Vintage Girl Studios: The Pearl within the pin-up

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Ludella Hahn, burlesque performer, in her Ziegfiel-inspired portrait. Photo/Vintage Girl Studios

Polka dots, pearls, perfectly coiffed tresses, open-toe strappy heels, and unadulterated curves indiscriminate of ethnicity, age or build with a side of empowered sex-kitten. Those are the are essential ingredients to pin-up photography.  Krzystyna Caldarone, owner of Vintage Girl Studios in Rhode Island, has them all — and a few more up her sleeve.

Exclusive vintage photography is still quite a niche. Some photographers do offer this service, however within a broader menu. I first met Caldarone while I covered the Roaring ‘20s party in Ipswich, Mass.  Why travel all the way to Rhode Island you might ask?  Because of the perfectly accurate, stop-me-in-my tracks, Ziegfeld inspired portrait of Ludella Hahn (see above). 

A short conversation, a quick flip through her website and it was evident that this photographer was fully dedicated to the cause.

Approaching my destination, I listen for the GPS to announce its arrival while reading address numbers on mailboxes. When finally it pings, my head turns left to a distinguishable Art Deco home, unlike any other on the street. A smile slowly stretches over my face.

Today is going to be a good day.  

Pin-up photographer Krzystyna Caldarone of Vintage Girl Studios

Caldarone comes out to greet me while I am still in my car where, in an attempt to capture my excitement, I am already jotting ideas for my story. She is friendly and lively.  She gives me a short tour and history of her period home. While in the market for a new house, her husband came across the property and brought her to see it. “I told him, you can’t show me ‘my home’ and not buy it for me!” and in about two months, in perfect serendipity, that’s exactly what it became… her home.  

A 1945 true unaltered Art Deco-style time capsule, built by a former engineer of the Atomic Bomb, complete with inverted sloping kitchen cabinets, original art deco sconces, period piece furnishings, and typical stucco exterior. Caldarone points out her ‘50s console stereo and explains its conversion to Bluetooth technology (I’m getting one) along with her prize possession, a converted vintage Polaroid instant camera.

Makeup/styling station, dressing room. Photo/Constance Cherise

Originally from the south shore of Massachusetts, Caldarone took photography classes as a teenager. Later, after creating a thriving business where she was shooting upwards of 40 weddings a year, she left professional photography school. Unhappy with the demands of the wedding photography business, a stylist suggested she delve into the up and coming trend on the West Coast: Rockabilly/Pin-up photography.  

“No one was really doing it, there was a big market for it,” Caldarone says.

Caldarone received press after her first set of pin-up photo shoots, and In 2010 she decided to transition out of the traditional wedding photography business into vintage photography. Caldarone explains shortly after her first shoot, “I found my purpose in my photography journey when my husband told me, you know Tyna, I don’t think anyone is going to remember you as a wedding photographer, but I think everyone is going to remember you doing this.” Caldarone admits she had to hustle the first year but, “…everything changed when we found the house.”

Introduced to classic imagery as a young girl, Caldarone shared a bedroom with her grandmother for 10 years, who enjoyed watching older films. Growing into a teenager, as with most adolescents needing to find their own voice, she became a fan of punk. When she began her own family, she lost her connection with the “scene” and when Rockabilly began to resurface, she felt more of a connection.  

“I was able to tie in everything I love — antiquing, photography, female empowerment — I was able to tie it all together and make this amazing studio,” she says.

1950s kitchen. Photo/Constance Cherise

Walking into Caldarone’s studio is exhilarating. The vintage Frigidaire, the leopard carpet, the classic black-and-white checkered floor, aqua painted walls, ‘50s television set, and the essential prop that every vintage photographer needs, the infamous Christmas Story leg lamp. A framed business card personally sent to her from her inspiration, the famed photographer Bunny Yeager, best known for shooting pin-up icon Bettie Page, is proudly displayed on her wall.

Vignettes line the perimeter of the room as backdrops for photos. A chaise couch beckons, it’s the perfect girlie hideaway, and you simply cannot help but smile upon entering. Commenting on her set pieces, Caldarone says, “I won’t go to a vintage store, they need to find me.” She attends estate sales and some props come from friends and family. “People just give me stuff.”

“The Leg” of Christmas Story fame. Photo/Constance Cherise

She walks to a cabinet, pulls out a vintage iron and hands it to me. It was her husband’s grandmother’s iron. “She described it as her Prozac, Caldarone says. “She would wash and iron her husband’s shirts over and over while he was fighting in the war.”

Each piece has its own story, but one in particular that holds an endearing place in her heart, her grandfather’s early 1900s vintage Zenith console radio. “My Grandfather took two professional photos in his life, one with his wife and one with his radio. It was his first American purchase coming as a refugee from Poland.  He was very proud of it.”

In Sept of 2018, Vintage Girl Studios was featured on Chronicle’s Vintage New England show. “Jason Volk (head of the Greater Boston Vintage Society, who was also featured on the show) suggested me because I did all the photography for their events. I was excited! My family watched it together. I was worried because with media they can spin things around, but Chronicle did a great job putting out my message. I used to watch Chronicle with my grandmother,” she says, the nostalgia of her circumstances coming full circle.  

Pin-up model, Vintage Girl Studios.

Caldarone works with three stylists who are matched to clients through their personalities.  She has a dressing room with an array of outfits from pin-up to Hollywood glamour to 1920s flapper fashion. When asked about the experience of a vintage photo shoot, Caldarone explains, “I get nervous – sometimes it’s hard for people to look at themselves. Some come in their sweats and ponytail and then when all done up they could model in California.  We have a lot of great shoots, we get so many different women. They get emotional when they are presented with their photo, they start crying. They get a different perspective of themselves to take home so they can be stronger.”

Most of her first-time clients are not part of the vintage community, they are simply curious, so when she sees them at events like the annual Roaring ‘20s party at Cranes Estate in Ipswich, MA, “It makes me feel good,” Caldarone says, beaming, knowing she was the catalyst.

Pin-up is unique in the simple fact of the 1950s silhouette. Women’s fashion in the 1940s had to be practical as a result of the war.  However, during the ‘50s, by cinching the waist and accentuating the bust, the silhouette mimics the idealized hourglass shape, consequently complimenting diverse body types.

Lights, camera, action. Photo/Constance Cherise

Caldarone also photographs jazz musicians,  including Postmodern Jukebox, an ensemble that flawlessly remixes modern day songs into electro-swing jazz. Check out their version of Vanilla Ice’s, Ice Ice Baby, complete with an ice sculpture, Niki Lupereli – entertainer, chanteuse and host of the annual Haunted Speakeasy Halloween party, brides, bachelorette parties, and of course vintage events.  Caldarone additionally offers Tin photography, you know, the reason why the Amish don’t like to be photographed…those haunting pictures where it seems the subject’s soul is captured within the portrait.

When asked about her future, Caldarone says, “With photography, you have to be two steps ahead.” Imagine scanning a picture and seeing the live action photo shoot. She picks up her cell phone and leads me to a photograph. As she scans the picture, the live action of the original photo shoot appears. It is a fairly new technology called Augmented Reality, amazing and scary at the exact same time.

Caldarone insists on taking me to lunch after our interview. We visit Twins Pizza in North Providence, a ’50s time capsule, complete with wood-paneled walls, Formica tables, ‘50s light fixtures, and individual jukeboxes, where we sat and talked like old friends indulging our love of all things vintage.

“I love, love, love what I do!” Caldarone says, which is the clear reason why her business is thriving. Through her photography, she redefines the traditional definition of beauty, unleashes the confidence of her clients, unlocks potent alter-egos, many that lay dormant within the subject themselves, reminding them of their hidden value, and unapologetically aiding them in polishing the pearl within the pin-up.