I’ve been very lucky to have had the chance to work with some extremely talented models in the past, but truly gifted models few and far between. For every great model I’ve worked with, there’s been many that haven’t even gotten past the initial interview. Having a pretty face or a good body doesn’t make you a model any more than having the latest gear makes you a photographer. Cheap and accessible digital cameras have spawned a whole new wave of both “photographers” and “models” over the last few years, and while everyone has to start somewhere, leaving the starting line is something only few manage. Here’s some of the things I look for when choosing a model for a shoot (Warning: slightly NSFW images after the break).
First off… I’m not a bikini-Motorsport-car-show-calendar photographer… there’s plenty of genres of photography where all your model has to do is look good in a two-piece and know a couple of basic poses, but when it comes to fine-art and fashion, just being a pretty face isn’t nearly enough (or even required) to qualify one as a model.
Meet Trisha, the model I worked with at the latest Howard Smith Paper Mill shoot; while she definitely has the pretty face part covered in spades, it was the least important among the attributes that made her one of the best models I’ve ever worked with. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at her face for a second. What I really look for is a look that stands apart from the crowd, one that will make my photos stand apart from the millions of others out there. There’s plenty of beautiful faces out there, but only a small percentage are memorable. Forgettable, pretty faces are fine for genres where the face is the last thing people are looking at, but for fashion and fine-art, a face that sticks with the viewer can make the difference between a nice but forgettable image and one that will remain with a viewer for life. I’ll never forget Tilda Swinton on the cover of AnOther Magazine, Twiggy’s iconic portrait by Barry Lategan or Avedon’s shoot with Audrey Hepburn; these are women who’s look will always stand out from masses and be remembered for decades. What first struck me about Trisha was the sharp lines and plains of her features. Her strong chin and jaw line and her high cheek bones combined with large pale eyes can give her an almost predatory look in some light but can look soft and vulnerable in another. You can do so much with more with good strong facial characteristics under different lighting setups than you can with soft features.
Like I said, however, Trisha had way more going for her than just a pretty face. The absolute most important talent a model can bring to a shoot is simply being comfortable, confidant and expressive with her body in front of a camera. You would think this is a given for someone who’s trying to make a career out of being photographed, but it’s much rarer than expected. Too many models have preconceived notions or hang ups about what types of light they look good under, what poses are flattering and which aren’t, which side is her “good” side and a million other mental barriers that keep them from being free, creative and expressive. Don’t get me wrong, I understand it… we’re all pressured to look our best at all times; ugly is inadequacy, fat is failure and the modeling industry a jungle that eats the weak and the lame. But a small repertoire of memorized poses and looks practiced in the bathroom mirror often don’t work as well under weird lighting or with different outfits, costumes, hair or makeup… and they’re rarely the best in every situation. Memorization is the enemy of innovation, and there’s nothing so beautiful as something new. Shoot the same pose as everyone else and your photos will fade into the background of a million similar images.
A good model has to trust the photographers eye, skill and creativity, doing their best to work with the photographer to create an image instead of fighting against it. Trisha was stunning in this respect; five shots into the shoot she had completely transformed herself, bringing the concept to life and running with it in ways I hadn’t even imagined. Most telling about Trisha’s versatility was the next day when I compared shots with my fellow photographer Julie, who’d shot her earlier that same day at the Mill. If you covered her face you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the same model that posed for both shoots, Trisha gave Julie a completely different set of poses, mood and character just a few hours earlier. It’s this type of creativity, innovation and inhibition that truly makes a model great.
Of course the flip side of expecting a model to break out of their comfort zone (or not have one in the first place) is that we as photographers have to make sure we’re always showing only the best our models can do… trust is a two way street, and while it can be tempting to use images we like, but the model doesn’t think is flattering, it will almost guarantee that model (and any of her model friends she talks to) will be even more hesitant to break out of their comfort zone the next time, if there even is a next time. Sometimes you’re lucky, and you click with a model right away, but other times you have to work together a while before you’re both comfortable with the limits and expectations of the other, but developing a good relationship with an inspiring and creative model will really pay off in the long run.
You can see more of Trisha at the Mill on my Flickr.