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Step into the Harold Golen Gallery and you can almost smell the stinging scent of cordite perfuming the air.
Peeking out from behind flower-patterned curtains, a heartless blonde in a sheer black negligee levels her gun at your head.
It's a scene that could have been lifted from a Dashiell Hammett crime novel or 1940s-era detective pulp. Welcome to Manhattan-based photographer Richie Fahey's world, where reality is never quite what it seems.
"I'm interested in old detective pulp, musty paperbacks, movie posters, and theater lobby cards," Fahey says. They inspire him to conjure hard-boiled noir-style visuals that hit the viewer like an old-fashioned pistol-whipping across the bean.
The 46-year-old artist says that as a kid, he was fascinated with World War II. "The first book I ever read was about a POW escape, called Escape from Colditz, that was held together with a rubber band and fell apart while I was reading it."
Later, in college, Fahey immersed himself in the world of old movies, purple crime prose, and rockabilly music and began experimenting with hand-coloring snapshots to create a timeless vibe.
"I was influenced by Cindy Sherman and Pierre et Gilles," he says. "But I also discovered old Hollywood studio glamour photographers like George Hurrell and Edgar Leeteg, who was the father of black velvet painting, and kind of drifted into the vintage stuff."
Since then, he has amassed a towering collection of 1930s-60s dog-eared paperbacks and detective pulp that has delivered impressive payoffs to his image bank.
Fahey has become known for the ambiguous nature of his photographs and for his flawless attention to detail.
Typically his photographs feature a cast of bombshells and the lustful dopes they invariably wrap around their pinkies.
For his shoots, he hires models or actresses, and his wife often assists with the makeup and styling. He employs vintage lighting techniques and painstaking art direction.
Waikiki Dancing Janine looks eerily like one of Leeteg's velvet paintings. It depicts a fetching Polynesian woman clad in a sarong and wearing hibiscus flowers in her hair while shimmying seductively in front of a tiki head shooting flames from its stack. Behind the erupting statue, a bare-chested tattooed sailor watches, mesmerized.
Despite its modest size — all of Fahey's pictures measure 11 by 14 inches — the work exudes an impeccably rendered oil-painting veneer.
Several of the images on display at Golen's include book covers the artist created for the re-release of James Bond paperback editions by Penguin Books in 2003. They include the ones he designed for You Only Live Twice and From Russia with Love.
Also on exhibit is cover art he made for crime novelist Megan Abbott's books Queenpin and This Song Is You. The first depicts a nude chestnut-maned minx smoking a cigarette and clutching a blue whisper of fabric to her chest while a dapper gin-swigging mook leers behind her. In the second image, a menacing business type stands in a doorway ogling a honey-blond bimbo who's flexing her considerable charms in a clingy red dress.
Fahey's adroit and cunning art direction and the stupendous Technicolor pigmentation of his pictures convincingly re-create the mystique of a bygone era.
With a gumshoe's tenacity, he carefully chooses period clothing and lingerie and labors tirelessly to make sure his models are posing without a hair, garter, or tie clip out of place. Fahey also frames his works in a vintage style that enhances the throwback quality of his pics.
"I spent a lot of time collecting old frames from garage sales and thrift shops," he says. "A lot of times, I just end up fishing them out off the trash and cutting them down to fit."
Another piece that delivers a wallop is A Stone for Billie Madley, originally created for a Harold Robbins paperback cover. In it, Madley, a burlesque queen and performance artist Fahey often uses in his shoots, sits sullenly on a bed in her scanties while a mope undresses next to her.
In Black Maria, another sizzling caper photo, a scorching-hot brunette wearing a gorgeous scarlet 1940s-era dress and matching peep-toe pumps is caught in flagrante delicto as she stares out through a tenement window while holding a smoking gat behind her back.
Fahey says he began experimenting with photo dyes to color his pictures back in high school.
He says that when he moved to New York to pursue a career as a photographer, he found a postwar hobbyist's manual, Photo Oil Coloring for Fun and Profit, which he followed to transform black-and-white photos into glorious color by dabbling with pigments on snapshots from the 1940s.
"It's becoming more difficult to do," Fahey sighs. "Everything has gone digital these days."
He also says that organizing his photo shoots in his former 350-square-foot flat was at times a nightmare. "I used to live in a tiny tenement apartment and could barely fit the models into the set. We would have to move my bed and furniture around almost like choreography to get the right look."
Regardless of having to work in a shoebox, Fahey has deftly created lush, peeper-popping photos that seduce you into lurid yarns that are a wonder to behold.
The best thing of all is that many viewers will find themselves filling in the blanks with their own imaginary backstories or dreaming for days of old-fangled flimflams.