The Digital Journalist
ca. 1999 --- Salma Hayek as Queen Elizabeth I --- Image by © MR Photo/Corbis Outline

Matthew Rolston on Salma Hayek:

By Elodie Mailliet / © Corbis Outline

The year: 1999
The subject: Salma Hayek
The topic: Glamour through the ages

These photographs are from an assignment for The New York Times Magazine, a style story with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It's an intentionally ironic take on Hollywood glamour. Elizabeth Stewart, one of the magazine's top fashion editors, was behind the concept. This kind of photo portfolio is always a team effort, and there was tremendous creative collaboration among the editor, myself, and the hair and makeup artists, not to mention our celebrated subject, actress Salma Hayek.

It was quite a production. The shoot went on for several days... and nights. Some of the hair and makeup took up to seven hours to complete. Arranging the Marie Antoinette-inspired powdered wig on Salma's head, alone, took hairdresser Robert Vetica a very, very long time.

To me, this story was an opportunity to evoke a Hollywood version of history rather than history itself. The choice of black and white was a subtle homage to the brilliant historical films that came out of the great studios in the Thirties -- a period of time that has always fascinated and inspired me.

In my opinion, the most important Hollywood photographer from that period was George Hurrell, who ran the photography department at MGM. Before I was born, my grandfather had been a doctor to many Golden Age Hollywood stars. Publicity photos autographed to him by various patients covered his office walls. Most of them, taken by George Hurrell and Laszlo Willinger, who succeeded Hurrell at MGM, were shot in the Hollywood glamour style of the Thirties and Forties. These images -- the lighting, the way the skin looked, the elevated quality of grandeur that could be found in them—made a lasting impression on me.

It's become so ingrained now that celebrity photography has to be extremely flattering and cosmetic -- I'm sure I've made as much of a contribution to this trend as anyone. Today when you stray from that style, it can be difficult for people to accept at first. It takes some courage. Salma is a very powerful and strong-willed star. She doesn't just go and do what she's asked to do. She has her own ideas and desires. That's what makes her so interesting.

Salma is highly sensitive to every nuance that involves her image, including all aspects of photography: lighting, composition, wardrobe, etc., even down to the choice of lenses. She is extremely bright and very knowledgeable about the process; she is the kind of artist who questions everything. I decided to light this story in a way that wasn't typically flattering, not the usual "Rolston glow." I think it was somewhat uncomfortable for her to see herself in lighting that wasn't purely cosmetic. So there were some interesting negotiations about what we were doing and why we were doing it...

At the time, Salma's mother was very involved in her daughter's career, as often happens when young actresses become Hollywood stars. It was hilarious when Salma's mom came up to me, looked at the Polaroid, and, with a shrug of the shoulders and a slightly raised eyebrow, seemed to say, "I've seen better." It was unusual to have my photography judged harshly by a star's mother!

As the shoot progressed, Salma started to become more comfortable with my lighting and some things that could be considered unattractive, such as the slightly over-the-top Elizabethan look with the extremely high forehead, pasty foundation, and crude cheek color that makeup artist Francesca Tolot created. Once Salma got into it, however, she committed herself entirely and encouraged more.

The result is intense in its paradox. The images have both a sense of gravity and a sense of humor to them. They're intended to amuse. Here is a woman many consider a modern-day version of the so-called Mexican spitfire, Lupe Velez, one of the sexiest Hollywood stars of the 1930s, photographed in white pancake makeup as Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen. In another shot, Salma, so free, almost wild in her sensuality, is shown in the repressive pose, exaggerated makeup, and "bullet-proof" lingerie of a 1940s lady. Now that's some tilted irony, and it did not escape Salma. She's quite a daring woman.