Mike and Joslyn Devaney are breaking boundaries in the Sarasota photography scene.
In the middle of a warehouse on Porter Lake Drive, a 7-year-old girl is levitating. Thanks to some ripped drywall, a mutilated teddy bear and the magic of two self-made photographers, Tessa Bailey has been transported to a world she’s never been able to visit.
Mike and Joslyn Devaney had never built a movie set before. But when the mother of a young horror-film lover came to them with an idea for a custom portrait shoot, they figured it out.
That’s what the Devaneys do. As the owners of Little Skull Photography, they cater to the most unique of requests, and without any formal training beyond a few courses on photography basics, they learn by doing. Based on the high frequency of repeat clients, their approach seems to be working.
Video by Anna Brugmann.
A year ago last month, the couple opened the studio with the hope of creating an environment in which clients can have as much fun in front of the lens as the Devaneys have behind it.
“We’re our own boss, and we have fun,” says Mike. “As long as I can pay both of these rents and be able to afford food, I’m good. If I can do that by making people smile and have fun, then awesome.”
The Devaneys got their start in Manchester, N.H., where they befriended some artists at the Studio of Photographic Arts (SOPHA). Mike’s background is in web development and Joslyn’s is in childcare, so they had no prior experience with photography. After a few workshops at SOPHA, some insight from the studio’s owner, Bud Thorpe — and a great deal of trial and error — they were off.
“Nobody taught us how to edit photos or pose models or style wardrobes,” says Joslyn. “This is all stuff that’s coming from our heads. We’re just playing until we get it right.”
The pair rented their first studio at SOPHA for a few years before deciding they were sick of the snow. Mike says he spent seven years trying to persuade Joslyn to move to Florida, but now that they’re here, she doesn’t want to leave.
Sarasota’s art scene was one of the main draws for the couple when they were deciding where to open their studio, but they also recognize that they’re different than many other artists in town — which might be helping them.
Mike says their style could be a better fit in a city like Hollywood, but he likes the fact that there’s nobody doing quite the same work in Sarasota.
Ever since opening Little Skull, the Devaneys have differentiated themselves from other area photographers by specializing in custom portraits and pinup shoots, or what Joslyn likes to call “vintage portraiture.” They also do food photography, events, headshots and other “corporate stuff,” but pinup is what they’ve become known for, specifically Joslyn.
In their three years of photographing professionally, they’ve had clients come from as far as Australia, and they’ve done everything from re-creating scenes from “Mad Men” to shooting a male pinup calendar.
The self-proclaimed “antique addicts” have always had a passion for all things vintage, so they ensure that everything used in their shoots is authentic. From vintage swimsuits to old-school appliances, the couple has a lofted section of their studio that is overflowing with all sorts of treasures they’ve found after scouring local businesses, such as Canned Ham Vintage and Braden River Antiques. The duo has so many props that they’re planning a sale on July 24 to make room for some new ones.
Pinup photography has an interesting history that few people understand, Mike says. Pinup girls were originally the subjects of drawings, not photographs. He says posing people in the pinup style that renowned pinup illustrator and former Sarasota resident Gil Elvgren helped make iconic is difficult, because it wasn’t created to transcend the canvas.
“It’s a task and a half,” Mike says. “If you can imagine, you’re sitting on your back. Now, you’re arching your back. Then, you’ve got your legs straight up in the air, one curled slightly, toes pointed, then you have to turn at us and look like you’re having a good time.”
But the pair enjoys the challenge. Mike says that their business is built around unique requests — so much so that they took the “themes” section off of their website, because almost all of their customers come to them with an idea already in mind.
Offering champagne, a makeup artist and a rack of vintage wardrobe options, the Devaneys do whatever it takes to ensure a good experience. They stress their value of quality over quantity, which is evident in their policy of booking only one client a day. Unlike many photographers, Mike says, they don’t put a time limit on their sessions. Prices for a pinup package range from $350 to $750.
“You’re getting used to the camera; you’ve probably never done this before, and we want you to feel comfortable,” he says. “If you’re weirded out by the inside, let’s go outside. Let’s go to your house. I don’t care what we do, we just want to make sure that they have an awesome photo and that they’re happy and confident.”
The couple agrees that they rarely get any clients who are 100% comfortable when they first come into the studio, especially when it comes to posing more sensually. Mike says that it wasn’t until he started photographing women that he realized how pinup shoots can help them feel more self-assured.
Clients tend to feel more at ease after their first few hours in the studio, the couple says, but the real reward comes when they see the finished product.
“We get a lot of people who say thank you to us for the confidence building,” Mike says. “When they come back and see the final result, they are blown away.”
Joslyn nods in agreement, and doesn’t bat an eye before answering what she enjoys most about her job.
“Making people happy,” she says. “Giving them photos that when they finally see, they say ‘Wow; I’m beautiful.’”