Monday, May 25, 2009

The value of an outstanding model

"Eloquent Nude" ( is an enlightening documentary about Edward Weston and his relationship with Charis Wilson, narrated in large part by Charis Wilson at age 90. A couple who have been great patrons of my work for the last couple years gave me a copy recently because they're aware of my love for Weston's work. The documentary encompasses many themes, but among them is the fact that Wilson was one of Weston's truly outstanding, inspirational models. She understood his motivation, inspired him, and helped him grow as an artist. One might argue that his work with other well-known models (such as Tina Modotti and Sonya Noskowiak) were also inspired, but that doesn't minimize the importance of Wilson's influence in his work. It just shows that he was fortunate enough to work with several outstanding models. One of my favorite modern photographers, ReneƩ Jacobs, interviewed Charis Wilson a few years after Eloquent Nude was produced ( - well worth the time to read for any photographer or model). It illustrated even more clearly why Wilson was an outstanding model for Weston. Even though Charis was unable to envision the photographs Weston was creating (she said "I was a hopeless dud at doing it"), she understood his motivation to such a degree that she scouted locations for him while he slept in the car. One passage that stands out for me every time I re-read that interview is this quote from Wilson about Weston's process:
"It was a very, very interesting experience. You have a feeling that someone... a feeling that you are really being seen for the first time. That more of you is being seen. That you somehow have a stronger - more real - existence somewhere. Something takes place between a man and his camera. It’s very hard to describe the sensation you feel."
That's the perfect mirror image description of what a photographer sees when working with one of those rare, outstanding models. What she didn't say, and perhaps didn't know even after all her time working with Weston, is that it's is a two-way street. Many models simply don't allow - perhaps aren't capable of allowing - a photographer to see them that way, and those who do are a far more valuable assett to the photographer than they likely realize. Back to the present ... Most models I work with do an OK job. They're cooperative and make good objects to photograph. A few models I work with are really good. They're collaborative artists who grasp creative ideas, and help bring a vision to fruition. A small handful of models I work with are outstanding. They inspire me, challenge me, excite me, and cause me to grow artistically. They make a difference in the quality and direction of my work, and working with them makes a difference in my quality of life. I normally enjoy working with new models. It's a fun process, and they're always an interesting new photographic experience. They're likely to be just OK, but there's a slim chance they'll be good, and an even smaller chance they'll be outstanding. Statistically, though, they're a long shot. Sometimes I can predict when a new model will be good, but that moment when I realize I have an outstanding model in front of my camera is always a magical surprise. I've been fortunate to work with three truly outstanding models. The first time I work with them is a wonderful experience. If I'm fortunate enough to work with them a second, third, fourth, fifth time ... that's when I feel truly enabled as an artist, when I really feel I'm able to express my vision. Today I had the rare experience of having to make a choice between the chance to work with one of those truly outstanding models again, and the potential to work with a new model. I wasn't surprised at which way I went, but I was really surprised at how easy of a choice it was. The prospect of possibly finding another outstanding model is alluring, but it pales when compared with the possibility of working again with a truly outstanding model I've already begun to develop a rapport with. I've always thought that I will need to constantly look for new models to keep my photography from becoming stale. That may be partially true, but today I realized that developing my full potential as a photographer will also mean making a deliberate effort to work multiple times with a few outstanding models. That will require working through some fears. One of my greatest fears is a stale session that turns out nothing different than I've already done with that model. That's probably inevitable, but it's something I dread and it's one reason I've not worked multiple times with very many models. Running out of inspiration and letting down a model who had trusted me that far would be a nightmare. I suppose the next level beyond an outstanding model would be one who could go through that and stick with me for another session to work past it, but that might be asking an awful lot from anyone. I guess that's a bridge I'll have to cross when I get there. What does that all mean in the grand scheme of things? I guess it means I'll work harder to develop a longer term working relationship with those few outstanding models. And it means I learned something about myself today, which is always a good thing.


  1. It seems like we're growing into ourselves everyday. Like with me, loving my body for what it is seems to drive men nuts....and i'm not a skinny minnie either!
    I guess when it comes to models (i haven't modeled yet, love to but money is SOOO tight at the moment) and I don't know how to become a tester model for low cost or free...oops i'm wondering again! Okay I guess when it comes to models is it those who are comfortable in their skin and know how to project themselves correctly the ones who end up being outstanding for you?

  2. Krystal,
    "comfortable in their own skin and know how to project themselves correctly" is a better description of a good model. I would describe an outstanding model as one who allows me to see them in new and different ways, with no guards or preconceived filters. That doesn't mean they don't have any boundaries or inhibitions or insecurities. It just means they trust my creativity enough to let those shields be flexible. I don't know if that makes sense or not, but I don't know any other way to describe it.


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