The Inn crowd: Selina Roman at the Tahitian

Scenes from a delightfully disturbing, Florida-inspired photo shoot.

click to enlarge SOFA CITY, SWEETHEART: Tyler Staggs in “Paradise Landscape and Denim Couch Study.”  - SELINA ROMAN
SOFA CITY, SWEETHEART: Tyler Staggs in “Paradise Landscape and Denim Couch Study.”

On the last evening of a three-day photo shoot at the Tahitian Inn in South Tampa, Selina Roman’s hotel room exhibits the aftermath of a kitschy, and faintly kinky, dress-up tornado. Sequined garments form glittering puddles on a bench, sheer scarves dangle from the back of a rattan chair, and a pair of black suitcases overflows with sunglasses, rubber gloves and such oddities as a beige facial compression mask. On a round table next to sliding glass doors perches an empty can of Starbucks Double Shot. For the first time over the course of a dozen two-hour sessions with a rotating cast of volunteer models, Roman, who clutches her DSLR camera in one hand as she eases into the room’s denim-upholstered couch, admits that she’s tired.

A knock on the door heralds another sitter. Tyler Staggs, a trim twentysomething with a shaved head and beard, walks in wearing a black muscle tee printed with a flamingo. Like most of Roman’s models, Staggs is also an artist and a friend; the two hug and get started without much ado. Within minutes Staggs, who is not shy, has stripped off his street clothes and donned an iridescent purple leotard. He and Roman debate which props to use. Looking around the room, his eyes land on a large canvas printed with an image of a palm tree-studded beach. Staggs lifts the hotel artwork off the wall and positions it behind him on the couch as a makeshift backdrop.

“This is going to turn into a really terrible Florida piece,” Staggs warns as Roman begins to shoot.

When your art depends on a certain alchemy of collaborator personalities, light effects and quirky surroundings, generating the right mix takes a bit of luck and a certain amount of advance preparation, as Roman, whose background fuses journalism and fine art with degrees from USF, knows well. In late June, she set up camp at the hotel in hopes of jump-starting a new body of work, which she’s calling Please Disturb, to show in exhibitions coming up later this year at Tempus Projects and Blake High School.

click to enlarge REFLECTING COOL: Carmen Alvarez in “Puddle Study.” -  - SELINA ROMAN
REFLECTING COOL: Carmen Alvarez in “Puddle Study.”
Copious props — a roll of pink bubble wrap, a corset-like back brace, pairs of women’s tights — helped set the stage for the roleplaying that is the trademark of her beguilingly odd photographs of people. (Those photos have landed Roman, a Tampa native, in exhibitions at HCC Dale Mabry’s Gallery 221, where she now works, and a handful of spaces in the Miami area, where she lived for five years, as well as a recent guest lecture at St. Pete’s Museum of Fine Arts.) But the real fun began once Roman’s models, a parade of local art personalities whom she recruited by circulating a Google document on Facebook, started ringing the doorbell.

“I like the idea that the process is like a performance,” Roman explained when we spoke by phone after the shoot. Over the course of three days, she allowed me to observe, then shared some of her work-in-progress for publication here.

“I’m a really big lover of the unexpected,” she said. “I like being surprised, and I don’t want to know everything when I start out.“

The model just before Staggs, Carmen Alvarez, is an accountant and Tempus Projects board member known locally as a vintage fashionista. She shows up with a carload of clothes, piling them onto the hotel room’s denim couch. After some glamor shots on the balcony with Alvarez in a patterned bikini and kaftan, Roman positions her model behind a curtain of the pink bubble wrap draped from the room’s sliding glass doors and hands her a pair of rubber gloves. (People in Roman’s photographs often wear swimsuits or spandex garments that lend the scene a retro-futuristic vibe.) The effect is of a pervy femme fatale, which Alvarez plays to the hilt.

On the night before, Roman works with a couple, Liz Schneider and Mike Covello, the latter a painter who graduated from USF’s MFA program with Roman in 2013. When I show up a half-hour into the shoot, Roman has convinced Schneider, who is waif-like, to don a blue sequined shift and soak mermaid-style in a bathtub lined with bendable glow sticks. Afterwards, Covello examines props until Roman suggests that he try on a pair of green plastic underpants (the kind a person might wear over an adult diaper) and a stethoscope sheathed in turquoise plastic.

“Yeah, no,” Covello declines.

“My models are always uncomfortable,” Roman counters.

“What else you got?” he asks.

Ten minutes later Covello, who is of stocky build, wears the plastic underpants over a pair of red tights, the stethoscope draped across his chest as Roman shoots.

The last session with Staggs yields its first image after an exuberant 20 minutes. Looking for something to layer over his leotard, he gravitates to a fuchsia sequined top and pulls its sleeves over his legs, repurposing the garment as a pair of harem pants with a gaping hole at the crotch. “I feel like I have a vagina,” Staggs exclaims in front of a mirror. “Welcome to my world,” Roman drawls back. He snaps a pair of light-blocking goggles over his eyes, and Roman positions a flashlight to shine into his face like an artificial sun.

As he reclines on the couch, a Mona Lisa smile floats across Staggs’s lips; amid the sequins and spandex, a Florida Venus has emerged. 

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