**Disclaimer** I might just have liked, followed, commented and appreciated my way into a filter bubble. If I have, then anybody that can offer me a sharp pin would be greatly appreciated...
I guess I’ve been doing this long enough now to recognise trends and cycles. I consume enough media to distill & filter images into basic categories. If it’s a widely accepted truth that all stories are based on seven basic plots, then all the editorials I currently see are based on just one fucking story recorded on an endlessly looped 8-track. The one where a girl arrives at a photographer’s apartment, stands somewhere near a window and undresses. If the photographer is really good, they’ll have managed to live near an outdoor pool or in LA.
Rewind. A long time ago (like, 7 years. Before the iPad had been announced. Before Instagram. Back when Kardashian just meant Kim) Jonathan Leder released Jacques Magazine. It rocked, it was different to most of what was around back then (albeit wholly similar to what was around 30 years previously). It revered the 70s aesthetic and dragged it into this millennium. He shot a lot on film, got the feeling right and it was identifiably his. It was thought out in terms of styling, locations and models. At roughly the same time, South Africa based Purienne took a similar style, sprinkled it with some sun and ran with it - I bought Mirage magazine’s first issue in 2009 and fell in love. Not just beautiful fashion shoots but a whole lifestyle was laid out on those pages…cars, houses, beaches. Even the texture and smell of the paper was right. They termed it Jet Set Hedonism. It had orange Porsche Carreras. White Citroëns. Fast forward two years and Treats launched. This was my first exposure to David Bellemere. 2012 Kate Bellm shot Sara Eleri Powell against another orange Porsche for Lika Mimika’s lookbook. Cameron Hammond submits his first set to C-Heads. Jason Lee Parry hung out around some swimming pools. A genre was (re)born.
The guys above are all incredibly good at what they do. They’re amongst my favourite image makers today. Bellemere IS my biggest photography crush. They’ve got the details down perfectly, defined a styling lexicon and trademark grain-laden colour palette that everybody else is too lazy or too busy to expand upon. They did it so perfectly that most images in my filter bubble are now either poor imitations or mix and match budget rip-offs. What the thousands of pale imitators don’t have generally is a finesse and an understanding of what makes these guys great in the first place. Whereas all the elements of their shoots are properly produced - location, styling, mood - the mass of ‘editorials’ clogging up the internet and instagram simply rely on models getting undressed. It’s the sole hook. A striptease spread over a dozen basically identical frames delivered to a formulaic script containing at least one of the following…
- One frame with the model sucking a lollipop/watermelon/orange/cherry
- Failing that (or if the previous day’s model has eaten all the bananas) she’ll stick her head under a running tap. Modelling. Thirsty work.
- Model opening the fridge (presumably searching for more things to put in her mouth or a bottle of Chardonnay to numb the pain of her umpteenth shoot where she finds another contrived way to hint at but not actually show full frontal)
- Something Coca Cola branded (can, bottle, teeshirt. Doesn’t matter. It’s the logo we’re after)
- Slogan tee, preferably in yellow/orange and with a tongue in cheek message that ironically hints at the inherent sexism of the situation.
- If they’re wearing a swimsuit, this MUST be wet and pulled right up to give themselves a wedgy whilst gazing wistfully away from the camera into the middle distance. Bonus points for tan-lines…
- …naturally followed by a ’model pulling her crocheted bikini out of her ass from behind’ shot
- Model playfully hiding behind her slogan tee with smiley eyes
- Pool shot. Bonus points for an inflatable swan/donut/doll. Lose points if all you have is a generic shower in your rented flat. Hang your head in shame if somebody is wearing swimwear in the shower whilst drinking from the shower head. Because that never, ever happens. Ever.
- Wet hair in a towel. Post shower.
- Crochet bikini (full marks for making the effort of getting a Free People one)
- Large round glasses
- Model laughing and rolling around as she recognises the same bed with the same sheets her mate laughed and rolled around on last week
- Major bonus points for a single frame of somebody wearing a wet crochet bikini with string ties undone on one side whilst sporting brown oversized original 70s Chloe sunglasses drinking Coke Classic from a glass bottle through a stripy straw whilst carrying a watermelon past an orange Porsche. Although finding frames to fill in the rest of the editorial will then be a huge challenge.
It’s generally lazy and most examples are really, really, boring. Familiarity has turned naked hot girls into elevator music. What’s frustrating is that there are some people doing it really, really well - but their voices are drowned out by the willingness of submission-only websites to accept pretty much every naked editorial in their clamour for new and #exclusive content. One of the hardest jobs in the world right now must be the poor fucker who has to think up a new and pretentious way of describing “pretty model gets kit off in generic apartment in shameless bid for more Instagram followers” for every editorial on their website. Surely by definition ten daily exclusives amounts to whatever the opposite of exclusive is? #ubiquity
It’s beautifully ironic that just as Playboy finally gives nudity the push, drags itself into the 21st Century and puts more focus on simply creating beautiful editorials, a whole raft of websites have sprung up to plug the NSFW gap. There’s a whiff of emperors new clothes (or lack of) - the photography is generic, the settings blur into one, the concepts are hackneyed - so why exactly do the sites (C-Heads - 311k followers, NextDoorModel - 401K followers, Nakid Magazine - 430K followers, Arsenic - 1m followers) attract such high followings on Instagram? Surely not just because they offer a one-stop shop of models in various degrees of undress? Y’know, the same way FHM, Nuts & Zoo did in their day until the point where being paid to undress somehow became less politically correct than undressing for free in California. None of the images I shot years ago for those publications (there's a few below) would now look out of place on C-Heads, NDM or Arsenic. Since they've all gone now, the only other mainstream genre I can think of where an ‘editorial’ is defined by multiple near-identical frames of a model slowly undressing with lazy location choices and a single styling option throughout is, erm, porn.
I’ve noticed that C-heads in particular is getting around the fact that most of their exclusives are exactly the same by now just naming them after the model appearing in them - “Angelica by Juan Schmidt”. It’s surely easier than finding another trite way to earnestly describe exactly why Angelica from Arkansas found herself rolling around naked in a strangers flat at golden hour other than the obvious fact that she looks hot and the NSFW element will get lots of clicks thereby increasing their mushrooming advertising revenue. Given that submission is effectively done in return for the follows a featured set will generate, operating costs are limited to paying people to sift through all this shit and website hosting. It also begs the question, is the ‘draw’ in these exclusives the model or the photographer? When all the photography, styling and locations are the same then the only differentiator is the model. Shooting with an instafamous model is what makes most photographers instafamous until it reaches tipping point and the photographer is sufficiently instafamous themselves that agencies are advising their new faces to strip off for them as a quick way of gaining followers and thereby increasing their dayrate. And in turn, the model and photographer both make the curating website exponentially more instafamous to a point where the site reaches the top rung of the submission-only ladder and no longer have to put up with being “the site where photographers submit after they’ve been rejected by the really big sites”. Same way a pimp always ends up better off than their girls and boys.
But that’s getting off topic. What the new wave of natural light photographers don’t get - or just don’t care about now that they’re racking up more likes than when they tried shooting something more clothed - is that it’s the details in Leder/Bellm/Purienne/Bellemere/Hammond/Parry’s images that sets them apart and gives them real-life work. The details that ensure that their images saturate the world’s mood boards. It’s the details, the teams, the photography that keeps these photographers working for brands rather than just for likes. It’s their understanding that the amount of skin on show is secondary to the overall image. I’m hearing more and more anecdotal stories about brands hiring low-level instafamous photographers on the basis of their followers only to be surprised at how shit the results are when they’re asked to work to a brief that isn’t slogan tees, added grain and naked flesh.
So - now that you have a small insight into my mindset - it was with trepidation that I found myself with a free morning in Cape Town recently. It was the end of a campaign shoot where the client had flown home the night before the rest of the crew. The team were taking the opportunity to have a lie in and do some shopping, but as I really wanted to tryout the African light for myself I resigned myself to another early start. I had no styling. We had no makeup artist. Just a beach and two girls from Ice in Cape Town who were kind enough to drag themselves out of bed on nothing more than a vague promise of ‘something natural’.
What I ended up with is disposable. Completely unimportant images. Images that aren’t going to sell anything to anybody, except maybe Muizenburg beach as a great place to spend a morning. Images that I shot for myself rather than with an eye on submission. When the light is this beautiful, you’re shooting a mood. I realise that the only medium in which these images have any relevance at all is Instagram. A fleeting moment of sunshine on somebody’s screen as they scroll on by. And that’s okay. As long as I don’t try and ascribe some higher importance to them, or to pretend that they were hard to shoot (they weren’t) or original (they aren’t) or took ages to shoot (2hrs) or pad them out with some bullshit about how they’re expressing the model’s inner radiance (maybe they do) then we’re all good. They’re Photographs of No Importance and that’s alright by me. I loved the freedom of shooting for no purpose. They made me realise that what’s bugging me about the images in my filter bubble aren’t the images themselves (they’re just photographic elevator music), it’s the manner in which through their earnest curation and #exclusive tag there’s an attempt to elevate them into photographs of artistic importance instead of slightly more honestly admitting it’s just photographers shooting models getting naked in sunny places in exchange for likes. They’re no more and no less empowering, no more or less valid, no more or less artistic than strip joints, FHM or Playboy. And since sex sells, more and more photographers are taking the easy option of turning to this genre as their only viable way to get the level of following that is so highly prized. Since followers now equals actual commercial capital, the bubble is set to just keep on growing...