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The Humble Photo Bug/Rarefied Beauty
By Morgan Barbour
I always find it a bit embarrassing when I tell people what I do for a living. “Model” is hardly what comes to mind when people look at me (with my towering five foot, five-and-a-half inch frame, massive hipster glasses, and aversion to most heels off-set). It’s often offset by inquisitive brow raises and, “Yeah, but what do you really do?” glances when I tell people I’m working on my degree in theatre performance, own my own photography business, and had two short plays produced in the past year. “Okay, those are cute hobbies. But, like, do you have a real job?”
I do a lot in my life. I have the attention span of a goldfish at times and have this terrible knack for always feeling like I’m never doing enough. I also have a bit of a tendency to choose paths that aren’t always the easiest. When I first began modeling I never thought of it as a career. Like most teenagers (especially girls at my height), it looked to be a passing fad, a hobby that would die out after a few months and leave me with at best a few pretty photos, at worst some embarrassing “couture” poses on some railroad tracks that my mom would show (alongside the baby photos) to prospective romantic interests. What I found instead was not only an intensely gratifying artistic outlet, but a skill that has allowed me to see more of the world than any country-raised girl could hope for, forge delightful friendships, and give me an avenue to hopefully avoid being cast in the role of “waitress” when I head to the big city in a year to pursue my acting career.
The first time I “officially” stepped in front of a camera I was sixteen: fresh out of high school, lanky, and awkward as hell. Up until that point the closest thing I had gotten to a photo shoot was posing for my friend who chronicled a good chunk of 2007/2008 for my friends and me (the vast majority of which captured me with my pink hair, chipped dollar store nail polish and trademark teenage scowl). As you can imagine, I was about as suited to be a model as Kristin Stewart is for a Colgate commercial (because, you know, she’d have to smile and stuff. Incidentally, this might be why I don’t have a career in comedy).
That first photographer managed to capture a lot of uncomfortable grimaces from me, as well as showcasing the unflattering cut of the low-end pleather dress he had me in. “Fabulous, darling!” “You’re a natural!” “Oh yeah, baby, the camera loves you!” Yes. Some photographers really do say that. I think my favorite one was a photographer in LA who kept shouting “Sexy sexy sexy sexy oh yes you know it sexy” over and over like some kind of stuttering fashion battle cry. We spent about five hours on set and by the time we were finished, I was exhausted and pretty over this whole “modeling” thing. Then I got the photos (which were about as fashionable as one could expect from the kind of nerdy shit who thought eighteen credits sounded like fun and was still in remission from a tragic high school goth phase). Lord only knows why, but I looked at those photos, the stuff dreams are made of, for the judgmental world of the internet, and thought, “I want to pursue this.”
That was almost six years ago. I now have a large and successful portfolio under my belt, have paid for a large portion of my college as a model, and have toured much of the United States and parts of the United Kingdom as the result of my work. That’s a plot twist M. Night Shaymalan would be proud of.
That said, the road was (and will continue to be) far from easy. The pay is terrible—something the outside world might not realize when I initially quote my rates. It wrecks your body. It’s not a good photo shoot if I don’t leave bruised, bleeding or just utterly exhausted. Some of your clients are creeps (a lot of the big money I make is freelance and comes from hobbyists, most of whom are delightful but some of whom make me question humanity). There are photographers who will talk down to you because they assume you aren’t educated. I once had a photographer try to explain to me what a pixel was, to which I stared that bastard down. There are some make up artists who will succeed in turning your face into a hot mess and you’ll spend the rest of the photo shoot wondering what you ever did to wrong them. Everyone will have an opinion of your body, ranging from “You’re a bad role model for young girls; I can see your ribs – you’re clearly promoting anorexia and unrealistic body image!” to “You have a pretty face, but if you really want to make money in this industry you’ll need to drop twenty pounds.” Incidentally, those comments occurred around the same time, when I was a healthy size four.
You find out who the insecure people in your life are. I briefly saw a guy who told me I might as well be a stripper after seeing my most recent work. Up until then, he bragged about how he was “dating a model.” Rumors will start about you. My favorite was that I was a porn star; I ask anyone who knows me who the hell would pay for that...it’d be awkward to a frightening degree (and not adorable Jennifer Lawrence awkward, either). Some of the big shots are some of the worst to work with, while some of the student photographers are absolute angels. It’s a game of chance and it’s an incredibly easy industry to burn out of. After my West Coast tour, I swore I was quitting. That lasted all of two weeks. Turns out it’s hard to quit when you’re booked for in NYC and you’re 18 and impressively stubborn.
Even with all those downsides—of which I’ve barely scratched the surface—the positives far outweigh the negatives. True, I’ve done some stupid stuff for this job and have risked my health for it. I was in bed for a week-and-a-half with the flu following one photo shoot – but hey, we got a tearsheet out of it.Yet I’ve also forged numerous amazing friendships with people I otherwise never would have met (which once led to getting a tour of the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, including one of the rooftops.) I’ve learned how to network like a boss, mostly by never using the phrase “like a boss”—whoops. I’ve gotten to see parts of my own country that I never would have seen otherwise. Do you have any idea how beautiful rural northern California is? It’s to die for; wading naked into a lake that you can’t see the bottom of is less beautiful, however. I got to experience the Fourth of July in Louth, a small village in Northern England that I’m still a little embarrassed to ever visit again after just how drunk I got on the most American of all holidays. I also got pretty heavy into photography and vodka, both of which are heavily prevalent in the modeling world, for which I will forever be grateful.
Unlike modeling, which is pretty much the only thing I do that I can rather unashamedly say I do “well,” photography is something I continue to get nervous about every time I pick up my camera. Like modeling, I have no formal training. I just kind of fell into it and discovered I’m somewhat decent at it. My first camera was an ancient film camera of my mom’s. She told me I could use it if I could fix it. Some tinkering around and I had a camera that I knew absolutely nothing about. Unlike modeling, my first few photography ventures weren’t as disastrous behind the camera as in front of one. I had picked up the basic concepts of lighting and framing from my work as a model. Because of this, I had fairly solid ideas of what I wanted to achieve. I just lacked a lot of the working knowledge on how to achieve it. So what did I do? Painstakingly follow YouTube tutorials? Take a few photography classes? No. I just…tried, failed and tried again. I’d probably be a much better photographer had I decided to actually study it. I had considered majoring in it before I was accepted into the VCUarts Theatre program, but life is too short to waste on probablys.
My photography has always been heavily influenced by my modeling, but over the years it has become the product of what I wish I could be more comfortable with as a model. I try to limit the amount of retouching I do and try to keep as open a mind as possible to the body types I get in front of my camera, both those who pay me and those I ask. I have my own aesthetics that I strive for, but I also have certain projects ([un]exposed and Nightmares, for example) that focus on all sorts of body types and embracing physical “flaws” that aren’t necessarily conventional.
Since taking up photography I’ve become the worst person to travel with. I was in Florence last January at this amazing cathedral and I kept stopping in the courtyard to take photos of the cat and these wicked little oranges. My best friend said something along the lines of, “Morgan. Stop taking pictures of the leaves. We have leaves in America.” I kept taking pictures of the leaves anyway. And the food. Oh God, the food. It was delicious and photogenic. It almost wasn’t fair.
Photography has honestly changed the way I view the world. There’s a lamp outside of my friend’s apartment that, in early November, shone on these three yellow leaves at night if you stood a few paces away from it and it was seriously one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I’m still kicking myself for not getting a photo of it. The way light filters naturally never ceases to fascinate me. The people I interact with in my daily life are mostly actors and many of them don’t geek out about such things and everyone who knows me knows I try to play it as cool as possible so, no, I totally never mention those things to people and get weird glances in return. That, kids, is more failed attempts at comedy. Best stick to getting naked and taking macro photos of Italian plants, which are rather different from American plants, thank you every much.
I have two rules for myself as both a photographer and a model: never shoot anything you’d be ashamed for your parents to see, and quit the moment it becomes solely about the money. I would like to think I have succeeded at both, although I’m sure my parents never expected me to have quite the aversion to clothing that my portfolio seems to indicate.
When I was a little girl I would tell people I wanted to grow up to be “an astronaut, an actor and a writer.” I was (and still am, although to a lesser degree) a raging tomboy. If you told young Morgan, who thought pink was a silly color and learned how to throw knives and shoot a longbow for fun, that she would grow up to make her living as a model, she would have laughed at you, and then immediately apologized, because young Morgan was a pushover. It just goes to show that you can never truly predict where life will take you. These past five years have been incredibly rewarding, and I can’t wait to see where the future takes me.