What do you look for in a model?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. As I post more portraits I'm sure you can see that I love people with beautiful eyes.  And I seem to love women with dark hair and dark complexions.  Brassy blonds and curvy figures are photographically less inspiring to me.  When I search for models to shoot I am attracted more to people who are uniquely interesting than classically beautiful. I think that interesting is beautiful.

And this will sound strange but I also think that smart is beautiful. You might ask how an intrinsic quality has anything to do with an extrinsic exercise of craft but I know that I can connect with smart a lot quicker and a lot better than I can connect with run of the mill sexy.  So I guess I select people to photograph that are the same kind of people I'd want to have around as friends.  I value interesting, smart and unique much more highly than perky and cute or "hot."

The subject in the photo above, Renee, was introduced to me by a woman who is an artist and a painter.  She knew we would hit it off as artist and muse.  And she was right. The first thing that attracted me, as a portraitist, to Rene was her quiet intensity and self assurance.  Then her eyes.  And finally the shape of her face.

I have several male friends who are art directors. They call me from time to time to tell me about a woman they've met that "you just have to photograph!!!!"  Invariably, when I've agreed to do a test in the studio the woman shows up and we seem to have no rapport whatsoever.  The energy is all wrong.  The aesthetics skewed.  What I've learned from the fashion photographers who gave us incredible photos in the 1980's and 1990's is that the "go see" is vital.  The photographer and model have to have some good energy together or any future session is frustrating and fruitless.

My most intriguing and enduring subjects have always been people that I've found for myself.  People I've met in coffee shops or restaurants.  People on the street and even people at lectures. The process of making a good portrait of a beautiful person depends on each of you falling a little bit in love for just a little while.  Nothing else will work. At least that's how it is for me.

And the strange secret is that it goes for both genders.  You have to be interested, really interested in that person on the other side of the camera or you're just going through a workflow and none of the magic energy that we agree exists in great images shows up in your work if you really don't care about the subject other than the fact that you needed someone to sit there and they didn't have anything else to do with their time.

Pick some one you could fall in love with and make your images a poem to their attractiveness.
The spirit of collaboration works best when the laws of attraction work in your favor.

The process of making a beautiful portrait is much more about empathetic understanding than it will ever be about objective workflow.  Leave the engineer brain at the door to the studio.  Let the artist brain run the session.


  1. Interesting question. I've been thinking about that lately as well looking back at some of my recent work, as I set out to meet people in a new market.

    Now, I do look at this from a professional not a portrait perspective. I get a chuckle out of the popular notion that everyone tells a beautiful woman that she's a model. In fact modelling, if done right, is a refined skill and truly a profession, not an attribute. Those who think that a slender figure and pleasing face makes a model are quite off the mark. A good model can create a powerful presence, and is in fact as creative and important as everyone else on the team.

    Certainly a good connection can help a lot in putting everyone behind and in front of the camera in the zone. But I've had the pleasure to see a few very experienced models who can literally 'turn it on'. They can fall into a role just like an actor at the flip of a switch, and as soon as you put the camera down, the exit that mental space. It's a beautiful dance if you can observe it.

    I think it's fair to say that modelling is a form of acting. Probably closer to TV and film acting than theater acting, as there as well, the audience isn't real-time but represented by the lens.

    With that premise, maybe there are some things to leverage for how to create the presence with non-professional talent by looking how movie crews handle this. The routine of calling a set quiet, starting the action, and bringing focus, as well as takes to it, may in fact help as a structure.

    1. Jan, It's good to be aware that over history every great photographer has found one or two models with which he develops an incredible rapport that transcends the commercial aspect of their work. They work together for years and sometimes decades. While the idea of pro models who can just turn it on is perhaps legitimate the ones that made Author Elgort and Richard Avedon and Irving Penn really sing through their cameras were the ones who connected emotionally. The book, Appearances, has some good writing about this...

  2. Totally understand. There are folks you click with in life and those you don't. There is a natural comfort level with the folks you do click with and that comfort lets you get close and real.

  3. Intelligence is always attractive, every time, at least for me. I can't think of a bigger turnoff than ignorance or stupidity. Being interested could be the only thing that matters, the rest is just technical, which anyone can learn. I think that's why a lot of artists really can't explain how they do what they do. Athletes too, the really gifted ones. They rarely are able to explain how they are able to dominate their sport. How many truly great athletes have gone on to be great coaches? I can't think of any, and I think that's very telling.

    As far as portraits specifically, I think that's the coming together of two people, two people who connect in a meaningful way, and there happens to be a camera present. I feel that way as a teacher as well. The only students I am every really able to teach are the ones I am able to form some sort of a connection with. That's when learning happens for both of us. So one of my biggest jobs as a teacher is to create an environment where connections can happen, and then work to create those connections. It's never about the curriculum, that's just there. I've always believed that, but reading your piece here Kirk makes me realize I feel the same way about photography, well, about all art.

  4. We should resist judging the model's smartness or intelligence, because we overlook the possibility that the person we are photographing might not find us as smart as he or she is. That's one of the reasons I don't like the term 'model', as it suggests a passive, subordinate, relationship with the photographer which does not reflect my studio reality at all. I prefer the word 'collaborator', as that places both partners in the social event of photography on an equal footing. I don't think intelligence or smartness are prerequisites for successful collaboration, even if they make coffee time conversation more interesting. There are certainly such things as experience, humour, tolerance, empathy, and a willingness to work hard for each other which contribute to successful sessions. But these are assets that both partners in the collaboration should have - let's call their possession 'social intelligence'.

  5. Kirk, I am so glad I don't live in Austin because we would be chasing the same women;) Dark, interesting and smart is a killer combination. I would even add (in moderation) sassy, grounded and independent which I suppose is sort of the same thing.

    But I agree that it's much easier to build a relationship with a model when there is chemistry. I suppose it's inevitable...you cannot divorce emotional involvement from a creative endeavor.

  6. Kirk, what an interesting piece on models..
    Everybody has such a weird idea of what really happens in a genuine photo-shoot for a portrait. i did many model portfolios mainly with fashion. A few, very few models came back for a longer more intense shoot, when we both took part. Yes, there is a sort of "love making" involved! Even when i did weddings i viewed the bride as "mine"!
    i preferred faces that had character, dynamic spirit and a zest for life.
    The place was always very plain and clean, the music subdued and no audience! No matter what! If a model wanted a chaperone, agreed only if not in studio.
    Amazing that sometimes a really beautiful face snapped as only OK! Remember shooting two sisters, apart. The first was truly stunning! The other was nice. She felt we could do better and returned. Same make-up, almost same outfits and suddenly, i felt a change.She smiled at me! We knew we were making magic!
    The contacts simply glowed as i compared the rolls.
    The lesson learned. When i shot weddings, i brought a home made card, a rose and the words in the card?
    "Lets make magic today!"
    It always made for better pix. i never shot a wedding cold! i always did a pre shoot to see if bride, couple and immediate family clicked with me. If it did, we were a go!


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