Monday, January 17, 2011

Clothing Optional

OK, I will come clean; the germ of this blog was a Craigslist missive from a novice photographer asking for professional advice on how to get started photographing women nude. I usually resist the temptation to answer such things, primarily because it’s usually just wasted words. Most of the time, I don’t even get a “thank you” for responding. Too, the vast number of people who post queries like this are somehow engaged in a kind of magical thinking; that is, they think that if they just throw their issue out in the world and wish hard enough, someone will provide the easy, pat answer, and all will be well. They don’t want to hear the real truths, which involve uncertainty, a bit of luck and most of all, hard work.

But I had a moment of indiscretion, and every so often I feel expansive with the desire to pass on what little wisdom I may have accumulated related to things that most people don’t care about. Additionally, I’m curious about whether my ideas are received and the dialogue that ensues. I love to teach, I just loathe formal educational environments. The possibility of winning over a young heart and mind to the path of creative anarchy is like putting a sardine in front of a starved alley cat-- I pounced. I sent this person the “five minute version” (no answer as of this post date) and have expanded my ideas below.

First, if you are not the type who takes a self-inventory every now and then and you’re determined to add galleries of flesh to your portfolio, my best advice is: Stop reading now! What I’ve written below will not change your mind and will simply annoy you.

As subject matter, the nude is creatively dangerous. For one, we still live in a country where the human body is seen as something from which people must shield their eyes and thoughts. You are likely to be plagued by questions concerning your own reasons for photographing raw human anatomy and will need to unravel what on earth you are doing, given the glut of nudes, especially of women as photographed by men. Nude photography requires dealing with one’s own complex motivations plus those of a living self-determining and ever-shifting subject who has invested a lot of trust in both you and your creative abilities. By peeling away the physical barrier of clothing, a social and cultural boundary is removed, putting both the subject and the photographer in a new psychological space that can be disquieting. Even after years of drawing and painting from the figure as well as making many photographic images, I still find working with a live model challenging and even a bit nerve wracking. There are occasional moments in the studio where I avert my eyes, feeling my gaze is too intimate and that I’ve transgressed an unspoken boundary. Add to all this the thorny process of attempting to make really excellent photographs, and you can see why things can get difficult and messy.

The art historian Kenneth Clarke wrote: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.” If you believe this, there is no playing it “safe.” I find so called “figure studies” that just show the beauty of the human body, to be pretty uninteresting since they take a human being, something alive, chaotic and unpredictable and turn it into still life.

There are more practical problems as well. For every potential subject you invite to be photographed, be he or she professional model or amateur, you are automatically suspect until proven otherwise. At worst you are a potential rapist who buries people in the basement, but more likely you will be potentially looked at as being something much more prosaic. With the advent of digital photography, there has been an explosion of “GWC’s” or “Guys With Cameras”—men whose interest in photography doesn’t go much further than whether their pricey new equipment will get a woman to take her clothes off. These poseurs waste the model’s time snapping photos that are mediocre and are often last seen during the shoot on the camera’s lcd screen.

The best solution to the above is to be professional, even formal in how you present yourself, what your project is and what you want to do. These days most modeling gigs are worked out online. What you write in your posts and emails are often all someone responding to your subject search has to go on. Be forthright about the state of your experience, circumstances and budget. Have a project or better yet, specific shots in mind that you want to execute. Explain your purpose and intended use of the images. If the model wants to bring a friend or significant other to the shoot, let them. If a model wants to meet you ahead of time to make sure you are OK, go have a cup of coffee and bring some prints. Having a face-to-face meeting before the shoot helps the work go better in my experience. You have a sense of the person ahead of time.

Minimally, have a page on Model Mayhem or One Model Place where people you’ve worked with can “tag” you and write about their positive experiences working with you. Pay your models, if at all possible, even if it’s just a modest show-up fee. Secure a good space to work in, even if you have to rent an hourly studio. Prepare.

More important than covering the professional bases, as I alluded to previously, consider the model’s perspective. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest you take a stab at modeling nude to get a feel for the kind of vulnerability it engenders and how difficult it really is. I had the full and somewhat mortifying experience in college. Being very broke, I was a figure model for a weekend drawing group attended by a rather sleazy-looking man who invited me to do a “private session” at his house. Yes, guys get harassed too!

My experience is people model, regardless of whether they are clothed or not, because they are interested in being in collaborations with creative people. They enjoy the process of evolving tableaux for the camera and the surprises that happen when an image reflects them in a totally new and interesting way. As a photographer, you are in a sense, helping them explore who they are. It’s really a give and take and the more the photographer invests in making a great image, the more something primary from the subject comes through in the photos. If I can be a bit lofty for a moment, this is really what the photographer is “returning” to the model and the world. On a more grounded note, make sure you deliver the files and prints you promise. If you do this, my guess is you will have no shortage of people who will want to create the kind of images you envision.

So how to start? Contrary to what all the photography and art schools would like you to believe, nobody really “studies” photography; you just jump in. The first nudes I did, I put an ad on Craigslist looking for volunteers and I found a few as well! The shots were not stellar, but I learned a lot and I got over a lot of the anxiety I had about working with nude subjects one-on-one. From there I made more and just continued on doing them and a lot of other studio work. The operative word being “work.”