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Experience

Confessions of a Rookie: How to Photograph Naked People, If You Are Not a Pro

Bird In Flight asked reporter for "Ъ", Alexander Chernykh, to experiment with trying to photograph random people, strangers and acquaintances, in the nude, without having to pay them for posing. Here's how that worked out for him.
Alexander Chernykh Age 30

Born in Tomsk, lives and works in Moscow. Studied journalism at Moscow's Lomonosov State University. A reporter for newspaper "Kommersant".

Searching for Models

I needed to find people who would agree to strip down in front of a camera. When you type “a photographer is looking for a free of charge model” into an internet search field, almost a million results pop up. “Willing to split studio rental fee 50/50”, — one photographer offers. Another one states that “a model needs to cover all expenses!”. Models, on the other hand, think that they should never pay for anything as they are already presenting themselves as objects for the shoot. Both parties get into some major keyboard battles on various forums over this issue, and their arguments become even more heated than those between the fans of Canon and Nikon.

This experiment’s main condition is that there can be no expenses involved, no studio rentals, no equipment fees, and the models don’t get paid. I’m low on cash and am not very proficient at using studio equipment anyway. I had composed a rather modest advertisement that I later posted on several online forums and groups on “VKontakte” (a Russian version of Facebook): “Hi! An amateur photographer is looking for nude models, both male and female. I can photograph you at your place, at my place, or anywhere outdoors. Photos for a public portfolio may be published”. To my surprise, I even received a few responses. Three young women and an older man requested to see samples of my work, however, after I informed them that I was just a beginner, they politely vanished.

Not having much luck this way, I decided to turn to Tinder: I set up an account and posted the only picture of me holding a camera. I copied my previous offer into the profile column and added “Not interested in sex!” just in case. I had numerous matches, but not what I wanted: possibilities for dating were plentiful but no one wanted to get photographed. My picture got a lot of “likes” from people who didn’t even bother to read the content of my profile. Those who did take interest in my offer didn’t appreciate the idea of having their nude pictures potentially published. After a week of that I came to the conclusion that it’s much easier to get laid than to find someone to shoot in the nude.

I decided to turn to Tinder. Possibilities for dating were plentiful but no one wanted to get photographed.

So I began looking for models among the people I knew. A female friend who is a well-known specialist in political science by day, and a brutal dominatrix with a whip by night, almost agreed to strip down but “strictly without face, I have people to work with in the future”. I didn’t try to clarify what group of clients she had in mind — the daytime crowd or her nightly visitors (always thought those guys sign up for both services).

I had high hopes for my ex, a girl I had dated five year ago. She was a dancer and had the most healthy body image of anyone I knew: she frequented public baths and nude beaches. I was sure she’d be the one to say yes to my offer. “Sorry, my attitude to nakedness has changed”, — she said, — “Besides, I now have a jealous husband”.

Time corrupts even the best of us.

At My Place

One late evening, when I was driving from work, I received a text from Lyuda and Alina – my two old Twitter buddies. I’d been pointlessly carrying my camera in my backpack for a month now, so I immediately perked up with the hope of finally putting it to good use. The girls met up with me next to a coffee shop: always calm, cool, and collected Lyuda, who moved to Moscow from Buryatia (a republic of Russia located in East Siberia) to study, and Alina Yershova — a happy blond with large breasts, the best gift which a tiny village somewhere in the Ryazan region had to offer to the world.

I briefly explained to them what the experiment was all about.

— So, let me get this straight, you want to photograph us for publishing purposes but you have no idea how to do it? — Lyuda clarified.

— You know, you are way too picky for someone who lives in the middle of nowhere, — I pouted. And she gave in.

At her apartment, there was a table, and a wooden chair, a fridge and a black pot, a made-up bed and several unpacked bags full of clothing. The entire scene was framed with tacky wallpaper and dim light fixtures — there was no decent lighting nor good background. The generic apartment had not a trace of Lyuda’s personality. Nor did it have a trace of her neighbor’s personality or whoever used to live there before them. This tasteless living space reminded me a showroom of a provincial furniture factory in Belorussia. We sipped wine from coffee mugs, gazing at each other in silence.

Nowadays it’s much easier to get laid than to find someone willing to be photographed in the nude.

— So where are you planning to shoot me? — Alina asked.

— Somewhere over there, — I pointed in an uncertain direction. – Maybe even here, next to this wall.

Alina shrugged, took her clothes off and presented us with the entire wealth of Russia’s fertile Black Earth. All of a sudden, we started smelling fresh hay and ripe apples. Ms Yershova was gleaming, satisfied by her own striking effect as I tried my hardest not to stare too much. It was totally unclear to me how to fit this child of fields, meadows and gardens into the interior of a crammed apartment in South Moscow.

We wrapped Alina in a red blanket and put her against the wall. Lyuda stood on top of a chair aiming a hanging light fixture at her. I tried to photograph Alina with the intent to highlight how interesting and beautiful she was, but had no idea how to accomplish that task. So okay, here is a naked girl in front of me, — now what? Should I ask her to smile and spread her legs? To cross her arms so her breasts would look even larger? I honestly admitted to the girls that I wasn’t quite sure how to photograph them.

— I don’t feel my body at all, — Alina said. — I can feel my brain as a part of me, but not my body. It’s like it’s not even mine at all.

I thought that perhaps Alina would feel better if she saw herself in profile. The only mirror was in the bathroom, above the sink. I instructed her to start putting makeup on, in order to look more natural while posing. I myself climbed into the bath tub and molded my body into the tiled corner so I could get an optimal view angle. It turned out to be more fun to shoot: Alina was genuinely admiring her reflection in the mirror so I’ve captured much better images.

Alina shrugged, took her clothes off and presented us with the entire wealth of Russia's fertile Black Earth.
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When Alina finished applying makeup, I once again attempted to photograph her against the wall. But because of the heavy eye shadow, red lips and bright blush she looked like a shameless whore so even the magazine “Flirt” wouldn’t publish those pictures. While Ms Yershova was washing off all that made-up beauty, Lyuda and I crookedly curtained the window with a white bed sheet. Lyuda first changed into some bright rave-party threads, then slowly started taking them off. In my pictures I wanted to annunciate her graceful motions and her flexibility, her unconventional, slightly harsh, beauty, but in order to achieve that I needed more than a big white bed sheet. I thought it would be great to have her climb a dance pole at a techno party. Or shoot her among some ruins with the background of rusty pipes, just as thin and stretchy as her body.

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We returned to the kitchen, there was a half-bottle of wine still waiting for us. I photographed Lyuda while she was smoking, and it turned out better than anything else I tried to capture up to this moment.

— You know, when you are looking at me through the lens I don’t perceive you as a man, — Lyuda confessed while inhaling a cigarette. — I don’t even think of you as a person. You are a thing to me. That’s a chair, that’s a kettle, and that is you.

The next day I sobered up and looked closely at all the photographs, and understood that none of them turned out well. The first batch of pictures definitely had gone south. Oh well, you must spoil before you spin, that’s for sure. But there was no backing out of it at this point — I had to keep on going.

You know, when you are looking at me through the lens I don't perceive you as a man, — Lyuda confessed while inhaling a cigarette. — I don't even think of you as a person. You are a thing to me. That's a chair, that's a kettle, and that is you.

At the Theatre

After work, I drove to “Theatre.doc” where several short plays had being performed. While listening to the actors, I noticed the background of the stage — an old brick wall — and thought that it would add a nice textural touch to the shoot. The next day I received permission to use the stage background, as well as to involve the actors into my game plan.

We set up a date, the 20th of April, right after a scheduled show. I couldn’t avoid some headache when it came down to the lighting issues. Still, it was a rather fun thing to play with at the theatre, I had to climb a ladder all the way up to the ceiling and hand-direct those heavy spotlights fixed tightly with large nuts and bolts. I had no clue how to avoid having shadows fall onto the bodies and faces so I decided to take the easy road and to concentrate the rays of the main spotlight at the center of the bed, and to use additional lighting for illumination. “Light is the most difficult aspect of it all, — the curator of “Zarema” encouraged me. — You know, I often tell our lighting engineer here: ” We need blue for this scene”. And he says: “Which blue? I’ve got seven of them!” ”

After the lighting tune-up, I called for an actor whose name was Nikolai to come on stage, I asked him to relax and look into the camera.

— It’s the most difficult thing, to relax, — he informed me and everyone else present. — I was recently photographed by several pros. For a photography master-class for some fashion magazine. So they told me to relax. Then they pointed out to the students which parts of my body stayed tensed up – a shoulder, for instance, a foot, and an arm.

I look hesitantly at his shoulder. Then at his foot. And understood that the most tense person here was me so I decided to continue shooting. Nikolai kept talking about how the experts did it:

— By the way, they taught me a secret technique of putting pressure onto the lens! I mean, to intimidate it with my eyes. Here, check this out, — Nikolai began to gawk at the camera.

— Not feeling the pressure just yet, — I responded while taking several shots.

— How about now? — Nikolai frowned even more actively using his eyebrows.

— Still no.

— It’s because you’re shooting too quickly. And loudly. It messes me up, — Nikolai came up with an excuse for his failure and completely lost interest in practicing this secret technique.

Then I sent him down to the auditorium to take the nearest seat in the first row. Naked Nikolai hunched over in a chair wrapping his arms around his knees. I photographed him from behind.

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The rest turned out to be much easier to photograph. Next, I invited Dasha – a cheerful, athletic girl with a short haircut. She slouched a little, so I had to constantly remind her to straighten up. The heartless camera captures everything: in the images, the body proportions come out seriously distorted. While going through the first batch of photos I promised myself to watch my own posture and, as always, forgot about it thirty minutes later.

I asked Dasha to also take a seat in the auditorium, not on the periphery of it like Nikolai, but in the furthest of the rows. I photographed her surrounded by empty seats, — the pictures turn out reminiscent of disco style, ready to be made into a vinyl cover for C.C. Catch.

I go through the images and my spirit gets crushed: there is nothing that I like. Yes, there is a pretty naked girl. But what is she doing, what’s on her mind, what point is the author trying to make here? The point is absent, he just couldn’t come up with anything valuable to add to the presence of a nude body. Photographing a pretty woman in the 21st century is just as foolish as painting realistic still lifes of fruit on a platter next to a bunch of dead pheasants. It might be appropriate for Arbat. But not for eternity.

Photographing a pretty woman in the 21st century is just as foolish as painting realistic still lifes of fruit on a platter next to a bunch of dead pheasants. It might be appropriate for Arbat. But not for eternity.

I began to think about my personal contribution to eternity and fell into a deep depression for a few minutes, while my pictures were getting copied from a card into the netbook. Meanwhile, bare naked Dasha approached me.

— You know, another person photographed me naked once, too. He was just as crazy — he whined about everything — the shadows, excessive lighting, my bad posture. But your pictures are way better, because he just shot me on my sofa at home! — she bursts with such a genuinely infectious laughter that I can’t help but join in.

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Marina is the next one on the list, she is the calmest one out of the entire group, with a barely noticeable outline of a large full-back tattoo. I feel very comfortable photographing her: we both stay quiet, doing our own thing. After taking a series of photos onstage, I asked her to stand on top of a step-ladder and shot her in the falling light. I’m trying to emphasize her beautiful breasts with the lighting, and realize that I do not perceive my models as sex objects. Right now they are only representing a collection of surfaces and textures to me, not hotblooded living beings.

“A kettle, — I’m hearing Lyuda’s voice inside my head. — You are just a kettle”.

I'm trying to emphasize her beautiful breasts with the lighting and realize that I do not perceive my models as sex objects.
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Alexei, the second man in the project, doesn’t seem like he’s aware of being fully naked. He is sitting, standing and moving as if he had been born and raised in a nudist colony. That’s how I imagine Adam before his lapse from virtue. Frankly, I am way more uncomfortable with the presence of four naked women than he is: I want to emphasize the body lines’ symmetry in the frame but his penis has slipped off to one side disrupting the harmony. If I could only straighten it, I would have a perfect shot. But such a request would create a storm of comments among the ladies, and I can’t be quick-witted enough in these situations, I always get too shy. So, I miserably fail at my own inner battle and the perfectly harmonious shot never gets taken.

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Anastasia, a redhead, was the most difficult to shoot. Her overwhelmingly bright image is almost impossible to capture on film: every background appears absurd and vulgar. After several failed attempts we head into the dressing room to check out some props that might help, even the most silly ones like a huge green accordion. She is staring silently right through the lens and her gaze is way more revealing than her naked body is. She is the one who can truly “intimidate the camera”.

To set contrast to a human gaze is only possible with more of the same kind, that’s why I asked Alexei to lay down on top of the bed, and Anastasia to straddle him. He is looking at the girl while she is looking straight at the camera — like a movie character who realizes that she is being “watched”. That way I am able to somewhat replicate her gaze — calm, cold, examining.

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In the Bathroom

After the series with the actors I’m left with a feeling of incompleteness: I’ve got some decent shots, but they are too conflicting and don’t fit into one finished story. We get together again, this time at Anastasia’s place, and I come up with one simple solution.

— No need to portrait anyone or do anything intentionally, — I announce to the actors. — Be yourself, drink wine, talk about anything you want. Alex, go ahead and get undressed, and come back here.

The scene reminded me of a get-together for journalists where everyone was just as linked to others, in one way or another. Each party has a few people who have seen me naked at some point, but they never bring it up in a conversation. The actors have shown me how it can be done differently.

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Nikolai talked about computer games and tried to make us watch some not very funny YouTube videos, Ms Slonina was reading fortunes off coffee grounds, Dasha was talking about her ex’s, Alexei ordered pizza and later was checking his phone texting someone special. Marina seductively smoked. They drank, they gossiped a little, they discussed professional news. Everything was normal, besides the fact that one of them was not wearing any clothes. It didn’t seem as if anyone noticed any difference.

After everyone took turns undressing, I sent Anastasia, Alexei and Nikolai into the bathroom and started to shoot them messing around there. The sort of a scene from a threesome’s family life.

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At a Bar Stand

The night at the theatre boosted my self-confidence: if I could handle six hours of shooting, then I can take on pretty much anything. I managed to coordinate schedules with one other girl — Lena, who worked as a bartender at cafe “Ukuleleshnaya”. We met a year ago when, at a dark-folk-music concert, I secretly photographed her and posted it on Instagram. As it turned out, me and the girl with long blond dreads and tattooed shoulders had a ton of mutual friends. Lena agreed to be photographed for Bird In Flight, but it didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. By the time we met up again, Lena cut off her dreads, dumped her boyfriend, found a new one, colored her hair blue, adopted a dog and acquired a couple more tattoos.

One beautiful evening I walked into the doorway of the cafe “Ukuleleshnaya”. Lena was bartending to a bar full of men. They kept ordering cocktails, awkwardly trying to flirt with her, and even an hour later, when her shift was over, none of them wanted to leave.
Finally, Lena who was completely exhausted managed to finish her liquor count, rested for a few minutes and began to quietly undress. I felt as if someone had hit me with a hammer: I lost my breath at the sight of her pierced nipples, my head started spinning and my eyes began seeing things like bright circles from her tattoos — from the pentagrams on her stomach and a portrait on her left thigh. Lena noticed that I was staring at her and stuck her tongue out — it was cut in half. Fatality.

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I felt as if someone hit me with a hammer: I lost my breath at the sight of her pierced nipples, my head started spinning and my eyes began seeing bright circles from her tattoos — from the pentagrams on her stomach and a portrait on her left thigh.

Then everything became simple: Lena was silently doing her thing, and I was twirling around her, snapping photos. The lighting was bright and the bottles and shakers created an interesting backdrop. Additionally, there were so many vibrant objects around that it was a pure pleasure to experiment with the entire spectrum. I tried to fit a blue dishrag and Lena’s hair into the same frame, a row of red bottle tops and the red wings of the tattooed pentagram, the shine of the steel shakers and the silver nipple piercings. While searching for a precise composition I even tried to go into the already locked up kitchen to shoot Lena standing against a blue door. I lost my sense of reality because of all that excitement, and positioned Lena at a table next to a cashier register covered up with a blue blanket.

I didn’t succeed at combining the two shades, and the aesthetics of the frame got ruined by a stupid looking fleece ziggurat which drew all the attention to itself. Then I offered the girl to shoot her while she was making cocktails. For the duration of the following twenty minutes or so, I crawled on my knees in the attempt to solve the task of interconnected vessels: to fit into a single frame the way two long, thin streams of green and red liquids pour from one half of the shaker into the other.

I’d like to mention that, if you have never been served a cocktail by a naked bartender, you haven’t lived at all.

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When the sun began to rise, I decided to photograph Lena from the street view. We opened up the shutters, and I started to shoot the bar through the front window-case. Two butch lesbians were passing by – they decided to stop next to me to get a better look at Lena. So there we stood, the three of us, that early morning, gazing through the double glass-case at the dazzling naked girl who was drying glasses at the bar with tired and slow movements. That would have been a great shot if there was someone else there to take it.

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In the City

The material was getting slowly put together. At this point the most difficult task was to select the best photos and get them ready for publishing. Combining business with a hobby became more challenging: the deadlines for several of my projects were inevitably getting closer, thus I stayed at the office till dusk, daily, and later at home I worked with the texts and photos until five or six in the morning. I could accomplish very little and had to ask a friend of mine to edit my RAW-files. She was a professional and it still took her several days to get it done.

I offered Lyuda to have another photo session – with a huge shaman drum which could elevate her image to the next level. Early in the morning, after a snowfall, we went to the ancient synagogue ruins in Kitay-Gorod to find a wall with some gruesome graffiti. Lyuda got undressed and, holding a white drum, walked into the fresh snow powder. She started to freeze almost immediately, but I managed to take a few decent shots.

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When we were on a subway train, trembling from cold Lyuda explained my mistakes to me.

— You didn’t get what sets a regular person apart from a model. Models and actors are able to relax and act naturally under any circumstances. Unlike them, regular folk like me and you are capable of opening up only when we feel the most comfortable. I always post graffiti on Instagram — it’s a part of me. You need to figure out something like that for the others.

A few days later I re-photographed Alina in the snow, among the pines, wrapped up in a flowery old lady shawl. It would have looked vulgar on any other model, but in Alina’s case the session turned out to be fun, to say the least.

— I told my Mom that you wanted to photograph me naked in a forest, and that’s what she chose, this shawl, — she said laughing, piling up her clothes into the snow. I was under the impression that snow was Alina’s natural environment as she hardly got cold.

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Girl Lena suddenly quit her bartending job at the cafe “Ukuleleshnaya” and decided to change her hair color yet again. I barely caught her a day before that happened and photographed her at her home. She was wandering around the dark rooms half-asleep, feeding her dog, lighting the stove, drinking tea. I followed her like a shadow and tried to showcase her against the background of the old scraped up wallpaper. Those pictures, in my opinion, became an excellent addition to the bar series.

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About a week before my deadline, more people suddenly started to express interest in getting photographed. I had to tell them all no. I showed several images to the photo editor of “Ъ”. She tactfully said that “most of them are bad, but there are some good ones too”. The actors didn’t care for the pictures either way, and their curator decided that the first series were entirely a no-go. Alina liked the photos. Lyuda wrote that she would have shot herself in a totally different way. Lena didn’t say anything at all.

I didn’t quite understand whether I had succeeded in taking any good pictures or not. Writing is easier in a certain sense: texts seem to appear just as you visualized them to be; good or bad — that is another question. But a photograph often turns out to be not exactly what you’ve imagined. And so far it’s unclear how to change that outcome.

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