Thursday, December 1, 2011

Visions, Nudity, and Comfort Zones

From my buddy Maximilian on Facebook,

"I wanted to ask you "how do you go about asking models to break out of their comfort zone and give you emotion/beautiful art" I wanna push the models I work with to give me more emotion then hands on the hip peace sign pictures."

I have so many sentiments on this subject it's not even funny. But first let met get in my rant of the day.

As a male photographer, I feel that we're pretty much all the same. Yes, you, me and every other guy that enjoys seeing a model without her clothes on. Yeah, I said it. It's a universal truth and we can deny it all we want but unless you're gay, as a straight-male photographer you can not deny your appreciation of a naked female model. Hell, even the gay photographers appreciate a naked female model. So pretty much if the photographer is a dude, then he wants to see the model naked.

The issue is "portrayal" and I'll go full-circle to this issue throughout the post. It's why I'm extremely curious as to how female photographers portray female models and how gay photographers portray female models. They have such different perspectives. It's not about the nudity. It's not about T and A. It's about something completely different and that interests me. From my perspective pretty much every straight-male photographer I know sexualizes (in one way or another) the model as a subject. In my personal style, I try to balance sexualizing the model by juxtaposing their strength and vulnerability in the same image. But still, I myself know there's a fair amount of "sexualization" going on in my images.

And yes, you can easily get hung up on the nudity part of the equation. But once you get over the nudity then you can really disseminate the "portrayal" and the vision of the photographer and hopefully create "art". As I mentioned above, my images are about juxtaposition of strength and vulnerability. Each is its own merit but together they create a greater whole. Personally, shooting vulnerability for vulnerability's sake is boring because I hate ineptitude. Equally boring is portraying strength in strong women because that's been done to death by every career-driven woman in this day and age. The nuances of the balance between the two are much more interesting than each alone.

So what's my secret? It's not a secret but an entire recipe. It's harks back to the previous post about having multiple ingredients, a good game plan and then hoping lighting strikes. If you search "lightning" and "magic" and "luck" you'll find multiple blog entries that would have you thinking I'm straight out of Hogwart's with this madness. But it's never just one thing. (I think the search function is broken in this template though...)

Firstly, I start with models that aren't afraid of being naked. You know how I know this? I ask them beforehand. And they either oblige or they don't. I don't force anyone to shoot nudes, but it's a barrier to entry with me. Why? Because to me being comfortability in the buff usually translates well into a model's ability to express herself and hopefully translates into an ability to push the proverbial envelope. What I'm looking for is to explore the elements of art and hopefully make artistic breakthroughs of my own. This is a lot easier with a model who is willing to walk that path with me into unfamiliar territory. To put it bluntly, if you start with a better model, you won't have to worry about pushing the models.

Now, about comfort zones. It's not a bad thing and it's not a good thing either. It's simply a reference point.

What is a comfort zone? It's the point at which the model is going to give you her 10-20 poses, rinsed and repeated over and over again.

Which is why I like to keep my models just slightly "off-kilter" when I shoot. It's based upon being almost comfortable but definitely out of their comfort zone. So I guide them along throughout a set and I'm asking them to "turn, express, evoke more emotion, give me intensity, strength, softness, strut, mind the light, etc." all at the same time. In fact, I verbally deliver all those things in the previous things in the quotation marks. Incessantly.

And that's exactly the point, because if I'm constantly barking out new commands, a model is never able to quite fall into her own rhythm and get into her "comfort zone"... which means I won't see those 10-20 poses over and over again but rather, new looks, new angles, new positions. On the other hand, you can't push her so hard that she feels totally out of whack and totally awkward.

And a lot of what I do isn't even in the words, it's in the motions that I make with my own head, hands, and body when I want them to move a certain way. They'll naturally mirror me so there's a lot of "unsaid communication" happening in real-time outside of the verbal commands. Which means you have to be a good model yourself. I think I have an interview of myself saying this...

And if you surveyed the models, you wouldn't hear that our shoot felt clumsy. You wouldn't hear that they felt like we were shooting an awkward rhythm. You wouldn't hear that it wasn't graceful.

Because it should still be elegant, graceful, and in unison. Going back to the dance analogy, it's simply a new "dance step" that the model hasn't done before. It's a fast tempo and very close-quarters and simultaneously requires great familiarity and precognition (of what's about to happen)... and yet it's still an improvisational dance.

Of course you're probably asking "What if that's the first time that you're shooting with them?"

The same thing applies.

Of course there are benefits of shooting with a model more than once. You know each other and you're more comfortable with each other. But IMHO, the era of the muse is dead... a muse being a model that you work with over and over and over again :) Furthermore, in being more comfortable, a model's "comfort zone" becomes harder to break out of in subsequent shoots. They aren't as on-edge and off-kilter with you as a photographer... they might relax and then they go back into giving you the same 10-20 poses over and over again. This makes is a lot harder to explore unfamiliar territory and get them to create new looks.

And I blame myself too! Let's be fair! It's easy to point the finger and ask how many new poses a model learns between your first shoot and the second shoot with her... but it's a lot harder to ask yourself how much better you have gotten as a photographer! Have you grown so much as an artist since the first shoot? If not, what makes you think that you're going to get anything that you haven't already seen before?

And "what I haven't seen before" is exactly what I'm trying to get out of every model. I don't want anything I've seen before, especially not in her portfolio. I am trying to create something unique, something that makes both of us say, "Whoa..." Of course the more you shoot, the harder that is to come by, which makes it that much more important for me to push myself to try new things. Things that make me uncomfortable and put myself off-kilter so I can explore facets of my own visions that I haven't seen before.

Going back to off-kilter. It's exactly why I don't shoot a regular rhythmic pace. A long time ago, I used to encourage that photographers shoot predictably, like a metronome. That way, you and your model can time the poses and work on capturing those looks together.

But that's the problem with rhythm. It's predictable. And rhythm is monotonous and predictable so you won't get "art".

Because art is not predictable. And emotion is not predictable. So "predictability" loses its place in the equation to it's evil twin "unpredictability". Not to say predictability isn't part of the equation at all, but the elements that are predictable are not the ones that are going to help you capture "life".

Anyway, that's my long-winded response to Maximilian's question for now!


  1. Your blog posts never cease to amaze me. This is incredibly helpful!

  2. Nothing more than Thank you!

  3. Great blog ! Sometimes it works on a shoot like fractals from mathematics. A fractal being some small element in an equation for plotting graphics for instance.If you change the fractal a whole new pattern starts to unfold. So looking for the fractal to be changed during a shoot is challenging. This can be related to technical elements during a shoot but can easily be something of a total different kind.

  4. informative as always. you never run out of resources, Charles. i may have some views in the similar aspect of this field but this defined and assured my approach is going to its natural course to being right. well done, Charles, well done.