Now, nearly three decades later and through a series of chance encounters, Long is the owner of Portland Pin-Ups—the only studio in the Northwest specializing in classic 1950s-style pin-up shoots.
“I was involved in scanning prints from all over the world. Digital didn’t exist. It was all film,” Long said. “It wasn’t easy to take pictures of the world and enhance them digitally back then, but I loved it.”
While still living in England, Long attended a friend’s wedding and spent his time bending the ear of the professional photographer. From that encounter, Long became his assistant. He apprenticed the old-fashioned way and, from 1993 to 1995, learned about lighting, posing people and how to establish a rapport with the happy couple and the wedding party. It wasn’t until his third year that he was allowed behind the camera and was still carefully supervised by his mentor.
After relocating to Portland with his wife and first son by way of San Francisco in 2007, Long met another person who would change the trajectory of his life—Cherry Dollface, a professional pin-up model. She shared her world of vintage style and poses with him. Portland Pin-Ups was born in early 2008.
Working against a white screen and later adding background imagery, Long occupies an intimate studio of less than 1,000 square feet in the North Pearl District of Portland. His sessions aren’t timed but generally run two to three hours with the end result being a collection of the best ten to twenty portraits. Former clients round out his creative team of hairstylists and makeup artists.
Over the past ten years, he’s found his client base is predominantly married women with demanding jobs and, possibly, a child or two. They rarely treat themselves and a session with Portland Pin-Ups is designed to be an experience. Long is well-known throughout the Northwest, though women also come to his studio from California and the East Coast. Some of his techniques can be mimicked, but Long’s attention to detail, passion for researching traditional pin-up poses and creating his own, and the respect he shows each of his clients cannot be learned.
In a world fraught with self-criticism, Long spends his days bringing out the best in ladies with an inspiring tagline he truly believes—every woman is a bombshell. At a pre-session, he and his client have coffee and chat to establish trust, learn what kind of style she’s interested in and the general theme she wants portrayed in her photos.
“The hair and makeup girls are here on session day so we laugh, have fun, we’re joking around, it becomes fun. I spend five to ten minutes before taking photos to give tips (and) ask how they’re most comfortable. I never use negative language, always positive language,” Long said. “The girls are always there to fluff their outfits and they feel special. Even without retouching (the photos), they look spectacular. What you see is that all the girls are having a great time. That’s what’s key with the ladies—confidence and having a great time.”
To that end, Long and his creative team encourage the client to have a date night after the photo shoot—not to run home and wash off all that fabulous vintage makeup and take down that head-turning updo.
Once he knows what outfits his clients will wear for the photoshoots, Long recommends a list of props. But over the past decade his clients have brought in some interesting personal items of their own—a chainsaw, because a client’s husband owned a tree-felling business; axes; a fireman’s hose; and an authentic sword to make it appear his subject was swallowing one. But the craziest prop Long ever saw was a real rocket launcher brought in by a woman who used to serve in the armed forces.
Rocket launcher or no, Long projects a light-hearted image—he appreciates the self-doubt that so many women struggle with, and therein lies his greatest talent.
“I don’t take my job lightly,” Long said. “I do joke around a lot, but I take my job very, very seriously because I know what a privilege it is to present these albums. They come back to pick up their album. They open it and, usually, cry. It’s a real privilege to provide that for ladies.”
Sarah Goodnough is another intriguing Oregon artist in residence.
Mike Long is just one of many Oregon artists we’ve interviewed over the years.
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