A muse today is different than 10 years ago
(Muse)(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
2. musea. A guiding spirit.b. A source of inspiration: the lover who was the painter’s muse.
Who needs a muse? Not everyone, for sure. If one is a photojournalist one need’s a keen sixth sense to know what to shoot and when to get the hell out of a situation. If one is a portrait artist, one needs a good light setup. If one is an editorial photographer one needs a strong perception of the details in everyday life. There are plenty of creative endeavors that have no call at all for a muse.
Artistic photography is one of those genres, though, where having someone consistent, someone on whom a photographer can depend, really can make a lot of difference. I base this not only on my own experience, but what I hear from other photographers as well. While we enjoy working with several different models, having that one person, or, if you’re lucky, maybe two people, around who you can shape and build concepts and ideas is invaluable.
The requirements for that role, however, have changed over the years. At least, they have for me. For example, as inspirational as Kat is for me and as encouraging as she constantly is, you might have noticed that we took only one set of pictures of her last year, and that was while we were on vacation. The myriad demands on Kat’s time and energy leaves her without the space necessary to be a muse. She simply cannot fill that role, no matter how much I love her.
At the same time, I can no longer wait around for someone to have some spare time, or drop by at any random time of day, or call me up in the middle of the night. Those were all former options that made it easy to accommodate a muse. However, as my life and work have transitioned, that level of randomness no longer works for me. A lot has changed. What I want and need from a muse has changed. I don’t know if these guidelines necessarily apply to anyone else, but I think they make a good foundation. Every artist and photographer is going to have their own modifications to this list, but take a look and consider whether you might be someone’s answer to a serious need.
A muse doesn’t need to look like a goddess
In the past, there was always a lot of emphasis on the person in the picture being pretty. That requirement, generally speaking, is gone. For me at least, what is more important is that the model is genuine, open, and capable of revealing her true nature and personality to the camera. I’m not looking to create a fantasy. I’m not telling a fairy tale. Instead, I’m expressing a perspective of reality. I need a muse that is real and not faking it for the camera.
This means that I’m open to models who are not 19 years old, whose bodies show the wear and tear of real life. I’m open to a muse who has physical limitations, someone who has to work within given parameters and has strict limitations. Those challenges can actually aid inspiration because it challenges us to find a way to be expressive within that box while simultaneously creating something outside the normal concept of artistic figure work.
I also feel that we are at a point in our society where beauty does not always deliver the message we want. Beauty often equals conformity and there are few instances where anything artistic should be conformist. There is such a thing as being too beautiful for certain types of artwork. A muse today can be the ordinary person who simply wants to become a part of art. Those works can be every bit as moving as anything else we’ve ever created. One just has to be willing to try.
A muse doesn’t have to be a model
Historically, there have been advantages to having experienced models as muses. They understood posing. They knew from which angles their bodies look best. They understood the processes behind a photo shoot. Those were all valuable qualities to have and I’m still certainly not opposed to working with experienced people. There are times where experience is a must. However, experienced models don’t always make the best muses for a number of reasons.
A muse needs to be able to work with and capture the creative mind of a specific artist, not an entire audience of fans. Experienced models today come with large numbers of Instagram followers demanding to be fed new images on a regular basis. Models have obligations to maintain an image on social media that might be contrary to what the artist is wanting to achieve. A muse needs to be more like a blank slate without the external influence of someone else’s expectations.
Experienced models also tend to impose their own perspective over the top of the artist. The photographer suggests a specific pose, for example, and the model is reluctant because it might show belly rolls or expose cellulite or make her hips look big. Sorry, that just doesn’t work anymore. Imperfections, the natural ways in which our bodies respond to sitting or lying in certain positions, are expressions we don’t want to avoid. Working with a muse who doesn’t mind if her stretch marks show or her face is a bit wrinkled is wonderful. Act how you are, not how you think someone else wants you to be.
Muses allow an artist to plan
It’s one thing to have a concept for a photo shoot and then cast a model to fit that concept. Quite different is the experience of having a muse around which you can mold, shape, and most importantly, plan a shoot. Knowing exactly the face and the body with which one will be working allows the artist to plan deeper, to think in greater detail, and to create in ways that are more precise, even when the product being created is abstract.
A problem many of us have had before is that too many would-be muses wanted to know exactly what we were doing before they would agree to do the shoot. There is some validity in that if the model/muse has safety concerns or doesn’t know the photographer/artist well. There have been too many instances where one is asked to just show up with a bag full and clothes and wing it. That approach is not only unprofessional, it is unacceptable in the current social reality.
What we need from a muse today, though, is someone who does not dictate the concept, but rather inspires it and works with a photographer to create something wonderful. The photographer might ask their muse, “How long can you stand on one foot?” The muse wouldn’t challenge why they were being asked to stand on one foot, but would know on which foot they can stand the longest. And yes, that can make a difference. Being able to plan for the peculiarities of a muse makes the end result better and the overall process run smooth.
Muses understand the intersection of life and art
Now, more than ever I think, people look at artistic photographs and expect them to say something about life. Figure studies that play with concepts of light and shadow fall flat on today’s audience that has already seen just about every permutation of shadow manipulation possible. While that doesn’t mean light and shadow work isn’t still valid, what it tells us is that we do well to consider placing those studies within the broader concept that envelopes some condition of life.
This affects who one chooses as a muse because some models are so dramatically disconnected from normal life that it is impossible for them to present an image of the human condition. We need muses with whom not only the photographer can relate but the potential audience as well. We need muses who help keep both us and our work real. We need muses who are grounded in what it means to be alive in 2017.
At the same time, though, those same muses need to appreciate how art intersects life, that there are moments of beauty in the things we do that are mundane and ordinary, that expressing our emotions in careful and planned outbursts can deliver powerful images, and that fragility and vulnerability is a level of beauty all its own. A modern muse is aware of how the image they portray can affect society and plays to that artistic reality.
Muses find synchronization with an artist
I have enjoyed working with several people over the years who acted as wonderful muses for a great wealth of work. Those with whom I’ve done the best, though, have always been the ones with whom there is a natural, unspoken, synchronization; a mutual agreement in the way we view life, art, love, and freedom. As I look at what is required of artists today, I find that achieving that synchronization with a muse is all the more important.
This is one of those places where it’s the little things that matter. For example, I don’t think I could work with a muse right now if they didn’t drink coffee. Caffeine not only affects our energy level, coffee specifically puts us in a unique emotional space that is not achievable with other caffeinated drinks. I need a muse who can sit down and have a cup of coffee with me before we ever think about taking any pictures. If a model can’t meet me on that specific emotional wavelength we’re not going to do as well as we might.
Interpersonal synchronization is difficult to describe because it’s going to be different for everyone. Sometimes it’s knowing that a specific time of day works best for you both. Other times it’s the silly things like the way you both cross your legs or enjoy listening to the same kind of music. Synchronization is personalized for every artist and muse and no two muses are likely to synch on exactly the same things. One has to wait for it and let it happen.
Muses understand the risks
I can’t begin to tell you the number of times over the past 30 years where models have gotten upset because we didn’t deliver as many finished photos as they expected, or the outcome was different from what they anticipated. There have been times where, even after letting a set sit for several days, I couldn’t find anything to my liking. Understand, that is almost never the model’s fault. Some days I don’t feel well and my perspective is off. On other occasions, I may not have planned well enough or perhaps even forgot a necessary piece of equipment that prevented me from getting the shots I wanted.
More than ever, I need a muse that understands those risks. Not every concept is going to be a good one, no matter how much planning we might put into it. Work with me long and often enough and there will be those times where I fail to anticipate consequences, such as the taco seasoning that didn’t wash off or the drink mix that burned sensitive skin. When one works with an artist on a regular basis these things are going to happen.
This is one of the defining differences between a model and a muse. Models get pissed when things happen, especially if it turns their skin orange for the next two weeks. Muses understand and find a way to work it in to their life story. Muses enjoy the adventures that come from working with an artist, even if those adventures sometimes don’t come out exactly as we planned.
Muses know the work isn’t about them
One of my greatest frustrations is when we spend hours giving a set of photos a particular artistic look and/or perspective only to have the model say, “You did a good job, but I just don’t like the way I look in them.” This is the artistic equivalent of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” In a single statement, the model destroys the work of the artist and makes the whole issue about them. I can’t think of many statements that drive an artist mad any quicker than that one.
We need muses that understand that the work we’re producing is not about them at all. How they look in a painting or a photograph needs to respond to the overall theme of the image, not some personal vanity that makes them feel good about themselves. The sum of the image is greater than any of its individual parts. That’s why we select certain poses and facial expressions while leaving others alone. And yes, it’s going to differ dramatically from one artist to another. There is no gold standard in art that says we have to portray someone with flawless skin or a perfect body. If anything, art prefers exactly the opposite.
We need muses who are willing to become a part of the art, who understand that they are giving themselves to something greater, to a concept that is larger than the individual. Artistic imagery today cannot be flat and singular. As we’ve discussed already, contemporary artistic imagery has to express life and explore the whole of reality, not merely a pleasant looking portrait of a pleasant looking person.
Muses are flexible
No, we’re not talking about physical capabilities, though sometimes those qualities, too, are advantageous. When I ask a model to be flexible, I’m thinking that one needs to be open-minded about what we’re doing, the message we’re attempting to make, and the social impact of what that message might be. This can be really challenging for the would-be muse, even if they’re clicking on every other level with the artist.
Here’s the thing: sometimes art demands that we shout in order to be heard. If we oppose something that is taking place in society, it is not enough that we create an image that calmly says, “I disagree with that.” No one pays attention to those images. Instead, we have to look for ways of expressing our disdain that is dramatic, different, and even shocking. For the muse, that might mean asking them to do something they normally wouldn’t consider doing. We need them to be flexible.
For example, let’s say that I was considering doing a piece protesting men’s involvement in attempting to dictate a woman’s reproductive rights. I might think of a concept that involves the proper medical use of a speculum. There’s no way in hell that image is going to be considered safe for work, is it? Just thinking about it makes me a little uncomfortable. That wouldn’t be a “fun” set of pictures for me to take. Yet, the message resulting from those images would undoubtedly make a point. We need muses who are flexible reaching outside their comfort zone for the sake of the art.
Muses don’t last forever
There have been times in my career where I could repeatedly call upon the same muse time after time, even with long periods of not seeing each other, and still produce wonderful results. Given the state of my life and that of society in general in 2017, I’m not sure that is even remotely a reasonable expectation anymore. What I’m seeing today is a situation where lives don’t just gradually morph from one stage to the next, they leap and jump, sometimes violently, across disparate and unexpected conditions. Life in 2017 is more fluid, more open to immediate change and that renders one’s longevity as a muse much shorter than we might like.
It is no one’s fault when what was once a creative and thriving relationship between artist and muse suddenly becomes impossible to maintain because of changes in either life. A muse’s life is suddenly skewed by the need to stay home and take care of a parent radically disabled in a car accident. A painter wakes up one morning to quite unexpectedly find they can no longer hold a paintbrush. A job offer half-way around the world suddenly alters one’s career choices. These things are a reality of our lives and sometimes we have to bid goodbye to people and things we love in order to do the things that are better.
Letting go of a gifted and talented muse isn’t easy. I’ve cried more than once. Yet, no muse lasts forever. We don’t want them to. Artists must change as well and if we latch on to a muse and never let them go then we eliminate at least some of the opportunity for us to grow and explore new forms of creativity. Muses speak to a specific period in our lives and leave behind a record of what was important to us both individually and socially at that time. Then, like starting a new book in a series, we open a new cover, find blank pages, and start to fill them with new images.
We may not all need a muse, but when we are lucky enough to find them they do wonderful and amazing things for our work. Perhaps you might think of the artists you know and whether you might risk being a muse. Perhaps a trial run, posing for something simple or even silly, might be a good first step. Being a muse is a special relationship and one should take care to connect with an artist whose vision is complimentary to their own. Be sure, every second one spends working with an artist is a special moment that the rest of the world should envy, and being a muse, even for a short while, is a very special calling indeed.