Meet the Photographer Behind California Girls

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 The Lady in Red fedora in black along with the final draft of California Girls lining tip stickers.

Meet Kelly Hsiao, the award-winning pin-up girl photographer who, in addition to exhibiting her work at galleries in San Francisco, New York, and Madrid, recently worked with Goorin Bros. on the California Girls summer collection. Hailing from the Bay Area, Hsiao has photographed all kinds of women in glamorous boudoir and pin-up style, and her photography went together perfectly with the beach and summer-ready hats of California Girls. Hats from the collection feature Hsiao's pin-up girl photography on the lining, including a beach babe laying atop a surf board, adding a fun little risqué detail for the wearer. Learn about the pin-up photography behind California Girls in our interview with Hsiao.

You studied photography in New York. What brought you to the Bay Area?

I lived, studied and worked in New York City for nine years. Though I love the big city with all its dynamic energy, amazing people, cultures and inspirations, my family is in California and ultimately I knew I would return back one day. After so many long winters, I was ready to be on a Mediterranean coast again. After my last spring in NY, I spent six months traveling in Europe, met my husband there, did a few art shows in Madrid, and then we moved back to the Bay Area in 2006.

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The original image of the "Surfer Girl" featured on the lining of California Dreamin and the California Girl Hat Pin

When did your initial interest in photography begin, and how did it develop into a career?

I was fascinated by photography since I was in the sixth grade and created my first darkroom in my parents garage. I loved creating images and it always felt like a magical to process to me. I took a specialized photographic class in college called platinum/palladium printing — a technique used in the 1800's. You have to individually paint the chemistry on paper, layer it with a large-format negative, expose it, and the image result was the richest and most stunning tones I've ever seen in a print. I became hooked on this process.

I interned for Joyce Tenneson who at the time was taking beautiful portraits of women using one of the few largest vintage Polaroid cameras in the world, the 20x24 in NY. She was a big inspiration and somehow I was always drawn to a mix of beauty, fine art and fashion with a bit of vintage processing involved. All very challenging areas in the photo world! I started doing pin-ups by just exploring a retro theme with a few models in my studio. I didn't know anyone who did this style in the Bay Area back in 2008 and I thought how great it would be to give regular women a chance to experience a glamorous, professional photo session and feel like a gorgeous gal from the 1960's. I had Gwen Stefani in my mind, who paved the way at rockin' these styles in a modern way!

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The California Dreamin straw fedora

After switching to digital photography, I found myself wanting to create some of that depth and richness again in printing and when Neal Cowley, of Make Light Real happened to see my images one day, he introduced me to adding digital textures to my pin-up work. Our first collaboration was Lady in Red, and when you see this image printed on a material like fabric, canvas or watercolor paper- it takes on a quality like an old-fashioned printing process. Since then, I started experimenting and adding different effects to my pin-ups and I think it's what makes this set quite unique.

What would you say makes pin-up girl and boudoir photography different from other types of photography?

I would say the pin-up style is different because it captures women in a classic way that is both fun, innocent and a little flirtatious. I find women really enjoy being a pin-up because there is such personality and charm behind each pose and theme. It captures a variety of expressions such as exuberance, sultriness, or an element of surprise. Though it can be hard work to pull off the right combination of pose and expression, the end result is alluring and makes you smile at the same time. And usually something you can still show your grandma. [Smiles]

What was it about this type of photography that fascinated you?

I love all kinds of vintage photography but there was something fascinating about the 1950's and 1960's when glamour was an everyday way of life and pin-ups elevated the girl next door to a beauty bombshell. I'm mesmerized by images of Marilyn Monroe at the beach with an umbrella laughing, and Betty Page splashing around in the water in Miami — they both looked so natural and exuded such charm and confidence. They looked like girls you want to hang with at the beach. They looked beautiful, didn't take themselves too seriously and were having a great time. The beach and summer pin-up is one of my favorite themes because it captures the essence everyone has when they're out in the sun and ocean. It's about enjoying life, living in the moment, and feeling young at heart. I was delighted to hear that my summer pin-ups would be part of this collection.

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Local Spot snapback baseball cap with the California Girl Hat Pin

What has it been like being a photographer in the Bay Area? 

The Bay Area is quite saturated with photographers, and when I started out doing pin-ups, I realized this was a new niche and I stood out a little. There were women who drove several hours to come for a session and I've had clients as far as the East Coast, Alaska and Canada. It's definitely become more of a recent trend and there are more photographers that have since popped up. However, I think if you are good at what you do and keep aiming high, people who appreciate good imagery will find you.

Any favorite spots to shoot?

As for locations, there are amazing places to shoot around the Bay Area, but I actually spent most of the past 5 years just in my studio. The gardens at Villa Montalvo, Saratoga are simply gorgeous, with a house built in early 1900's.

Who or what was your biggest influence growing up?

My mom is an inspiration because she's a self-made woman and though her job is not in the creative field, she has a really good sense for design and details. As a side project, she worked with an architect and she rebuilt and redesigned my parents current home from scratch. She is a problem solver and knows how to handle anything that comes her way. She has had loyal clients from tech and corporate businesses for decades and they trust her with everything. I'm amazed at her ability to remember each client's file and give personalized attention to their needs. I learned a lot from her about running a service orientated business.

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The Lady in Red cotton fedoras

What were the factors you considered when you selected the photographs of California Girls?

The final images selected for this collection came from the body of work I've done with mostly the beach theme. These three images are some of my favorites. The Surfer Girl (from the California Dreamin hat) was the first one selected by the Design Director, Anna Delis of Goorin Bros., because of her inspiration with the surf film Big Wednesday.

How would you describe the women you photograph?

I've photographed such a variety of women, but most come to me with little or no modeling experience. They are the girls next door and many are even moms. I think becoming a pin-up allows women to discover a playful side or role they don't normally get to express in their day to day lives. It's definitely not practical to get dolled up in this fashion these days, but I think the essence of dressing up and becoming a glamorous character is something instilled in many women and young girls. My daughter at age three is going through the "princess" phase right now. I think it's good for one's personal self-esteem at any age, to put on a dress, outfit, or hat and feel good about yourself.

Being a pin-up is not always about being provocative, but being comfortable in your own skin. I've photographed a woman at age 60 who brought a variety of fun pin-up themes for her 40th wedding anniversary session. She was still taking hula lessons and was in amazing shape! I meet lots of women who are inspirational. The surfer girl in the California Dreamin hat is a lovely lady who in real-life knows how to ride the waves. It's not all pretend. Pin-ups can definitely express your skills and talents!

What can we expect from you in the future? 

I'd love to make a calendar. I've always made them for individuals but I'd like to make a collective piece and have it available to the public. There are definitely new themes I still want to explore.

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