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ELIZABETH KHURI, SPECIAL TO RAVE!

Macabre isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you meet Melanie Pullen.

No black lipstick with matching nails. No skunk hairdo. Instead, soft, almost downy blond hair frames her heart-shaped face, and she’s more likely to be dressed in a quirky striped shirt with a plum- colored jacket.

“I wasn’t Goth or anything in high school,” Pullen said, smiling.

Yet her “High Fashion Crime Scenes” photographs are deeply unsettling. Pulling back cardboard packaging to reveal an unframed photo in the back of her dad’s SUV, Pullen, 28, slips on a white cotton glove before sliding her hand across the finish.

It is a shot of a supposedly dead woman in a sheer nightgown lying in a field of curling, brown leaves. The light filters through the naked branches of the trees and the woman’s face is nearly out of focus. Pullen calls it a favorite because the fall season comes through in the lighting and composition.

Pullen’s upcoming photography exhibit at the Silverlake Society for Authentic Arts takes chilling, often gruesome scenes, and adds a delicate twist.

In the approximately 70 color and black-and-white photographs, a woman in a barrel sports a perfect pair of Alain Tandowski stilettos, another drips in Bvlgari diamonds. The effect is jarring and provocative at the same time.

In these fashion shoots gone awry, Pullen plays with the idea of photography as simple record while using accessories as an element of contrast.

Years ago when Pullen was flipping through Luc Sante’s true-crime book Evidence, she said, she found herself fascinated by the layout of the scenes and the details of the victims. It wasn’t until later that she realized, “‘Oh my God, I was looking at crime scene books.’ “

With that paradox in mind, Pullen decided to create her own crime- themed photographs, many based on actual photos, others entirely invented.

Before pulling out her Canon, Pullen contacted the kind of characters found in Raymond Chandler novels to begin her research. Her experience at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office convinced her the impact was in the details. From the moment she set foot in the building, Pullen was spooked.

“The first time he was showing me around, it was weird because there’s not that music, like the music in the movies,” she said, “It’s eerie.”

Pullen wanted to see a bullet wound, and the coroner, without much ado, pulled the bag off of a victim’s head. “That’s not something I was prepared to see,” she recalled. “It’s so small, it’s a very tiny little hole.”

And then Pullen noticed a woman’s feet sticking out from under a tarp.

“She had these bright red toenails, and that was the thing that was real to me. I couldn’t sleep that night because I kept thinking about those girl’s toenails.”

Pullen gives credit for her artistic approach to her grandmother Ann Guilfoyle, former editor of Audubon Magazine and often a judge of photography competitions.

“She would look for the element inside the photos that held mystery and told a story,” Pullen said.

The young photographer admires artists that leave room for the mind to wonder. Work by David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Melvin Sokolsky, and Weegee inspire her, she said.

And in her photographs there are those elements and garnishes — a water cooler in the background, birds fleeing the scene, a woman folded in a trunk in an abandoned warehouse — that bring up more questions.

“It’s a beginning middle and end,” Pullen said. “It’s not just a picture that you are going to walk by and go, ‘Next.’ “

Pullen decided to add the fashion element to the crime scene photos precisely because of how distracting it would be to the image. She wanted people to focus on the composition, not the subject, as she did when first looking at Sante’s book.

Pullen had dabbled in the fashion world already. A New York City native, she honed her skills as a commercial photographer for eight years, shooting album covers for bands. She has also shot for Rolling Stone magazine and has done occasional catalogue work, making her familiar with the perks and trials of the glamour industry.

Once designers got word of Pullen’s project, many began soliciting her to take their work. Leaning toward favorites such as Prada and Marc Jacobs, Pullen also incorporated pieces by Tondowski and the up and coming European haut label Boudicca in her photographs.

Often she would end up destroying the clothes to get the right effect. Pullen recalled dismembering a $12,000 Boudicca dress with real crystals embedded in it. Perfect shoes, body contorted, face or wrists mutilated, all complement the carefully constructed scene.

Pullen said she found that once the project got going, it gathered an incredible amount of momentum. Shoots began to resemble those of a movie set, with crews of 60 volunteers, and makeup artists begging to prove their mettle with slit throats and the like.

Leaning back in her chair, Pullen’s talk leaps from subject to subject: the voyeurism myth of being a taxi driver, the French New Wave style of filmmaking, people’s fear of failure, the best smoke machines on the market. One realizes that her work embodies her wide- eyed approach to the world, where everything is taken into consideration.

Strangulation, drowning, hanging, slit wrists — the gentle Pullen has covered her bases.

* Elizabeth Khuri is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica.PHOTOS BY MELANIE PULLENWHAT: “High Fashion Crime Scenes” photo exhibit by Melanie Pullen.

WHERE: Silverlake Society for Authentic Arts, 1085 Manzanita St., Silverlake.

WHEN: Sunday through July 12. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ArtWalk 2004, from 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday, will include a cocktail party at the gallery and a preview of the show.

INFORMATION: www.highfashioncrimescenes.com.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.