Ralph Gibson’s work has been a lifelong source of influence and inspiration for me. Over the years I collected all of his published works. So when the opportunity to attend his Masters Fine Art Nude Workshop occurred, I leapt at the chance.
If you’re not familiar with Gibson’s work or his career, do please check it out. He was an assistant to Dorothea Lange AND Robert Frank, and a friend and contemporary of Helmut Newton. He has created an extraordinary oeuvre of nude images. His portfolio reviews are legendary. Gibson has famously stated, “If you can shoot architecture and the Nude, you can shoot anything”.
In his workshops Gibson repeats what Lange had asked of him as a young photographer, “What’s your point of departure?” When creating images, intent is everything. My own background as a writer and filmmaker constantly prompts me to ask myself, “What’s the story?”
On the first day, after introductions and portfolio reviews, Gibson’s workshop featured four models divided between twelve photographers in groups of three. Gibson created scenarios, talked about what he saw and what he’d shoot, and then turned the set over to us. During the day he floated between all the groups, his signature Leica often in hand.
On the second day, Gibson collected all four models together and talked about the challenges represented by shooting scenes with multiple models. He referenced Helmut Newton’s book, Big Nudes, specifically “Sie Kommen" (Naked and Dressed) Paris, 1981, two photographs featuring four statuesque models striding towards the camera, naked in one shot, clothed on the opposing page. An extraordinary diptych. Each model has one toe perfectly suspended an inch above the floor, frozen in mid stride. The poses and posture of each model is perfectly replicated in each separate image.
Gibson opined that “Sie Kommen” was perhaps one of the most extraordinarily difficult photographic series ever captured on film. The vast majority of people, and most photographers, would only ever see four beautiful nudes continued Gibson. Most people had no idea just how hard it was to create. He called it the nearly impossible shot.
“What most people don’t understand is that photographing two models together isn’t twice as hard as photographing one model. Photographing multiple models isn’t an arithmetic problem, it’s geometric! Getting a great image of two models together isn’t twice as hard as a single model, it’s four times as hard! Now think of Newton, he has created a perfect shot of FOUR models. Four squared. Sixteen times. That’s why Helmut Newton is Helmut Newton”.
Having shot fine art nude images where I’ve directed as many as three dozen models I can vouch for Gibson’s mathematical theories regarding the difficulties of trying to orchestrate multiple models. It’s one thing to shoot a random crowd, it’s an entirely different exercise to direct an image where every single person in the crowd is doing exactly what you want. You hope. That requires preparation.
I always start with story. What am I trying to say? How do I want to say it? Are my intentions broad or esoteric? What do I need in the way of a location? I almost always create a mood board of my concept, it not only helps focus me, but it’s invaluable to show your subjects. And I keep a version of the board on my smart phone as a location reference.
Next I try to nail down the location. It’s one thing to shoot guerrilla nudes with a single model and see what you can get away with (I always find it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission) and another matter entirely if you want to photograph two or three dozen nude models. In my case it’s usually a local clothing optional beach, private property or the middle of nowhere. I always try to make at least a couple of reconnaissance trips to a location to get a feel for it. And if you’re using available light, try to be on location at the same time you want to shoot.
Once your creative crew is larger than four people you really need to start thinking like a producer. Organizing several dozen people takes planning and logistics. Given the ubiquity of social medium platforms, creating an online forum is a practical way to coordinate with large numbers of people. Provide frequent updates. Also, if weather is a consideration, this will be the quickest and easiest way to postpone or cancel a shoot at the last minute.
Start with a very specific Casting Call. Explain your concept, who you would like to participate, how much time is required, and possible dates. What are the photographs going to be used for? Publication, or a gallery exhibition? Will they be posted online? Will people be “tagged”, identified or anonymous in the images? I tend to keep my exact locations on a need to know basis and provide a map with directions and even GPS coordinates. You will need to consider transportation, whether you need carpooling or a convoy, water, food and anything and everything your models might conceivably need. It’s always better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. I include a checklist. For myself and for all the participants. You need to know things like where the closest toilets are.
When working with large groups of subjects you should begin channeling your inner Buddha as soon as possible. Leave your expectations at home. Control the things you can control, your concept, your instructions and directions to your creative collaborators, and your emotions.
Once I’m on location with my crew I like to do a little speechifying and rally the troops with a pep talk. Start by thanking everyone for coming and helping you realize your vision. Explain again what you’re hoping to achieve. “I can’t do what I do without you!”, is my constant refrain. This is probably the first time everyone has met and you may also be meeting subjects for the first time, as my models will often bring a friend.
I also repeat my three rules for shooting, Be Safe, Be Comfortable, Be Happy. I want to reiterate for my subjects that the shoot is a collaboration and that they can step aside at any time. Being nude outdoors on location I want them to be as much in their comfort zone as possible.
When doing large nude group (6+) shoots I usually pose everyone first with their clothes on. I want to hold onto the energy that comes when people disrobe in front of the camera for the first time. It also frees me up to tackle my technical considerations without feeling any pressure to hurry.
Most of the time when I’m photographing groups my camera is mounted on a tripod. This allows me to frame the shot, settle on my composition and police the edges of the frame. I also want to make sure that my group is as perpendicular to the camera as possible to maximize my depth of field. I often use a remote cable release to trigger the shutter after I’ve focused the shot. Now I’m able to stand back and see the full scene in front of me. I find that this is the best way for me to see what’s going on in front of the camera and direct the shot. Also, it turns my subjects attention away from the camera and to me.
At this point I ask everyone to disrobe and return to their pose. At this stage the biggest issue for me is double checking where everyone’s eye line is going to be. New models will not be able to help themselves. They will continually look to you for direction. So be prepared to give everyone a sight line and a target to gaze at. Be very specific. “Over there”, almost certainly isn’t going to cut it.
If I want a very relaxed looking shot, I often won’t tell my subjects when I’m shooting. Another advantage of a cable release. If it was good enough for Richard Avedon, it’s good enough for me. If I’m shooting a long exposure, or I want people to freeze in a certain position, I’ll do a countdown to the the shot. “On three. 3, 2, 1, “HOLD!” And relax! Okay people, let’s do that again! 3, 2, 1, Hold! And relax.” I will make constant small adjustments in poses between shots.
I always try to offer encouragement and address models by their name.
Every fifteen or twenty minutes, or more frequently depending on the weather, i take short breaks. This allows people to get warm, rehydrate, catch their breath, or refocus. I’m also a big believer that in any collaborative creative endeavor that transparency is always the preferred policy. And in the digital age it’s easy. I always offer to show what we’ve shot up to that point. It’s encouraging and it’s a great way to illustrate a point if you want people to make small adjustments.
At the end of a group shoot I always double check to see if I have everyone’s contact information. And then I repeat whatever we’ve discussed previously regarding getting images to people.
Other Shooting Tips from Vince: