(This is the first of what I hope will be many conversations with photographers about their photography. I’ve always wanted to do this, and I hope this is going to become a regular feature here. My thanks to Jay Parkinson for agreeing to be the first person to be interviewed for this blog.)
When I saw Jay Parkinson’s shots of aspiring models for the first time, I got quite interested in them. To start with, it is quite an interesting project to do since - at least from what I know - there is quite a bit more to the modeling world than those famous fashion models on cat walks. I have no idea how you become a model. Do you make a decision? And how do you decide to become a specialized model, say for hands or bondage or whatever else there is?
But the project is also interesting from the purely photographic perspective. Doing photographic portraits is very tough - if you don’t believe it try it; and I somehow thought that shooting portraits of people who want to earn money from getting their portrait taken but who have not much actual experience adds another complication to the whole project, since both the photographer and the model have to worry about the photo.
I talked with Jay about these and other aspects of his work.
Jay Parkinson: Most people associate the meaning of the word “model” with the celebrity supermodels or just the idea of what a model should look like — tall, skinny, beautiful facial structure, etc.. But as you can see, in our culture models are needed in many realms ranging from the supermodel to the artistic nude to the foot fetish or bondage model. There are people out there trying to break into the professional bondage model scene and I definitely met a few of them. There are also some hoping to be the next Kate Moss and I met a few of those too. But most of these models are dreamers in a world of unending possibilities but sometimes limited by their appearance or just a lack of that lucky opportunity. One thing that I think makes all of these photographs interesting is that these models all have the confidence to get in front of a camera and give it their best and, on top of all that, let me into their homes so I can capture them in what should be their most comfortable place in the world. But often, this translated into a very vulnerable appearance. I specifically contacted only models that had done only one or two shoots, and sometimes no prior shoots. I wanted to capture them in the very beginning of their efforts to realize their dreams. Every aspiring model also has some sort of notion of how a professional model should pose in front of the camera, but actually getting your body to do that does not translate well on the first or second shoot. Professional models are professional models for a reason — they’ve had the experience to simply know what to do and how to pose. I provided very minimal to sometimes no direction for poses in these shoots. I wanted the poses undeveloped and immature to document a sort of tension between their dreams and reality.
Joerg Colberg: This immediately brings up a whole set of questions. First, how did you actually find all these people? Did you post ads?
JP: In my early research for this project I stumbled across a few model websites where models post their “portfolios” and try to either get professional, paying modeling gigs or simply find a photographer to take photos of them so they can have photos in their portfolio other than the pervasive, self-taken web-cam or party photos. The sites range from pay sites where both photographers and models pay to post their portfolios to ad-driven, free sites. The models also range from full-time professionals to total beginners. I became naturally attracted to one free site (not because I couldn’t afford the $9.95 a month for the pay sites) because it had the most amount of models who had the least experience. The site also just seemed to me more earnest and had an almost “working class” feel to it. The feel of this site actually resonated with my impression of Baltimore considering I recently moved here from NYC. I had no experience working with models prior to this project so I felt like I was in a similar situation as them. I had to post my “portfolio” on the site which consisted mainly of photos of my wife and friends that I had taken in the past year or so that looked somewhat like model shots. I would email the models I found on this site by doing a search using a Baltimore zip code and tell them I was doing a portrait project of aspiring Baltimore models and the shoot would take place in their own home. It was quite difficult recruiting models to participate in the project. I discovered later that a significant amount of offers these models received from other photographers on this site was for porn or bondage shoots. So putting my project and sales pitch to them into this perspective made most quite uneasy about having a strange man come into their home to take photos of them.
There were also some high-profile murders in Baltimore around the time I was doing this project that involved men who women met on the internet. I found it interesting that the models would often initiate a discussion about these cases during our shoot. But I sort of understood this as the extent to which these models would sacrifice their own safety to pursue their dreams of becoming a model. I also found it interesting how many of the models were home alone during the shoot. Models would often set up a shoot during the day when their parents were working hoping their parents wouldn’t come home to find a strange man taking photos of their lovely young daughters in their underwear in the bedroom. Many said their father would not approve. But as the project came along, it got easier to recruit because I worked with more and more models and this provided some sort of justification to the models with whom I was trying to work.
JC: I find this interesting that many of those aspiring models are pursuing their dream secretly. Given this kind of secrecy did any of the models appear to be worried about his/her parents seeing the photo once your project is done?
JP: I don’t know if I could say that they were pursuing their dreams in secrecy. I think they were trying to hide from their parents that a photographer was coming to their home to take photographs. I dealt with parents or boyfriends who were very suspicious of my intention on a significantly regular basis. One girl I worked with sent an email to me saying her fiance thought that the shoot was “going to turn into some kind of nudie, porno shoot” and apologized “if he
seems a little put off when you get here.” But there were a few models who were interested in working with me but could not shoot with me because they lived with their parents who would not approve of their modeling. There were often boyfriends peering over my shoulder as I shot. But at the same time, I met some amazing husbands and boyfriends as well. I spent five hours in the bedroom of one model during a shoot while her husband took care of their two children downstairs. He never checked in on us and he was very friendly to me. My most memorable situation involved the shoot with the one male I was able to recruit. I was a bit nervous about going to a man’s house alone for a shoot but felt I needed to place myself in a similar situation as the women I shot. I’m sure they felt quite vulnerable having a man enter their home while they were alone. The man’s portfolio consisted mostly of his nude work and he was quite well-built. I knocked on his door and his mother answered immediately putting me at ease. Da’Shawn was walking around in his room totally naked fresh out of the shower with the door open and his mom was talking to him. She returned and made small talk with me:
“My boy, he loves the camera…and the camera loves him. He looks good in a suit. He looks good naked. And I told him a long time ago…you gotta do what you gotta do…when the photographer tells you to take it all off, you take it all off!”
Maybe that answered your question about him being worried his parents would see the photo?
JC: Yes, that certainly did! To get a bit closer to photography, I’ve always thought (and found from my own somewhat limited experience) that shooting portraits is maybe the most difficult photographic endeavour, because you somehow have to get to the kind of photo that you want to get. I can imagine that giving aspiring models no direction what to do might create quite a bit of awkwardness, maybe on both sides. What was your experience with this?
JP: I would definitely agree that shooting portraits is the hardest photographic endeavor. I’ve tried to shoot other subject matter but just found that I think my talent lies in photographing people. I’ve always enjoyed working with people and I think my demeanor tends to put people at ease. But from the beginning of this project, I wanted to sort of set that aside and see what it would be like taking portraits without providing much instruction and talking to the subjects as little as possible. I have a friend here in Baltimore who is also a photographer who was telling me this story about how he met one of the girls I photographed for this series. He asked her how I did it, how I got that “look” in the models in my photos and she said “I don’t know….he didn’t tell me to do anything!” I think many of the portraits are definitely awkward appearing and I think this stems from my lack of instruction and their difficulty in translating a natural modeling pose. I think it also has something to do with their uncomfortable feelings of having a strange lone man come into their home, go through their wardrobe, pick out something intimate for them to wear, and then tell them to sit on their bed or stand in their kitchen. This project also exposed my own deficiencies because a successful pose is part photographer and part model. Since I had no experience working with models, this also meant I had no experience posing models. The awkwardness of the poses is really a combination of an inexperienced model and an inexperienced model photographer. But, it really perked my interest and forced me to academically study poses as the project progressed and I think I am a much better model photographer now that the project is complete.
JC: I’m wondering how many of the models had second thoughts about you given your unwillingness to direct. From what little I know about photo shoots of models there usually is quite a bit of - often quite corny - directing going on. Did that come up? Did anybody say anything?
JP: Prior to this project, I’d honestly never done an actual photo shoot of a model nor had I ever seen one done in real life. So I was just as naive about a photo shoot as many of the models. I asked many of the models toward the end of the project about other shoots (if they had done one) and they universally said that this one was very different from other shoots in terms of the lack of direction. I think some were also a bit squeamish about the shoot because it was not the glamour type shots many of the models think are staples of a portfolio. I’m sure that a few felt “used” in a sense but many more expressed an interest in working with me again on a different project. I think that even aspiring models have a fairly good understanding that modeling is often not about being themselves. There is a lot of theatrical role playing and I think this is one of the draws of modeling. Models get to play dress up, put make up on they would never wear anywhere else, and act like the most beautiful person in the world. Maybe many of them just understood that this was a sort of role playing but the role they were playing was being themselves at home. Also, this was an opportunity for them to simply be in front of the camera. Obviously you have to like having your picture taken if you want to be a model so I think they had fun working with me for that simple reason. Also, since this was often their first shoot, they had very limited expectations and no opportunity (yet) to work with those photographers who would say “You’re a sexy lioness, show me sexy and growl like a lioness!”
JC: I think the photos of these aspiring models often have a certain innocence to them, which is probably not what the models would hope to achieve. I’m assuming you showed them the results - what were their reactions when they saw their portraits?
JP: The vast majority of them hated their portrait! But honestly, many of them are much better looking than they appear in my photos. I was able to work with some very beautiful people but I’ve never really been interested in beautiful people. Of course, they are nice to look at. But I’ve always been more physically attracted to people who are not universally regarded as attractive. I feel that it’s a photographic cop-out to take photos of strictly beautiful people because it’s hard to take a bad photo of a beautiful person, especially a very scripted portrait. So although the modeling industry for the most part thrives off beauty, I wanted to explore another angle of these models. I think the portraits do have an innocent or maybe a vulnerable look to them. I’ve always understood the modeling industry to be particularly ruthless. Appearance is everything in modeling and failure in the industry can be simply due to a relative lack of beauty. A model must have an enormous amount of self-confidence in their appearance to even attempt to make it professionally. But, 99.9% of people who attempt to make a living off modeling fail to become a commercial success and lead the lifestyle most people associate with a superstar model. With those types of odds, an aspiring model is quite vulnerable and very innocent (or maybe naive?) in their endeavor. I attempted to strip the twinkle in their dreamy eye from them in these portraits and photographically represent an accurate reality. But just to clarify, I have no doubt many of the models I worked with could be a huge success if given the opportunity.
I’ve heard one model say she looks “frumparrific” and like she has an extra twenty-first chromosome. But I think out of the twenty-five or so portraits I have for this project, maybe three or four models added my portrait to their portfolio. I definitely took no offense from this because I understand that these photos would doom many of them to modeling for the “before photos” in anti-depressants advertisements.
JC: It’s kind of interesting that so many didn’t like their photo - you’d imagine aspiring models would be more accepting of seeing photos of themselves. I’m wondering whether any of the models ever realized what you were really after and if so did he/she mind?
JP: There are a few photographers here in Baltimore who must have a special RSS feed for models who are new to these modeling websites. It seems like the second a new profile is up, they’ve convinced the model they need to come to the studio for a “Maxim-style, edgy” shoot in their thong complete with smoke, red and blue lights, and edgy screen metal sheets in the background. Of course they would charge $300 or so for the shoots and their livelihood depended upon it so I feel compelled to congratulate them on their successful business practice. These photographers were the ones that most often beat me to the aspiring models so inevitably I think my shoot was often compared to the dry iced, faux sexy, lioness-type shoot. Many models were convinced that they needed the “Maxim-style” glamour photographs for their portfolio and were probably disappointed with the relative lack of glamour in my photographs. And, like I mentioned before, the models I worked with are much more attractive than they appear in these photos so I really understand why they would not really like their portrait. I admit I was a bit ruthless with these photos. But I also worked with some models who fully understood the project and were excited to be a part of it. Most of the time, they were artists themselves and saw what I was doing with my project. These were often the girls who added my portrait to their portfolio.
JC: In general, I do like your portraits very much. What is your approach to shooting portraits? How much do you direct people?
JP: I tend not to direct people much, if any, for portraits. But I think I tend to choose the portraits to publish that may look as if they were a bit directed by me. I believe my portraits have an interesting mix of spontaneity and structure in them. Often times, this stems from my use of color and symmetry in the background but the person may have an odd expression or look distracted. For this series of aspiring models, although I provided little instruction regarding pose, I was in control of absolutely everything else. I chose the wardrobe and the location in the home and I obviously controlled the framing and composition deciding what to include and not include in the portrait.
JC: Some famous photographers, for example Richard Avedon, were known for coaxing their models in the direction they - as photographers - wanted. Needless to say, this raises the question what a photographic portrait should show: Does one want to see the photographer in the photo, or does one want to get as close to the person as possible?
JP: I think both situations are true when considering the context of the portrait. This series for me was quite conceptual and I had strict guidelines for who I wanted to include in the series and how I wanted the series to look. I chose the area of the house to shoot, but of course, had to work within the confines of their color scheme and basic arrangement. I had very little interest in models who were established or who had that “Maxim” or “FHM” look. I attempted to recruit more men into the series but received only one response from about twenty or thirty contacts. Basically what I am saying is that I had a lot of control over this series and I had a vision of what I wanted the series as a whole to look like. And from this perspective, I think the series of portraits reflects more upon me than the individual models. But I think the individual portraits of the models reflects more upon them. For instance, consider the nude model holding the rat sitting on the couch (who was a veterinarian technician and aspiring bondage and art school figure model who had a stripper pole recently installed in her living room). I believe that portrait could be a very accurate photograph taken by an invisible photographer when Faith is home alone walking around her house in the nude as she regularly does. I could see her sitting on her couch with her pet rat deep in thought about the concept of her next bondage shoot. I tremendously enjoyed working with her on the series because she was just such a lovely, happy person. Since my impression of her demeanor was primarily one of mature happiness, must I feel compelled to take a portrait that reflects this aspect of her personality? Humans are complex and nearly every healthy person shows the entire gamut of emotion at some point in their lives. I, therefore, believe this gives photographers the freedom to capture anything in a portrait and accurately portray that person no matter
the expression or mood of the portrait.
JC: Given the human complexity that you mention, one might wonder which aspect a photographer would want to capture - or maybe the ball is really in the field of the viewer, who too often (or always?) is tempted to think that the photographic portrait shows a person “the way he/she is” - since it is not all that easy to tell whether a photo is coaxed or staged. Maybe this an essential part of why it is so hard to shoot good portraits? Or is this a silly question, since I’m making things too complicated?
JP: We all know that a photograph often lies even though it documents reality (at least when it is not manipulated in the post-processing of the image). The image that comes to mind for me regarding the photograph as liar is the Weegee photograph of the man who drowned at Coney Island with his girlfriend kneeling over him as the paramedics treat him. She looks up from looking at her lover’s body, sees Weegee with his camera and flashes a huge smile as her boyfriend lay dead or dying at her knees. The smile actually happened because that is the reaction most people have to a camera but obviously she wasn’t happy her lover died. Is it appropriate then to publish that photograph because it captured something that was obviously not a true reality? I like to think that this photograph was not staged, but maybe it was? Who cares? It is a powerful photograph that is burned in my mind because it’s just so odd and it speaks to one of the great cultural reflexes found in almost all humans — a desire to go down in history as being happy and having a good time in life no matter the situation. But, I, the viewer, look at this image and without ever knowing the photographer or the subjects in the photo to know what part of their personality is most pronounced, I’ve gotten a significant intellectual response from the photograph. That is what I think photography is all about. Film is better for showing personality, photography is meant for telling the truth or lying but ultimately leaving the interpretation of a thousandth of a second snippet in time in the hands of the viewer.