Something about the scantily clad women who wink from the classic pinups of Alberto Vargas stuck in photographer Timothy White's mind for years after he was hired by Esquire to create a tribute to the illustrator: The "Vargas girls" weren't sex objects at all -- they were confident, empowered and definitely in on the joke.
So, it's fitting that in "Hollywood Pinups," a coffee-table book that plays out the photographer's fascination with those vintage images of seduction, the sensibility's the same. Whether it's Angie Harmon clad in nothing but a diamond G-string or a topless Téa Leoni propped seductively on a black satin pillow, the 23 women in his book all seem to have the same knowing half-smile, the same breathtakingly flawless skin. All are draped in pricey jewels and bathed in saturated color.
"These weren't meant as titillation," White said. "They are a homage to the pinup artists like Vargas and George Petty. The women they portrayed didn't look objectified. They were strong women who looked sexy and confident and projected that confidence."
That's why the book includes women of all ages -- from 22-year-old Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen to 49-year-old Rebecca De Mornay and 62-year-old Susan Sarandon.
"I didn't want women [that looked like] 15-year-olds," he said. "I wanted bodies that were very different. That was my only criteria."
In the photo that launched him into the book, Sarandon is posed seductively on the floor, legs in the air, wearing nothing more than fishnet stockings, a feather boa, a pair of Christian Louboutin heels and a beguiling smile.
"That smile set me off on this whole project," said White, who captured it, then polished the image to Vargas-like perfection.
Neither Sarandon nor White, who had been photographing the actress and her family for the better part of two decades, can remember the precise details of the shoot that preceded the pose. It might have been for an English magazine and most likely happened the winter before last.
"It was after this kind of Anna Magnani-ish photo where I had a robe gathered around me, but off the shoulder with my hair tousled," Sarandon said. "And I was looking into the camera, [which was] very close. Then Timothy suggested we try this other shot.
"It seemed totally ridiculous, so I was cracking up a bit," she recalled. "There were all kinds of things going on simultaneously -- I remember trying to keep the boa in place covering my breasts. I recall that it was a little bit chilly lying there on the floor. I was arching my back and they had to put my hair down and around with the boa on the floor. My rule of thumb is the most uncomfortable pose looks the best; it's all about where you put your hands and if you're stretching your neck. I think I was leaning my feet against something, but I'm not sure."
Pinups being more fantasy than reality, White said he felt he had artistic license to stretch, manipulate, airbrush and color-saturate to his heart's content.
The result? A semi-Sarandon, semi-sylph photo illustration that makes the actress look at least half her age, with a curvaceous waist and pale, flawless skin that contrasts with her red hair, which is just a few shades off the rich cabernet color of what little clothing she's wearing.
When asked what made her feel more vulnerable -- the scantily clad pinup pose or on-screen nudity, she offered up a third choice: "My children make me feel vulnerable. . . . The whole famous mother thing is hard enough without having the whole sexy famous mother thing." But in this case, a little awkwardness at the dinner table benefits a good cause -- 100% of White's proceeds from sales of the book will go to Oxfam America.
Tschorn is a Times staff writer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times