Monday, 30 August 2010

The stories images tell through title, captions and hashtags

 "A picture is worth a thousand words":  most good images tell a story,  one that is often left to the viewer to imagine. This is particularly so when the images are of people.  Sometimes a story is created by using the image in a particular context - curators of contemporary art and photographic galleries are adept at doing it and may assign a temporary meaning to a picture which resonates with specific trends, concerns, understandings, of the public they wish to address. 
 The title of the image is all important. Even photojournalism does not rely solely on the image to tell a story, but on a combination of an aptly devised title to go with a picture. And in our digital age, the title and the hashtag are essential for the purpose of being discovered in online searches. Few people post images on Instagram without a hashtag. 
I once did a shoot with photographer David Nuttall, with whom I used to work a lot when I first started modelling. When he sent me the images from that shoot I was reading  Jungian analyst Layton Schapira and her description  of the Cassandra woman:
"What the Cassandra woman sees is something dark and painful that may not be apparent on the surface of things, or that objective facts do not corroborate. She may envision a negative or unexpected outcome; or something which would be difficult to deal with; or a truth which others, especially authority figures, would not accept. In her frightened, ego-less state, the Cassandra woman may blurt out what she sees, perhaps with the unconscious hope that others might be able to make some sense of it. But to them, her words sound meaningless, disconnected and blown out of all proportion."
As I looked at the images, I read all this into one of the images, so I entitled it "Cassandra's sorrow" and displayed it with that title on deviantArt.   Neither I - nor David - was thinking about Cassandra when shooting, the narrative unraveled later. And it is a narrative that fits.
In another shoot I did with Suki Wilde, the story was discussed in advance. Suki is an actress, a model and also a photographer. She brought several props with her, and we used the theatre where she performs as a location for our shoot.  She used a combination of digital and film, her preferred medium being film. For the first part of the shoot, we were on one of the terraces. She suggested a simple storyline, a woman waiting for someone,  maybe her lover, who never comes, or perhaps she is starting out on a journey full of hope and then gives in.
There is a lot you can imagine here, the photographs give a suggestion of a story, you the viewer can fill in the gaps. The first images show a  bold woman. The final pictures in the series show a dejected, broken woman, finally falling asleep on the dirty floor, in complete disarray. I no longer have the final image, but here you can see the preceding one, which clearly conveys the sense of being deserted, abandoned, rejected and feeling hopeless.

But when it comes to stories created around photographs, nothing will beat the wonderful narrative by Daniela aka drop-asd on deviantArt in one of her early pieces. She took an image of me from 2008, an art nude with then, now photographer, Cidy - I am not able to show the picture here, but it can be seen on deviantArt and wrote "This photo shows a sad love story between an elderly woman who was a brilliant writer and a young boy who delivered her supplies from the local store. They fell in love, but neither his parents nor her children from her first marriage approved so they had to leave the country and move to Spain. Unfortunately, their plane crashed. There were no survivors, but the two lovers died in each other's arms."
I don't think I have ever laughed so much in a long time.  The story behind that picture, from my point of view - thus another narrative - is as follows. I wanted to do a shoot that would explore the relationship of an older woman with a younger man and chose the model, Cidy. The photographer, a gifted amateur, who at the time was a close friend, and very much into realistic representation, was not convinced it would work because "there was no truth" - Cidy and I were not even friends, we had only met once to discuss the shoot.  On the day of the shoot, the photographer and I had a massive row about the concept, and he wanted to cancel the shoot. I pleaded he should not cancel because Cidy had already left home and was on his way to the studio. When Cidy arrived, he found himself right in the middle of the row. During the shoot, the photographer and I continued arguing, Cidy wanted to get out of the studio as quickly as possible. Eventually, we got a series of shots which showed immense discomfort. And that became the title of the best of those shots, "The discomfort of intimacy."
The point of all this is that to convey a narrative, you need images,  but also a few, well-chosen words. Captions and titles are necessary and, like I said, these days you also need hashtags.
Mekita Rivas, in her article, sums it all up: "Be both illustrative and informative when writing photo captions." Excellent advice.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Fine art and commercial photography

In July I posted here a piece entitled  "The photograph as art".  Photographer and musician Joseph Crachiola, writer of the wonderful  Improvisations left a great comment which I am copying below:

 Photographer: Schwanberg

"Where does one begin in this sort of discussion? As you and Eric pointed out, the debate has gone on forever, and will probably never end. So much photography has been created that was done for commercial purposes, but then over time has been deemed by the "experts" to be fine art. And so much so-called "fine art" photography isn't worth the paper it is printed on. It's good to keep the discussion alive, if for no other reason than it keeps us all thinking and questioning, but it seems to me that we should just keep on doing what we do. If one has something to say, then say it. Put the work out there, and it will be accepted or not, and even if one's work doesn't gain any popular acclaim, that doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't art"

 Photographer: David Nuttall

As someone  involved  in a Fine Art Photography group on deviantArt  (yes, I am back with it, with a brand new team of administrators and contributors and much enthusiasm) the question about what constitutes fine art and what does not keeps on coming up. I don't believe in  a hierarchy such as fine art and popular art or indeed fine art photography versus commercial.

 Photographer: Neil Huxtable, models myself and Cidy

This is why I take heed of Joe's very wise words.

(All photos modelled by Alex B. unless otherwise stated)

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Diamonds and hypocrisy

If you have recently followed the news the case of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor and the blood diamonds he allegedly gave to supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1997 at a dinner hosted by South African President Nelson Mandela must have grabbed your attention.

Naomi gave a much publicised  testimony at the court case in The Hague earlier this month. She was reluctantly there and reportedly "inconvenienced" by having been summoned.
This woman has achieved notorierty for her bad temper and anger management issues. She is deemed to be self centred and callous and this involvement with Taylor's blood diamonds is not doing any good to her reputation. But let's try and look at this in perspective.

 Photographer: Mark Varley
First there is Naomi. She will always be  known as "that foul tempered BLACK model", there is  a strong element of racism in the way the media and the fashion industry have treated her. Don't get me wrong , Ms Campbell has done extraordinarily well for herself, coming as she does from a one parent family in Streatham, not exactly one of the poshest London suburbs. But somehow the fact she is not Caucasian has always been something to remark upon and her ascent to the stardom of supermodelling was not always a smooth path, devoid of prejudice. So to inveigh against her and declare her whole performance at the trial in  The Hague 'boring' is itself boring and beside the point.

 Photographer: Schwanberg
For one thing, in a swoop, Naomi Campbell's presence  brought attention to the trial and  has reminded millions of people of the urgency of dealing with criminals such as Charles Taylor and their atrocities.  This is far from  boring.
Then there is the issue of blood diamonds. By admitting that she received them this will add proof that Charles Taylor was involved in trading rough diamonds for arms and personal enrichment, something he denies.

Naomi was initially not keen on admitting she had received the diamonds which apparently she gave almost immediately to Mandela's aide Jeremy Radcliffe.  Radcliffe denied at first receiving the diamonds  though later  admitted he had. What a complete shambles. Granted, Naomi Campbell's reluctance to testify does not compare well with Mia Farrow's  eagerness - this is a celebrity stud trial - but if you had been given rough diamonds and naively accepted them you would probably not be so keen  to admit making such a terrible faux pas.
 Charles Taylor's crimes are appalling. The trade in rough diamonds has sustained his intervention  in Sierra Leome and the war crimes committed by his men during the conflict - there are even accounts of cannibalism being perpetrated. Thousands of people have died and many more have horrendously suffered.

Blood diamonds or conflict diamonds are a problem that has not been resolved.  The Kimberly Process Certification scheme adopted in 2002 to end this illegal trade  has actually been flaunted a few times, the last instance of which was seen in 2008 in Zimbabwe. Yet Zimbabwe is not war torn.
You will read everywhere accounts having a go at Naomi, the media circus etc. What strikes me is the hypocrisy surrounding this whole affair.  How many questionable diamond dealers  boarded Sabena and KLM flights to Freetown in the midst of the civil war? Where did all the diamonds processed in Belgium and Holland prior to 2002  come from and are they not still being traded?

" If comfortable people didn’t want to wave their diamond-laden fingers, the less fortunate wouldn't have been mutilated and enslaved to mine the raw materials, and warlords would have a harder time of it." writes journalist Patricia Lee Sharpe.
So let's not be hypocritical. The real problem  is the diamond hype. We do not need furs, do we really need diamonds? Are diamonds truly forever?
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Thursday, 12 August 2010

Vogue, the Gulf and Kristen McMenamy

Vogue Italia has featured in its August 2010 issue supermodel Kristen McMenamy in a controversial shoot by Steven Meisel inspired by the recent ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
There are several things to be considered here.
First the fact that Vogue is featuring a model such as Kristen, not for the first time in very recent years.

Kristen, a supermodel of the 1980s with a very quirky look,  at 46 sports waist length silver/gray hair. She has been seen in fashion shows as well and her look is quite unique in fashion today.  I can only applaud the fact that high end fashion is making use of models such as Kristen, I regard it as a positive move which I hope will make it possible for older models to find work  without having to feel marginalised because of their age - see yesterday's blog post and the one  by Unbearable Lightness on What We Saw Today.

Then there is the actual photoshoot. The images by Meisel are stunning. But the subject matter has left many people wonder whether this is exploitative.  This is indeed a difficult one. The images are very sensitively done. McMenamy is cast as a wounded bird coated in oil and spitting up water. I do think that the environmentalist message comes across very strongly,  the very fact that the model has natural un-dyed hair makes her look even more vulnerable.

What is jarring is the fact that it is a fashion spread. But this is not in itself something to be seen as problematic. It is not the first time that fashion photography makes a statement. And I do welcome the statement even if the clothes worn by the model are designer clothes and the photoshoot ultimately aims to showcase them and sell them.  I am fully aware of it. Yet I look at those images as artistic and  I am moved by them.  Many blogs have condemned the spread and I can see where they are coming from. I maintain that fashion can make ethical statements, thus I welcome what Vogue Italia has done, and I personally find Kristen McMenamy inspirational.
(All photos by George Swift and modelled by Alex B.)
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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Disclosing one's age

The beautiful model turned photographer Suki Wilde, of whom I have been a great admirer for well over two years got in touch with me a little while ago and asked me to do a shoot with her. I was delighted. We arranged to meet and we got on wonderfully well, as I thought we might. Suki is an incredibly beautiful forty something, a model, an actress, a mother who like me had her children when she was young enough to be able 'to grow up' with them, and now she is a serious photographer - I am also trying to get there, but am still struggling to get to know my Bronica.

We had coffee and began to talk. You know what it is like, when you meet a kindred spirit. You just talk and talk forever. We swapped bits about our children, we discussed photography, envisioned a couple of scenarios for the shoot, talked about our modelling and more generally our attitude to life.

We are both on deviantArt and on sites such as Model Mayhem . At some point, inevitably so, we talked about the problems encountered by models over 40 - I also had a similar conversation a while back with the wonderful Micki Baxter who at 54 reckons  she is not getting as much commercial work as she used to and it beats me, because she has the longest legs I have ever seen and is  in such perfect shape!

We both agreed that on sites such as MM models should not have to disclose their age, so long as they can say that they are over 18. It's not that there is anything wrong with our age, it's just that people have preconceived ideas and if they did not know the age of the model they would go entirely by the way she looks, which is all that matters in deciding whether she is right for the job. The moment you say how old you are a whole set of preconceived ideas kicks in and many photographers/commercial casting agents will not look at your folio as a matter of principle.  I have seen women (and men) much younger than me with bodies that were in pretty bad shape.  So this age thing is just in the mind.

These days, with life expectancy being much higher, there is a whole section of society composed of mature consumers, with disposable income and time on their hand. It might be a good idea to include older models for jobs which are definitely of a more commercial nature. As a consumer I would like to see great looking women closer to my age modelling swimsuits and various outfits, not women the same age as my daughter (in my case I dont have a daughter, I have a son, but the crux  of the argument stays the same).

Age does not tell you anything about the physical condition of a model, except what one's preconceptions about a particular age might be. It seems incongruous that for fine art where the body is exposed in all its glory age does not matter, whereas for a clothed body age  - a number really - is a determining factor. It is about time that the link between beauty and youth should be discarded as a fallacy.

Models by definition are in better physical condition than their peers.  Thus shooting glamour with models under 45 implies that women over 45 lack sensuality. But by the time women are fifty  and above they are much more confident  about their sexuality, as they no longer have to contend with unwanted pregnancies. This is the time when they can really enjoy sex without worrying about possible consequences. The allure of a woman who knows her body and how to respond is unbeatable and I have known many a young man lust over a much older woman - the proverbial Mrs Robinson.

When I see the sixty something Catherine Deneuve I am struck by the sensuality she oozes, which is even greater now than when she was twenty. I remember my son, a twenty three year old, telling me that he could watch Catherine Deneuve for hours and never tire of her. 'You mean when she was your age" I asked. 'No, Catherine Deneuve now and then".

Earlier today I did a quick experiment. I posted on the forum of Purestorm, one of the model/photographers sites I am a member of. My question was whether models should disclose their age. Some of the replies were pretty curt, implying that it is a nuisance that older models fail to understand that the age parameters are set by clients. That's all very well. But parameters can be reset, can they not? Especially when the idea is to go out and tap into a section of the market which is guaranteed to return profits: the older consumer.

It begs the question: why are people so reluctant to embrace change?

(All photos from the Waterfall series are by George Swift. The last one is by Peter Hedgecock. All photos modelled by Alex B.)
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Monday, 9 August 2010

Shooting among waterfalls

My apologies. I was very busy at the week end, doing a location shoot and had absolutely no time to post. I am now back after a long coach journey but I feel exhilarated as my shoot was very different from the usual ones. On Friday night I travelled to Newcastle where I was a guest of photographer George Swift. We then travelled together to the Lake district to shoot amongst waterfalls.

I had never been to the Lake district before and was totally blown over. I am not familiar with moorland. I grew up in southern Italy and then moved to London before I even reached the age of twenty. I made the mistake of taking England for granted and identifying England with London, to some extent- I know , I know, it is a silly thing to do, but there you are, I did it. So I never visited the Lake district, never had an opportunity to do so  and my god, I certainly did miss something. It is stunning, simply stunning. On the way there, while  driving,  I amused my host by telling him I tended to confuse Yorkshire with Lancashire. 'Oh they will love you for that. Once upon a time there was a minor war called the War of the Roses. I dont think Lancashire and Yorkshire  ever recovered from that...' I knew I had made a major faux pas.

The Lake district was amazing. We had to walk quite a bit to reach the waterfalls and then we had to negotiate brackens and treacherous terrain. The most difficult part was for me to learn how to stand on slippery rocks covered in algae and brave the cold water sprays on my back, it was cold, I can assure you, and having to contend with the weather, now sunny, now threatening to  rain.
But it was worth it.

When I got back to London today I felt so odd. I was struck at once at how crowded London  is.
I do miss the moors, the lakes  and the waterfalls.

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Sunday, 1 August 2010

On being a model agent

 I had a pleasant weekend with my friends Martin and Barbara and loads of other guests at their cottage near Battle (so named after the historic battle of Hastings). They normally live in Spain where Martin runs art workshops in Rojales - since he retired he took up painting, his lost love,  more or less full time and now he either paints or takes photographs. I was in Spain working for  him last October. The party was to celebrate Martin's and Barbara's fortieth wedding anniversary and it was pretty well attended.I got quickly drunk on tinto verano punch - never realised how strong it was - so I had to go and sleep at some point, I just could not manage it. I felt very ashamed of myself afterwards.

Photographer: Pascal Renoux

Martin and I did a photoshoot on Friday afternoon in Fairlight Glen which has now become my favourite spot for location work - it's amazing how different it is everytime. Martin knows the place very well and we worked on the figure in the landscape concept.

Photographer: Michael Culhane

Martin used to run a model agency in the days before model agencies were deregulated. He showed me some of the old books and with great pride he pointed to the pictures of a couple of girls whom he discovered and then passed on to top agencies such as Elite and Storm. The girls became supermodels in no time, He often took photos for the models portfolios himself. This laid back, totally unpretentious, very honest and upfront man, knows a thing or two about the model agencies world, including its ugly side - the scams, the agencies which simply rip off the girls and never get them any work, the photographers who have no clue about photographing fashion, and pretty horrendous stories about dodgy child modelling  and  paedophile rings.  One has to bear in mind that a child is anyone under sixteen. It is shocking  to realise that there are parents out there who are quite happy to have their children photographed in sexually explicit poses and supply such photos to interested parties for a fee.

 Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti

I am not interested in joining any agency, I found a good one a while back, I am aware that as an older model I have a very touch and go modelling life.I also had the experience of being ripped off when I first began. But occasionally people send me emails asking where they should go to if they want to model and they usually mean fashion modelling. Thanks to Martin I now know that the first port of call is the Alba register  which lists the top agencies and also names and shames the ones involved in scams.

Then inevitably we talked about fashion modelling requirements. This is a very fraught, difficult issue. I have always been pro Dove campaign and maintained that everyone could be a fashion model, regardless of their body shape, age, size and ethnicity. And yet I have seen that some agencies have on their books girls that are unsuitable for the catwalk. Where do you draw the line? These girls will not find it easy to get good modelling jobs. Why raise their hopes unnecessarily?  Attitudes can change and inclusivity is highly desirable. But at the same time model agents have a responsibility towards their models. If they cannot find them work within a year of their joining the agency they  should let them off their books. Perhaps fashion modelling is not for them. Perhaps there may be other, less glamorous,  types of modelling the girls can do.

 Photographer: Vernon Trent

This is a confusing and confused issue but let's face it at the end of the day being a model agent is a business and yes, whereas it is highly desirable that every look should be represented  one has to contend with the industry requirements.

Art modelling is more loosely defined and at the same time less protected than other types of modelling. An agent will negotiate an excellent contract for you , the fashion model, provided he /she knows that you are going to bring in some decent profit. This is never going to happen for art models, who are left to their own devices and do not have a tough negotiator on their side.

Photographer: Jan Murphy

The modelling business is cut throat. It is hard to earn a living as a model and most of us have something else to rely upon. I can only think of another business that is equally cut throat and that is dance.  Can anyone be a dancer? Can anyone be a model? does training have to do with it? Does a certain look have to do with it? I'd be happy to hear from readers.

(All photos modelled by AlexB. )