The Magic of Modeling

Long before I ever started modeling, I was drawn to images of models. Not surprising, right? Together, photography and posing can create some truly beautiful images. It was more than that, though. It was the stories that these images spun. It was the idea that the model in the image was a “model” human being—ideal somehow. You can see it easily in fashion magazines, were the models are all society’s picture-perfect idea of an exemplary person: young, rich, and beautiful. But I loved the artistic images too, ones that had narratives to them and showed me someone who was strong or clever or brave.

Recently, one of my photographers received an award in a juried show for one of our underwater images—the one which features for this essay, in fact. It was so popular that they even made it the banner image for the entire show and hung it on the outside of the museum. It was such an incredible feeling to see my own image gazing serenely down at me from the side of a building, lamp in hand.  

When I visited the show, I also got to see a child run up to my image on the wall and stare at it. I watched from across the room—pretending to look at the picture in front of me—as he dragged his parents over to look, too. He was obviously fascinated.

I knew that look. That was the same look I had when I was drawn to a model’s image. Suddenly, *I* was the one in the story. In this kid’s eyes, I was the model human.  

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I’ve helped host a lot of gallery openings in my time. Oftentimes, people want to talk to the person in the photo more than the photographer. They want to hear the story of how the image was made or what it means from the model, even though the photographer was on the shoot or in the pool with us. Sometimes I think about it like the difference between a director and an actor. Both contribute their art to the film, but something about the figurehead position of the movie star really captures the public’s imagination.

This obsession with the person in the picture seems to contradict another common response I get at gallery openings. I’m told that I just stand there and look pretty. That what I do is easy. That the photographer is the real artist.  

I always try to dispel these beliefs when I come across them by describing the process of modeling. But I still get incredulous looks when I say that I believe that I’m an equal artist and collaborator when compared to the photographer.

*          *          *

It took me seeing that kid react to my underwater image to realize that these two responses to my modeling aren’t in opposition at all. 

They’re responding to the image because the feel the image is real—or at least, that the person in the image is real. That’s why they want to talk to me: when they have an emotional connection to the image, they assume it’s to the person in it. And that’s why they think my job is so easy. They think I just have to stand around and be myself.  

I thought that if I was the person in the image, I’d be what the image depicted.

We all know that this isn’t true, but I fell prey to the same trap when I started thinking of models as ideal human beings. I thought that if I was the person in the image, I’d be what the image depicted.  

But I’m not that serene woman with her lamp. When that picture was taken, I was freezing because the pool hadn’t been properly heated. I was struggling with the many layers and yards of the dress, which felt like it was personally trying to drown me. I was miserable, grumpy, and flawed.  

To believe that models—or any other type of artist for that matter—are images of perfection is to miss all the process. We see the magic of the finished product, assume it’s reality, and ignore all the hard work that goes on behind the curtain.  

I’ll never be that magical woman with her lantern. And yet, I’ve become more of a “model” person because of all the hard work that modeling has taught me. All that stuff behind the curtain caused me to change, to improve, to grow. And maybe that’s the real magic after all.  

 

Road Trip Lessons

“You know you can just fly, right?” my friend told me. I could practically hear their incredulity through the text message.

I’ve gone on two solo road trips in the past few months, one to Utah and one to Texas. And yes, I knew it would have been far more convenient to fly to my destinations, but I didn’t want to. 

Oh, I had my excuses. Flights out of my little town’s one-terminal airport were on the wrong days. It would be more convenient to have a car for the modeling tour when I arrived. I could save money in the long run by camping. 

But if we’re being honest, what really got me was—to be poetic—the call of the open road. It had been years since I’d been on a proper road trip, and I’d always gone with a friend. This would be a new experience, and I wanted that.

Like with many new experiences, I ended up learning a thing or two along the way. Here are a few of the lessons that I picked up.

Self-Reliance

One of the things I love about nude modeling is that, in the end, the only thing you have at your disposal is you. Sure, there’s the occasional prop or bit of wardrobe, but your art tools primarily consist of your mind, your body, and your ability to contort both into something interesting. It’s just you in front of the lens, solving artistic problems. 

Like nude modeling, when you’re on the road, all you have is you…well, and whatever you managed to cram in your trunk.  

I can fit a fair bit in this trunk; I did not travel light. Besides my full set of camping gear to save money on hotels, for my Texas tour I had all my modeling accouterments—heels, wardrobe, hair straightener, the works. For the Utah writer’s conference, I even brought my own printer from home (okay, on second thought that might have been overkill).  

But there’s just something about being camped alone that really makes you realize that you’ve got to do this yourself. The first time I set up my tent on my own, I did everything wrong that was humanly possible. I put the ground cloth upside down—and the tent poles, and the rainfly. I couldn’t get the tent stakes to stay in the ground.  

But just like modeling, the more I did it, the better I got. By my last night, I messed up the ground cloth—but not the poles, or the rainfly, or the stakes. It wasn’t the same thing as making art in front of a lens, but it had the same sense of accomplishment.  

Expanding Comfort Zone

If you don’t push your boundaries, they shrink.

A very wise friend one told me that if you don’t push your boundaries, they shrink.

I know this is particularly true for me. Having OCD means a constantly shrinking comfort zone, defined by my compulsions and checks. I have to actively patrol the edges of my boundaries, or find myself in a tiny bubble of “safety.”  

A good example of this, for me, are gas stations. In OCD parlance, I’m a checker. I worry about things that could start a fire (like gas), liquid that could spill (like gas), and things that could be left open (like gas tanks). My compulsion is to check these things, usually in sets of three, five, or eight. Of course, that’s not really something you can do in public without looking odd.  

Before this trip, I used to dread filling up my tank. But guess what I had to do, practically every day, sometimes twice or more? By the end of it, gas stations were a lot less scary.  

There are other ways to expand boundaries on a trip too; this is just one example. I have already toured alone for my modeling, for example. But for any person that hasn’t ever traveled alone, I can’t recommend that safety-bubble pushing experience enough.

Adventures

On the way back from Utah, I took a stop in Zion and hiked to the rim of Kolob Canyon. From the top, I could see the red rocks of Zion to the left, and the green of Southern Utah to the right—and I was standing on the spine that split them down the middle. The view was breathtaking, spectacular, and several other clichés that try and fail to express the grandeur of a profoundly personal experience.  

I felt awe, but I felt another emotion as well: guilt. If you look at me, from my images to my blog posts, I have a bad habit of valuing making art over creating experiences. I often feel guilty when I indulge in the latter, or in having an adventure, if it comes at the expense of time I could put into having made something.

Yet on these two trips, I saw sights from Zion to cotton fields that have infected my art. I’ve experienced deep human connections with people I otherwise wouldn’t have even met. And it’s all because I decided to take the road less traveled—or rather, to take the road at all.  

Now I’m convinced that adventures and new experiences are necessary for better art, and should therefore be prioritized, guilt-free. I’m still working on convincing myself that they’re valuable in their own right. But hey, baby steps.  

*          *          *

I’ll probably be flying for my next long-distance trip. It takes so much time to drive, and I miss being away from my partners for so long. My friend was correct—it would be much more convenient to just take a plane.  

But I’m glad that I did these road trips. And I’m sure I’ll be back on the open road again sometime in the future.  After all, there’s still lots more to learn.