The front desk at Shane O’Neal Studios is vacant. No way the bell can be heard above all that giggling. I ring a couple of times anyway before setting off down the corridor into 8000 square feet of studio space. The Groupon headshot deal didn’t mention the pole-dancing cage with a golden Buddha inside. I didn’t mention that I’ve frustrated every professional photographer who’s attempted to get a shot of me.
“You’re the three o’clock,” a woman in bowler hat says rounding the corner of a partition. She eyes me closely. “Definitely corals.”
While she applies my make-up, a flock of girls flit in and out of the changing room, slipping on slinky dresses, hunting for hairpins. They are all young and pretty, look-alike blondes.
“It’s a shoot for Lucy Vegas,” the make-up artist says, referring to a popular website.
A cascade of giggles heralds the arrival of the maestro—it’s his impish smile that does it. Shane O’Neal is an affable, 30-something guy dressed in long, loose shorts and a loose shirt. “Did you bring another top?” He chooses the white.
Forty-five minutes later, the Lucy team has fluttered on to the next appointment and I’m wearing coral lipstick and a white top at the back of the studio where factory doors open onto a hazy Southern Nevada sky.
Shane turns on the music.
“That’s the same Reggae that was playing at my house when I left.”
“Let the magic begin!” He tugs the light shades. “So you’re a writer—do you do porn?”
For a second, I worry about what I’ve gotten myself into. Then I remember this is Vegas.
“I was checking out this porn script the other day—it’s surprisingly technical.” As an exclusive Playboy Club photographer, Shane has access to all things titillating. “I want to do a film that looks like porn then switches to sci-fi then to a Western, detective genre, horror—you know, with unexpected bleeds and….”
Shane’s worked with film giants like Spielberg and fashion photography celebs like LaChapelle. I know from his portfolio that he’s earned rock star status because of his provocative, edgy talent. His theatrical shots ride an interesting border between control and mayhem. But it’s the arty, candid portraits, the ones where you find yourself looking into someone’s eyes, that landed me in front of the lens.
He has me lean in, lift my chin, turn, take a deep breath, close my eyes, lower my chin, open my eyes while he declaims on the achievements of Stanley Kubrick. But I sense he’s not getting the shots he wants.
“Let’s go for the High Priestess,” he says. “No, the Empress.”
I’ve never posed according to the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck before. I wonder if he does this with all his clients.
“When I need to.”
I feel for him. My last professional photographer in NYC said Native Americans believe some souls refuse to be photographed. She said I was one of those.
“Your fluff’s gone,” Shane says. I lean over and shake my head, flip the hair back, ask him how he got interested in the Tarot. He says he grew up around it. “My uncle founded the Las Vegas Parapsychology and Telekinetics Institute.”
Las Vegas is full of spiritual questers—intuitives, healers, Buddhists, yogis—but this is the first time I’ve met hereditary royalty. Shane’s uncle debunked occult claims around the country, looking for the ones that were difficult, if not impossible, to disprove. Work carried on at the Consciousness Research Lab at UNLV’s Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies until a few years ago when funding disappeared into thin air.
“My uncle had a motor-driven Canon,” Shane remembers. “Maybe that’s where I got started.”
The pole-dancing cage with the golden Buddha takes on new meaning as I try to reconcile the rock star photographer with the sensitive spiritualist. Then a stereo speaker falls over for really no reason at all. Telekinetics, the movement of objects for occult reasons that the uncle specialized in, comes to mind, but I keep my mouth shut. Or maybe our discussion of Alistair Crowley’s paranormal exploits channeled a little juju? One thing’s for certain: the speaker wiped out an iPad on the way down.
Shane examines the pattern of broken glass on the iPad screen as if it were a painting by Turner.
“I saw it fall in slow motion,” says a guy in a tie who is waiting in the wings. He asks for an iron. While Shane uses a steam device to iron the guy’s shirt, I change tops.
We carry on. More shots outside, some inside, throw in some asides about psychotropic substances and a riff on Madame Blavatsky. Shane doesn’t care about his business model—he’s determined to get the photo. This isn’t about money. It’s about honor.
“Put your hands behind your back and take off the glasses.” I try as hard as I can to believably smile, but I’m starting to despair.
Then a lovely redhead, holding a vintage Polaroid in her delicate hands, wanders in. Her black lace skirt swirls lazily around her legs. There’s something so charming about the way she moves, so confident and free, I can tell she’s in love with him. And he’s in love with her. That’s magic I can believe in.
“Got it,” says Shane.