Fashion's wild west: The model Photographer
Our fashionable forefathers once shuddered in disbelief at the hoards of celeb children who, as early as 2010, galavanted into world-class modelling agencies, swooped up contracts with relative ease and from there, took haute-couture fashion shows, Italian Vogue spreads and the hearts of the worlds most renowned and fashion editors by storm.
What followed, with the slow and inevitable precision of an eroding seascape or flickering candle wick, we watched as said tastemakers bowed their heads in consent; several years of watching Gigi, Kendall, and Bella prove themselves with hard work and gratitude, the obvious golden ticket. Zooming out, though the parameters of their industry introduction resembles something like the Shangri-La, it is fair to say that the qualifications of top model-dom have drastically changed from the 90s, 80s, and any other era before us. On one hand, models are expected to be ballerina-graceful, eloquent, and whip smart; educated on the issues to justify a brightly-burning fame. A pinch of devilish fun is to be had, twisted around the work ethic of an olympian; all so they remain aspirational to teenage fans, yet deserving to their parents. The new supermodel must must manage themselves as CEO's, even before their first penny is proccured. Clothing labels, shoe lines and beauty brand collaborations are the expected next steps; no longer is a one-dimensional advertising campaign enough to satisfy the multi-platform extension of identity. So, a natural progression would lie in seeing the model as the model-maker; both the photographer and muse, a one stop shop to manufacture an sellable ideal.
As we begin to cozy up to the ideal of celeb-models diving into a photographer's domain, a few things must be noted. Photography is a profession that is not only notoriously cut-throat, but notoriously threatened, for reasons with the credibility of your high-school iD. Photography is a technical skill; and the best ones make it look easy; like a second-nature birthright that didn't, in fact, come from years of blood, sweat, and considerable debt investing in free projects, equipment, and traveling to find the inspiration, people and places that made you fall in love with their work to begin with. In this way, photography is comparable to a ballet; it is bloody, scary, and over-wrought with people claiming to do the same thing as you but with half the technique. On the surface, the image has to look simple, refined; rooted in emotion that blurs out all the hardships one harbours in the process. But hardships, there are.
Photography also, like much else in our data-saturated universe, requires considerable resources with which to remain invested, relevant, and mentally malleable. One must have the right equipment, the right mindset for creative inspiration and lucidity, and in some respects, the right friends; without influential cheerleaders on your side, you'll soon find yourself swimming beneath hoards of insta-famous iphone photographers with celebrity BFFs; a beacon for insecure brands to throw advertising dollars at, though (more on this later) this surely won't last once the influencer bubble bursts.
At a time when all lines are blurring, what does it mean to be a 21st-century fashion model? Size, surely, is no longer a barrier to entry, nor should it be - the soon-to-be-released documentary Straight/Curve, Refinery 29's #seethe67 initiative, and Aerie's #AerieReal campaign are just glimmers of real-world change - not just influenced by celeb culture, but directly influencing that, too - the acknowledgement of the millenial gaze has major brands conceding to real people, and the extraordinary beauty they can - and do - represent.
With this shift, too, comes something else - a brand of aspiration existing beyond the physical, beyond that of material beauty and a fleeting face. Models are now dimensional in all aspects of the word; supporting causes, charities, and organizations of their own, most typically out of an effort to fight the oppressions that forbade them from being considered "models" to begin with. Models are, in fact, helping us embrace all sorts of beauty, as they directly influence what we see on our screens. Though this diversity is unquestionably powerful, the question at hand is this: should models be thrust a camera and asked to document this change, at the loss of many passionate, brilliantly-skilled photographers with the same mission themselves?
Though not conclusive, the general consensus points to no. We are in the midst of an industry evolution - a digital wild west - where nothing is certain and the chips are slowly beginning to fall. Everyone is now expected to do everything, it seems; not only to stake new claims and test new waters, but to accommodate for tighter wallets and ever-shrinking budgets. One job vacancy with Conde Nast asks for a "Preditor;" a producer/editor rolled into one, more suited to a start-up environment than one of the world's leading media titans. It is under this mindset that paying one model hundreds of thousands of dollars to be both the face and photographer seems more economical than paying two individuals for the same end-result, but in effect, only adds to our general decline of industry quality, opportunity, and innovative spirit.
This kind of job consolidation contributes to the shrinking of our industry pie, of which an increasing number of individuals want a piece. By supporting fresh talent, young and diverse alike, we help to create a fair creative culture that thrives on healthy competition; prizing good work over good metrics and effectively turning toxicity on its head.
Models have a place in fashion, and it is changing, expanding; humanizing itself in a strikingly positive way. These game-changing humans pioneering the model-as-persons movement should feel accepted in their vulnerability and do what they feel they are best at, appreciated for more than looking beautiful to subjective eyes. This normative claim - what ought to be our industry standard for models - is not fluffy, idealized or too fantastical to work, either; an individual can be out of this world and aspirational for harbouring an extraordinary soul or incomparable talent, without requiring their metrics to first and foremost exist in a box.
This said, perhaps we should hold other professions to the same standard, photography included. If a fashion model is exceptionally skilled in photography, and understands the technicalities of lighting, digital, and connecting subject-to-screen like other photographers can, they should feel just as valid holding a camera as anyone else with that level of expertise. If a model wants to learn the art of photography, too, they should be able to, and beging to understand it from a foundational level. This is not only fair to the individual, but to all of us, the industry as a whole. If we begin building houses from the fourth floor up, ignoring the foundation for the sake of hype, what will we be left with, but a city of crumbling buildings built on Instagram and reality TV?