Friday, March 12, 2010

Are Models Normal People?

OKAY ... so last week I bared my soul for the first time and you all (the 2 people that read my blog) learned how I came to be a photographer. You also learned that my photography has a number of quite different areas of focus. I started out doing landscapes - taking pretty pictures of sunsets - but I quickly branched into other areas such as sports and fitness photography, and in 2006 I took my first real step into the deep dark hole known as Fashion Photography. While in Montreal, I took the big leap of working in a proper photography studio with professional lighting equipment, a stylist and a model under the watchful eye of a wonderful fashion photographer – Karl Duarte: 

My subject was a very charismatic young man by the name of Randy Raymond and we had a great time working together. Karl taught me a lot about how to use strobe flashes, how to make ginger ale look like real champagne. I didn’t break any of his equipment and I got to work with a great stylist and a real model. We created some images that were good - better than anything I had created to date at least … and I was hooked.

In the ensuing few years, I have developed my skills in fashion photography, and while I am certainly no expert in the field, I have formed my own opinion about a number of issues surrounding models, designers and agencies. Yesterday my good friend, mentor and guardian angel: Mr. Dallas Logan asked one of his cheeky questions on Face Book: “Aren’t models "regular" people?". Now Dallas is one of the best rising fashion photographers in the North American heart of  Fashion - New York - and I am always humbled and inspired by his work: . But those who know him will also know that he is a "rascally rabbit" and loves to stir up controversy. He also speaks his mind and comes at this from the perspective of not only being a former model but being very truthful about whether the people he shoots have what it takes to be a "model". So I loved that he asked the question, but it did set my mind to thinking about this in relation to my own work as a fashion photographer and working with  new models. 

I often get people coming to me and saying they want to become a model and my first question back is: "What do you consider a model to be?" MOST of the time young men and women think “modelONLY when they see the high fashion magazines or models walking on a runway in Paris or New York. They see the clothes and the lights and all the glitter and fame and attention, and they want that. I am always quick to give them a broader perspective on the word - a "model" can be anyone who depicts a state of being for a particular purpose. So that white haired grandma down the street can be a model for photos depicting the wonders of Medicare. That overweight ... err ... Rubinesque middle aged woman can be a model for a weight reduction clinic advertisement. That child of three can be a model for the latest cloths at Baby Gap. And YES, a person who is 5'7" and has an "ordinary" face can be a model. Can they be a model on the runways in New York? Not likely - because that area of fashion is a rarefied world where designers and agencies want all the models to be close to the same height and the same body structure for very practical purposes.

So to the question - are models “normal” people? The short answer is "Yes" - they are real people with real feelings and real lives - they just happen to make a living (or a partial living) by standing in front of a photographer and "performing" for the camera. They are "regular" people with egos and (and sometimes big ones) and feelings and insecurities about their bodies and their faces, and bad days and headaches. What the successful ones do have is an abnormal ability - natural or learned - to use their bodies and faces to grab your attention. After all, let's not lose sight of what most images are meant to do - to grab your attention and then turn your attention to the product or service that they are supposed to be selling to you .... $$$$$! That’s what advertising is and that’s what makes the model world go around. Clients need models to make their products look attractive, and clients need photographers to understand their vision and combine those models and their products into real images that can be used in those expensive advertisements.

Can everyone be a model? No … and it is not just because they may not have a look that grabs our attention. It may be because they think that having a “look” is everything they need to do. So the second question I always ask prospective models who come to me: “Are you prepared to make the changes and sacrifices that you will need to make to be a successful model?”  

Let me illustrate with a little story about one of "my" models - Jon Hylton. I like to say that I "discovered" Jon and it is accurate in the sense that I saw his potential and convinced him to give it a try. But it is what he did to become successful that really illustrates the effort that it takes to become a professional model. 

I ran across Jon on-line one day and was impressed with his face - the most important part of any model. So eventually I met him in Calgary and we took some pics just to see what he was like in front of the camera. Now at the time, Jon was quite shy (still is in some ways), and carrying a few extra pounds, a lot of body hair, and a big case of insecurity about his looks. Oh and he had braces too!  But he had an incredible natural presence in front of the camera, and he was an athlete with a good body and was a bit of a ham with a wide range of expressions. So I knew he had "it" and I encouraged him to use the next few months until his braces came off to really think about it, look at the possibilities and then we would talk about doing a real portfolio shoot. That took 6 months.

We agreed to do a proper shoot in a studio, I hired a wonderful stylist named Aleece Camille, rented studio time and got Jon all dressed up and started the shoot. WELL …. what I didn’t know was that in those months, Jon had really taken my encouragement to heart. He had worked out like a mad man, toned his body, worked on his skin, looked at fashion magazines and practiced in front of the mirror. He stepped in front of my camera and started giving me poses and expressions and angles without hesitation, with confidence and presence to the point that I put my camera down after 10 minutes and said ... “What the hell just happened here?” Well what had happened is that Jon had "become a model". He had gained the self confidence he needed through sheer will power and had “learned” to act in front of the camera. He had made the changes and effort needed to go from being a handsome man to being capable of being a professional model. 

Was it all easy from there? No... and Jon will be the first to tell you that. While he was signed almost right away to NUMA Models in and he got some local work, it took quite awhile for him to achieve success on a broader level. Trips to New York where he was rejected by more agencies than he would care to remember, going to cattle calls with hundreds of other models, spending many days away from home, sacrificing financial security, etc. etc.  But now he’s been successful with another agency in Toronto, been a key model for Sport Chek, been published in KRAVE magazine twice, been in Kohl's commercials in the US,  and is currently on assignment in South Africa. Is he a supermodel yet? No – but he has quit his regular job to pursue modeling full time and he is now dedicated to making it as a model and to pursuing it as long as it is lucrative for him. He wants it

So is Jon “normal’?  Yes … in the sense that he is a real person - a sweet, shy gentle man who is really modest about himself and not at all egotistical as one would assume about someone that attractive. No … in the sense that he realized early on that it is not all about his “look” and that he must devote hard work to being a model, that he must endure a lot of the tough stuff – the discipline of diet and exercise, the constant scrutiny and frequent rejection, the hours, the discomfort, in order to earn the benefits – the satisfaction of being a successful model.

Models are as normal as the rest of us – they have to work at what they do – it is not all natural gifts. So if you think you are model material and you’re secretly wishing to become a model but you’re afraid people won’t think of you as normal any more, fear not. But… as the saying goes – be careful what you wish for!

Always more at : including more of Jon Hylton. 


  1. I'm bookmarking this for when I get the same question (and I do all the time). Nice work, Harry!

  2. great perspective. great story. i love that you used jon as an example, since i remember seeing him first through your work. kudos!

  3. Excellent and insightful commentary. Thanks so much for sharing this. Kudos. And by the way, I am a huge fan of yours.

  4. Ahh thanks guys - really appreciate the luv!!!

  5. Amazing! Anybody "normal" can be anything we want, all the rest is drive, hard work and believe in yourself, and that is the "story of Jon" ... Incredible. I had the opportunity of seeing him grow thru your work, and really Happy things are working out!

    You rock, keep writing Harry!
    in love,