she understand at all? Would she need to understand?
Compared to his lifespan she’s a mayfly. A may fly who gets to bear the son of god. Not that Gabriel criticizes God, but sometimes he’s so hard to understand, because God doesn’t explain. And Gabriel wants to know. Like all angels he is in eternal search for knowledge and truth, but as he’s just an angel, not God, he’ll never know everything. Which frustrates him. In short: the already terrifying Gabriel is in a foul mood.
Mary herself, while tough outside, is a soul of intense poetry. She loves to leave the tiny house of her father and look at the sky. And one day, she has a premonition: something unusual, something grand and important is going to happen in her tiny village. And she sees a star fall…
The star is Gabriel, coming towards her. And when Mary sees him, she forgets her premonition. She is grabbed by terror, and turns to run. Gabriel has to grab her, and hold her back. Whisper comfort. And finally get her to relax and to listen and to accept her part in celestial history.
The hilltop in the mountains I chose had a 360 degree view. Light was coming from all sides for a floating, celestial sensation that I could accentuate with my Profoto flashes. And the view from up there lifted up everybody’s mood who was working on the project.
Two steps forward, one step sliding back: it was a bit tough to carry 600 pounds of photographic gear and fashion styles up to the plateau. But if Werner Herzog made a whole steamboat walk up a hill in the Amazon jungle (In “Fitzcarraldo”) then I could get a few hundred pounds of gear up a mountain in LA.
Hair and Makeup
Makeup and hair was done on location. The angel’s makeup was a special case, and Tara, my makeup artist was doing a great job. I wanted those eyes that had seen so much to bleed from the weight of the knowledge of the universe and to show the price that is to pay for eternity and wisdom.
Knock on wood, but I’m always lucky with weather. The day before and after the shoot were overcast, but on shoot day the sun shone California light at its glowing best.
Still, the shoot took the whole afternoon with the sun wandering over the sky, with light conditions and colors changing. This was challenge one.
Challenge two was that one of the models got sick during the shoot and we had to pause for an hour and a half. If you don’t have a full editorial, you have no editorial. First I tried magic: could I stop the sun in its path across the sky so I had more shoot time?
The next best thing to magic was to improvise. There is magic in improvisation. The sun was touching the horizon and I had a total of 7 minutes to shoot the final scene. Arranging two models in one shot and adjusting the lights would take longer than that. So I photographed each model separately, to join them in post. To save time, both were photographed in the same spot, facing the same direction, so I didn’t have to move the lights.
In post I flipped the angel 180 degrees so he would face Mary. But the skies were different. When I shot Mary, the sun had still been above the horizon. In the angel’s pictures, the sun had already set, leaving a wonderfully glowing sky. The skies did not match. So I extended the angel’s after sunset glow into Mary’s half of the image.
Then I edited the view, made the distant mountains roll beautifully across the image to set the dramatic stage for the annunciation.
It was a beautiful shoot and I will always remember our work on the mountaintop fondly. But next time I’ll bring a device that can reverse all problems: a time machine.