Since my last post with all of the candid photos from lectures at Yale, a few people I’ve photographed have asked, “Will this end up on the blog?” Maybe! I take the photos for the school. It’s my official workstudy job that provides me with lunch money most weeks, and the photos go into the University’s archives. And it’s a good reason to get up and sit in front and get paid to attend lectures I’d attend anyway. I've been doing this, in a way, for twelve years, and you can read all about it here.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about this odd job I have that isn’t architecture, but which is part of my thinking that informs how I try to design, and which I don’t usually discuss around architectural circles. I was a photographer for a couple years – a New York City fashion photographer, and people make certain assumptions about that. People frequently express surprise that, among other things, I’m not a fan of ranking people based upon their clothing choices, or that I support the “Health At Every Size” movement. They apologize for not having applied cosmetics or not having worn something “better.” Do people usually say this when their picture’s taken?
I no longer have a personal domain now that I’m in school and unavailable for hire, but susansurface.com used to be the only google search result for the query “feminist fashion photographer.” I always thought this was weird since it didn’t seem like this should be a unique or novel designation, almost “retro” in its nomenclature. But there I was. Here’s why.
When I lived in Seattle, New York and London, larger cities with fashion and art markets, I occasionally had opportunities to earn supplemental income on the other side of the camera. I was (am) a poor student, so any chance at making a few hundred dollars in a few hours’ work, even if it involved getting a haircut I disliked to advertise a salon, or hawking energy drinks to drunk patrons at a bar… sign me up! The first time I sat for a fashion photographer was in Seattle, and it was awful. From the moment I walked into his studio, he made innumerable condescending, misogynist comments about my appearance. Squishy arms here, pimple there. “You’re shorter than the girls I usually shoot.” (Always “girls,” never “women.”) “I usually shoot Real Models. Why do they send these people to me?” He spent three hours applying makeup to my face, including forty-five minutes blending around one specific pimple, and another hour and a half making my eyes look “Geisha.” Then there was another hour punishing my hair into a bouffant. All for not quite thirty minutes shooting photos of me, most of which was spent adjusting the minutiae of my pose and lighting to make me look thinner. I didn’t feel glamorous at all – instead, I knew that the photographer considered me so heinous that it required one-sixth of an entire day to apply enough corrective pastes to my head to make it worth his while to even pick up the camera. Alongside a former internship that made me deliver 250 lbs of magazines around Chinatown on a 95 degree day, it was probably the worst job experience I’ve ever had.
He made it clear that he’d rather be doing Real Art with Real Models than earning money shooting what would surely end up being “unusable” images because of my weight and my height. But a paycheck is a paycheck you know, it’s what you have to deal with as a commercial artist. “You can keep the negatives if you want. I’ll never need them.” What an insult wrapped in a favor – photographers never relinquish negatives if they can help it. Fifteen minutes before my shoot was supposed to be over, the next model arrived. She was six feet tall, thin, blonde, and he was so glad to see her. They were friends; she was a Real Model. That was it. I left. We didn’t say goodbye to each other.
Even then, I knew that there is no correlation between my actual personal worth and what anyone else thinks of how I look. I knew better than to get depressed about my weight, or let someone in the fashion industry control what I thought of myself (though at the time I wasn’t bold enough to simply walk out of the situation as I would do today, especially not from a paying job.) Yet his words still affected me. I was a teenager, and he was in his thirties with a decade of experience in a profession I was about to go to college to pursue. There was a palpable power imbalance, even though we were both hired by the same publication. Now, nearly ten years later, I went back and looked at those “unusable” images. I looked fine. Despite being embalmed in foundation because he thought my head was irreconcilably wrong, I look good in two frames. I look unhappy and awkward in the rest, but I was not ugly. I looked good enough to be photographed by a professional photographer, for fashion or art or any other purpose. Still do. And so does everyone else, if only the photographers could see it.
It’s as much arrogance as any opinions I have about representation, diversity, and acceptance. I believe that I can create a fine image of anyone in the world, and that photographers who don’t feel this way are, basically, chumps. If everyone you shoot has to be 6’ and 115 pounds of sculpted muscularity for you to feel in control of your art, the problem is your lack of skill and vision, not other people’s bodies. I’ve heard some photographers say things like “I hate people who want “real people” in ads ,why do they want mediocrity? We need extreme proportions for extreme impact.” And I just think that’s sad. (And as if tall, thin people are somehow less real than other people - another conversation altogether!) It’s sad that so many otherwise creative and intelligent people look at individuals whose dimensions fall outside extreme categorical specificity and automatically see only a dead-end. That says more about a photographer’s mediocrity than a subject’s. Are these photographers incapable of producing “usable,” even aspirational, images of more than one body type? Again, that’s sad! Competent artists do better than that.
It’s difficult to articulate the continuum between my approach to photography and my approach to design, since the concerns are so different. I’ve worked in photography longer than I’ve worked in architecture, so I feel more comfortable articulating a stance on the familiar than the unknown. I feel very very strongly about not wanting to control or change people, and therefore don’t feel strongly about being in control of constructing how they look. I do prioritize aesthetics and form, but not in a way that makes me want to police or control others. I can’t see how it is possible to classify whole swaths of humanity as inadequate or in need of concealer and makeovers – a stance that I have observed, for example, in urban planning, in discussions of architectural gentrification as a “regenerator” of low-income neighborhoods. And likewise, it’s an entirely different situation when the motivation to change comes from within. Someone wanting to exercise, diet, gain or lose weight for their own reasons can be healthy and positive, as opposed to someone feeling like they have to do those things to conform to the fashion industry’s standards; a community wanting to redevelop or create new resources in their own neighborhood can be affirming and socially just, as opposed to an outside developer deciding to displace affordable housing with luxury condos because people with more money will “improve” the area. It’s a really tenuous analogy, but I am trying to make sure I won’t condescend to the communities where I someday might build, like that photographer once did to me. And even though it hurt when he identified me as a waste of time, I did learn something about labor under the professionalization of creativity: I learned to make sure that I’m not working on things that waste my time, just for a paycheck, because that resentment would spread out beyond myself. I would love it if people I photograph felt affirmed by the images I’ve made of them. And I want to work in such a way that the people I build for someday also feel supported by what I do.
All this to say - I like people. I like taking photos of people. I like taking your photo, I like the photo of you. Sometimes I like the occasional funny or goofy photo. But I’m not the paparazzi waiting to capture the worst possible photo of you with poppy seeds in your teeth when you’re delivering your paper on Palladio. That moment is no more true to you than when you look your best. Unless proven otherwise, I’ll assume that your worst moment is probably less of a truth. And please, feel free to eat that burger beforehand.