Saturday, May 2, 2009

What do you look for in a nude model?

I'm often asked what I look for in a nude model. I usually give a brief, vague answer because a full discussion of it would be too complicated for a casual conversation. However I was asked again recently and I thought this might be an opportunity to give a more thorough answer. It's actually more useful to break the question down into three questions: 1. What do I look for in a potential model? What makes me want to photograph someone? What might lead me to ask them to consider modeling for me? When I post general "contact me if you're interested" material on various web sites, I always point out that "the primary requirement to qualify is that something about you must appeal to the artist in me." Frankly, that is the full and honest answer to this first question. The problem is that most people seem to assume that saying "if you appeal to the artist in me" is the same as saying "if you're pretty." Looks certainly play a part in whether or not someone moves me, but demeanor, carriage, gracefulness, mannerisms and facial expressions, the tone of their interactions with other people, and their emotional openness and apparent passion and enthusiasm for life, and their attitudes about art are also essential factors. Those things have inspired me to ask a wide variety of people to model for me, including men, overweight women, a 68 year old woman, and a transvestite. Pretty girls make me look, but it takes an interesting human to make me want to pick up my camera. The caveat to that is that just because someone appeals to the artist in me doesn't mean I will always ask them to consider modeling for me. I've learned that many people take offense or assume ulterior motives when I ask, so I am selective. Sometimes their general demeanor will make the difference. Sometimes I may just be feeling bold (or not). One big consideration is the nature of my existing relationship with someone. For example, my favorite barrista is intriguing from many perspectives and I would love to photograph her, but I see her regularly for my morning coffee and I'm hesitant to ask her to consider modeling for fear that she would take offense and it would cast a cloud over one of the most pleasant parts of my daily routine. She appeals greatly to my inner artist, but I have not asked her to consider modeling for me, and I very likely will not. 2. What do I look for when evaluating a potential model? What makes me decide to schedule a first session with a model? I meet with and interview most of the models I work with before scheduling a session with them. The meeting does not constitute a commitment to work together. I have met with people then declined working with them, and I have also met with people who decided for their own reasons that they didn't want to work with me. It's a two-way interview and, while it always feels crappy to say no, and it always feels crappy if they say no, sometimes no is the right answer. If we don't feel we can produce good imagery together and both feel good about it when we're done, there's no point in wasting each others' time. I follow a loose recipe for meeting with potential models. I give a little introduction to me and my artistic motivations. We discuss the model's motivation, any prior modeling experience, their body image, and their confidence and reservations. We look at some imagery and discuss what appeals to each of us, discuss some ideas I might be interested in shooting with the model, and identify any styles or themes in my work that particularly appeal to the model or that the model might have reservations about. We cover paperwork and administrative issues. We discuss how I work with models on set and what to expect during a session, and I make sure the model gets plenty of encouragement and opportunity to ask any questions they have. At that point, I will have decided whether or not I want to work with this model (except for one criterion, skin quality) and I will ask them to make a conscious decision whether they want to work with me. If we are both confident that we'd like to work together, then I ask the model to briefly undress and pose so I can evaluate their skin quality, figure, lines and proportions, and see any tattoos, piercings, birthmarks, scars, etc. that need to be taken into consideration. So, what do I look for during this process?
  1. Skin quality - everywhere: face, back, shoulders, butt, legs, chest, stomach, .... Seeing their figure, lines, proportions, tattoos, piercings, etc. is definitely useful for planning, but the biggest reason for asking them to undress is to see their skin quality. Good lighting and post processing can clean up a lot of skin issues, but the poorer the skin quality, the more I have to balance lighting to compensate for it against lighting for artistic effect, and the more work I have to put into post processing to get a finished image.
  2. Enthusiasm. Some nervousness is normal for a first-time nude model, but if they're not excited about art and participating in a creative process then I am very concerned about their ability to follow through and participate in an artistic collaboration.
  3. Attitude. A pleasant, cooperative attitude that I'll enjoy working with is most desirable, but I can also work fine with someone who just has a professional demeanor and a good work ethic, even if we don't really click. I can not work with divas who can't be pleased, who have 52-item laundry lists of things about my studio or working style that have to be changed to just their specifications, or who don't seem capable of common courtesy.
  4. Some appreciation for my work and ideas. I don't mind adding in some work styled to suit the model's tastes, but if my style doesn't appeal to them at all, they probably won't be happy with the results of a session with me. Even if they'd make a wonderful model in general, I'm probably not the right photographer for them to work with.
  5. Inhibitions. Do they seem overly inhibited, shy, or embarassed? I have met with models who were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of nude photography but, for what ever reason, felt they had to follow through or didn't want to say no. If I get this sense, I always question them directly about it. If they're deliberately working through shyness or inhibition that they're aware of I may still work with them, but I won't shoot with someone who I feel is likely to regret the experience.
3. What do I look for when working with a model? What makes a model a good model? What makes me want to shoot with a model multiple times? I have produced some great images with models who didn't meet all these criteria, but these are the things that make me confident that a model can pull off multiple sessions that all create several outstanding images. I don't consciously evaluate these traits while shooting, but if they've got them it's obvious by the time we're finished with a first session.
  1. Body awareness. Getting a pose just right always takes a little back and forth adjustment. If I say "move your right foot a little to the left so it's in front of your crotch" many models will put their right foot in front of their left knee instead. However some models will have no clue that's what happened and will make no effort to correct it because they have very little body awareness.
  2. A sense of gracefulness. Everyone has a few clumsy moments but if every pose looks like a confused contortionist fighting paralysis and I have to talk them into a more relaxed, graceful poise a dozen times in an hour, artistic nudes probably aren't their forte.
  3. An understanding that sensuality and aesthetic beauty are complementary, not competing traits. Models who can't let go of the "come hither and take me" look at all, and models who can't tolerate expressing any sensuality or eroticism at all are both frustrating for me to work with. A successful image generally has a balance of sensuality and aesthetic appeal, and a model has to be able to express both and give me the ability to adjust that balance from the camera's point of view.
  4. Confidence. Everyone has some insecurities about their body, but a model who spends two minutes checking every pose against their list of insecurities before they'll let me shoot is not a productive creative partner.
  5. Trust. A model can't see from the camera's point of view, and that can be intimidating (incidentally, a photographer who's never modeled should experience the other side of the lens a few times just so they'll fully understand that). Broad limits are fine, but if I feel a model has a tight box that I have to be careful to stay within, we generally make stifled imagery. If I feel I have a model's trust and permission to follow the creative flow, we always make better imagery.
  6. Ability to communicate their boundaries without embarrassment and without animosity. My rule of thumb for every shoot is that I'll ask for what I want to shoot and I will take no for an answer. Someone who can't bring themselves to say "no" should not work with me. Someone who gets pissy (instead of just saying no and moving on) if I ask for something they aren't comfortable with is not a good candidate for me to work with.
  7. Enthusiasm about art and creating imagery. There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting compensation for your time, but I've worked with a few models were only in it for the money and didn't give a rip about the imagery. It was a very disappointing experience.
So, there you go. That's what I look for in a model. As long as you understand that nothing is absolute and I never say never, it should be as clear as mud. :)

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if you've ever shot this before but I'd LOVE to see some photo's of a woman who is pregnant.


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