Thursday, 26 June 2014

Modelling without vanity

Ella and I. Models: myself and Ella Rose. Photographer: Mark Bigelow

I was browsing this morning and came across a great article penned by model and writer Ella Rose for Modelmayhem. It was about modelling, vanity and self awareness, the latter being what Ella Rose identifies as a prerequisite for good modelling.
I totally agree with Ella Rose, with whom, by the way, I had the great pleasure of working, collaborating on a shoot for Mark Bigelow, one of my favourite photographers. The self awareness Ella Rose discusses is what I would call being embodied, which is what I try to be all the time, whether I am modelling or not.
A while ago I watched the series of short films made by Nick Knight for ShowStudio about the history of fashion modelling as told by the models involved. One of them was with supermodel and Cambridge graduate Lily Cole, whom Nick asked whether modelling was a skill that could be taught. Lily replied that intuitively she would say modelling is a skill, but no one teaches you (apart from walking on the runway and to be honest, judging from recent performances at GFW, I believe that agencies are no longer employing good catwalk trainers but, as usual, here I am digressing).
Yet, somehow, models do develop modelling skills. And the first thing they learn is to look at their own photos without any thought of whether they look good in them or not. It is something you just have to learn to do, the sooner the better or modelling will simply be too much for you to handle.
I remember when I first started modelling how I would hate certain pictures of me because they 'made me look ugly' and would beg the photographers involved not to use them. No fat chance of doing that when the photo was for a commercial shoot. But for art nude or portfolio shoots models can ask nicely and many do. However, I stopped doing it a long time ago. I just look at the picture as objectively as I possibly can, notice what does not work and remember that for the next time round - as Ella Rose points out, some angles work, some don't.
These days there is the additional instagram picture that needs to be accounted for. Some are horrendously lit, but there is nothing you can really do, except shrug it off as an instagram picture. I happened to complain to a photographer about one of such recent instagram pictures of mine that a blogger took - she was actually being extremely nice to me and putting that picture on her blog was a lovely gesture. Except that the picture vexed me no end. I felt uncomfortable about still having such feelings, after so many years of modelling. I realised I was being vain. Part of me wanted to contact the blogger and politely ask her to remove the photo, offering a different one taken from my portfolio. Part of me, my wiser self, was definitely against taking such a step. Then I showed the picture to this photographer friend, and what he said was not, as I had expected, 'you look awful', but 'how did she manage to select such a horrible spot for the picture? It's so dim! you can't even see your hair'. At that moment I realised he was looking at the picture, not me. As one should. Of course I immediately abandoned any idea I had entertained about contacting the blogger to remove the picture and felt a lot better.
Ella and I. Models: myself and Ella Rose. Photographer: Mark Bigelow

Vanity does you great disservice as a model. It comes in the way of a good result. Self awareness, being totally embodied is what does the trick. I sometimes treat the camera as a lover and always with respect. Please note, the camera, NOT the photographer, I am a firm believer in boundaries when I work (but of course I do treat photographers with respect!). The camera represents all the people that are going to look at my photograph. What do I want them to see? How should I interact with them? They are my audience. The photographer is there to help me to convey a certain mood, a certain expression, he (or she) has control over the composition. But my performance is very much my own, how I emote is my own doing and the sooner I abandon ideas of looking 'good', the better.
When I was younger, at one of my dance classes, my teacher totally forbade me to look at myself in the mirror and positioned me with my back against it, because I kept looking at my own image and did not feel the movement at all. I had to be able to feel whether my posture was right and where my limbs were. 'There are no mirrors on stage' she would tell me. Somehow this piece of advice stayed with me and when as a beginner model I was told to practise poses in front of the mirror I never did. Instead I practised some poses 'feeling' them. I then worked with one or two photographers that absolutely hated any hint of conventional posing, asking me to be 'myself'. It always makes me laugh when I hear it because I am never 'myself' and always 'myself'. But I know what they are after when they ask me that, they want something understated and a real connection with the camera.  It may take several shots before it comes. And when it does, that's it, that's the shot. It is a great feeling for everyone involved.

Ella and I Models: Ella Rose and myself. Photographer: Mark Bigelow

What about modelling for visual artists? There are differences and similarities. First of all there is never any expectation, on my part, of a true likeness. Sometimes the people that draw me are not very experienced so they will inevitably get my proportions wrong. Or they will see different things in my face and in my body. For me, as a model, the main thing is to be able to hold the pose for the required length of time, so I need to choose something that can be held without being very uncomfortable and also interesting enough to encourage drawing. Once again self awareness or the sense of being embodied is the key and vanity should be left behind, as it does interfere.
As Ella Rose says, there will always be 'ugly ' pictures of oneself floating around. But after a while that sense of being ugly will evaporate. They are after all just pictures and a few years down the line, you will be glad to have them.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The problem with Terry Richardson and Dov Charney

Photographers: Faby and Carlo. Model: myself

The papers in the past few days have  reported that Dov Charney, founder and CEO of American Apparel has been ousted because of the string of sexual abuse he seems to have committed. We are talking about rape, in a few cases, and various other instances of non-consensual sex. Charney notoriously had a very pseudo-libertarian attitude to sex, inviting - meaning expecting - employees to masturbate in front of him, walking around at work in his underwear, giving gifts of vibrators to female employees he fancied and allegedly even conducting an interview while being given oral sex by a secretary - here I can't help wondering why the interviewer did not leave? I call his attitude  pseudo-libertarian because all this is, definitely, sexual abuse.
American Apparel has been a very successful brand. I admit to owning an American Apparel top, which was actually a favourite of mine for months, it fitted me to perfection, still does. I was also very pleased to see 62 year old Jackie O'Shaughnessy model for the brand and for once not being cast as a granny, but as a sexy older woman. I am younger  than O'Shaughnessy but I do face the problem of having to present myself 'like a nan' at castings for commercial work and, needless to say, I do not seem to be doing it well, but here I am digressing.
Charney has been a very capable CEO but the bottom line is that he is an abuser and therefore measures should be taken to prevent him from striking again.  However, it also has to be recognised that sexual abusers can be very capable people. So how do we deal with it?

Self portrait at the park on expired film

This is even more apparent in the case of photographer Terry Richardson. He was very recently profiled by the New York Magazine and the gist of the article was that he was a troubled artist. Model Alliance made it clear that this is not the point. So did The Guardian.  The point is that being a sexual abuser - which Richardson certainly is, judging from the number of accusations from models that have worked with him - does not imply that the abuser is a talentless person. Nor does it mean that sexual abusers cannot be charming, and that they may behave differently depending on who they are with. So the point made by the magazine that Kate Moss was not abused nor was Miley Cyrus when they worked with Richardson is not a point at all. Richardson would not be so stupid as to do it with famous and powerful people, though it has to be noted that as he went along he became less careful about covering his tracks. His line of defence, reported by the New York Magazine, is that he always respected boundaries, it was just an exploration of sexuality for artistic purpose and among like minded people. Well, his entourage may have been into it, but the models were not. Young girls, a bit naive, told by their agency that they were working with a very good photographer that would make or break their career. That can be intimidating. I think that bookers are often callous, caring very little about the girls and on occasion, they can be, frankly, inept. It is what I would call a structural  problem of the modelling business which needs an overhaul, greater transparency and which needs to offer greater agency (no pun intended) to models.

'Death approaching'. Photographed on film by Piotr Karpinski. Model: myself

On the whole I found the piece in the New York Magazine quite offensive in its attempt to present Richardson in the best possible light. He is an abuser. Whether his photography is great or not is a matter of taste but his behaviour has gone too far and he has to be held accountable.
I have had personal experience of working with a photographer who is currently being taken to court by a brave British model on charges of sexual misconduct. He is not famous but has worked with some reputable agencies and knows his craft. My experience with him was positive, he did not try anything objectionable. I am too old and too savvy to be cast as prey. We did the shoot, I was disappointed that he would not reimburse me of travel  (which he had agreed to do) but nothing apart from shooting happened when we worked together. His conversation at times strayed into rather personal areas, with him attempting to find out more about me as a sexual being, but I cut each question short and he soon realised it would be better to keep the whole shoot extremely professional as I was getting rather irritated. However other models, much younger and more vulnerable than me, were definitely molested and in hindsight I can see how he would perhaps trap them into talking too much, perhaps have a drink together and then make them do things they had not intended doing.
 The point with the likes of Terry Richardson and Dov Charney is that their outrageous sexual behaviour does not imply a general impairment of their faculties. Sexual abusers can be very competent people, good at business, good at their job, whatever that may be. The point is that they do something that is unacceptable, as they coerce their victims to perform sexual acts they do not feel comfortable with. Even when the coercion does not involve physical violence, it is still coercion.
Richardson should be properly investigated and prosecuted and the fashion industry should stop endorsing him as a photographer.
Ultimately, I do hope that models will begin to feel that they do matter and that when they speak out they will be heard.

Disclaimer: please note that neither Faby and Carlo nor Piotr Karpinski whose photos appear in this post have anything to do with the British photographer I have mentioned, who for legal reasons, cannot be named.

Monday, 16 June 2014

All in the spine

Models: Alexa Taylor and me, Dark Beauty Magazine editorial. Photographer: Karolina Amberville

It was late and hot last night but my neighbour's TV was still on at nearly 2 am and extremely loud, I knew that if I opened the window the noise would assault my ears. I could not sleep, no matter how many sheep I counted. So I grabbed my phone and began to check my emails. I know that sleeping with your phone under your pillow is a very bad habit, but there you are, I am guilty of doing it. There was one email from a friend who has recently experienced a devastating loss, apologising for her tardiness in responding to an earlier message. I was struck by what she said about recovering, the way coming to terms with the passing of a loved one has involved allowing herself to listen to her body, sleeping and just being. Just being. I like that. Sometimes I do it, when I feel I need a break from the outside world, I can do it anywhere, I close my eyes and give myself permission to daydream. To be.
Still unable to sleep, I began googling this and that, the news, books, articles, blogs and I came across a beautifully written post by a woman who is a very gifted writer, most evocative, and very succinct. The post was about the moment when, as she was having mint tea in the company of a man she felt very attracted to, she realised from the way the conversation developed that he was not available. "Until that moment", she says, "desire is unfettered, then facts begin to intrude".

With Sara. Photo by Nagib El-Desouky on film Models: Myself and Sara

Oh yes. It is a common enough situation and I noticed how my own body reacted to reading those words, remembering the contraction in my lower abdomen that I held, when I found myself experiencing a very similar moment, for too long, and only much later learning to let it be and breathe into it, without giving in to the sensation of being overwhelmed, choked even. The memory was still there in my body, rekindled by what I was reading, the memory of tears welling up in my eyes, only there were no tears, I touched the corners of my eyes and they were dry. I loved the way she describes 'tasting the mintiness of her tea' and with reference to her body, how to come out of the fantasy of having him, she straightened her spine and she held herself, upright, sipping her mint tea and focusing on its taste. Time for the fantasy to stop, the body has its own way of bringing you back to reality, if you only let it.
It made me realise that holding oneself upright is a way of regaining composure and control in the moment, in the body. Our spines are really powerful tools.
 So next time I find myself experiencing this 'you cannot go there' moment I will hold my spine very straight, breathe, and walk away.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Erin O'Connor on being an expectant mother

The beautiful pregnant Erin O'Connor photographed by Nick Knight

I am mesmerised by the beauty of the photographs that Nick Knight, founder of ShowStudio,  has taken of pregnant supermodel Erin O'Connor and am totally bowled over by the immense courage it took Erin to be photographed at eight and a half months, showing off her 'bump', cradling it, as a preparation to her new role as mother. Life will never be the same, Erin, once your baby is born, you must have been told this countless times and believe me, it is absolutely true. I am the mother of a now grown up boy and I remember too well, as if it were yesterday, what a shock to my system and immense joy becoming a mother was. My life changed overnight, from the moment he was born.
I love the fact Erin wanted to be photographed at such an important moment in the life of a woman, a defining one (because of the way motherhood is perceived and constructed), and one which marks a major transition. Many women, famous and non-famous, fall pregnant or willingly embark on a pregnancy, it is a fact of life, and they usually, particularly if they are famous, keep a low profile during their pregnancy, very often feeling ugly and 'huge'. But Erin has had the guts to celebrate the beauty of a pregnant woman's naked body and this is to be applauded. The perception of pregnancy is often that of an 'illness'. The body of a pregnant woman is not seen as beautiful, even though there is now a 'tradition' of photographing pregnant women, ever since the famous shot of a seven months pregnant Demi Moore by Annie Liebowitz, published by Vanity Fair in 1991.  Erin's photos by Nick Knight are part of this new tradition and they are most remarkable. Erin's statuesque beauty is fully brought to the fore and her bump, so perfectly round, is most beautiful. Equally  interesting is the interview that Erin gave as a complement to the photos and what she says about her pregnant body. I will not quote from it, it has to be read in full.
A pregnant body is an expression of female sexuality, a real celebration of it. Pregnancy is, after all,  an outcome of sexual activity. So I would fully celebrate the sheer sensuality and intrinsic sexiness of a pregnant body, rather than framing it as asexual, implicitly invoking imagery of Mary, to obliterate any sexual connotation. The images shot by Knight are actually very sensual and Erin brings that sensuality out in a most uncanny way.
I have always admired Erin O'Connor for her unconventional beauty, her intelligent approach to modelling and her serious engagement with issues of body image.
These pictures should be seen by as many women as possible. I do hope that Erin will continue to celebrate the female body going through motherhood by having pictures of her as a nursing mother, publicly acknowledging  that stage in motherhood which is often completely bypassed, with famous beautiful women being photographed days after giving birth sporting a very trim figure, their pregnancy becoming immediately a thing of the past, something which must not leave any trace whatsoever on their bodies  and possibly on their psyche - a real contradiction in terms . Catherine Zeta Jones was one of the very few celebrities to take a stance against this very Hollywood trend, way back, after the birth of her first son, remarking that new mothers need time to be with their babies, breastfeeding them, to adjust to the new circumstances and taking as much time as needed to  regain their pre-birth weight, without rushing to be seen as they were 'before being pregnant', because that is an illusion. Pregnancy (as is motherhood) is a biological process and a culturally constructed one. I feel that Erin by virtue of her supermodel status can do much to shift perceptions of body and beauty and teach women who are having babies to enjoy their transition, without feeling guilty about the changes in their body and without ever feeling ugly.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The day after Graduate Fashion Week 2014

Drawing from Fashion Illustration workshop Saturday 31 May Model: me

GFW 2014 finished yesterday. I was there for most of it wearing different hats, so to speak - and for real! I did a fashion illustration workshop for LCF on saturday and got the chance to see the show by the Edinburgh School of Art students in the evening - really loved Colleen Leitch's collection, then I was there on Monday, lending a hand to All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, who ran once again a Diversity Now! competition, and finally I was there yesterday to look around, see more shows including the Award Ceremony. What incredible talent! Had I been judging I would have had a very hard time as I absolutely loved all the work. They were all winners, in my view.
It was great to see diversity on the catwalk at the show of Arts University Bornemouth. I had the chance to model one of their collections at South Coast Fashion Week very recently but this time it was the inimitable David Gant and Jean Woods who took to the catwalk and  it was wonderful to see them and also see the  involvement of children. AUB were not shortlisted for the final award but in my view they deserve a mention for being so innovative on the catwalk.
I bumped into many interesting people from award winning stylist and designer Twinks Burnett (from AUB) to youth mentor and jewellery lover Efe Ezekiel who runs UshineIshine not to mention the lovely Alyson Walsh who writes the blog Thatsnotmyage, which I follow and find quite inspiring - I hear that a book is in the making, wonderful news!
I also bumped into Cidy who used to be a model and has now turned into a photographer and was outside the Truman Brwery, where GFW took place, taking pictures of the many different people that walked in and out. GFW is a celebration of clothes, so visitors too often wear very stylish designs or make an effort to style themselves in a very individual way.

Marie Schuller's workshop in progress. Notice the large screen at the back where editing actions can be seen by the audience

It was also great to watch  Marie Schuller from ShowStudio demonstrating throughout the day how a fashion film is made. I have worked with her a few times but never really had the chance to observe  the process.
Fashion films fascinate me and especially Marie's. She is so incredibly versatile and I love the fact her films are  very surreal, often abstract but with an interesting narrative that underpins them and which unsettles the viewer's preconceptions. She can handle references and citations beautifully, without ever losing her individuality. A graduate of the National Film and Television School,  Marie is head of Fashion Films at ShowStudio. Our latest collaboration is a music video Slider of the Japanese acid punk band Bo Ningen, currently on Nowness, in the music section.

 Schuller's Slider

On my way back home, already past 10 pm, as I was waiting for the overground train in Shoreditch station, a tall and lanky young woman with a distinctive Eastern European accent asked me whether it was a westbound train. I recognised her as one of the models, half make up removed, but still some traces of it and a very tired expression on her face. I nodded. She thanked me, immediately put on her headphones and sprawled herself on the seat, half removing her shoes. The poor girl must have walked for miles as she was on from the start of the week.
This morning I am part relieved it is all over - it was very tiring, with so much to take in, but I also kind of miss it, it was exciting to be there.