This week's post is from a good friend and fellow photographer, Robert Siegelman. Siegelman works primarily in drawing, photography and artists books. He teaches at Tufts University in Boston, and works with artists privately.
His work is in many collections including the Boston Public Library, Harvard, MIT, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, The Leather Achives in Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Notable exhibits include shows at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and “untitled male id” at the Angus-Hughes Gallery in London. In 2017 his drawing installation, “Do You Worry a Lot” was exhibited at the Winfisky Gallery, Salem State University. In 2018 a one-person photography exhibit, titled “In the Flesh” was held at HallSpace in Boston MA.
Some of the images in this blog post contain nudity, and may be considered "NSFW", please proceed accordingly
I am an artist and fine art photographer who has been working and teaching at the university level for nearly 40 years. Both photography and drawing are important for me. They are the cores of my work. I also make installations both in my studio and in nature.
In photography I work in portraiture and nudes with men of all ages. I am looking at how to represent men as sexual beings while showing my subjects’ vulnerability and tenderness. The work may be sexually explicit but, in the end, it is about our need for intimacy and connection. I work toward making visible images of men that run counter to how we normally see the male represented in culture and in the media.
In this piece I want to talk about my work, it’s content, and some of the logistics of working with nude models.
My photography work is primarily studio-based. I use my studio as a blank slate and also as a kind of character in the work. While I have a wall hung with black fabric backdrop and another painted a clean white, I also have one with big industrial windows in which I place mirrors, photographs and other objects that have meaning, and underline the personal content in my work. Mirrors show up a lot in my work. The model is often shown reflected in these mirrors, so that multiple angles can reveal the models body and personality.
Photographing the male nude is a very personal exploration for me. While I am clearly looking through my camera’s lens at the model, my search is a much wider one. I am looking at the model but I am also metaphorically looking at myself, and my relationship to the model. I wonder who this person in front of me is, but I also am asking who I am. The portraits I make are as much self portraits as they are portraits of the model. More and more I am also appearing in the photographs with the model.
This inclusion of the photographer started many years ago after I asked a model if I could touch his face while I photographed him. I realized in looking at this image, that I had broken through the invisible wall of the photographer being completely behind the scenes–behind the camera. I felt that I, in doing this, had implicated myself in the interaction and allowed the viewer to enter the act of seeing and touching as well.
This was a kind of breakthrough moment for me. I was entering the picture and not just directing the model. I could explore more of my own desires this way, and the pieces could become even more about my relationships with the models and with men in general.
Over the years I have been including myself more and more in the work, through touching the models’ faces to other parts of their bodies. Some of these have become pretty explicit, and in some cases I am also nude in the photographs. The model and I may both be in front of the camera. From time to time I have used a remote or the camera’s timer to realize these pictures.
In many pieces I appear in one of the many mirrors that line my studio. I am reflected while taking the picture and simultaneously appearing with the model, whose own reflection may also appear in the image. The act of taking a picture and being in the picture is recorded along with the model and their reflection. Sometimes the mirrors are at angles and leaning on one another in such a way as to create a kind of “cubist” fragmenting of the image. For me this is a statement on the way we see and take in ideas in multiple ways and find meaning and desire from sometimes conflicting feelings. It is also a nod to art history, an inclusion I find important. There often tend to be little art historical quotes in the work.
The mirrors in my photographs are about looking inward. We look at ourselves in a mirror often in very prosaic ways, to shave and make ourselves presentable. We also look into mirrors to see who we are and examine ourselves. We look into mirrors to see who we are on the inside, as well as to see how we think others may perceive us.
My work explores these ideas of how we see and look at ourselves and each other. I am looking at my experience and identity as a queer man and exploring issues with aging, desire, memory, body positivity, and loss.
While many see my work as being erotic or homoerotic–and it is–the work is also very introspective, and sometimes melancholic. I strive to layer my work with meaning and possibilities for the viewer to explore.
I seek to show men in a variety of ways in which we are not usually represented. I want show men with their vulnerability in place. I want to show men being tender and intimate. I want to show men questioning who they are.
As I said earlier the mirrors are meant to be a metaphor for looking into and at ourselves and for exploring our inner lives. Another element that is often reflected in these mirrors is an American flag. I have one draped over a piece of furniture in my studio. On occasion it is used as a backdrop for portrait work, but more often it has become a casual and regular presence. My studio is a private place and I strive to make it a space that is very comfortable to work in for the model and for myself. The flag stands for the ever-present sense of turmoil and anxiety that the current government (regime) injects continually into our lives. The flag is a representation of my anxiety. It is a metaphoric and actual backdrop in my work, and a scary presence in my life. I want the flag to be a character or player in the work, and to express the near constant worry I feel about the current political climate.
I have worked with nude models since my first figure drawing classes as an art student many decades ago last century. I teach drawing, and the nude model figures prominently in my classes. It is a convention in teaching and art-making that goes back many centuries. While there have always been both male and female models utilized by artists, art schools and academies, traditionally it had been the female nude that was prominently represented in painting, early photography, and also in advertising.
The male “nudes” that we are most commonly familiar with are in the religious pictures and paintings of Jesus. While these painting usually depict a handsome European-looking man, they are not intended to have erotic content. Yet they do. In academia nude models are always thought of as chaste. There have been many conventions over the years as to their use in classrooms and studios. At one time drawing classes were separated by gender. There are still places where male models are required to wear a posing strap. We are told that sexuality is meant to be private, but in advertising it is a primary selling point. Historically paintings with nudes are “Art” (with a capital A), but somehow even those in which the nudity is titillating, the fact that it is a painting seems to excuse the erotic. Our culture has had and still has so many double standards about sex, sexuality, the sensual and the explicit. These double standards often get underlined when the male-female heterosexual binary gets crossed. My works are from a queer perspective. I aim to break down the conventions of working from a model. I want to question the standards that separated nudity into categories of art and pornography, acceptable and unacceptable, appropriate and inappropriate. I want to speak about the body, identity and desire directly and with candor. I recognize that my work can be explicit and arousing, and I think that is an important element to explore. While I want to explore the erotic and the intimate, I want the work to be layered and evoke many meanings including the nature of desire and also of loss.
I work with models of all different body types, ages and races. I work with models that are queer and not. I have worked with a few non-binary / trans models, and while I work with men primarily, I have worked with women on occasion.
It is important to me not to limit the kinds of men that I work with. I know of many photographers that only work with young men. I want to speak to the range of experience that men have over their lifetimes and share images of men with varying body types. Talking about body positivity in my work is also important. I have worked with men in their eighties. I would be happy to work with older men too.
Older queer men often feel invisible and undesirable in a culture where youth is valued very highly. This work is a layered portrayal and my personal coming to terms with aging and my struggle with body positivity. I am 66, and most of my models are younger, and in better shape, than I am. By sometimes appearing in my work I often show men with bodies that are at a stark contrast to my own. This contrast is important to me. I have also paired men together that are very different in ages, body types and races. I want to explore and share the ways that we differ, inside and out, and the ways we are the same.
Also being 66, I have lived though and experienced the loss that is endemic in having known many men with HIV/AIDS, many of which have passed. In having known an existence from a time before AIDS to the time now, with drug therapies making the disease manageable and also with Prep, I have seen a history that is both sad and celebratory. Times have changed in dramatic ways for Queer people and they are continuing too. My window and participation in these times, and having been out since I was 19, is one of the many contexts that informs my image making. I aim to speak to the owning of one's body, and one's desires, but also to one's emotional makeup and temperament and ability to connect.
Many who have modeled for me have felt this ownership personally in the way we have worked together. I strive to set an atmosphere in my studio that is welcoming, relaxed and enjoyable. I want to present a place where a model can be themselves and express who they are. Many of my models have found the process to be therapeutic (I am certainly not a therapist though), and many with body image issues have found the process enlightening and transforming. Some have opened themselves up to the camera in ways that are unlike how they can normally express themselves or their sexuality. My work is staged and directed in an improvisational way. It is a spontaneous collaboration with the model.
Logistics of Working with Models
I am often asked how I find models. I used to actively search for models and utilized Craigslist and Model Mayhem regularly. I do still have a page on Model Mayhem, but I have not updated it in years. These days, I am pretty lucky that most models tend to find me. I do ask men to work with me but I only look for models in the most casual way. Instagram has become one such source, in which conversations can begin about the possibility of working together. Most though have seen my work and are interested in participating in it. Men pose for a wide variety of reasons. Some are very shy and are looking for ways to be more open about their bodies and who they are. Some are explicitly exhibitionist, and are looking for situations in which they can explore this part of themselves. I work with models that are professional figure drawing models and I work with men who are just curious about what the experience might be like. I have rarely worked with a model who did not enjoy the experience.
When I am having my initial conversations with potential models, I ask them to look at the range of my work. Some come to me having only seen the work say on Instagram, which doesn’t include my full nude or explicit work. I want a model to have an understanding of what I am doing. Generally these conversations are through email or texts. At one time I made sure to have a phone conversation with each model prior to the initial meeting or photo shoot. Now that rarely happens. When we do meet though, we generally talk about the kinds of images that I will be taking, and their levels of comfort around full nudity and making images that are erotic. I also talk to them about the possibility of my appearing in the work and of touching them in the images and process. Trust, respect and consent are of the utmost importance here. Some models are happy to do “anything” and others have very specific boundaries. Both are fine with me. This is important to talk about in advance of shooting. While some models are happy to come in and undress right away, I tend to ask them to stay dressed and I shoot the process of their disrobing. For me this is also about turning the prosaic, the taking off of one's clothing, into a metaphor for revealing who someone is and exposing themselves physically and emotionally.
I don’t want any surprises to come from me. I am happy when a model has an experience that surprises themselves though. This could be a personal insight or the ability to be part of the creative act that is often very rewarding.
Working with a model though is completely individualized. One size does not fit all. Sometimes I talk with a model at great length before a shoot sometimes the conversation is concise, quick and to the point.
Here are some points to consider when thinking of working with a model:
Always be professional and personal. This means being respectful and polite. This is important whether you are a professional photographer or just have a casual interest in the medium.
Be open and honest with the potential model. This means explaining your concept, your hope for the shoot and your ideas. Sometimes these ideas may be vague and not totally realized. That is fine too and also should be expressed. If this is your first time shooting with a model, let them know that. If you are a beginner let them know. Acting professionally doesn’t always mean that you are experienced in what you are doing. If possible show the model examples of your work in advance, so that they may have a sense of what you are looking to do.
I ask all that pose for me to sign a basic model release form. This gives me permission to use the work we make, and states that the model is of age. Generally I use a release form that I have written and have used many times, sometimes the language is negotiated with a model individually. I always email a potential model this form well in advance of a shoot. This underlines my seriousness and my expectation of theirs. I always check in advance that a model has read and understood the release form and I ask if they have any questions. This is repeated when we meet in my studio, before they sign the form in person. I always ask that the form is signed prior to the start of shooting and before a model is undressed.
Explain and make sure in advance that your idea of nudity and the models are the same. I ask very early in our conversations if they are comfortable with “full frontal nudity”, images that include their face and their genitals, and that the work created may be published (online, exhibited, or in print). Some are only comfortable with “implied nudity”. This means that they will be completely naked in the studio, but that their genitals will not appear in the work. This is not work that particularly interests me, and I generally do not work with men who have this kind of restriction.
Sometimes I set up dates to work months in advance sometime less than a week. Make sure to confirm with the model the arranged date and time at least two days in advance. Sometimes I feel like more than one confirmation is necessary. Make sure the model knows the best way to contact you if they are running late.
My shoots last approximately three hours. Arrange a time that is mutually convenient and that is not rushed for either of you. This can be difficult, but it is important that you both are relaxed. You don’t want to be needing to rush out the door at a certain time. If the model is late you still want to be relaxed and have a good shoot, rather than be looking at the time constantly. I recommend that both the photographer and the model put away their phones to avoid being interrupted by notifications and texts. You want the focus to be on each other and the work for the entire time.
The general rule of thumb when working with a model is that the photographer never touches the model. This is very important. Describe how you want them to pose. Feel free to be specific. However don’t actually put them in a pose. It is certainly easier to place their hand on their leg in the way you want them to do it, but don’t do this. Ask them to place their hand on their leg in a certain way, or if possible take the pose you want yourself and ask them to mimic it. This helps the model be comfortable in their own space, and with you. That said, you can see in many of my pictures that I am touching the model. Some models are open to this or being touched in the process of finding the right pose. However, this should never be assumed. I always talk with a model about their comfort level around being touched. I do this even with models that I have worked with regularly. I don’t assume that their comfort level is the same as it was in the last session. It may be, it may not be. When you have this discussion about touching, listen to the model very carefully. Listen to what they are saying, not for what you want to hear. If you ask them if they are ok with being touched and they say “maybe” or just “I guess so” that may actually be a “no”. If they say yes, but then seem uncomfortable being touched, stop touching. Generally, if a model gives their general consent around being touched, I ask permission to touch them each time, and not assume that I have a blanket permission for the entire session. Remember that you want the model as comfortable as possible, to get the images that you want. Also I have found that when I describe a pose that I would like to see, often a model gets my description off, and then does something better than what I expected. The way a model moves naturally is often better than what the photographer visions in advance.
The more comfortable and at ease the model is, the better session you will have and the better work you will produce. The photographer creates this comfort level with the initial contact. It is continued with subsequent communications and by the time you meet the model for the first time, in the studio, there should already be a level of comfort and trust in how you communicate. When the model gets to my studio, I welcome them, and thank them for coming. We generally sit and talk for a few minutes, or longer, and I invite the model to look around the studio if they like. I show them where the bathroom is, and the area that we will be working in. I generally also invite them to have a coffee or water or beer, if appropriate. I try to have some sort of snack available for them too. Once you get working, ask if a model needs a break. Ask if they are comfortable with the work and if there is anything that they need. Even if it is as simple as changing the music.
I am very lucky to have my own studio to work in. Many do not, and some work in borrowed spaces, their homes or outside. I used to borrow a nearly empty room in a friend’s house to work in. I have also worked in my home, and even in my bedroom. Be very clear as to what kind of space you are working in, and check to make sure that they will be comfortable in this setting. If any one else will be present let them know. Even if a shoot may have very intimate content and if you are shooting in your own home or even bedroom, let the model know your intentions are in the work, and that you are not inviting them into your bed.
Some of my work can be quite explicit. I never assume that this is an area that a model is comfortable in exploring. While some certainly are, this is always to be discussed in advance, even with models that I have worked with previously. A model’s consent to a certain kind of pose in one session is not necessarily a consent for future sessions.
After many of my sessions I give the model some or all of the images we make. It is important to know in advance what the model wants for their time. Some want to be paid monetarily, some are happy to trade for images, some just want the experience of participating in my work, and some do this out of curiosity, or for their own enjoyment. Always be sure that you know what a model is looking for and why they want to work with you. This should be acknowledged and agreed to well before shooting. There are a variety of reasons that people want to model.
This is by no means a definitive list or guide to working with models. All photographers and models have different needs, reasons for working, and boundaries.
Here are some ways to see more of my work:
If you might be interested in working with me, or have questions about purchasing or seeing more of my work, please feel free to contact me at: Robert.Siegelman@gmail.com
To read more about me and my work check out my interview in Boston Voyager.