WORKING FROM HOME: Perspectives of a Life Model

The lockdown forced many of us to turn our homes into offices. In the final year of my Masters in Photography I was suddenly meeting with tutors, course mates and industry professionals online - all from the ‘comfort’ of my bedroom.

My profession also had to move online. I work as a life model; posing nude for art schools, universities and community groups, as well as facilitating my own life drawing class in Bristol, with a collective of life models (United Models Life Drawing).

Posing virtually was something I had hoped to avoid. The fear of being naked online in front of artists who might take screenshots without my consent was completely rational, and yet would have kept me from a job which is a vital part of my creative practice.

I never allow photographs to be taken of myself when I am modelling. I feel very uncomfortable if an artist asks for a reference photo at the end of a class. A photograph can capture a fleeting moment and yet the result is so permanent. Drawings of me are translations, but a photograph is an exact copy – undeniably my form. I wondered if it would be possible to reconcile my feelings regarding nude photography with my fear of appearing nude online.

Being part of a collective of life models meant that we could experiment with modelling virtually for each other before we allowed artists to join us. These experiences were such a lifeline during the first few weeks of lockdown while I was struggling to adjust to my empty modelling schedule. I was able to connect with models, share concerns and become gradually accustomed to this new way of working. I ran these sessions from my home office / bedroom, which felt comfortable when I was only posing for other models. But before we invited artists to join the sessions I needed to move to a location that was less personal – and more professional.

I live in a shared house, with housemates who were experiencing their own lockdown challenges. I was concerned about asking to take control of our shared spaces to set up a posing area, particularly as most life drawing sessions take place during the evenings. Luckily it was possible to work around each other’s schedules and I began working from the living room each evening I was due to model – setting up backdrops, props and lighting, and preparing my streaming equipment.

When the artists joined our sessions they were so grateful to be drawing again and to see familiar faces, even if it was over the internet. We had been building a strong community through running our life drawing classes for three years and despite my fears, the virtual life drawing environment immediately felt safe.

I have since been asked to model for further virtual sessions – some model-run, like my own, and others with larger organisations. Whoever I am posing for, I am working in the same physical space, yet my experience can be vastly different.

The intimacy of my performance – due to my nudity and my personal surroundings – is often matched by the communication from the artists, or facilitator; compliments about my poses, feedback regarding my backdrop / lighting and extended time spent sharing drawings once a session ends. These sessions are often more social than the physical classes I have modelled for previously.

When there is less communication from the attendees, the virtual environment can feel hostile and unwelcoming, and my role often feels undervalued. If the artists are muted I am no longer connected to their gaze, through the sound of their drawing, and I worry that someone is secretly making screenshots of my body. When sessions end too quickly after my final pose, with less time for the artists to discuss their outcomes, I am suddenly thrown back into an empty room, with lights and cameras still pointing at me and can feel as though I have done something indecent.

The work I am doing is actually far more physical than when the sessions take place in real life. I am the set designer, the lighting technician, the camera operator and the model. I might have less travel time between sessions, but I am spending that time setting up a life drawing studio in my home and considering how to create poses which will only be seen from one angle, instead of the usual 360° view.

I have tried to keep true to my posing style, although this has not always been possible. The inward gaze, which helps me to know what I am capable of holding and allows me to focus on maintaining a pose, has shifted outward. If I look at the screen, to view my body when I am in pose, I am also looking out at the artists - matching their gaze in a way that I would never do in a physical class. This could be seen as confrontational or provocative. Seeing the reflection of my body on a screen also makes me think photographically about how best to pose myself; how to fill the frame in an interesting way rather than intuitively selecting a pose. I have chosen poses that I would not have usually considered – sometimes this is an advantage as it helps me to explore new possibilities. However, I often regret these poses due to the strain they put on my body.

Ultimately, these differences are all an advantage to me as a model, they have helped me to know my body, its strengths and limitations, even more. They also fuel my creative practice – each session I pose for is further research for my own photographic work.

An unexpected benefit of the virtual world of modelling has been more life models reaching out to support one another. We so often work alone, but the move to virtual modelling has enabled many more conversations to happen between models. I have arranged and attended several virtual meet-ups between life models and facilitators who are working virtually – to discuss our experiences and varying rates of pay for virtual work. Models might not study in academic institutions to learn our craft, but that does not mean that our role is unskilled. Life modelling has often been undervalued and underpaid. Life models are frequently viewed as naturists who are more than happy to remove their clothes for little more than minimum wage. But life modelling is not just about showing up and confidently disrobing, it is a highly physical role which also requires emotional strength, understanding of one’s own body and consideration for those drawing inspiration from you. If these conversations between life models continue, we may be able to build effective unions so that together we can improve our pay and conditions.

The pandemic has given me an even greater appreciation of community. As a model, my physical performance is not the only aspect of my role that gives me job satisfaction. I value the opportunity to meet with artists and discuss their work, as well as my work; speaking about creative decisions, offering feedback and making something together. Moving my profession online removed the physical studios that are so important to the life drawing community. A safe creative space exists within those walls, which I feared could not be easily translated online. But the last few months have taught me that community is an immaterial experience.

© Fra Beecher 2020 (All Rights Reserved)