As a photographer, I am usually behind the lens, not in front of it. So when I saw that Austin Young, artist and celebrity/queer culture photographer, was doing portraits as part of a solo art project called "Your Face Here," I immediately knew I wanted to do it. I justified my vanity by arranging that the portrait would be of my toddler daughter and me. The hitch was that in his rules of engagement, Young stipulated that he would only shoot couples if they were both naked. Even though I routinely ask people to take off their clothes in my own artwork, I was a little nervous about doing it myself. But I know Young's work; he makes people look like superhuman super-sexy supermodels, so I went ahead and signed up, hoping for the best.
That said, the picture I had in my mind of the photo shoot was of Young, my daughter, and me alone together in a dark, windowless warehouse. Critical miscalculation. Poptart is a storefront gallery on Third Street in LA's Koreatown. Young had set up shop in the very front window. Young, who is known for shooting stars, subculture and drag queens, had packed the place. The atmosphere was like a celebrity photo shoot: fun, exciting, narcissistic, and glamorous. Throngs of intimidating looking, ultra-cool strangers (a six-foot tall tattooed lady with a leashed cat, eight-foot tall cyborg drag queens, assorted stylish urban hipsters) crowded the small space, waiting to have their pictures taken. There was such a jovial, community atmosphere that I almost didn't mind the fact that I was going to get naked in front of them.
When it came to be my turn, Young rigged up a temporary screen so that no one else could see me in the buff. The plan was for my daughter to jump in as soon as she stopped crying. But my poor toddler refused to stand in front of the studio lights, so I ended up half naked, in front of the camera, all by myself.
In addition to being a stellar photographer, Young is also a gentleman, and made me feel completely comfortable. Quickly realizing how unnatural I am in front of the camera, he threw props at me, distracting me into momentarily forgetting about what I was doing by fumbling with a ten-foot long tulle boa. Meanwhile, he snapped away at me, saying all the nice things that photographers say to their models to put them at ease. Since I'm usually the one saying those things it was gratifying to know that telling your model they're doing great actually does help.
A few weeks later I went to the opening and was confronted with my 20" x 16" portrait. After all of my worrying, the boa-thing that Young had given me to play with ended up looking like a bustier. So it's not really a nude photo. I think I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Of course, the photograph is beautiful. And the whole experience was so much fun, such a heady, vain, communal celebration of glamorous fabulousness that it left me wanting more.
Not everyone there was just pretending to be famous. I found out later that some actual stars like Margaret Cho were part of the project. But for me, the thing that was interesting about participating in "Your Face Here" was having a really spectacular time pretending to be someone I'm not (a model instead of a photographer, a celebrity instead of a normal person). And ultimately, I think that was kind of the point of Young's project- a communal celebration of the joy of masquerade, the luxury of vanity, the strange headiness of being looked at. Young's "Your Face Here" asks its models and viewers to bask in their own heavily made-up, ultra-photoshopped fantasy images. The photographs, by turn earnest portraits and tongue-in-cheek pastiche, both satirize and revel in our fame-hungry culture.