With the Muse

"It seems old,” Blue said when she first saw this image, "or maybe timeless."

We had spent a relaxed afternoon, a few days before, shooting in the natural light space of a warehouse building in Baltimore. I've known Blue for several years now, shooting regularly, and we have established a familiar rhythm and understanding in our work. This image was made in an off-moment when I had just changed film magazines and Blue was standing patiently waiting to begin shooting again.

"She's your muse," someone remarked, noting how often we work together and the quality of the images that come from those sessions. The statement rankled a bit but I didn't know why.

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While straightforward, and perhaps even plain, I couldn't stop coming back to the image. Blue's comment made me think more carefully about why.  It reminds me of so many images I've seen of models in the studio, in an off-stage moment, alone with the artist or in front of a drawing class, as they rest for a bit or get ready for the next pose.  There is, as Blue said, something timeless about a model and artist working together.  It connects us to the community of those who try to create, to centuries of art making, and to the influence of the Muse.

We have come to think of a muse as a specific person, someone to whom the artist is strongly, often erotically, drawn. History is replete with examples: Lee Miller and Man Ray, Charis Wilson and Edward Weston, Helga Testorf and Andrew Wyeth, to name just a few from recent years. In this vision of the Muse, the artist is dependent on his muse for inspiration.  Although the relationship often begins with passion and excitement, it can quickly become ambivalent and strained.  Calling someone "my muse" introduces a kind of possessiveness that may not serve either partner.  While great art has emerged from such relationships, so has great suffering.  We easily come to hate those on whom we become so dependent.

There is another way to think of the Muse, a way that better fits my own experience, at least.  Like the Greeks who saw the influence of the gods in the making of art, I think of the Muse as a kind of spirit that envelopes both artist and model when we come to the studio, whatever space that might be. I feel it in the flow of the best sessions. We start with small talk, direction, a discussion of what to do next, and then slowly the talk fades.  When the work is strong and going well, I find myself absorbed in my work yet connected to the model at the same time, all of it held in silence.  We are in the presence of the Muse.

What are the components of that presence? I think artist and model must have the courage to bring intention and vulnerability to the work. It is easier to see the vulnerabilities of the model.  She - because it is most often a woman - must intend to be part of the creative process rather than being a simple mannequin.  In doing so, she loans something of herself and her identity to the artist. She takes the risk of representation, the assumption that the image is the person. In defense of her photographs of her children nude, Sally Mann tried to make the point that the photograph was not the child. But it is a hard point to make when we believe culturally that a single captured moment holds the entire person and that possessing an image is akin to possessing the person. Certainly, the model also takes the risk of being portrayed nude. Artist and model may know better, but the assumption is that nudity and sexuality go hand in hand and that those who pose nude are suspect. Modeling in this way is an act courage.

The photographer's vulnerability is more subtle. When we work with another person to make art, we make our vision public before it is yet realized. We ask the model's help in bringing what we see in our mind's eye to the final print. In doing so, we risk failure, or false starts, or other evidence that we don't quite have it all in hand. If we shoot a landscape, we take the film or the file back to the privacy of the workroom and make it public only when it is completely finished in our eyes. As we work with a model, however, we have to at least hint at the vision we have in mind before we have established complete control of it.  Our vulnerability may not be as obvious as that of the model whose representation hangs on the wall of the gallery or spreads through the Internet but we still take a psychological, and maybe spiritual, risk. I feel it in the twinge of anxiety as I prepare for a shoot. 

"Will it go well?" I ask myself.  "Will we connect today? Will we make something beautiful?"

It is a messy process, rarely effortless, often frustrating.  That's why I love this simple image of Blue against the studio wall, resting, immersed in the work, thinking as I imagine it, about what comes next. It is a moment of repose captured on film.  And it is also a moment with the Muse.


This essay first appeared in Shadow and Light Magazine, March/April 2017 issue.  It is reprinted with permission of Shadow and Light.  You can purchase the entire issue in which this piece appeared here and can subscribe to Shadow and Light here