August 29, 2012


I’m reluctant to wade into the troubled waters of women’s beauty, but the water temperature seems right, so I think I’ll go in for a deep swim.

For years, I’ve been going to castings for models, and interestingly enough there is a large difference between men and women. Oh, what a surprise! With men generally, what you see is what you get. Their demeanor is as it appears at the casting, their looks don’t radically change, and as a second fiddle to the women, they rarely (but not always) have pretensions or large egos. I choose men who are good sports and fun to work with.

Now on to my favorite subject; women. Rarely, what you see is what you get. The models arrive without makeup, outfitted in old unassuming clothes and look totally exhausted and sometimes disinterested. Their portfolios rarely speak to me and it is purely by instinct that I pick a girl for a shoot.

I must see something in her face or her demeanor, and I realize this almost the moment I notice her, as she is walking through the door. I go through the motions, but generally I know immediately if she is the right one.

Ironically, a girl’s (I don’t know how to refer to them, as they are barely 21. Are they girls or women?) presentation in these castings, although the culture would refer to them as natural, they appear to me as almost unnatural. They seem almost lifeless and uninteresting. Perhaps there is a natural beauty and all these girls are beautiful, but when I first see them, they appear without style and usually without grace and definitely without all the accoutrements of our culture, which help transform them from girls to women. Something in these castings is missing for me. They come looking dead on arrival.

So it is with faith and hope that I choose the girl or girls to be in the shoot.

What happens next is the crux of this story. It’s all about transformation and metamorphosis. It’s where great style and fashion merge into something extraordinary, and the banality and vulgarity of our culture is transformed into something timeless, beautiful and serene.

But before we get to the end, I must start at the beginning of another tale, a tale of a different sort and a different ending. A tale that is unrelated, yet related. One that is infused with celebrity, insecurity and bad karma.

In the spring of 1998 I was asked to do a campaign for Estee Lauder. It involved three days of shooting with Elizabeth Hurley, the spokeswomen at the time for Estee Lauder. For those of you who don’t remember, she was an actress, now model, English and Hugh Grant’s girlfriend at the time.

I was asked by her kindly boss at Estee Lauder to try and make my style of pictures with her. He said try quite often and I was beginning to realize there was something I should know. His final words to me were good luck, and with that and a signed contract, I began on my three-day adventure with Miss Hurley.

If I recall correctly the shoot started at an estate on Long Island. I had my own team, and Renate (the wonder of 29th Street) was the stylist. She is such a good person, and one who finds no fault in anyone, which is nothing like me, who finds fault with everything and everyone, had already met Miss Hurley and had spent a number of days working on the wardrobe.

She came up to me the morning of the shoot, and she too, at the end of our conversation said good luck. This was truly becoming a sign. What sign I had yet to find out.

It all started in the trailer. After Elizabeth and I had met, we began to choose the clothes. I chose clothes that seemed elegant and refined; she chose clothes that were vulgar and demeaning to her. I tried to tell her that I was asked to do my pictures, and she quickly informed me that, “she knew how to sell lipstick to people in Oklahoma, and I didn’t.” Also she informed me that I should simply back out on most decisions concerning the wardrobe and listen to her. I refused to do this.

This started the morning out with a bang, and I definitely was not in the mood to start singing “Oklahoma.” I told her again that it was important that she take my direction and try to trust me.

Well that never happened. We fought for three days, got kicked out of the estate for her telling the curator that their furniture was made up of fakes and that in England they had real antiques. In Central Park she played nice to all the paparazzi (who had found out we were shooting there) smiling, laughing, yet as soon as they were gone she started one again not to follow any of my direction.

By the third day we had a very shallow piece. She would partially go along with me in clothes and direction, but we barely spoke and obviously had very different ideas on how to sell lipstick.

She wanted what she was sure was sexy, uninhibited and with no hesitation to remove as much clothing as possible to capture a sex appeal that she felt she had. She felt she was empowering women while I thought she was demeaning them. She was beautiful before, but now so unattractive to me. Even when she would agree and try to do some pictures for me, by using the clothes I chose, it barely worked. She wanted overt sex and I wanted beauty and elegance. Maybe someone could unite the two, I couldn’t. I wanted something to believe in, something mysterious and alluring, and not something directly in my face. I needed foreplay and she was willing to abandon it.

So unlike Elizabeth Hurley, the girls I choose in a casting usually start out in the morning of the shoot as slightly messy and sometimes unattractive. They are like an open slate. We start with the hair and then the makeup and then the clothes and the shoes and this scruffy diamond in the rough emerges as a real beauty. They become elegant and graceful with long legs and delicate fingers, and a sexiness that is all in the potential. They are women at their finest.

They become what Elizabeth Hurley never could. They go from unassuming to powerful, beautiful women, while Elizabeth started with intrinsic power that slowly dissipated and dissolved as she chose to have more and more arrogance, insecurity and fear.

In this culture, what is beauty? Is it the ability to expose yourself and pout at the camera, and feel that this is power? Or, is it to walk very softly but have great style and carry it with ease?



  1. You’re right–there’s no mystery nor allure anymore in much of modern day fashion. So much of sexuality that we see in the culture is cheap, easy, and brazen. How sad.

    Comment by Leah Sernas — August 29, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  2. [...] So it is with faith and hope that I choose the girl or girls to be in the shoot. via [...]

    Pingback by “Transformation” – on models, photographers, and the process of beauty. Rodney Smith’s wonderful post. | Wizwow's World — August 29, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

  3. When I look at present day fashion photography, or at least the mainstream, Gucci, Prada, D&G, it all looks like space alien imagery. The people are so cold, the images lifeless, the expressions drained of blood and reality. There is a style that is NOW, which thinks it is immortal and everlasting, but it is dated, as dated as the strange artifice of the 1950s or the postures of the 1960s. I think what you bring Rodney, as a writer and artist, is an honesty and cynicism crying out and desperately needed, not only in photography, but in politics as well.-

    Comment by Andy — August 29, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  4. It’s interesting you bring up the point of women seeming lifeless and uninteresting. I’ve been searching for people with personality. I’ve been thinking of looking towards actors and actresses for models. Few of the models I shoot exhibit that truly great substance to many great photographs; the personality which draws the viewer into the experience.

    I’ve been following this blog for a while because of the subtlety that makes your photos so effective and elegant. The tales of your experiences put the right words to so much that I haven’t yet been able to. I look forward to the new entry every monday. Though the wrong kind of ‘beauty’ is mainstream, I do believe that it allows us to appreciate what so many miss.

    Comment by Thomas Ahern — August 30, 2012 @ 4:09 am

  5. Rodney,
    I understand this case. There is an idiom in Russian – “to be on the same wave”. This means to understand each other with no words, photographer and model work together as the whole thing. There are people whom it is too difficult to work with, Elizabeth might be one of them. I know and did know this actress, I remember the photos – which were seen by me before. First, I paid attention to her hands, wrists and her complexion/expression. We do know that the face reflects the soul, and the hands are part of the portrait. Maybe she loves to dominate, dictate, she is strong woman. Moreover she is (or was) a film-star. I had models, who paid me, call them clients, and some of them – yes – were difficult to work with – due to their characters, but not only – one volley-ball pleayer, the girl was a foot taller than me, (I did not know it before we met on the location) and while posing she was as if made of wood. Young girls who you compare to open slate I call “made of modelling clay”. We have to be in the mood to our clients, surrounding, atmosphere, calculating the nature of light, background and composition like machines, but deliver the product which will be seamless, fine, sophisticated and modern, filled with soul and beloved. This is our fate, photographers. As always, your post are interesting to read.

    Comment by Ruslan Lavrentyev — August 30, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  6. “What is beauty?” That is an interesting topic in itself. It would seem that most of this culture would think that sex appeal is the only way to promote beauty. And, they do so in a way that’s uncouth and lacks gracefulness. Unfortunately, this is becoming more of a normality.

    Comment by Harlin Miller — August 30, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  7. Do you know the sonnet from Edna St Vincent Millay that ends with the two lines- “I know the beauty men speak of/ I only wonder why they prize it so.”

    Wonderful poem about true beauty.

    Comment by nora — September 2, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

  8. I would unravel in this kind of situation. I don’t think I could keep much focus much less inspiration. It’s amazing you were able to accomplish anything. This sort of situation or similar make me wonder if I’m up for the task. How does one quiet the frustration so work can be done? the topic of beauty seems like it would be simpler but I don’t even know where to start in a discussion about it.

    Comment by Kristin — September 21, 2012 @ 1:46 am

  9. Mr. Smith,

    What a great post, it did get me thinking.

    It seems beauty is subjective and lies in the “eye of the beholder”. However for something to be subjective it must be thought about.

    The sad truth is, there aren’t many independent thinkers around these days.

    Many people only know/understand what is put in-front of them and thus their perception of beauty is shaped, not by what they truly feel, but what they are told to feel.

    Comment by Seth — September 24, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  10. I read this post at the time it was published and I wanted to say something but I don’t think I managed to get the right words then. I’m not sure if I still do, but this has been on my mind and I think I need to put it down.

    I loved this post, and I agree with this but partially. I don’t believe that it is possible to make a woman (or girl) beautiful. You can make them look “pretty” or give them sex appeal and even make them seem elegant, but it is really you who is elegant in the photographic technique – not them.

    As someone said earlier, “what is beauty?” is a topic in itself, and for me a large part of that comes from within (so no matter what makeup or hair or clothes or pose or place etc you use to transform – it can only do so much) which also goes the other way. A beautiful woman even with messy hair, no makeup etc will look beautiful – as long as the photographer is able to capture that.

    I feel like I am rambling on a bit and not making much sense but I think, I think, what I am saying is that you have to have “a certain something” to be beautiful – that no one can take from you or give to you. It can, however, be highlighted or diminished.

    Comment by PB — October 18, 2012 @ 10:18 am

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