Back to Writing / 11-28-2006

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Photographer Burke Heffner loves telling stories in his stills, and the women he captures offer inticate and vibrant mosaics. Vintage mod vixens often play his muses, whether they're fresh-faced and bathed in white studio light or covered in mud and crumpled in a car trunk. The viewer is often left with a hungry curiosity, piecing together the plot of his prismatic, silent movie. Luckily, Heffner is also a filmmaker, so we occasionally get to glimpse the portrait's full story.

We spoke with Burke about fitting the pieces of his visions into his art and fitting the pieces of his art into his life.

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Sez G: Your colors are so incredibly rich and vibrant. How much post production work do you do on the computer?

Burke Heffner: I certainly use Photoshop, but I'm generally not that manipulative. I will fix a blemish here and there, but the vibrance and colors I get come from the way I light and expose my subjects. Colors really help create a mood and setting. I'm a pretty cinematic shooter.

Sez G: Your portraits often seem to be capturing a moment in a larger story, portraying one scene in a secret saga. How much role playing and narrative creation is there in a shoot for you?

Burke Heffner: I love stories, so there tends to be a lot of narrative in my photography. Narrative is what makes photojournalism so powerful. People look at documentary photos longer than they look at fashion shots, because there is so much more to wonder about. There is a story... What just happened? What's about to? I'm not a photojournalist, but I like stories. I like to put a lot behind my photos. It adds to the intrigue. ...the role playing I save for Veronica.

Sez G: Speaking of Veronica, who is Danger Dame?

Danger Dame is a little bit of Veronica Varlow, particularly when she's on the burlesque stage. It's also the name of her online femme fatale clothing boutique, Danger Dame is a dark, smoky, dangerous woman with a fake tear running down her cheek and a derringer tucked in her garter. She's been my muse for 7 years. And as of this June, the shorter answer is, she's my wife.

Sez G: Hot snag, congratulations! Some of your photos look like their from Burning Man. Are you a burner?

Burke Heffner: I've been to Burning Man twice, and liked it a lot. I'll probably go again. Am I a "burner?" I don't know, probably not, but I love variety and adventure. I love unusual people and finding the characters that inspire Tom Waits songs. Its wonderful when you discover something new. And other than Burning Man I don't know where else a person can go to see a 60' whaling ship drive through a desert dust storm at sunrise.

Sez G: You've been working in film and television since graduating from NYU in '99. Where does photography fit in for you?

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Burke Heffner: It seems like a lot of my life just barely fits in. I probably do too much.

I got my first camera when I was in middle school from Grandpa Max. He was a gambler, and the serial number had been scratched off (true story). So I've had a camera for a long time, but it was only a secondary hobby. I just started getting serious about photography over the past couple years.

Professionally, film and television take up more of my time than stills work. I'm actually directing a feature film right now, which is very exciting, but it's pretty intense. I won't really have a day off until we wrap at the end of the month. It's an independent drama/thriller called Exposed, and it's been looking great so far. As it turns out, one of the characters in the movie is a photographer, so I got to do a series of photo shoots to fill his gallery.

Actually, last night we shot a pretty smoldering sex scene. You might be interested in that?

Sez G: Hell yeah! How'd it go?

Burke Heffner: It's an interesting process to get three people comfortable enough to take off their clothes, then work them up and get them all hot and bothered… then be constantly interrupting them with little comments like, "Don't put your hand there, you are blocking the camera."

Sez G: Not so hot…. Tell me about the film Revolver.

Burke Heffner: Revolver is one of our big dreams… one we've been chasing for a while. And we are getting close! Revolver started as Veronica's fantasy journal. And it was a story good enough that we decided to make it a screenplay. From the screenplay we shot a 3 minute movie trailer. The trailer won at the Golden Trailer Awards and is on-line now at

Revolver is a road trip adventure romance--a blend of my love for old lost americana and Veronica's dreams of bank robberies. The little preview has been our vehicle for raising funding to shoot the feature, and so far it seems to be working. We are looking to start principal photography this spring. Cross you fingers.

Sez G: Definitely will do! What's a typical shoot like for you? Tell me about one of your more memorable shoots.

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Burke Heffner: I actually work hard to not have any 'typical shoots', because I love variety, but there are a few things I try to do before the shoot. I like meeting with my models well before the shoot to get a sense of who they are and what they are like. I often build parts of my shoots based on what I see and feel from them. It's good to give someone at least a little warning before I ask them to crawl down into some bog along a Florida highway and lay with there mouth open underwater, while guppies nip at their skin.

Shooting can be very intense, and I have done some pretty unusual stuff. But when your head in in the shoot, you tend to lose perspective of how crazy it is. The more memorable moments come when you get reminded of the outside world.

I had a girl laying in a trunk of a car under the Williamsburg bridge a week ago. She was smeared with mud and I was leaning over her, tearing her bra and panties a little. And I'm studying this girl very closely, trying to make these tears and mud look realistic. Eventually, I look over and notice that a car has pulled up across the street and the two cops inside are studying me ...just as closely as I was studying the model. You can only imagine how different their thoughts were from mine.

Sez G: Glad you weren't arrested. You shoot both "bad girls" and "good girls," but you seem particularly drawn to the retro pin-up. What about the women of this era are you attracted to?

Burke Heffner: There is something so sweetly dirty about the old pin-ups. They are these sexy, curvy, beautiful women, but so innocent at the same time. I guess they pull at you from the heart and below the belt at the same time. How could you not be attracted to them?

Sez G: You did a show this fall in Philly along with Eros Zine favorites Lithium Picnic and Aaron Hawks. How did it go over? How well did you feel your work meshed with theirs?

Burke Heffner: The show was great actually. I really enjoyed it. It was interesting to see how these other photographer thought and how they shot. I'm not talking about f-stops, color palates or anything technical, but hearing about what they noticed or were thinking of when they went into a shoot… well it was interesting for me, even if it doesn't sound very very interesting. But the show was great and it was nice to see my work and theirs side by side. To see what we had in common and how we each stood out.

Sez G: What's next for you?

Burke Heffner: Well I'm on my way to Veronica's Burlesque performance right now. Then for the rest of the month, I'm going to push my way through this feature Exposed, and really do everything I can for it. Then, I'll have to make up with all the people whose shoots I've had to postpone. Then when I get those out of the way, I'll get a good night's sleep ...I'm hoping to have this happen by late winter, so sleeping won't get in the way of shooting Revolver in Spring.

Very cool, we'll keep an eye out for your evolving film AND still work! To learn more about Burke Heffner, visit

Burke Heffner - by Sez G.