Why Fashion Films shouldn’t simply be Eye Candy, and Models aren’t Mannequins

Introduction to the Project

When I say “We know each other from SMC”, this usually classifies a friendship that goes way back on my subjective perception of time. Like, 4 years or so. Good times, undoubtedly. The people I kept in touch with over the years are mostly people who work very hard on getting a career in film going, or are just characters who I like talking to. When one of my SMC friends suggests to do something, I usually listen. One of these is Danielle, an aspiring actress from the United Kingdom (God save the old lady with the crown), and she had been interning with this fashion photographer Ash Gupta. One day – I forget the context – she tells me that I should stop by there and have a chat with Ash. “I think you guys would get along great”, Danielle says. In my mind, I question if we’d get along like British tea and milk.

So, one day I stop by – the place is a converted apartment space with a large upstairs patio, where the indoor space has a dark room dedicated to editing, a big hangout place, and a kitchen that doubles up as the definitive source of food as well as the makeup staging area. The patio is the main spot for the photography, and has more hangout options. Centerpiece of the outside hangout area – which is protected from the sun by a few umbrellas and feels like the section of a Mediterranean bourgeoisie beach cafe – is an old Mole Tungsten Fresnel, probably a 6-8K light. Now that it is out of business, it serves as a tabletop. I notice that just about every single person is a smoker outdoors, and am immediately reminded of Vienna – my home, and home to a population that is split 48-52 between smokers and nonsmokers, with hotspot Viena allegedly having some of the highest percentage of smokers any city in the world.

Ash, just like I saw him on facebook photos, is wearing sunglasses, a scarf, and a dark shirt; his wrist is wrapped in various metallic and leather bands. Left and right, there’s people; the place is bustling with assistants, more photographers, and a bunch of models that hang out as if they are waiting for a bus with their friends – there’s anticipation and sociability in the air. A young, hip, fashiony vibe that you pick up right away. Ash and me sit down at the Mole Fresnel. Seemingly Danielle and Cristiano (another good friend from SMC) played publicists for me and hyped my work to Ash. I get to flip through books of his work; an impressively large body of work with hundreds of different faces anywhere between commercial fashion photography and experimental high-fashion. Now we both know what each of us do – well, sort of, because Ash has only heard “good things from Cristiano and Danielle”. Reputation, in a way, is everything I guess. Mutual artistic respect based on merit is what brings artists to the same table. Now that we’re on the same table (or, 6K Tungsten Fresnel flipped right side up), Ash tells me about his latest project and the reason he wanted to meet: Jeff’s Jacket.

Heather Burton and Jeff's Jacket; a frame grab from the "Jeff's Jacket" fashion film series.

Heather Burton and Jeff’s Jacket; a frame grab from the “Jeff’s Jacket” fashion film series.

Jeff’s Jacket and the Personable Anonymity of Fashion Models

Since a year or so, Ash has been shooting 200+ models wearing a torn-apart piece of fabric that you could classify anywhere between a heavy bag for potatoes or a rug; only if you were fashion-ignorant though. This piece of clothing has the rough shape of a sleeveless jacket, is equipped with some straps and links, and can be worn in the most creative of ways – which makes it an excellent piece of fashion for shooting.

When you think of fashion photography for the consumer sector, you think of catalogue photography: Usually a studio setup with the same lighting throughout, usually the same batch of models wearing hundreds of different outfits. My personal theory is: even if the outfits don’t look good, as long as the models are attractive, we assume that wearing the outfits will make us look just as gorgeous and flawless as our catalogue equivalents, and that’s why this kind of presentation is a seductive way of selling clothing. What is interesting though is that each piece of clothing lives in connection with the model wearing it, and since the same model(s) appear throughout the catalogue – being the only constant thing – the model’s expression and personality becomes a major part of our impression, our attention is directed towards their attractive expression.

With the idea of Jeff’s Jacket, the post-apocalyptic equivalent of a fine garment, Ash has shot more than 200 models wearing the same outfit. Now the only constant in this series is the clothing rather than the model – and this puts the focus really on the fabric rather than the skin wearing it, making the model become a mannequin. Maybe. Maybe the consistent clothing also looks like a sort of uniform and we pay special attention to the individual differences of the bodies and faces wearing it. No idea – but this project is definitively different from the commercial fashion photography I am used to, and it’s different from the perception of fashion at any of the runway shows I’ve been at (imagine a runway show where every model is wearing the exactly same outfit).

To make a short story long – this project needed a companion piece in motion to accent the photography, and Ash asks me to do the project. I weigh the long queue of projects that still need finishing – six films to be exact, and adding five or so fashion pieces to the list will be a dreadful sucker of time – against the option of exploring a whole new environment and collaborating with someone so experienced in fashion. As scary as authoring a whole lot more films than I planned for this year sounds, I say yes. Because directing and editing won’t kill me, and any fears except for the one of death and hurting someone else are fears that have no real legitimacy. So – I hop on board, and we shake hands under these Cafe del Mar umbrellas.

Anastasia and Jeff's Jacket; a frame grab from the "Jeff's Jacket" fashion film series.

Anastasia and Jeff’s Jacket; a frame grab from the “Jeff’s Jacket” fashion film series.

Working Without a Story and the Power of Photogenie

A few weeks later I stumble back into the West Hollywood studio – but this time, with my Blackmagic Pocket and a ton of rigging accessories – just in case, you never know what kind of mounts or mutant rigs you have to build for a project to end up the way you want it when it’s not the usual kind of narrative shoot where you command a crew and plan things months in advance. “Toby, meet the models for today, they’re great!”, Ash says. One after the other I say hi to them – all friendly, with completely different looks and personalities; some of them are wearing totally normal street clothes, others are dressed to impress from previous auditions or other shoots that day. My style of clothing is probably close to the way a blind person would dress, so I don’t even try to look like I know what I am wearing – let the professionals do their job and stay behind the camera, best in black on “black on black” so I cause less reflections in the world in front of me.

Now the first shoot is up and Ash casually mentions that it “needs a concept”. He mentioned this a while ago, but somehow a concept, in my experience with so much narrative, commercial and documentary work, needs a story, or a selling point. I usually like to deliberate on these kind of things; take my time with the writing process, do research, get feedback, come up with a shot list. Now I have to improvise in a totally non-narrative context, a MOS (Motor Only Shot, i.e. there is no sound recording on set) film without language. Should the model pantomime a story? That would be silly. Dance? Maybe too fast for the audience to catch the clothing details. What if she just pantomime without making it cheesy. But what kind of pantomime? A story about … no, no story … the process of … an emotion … yes, maybe pantomiming an emotion – but which one?

While I am caught in thoughts and putting together my camera, I realize that this is quite unknown ground. I’ll just have to wing it. Camera is finished, everyone is waiting. I get outside, and have no idea what this will be. But, one thing I know: It has to be a co-creation between the model and myself; a feeding off each other’s ideas and energy, just like I do it with actors when I am Cinematographer on a narrative shoot and the director yells “CUT!” – I sometimes keep rolling. Because I can feel something in the actor or actress, and I follow that instinct, which oftentimes gets amazing little pieces of performance that would otherwise be lost in the ether of efficiency and pass the director’s observant eye. Some things in filmmaking are not about observation but about feeling. That’s what I’m gonna do, just act on instincts, intuition and human connection.

I quickly scout the patio for anything useful for the shoot – it shouldn’t just be a girl wearing a rag in front of a white background. I find a trash can and a broken cover of a space heater – both metallic and shiny, both reflecting the sunlight in weird caustic patterns. I couldn’t use this in a narrative shoot, but hell yeah, it’s perfect for a fashion piece. The first model in the series – which ended up being seven different models – was Ivana, a tall and sympathetic girl from Kroatia with an unusual mix of sillyness and grace. I met her a few minutes ago in torn-up jeans and a wife beater, now she has Jeff’s Jacket on. Not exactly knowing what to do, I instinctively tell her that I wanted to capture as much of her current feelings and character on the footage, and not force some idea on her. I don’t want to arrange her arms and legs like a mannequin in a storefront, but feel that the right thing is to relate to Ivana – she is a person with a world of feelings and personality just like myself, and not just a puppet that wears a garment and needs to be filmed. “Are you ready?” I ask. “Sure!” she laughs. Camera is rolling, and I try to let go of any expectations.

And similar to the first time when you experience someone act on set – you met that actor or actress in a chill environment and they usually seem like everyone else, but blow you away as soon as the scene starts – I am somewhat speechless at what Ivana does. In an academic environment, Jean Epstein and Louis Delluc coined the term “Photogenie”. This is similar in popular understanding to someone or something being photogenic (creating aesthetic pleasure in a photograph, or colloquially “someone who looks good on photos”) but in the case of Photogenie, it’s about the aesthetics that we can see in the medium (the motion picture) that is unique to it and cannot be found elsewhere; a subject or object expressing in motion, in a state of flux and transformation that is recorded on the motion medium. Generally, the definition of Photogenie is quite wishy-washy. And Tom Gunning knows better.

We talked about Photogenie in Berkeley, and I didn’t exactly understand it in class. I feel like I had a direct encounter with it on that afternoon, working with more and less experienced models and seeing how they performed on camera. This might sound banal and insignificant, but the experience was profound: It raised the usual “pose-pose-pose” behavior that you can observe on a photoshoot to a fluid performance art; the emotions and expressions hit with such precision and grace that one can only sit back and enjoy – or in my case, dive in and ride the waves of aesthetics as good as possible without wiping out.

Ivana Korab and Jeff's Jacket; a frame grab from the "Jeff's Jacket" fashion film series.

Ivana Korab and Jeff’s Jacket; a frame grab from the “Jeff’s Jacket” fashion film series.

Beauty and Modeling as Performance Art

It took me many years to get past the idea of someone being “hot” in a professional and artistic context, and it really reduces a skill and ability to a mere “lucky physical trait”. Beauty in society is usually a luxury; in the entertainment business it is a commodity. Beauty might seem to be a naturally occurring fact of nature, but more often than not, beauty is performance: Anyone with a lucky set of genes has to work hard to maintaining anything from body shape to skin condition. And more often than not, the “inner values” is what counts – someone might have great looks but no ability to express beauty as performance. Similar to Judith Butler‘s “Performativity of Gender”, there is a lot more at work than just mere posing around and throwing faces, and you can feel that behind the camera – and feeling it takes practice.

So, if you want to experience Photogenie beyond the academic concept that you are exposed to in film studies, try to observe and feel it when you work with a talented actor or model. I smile to myself many times throughout the shoot because I have to give so little direction to make something good – with some of the girls, I mostly have to nail my end of the job because theirs works so well “by default”, on their own merit. Of course you can’t exactly say that on set because you need everyone’s trust that you “got your shit together” and behave like a “professional”, but reflecting on it openly and vulnerably allows me to find a deeper truth in it beyond the conception of how I need to behave in front of others. Even if you put on the professional attitude and leave the poet at home for later, it remains a challenge to not get caught up in your mortal adoration of beauty and the hypnosis of Photogenie. Rather, you have to stay vigilant over your perception and consistently ask the question: If this is great, what can make it greater?

I remember talking to Ash about what can “make it great” and not really understanding why he wanted to improvise a concept around this already excellent performance art that each of the experienced models was projecting into my films, and one of the very young models sitting in a chair, leaning over to us to offer her input. She told us that she imagined what this jacket meant to her, and came up with a story that she would be living in a postapocalyptic world where this jacket was worn by a father-like protector figure who had passed away; despite its unfavorable physical properties (full of holes, scratchy, no heat retention) the jacket served as an artifact that reminded her of the felings she had towards said father figure. She laughs, that story sounds silly. We laugh too. But I think she nailed it – she took the concept of fashion beyond the mundane and constructed, and put her own feelings and imagination into the performance. With Heather, there was something mysterious and dark about her moments; with Tal it was vulnerability – each of them brought something totally unique to the performance.

As a quick side note, I keep talking about performance – and I have a gut feeling that a lot of people can’t enjoy performance art for what it is. I couldn’t either; I thought it was stupid and a waste of time and some artsy fartsy hobby that some “intellectuals” and “art critics” marveled about. Then I saw “The Artist is Present”, a documentary about the famous performance artist Marina Abramovic, and it completely changed my point of view on performance art. Talk about the power of motion pictures – this film literally allowed me to widen my horizon of appreciation. Not coincidentally, it was recommended to me by my photographer friend Hannes Windolph – who oftentimes looks at things on a grayscale instead of my impulsive “pretty and ugly” perspective on the art world.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcmcEZxdlv4 width=600px]

As another side note, a lot of these realizations and reflections were enabled by the editorial process, and even more by the life-changing two weeks on an Art Photography film shoot in the desert. It just takes time until an experience like the ones around Jeff’s Jacket sink in deep enough to change your view of the world ever so slightly.

Tal Berkovich and Jeff's Jacket; a frame grab from the "Jeff's Jacket" fashion film series.

Tal Berkovich and Jeff’s Jacket; a frame grab from the “Jeff’s Jacket” fashion film series.

Future Directions

Editing these seven films proves difficult and rewarding – difficult, because the material looks so similar and I have to hunt for subtleties and find my spots where movement, shallow focus and framing really go in symphony with the girls’ performance – see “Sensuality” discussion with Jean-Paul Bourdier -, but rewarding when I find the “golden moments” in the performance, where the piece goes beyond the nearly everpresent luxury of Photogenie and gets a graphic quality, a memorable expression or symbiosis between the fabric and the body.

If everything goes well, the “Jeff’s Jacket” project will be exhibited in London in September, and some of my motion companion pieces will be shown online as well as at the venue. And the next time you shoot something fashion-related, depart from the living mannequin paradigm – be vulnerable and take the time to capture the soul of your models on screen. That’s the least you can do as a filmmaker.