Sitting at the feet of : a Fashion Photographer (2 of 2)

photo courtesy 9art Photography 

Continued from last week’s Ask the Experts

“Two weeks later this kid came in and it looked like she’d tried to gouge her arm out with a broken pop bottle and I said, ‘My God, did you do that to yourself?’ And she said, ‘yes, I did.’ And I said, ‘Are you better now?’ And she said, ‘Yes. I got help.’ So the images were images of people…One girl had safety pins all through her skin. They’re very graphic and they were meant to be.” At the bottom of each image, Brian shared statistics of how many people self-mutilate, reminding us that this issue isn’t related to gender. He included websites and help hotlines. The goal? To create responsible images meant to help those in need rather than shock viewers. He refuses to offend merely for the sake of offensiveness.

Unfortunately, a modeling agency in Oklahoma sent him a letter:

We used to recommend you as one of our preferred photographers, but after your latest suicide series, we will no longer support your work. We find these images disgusting.

“You know? If it keeps one kid from cutting themselves, who gives a d*mn if they give me another model? I don’t need their help.” But he also earned tons of positive feedback from people who sympathized personally or through family members, people encouraged that somebody finally exposed the elephant in the room. Like any art, Brian considers the images disgusting out of context. Criticism from both sides tends to be sign of good art. “If you appeal to everybody, then you’re probably a bit bland. Peter Lindburgh said, ‘The best photos are the ones that create emotions.’ Set personal beliefs aside and say, ‘this is a work of art.’ Like de Kooning said—I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

“This kid came in one time and I was like, ‘Dude, you look like a freakin’ serial killer. I got an idea…’ Put him in a bloody shirt, went over to this other guy’s house, put him in this filthy bathtub. …The kid was quite the actor. He had his head down on the sink, was crying, actual tears coming down. First time in person shooting.

So… I was beginning to think, ‘This kid’s starting to creep me out. Dude’s really killed his family.’ He got into what we were doing. A lot of time I have to make kids go to places that aren’t pleasant. If somebody’s crying in one of my images, they were really crying. If I tell a girl, ‘I need you to cry.’ I’m gonna leave the room for five minutes and you should be crying. You’re gonna have to think of something horrible if you have to. It always works. Girls always have something to cry about, unfortunately.”

Once he worked with Ali Turner, who modeled for Ford, Dillard’s, Glo Jeans, Macy’s and Tommy Jeans, but high school kids form the bulk of his portfolio’s ranks—kids who want to give modeling a try. “Modeling is an art form like everything else. Models either have a gift for modeling and posing, or they do not. You can teach somebody to move a little bit, but you can’t teach getting into character.” Working with these models who don’t own a repertoire of poses enables Brian to shoot fresh art. New facial expressions emerge. Their creative input infects the shoot. No offense to the professionals he knows, he simply prefers non-models to professional models because pros work by rote.

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“You almost get a kata from professional models whereas amateurs have no idea what the h*ll they’re doing. I’m a control freak [in the makeup room] until we get [into the studio] and I start letting them pose on their own. I make all decisions as far as hair, makeup, outfit, accessories, background—I want everything congruent to the shot because I’m ultimately responsible for the shot. Any photographer that goes back and says, ‘Oh this is bad because my makeup artist screwed up this or my hairstylist screwed up—‘ That… that’s a copout. You’re the art director, flower arranger, set designer.

“The one thing I don’t do is over-pose models. I’ll pre-coach them as they’re getting their hair and makeup done. If we’re doing a formal and they’re covered with jewelry, I’ll say, y’know, ‘I want you to think elegance. I want you to think royalty. I want you to think aloofness. I have to explain to eighteen-year-old girls what these words mean. I pre-coach them. We always put music on to reinforce the atmosphere of what we’re doing. I’m hooked up to Spotify, so I have music. Y’know, if I don’t have music on it’s an old dude shooting a young chick in a warehouse.”

Music transforms the atmosphere where he and his wife work, nudging the model to look, feel, understand, and then play the part. When they feel the theme, they pull from it. Unfortunately, some refuse to play along. The worst shoot he ever suffered through was the prettiest girl he’d ever shot—her laziness amazes him even today. She wanted him to move her limbs to get nice pictures, to posture her like a manikin. “That’s not how we work here, so I ended up shooting her friend who brought her here.”

Sammi, a local young mother of two, will always be, in Brian’s opinion, a better model than he is a photographer. Since walking in at fifteen, she has posed for Brian on a variety of pieces. She was the third model he had ever worked with and often pushed him until his work transformed. Brian’s first costume shoots featured Sammi. Even his lighting changed to keep up with her pace. “I always hold a shop light in one hand during my shoot. The reason being this kid could pose faster than I could take images and move the light. I remember this one time I had her hair in an up-do. She took this up-do and was… pushing it down to cover one eye, giving me different hairstyles on the fly.” He wanted to get to her level and do her justice, but never felt like he arrived.

“We’d shot like four shoots. Supermodels Unlimited saw some of the shots. They asked me if they could publish the shots in their magazine. I was like, ‘psssht, yeah!’ Then they say, ‘This kid is a future supermodel.’ I’m not even sure they credited me in the images. It’s like shot by this j*ck*ss from Joplin, Missouri. This is a magazine that just saw these images from some amateur photographer and said, ‘This kid is a future supermodel.’ She never bought the issues of the magazine—for her, shooting was Brian and Sammi day.”

Sammi’d show up, Brian and Dena would buy her Mt. Dew and Skittles (he later said, ‘Most models eat like pigs’) and the three of them would play all day with the paint and backgrounds and costumes. Brian, look at this pose I came up with, she’d say after showing up for a shoot. She made a box out of her arms. “Geometric shapes, okay. I cut up some cardboard or whatever. That’s the stuff that pushed me.” He quoted Peter Lindburgh, “A photographer must be inspired by their subject and if the subject is inspired by their photographer, then all the doors are open.” That’s the chemistry between he and Sammi—to the extent that he said, “She was my muse. Everyone needs a muse.”

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Sammi, however, went the way of fiction and even submitted something to Free Lance Friday. After editing her query letter, I second Brian’s motion—the girl’s seven shades of creative. He watched Sammi invent new ways of modeling only to go the literary path and wondered about his own work. People ask him when he speaks at conferences where he plans to go from here—he doesn’t know. It’s already gone farther than he ever dreamed it would go. “It’s great to get published and get a fashion magazine cover, but after you get a few of them, it’s kind of… it doesn’t mean that much. I mean it’s always cool to be admired by your peers, or whatever, but it’s not really my goal. I just want to create images.”

I mentioned how I hope the next thing I write terrifies me, how I hope that I’m tackling something intimidating. If something terrified Brian, he might feel that he was going the wrong way. Brian has no goals. If he has any goal, it’s to be true to himself, true to what he considers art. Even so, he believes in change, growth, and transformation. The Beatles inspire him because of their consistent maturity throughout their career. He remembers listening to Abby Road once and hearing each song start on a different instrument. “That’s not taking some formula and cookie-cuttering your way through an album.”

We talked about Stephen King and Paul McCartney who keep creating work long into retirement. “Paul is dead. He really did die. Who is this person?” On the other hand, I tend to think King’s getting better even as he slows down. His work has the mark of one virtue his earlier books lacked: wisdom. I suppose you could say the same of Brian as he develops which is why he quotes people like Cecil Beaton at the beginning of each lecture he teaches:

Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.


Join this guild of renegade imaginations.
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To see more about Brian DeMitt’s influence,
check out this photoshoot by Mark Neuenschwander of 9art photo.

PS> If you have spent a significant amount of time on something, you might be an expert worthy of an interview. Send an email to lanceschaubert [at] gmail.com — I will take on all kinds of people from celebrity to lone wolf, filthy rich to newly bankrupt, foreign or domestic. “But Lance, what if everyone that knows me has no clue that I’ve spent so much time on this?” Email me anyways.

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