A black backdrop drapes across the wall and floor space, while two soft box lights envelop the bedroom-turned-studio with a warm glow. Serena Russell aims her camera at the Egyptian queen, otherwise known as Cara Newman, a Montgomery College sophomore who’s modeling for Russell’s company.
Russell (‘12) founded Mortiferum Photography and Makeup three months ago as a way to showcase her talent both behind the camera and with makeup. Along with her best friend and assistant Natalie Wheeler (‘12), Russell is attempting to establish a self-sustaining fashion photography business.
Russell is passionate about the gothic era, so she tries to infuse this aspect into all of her photos. In fact, the name Mortiferum stems from the Latin root morte, which means death. One of her icons is Tim Burton, whose dark, quirky characters provide endless makeup inspiration.
“I am sure Tim Burton is living in some part of my body because I love the whole gothic idea,” Russell said. “It’s cliché sounding but it’s so elegant and sophisticated.”
Russell posts her pictures to the Mortiferum Photography and Makeup Facebook page. The company’s page has seen a recent surge in popularity after Russell began to post her looks to indie makeup company Sugar Pill’s Facebook. Russell’s most recent look, which was inspired by the solar system, received 2,000 likes from people all over the world.
Mortiferium offers fashion shoots with elaborate makeup and outfit for 100 dollars or portraits with minimal makeup for 75 dollars. The price covers photo editing and clients receive a C.D. with their photos. Russell said paying customers are few and far between so she shoots most sessions for free. The lack of consistent income puts severe limitations on the complexity of the shoots.
“My mum makes fun of me,” Russell said. “She says I’m a girl who has champagne tastes on a beer budget.”
The scarcity of materials has forced Russell to be inventive with her props. Wheeler has volunteered her own clothes to cover a chair or dress a model. Russell often asks the models to bring a random assortment of their own clothing to the set, which she then supplements with whatever she has that might fit the theme.
Often Russell will create whatever is needed. Her artistic flair is a savior in many last minute emergencies, she said.
For example, she didn’t have any appropriate jewelry for the Egyptian shoot, so she drew a necklace with eyeliner and wrote Newman’s name in hieroglyphics down the center. Russell uses minimal editing so the final photograph is an accurate portrayal of everything that goes on behind the scenes.
“I think photography relies on too much editing,” Russell said. “I am a photographer, not a digital painter.”
Russell and Wheeler try to make the photo shoots very laid back, setting aside time to relax in order to help the clients feel more at ease. Although it’s a time-consuming endeavor, it makes all the difference for the models and their photos turn out less stiff, Wheeler said.
“This is the best experience hands down out of any model company I’ve been with,” said Newman, who also models with the Keen Modeling Agency. “Serena makes me feel really comfortable and instead being like ‘you need to do this’ or ‘do that,’ she just says ‘do what you want and it will look good.’”
Although she was initially unimpressed with the medium, Russell found her niche in fashion photography junior year when she was assigned to replicate a Diane Arbus photograph in which a figure stands in a field, wearing a skull mask and wrapped in a sheet. Russell did her own interpretation in the park behind Wood Acres using a friend in a top hat, dressed in a striped blanket.
“After that I realized photography is what I wanted to do,” Russell said. “I already loved designing and doing makeup, so it just went together perfectly.”