When The Meaning of Photography Changes Over Time

When The Meaning of Photography Changes Over Time

Our work as photographers says a lot about us as human beings. Continuing to evaluate that work well beyond its inception is important to both our creative and personal growth.

There’s a framed picture hanging against the far wall of my bedroom. Twelve by twelve. Matted inside a square frame I picked up in the discount bin at the local art supply store. A mixture of wood and copper. Not exactly a designer frame. But it’s the perfect color tones to complement the burgundy walls and beige blackout shades that sit just to sides of the photograph.

The image inside the frame is that of a woman. She sits with her legs crossed, her back towards the camera. Her eyes connect with the audience with a level of honesty that I don’t always achieve in my photography but always strive for.

Perhaps it is this honesty that is the reason why I’ve always loved this image. Or perhaps it’s the lighting and color toning. Annie Leibovitz has always been a big influence on me, and I remember this shot being one of my first where I felt I had achieved anything close to Annie-ish lighting. It was also one of my early attempts at color-toning in post. To this day, I wish I had saved the style as a present in Capture One so that I might again replicate the effect. But, alas, that series of images is destined to stand alone.

The woman in the photograph is also alone. Not just literally. But there’s a look in her eyes that hides a secret. A secret that I can never know. A story of survival. A story of pain. A tale naked for all the world to see if we would only look deep enough.

The woman in the photograph is physically naked as well. The entire image consisting of an empty apartment room, her bare skin, and light.  It was this simplicity that made me fall in love with fine art nude photography. There is no more basic challenge as a photographer than to create something beautiful from the simple elements of light and shadow. Nude photography literally strips you of all artifice. No wild styling choices can save an otherwise mundane image. If you don’t come to the set with a strong lighting concept, you run a serious risk of departing the high world of art and landing fully in the basement of pornography.

While I don’t do as much nude work now as I did when I was first forming my photographic voice, the years I spent honing my lighting through nude art is still integral to every photograph I take today. In my mind at least, there is very little difference in the way I would approach creating this image of a young woman baring herself physically and emotionally and the way I would approach creating an image of an athlete presenting themselves to the world. Well, aside from the presence of a clothing label.

I share with you that preamble because while my feelings about my own motivations in taking the image hasn't changed over the years, the meaning of the image itself has changed and continues to evolve.

The image in question is well over a decade old by this point. Truthfully, it’s continued presence on my wall is more a matter of decorative laziness than a burning desire to keep it up as a reminder. Yet, oddly, it has, in many ways, become a reminder. Allow me to tell you the story.

The project came about as a part of a series of images I was creating of nudes shot in model’s homes. I generally shot my nudes in a studio. It’s cleaner, more professional, and I feel like it offers the models a better sense of security. After all, they don’t know me. Asking them to come to my house or to invite me into theirs just seems like it could go wrong in many different ways. So, I always tried to avoid it. But for this particular project, my sense of creative challenge drove me to try something new, and so I began putting out feelers to potential models who might be open to having me into their living space to create the images.

Working with a new model, male or female, is always an adventure. You don’t know if you’ll have a creative chemistry. You have to get them to trust you, a person they’ve never met, almost instantaneously. And while you may have an artistic objective in mind, you are (hopefully) always remembering that the subject in front of you is a person first and a subject second. You have to first respect them as a human being before you have any hope of getting the most out of them as a model.

Unfortunately, you can’t always control what experiences may have occurred between the model and previous photographers. Have they been treated kindly? Have they been objectified? Has a particularly handsy photographer tried to take liberties? The world has far too many “photographers” who really just use their self-proclaimed title as a way to spend time with beautiful women or worse, confuse photoshoots for dates. Don’t be that person.  

Once you’ve worked with enough models, it won’t take long to read a model’s entire working history in their initial greeting. When you’re dealing with a member of the opposite sex who you are going to be shortly asking to remove their clothing, the immediate establishment of a safe and professional working environment is paramount. You are not there on a date. You are not there just to see a naked woman. You are there to create art and only art. It is your responsibility to create and maintain that professional relationship on set (and after).

Over the course of my location nude project, I had photographed a number of subjects prior to my arrival at this woman’s apartment. Walking into each model’s home was a different experience. Some lived in nice bungalows in upscale neighborhoods. Some lived in cramped domiciles with their apparently drunk boyfriend in the next room playing video games. This being Los Angeles, many were also part-time actors, and thus lived in one of the many functional but “affordable” apartments that are scattered around East Hollywood.

The model in the picture lived in one such apartment complex, an old building built in the early 1900’s when Hollywood was just being born and thousands flocked to the West Coast in search of stardom. There was technically an elevator, although the cramped quarters and audible creaking sound it emitted each time it passed a floor were enough to convince me it was worth carrying my Pelican cases up the steep, winding, and narrow stairwell instead.

I arrived at her door on the third floor looking over my shoulder. It’s a risk to invite a strange photographer into your home. It’s also a risk to carry thousands of dollars worth of lighting equipment into a random apartment building without an easy escape route.

I rang the bell and gently wiped the sweat from my brow derived from having muscled the cases up the stairs to the third floor.

The door crept open slowly, followed by the sight of my model’s head peeking around the side of the door. I had previously only seen her on Model Mayhem, the casting site where I found her profile. She looked like her picture. From the nose up, at least, since that was, at the moment, all of her that I could see.

I stepped inside and offered her a big smile and a handshake. As she closed the door behind us, she reached out her hand. I quickly noticed a couple things about her. One, she was shorter than I had imagined. And two, she was already naked.

This may not seem like a big detail as I was there to do a fine art nude shoot, after all. It’s just that, in my experience, most models will at least begin a shoot with some type of loose fitting clothes or even a bathrobe before getting right down to business.

I also noticed that the room itself was strikingly empty. Aside from a mini-fridge, a mattress, and a handful of clothes thrown into a partially opened closet, there was very little evidence that the apartment were inhabited at all. Again, not necessarily grounds for a conclusion. From the little I was able to make out in those first couple minutes, I learned that she was just one of many young actresses/models who had recently descended on the city in search of the dream. Right off the bus, literally. As being an unemployed actress is hardly a cash cow of a career, it was perfectly understandable that she wouldn’t have a great deal of furniture or belongings.

I hid whatever questions might have been in my head and went about scouting the room for the best places to set up. This was the entire objective of the project after all. I wanted to challenge myself to be able to create the same high quality of work I was producing in the studio on location with limited prep time. It was one of those creative challenges that I frequently assign myself and are the main reason for the development of my career.

But while I was able to conceal any curiosities that might have entered my head in those opening moments, I definitely sensed she might have had a few curiosities of her own. Her eyes widened as I broke open the legs on my C-stand. When I opened my Profoto softbox and began assembling the rods, her expression began to slowly migrate from confusion to something bordering on relief.

I may be wrong. It’s not something we ever openly talked about. But, I’ve always suspected that when she answered my casting call that day, that she had read the word “casting” and inserted imaginary parentheses. When she opened the door, she was not expecting to actually be photographed. Instead, she was expecting yet another so-called “photographer” to walk through the door without a camera in hand and bearing other more carnal priorities in mind. The world had taught her that her body was currency and that the only transaction she was worthy of would fall well short of art.

But was I innocent in the process? To be sure, I had photography and only photography in mind. But her body would be a major element of the final composition. Even though my intentions were purely professional, does using the human form as a subject contribute to the objectification of the opposite sex? Over a decade later, I still don’t have the definitive answer to that question, but it is just one of many that I consider when I see that print hanging on my wall.

Every time I wake up in the morning, looking for a reason to sleep just a little bit longer, I notice a sliver of light sneaking in through the shades landing on the portrait. I try to read the eyes staring back at me. What was she thinking at that moment?  

You might find it strange that my description of an artistic nude photograph would be so devoted to the details of what’s going on in the subject’s eyes, but that was truly the most significant part of the image. The only skin visible in the image is the sort you can see during a short trip to the local beach. The more prominent body parts are intentionally cloaked by the model’s pose. For me, artistic nudes are about honesty, not body parts. And while I created a number of frames during the session with varying degrees of flesh, that simple portrait is the one that has stood the test of time in my mind.

Following the shoot, as I lugged my gear back down the rickety stairwell and out to the car, the model followed me out to the car. There was nothing left for her to carry. Apparently, she was just keeping me company. As I went to say goodbye, I offered another professional handshake but quickly found myself on the receiving end of a warm embrace. As the embrace continued to last just a bit longer than usual, I began to wonder if perhaps more may have transpired on that day than a simple business transaction. Nothing romantic, but a pure emotion indeed.

I believe that by treating the model with a respect that she may not have always received, by being professional, honest, and upfront with my motives while carrying out my promises, and by not taking advantage of someone in a position to be taken advantage of, I was able to inadvertently help reaffirm her value beyond her physical appeal.  

That’s no credit to me. I was simply going about my day.  And to not be objectified or taken advantage of while you’re at work is the bare minimum anyone should be able to expect from a day at the office. I'm guessing this is something that is obvious to you personally, but given the number of horror stories my models share with me about certain photographers, it is apparently something that deserves repeating.

But what did that moment mean to this particular woman who appeared to be at a point in life where she’d been taught her body was the only thing she had of value? That moment and the framed photograph in my bedroom continue to remind me that our actions can have a positive effect on others whether we are conscious of it or not.

That image reminds me not to miss the small details in life. It reminds me that, no matter the beauty of the outside container, we all carry with us stories that are shades of gray.

I chose not to include the portrait in question in this article for many reasons (hence all the random neighborhood photos). One, I’ve tried to be open about the experience, and no one needs to know the identity of the particular model aside from myself. Nor is the model’s portrait available on my website. I love the image, but I’ve refined my approach to nude photography significantly over the years and thus continue to show only a limited portion of my work in that area outside of print exhibition with an added emphasis on not only art, but the societal impact of each work that might be seen publicly. It’s a work in progress.

I haven’t photographed that model again, but I still maintain contact with her via social media. Seeing a constant stream of images of her digital life and how she presents herself to the world continue to inform the way I view her portrait. The way the light in the portrait rakes across her slender frame presenting subtle shadows along her rib cage. As a photographer, I always viewed that as a beautiful pattern of light and shadow.  As the years have rolled on and I’ve seen a number of her own de rigueur selfies crawling across Instagram, I’ve found myself worried at just how slender she really is. Are those ribs really a sign of photographic beauty or a signal of a potential eating disorder that, in my artistic zeal, I may have overlooked? I doubt I’ll ever get to know the answer to that question, but it’s one I should at least consider.

If my suspicions were right and, when I turned up that day to photograph her, she really had been thinking that I was there to do something else in exchange for money, then what happened the next time a different photographer showed up with less professional motives? And, if she really was willing to do that other thing in exchange for the same feeble amount of money that I paid for her just to pose for me, then how dire must have been her financial straits? Instead of it being the meeting of creative minds I imagined, was it really just me taking advantage of my financial privilege?

She, like many, is also a big fan of celebrity culture, including a big interest in Britney Spears type ingenues who may or may not show a bit more skin than is necessary. Over the last several years, I’ve looked at the portrait and asked whether I was truly collaborating with a willing creative partner as I expected, or was I accidentally taking advantage of someone’s idolization of a sex-obsessed culture and unintentionally furthering the objectification narrative through my photography? Moreover, if that is the case, is there something else that I can create as a photographer that addresses that imbalance and better reflects the positive body image that would be of more benefit to society?

I know what you’re thinking. That’s a lot of questions to ask about one photograph. And, more specifically, a lot of questions which I’ll never be able to adequately answer. But, as artists, our art is our best weapon for creating the type of world we wish to live in. And while step one is to make sure you are stepping behind the camera with a clarity of heart, it is equally important to step back and re-evaluate your work to ensure that the message you think you are sending is the one coming through. Our images can mean different things to different audiences. As evidenced by my story today, our images can even mean different things to the same audience when looked at through the lens of time and lived experience.

So, what message is your work sending to the world? Is it the message you intended? Is there a way you could be stating your message more clearly? Are you having a positive influence on your subjects, creative team, and even your clients? Photography aside, are you interacting with other human beings in a way that affects positive change in the world around you?

Next time you find yourself reviewing your own work, ask yourself some of these questions. Like me, you may not be able to come up with firm answers. But it’s important to keep asking the questions. Even if you don’t have a ten-year-old print hanging on the wall to force you to do so.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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"So, what message is your work sending to the world?"

Depending on the situation, either "You want to buy this house." or "You want to hire this person."

Wonderful essay Christopher! As many of your other stories as well.

Thank you Elmar. I appreciate it.