One day in the eighth grade, one of my teachers pulled me aside and suggested I sign up with a modeling agency. He told me there were two students in the class, myself and a girl, who he thought had the right “look” and thought the agencies would agree. I was surprised and confused, not the least because my older sister had been known as the “pretty one” and indeed had started venturing into modeling, whereas I was awkward and unpopular. The girl he suggested was also an odd choice – not popular, plus she wore odd unfashionable clothes and came across as a bit of a fuddy-duddy. But I could admit she was pretty, and her prettiness was unappreciated.
If a teacher were to make this kind of suggestion these days, it might raise some eyebrows. I found it to be an odd suggestion, but only because it was so out of context and seemed to be so contrary to how everyone else perceived me. What did he see in me and the girl that others didn’t? I filed the suggestion away.
But over the years, the idea of modeling started to grow on me. I knew I did not have the classically handsome looks of a GQ model, and had no illusions I’d ever make a career out of it. But every now and then I’d see a photo of a less conventional guy – a guy who maybe I could see a bit of myself in – and I’d think to myself “I’d like to do that” or ask myself “could I be that guy?”
This desire to emulate the guys in the photos extended to both fashion spreads and advertisements in the magazines my sisters kept around the house, but also to the nude photos of men in the magazines I’d been secretly getting my hands on. I wanted to be those guys, or at least get a taste of what it would be like to pose for a photo shoot.
For fun I’d do self-portraits with an autotimer, just to give it a go and see what it felt like. At first these were done with film cameras, which involved expenses and required getting the film developed. I didn’t want to take it somewhere local, not just because some of the photos were nudes, but also because the whole exercise felt strange to me. What kind of guy goes around taking photos of himself? What would people say? After having shot a couple of rolls of film and having them developed through the mail, I lost interest and put this particular compulsion aside. It was fun to give it a try, but I knew I didn’t have the potential to make it to the pages of the fashion magazines.
But what about the skin mags? Over the years I’d been going to the gym, and making decent progress. I still had that itch that wanted to be one of those guys. Then one day I came across a photographer’s gallery around the corner from where I was living in San Francisco, and there were photos of all kinds of guys including guys who looked kind of like me. If those guys could do it, maybe I could too? I got in touch with the photographer and he invited me to audition. But right before the audition I shaved off my body hair, thinking this was the look he’d want (this was the 1990s, and smooth was the predominant look at the time). He took one look at me and said, “Why did you do that? Come back when it’s grown back in.” And at that point things started to click. Maybe there was a niche for a guy like me, with a different kind of look and a hairy body. Hallelujah, I could stop shaving my chest! And since then I’ve figured out that, yes, there are enough photographers out there who like my look.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but a lot of the casting calls for models will say something along the lines of “let’s make some magic.” But there’s something to it. Over the past few years I’ve worked with about a dozen different photographers. What I like best is when the photographer has a concept or “sees something” that I wouldn’t have thought of, and then when it’s all put together it’s a great surprise. Most photographers tell me to bring clothes and props along. I’ll typically bring a bag with all kinds of clothes so we have a range to choose from. The photographer will then usually go through the clothes, and it’s interesting to see what they pick out and what they put aside. They’ll usually pick out stuff I wouldn’t have expected, and then often supplement it with stuff of their own. So the result is a fun kind of dress-up where together we put together something that resonates for both of us. Then when they send over the finished product it’s something new and different that I wouldn’t have imagined before.
Even with the nude shoots, there are usually clothes to get started. In fact, I really love shoots where it strips down from dressed to nude. Recently I did a shoot where I started fully dressed in a suit and overcoat, and piece by piece stripped down to briefs and then nothing. I loved it!
Fortunately I haven’t had any horror stories, but there have been some shoots where the chemistry is just off. With the best shoots there is a good rapport with the photographer – just good energy that allows it all to feel relaxed and creative. But every now and there will be a time where things just feel off for some reason, and it’s hard to make things work. It may not be anyone’s fault – like anything, it’s just the chemistry (or lack of) between two people.
Some shoots can get really involved with props and wardrobes. These shoots can take hours, and I’ll sometimes wonder if the process of setting it up and going through all the paces is the thrill of it more than the product itself. But then the product can turn out to be really incredible, so I’ll think “oh, that’s what that was all about.”
As for posing nude, it was something I’d always wanted to try just for the thrill of it. But it took a long time to get the courage to find a photographer and go through with it. The very first time when I stripped all the way down, I was surprised how nervous I was. Though I’d been used to being naked in the locker room at the gym, this for some reason was different. I was so nervous I had to sit down for a few minutes to pull myself together before we could start the shoot.
Fast forward to today, and those inhibitions are long gone. In a recent shoot the photographer laughed about my lack of inhibitions, commenting that I seemed more comfortable being photographed naked than clothed. Yes, that could be true, I don’t even think about it. In fact, I think the exhibitionist side of me really gets a kick out of it.
Then there are the outdoor shoots. The first time I ever went to a nude beach and laid there in the sun, I was hooked – it’s such a great feeling to be naked outdoors. But all of the shoots have been done under controlled conditions, whether it’s a nude beach where it’s ok to be naked, or a quiet place in the forest where there’s nobody around. There have been shoots where there may be people in the vicinity, then it’s a fast drop-of-the-pants and take a few quick shots. But then there was one shoot where the photographer had a private ranch with acres of woodland, and I hiked around naked the whole time. That was fantastic.
But there are times when it can be a bit weird with other people around. Once I did a shoot (with clothes) in Balboa Park in San Diego, at a big amphitheater there with lots of people milling around. It was a wardrobe shoot and I had a few outfits like t-shirts and blazers, but then the photographer told me to take off my shirt. There are plenty of circumstances where not wearing a shirt is no big deal, but at that place with a fair number of people around all in regular clothes, it felt odd, and even odder to be there having photos taken. That’s probably my self-consciousness reasserting itself! But then I just thought, ‘who cares, I don’t know any of these people,’ and I just focused and blocked out the surroundings. And when the photos came back it was all worth it.
What drives this? What compels me to get myself in front of the camera? Why do I find it fun?
I ask myself this a lot, particularly because I do it more for fun than as a livelihood. I’ve talked about this with my husband quite a bit, since he doesn’t get it – he thinks it’s narcissistic. Maybe there’s a bit of narcissism, particularly since I was an awkward kid so it’s nice to see myself as something different. The first time I got some really good photos back from a photographer I thought, ‘Holy crap, is that me?’ It was really affirming, and allowed me to put some old ghosts to rest.
But then trying to be more reflective about it, I think it’s a combination of expression and exhibitionism. I’m aware I have an exhibitionist tendency, so part of it is just liking to show off and have fun. But then when I see the final result of the photos or artwork, it also feels like creating art. As the model I’m part of the composition but there’s a whole lot more that goes into it, from the setting to the props to the lighting. In that sense it’s a real collaboration with the photographer, as part of their vision. So in particular I like working with all kinds of photographers and artists, since the process and results are so different each time.
Hobby meets art, meets exhibitionism and and some compulsion. That’s me in front of the camera.