This piece by Tina Horn, part of an ongoing podcast and essay series called “Why Are People Into That?!,” originally appeared on The Establishment, an independent multimedia site founded and run by women.
I really hate having my picture taken. I don’t like holding still. I have never figured out how to freeze my face in a way that looks like I intensely care and couldn’t care less that you’re looking at me.
Modeling is an illusion, but I’ve always depended on language and movement to glamour my own victims. Like many things we expect women to do well in order to show their worth, the talent, skill, and craft of modeling is sorely undervalued. We envy models who “get paid just to stand there.”
Nope. You try creating simultaneous grace and alertness in your figure. You try contorting your body into a silhouette that compresses your three-dimensional complexity into a two-dimensional shape that pleases the eye. It’s really fucking hard, and it’s even harder when you just don’t know how to harness your power while standing perfectly still.
Modeling is an illusion, but I’ve always depended on language and movement to glamour my own victims.
Modeling was a necessary evil when I became a sex worker, however. We had to create advertising images of ourselves specific enough to be distinctive, but generic enough for a client to project his desires. When I got my start in the mid-aughts ― not that long ago! ― you couldn’t simply snap an iPhone photo, place a filter on it, and watch your inbox fill up with potential clients. If you wanted to display your professionalism, you needed a photographer.
So I, like many hos of that era, connected with photographers on Model Mayhem. Many of them were lousy men with expensive gear who presented themselves as professionals, but just wanted to be around sexy women. A friend of mine who studied photography in art school said something wise to me. I wanted to work with a particular male photographer ― even though he gave me the creeps ― because he once photographed Bob Dylan. My friend said, “Taking a picture of an interesting person does not mean you have taken an interesting picture, and it doesn’t make you interesting either.”
After I moved to NYC, I was lucky to meet an interesting person who takes very interesting pictures of interesting people. Ellen Stagg has been taking portraits of porn stars, burlesque performers, pro-domes, and fetish models for a decade. You can see her commercial and safe for work pictures here, but if you want to see the nipples and the leg spreads, you can subscribe to Stagg Street or buy her new book the Dirty Girl Collection.
“I’m a pervert,” Ellen grins when I ask her why she has chosen naked women as her main photography subject. She claims to be much more of a voyeur than an exhibitionist. She likes living vicariously through her models, creating a space for them to be the center of attention.
I loved talking to Ellen about her work, because as a female photographer of naked female bodies, she has a unique perspective on issues of objectification. Ellen is a striking woman herself, with long blonde hair and longer legs. Every time I see her she is wearing something rose colored. She doesn’t exactly seem like someone who is going to launch into a discussion of vulva diversity, so sometimes she catches even a devoted vulgarian like me delightfully off guard.
Taking a picture of an interesting person does not mean you have taken an interesting picture.
I asked Ellen what she thinks her Stagg Street members love about her nude stills as opposed to, say, hardcore porn. We discussed curiosity about bodies, and the transgression of looking at something that’s supposed to be private. The voyeur can imagine being with the model, and they can imagine being the model. Photography will always have the allure of a window into another world, a tease at something to which you may be permitted access, or possibly just a peek into something that could never be yours.
This is something, I’ll confess, I’ve never really related to about naked pictures. I project all kinds of things into models and performers in hardcore porn ― who they are, why they want what they want, which one I am or wish I was ― and that identification shifts from moment to moment. Even if I find the model in a still picture sexy, I almost never find her arousing. A picture might make me wish I knew what it was like to be in that model’s skin, or to see her in action, but I don’t know if I have ever masturbated just looking at a picture of a naked woman.
Ellen knows that people masturbate to her photos. But having shot some spread spreads for Penthouse, she makes a distinction between porn and erotica. It has less to do with perception and everything to do with the artist’s intention. If she’s making porn, she knows there’s certain things people will expect to see. But her own art is her own art. Sometimes women get naked, sometimes they spread, sometimes they touch themselves, sometimes they have sex. It’s always a collaboration.
I would be skeptical of this, except I found it to be true.
Ellen and I did a photoshoot together a few years ago, in her friend’s spacious apartment in Bushwick. I can’t quite explain to you what Ellen did to make me comfortable, but they are some of my favorite pictures of me anyone has ever taken. She knows I like natural light, so she asked me to stand by the window, somehow making me look coquettishly alluring. She knew I wanted some more rich bitch dominatrix shots, so she let me throw on a blazer and chew on a cigar I had brought back from Brazil. Instinctively, she grabbed her friend’s digital projector and lit me with a nourish blue light. I knew how to play within her dramatic instinct. I saw the narrative potential in her sense of style.
Ellen said we had time for one more look. I threw on everything I had worn to the shoot except my pants and shirt, and climbed on top of a giant guitar amp. In cotton panties, leather boots, and a baseball cap, I writhed around, somehow able to express myself in a way that Ellen could capture.
One of those pictures eventually became the logo for Why Are People Into That?!
“Why Are People Into That?!” is a podcast hosted by educator, activist, and media maven Tina Horn. In addition to sharing Tina’s juicy interviews and between-the-sheet tales, The Establishment is also providing exclusive first-person essays by Tina, the culture eviscerator, as she traverses the shoals of sex work and social justice.
You can listen to the full interview with Ellen Stagg here, get your copy of her book signed at the Museum of Sex on March 2, and support The Establishment’s diverse journalism by making a donation here or purchasing a “Member of the Resistance” t-shirt.
Other recent stories include: