I recently saw a statistic on a Guerrilla Girls poster. It read:
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.”
I remember thinking, “Well that’s a horrible gender discrepancy.”
Something else about that statistic bothered me, too. Not just about gender, but some other implication. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I met a friend’s new boyfriend. It came up that I was a model, and so he proceeded to explain to me how a photo shoot worked.
Granted, he’d never seen a photo shoot, let alone worked as a model or photographer. But he explained how easy it was, because the photographer came up with all the poses, all the ideas, and told me exactly what to do. I just had to stand there and look pretty, and maybe put my hand on my hip when instructed.
Two things struck me in that conversation. First, “mansplaining” is apparently a real thing. And second, these completely wrong ideas of models and what we do are evidently common knowledge.
This is what was bothering me about the statistic. It’s a sign of just how far a fundamental misunderstanding about modeling has gone.
That poster is saying that if a painting of me ever makes it into the Met, it will probably have been painted by a man—because 19 out of 20 artists in the Met are men. But the majority of the nudes are female. Whoever wrote this quote, as well-intentioned as they were, assumed models are not artists.
I read that and hear all of the familiar comments: “You just stand still and look pretty.” "You just pose how the artist tells you.” These just aren’t true.
Modeling for photography or figure work is a collaboration between two artists—and modeling is an art form in its own right. Actually, it’s practically a superpower! Models can make art with nothing but their own body. We choose what the photographer or painter sees. We control our expressions, our gestures, and our body language. We decide how to represent ourselves, and we make our poses come to life.
With all of that creative control, modeling should be empowering. Yet instead, we talk about models like they’re objects.
If you see a still-life painting, you don’t expect the apples and pears to have contributed to the artistic process—that would be absurd. When we talk about a still-life, we use passive voice. We don’t say “that pear sat in the bowl on purpose.” We say, “that pear is in the bowl.” Or maybe even “the artist put the pear in the bowl.” We may talk about the pear’s appearance (“it’s green, it’s bruised”). But we certainly don’t give the pear any credit, because it’s a thing. It’s not contributing any artistry.
But models do. A model isn’t placed so much as directed, and their job is to create an image worth capturing. Like the pear, we usually describe her appearance. We say she’s pretty, blonde, brunette, skinny, or curvy. But beyond that, we tend to credit the painter or the photographer for the rest of the image, and assume they control everything about how the final product turns out.
But models aren’t just still-life or landscapes. They’re not just objects to be manipulated by Photoshop or paint. They are not being posed; they are posing. They are making art through modeling. A painter or photographer’s job is to capture and interpret what’s there, but it’s up to the model to create it.