July 01, 2005
  Model Citizens

(Oakland, 2005. Image copyright Hamish Reid).

People ask me where I get my models from -- and how do I ask people to let me take their photos? The silly little secret is that I don't usually ask them, they ask me (I'm really a little shy) -- and I don't have "models", just people I like to photograph. I dislike the idea of models -- the term's so loaded and freighted with associations of fake glamour, (over-)acting, sleazy soft-porn group shoots, clueless art directors, drugged-out bulimic prima donnas, etc., that I rarely use the term.

And "model" evokes a sort of passivity in the subject that I don't work well with. If you want me to do some images of you (realistic or manipulated, whatever), you'd better have at least some idea what it is (emotionally, physically, whatever...) about you that you want me to emphasise, and how you'll dress (or not), how you'll move (I always make people move while they're being photgraphed, even though they're still shots...), what props you'll bring, where we'll take the photos (my studio, or outside somewhere in a place you or I like) etc., to get that. Or you'll have to trust me to do it for you, which might bring out a side of you that you didn't want shown (which has happened, several times). I may ignore all that you said anyway (or change things on the fly, which is what often happens), but if you don't have any of that I have to work a lot harder to discover that for myself if I don't already know you. Which is usually an interesting exercise (and I usually enjoy it a lot), but not everyone's got the time. The message, I guess, is that for the non-commercial stuff I don't really like working with "models", I (usually) prefer collaborators, but collaborators who aren't afraid to try something odd or goofy or dumb that I might suggest. Or to suggest their own odd / goofy / dumb ideas (and not get offended if I say "no!").

I'm always a little apprehensive if someone I don't know well (or who hasn't seen much of the stuff I do) asks me to take their portrait or do some PR photography -- i.e. on the commercial / business side of my photography. Another grubby little secret: I tend to make people look interesting, rather than good or beautiful. The results don't always please everyone, especially in the commercial world -- a lot of people would rather look good (in a banal sort of way: think "handsome" or "pretty") than "interesting", which has all sorts of negative connotations for many -- and I try to warn them ahead of time that they won't necessarily look "good". Interesting people have flaws -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- (these flaws tend to be what makes them interesting) and some of these are going to show in any good warts-and-all portrait or collaboration.

But they might still end up looking glamourous, at least as I define it. The best sort of glamour comes from a certain way of catching the eye and helping it caress the surfaces, of taking it beneath those surfaces, of making it all look effortless, of giving a body or face (whatever) a visual allure that sucks you in or makes you want to touch or know the subject -- and you don't get that merely by looking pretty or handsome (but you knew that). It's all about the erotics of surface -- without usually having anything to do with sex or skin or body parts. Surfaces are all you've got in photography. Everything about the final effect relates to those surfaces in some way or other.

So I'm always looking for interesting people to photograph, rather than beautiful (or whatever) people. It's a problem here -- people (especially women) who've been told all their lives that they're "interesting"-looking rather than beautiful or pretty, or who don't measure up to those insidious social ideals (they may have small breasts, or big noses, or oddly-angled bones, lots of freckles, whatever -- all the sorts of things I like...) tend to be self-conscious at best, cripplingly insecure about their looks at worst. It's very difficult to get these people -- who're often the best sort of starting point for some seriously interesting and even beautiful images -- to think of a photo shoot as anything but torture (but they often like the results). And experienced models (real models) tend to know what the commercial camera wants -- which can be death for the non-commercial sort of things I often have in mind (or I hope they'll have in mind).

So people can be disappointed with what I do. One of my all-time fave subjects has never been easy about photographing that beautiful body of hers (it's definitely not conventionally perfect, which is why it's so good, and why she'll never be a "model"...), and really disliked a lot of the results and the whole process of collaboration with me (which certainly gave things a creative edge). So some of the best images I have of her are ones she'll never let me show, where her guard's down and the resulting effect is gorgeous, revealing, strong. But she doesn't see it that way...

* * *

So I think what I'm saying (at great length) is that I'm not a wedding photographer or mall portrait snapper (but you knew that). But I do do weddings, Bah Mitzvahs, etc., when asked -- as long as the person asking knows what I do (and they pay me :-)). And the results have been pretty damn good, if you ask me (and will be a subject for a future article here, but here's a quick candid from one I did a year or so ago..). But you'd have to ask them what they think...

Oh, and the image up there? An accidental manipulation of a shot I did with L, cropped as close as it would take, with pleasing results (it looks great at 16x20 on my studio wall -- dark and mysterious). And I just love L's unusually blank look... (and she's not one of those people who hates the way she looks).
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Hamish Reid is a photographer, designer, and software engineer living and working in the Jingletown district of Oakland, California. This is his full profile.

You can get hold of Hamish at xyzphotolalia at ylayalixyz dot com without the xyx's.

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