Photographer turns love of old school Hollywood lighting into local restoration business

Posted by: brad – Dec 28, 2016


After moving to Richmond from Nashville in the summer of 2016, music photographer John Scarpati decided to focus his artistic expression on a different aspect of the photography process – lighting.

Scarpati began restoring old Hollywood lights almost three years ago, after working on a cover shoot for country singer Lee Ann Womack’s new album, The Way I’m Livin’ Inspired by the Hurrell lighting style, he aimed to give the shoot the feel of old school Hollywood glamour, achievable only through the heavy lights used in the 1940s.

Through his interest in playing with lighting in his shoots, Scarpati became fascinated by the light fixtures themselves. He began restoring old Hollywood movie lights to be used in his shoots as opposed to the mass-produced modern lighting mechanisms, in order to achieve that old-school quality.

The cinematic element that the lights created in his work began to attract other photographers who shared his desire for a retro feel. Through this, Scarpati began renting them out for other artists to use, and his business was born.

Scarpati began to wonder if these old Hollywood lights could be repurposed to use around the home. He started restoring different models and putting them for sale on his Etsy page. The lights come complete with a period-appropriate stand, which allows for more casual use lighting home interiors.

“Photography has been my love, my hobby, my business, and who I am since 1982,” Scarpati said. “This was a chance for me to take a break from working and take up a sort of hobby.”

Scarpati restored an old shed and created a studio for the light-restoration project in the backyard of his Henrico home. Since then, the Etsy shop has taken off as more people around the country find and purpose the lights to be used in their own homes and otherwise.

To Scarpati, the most important part of this project is the quality of the products he works with. He has taken to scouring old Hollywood studio supply warehouses in search of restoration-worthy fixtures, particularly those by famed brands like Bardwell & McAlister and Mole Richardson. Made between the 1920s and 1940s, each is a one-of-a-kind original, and represent different eras of American cinematic history.

“If I’ve learned anything as a photographer, it’s that the light performs the magic,” he said. “Shaping the light through its brightness, color, contrast or direction, the symbolic use of light and shadow … the real magician here is light itself.”

The process of restoration includes completely disassembling and restoring each individual part. Because of the age of the lights, he is limited in how far the initial product can be changed, but rather focuses on enhancing the quality each part already has.

Scarpati has also collected the case metal logos from the back of the oldest lights to one day be used on his bigger projects to be sold to people who appreciate the historical value of these artifacts. His materials come from friends of his still in Hollywood who are constantly on the lookout for potential lights for him to buy to restore, as well as sites such as Craigslist and Ebay.

Scarpati rose to prominence within the entertainment industry through his work photographing musicians in the 1980s and 1990s for album covers and other promotional materials. He has written two books, Eyes Wide Open, and Cramp, Slash, & Burn: When Punk and Glam Were Twins, a collection of his photographs from the punk and glam music industry in Hollywood during the 1980s.

As Scarpati finds his footing in his new home of Richmond, he continues to use his interest in photography and lighting as the base from which to find his artistic voice wherever he goes. While the light-restoration is somewhat a hobby for the artist, he hopes to someday return to photography as his primary means of artistic expression, now at a time in his career when he can focus on work that he identifies with as opposed to guidelines set up by a commercial client.

Keep up with John Scarpati on facebook here.

Words by Megan Corsano, images via John Scarpati