Fashion models have an odd effect on people. Even dressed down, looking a little plain, people—mostly men—will trip over their words or sometimes over their own feet when encountering a stunningly beautiful model. It's like there's a short circuit in the brain that suppresses normal behavior allowing only awkward actions to manifest. And so it was with me, when I did my first model test (photo shoot) with a real model, also known as an established or working model.
Her name was Jenny Morning, a name I had heard, but a face I had not yet seen. As I walked through the agency toward the booking room, I was miles away in my head thinking about the details of the shoot. And then I saw her. She was so beautiful it was bizarre. For a second I lost my balance. She was just under six feet tall with short blonde hair and piercing glacier blue eyes. She was aesthetically intimidating, but her confident and friendly personality made her surprisingly approachable. She inspired a deep emotional nagging in me. It was a confusing feeling. I didn’t want to date her per-se. I just wanted a reason to be around her, to somehow impress her, to be more than just the new photographer at the agency.
I managed to string together a few syllables that when deciphered revealed the time and the place for the shoot. The following day I brought my camera, some clothes...and a rose.
"Oh puh-lease," said Michael. Michael was the powerful agent who gave me my break, managed my nascent career, and set up the shoot with Jenny. He had his face in his hands. "A rose?" He looked up at me. "Of all the..." His face was back in his hands. "Listen to me," he said, "if you ever once convey a hint that the reason you're a photographer is to date models, all my hard work goes out the window. And you," he drew his finger across his throat, "you'll be through before you actually learn how to take a decent picture." He walked away with a dramatic spin.
Absorbing his words as gospel, I only fell in love three more times over the next few months. But, to spare the fashion world from my lovesick intentions, and to avoid getting my ass kicked by Michael, I endeavored to keep my amorous feelings to myself. My method was simple: always keep in mind my incredibly low position on the fashion industry ladder, and make jokes instead of flirtations. And so it came to pass, I had lots of really stunning friends.
Going out to bars and clubs with models is a scream. You rarely wait in line and drinks tend to be free—for the models at least. Several men will purchase several drinks for one model, which creates an inventory on the bar. I, a trusted, non-dating friend, then swoop in and grab one for myself.
Then there was the other sport: watching the phalanx of men try to pick up on your friends. Priceless entertainment.
"You're the most beautiful woman..."
"Your eyes are incredible."
"Have you ever thought about modeling?"
Eventually some unlucky fool will try, "You know I'm a photographer..." This gets an almost immediate shut down. A good safety tip: never pretend to be fashion photographer when talking to someone from the fashion industry. You'll be led on, like a lion playing with a mouse, and then you'll be devoured, leaving you with emotional scars for decades.
Entertaining as this all was, the company I was keeping strained my relationship with a woman outside of the fashion industry.
"Don't all photographers sleep with their models?" she'd say.
"You must have some attraction to these girls?" Her eyes would narrow.
"Not all of them." (Author's note: the proper response is, "Not at all.")
"Don't you see these girls naked sometimes?"
To all of us in the fashion industry there are two types of people: those in the industry and then everyone else. People outside of the fashion industry love busting my chops about nudity. Apparently there is a preconceived notion that there is a lot of skin in the fashion world. Well, I'm here to tell you there is. Fashion, by its nature, is a provocative genre. Some models are shy on set and some aren't. My best friend Amelia, a model turned writer, called me up one time and asked if I thought she was still beautiful. She was walking around a set topless and no one was noticing. The thing is, that's the type of atmosphere that exists on the set. If you as the photographer ever find yourself noticing a model changing, believe me, everyone else is going to notice you noticing, and, well, you'll be branded.
There are rules and protocols that exist when it comes to skin. Wherever you're shooting, especially on a commercial shoot, you need to have a viable changing area which is defined as a 10 x 10 enclosed space. This can sometimes be tricky when you're on a location in the middle of nowhere. Most models are fine changing in an SUV or under a towel, but make sure to ask before you get to location. If you're working with a model who indicates she's remotely uncomfortable or if the model is a minor, you must have a changing room. The most important thing to remember is you must always, always, always respect the models dignity and comfort level.
Inevitably some of the shots in your career will involve nudity. So how do you talk a girl into taking her clothes off on the set? You don't. You start with her agent. Every agency knows which one of their models is willing to do lingerie and/or nudity. The agent will check with the model and then get back to you.
If you have lots of model friends and you know them well enough to do a test shoot that involves nudity, talk to them about it ahead of time. Never, ever put someone on the spot and pressure them. Also if you're shooting and you sense that the model is uncomfortable doing a provocative shot, kill the shoot. It doesn't matter what she said when you talked to her yesterday, today she's uncomfortable and it's your job to recognize that and act accordingly.
The best way to avoid awkward situations on the set is up-front, honest communication. Never try to bait and switch or pull the wool over anyone's eyes. Your reputation is the most important thing you possess, it's the easiest thing to destroy and the most impossible thing to fix once it's been trashed.
In order to give this piece some depth, I asked my close friend Amelia to lend her perspective. I met her on a shoot ages ago, she was fourteen, smoking cigarettes and reading Dostoyevsky. After an unusually long modeling career she retired from the industry to become a writer.
"I'd feel a whole lot better if you were gay."
My thoughts when I arrive, a few days over eighteen, at his studio. Studio apartment, that is.
"Where is everybody?" I ask.
The apartment is stifling. A low-speed fan sputters on the other side of the room, but it isn't doing me any good where I'm standing. He takes the bag of shoes and underwear off my hands.
"No makeup artist?" This is, after all, a paid test.
"Yes makeup artist," he assures me in a thick Italian accent.
I take a seat on the couch and pull out a book to read while we wait for the rest of the crew. He continues to stand over me, legs akimbo, arms crossed over his chest. Just smiling away. I don't know how much time we spend like this.
"You like to start?" he finally asks.
He makes an exaggerated gesture in the direction of a barstool. It seems he has a Zip-lock packed with the essentials concealer, mascara, Vaseline. He offers me the shabby green robe hanging on the bathroom door and a broken explanation of why I should throw it on. The fabric is suffocating. The makeup is running off my face as fast as he can apply it. I very happily lose the arms and hold the terry-cloth over my chest while he rubs Vaseline on my shoulders and collar bones.
"Corina bambina," he says. "Beautiful baby."
I hardly hear him. I've resolved not to pay for the shoot. The language barrier frees me from the obligation to make small talk. It also maintains a comfortable distance between us, despite our physical proximity.
He's got a tapestry that looks like a Balinese sarong tacked up on the wall, a glaring naked bulb on a stand and, of course, the fan. What about clothes? I've got heels and lingerie; I haven't signed on for that kind of shoot.
Apparently, there is no shortage of these tapestries. He continues to pull them from what looks like a laundry bag. I'm tempted to smell them.
Is it best to walk now, so not to waste more of anyone's time? I remember a confession I've heard from my photographer friends, the best shots are stumbled upon almost, if not completely, by accident. So I wait while he fashions this frayed-edge piece of fabric into something like a dress, knowing it will only accentuate my shapelessness. I hold out for a fluke.
By now I'm definitely wearing my annoyance, and the looks I'm shooting at him are not a little condescending. I can feel his hands shake as he struggles with the little gold safety pins, his clumsiness when he loses hold, and the fabric splitting down my back.
Eventually I am frustrated enough to suggest that I just hold the thing around me for the shot. He turns out, not surprisingly, to be one of those photographers who reaches into the frame to adjust the model. He is not only a photographer, makeup artist and stylist; now he's doing my job. We're not shooting a catalogue here. We're not shooting at a slow shutter speed. Between us, I'm not the novice. There is no reason to interfere...
That was my first topless shoot. The decision, needless to say, had very little to do with the photographer. However slick or manipulative, the photographer wasn’t going to talk me into anything. I had already decided to do topless, for myself. When I look at those prints today, I see it didn't matter how little I was wearing. I wasn't revealing anything.
I've since worked with photographers who, when they showed me what they had seen and captured from behind the camera, have actually made me blush. As far as I'm concerned, that's what we're here for, the rare occasion when the elements come together to create an image more authentic and intimate than we, model or photographer, will ever be in our daily lives. And while there is no formula for that magic, you can certainly prevent it from happening.
That said, here are a few things you might want to keep in mind: When a model decides to take off her clothes, she's running the show, and it's to your advantage if she knows it. If you are not a run-of-the-mill voyeur, you want to see more than a nice set of tits. If you are professional, you will gain her confidence. And if you invite her to be more than a prop on your stage, she'll give you something you've never seen before.
BACK TO LOU
In a situation made potentially uncomfortable with the absence of clothes, take great strides to make the models more comfortable. Try to avoid being smarmy by asking a girl out just because you saw a flash of skin.
So does the photographer ever get to date the girl? Well, yes. After five years of focusing on photographic exposure instead of skin exposure, I earned a reputation as a serious photographer. That is to say a serious photographer that may someday shoot well. The first time I met a model I wanted to date seriously I was twenty-four. Michelle was three years younger than me.
My way forward was to ask Michael first. Remember him? The one who was steering my career, making me more nervous than a fox at a hound convention. As the unofficial matriarch of the girls from the agency, he just looked at me and rolled his eyes. "Puh-lease try and do something more interesting than a rose."
Written by Lou Lesko, edited by Gabrielle Pflugradt. As always, this article is brought to you by BlinkBid bidding and producing software.