Jessica Martin as Marlene Dietrich. Photo by John Ulman
Jessica Martin as Marlene Dietrich. Photo by John Ulman
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For people in the entertainment industry, a lot of time can be spent just looking for work. So former Magnolia resident and actor Jessica Martin and Queen Anne photographer and actor John Ulman connected to create their own work in a project they’re calling “Screen Icons.”

The project started three years ago, when they paired up to recreate classic photos of Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe).

Martin had always loved old Hollywood, so she approached Ulman — whom she met on the set of the ACT Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” — with the idea of recreating these classic photos. They did the first photo of Hepburn nearly three years ago and the most recent photo, of Baker, just this summer.

It can be difficult for actors when they’re not working, Martin said: “You’re just like, ‘My creativity is dying.’” So they decided to do the project as a way to act, photograph and create.

For Ulman, he loved getting the chance to “reverse engineer these iconic shots.” Using all modern equipment, he needed to figure out what the original photographer was doing without actually knowing what their settings were.

Even though Ulman has steady photography work, it’s a lot of the same type of work doing headshots. Headshots tend to have very soft lighting, so it was fun for Ulman to use harsh lighting to create strong shadows. This work was a great “palate cleanser” from his other work.

In each photo shoot, Martin did the makeup and costuming. It was challenging, like finding a white bikini that didn’t “look like a diaper,” she said, but sometimes it was fun, like wearing a tuxedo for the first time. 

Challenging characters

With the Hepburn shoot — their first one — Martin found herself feeling insecure, trying to get her face and body to look exactly like the iconic actress’. That shoot took a while before she realized her face would never be quite the same, and the photograph would never be an exact replica. Finally, Martin and Ulman came to a place where they decided to “channel the essence of the photos,” she said.

“It’s still me, just acting like this person,” she said. “The Jessica-ness never leaves it.”

That attitude made things much more successful, Ulman said. Once they took that mindset to their Dietrich shoot, they were able to get the perfect shot within minutes.

The photos still took a considerable amount of acting, Martin said. Embodying these women whom she looked up to so much was intimidating.

“Like Marlene, that woman could eat Angelina Jolie for lunch,” she said. “And that is not in my wheelhouse, that sexy, man-eater kind of person.”

So, to get the perfect Dietrich, she found parts of her character she could connect with, and those shots ended up being some of her favorites.

The Hepburn and Dietrich shots were done in Ulman’s Queen Anne apartment, which posed its own challenges of getting the lighting right.

They did the Norma Jean shoot at Golden Gardens earlier this summer. There, they needed to figure out how to make the gray, cold and rainy Seattle weather look like California in the summer. Ulman did that through some flash at the shoot and a lot of warming filters in Photoshop later. They also had to use Photoshop to remove curious bystanders in the background.

Martin said she always finds herself eagerly waiting for Ulman to finish with the photos in post-production.

The project’s biggest challenge was finding the time, which has been difficult for both of them. “I feel like we have 100 emails just to find the time and then two to figure out what we want to do,” Martin said.

But then there were the benefits of connecting as friends and working on something creative, Ulman said.

It’s also a way to take your career into your own hands, Martin said: It’s about being able to say, “‘Look, I’m not sitting around for the phone to ring. I’m taking charge of my career and my craft and making something happen.’ I think a lot of people respect that.” 

Who’s next?

The photos have been posted on Martin and Ulman’s websites (jessicaerinmartin.com and www.johnulmanphoto.com), and they’ve shared them on social media, but so far, they don’t have any other distribution plans.

For now, they don’t have enough photos to do something like a show, Ulman said, but that may be something they consider in the future.

Putting some sort of goal on a “passion project” like this makes it stressful and takes the fun away, Martin said.

Now, Ulman will be in Seattle and Martin in Los Angeles, where she’s temporarily moved to further pursue her acting career, so it will be even more difficult to connect. But they’ve only been doing about one photo each year, so they plan to see where the project takes them.

Now, it’s only a matter of deciding whom to embody next....

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