The people portrayed here are ‘Life Models’ – some manage it full time, some fitting in engagements between other jobs and professions. They are skilled and talented people, flexible and sensitive to the needs of artists, teachers and students, and who variously combine many of these attributes in themselves. They work in Schools, Colleges, Universities, Animation Studios, Acting Studios, Medical Anatomy Classes, for Photographers, for Artists and Art Groups.
The idea for this project came from my own experience of teaching; spending many hours in the Life Studio commenting on the figure in front of my students and helping them to appreciate and realise nuances in form, balance, posture, gesture and expression, translating their vision to paper via paint, charcoal, chalk and pencil.
Although I still regularly draw, more recently I had noticed that I was viewing my models as a photographer might: I had begun to use directional lights and to replace the classic blank background with a telling prop or a suggested theme. My ‘view’ was changed: my hand missed the weight of a camera as my fingers gripped the charcoal. I had begun to concentrate more on detail, on cropping, and to use this in my teaching to good effect. I realised that this was a perfect opportunity to combine the pencil and the lens and to attempt a project using the tool of the camera to ‘model’ the figure while still enjoying the creative act of drawing.
The notion of ‘Trinity’ is perhaps best known as a Christian Doctrine, where God exists as three ‘persons’: The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit, which is the essence of the one God. It is prevalent in much art of the Pre-Renaissance, the Holy Spirit often depicted as a dove, however the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit are also often represented as three separate figures in many periods of Art. The word ‘Trinity’ can of course mean many different things – I was interested in secular readings; understandings of the number three for example, stages and passages in human existence: Birth, Life, Death. I wished to reveal other potential metaphorical aspects of humanity: of personhood; a definition of identity where each person is understood as having the same identical essence or nature, not merely similar natures. I wished to use clothing and nakedness (or, more precisely – lack of clothing) as a metaphor to explore this wider notion of identity.
We are born naked and hurriedly clothed or swaddled, we live our lives in and out of clothing depending on activity and at the end of our lives we are laid to rest: naked, clothed or shrouded (I remember specifically choosing a dress for my mother to wear as she lay in her coffin prior to being cremated) It is interesting to observe how clothing affects the form of the body, the manner in which negative spaces between limbs are hidden; draped with cloth. How the overall stature and gesture of an individual is (in)formed by clothing which variously hangs, hugs, extends, emphasises, restricts or hides aspects of the figure which the wearer wishes to present to the world. Clothing is the public membrane, which ‘fashions’ our private skin.
Consider our language surrounding the effect of clothes on the figure: This dress ‘is flattering’, that colour ‘brings out your eyes’, and of course the classic, ‘Does my bum look big in this?’
It is also true that we move altogether differently when wearing clothing. Striding elegantly naked round a room while imagining that one is wearing a Saville Row suit would look frankly ridiculous if not actually dressed in it.
Once I had understood my reasons for attempting the project I began to think about process. I find that when attempting to visualise an idea, I begin with simply asking ‘how’ (it might be done). This ‘process-centric’ approach is essentially practical but also stimulates the vision; allows the formulation of a visual ‘shape’ to ones idea and solves questions about the ‘sense’ of the project. Ultimately it can be the difference between actually setting out or not. Considering process and planning in this manner can also throw up surprises along the way. One quickly realises that one will have to be patient, to learn, take advice, practice and experiment – with new working methods and unfamiliar techniques – if one is to achieve what is ‘in the head’.
Sometimes, along the way a new idea is borne out of the intial notion and so begins the journey of a project, a progressive development which may lead to new and surprising results, asking fresh questions and posing new challenges in ones own practice.
The photographs presented here follow a simple process, however this is certainly not to say that they were easy to achieve. We had one hour for each shoot and I worked partly on instinct with each model after having contacted them to ask for a profile. Some sent previous photographs or gave me information which I felt I could work with. It was upon actually meeting the models that things took shape for me visiually. As each model arrived we discussed various ideas and I was open to suggestions from them. I began by shooting a series of set-ups as they were clothed, and then repeated these scenarios as they were naked – working backwards by shooting the last pose and working towards the first. I shot several ideas for each model and chose two to display. The shots were illuminated with two Bowens, and the setting for these needed to be remembered as I worked backwards through each pose. I found that each person has their own level of ‘body memory’ ie. some were excellent at remembering the pose and slipped into the posture immediately – even remembering the positions of their hands, their particular turn of ankle.
We were able, in any case to view the previous shots on the back of the camera but not even this helps much when it comes to the head and neck, the positions of which were very hard to duplicate. The joints of the neck being so very flexible and multifarious in potential position. The exposures for clothed and naked shots veered wildly as dark clothing was replaced by pale skin, negative spaces, previously obscured by clothing allowed elements of the background to be revealed and therefore a new composition was inevitably presented to the viewfinder. These challenges were exciting, and the best photographs in the series are ones not where the eye sees ‘sameness’ (between the clothed and naked poses) but when it rests upon the subtle and revealing differences.
Of course the final photograph in the Trinity Layouts is one of a drawing. The drawings were created via a direct tracing of the photograph, off the computer screen using tracing paper and pencil. This process allowed me to democratise the drawings for each model and to allow a sense of continuity when looking at the project as a whole. Outlining the areas of the figure and the environment in which the person once had a physical agency, created a strange dilemma: what to include in the drawing? Shadows on the inside of limbs – facial features, fingers and toes, or would a suggestion of an eye be enough, the shape of a foot suffice? I wanted to suggest that the traced image rests somewhere between a state of presence and absence, completed as they were off-site and not directly from the model (unlike a traditional life drawing) I think the best drawings here are the ones that manage to pay homage both to the person in the photograph but also to the memory I had (of the taking the photograph) The drawings, as I executed them, felt like a revisiting of the scene: how my eye observed the set up, composition, adjustments of position and play of light before I actually pressed the shutter. The drawings are a mixture of content and atmosphere, they stand for, and hover between, physical touch and memory, they constitute a process of addition and reduction, mark-making and erasure. They are not ‘the person’ but are literally ‘a trace’.
One can clearly see the variety of models who volunteered – the age range was from early twenties to late fifties, shape size and facial features also varied wildly and this was an unplanned element of the project and the very thing which fostered fresh inspiration for each shoot. I feel that I have learned a great deal about handling people in a sensitive and respectful way and my learning curve regarding studio lighting has taken a steep upwards turn. Each model has been given a signed print of their favourite pose and I hope also to exhibit these photographs. The questionnaires that have been completed by the models, and accompany their photographs, give great insights into their work and characters.
My grateful thanks goes to the models:
Adrian, Andrew, Catherine, Chris, Christopher, Bernie, Bobby,
Jenny, Lydia, Michele, Paul, Phil, Rachel, Simon and Tina
Without their talent, generosity of spirit, time and energy, this project would not have been possible.
Thank you to Rachel McCarthy, Director of RAM (Register of Artist Models) for her help in advertising and also for volunteering to be a model!
Thank you to Dave and Tina of the ‘Inn on the Green’, Thorpe Close, London, for the free use of the studio space and for storage of lights.
Steve Mepsted. May 2011