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Lights, camera, fashion!

Queen on both sides of the camera

River Schilling dressed as the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland” for a performance of the song “Mad Hatter” by Melanie Martinez.

River Avalon Schilling has been into fashion since day one, taking that interest to performing in drag and into her world of being a photographer for decades.

Schilling entered the world of photography in a high school art class. Her teacher handed everyone disposable film cameras. The class was given a theme to work with and were sent on their way. Once her camera was full, Schilling had to develop her own film in the school’s dark room and make at least 10 of her own prints.

She felt she was pretty good at photography in combination with the many compliments of her teachers. Her father gave her his Nikon F camera that he never used and a 35mm lens to help her get started in taking photos for a hobby.

Aside from being a natural at capturing beauty, she found photography very therapeutic. She described herself as “the loner kid.” She preferred to be by herself and said she is still that way.

“I would rather be by myself with my camera and just walking around and watching people, or just photographing whatever catches my eye,” Schilling said.

If something really catches her eye, she will go back to that same place 10 or 15 different times for different lighting or atmosphere to give the photos a mood or feel that the other photos didn’t have the week or month before. Her photography is constantly evolving.

In 2020, cameras have gone primarily digital, so that is how Schilling works. On a regular basis, she goes back to her roots of film photography.

“I do like film because you have to plan your shots a lot more,” she said.

Most rolls of film only held 24 to 36 shots. In order to not waste film, time needed to be taken to ensure a good, solid shot.

The camera she uses now is a Nikon D3. With the size of her current memory card, she said she can get up to 1,200 uncompressed shots. Digital photography makes it easier to find the best photograph and delete the others to make room for more. Film was obviously not so flexible.

Digital photographs can be manipulated in multiple different programs on a computer. Instead of having to buy individual color and black-and-white rolls of film, the photographer can call the image up on the screen and change everything about it. The saturation and hue can be shifted. Special effects can be added. In front of a green screen, the background can be anything the artist desires.

“I think doing film definitely teaches you a lot more and teaches you how to be very deliberate in planning when you are working with your subject,” Schilling said. “So, I mean, I still treat it as if it’s film and I take my time on my shots.”

From her art class in high school and her degree in graphic design, she has learned a lot about art and transferred that knowledge to photography. Take composition, for instance. Keeping the rule of thirds, contrast in colors of the subject and background, and alignment in mind are what make a piece of art.

“Composition is key,” Schilling explained, “and that’s what I fell a lot of photographers, especially young ones these days, are kind of lacking, is that composition and planning. (They) just spray and pray and hopefully get a decent shot.”

Her main focus is in portraiture and fine art, as well as fetish photography. She described fine art photography as “finding beauty in the simple.” One of the ways that she makes her photos unique is posing her subjects in ways that one wouldn’t normally see them in fashion or normal portraiture. Using her gray screen, Schilling can fix her images before she posts them for viewing.

Fine art photography is also very conceptual for her. The ability to tell a story through images and build a particular scene isn’t always possible with portraits.

Schilling considers Annie Leibovitz as one of her idols. Leibovitz is known mostly for her portraits that she has taken of celebrities, such as Michael Jordan, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger and many more. Shilling takes a lot of inspiration from the American portrait photographer, appreciating the telling of stories in a picture.

Fetish photography was defined as a subgenre of fine art and isn’t mainstream. However, it’s becoming known as the subgenre is more accepted and acknowledged in society. Fetish photography captures many different things, not all of them having to do with sexual activities. Some photographers’ photos put women in a powerful position or have their subjects dress in styles that put women in power, like pinup.

Schilling had an eye for fashion and had always been drawn to her mother’s makeup and clothing. About 11 years ago, she had gone to a drag show in Las Vegas and she was “enamored by it.” She thought it was amazing, the female performers looked amazing, and said to herself, “I want to do this.”

On Thursday and Friday nights, that same club did what she called “a free casting call,” where they gave other people a chance to perform in drag. If they did well enough over time, they could land a spot doing performances on Saturday nights, which were “cream of the crop.”

Instead of moving up to the Saturday night shows, she was stationed over in Hawaii as an active duty airman. While she was there, she went back to a club called Scarlet Honolulu. They also did casting calls there for fans to perform. Schilling did shows there and also co-hosted before she was restationed.

When it comes to doing competitive drag shows, she said she has been doing that for five or six years, but has been doing drag on and off for a total of 11 years. She said that he had never felt more authentic than when she was up on stage performing.

She and her fiancee, Kourtni Le Fay, both perform with the Misfits of Minot. Schilling’s first performance with them was Nora Manning in “House on Haunted Hill” on March 14.

The two met on Instagram while Schilling was in Minot and Le Fay was in Colorado. Schilling started a conversation by complimenting Le Fay’s eyebrows in a private message, and not too long after, Schilling had a friend request on Facebook. They started with conversations about sharing makeup tips.

At the time, neither of the ladies wanted a relationship, but they got along so well that things clicked for them.

“We met at the right time in each other’s lives,” Schilling said. “You know, I’ve never been happier.”

According to her, they’re both a handful and they are both drag queens.

“(Le Fay’s) a bit more spunky and flamboyant than I am,” Schilling said, “but I wouldn’t trade her for the world.”

She grew up in Hawaii, coming to Minot as an assignment from the U.S. Air Force three years ago. She has done 18 years of service, looking at retiring in about 2022.

For the past 10 years, her position has been in weather forecasting, but she originally wanted a position in public affairs. She was told she would have had to wait for about another six months for a position to open up, so she took the weather forecasting job.

After her retirement in about two years, she plans to take a job back in a big city, as that was where she had spent a vast majority of her time, like Honolulu, Seattle, San Antonio and Las Vegas.

For the time being, Schilling enjoys doing her freelance photography, spending time with her fiancee, dazzling Minot with her drag performances and giving the Magic City a reason to smile. She looks forward to future performances with the Misfits of Minot.

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