Having your own muse, a person on call who is willing and able to bring your creative ideas to life, is a gift. Traditionally female, muses have been the source of many artistic inspirations and great works of art, due to their beauty, character, or some other mysterious quality. Problem is, these collaborations can become murky as conflicting goals, crossed boundaries, and trust issues seep into what was “a good thing.” How can working with a muse revolutionize your work? Are the benefits of finding one worth the trouble?
For many photographers, there is an excitement, and dare I say relief, when we shoot with a subject that personifies our creative vision and enriches our work. It is natural for the photographer to be drawn to a continued working relationship with them. It is equally fortunate if this individual feels the same way and wants to continue this practice.
The best examples of these artist-muse relationships are made possible if they are truly collaborative, where the model is just as much the artistic contributor as the photographer is. Both parties value what the other brings, and both appreciate the uniqueness and quality of the work they produce.
Between these two, there is also a healthy distance where it is understood where this partnership begins and ends. The goal of producing great work is the focus, and there is a wonderful expediency to the process because of the experience shared from their working history and familiarity with each other’s idiosyncrasies.
I have worked with some models so often, barely any words need to be shared to create something fantastic. Our repeated sessions together means every idea after can be more ambitious or experimental — which is not always possible with new subjects. There is a strong sense that something good will always come from our collaborations, but I would still hesitate to call them my muse.
The Issue With Being Called a Muse
Whether we like it or not, there is a possessive nature in the word muse. I have had various models share with me the discomfort they have felt when another photographer called them “my muse.” They don’t like the ideas of intimacy and exclusivity that the word evokes.
Often in more professional circles, the model does not feel they have the power to speak up in case they offend or gain a bad reputation among others in the industry. Though the photographer probably meant the label as a compliment, the idea of being a muse becomes more of a burden, causing the model to be more reluctant to work with these photographers.
This problem can also be reversed when the model or subject sees themselves as a co-creator of an image and claims ownership of the work. Rather than trust the person holding the camera, the photographer is only seen as a tool to capture their best side. This over inflated image of themselves as the source of greatness is equally unhealthy.
The mantle of the muse should be given and taken when both parties openly and clearly understand this is the case. There can even exist an exclusivity in what you both create; being something that others don’t have access to, thus making the work more unique or valuable.
Some individuals welcome being called a muse, even by multiple creatives. Models like Ditta Von Teese and Kate Moss have embraced this label and have publicly stated that they are more than happy to be the source of someone’s inspiration. Those that feel this way understand that they do not belong to anyone and they act upon their own choices.
Working With Really Ridiculously Good Looking People
Probably the trickiest aspect to navigate when working with someone you call a muse is how close and personal that relationship can get. Let’s be honest, if this person is your muse, there is a level of attraction or fascination towards them. If you are lucky enough to be related, dating, or married to your muse, this becomes less of an issue. Yet for most that seek these creative companions, this is something to seriously consider.
Throughout history, there have been countless destructive relationships formed between an artist and their muse — another reason some models don’t like being referred to as someone's muse. From artists like Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimt to more contemporary examples like Woody Allen, all had intimate links with their muses, often ending up in tragic circumstances. For artists like these, their passionate relationships with these women were the reasons their works were so interesting, but these are certainly not examples to follow if you want a positive reputation in the photography world.
In some cases, the turmoil and forbiddance of the relationship can be the attraction for those involved. Being wanted or wanting another person can begin in the professional space but easily slip into the personal; that seductive glance into your lens turns into a deeper form of emotional entanglement. Is this a good thing? Can there be a healthy overlap? I will leave that for you to decide, but please consider your motives before chasing someone.
Making It Work For You
What many forget about creating art is that it is often a lonely process of self-doubt, dry spells, and frustrating experimentations. We need all kinds of support if we are to survive as creatives. Desiring a companion to share in this journey, to lift us from these valleys is an understandable response. Knowing this, having someone who will act as your muse becomes a privilege — respect and care is foundation that you act from.
Whether the photographer has a close relationship with their muse or if they begin as strangers, having strong boundaries and defined ethics about how each will be treated can save much complications and heartache. Having an exit strategy and deciding how long such a pact will continue could give space to reflect on how well things are working. Expand your idea of who you want to work with. People who inspire you need not do so because they are attractive in appearance. Mostly, just don't be a jerk or a sleaze.
Photographers should seek or let evolve a muse relationship if they feel it will benefit their work and know that they can equally benefit their subject. What this should not be is a dating service nor a place to exercise power. Collaborating with a muse follows a long tradition in art. If done with the right motives, you can have a part in creating a possible history, where positive and enviable examples of these partnerships dominates.