Working With a Muse: Is the Search for a Creative Soulmate Worth the Trouble?

Working With a Muse: Is the Search for a Creative Soulmate Worth the Trouble?

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.

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20 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Didn't we all get into photography to bang models? I don't know about this 'muse' business, but enjoyed the article.

Terry Richardson did.

Nick Viton's picture

The downside of using the same model is that it somewhat limits the diversity of your portfolio.

A portfolio doesn't need diversity to be good. God I hate that word.

Dan Howell's picture

Then try 'variety.' Filling a portfolio with a single model IS limiting. Not only that it can easily fall into being safe and comfortable. 'Safe' and 'comfortable' are not usually words you want to associate with a good portfolio.

Safe and comfortable? My friend, this is photography, not a weekend in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Nick Viton's picture

Oh hey Chris ( sigma. )! I think we met at Fashion Week? Anyhow, I think you're missing my point, as my statement says nothing about "needing" diversity. Just that shooting the same person is limiting. You don't have to take my word for it. Try shooting the same person exclusively (including your street shots) for the next 6 months.

It all depends on what it is you are trying to achieve. I see nothing wrong with a focus on one model if the goal is simply taking good photographs. The craft of photography is not rocket science. If the technical aspects click with one model then they will click with others.

chris smith's picture

agree, a portfolio doesn't need diversity to be good, but diversity makes it better. take a look at peter hurley's website portfolio. he has a wide age range, i would assume people in their 20's-60's in age (age diversity), He has white women and men, black women and men, and asain women and men (ethnic diversity) . I'm sure that was planned that way to appeal to everyone...

Kendra Paige's picture

This was a very interesting article. However, I do feel that there is a heavy emphasis on the muse being the gender you're attracted to. As a heterosexual female photographer, my muses have also been female. I suppose that gives me an edge for avoiding the 'creepy' factor, but I haven't treated my male models any differently than my female ones.

I believe the root issue here is a photographer's professionalism and one's ability to foster working relationships. Interesting read!

Jason Lau's picture

Thanks Kendra. I agree that some female photographers do have an advantage in this respect, which may allow them to shoot female models in more ambitious ways. Mostly, the issue is about how people exercise power in the photographer and subject relationship and these are the common examples that I've observed or have been told about.

Why would you think it would be "creepy" if you only photographed men, or one man? Men wouldn't think like that. I find it odd why so many woman would then see it being "creepy" if a man only photographed women, or one woman. If I were your male model it wouldn't bother me if you were also attracted to me. What's the big deal? I think people just need to lighten up about attractions and working with the opposite sex, especially women in regards to men. I mean just because we may be attracted to you women doesn't me we are going to do anything inappropriate or forceful.

Kendra Paige's picture

I don't think that at all. I was just saying that the article made it seem that muses are only the gender you're attracted to, which I disagreed with. I realize I'm the minority being a woman in this industry, so I understand why the article was written for and from a male perspective.

I believe your complaint is more with social constructs in the workplace more than anything else. It's still largely frowned upon for an employer to be intimate with their employee, so the photographer and subject relationship comes attached with similar taboos.

But you said "I suppose that gives me an edge for avoiding the 'creepy' factor," which is what I addressed in my post.

Clearly "social constructs in the workplace" apply to this article's subject.

As for a model being employee, I think that would be stretching the definition of the word in most cases. I see it as simply hiring someone to do a particular job, much in the way a general contractor building a home.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Interesting subject you have touched. The relationship between an artist and his muse is something that just happens. Something on the edge of professional and romantic relationship. It can stay on the professional side but there is definitely attraction involved.
By looking for a muse I understand one is some kind of creep that is using camera to find a girlfriend...
So don't look for a muse. If you will meet one, you will realize it and probably there will be some sort of drama involved ;)

I didn't even know what muse meant until I read this article.

Ian Johns's picture

Eagerly awaiting Terry Richardson to chime in here somewhere...

Ralph Berrett's picture

Not so much Muse routine, but I always try to work with people with equal or better experience than me. so that I can learn from them and push myself more.

Neo Racer's picture

I had a muse once and its a very rare thing indeed, shot with many many girls and while they were all great there was a special connection I felt with that special work partner. When whatever you do just comes out right, they 'get it' instinctively and it really does show in the pictures! Hope I can find another one some day.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I've yet to experience the downside to having muses. I have a couple of models who inspire me a lot that I've built close personal relationships with who I work closely with and very often, but also I think a muse could be a clothing designer, a makeup and hair artist, wardrobe stylist, another photographer, etc, My current muse is a clothing designer who really clicks with me and we always create beautiful work together. I think surrounding yourself with talented creatives who inspire you and bring out the best in your work is essential. I don't think sexual attraction is always necessary though.