James crouched in front of me and faced the camera. “What am I selling? The jacket or the watch?” he asked himself. “Let’s do the watch!” He tugged at his suit jacket sleeve to reveal the timepiece, opening his mouth just enough to be faux seductive, and one of my favorite photographs was born. It’s silly and the flash is far too bright, but it was fun to pretend to be a model.
But what happens when you get your friends not to pretend to be models but to just…be them?
New York Magazine’s The Cut has an ongoing fashion editorial series where photographers are invited to develop a photoshoot, following a broad theme and using whatever clothes are given to them in a box. Accordingly, the series is called ‘Out of the Box,’ and the most recent iteration, using bathing suits, is particularly stunning because photographers were asked to use only their friends as models. The strongest images successfully sold the garment of course, but also offered a small peek into the subjects’ inner lives, something that isn’t the goal when traditional models are used and is a delightful, welcome change from typical editorials.
Any photographer will tell you people are different in front of the camera than they are when it goes away. There’s a constant tension between how people want to be seen and how a photographer wants to see them; the best photographers are able to capture the reality, or at least convince us that what we’re looking at is reality of sorts. Models aid photographers in assembling that reality for a living, but our friends, unless they too are models, do not. They don’t necessarily know how to hide their vulnerability like models do, to “sell the garment,” to “make angles with your body,” but shooting with them, as photographers Zora Sicher, Marisa Chafetz, and Ysa Pérez prove, can be all the more rewarding because there are other gifts they share.
Zora Sicher‘s images for Out of the Box were taken in Brooklyn, at a brownstone in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. “It was important to me to do something pretty real, not just the typical swimsuit stuff,” Sicher told The Cut, and her images accomplish her goals. Her girlfriends stare into the camera with a haunting beauty that both Mary Ellen Mark and Nicholas Nixon elicited from their subjects. They fix their hair, they run it under water to stay cool, they relax indoors and they look like the suits were made for them. Sicher’s scenes are editorials, yes, but the style is borderline documentary, an active decision made convincing by a skilled photographer.
One of a few in the series shot at night, Marisa Chafetz‘s images evoke a youthful sparkle and sadness as her friends swim in the dark. Chafetz, who is a photo intern at New York Magazine, took some of the images while on break from school in New Orleans. The photos have a snapshot quality that places the viewer inside each moment, made all the more real by our knowledge that the subjects are mere mortals, just like us. There’s a nostalgia to her work that calls on the days of summers spent as a young person, time spent only on pleasure, not to mention that Chafetz is able to capture her friends in moments when they either don’t know or don’t acknowledge she’s there. So there are swimsuits, yes, but there’s also humanity.
Ysa Pérez‘s images of her friends casually by the pool in Miami are the essence of young people on vacation–tattoos come out to play, there are solitary moments by the water, there’s showing off and abandon. Pérez captures her friends in vulnerable moments, getting out of the pool or seated on its edges. As with Chafetz’s images, there’s a sense of nostalgia here too, though it’s imparted by the use of filters for that oh-so-Instagram-like quality. But still, we’re closer to the subject, dipping into their lives and feeling the cool water with them.
The beauty in all of these images is that the clothes are secondary and the subjects come first. It’s not the typical way to do an editorial, of course, but it’s a welcome change. When the purpose of the editorial switches, so does its relationship to the viewer and the belief in the moment. Interestingly, the photos “sell the garments” all the more convincingly because the subjects are real people going about “real life.” And after all, if a bathing suit can look good even when the subject is not purposely trying to be beautiful, it must really be great, no?