If you've been shooting any type of portraiture for a significant amount of time, you will likely find yourself working with a handful of subjects (or perhaps even just one) on a recurring basis. Most of us have been there, or are there right now. Perhaps you have one specific model that you've worked with for years (your "muse" as it were), or maybe you go in phases with a different select model for a few months before moving on to another. But is this practice a good idea or not?
For the record, let me just say that I personally do not use the term muse when it comes to describing models I work with on a regular basis. Yes, there are many models I have shot over the years who I am inspired by and want to work with as much as I can, but applying the term to any of them just seems a little too... serious. That being said, I am also the photographer who finds it difficult to call himself an "artist," but I digress.
Regardless if your desire to shoot a specific model on the regular is artistically inspired or for business reasons, there is an interesting discussion to be had on the subject.
Yes, I Mean Unpaid Shooting
Let's just get this part out of the way, right up front. If you're collaborating on personal work with a model or models with any regularity, it is almost certain that you are doing "free work" with them. However, the point, or purpose, of regular collaborative efforts in your photography is to either bolster your portfolio, learn and explore new methods or techniques you've been meaning to try, or to execute and bring to fruition a concept you've been developing over time. As has been said time and again, you make your money on client work, but you build your reputation with personal projects. So set aside the idea of "no free work" or "no trade shoots" for the remainder of this article, and let's move on.
And remember, if your model collaborator is doing exactly that – collaborating with you – as opposed to a paid modeling assignment on any given day, they must really believe in you and your work. Do not take this lightly, because it's a compliment but also a responsibility to bring your A Game to the table during each project.
How Does It Happen?
Like so many things in the art world, a frequent collaborator (or muse, if you insist) is something that usually occurs without warning or even intent. You perhaps fall into the persistent partnership after a project or two, maybe when you both realize that things are truly working well and the results are both inspiring and well received. In the most ideal arrangement, the results benefit you both in the business and financial sense, but the overall point is that you rarely can predict the frequent collaborator arrangement; it just happens. My advice to you is to capitalize on it if it does happen because these cooperative scenarios rarely last long term.
That, of course, is perhaps the most important question. Why bother shooting the same person over and over? The answer is multifaceted, and annoyingly varying from artist to artist. To that end, I ran an extremely unscientific poll on my social media group recently, yielding the following top three results (in order of most common answer).
"Why do you like collaborating with a specific photographer or model regularly?"
- A means to try new methods or techniques in a stress free manner.
- Ease of working with them; overall personal experience; motivating.
- Consistently good results I can trust.
So if that's any indication, it seems many prefer an environment where they can experiment with concepts and techniques on set without worry of failure. Rather, without worrying if the experiment will lead to a disappointed client, nay, lost revenue or a hit to your reputation, if it ends up a dud.
Of course, it goes without being said that any model who is to become your regular partner in crime on projects needs to be good at what they do. I can't think of anything more unfortunate than doing something badly, often.
Art Is Often Impulsive
Time and again, the answer is simpler: proximity. A great potential collaborator could live near you, next to you, or even with you (my ex-wife was my main model for quite some time, but once again I digress). While I do not recommend working with a model only because they live nearby, the benefits of a nearby muse are numerous and incredibly tempting to capitalize on.
The most common reason proximity is a benefit is, quite simply, because the artist's mind often works in last-second sort of ways (I am sure most of you can relate to that). Perhaps you wake at dawn and notice the intense fog covering the landscape, and you quickly text your muse to meet you in less than an hour to capitalize on that environment which will have faded away by mid morning at the latest. Another scenario may involve an opportunity to shoot in a location that is made available to you unexpectedly, briefly, and very soon. Or even more to the point, maybe you have an amazing, end all concept to shoot and desperately need to execute it now. You have to call on the collaborator who you feel is going to be as impetuous and motivated as you are, knowing it is likely they will drop everything to meet you to shoot instead of letting the opportunity slip away. Sometimes your best work is drawn from childish impulse involving hugely impractical endeavors, in my experience.
Art Is Often A Major Effort
One of my most common reasons to work with a model regularly has to do with the efforts involved in many of my projects. After all, if I am going to ask a model, for example, to ride with us in a car for 15 hours (one way) to get to rural New Mexico to shoot at White Sands, I am fully aware that this is an enormous undertaking and cannot just ask any random model hoping they want to do it, are able to do it, and trust me in doing it. There is no better option for such a project than one's regular, faithful collaborator. You both immediately know the possibilities and have full confidence that the results will be worth the impractical, often insane efforts involved.
Art Is Often Highly Subjective
And because art is so commonly biased, person to person, when you find a model who agrees with your vision, understands your ideas and concepts, enthusiastically works to bring them to life, and delivers their own equally inspiring ideas to the table as well, it is a good idea to hold on to that relationship. Inversely, yes you can (and lord knows I have) trudge through a shoot with a model who you do not get along with, or jive with artistically, in any way. You just have to channel all your photography mojo into the project, and get it done to the best of your abilities like a proper professional, and then move on. In some cases, the experience is rather neutral, even clinical, and you leave the project knowing it was just another shoot on another day, basically indifferent to entire exchange.
But when you truly connect with your subject – your collaborator, your muse – this is when you know you have to exploit the relationship (I'll say it again, these arrangements are seldom very long term). If the motivation is there on both sides, jump on it. Your portfolio, your artistic drive, and your skills will benefit from it.
What Can Go Wrong?
The lead photo collage at the top of this article shows several shots I have done of my current frequent collaborator, model Kathrine Haus, based in College Station, Texas (about 90 min from me in Houston). Recently, I have received inordinate amount of communications via social media regarding the consecutive projects I have done with Kathrine since mid to late 2016.
The fact is, Kathrine and I had a string of projects in a row that seemed to dominate everything we were both doing. For all the reasons mentioned in this article, we both had numerous inspired moments of discussion, brainstorming and conceptualizing that led to dozens of shoots being planned.
I met Kathrine in January of 2016, as a brand new model at a birthday gathering in Houston that my photo industry peers helped throw for me. We didn't shoot again after that until that summer, but since then we realized we were on the same wavelength, if you will, on what we wanted to produce in our work. As a matter of course, things naturally gelled into a collaborative effort spanning several months, usually getting together to shoot two or three times a month.
All that was fine, mind you, but it didn't come without its criticisms. Comments and questions I received ranged from "Why are you shooting her so much anyway?" to "Do you ever shoot anyone else anymore?" to "Are you two dating, is that it?"
Art is art, sure, but no one wants to be perceived as a one trick pony. If you are seen as problematically one-sided in your work, it can absolutely have a negative impact in your commercial viability as a photographer. Sure, it's a good idea to specialize in a genre or two, but if your output is almost literally the same over and over, you could be readily dismissed as redundant, even boring.
Thankfully, I travel and shoot enough to work with many amazing models all over, so my work output hasn't been entirely Kathrine, which is important in keeping my portfolio diversity in check. That said, the work I've done with this newest muse (I wonder how many times I'm going to use that word in this article?) has been some of my favorite work to date, and many of my all time favorite images stem from our recent collaborations.
What Else Can Go Wrong?
Simply put, you could get too comfortable. And that is never, ever a good thing. As an artist, you should be challenging yourself regularly, because that's how you grow. Satisfying as it may be to work with an inspiring collaborator, especially after dozens of shoots with them, you don't want to place yourself in a pattern of laziness or convenience. You can definitely try new concepts and ideas with your muse, but changing your subject matter is quite commonly the most radical change you can make in portrait work, and is something I recommend you do if you find yourself only shooting one person.
Nothing is more the opposite of art than complacency, in my opinion. Change is growth.
But this is not to say that your regular collaborator(s) should be dismissed or cut off after a couple of projects. If the inspiration is there, and the work is outstanding, ride that wave until it hits the shore, by all means. But do other things as well, and often. Keeping yourself artistically inspired should be a combination of making yourself happy and making yourself a little scared at times. New things are scary, I get it. But you need to be a little frightened now and then to truly evolve as an artist.
Motivation can be based on jealousy, fear, or even on money. Inspiration, however, is a truly genuine desire to do something, and that passion shouldn't be ignored. Just be sure to kick yourself if you get too relaxed in just one groove.
If there is a conclusion here, it's simply that no one artist does things the same as another. Maybe you don't have a collaborator or muse, maybe you don't even want one. Maybe you actively work to ensure you never get one, and thrive off new experiences and new artistic collaborators as a matter of method. Still others might be still very new at photography and are working with a model frequently because, frankly, they don't have any other choice at the moment. Whatever you situation may be, don't shortchange yourself by overlooking a potential muse-in-the-making, but don't let it define all that you do in your portrait photography.
Do you have an obvious, frequent collaborator?