For her commercial assignments, Allison Michael Orenstein makes beautifully lit portraits of celebrities ranging from Maya Rudolph and Stella McCartney to John Waters, for clients such as The Wall Street Journal, The Hollywood Reporter and Vanity Fair, among others. In her off hours, she also makes portraits, often working with friends who are artists or performers, or approaching subjects who appeal to her. Among the latter is Dynasty Handbag, a Los Angeles-based performance artist who combines humor, music and costume in videos and live pieces that reference high and low culture—her “Soggy Glasses, A Homo’s Odyssey,” a “feminist, comedic, fanny-packed, monomythic hero-journey” inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, ran recently at Redcat in Los Angeles. In 2013, after seeing one of her performances, Orenstein approached her with an idea to collaborate on “a mock fashion shoot,” Orenstein tells PDN. Dynasty Handbag agreed, and working with fashion stylist Emily Bess, they set out to make their own subverted version of a fashion story.
As a performer, Dynasty Handbag (whose real name is Jibz Cameron), had plenty of costume options to work with. “She had bags and bags of clothes and accessories,” says Orenstein. “We went over to her house, and looked at all her clothes and put some outfits together” that were true to her persona, if a bit more exaggerated than usual. Orenstein scouted locations in her Brooklyn neighborhood, “but I knew we would also find stuff” as they shot, she says. When they returned to a pale blue wall Orenstein had liked, it was occupied by someone selling clothes, but the vendor was happy to accommodate the shoot. Cameron “just went in there and made herself part of the street scene,” say Orenstein. As a trained performer, “she knows how to set herself into space.” That sense of improvisation continued in a local park, where a man Orenstein knew from the neighborhood was working out. “He was doing pull ups and [after getting his ok] she just started doing what he was doing.” For a shoot the following year on Fire Island, Orenstein and Cameron decided on a costume to contrast the charred branches of a grove that had burned in a recent fire. “She had this all-yellow outfit, so she really stuck out against the black,” says Orenstein, who loved she shapes Cameron created working with sand.
Orenstein says she enjoys unscripted collaborations with her subjects, but for her assignment work, that’s not always possible. When she’s shooting celebrity performers, “sometimes they don’t want to perform,” and she’s left to make a simpler portrait. But “I’m not doing a portrait of Jibz,” she says, “I’m doing a portrait of her alter ego, her performance artist persona.”