I wasn’t expecting the barely-there black thong.
The early December photography Meetup was called “Christmas Glamour Fabric Playtime” an opportunity to photograph a live model in a studio and possibly land some decent holiday images. The words “glamour” and “fabric” implied something resembling a fashion shoot. Best of all: the price was right.
I’d been in search of an opportunity to dip my inexperienced toes into the world of studio portrait photography. Being relatively new to digital photography, with absolutely no experience photographing a live model or dealing with studio lighting, it sounded perfect. The lighting would be set up by the organizer of the event, and I would be working with a model who was experienced enough to pose on her own without a lot of direction from me. Focusing and framing was enough to worry about. I paid the $59 on PayPal and reserved my spot.
I was excited about the location of the shoot as well. Photographers are typically a well-traveled lot, willing to cross long distances to explore new environments and bring something new to their portfolios. This shoot was being held close to my home, in the neighboring town. Even if I had to stop at every red light between my door and the studio, it might take me 10 minutes to get there. The Town of Pacheco is tiny and easy to miss if you blink. It doesn’t even have its own zip code. Its claim to fame is its taquerías, auto supply stores, and plentiful industrial real estate. Not exactly the fashion district of San Francisco, but with the right backdrop, lighting and a bit of creativity, any environment could be created in the space, even if the studio was in a concrete-slabbed warehouse with a corrugated metal roll-up door.
I was one of several photographers. We were each allotted 3-4 minutes to photograph the model with three separate “scenes.” The lighting set-ups and wardrobe were selected ahead of time, but the theme would be Christmas-y and at some point there would be fabric to “play” with. I figured there would be lots of red and green, perhaps an elf costume, and possibly tinsel.
In the fine print of the Meetup description, it was mentioned that one of the set-ups could be for nude modeling. At first I hiccuped. I was already dealing with a lot of “new” elements; would adding the component of nudity be too much for my newbie brain? I didn’t want to look like an idiot amongst experienced photographers. What did I know about taking pictures of nude bodies?
Nothing. But I knew what my own aesthetic was: an appreciation for the human form, its curves and lines, flowing and intersecting, resulting in something miraculous. This sensibility turned out to be enough. I reminded myself that nude photography had a long, prestigious history; that “nude” did not have to mean Playboy…or worse. I was interested in seeing what my own creative mind could bring to the already monumental body of work that would be both tasteful and artistic. I was reassured by the event organizer that I could “wrap the model in fabric” if I wasn’t comfortable with her being completely nude, but I wanted to at least make the effort.
The day of the shoot, I arrived early. Feeling like a novice, I wanted to have the time to familiarize myself with the terrain and the people involved. I didn’t want to miss anything, and I certainly didn’t want to be stressed out by arriving late.
As everyone gathered, we introduced ourselves, and each prepared our cameras for the first lighting set-up. It became obvious that the only female photographer in the group was yours truly. I’m no stranger to male-dominated careers (television production and law), so that wasn’t a source of discomfort for me. The guys all seemed like a friendly, gentlemanly bunch. We approached each other as fellow professionals in a relaxed pseudo-professional setting. None of us were there on the client’s dime, so there was no pressure to generate specific images in the time allotted; this was for our own technical and/or artistic growth.
In addition to being the only woman, I was clearly the least knowledgeable and the least experienced photographer there. The others were eager to help me feel at ease, answering my questions, making suggestions. There was instant camaraderie.
And then the model came out of the dressing room. From head to toe: beautiful. Flowing auburn hair, big grey-blue eyes, flawless facial skin, and an expressive face. Her top half was clothed in an innocuous long-sleeved, mock turtle-necked ivory sweater with pale flowers embroidered on its bodice.
However, the hem of the sweater was followed by: an almost irrelevant black thong covering a pubic area clearly familiar with the term “Brazilian wax”; red thigh-high stockings, trimmed at the top with a poof of white feathers and red ribbon; and 4-inch black suede stilettos. Seriously.
It was a confusing cast of characters. The top part of her was saying, “I’m sweet and innocent and I’ve come to have my high school portrait taken”; the bottom part was saying “Fuck me if you dare.” I stifled a laugh and surreptitiously perused the studio to gauge everyone else’s (in other words: every man’s) reaction. Like I said before: professional and gentlemanly. No lewd remarks or stares, but perhaps some last minute fidgeting with the equipment.
I found myself praying she was at least 18 years old. I’m no stranger to what make-up can achieve in masking one’s age. As a teenager, I often used eye-liner, rouge and lipstick to appear much older. So although her bio said she was 24, this was not altogether reassuring. She easily could have been 17. However, she seemed to be there under her own steam. No one was “managing” her, although I couldn’t imagine she had chosen that split personality outfit.
Nevertheless, the mom part of me felt instantly protective, wanted to cover her up, and make sure she was warm in that cold warehouse. The middle-aged woman part of me was jealous about her lack of cellulite and was imagining all the lower back issues she’s going to have if she keeps walking around in heels that high. The feminist part of me felt instantly outraged. Did these grown men have nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than take provocative pictures of a woman young enough to be their daughter? I knew why I was there (to learn something new about photography), but what was their excuse? Finally, the photographer part of me wanted to quiet the voices inside my head so I could get on with taking the shots.
I had a hard time bringing myself to frame a photograph that encompassed the entire mismatched costume. So I took several close-ups of her beautiful face. She was a natural in front of the camera, tilting her head this way and then that, offering a range of emotional expressions, looking into and away from the camera’s lens, eyes wide open, eyes closed. All this without a word of direction from me.
As I focused on her eyes, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed how she’d positioned her legs and feet. There was something about the body language, the slightly pigeon-toed high-heeled pumps that said “I’m a little girl who’s been dressed up in Mommy’s shoes, these stockings are too big for my feet, and I’d really rather be in a pair of flip-flops.” I took the shot. All innocence and insecurity. It turned out to be one of my favorite shots of the day.
At the very end of the shoot, when most of the participants were packing up their equipment, the organizer turned off the photo shoot lighting, and adorned the model in a string of Christmas lights. This wasn’t meant to be part of the official event, but having my camera still in hand, I managed to sneak in a few clicks of the shutter. The result was magical.
This first time in a studio with a live model was an amazing learning experience, not just about photography, but about myself. Once I moved past the jitters of not knowing what the hell I was doing, I got into a rhythm of pointing and shooting, of experimenting with different angles and distances, of choosing an air of playfulness, rather than stressing about doing the work “correctly,” of allowing my creative self to show up and take the less obvious shots. At the end of it all, I felt proud of what I’d accomplished.
I was so grateful to “Luna”, our model. She ended up making me – the photographer – look good, rather than the other way around.
I was grateful for the other photographers who showed up. Even though I was painfully aware of my gender in a group of men photographing a beautiful young woman, I also somehow managed to feel like one of the guys. Still, I left believing that in this male-dominated field, there is always room for a woman’s point of view. I’d even venture to say there’s a need for it.
What I realized is: it probably doesn’t matter how much I plan ahead for the shots I think I’m going to get; there are always going to be surprises. There will be the I-couldn’t-have-planned-this-shot-if-I’d-tried kind of surprise; the Photography Gods are sometimes generous. There will also be unexpected hurdles: nature won’t cooperate and the lighting will be all wrong; or I won’t have the right equipment with me; or if I do, it won’t function properly; or the model (who looks like she could be a minor) will be wearing a black thong.
I see how having preconceived notions as an artist can be both friend and foe. It can facilitate my preparation so I am properly equipped for the intended project, but it can also lock me into a vision that hinders the creative possibilities. Aiming for openness to whatever transpires feels like the wisest approach.
I will walk through my small world,
mindful shutter of a camera,
noting each beloved moment,
opening up to let in light,
so that truth might be recorded
and its beauty thus revealed.
Who was it who said, “art imitates life”? Or was it the other way around?