May 18, 2003
Weekly Column By
Photographing Models and Nudes
An Interview with Bill Brent
Photos by Bill Brent
Mike Johnston: Bill, I've just spent some time poking around on your website, www.bbrent.com. There's lots of model photography, publicity and contact information for individual models, and links to other model-oriented sites. You know, the world of modeling and nudes and glamour is something I know very little about. So what's your goal on the website...to get models as clients, to promote your clients as models, to connect photographers and models, or what? And what's your own background?
Bill Brent: I'll give you the $1 tour. From roughly 1974 through 1984 I made my living as a photographer. Like most boys, I picked up my first SLR in hopes of using it to meet girls. Before long I hooked up with a "mall photographer" who taught me the basics of posing and lighting. With a solid background in the arts, I had some clue about things like composition, perspective, balance, and so forth. I began by shooting weddings and such, as a jobber for a couple of local photography studios, and making a few coins covering breaking news. My family owned a picture framing business, and I used a room there for portraits.
By the early 1980s I had became interested in electronics and something new called the PC. So in 1984 I joined the information technology (IT) department of a brokerage firm. I've bounced around that field since then.
In early 1999 the daughter of a family friend was about to have her portfolio done by a photographer she met over the Internet, at a cost of $750. Well, I knew enough to know that no one photographer, especially in one day, can create a meaningful portfolio for a model, and I knew that what that guy was offering her was in no way worth $750. So I said, "let me take a crack at it." It turned out well and didn't cost her nearly as much.
Eventually I got to learn most of the ins and out of the current scams, and how the Internet was being used by and for models. I found there was a lot of information available — some good, some bad — very bad — so I collected all the valid information I could find and put it in one place so people could go there and find everything it had taken me a year to locate. I found that forums related to the subject were active (taking the place of newsgroups), so I began a list of all the forums related to modeling and photography I could find. I continue to keep that page updated, and it gets 2,000+ hits a day.
I've found that much of what goes on — and what people want to see — is glamour and nudes, so I put up a site of just that in hopes of turning a few bucks and passing some of it along to the models. The purpose of my main site at www.bbrent.com is to drum up business for myself.
I can't afford to quit my day job, so I'm only a part-time photographer. I'm looking to get back into it, but when I do, I'll focus more on portraits and portfolio work. In the meantime, if I can help some of these models get some pictures they can use and give them a little exposure on the web, what's the harm?
So I guess the answer to your question is "all of the above." I'd like to do it full time — quit my day job — but I'm afraid I'll never make in photography what I make in IT. Even when I was shooting catalog work for Avon, the money wasn't life-altering.
Sorry you asked? <g>
MJ: No, not at all — it's interesting. So would you say there's a fair amount of interest out there in models, nudes, and glamour as subject matter?
BB: At times it seems that's why Al Gore invented the internet in the first place. Until the recent war in Iraq, the most requested word used in searches was "sex" or some variation of it, by a ratio of 3 to 1. In its closing days, Napster was responsible for 4% of total internet traffic, whereas "adult oriented" bits and bytes continually represent 60%.
One of the busiest sites is called OneModelPlace.com. They have 30,000 profiles on line, and, now that they charge to search for models willing to pose nude, they have literally thousands of members. Look at my site; I'm just one photographer, and there's only a smattering of nudity on the site, and I get 10,000 hits a month to my may page and nearly 2,000 a day to my listing of model related forums. Mind you, I've never paid to advertise. All my traffic is due to "viral" marketing and the net-surfer's desire to see women and glamour.
Let's take a look at that forum listing. Two thousand people every day use it as a jumping off point to look for work as models, show off their work with models, or just view images that others are posting. Again, 2,000 is not a big number considering the millions of people on the web, but if one photographer with an unadvertised site can draw these numbers, well, I think that says a lot about the cyber-traveler at large.
And remember, this is cyberspace...never to be confused with the world of real modeling.
MJ: You mentioned scams earlier. What are some of the more common scams out there, and who do they tend to victimize most — the models, or the photographers, or both?
BB: It's always the model. And the scams work because the scammers operate just barely on the right side of the law.
I host a page of links to some of the news stories, forum discussions and sites alerting models to the companies and practices that require them to take a closer look before they hand over their money. Because these companies all seem to operate within the law, they can not truly be called scams; but what I'd say to prospective models is that when you encounter these or other offers that seem to capitalize on your dreams and ambitions, stop for a moment, take a good hard look, and make sure you understand exactly what you are (and are not) getting. Talk to others, talk to their customers, talk to their clients and affiliates — do your homework. There really are no short cuts. So if it walks like a duck and quacks....
The sad thing is, if you have a dollar and a dream, there will always be someone out there to use that dream to take your dollar!
The most common remain the modeling schools. These haven't changed in 60 years. They hold mass "open calls," where they have spotters who can "read" the women who show up, If they read a strong enough "hankering for the spotlight," they move in, and they've got you hooked. All they'll ask is $500 to $3,000 of the model's money to prime her for stardom. They only brush against the realities of the business, all the while emptying her pocketbook.
The other long term scam is the agency-with-the-photographer-in-the-next-room. You see the ads all the time — earn $1,600 a day as an extra or model. You answer the ad and what do you know? You have just the right look — you're going places! First stop, the cleaners. All you'll need are some professional pictures before we can market you — and you should go on our website, and on and on. At the end of the day, you're out a bunch of coins, and all you really get are casting notices that are already available online for free.
The Internet has helped spawn the "hosted modeling site." Scouts, who have no more understanding of the industry than a garter snake does, are taught to approach eager looking hopeful in shopping malls and on the street and get them to come to an open call. At these open calls the models are shown video tapes of runway shows, websites, and so forth, and are told of all the riches and attention that might be and could be theirs — all for a $600 one time fee, then $25 a month. What does she really get? They'll host five or six pictures of her. The pictures don't even need to be good ones.
The worst of these in my opinion has been TCTalent / Options Talent / E-model — worst, but so profitable that it is now Wilhelmina Scouting Network. I spoke briefly with Ray Lata at Wilhelmina (212-473-0700) and asked, why the affiliation? He said they were going to change the business practices, the website, in fact just about everything. I naturally asked, so what did you buy — the good will? or the 3,000 paying clients — the wannabe models? Ray had to take another call at that point.
MJ: So what you're saying is that if you're an aspiring model, you've got to really be careful. Good advice. However, most of the readers of this column are photographers, and male. As photographers, most are amateur or part-time, but some of them are quite serious and some do fine work. Also, most are decent guys — professionals, family men — law-abiding, God-fearing, tax-paying guys, and the last thing they'd be interested in is scamming some poor girl out of money. On the other hand, some of them probably really are interested in photographing experienced models and trying some nudes. So let me ask you to talk about that a bit. Are the models featured on your site amateurs? How does somebody who's never done it before go about hiring a model? What do the models charge? Are they ever interested in trading services, i.e., modeling for portfolio shots?
BB: Only a handful of the models on my site were full time professionals at the time of the shoot. Any photographer with a quality portfolio should have little trouble getting area hopefuls to pose for him in exchange for some reasonable number of prints. This is now called "time for prints" (TFP). But there's a catch. (Isn't there always?) If the 'model' has no experience, the photographer better know how to move her, motivate her, bring out what life she may have — or the pictures will be of no use to either of them.
MJ: So an inexperienced photographer will do better with an experienced model, and an inexperienced model will do better with an experienced photographer.
BB: Let's put attitudes and egos aside for a moment and take a good look at the common practice among net-oriented photographers and models called TFP or test shoots. A model may want to review some shots with a new hairstyle, new approach to make-up, or a new look (or style) altogether. Photographs taken to this end would be considered tests. More often we hear of photographers seeking models for testing. In the case of a photographer, he may have new equipment, a new type of film stock, or want to try out some concepts or ideas. The resulting photographs would be test shots. If a photographer and model can hit each other at the right time, each can benefit by accomplishing their tests with the help of the other. This form of barter is sound business — each party gets something they need without having to pay more than they need to. So far, so good!
If a photographer is using the idea of testing for the sole purpose of shooting, and then he turns around and tries to to sell the model some prints for her book, he is perverting a worthwhile system. If a model is simply looking to update her book and 'using' the photographer for that, the same holds true. Naturally I'm speaking of professional models and photographers here. Unless a professional model wants to help out an amateur photographer, or vice-versa, the term TFP is never really brought up in these circles. It is really a phenomenon of the Web not the real world. Yet that doesn't mean it's without value. Each time we practice our craft we have the ability to learn and improve. Each time a model steps in front of a camera she can walk away at the very least with the knowledge of shots, poses, lighting, make-up or wardrobe that does not work for her. Better to find that out for free, no? Likewise, each time an aspiring photographer exposes another roll he can see what not to do on the next shoot. If this sounds negative, well, it's all in the way you look at it — as I said, this is the least either can get out of the experience. Remember Thomas Edison's comment when a reporter called his 1,000 failed attempts at the electric light bulb a waste of time? The inventor said 'not true. We now know 1000 things that won't work — that's more than anyone has ever known before on this subject!'
In most worthwhile TFP agreements, both sides benefit (more than knowing what not to do on the next shoot). Each should walk away with at least a few images they can be proud of and each has learned something positive. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of web photographers are anything approaching even the level of 'aspiring.' Many are guys with cameras wanting to shoot, or just meet, models. And to be fair, many of web models are first-time-in-front-of-the-camera-now-I-only-accept-paid-shoots types.
What they fail to understand is that you pay for the talent and professionalism the model brings. I had the pleasure of shooting Cheryl Tiegs once, back around 1979. In 30 minutes we had 40 great images. She got top dollar not only because she was a celebrity, but because she was a pro. Most professional (that is, established) models bring that quality to the shoot. They take direction, but they know how to move, stand, and look great! And sorry, kids, no school teaches you that. Just as no school can teach you how to be a photographer. All you can learn are the mechanics. You have to develop the talent.
So what's my point? Models and photographers both want to get paid for their services but not all payments in life need to be in dollars. If both sides can benefit, then this web-created barter system has value.
MJ: And what about shooting nudes?
BB: Figure out why you want to shoot them first. If it's just to see girls naked, well, you'll need to ask somebody else for advice. But if you have a direction, be it art, glamour, figure study, erotica, or fetish, then you're ahead of the game. If you just want experience, try the TFP route. But if you want quality images, comb the modeling sites and the forums and find the model with the look you want, and make her an offer. If the model has a bit of experience, you're likely to pay $75$100 an hour with a two- or three-hour minimum.
MJ: Good advice. So what you're saying is that, as with any other kind of photography, it's best if the photographer has a direction, and an interest in subject matter, and an idea he wants to pursue. So what is the likely result of this for the photographer? Is there actually work out there he can get if he builds a good portfolio or fashion, glamour, or nudes?
BB: Absolutely. If your goal is to capture beautiful images, then you can leave a lot to chance and the hope that you've developed a good eye. If your goal it to make a living at it, then get to know your market — who buys these images and what kind of images they buy. You're not going to get rich waiting for models to pay you to shoot the kind of pictures you might want to shoot. But pay them a few coins, and hit the web content market, direct sales, approach the magazines. Try the new men's magazines like Maxim or Stuff. But remember, if you want to shoot for Maxim, better shoot 100% Maxim style. My point is, there is a market, but maybe not for exactly what you want to do. You have to understand what the market wants you to shoot for it. And, as in all of life, you have catch a break
MJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
BB: I guess the most important thing is to have a clear idea of why you're taking any series of shots. Are you looking to expand your skills, your book, your website, your customer base, or your income? Actually, it really comes down to one of two things: ego or income. Same with websites. There are really only two kinds — ones you put up for self-satisfaction, or ones you put up to increase revenue. Know what you're trying to do, and it will help you focus your efforts and give you a better chance at the results you're after.
Bill Brent hard at work
MJ: Okay then. Thanks very much for allowing us to pick your brain.
BB: My pleasure!
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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.