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.
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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.
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.