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Recreating the Varga Look

By Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor

Photographer Christopher Gabello was drawn to the Varga look after doing food photography for Philadelphia’s Varga Bar, themed around the distinct Esquire magazine pin-up girl illustrations of painter Alberto Vargas in the 1940s.


“I thought it would be thrilling to recreate the calendar he tried to put out in 1948,” says Gabello. “Vargas left Esquire, but he’d signed over the [the rights to the brand] name Varga to the magazine. They put a cease and desist order on the calendar and pulled it from the newsstands.

Gabello spent hours retouching in Photoshop to recreate the Varga look. “Studying the original paintings, I struggled to mimic his style, but it was the old darkroom technique dodge and burn that helped me achieve the look. Once I established a decent rendering, I was ecstatic to continue the project, one of the most substantial I’ve taken on. This giant undertaking, though, yielded one of the proudest pieces of work I’ve ever completed.”

Caption: To get the soft painted look of an original Varga, Gabello applied techniques of the traditional darkroom in the digital environment of Photoshop. Photo ©Christopher Gabello

The process is actually rather basic, says Gabello, but it’s the proper combination of styling, photography and image editing that accomplishes the Varga look. Below, the finished treatment is on the left, and the original photo is on the right. [Click image for larger view.] Photos ©Christopher Gabello

201002we_varga01.jpg   201002we_varga02.jpg

First, Gabello credits the team of creative contributors who helped achieve the look. “We have an amazing hair and makeup salon transforming the girls into the Varga look— Ettore Salon. No matter how good I am in photoshop, I’m nobody without good hair and makeup,” says Gabello. Next is the importance of period wardrobe. If the clothes had looked too modern, or from the wrong era, the look would have been thrown off and not as recognizable as a tribute to Vargas. Finally, posing achieved far more in contributing to the look than would be reasonable in image editing software. 

“I would like to do everything in camera,” says Gabello. “Most of these women have never been in a professional photo shoot, so it’s a challenge to get these natural looks and poses. It’s so important to make them feel comfortable and to warm them up. I like to run through a couple outfits fast, which gets them acquainted with the shooting process. Then I had them review their photos on the monitors and compare them with Varga Girls. I called it the ‘Varga look’ constantly. It's at this point they are 100-percent committed to the process and motivated to achieve that look.”

Lighting helped Gabello get as close to the look he wanted in-camera as possible. “I was shooting with a five-strobe set up. I used two to blow out the seamless, two softboxes on the model and one bare strobe with a 9-inch reflector above her. It really gives you a shiny gloss on the hair, but more importantly gives the model some harsher shadowing, which comes in handy later.”

Post processing took about five hours on each model, with the majority of that time spent using the Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools to effectively repaint the skin tones.

“When painting on a canvas,” Gabello explains, “your subject is made up of lights and darks. Keeping that in mind, you can achieve this look with dodge and burn. I certainly do some shaping in post, using either the Warp or Liquify tool. It’s only done to enhance the curves of the model, or to make her look more flattering.

“I enlarge the eyes on almost every occasion,” Gabello continues, “Then I do a combination of layer styles—a vivid light, and a soft light overlay. I add some grain and then some tinting.”

The results are stunning. The calendar pages are finished with an antiqued wash look, and each month features a flirtatious rhyme.