I’ve got a good online friend who used to make a good living from modelling professionally, and we were talking last night. I was telling how I am sometimes frustrated with the model pictures I take, how I struggle to turn it into more than a nice picture of a pretty young girl or a handsome young man in front of a somewhat suitable background.

Tam said that’s easy, it’s just a shadow of an illusion… from a dream.

Well, I don’t actually think she used the word “easy”. She’s too polite for that. But if you’re like me, you’re thinking, “can you run that one past me again, but this time in slow motion, please”. So that’s what I said, and Tam explained.

A jogger running on the beach in Cantabria, Spain

It's not a picture of a jogger in Cantabria, Spain. It's a an illusion of freedom, energy, strength, good health, youth, being in control

Like most things where you’re presented with a finished result, it has to be deconstructed and put back together again to make sense. So start with the dream. The dream is the desire to be loved, accepted, looked up to, respected. The dream is the desire / hope / want / emotion that the picture will eventually try to sell. As the photographer creating the picture, I need to know which emotions I want to convey, which desires I want to burn stronger, what hopes I want to ache more in the viewer (feel free to substitute ‘you’ for ‘I’).

The illusion is “this is what you want”, “this is how you will look, and since you like the look, you will be liked when wearing it”. The picture is showing a clothed attractiveness. Clothing makes a person; that’s the illusion and the illusion is that the attractiveness of the model projects his or her desireability on to you.

Picture of flirting female model in front of window

She is desirable, pretty, strong, youthful, flirty. Do men think that she's good looking and about to unbutton that top? Of course they do! She's not a victim of sexism, see the slight disdain in her smile and the way she's looking down at the viewer; she is in control. Will men be as attracted to you, if you wore that top, and will you be as much in control? Look into her eyes... of course they would!

The shadow is of course just the image. It’s not reality, but merely a reflection of the scene in front of the camera. A reflection, or a shadow, of the three-dimensional illusion turned into a flat two-dimensional picture. It’s the photographer’s job to use all the tricks in the book to tranlate that illusion into something that still blinds and evokes the same emotions when it’s a page in a glossy magazine.

It all sounds sensible to me, and when I think about it, it’s not that much different from any other condensed communication training course: Know what you want to say, decide the best way to get the message across, deliver the message as best you can (normally followed up by “check for feedback”, and “adjust the message as necessary”, which in the fashion world would translate into monitoring sales and profit figures).

It’s simply a good mnemonic, to remind the photographer, me in this instance, that we’re dealing with emotions, intangible things, illusions and dreamscapes. The picture is not trying to sell a dress, it’s trying to sell an idea to the viewer. It’s trying to get her hooked on the illusion that she’ll be as attractive and as loved as the model, all her worries will disappear and she too will be wearing that care-free smile, if only she could have that particular dress.

A mass of crosses, the dates revealing that these are children's graves; German refugees to Denmark during the last months of WWII

At first sight, these are children's graves. German refugee children to Denmark towards the end of WWII. But the real nightmarish dream is about children dying for their parent's mistakes, the meaninglessness of war, the cheapness of human life and the easiness with with life is discarded

This also makes it quite easy for me to see where I have been going wrong when I’ve been shooting models. It has typically been with the Essex Strobists, and my workflow has typically been about getting one of the available models, getting an interesting location that isn’t already full of other photographers, placing a couple of lights, putting the model in the middle of the lights and adjusting the exposure, and then finally giving some vague instructions. Something a la “now give me a sexy look” or “can you stand like this, but lean your head a bit more to the left, more, more, yes, that’s fine, and now your hand a bit more up, yes, that’s fine”. It’s all based on what I think at the time looks “good”. Shutter clicks a few times, because it’s always good to have some spares, and the model works with the pose, changing things slightly in between the clicks. Afterwards, at home in front of the computer, I try to figure out which of the pictures “talk” to me and convey some sort of message, and they’re the ones I chose to work more with.

So, going back to Tam’s words, what I’m normally doing is I’m throwing everything into a mix, almost closing my eyes, and then not really thinking until I see the shadows (have the pictures in front of me), and at that time, I’m trying to pick the most interesting shadow to work some more with. When I’m looking at the shadow (picture) I might be able to recognise some of the illusion, but there’s often little sign of the underlying dream or emotion.

Picture of a windmill in front of a fiery sunrise and a star-filled night sky

It's but a shadow of an illusion, but the dream is about hope, new beginnings, turning a leaf and the re-awakening to life. The mill symbolises an era where things were less complicated, a romantic flashback to a time that maybe once was.

If the model looks sexy on the picture, it’s because the model is sexy, and the message often seem to be “look: a pretty and sexy model”. While that might be a good message for a lad’s mag, it’s not going to sell the dream of “you could be sexy as well, if only ….”.

So I’ve got it backwards, it seems. And rather than continue stumbling through luck, using some sort of “instinct” for what looks good, I want to start taking more control of the messages conveyed by my modelling pictures, even before there’s a pose, and long before there’s a shadow of a flashgun in sight. The next Strobist shoot is on the 20th, I’d better get my thinking cap on already!

Following this deconstruction of the process that goes into the creation of a carefully constructed fashion photo, we went on to talk about how different symbols and words trigger different emotions. I still need to think some of the ideas there through in some more detail, but I look forward to hopefully get the same “aha-moment” when it all clicks again.

Many thanks to Tam for helping me to realise these things, and for wrapping it all up in a single, easy to remember sentence: It’s just a shadow of an illlusion… from a dream.