It's my world... I'm just living in it
Pretty much every single thing that went through my head during a photo shoot
A casting director from a fashion brand called to ask if I was interested in being photographed for a campaign. The concept was to highlight a group of “friends” coming together to celebrate something or other. The amount of money offered for eight hours on a Tuesday was exactly the amount of money I earn in six weeks at my job, so I called back to say: Yes, interested. I knew what kind of exchange this was. “Soon, Molly, you’ll age out of fashion-type offers,” I told myself. “So you must strike while the iron is lukewarm!”
I arrived on time and annoyed everyone by doing so, since the production team was running late due to a location change. People in black t-shirts darted around in Crocs giving orders to lower-status people in identical shirts and Crocs:
The milks for coffee—WHERE ARE THE MILKS?
If you could just step away from the table.
If you could just open the shutters while Jackie is setting up hair.
If you could just move to an area where you’re not in the way.
After being swaddled in garments—cashmere pants over tights; silk camisole under washed organza shirt beneath virgin wool jacket inside alpaca coat—I stood motionless as a stylist made imperceptible adjustments.
The casting director came over and waggled an eyebrow. “I’m not loving the flats on her.”
“No?” the stylist said. “What if we tried a boot.”
“We could try a boot.”
We tried a boot. The casting director came back and waggled the same eyebrow. I had the strong sense he’d recently figured out how to isolate his waggling muscle and was now abusing it.
“Don’t kill me, but is the boot worse?” he said. (Waggle.) “Although maybe it’s actually the pant I’m not loving?”
They bickered and my mind went dormant until it was decided that the pant would stay and the boot would go and (plot twist:) the flats would return. Then I was placed on a suede couch and tented with a sheet to prevent stains or lint from accumulating on the contested outfit.
I lay under the sheet like a corpse and thought of all the animals who had contributed to my clothes. Goat, sheep, alpaca, worm. How amazing that the sum of these creatures could be made to smell like: nothing.
“We’re ready for you,” said a person with a clipboard.
The location was a Brooklyn Heights brownstone rented from a wealthy and delightful person. I say “delightful” because the hallway contained a Franz West sculpture in front of which the owner had taped a print-out reading PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE ARTIFACT. This word artifact implied that the owner perceived the West as something with more of an evidentiary than an aesthetic value, like a pottery shard or arrowhead from a lost civilization. Which in turn forced a viewer to contemplate the sort of civilization that might yield such an artifact…
What a totally delightful intervention!
I pledged to remember the artifact framework and try it out on future sculpture-viewing occasions.
(It’s also possible that the sign betrayed zero cleverness; that, instead, the owner had been racing out the door and then thought “Hold on, these fashion idiots are going to mistake the Franz West for an innovative coat rack and throw their jackets all over it; I have to quickly make a sign.”)
In the dining room I met the people who had been cast as my friends for the shoot: a chef, an actor, a ceramicist, and a woman of intangible profession but concrete physical allure. We were given prop cocktails and arranged in poses suggesting intimacy. Given no time to interact before the shoot, this faux friendship would have to be conducted entirely telepathically.
The photographer issued orders:
Look alert! Look relaxed! Chin down! Pretend someone said a funny joke! Turn your right shoulder. The other one. Pretend someone walked in the room and you’re excited to see them. Pretend your friend is telling you a secret. Pretend you are drinking your cocktail but don’t actually drink it. Now drink the cocktail. Not like that.
A hairstylist darted in to move a strand of my hair one millimeter to the left. “I know it feels wrong,” he whispered, “but trust me, it looks right.”
Eventually we paused to change. Now I was placed in a tiny backless dress and a pair of sandals. The ceramicist, meantime, was given a replica of my previous layered outfit rescaled with pins and tape to fit a person of model dimensions. What was the temperature supposed to be at this party? Maybe part of the concept was that certain guests were dangerously ill and running a fever.
A makeup artist retouched me—one of the strangest feelings on earth is the featherlight caress of a makeup artist’s brush and the unacknowledged intimacy of their presence; there’s no other reason to be so close to a face unless you are kissing it—and an assistant brought coffee.
The assistant provided a straw with the coffee so I could sip without lipstick disturbance, and the straw itself proved to be another fascinating artifact—the second of the day! It was made of plastic but designed to look like a paper straw, with the plastic tinted brown and somehow printed with a cardboard “texture.” (People whose opinions I would love to commission on this object: Plato, George Carlin.)
Everyone reassembled and the shoot continued. The second half was more successful; now us non-friends were bonded by our helplessness and had an easier time mimicking rapport. Nobody was under the illusion that fun was being had, but we were buoyed by a new sense of (slightly) exceeding expectations. The photographer quit making gestures of suppressed despair. His orders took on a positive tone. Keep doing what you’re doing. Yes! Do that again. One more time but slower. One more time but faster.
At last a producer called Time! and there was a palpable nearly-orgasmic moment when all of the “talent” simultaneously stopped sucking in our stomachs. The photographer beckoned us over to look at a screen; he wanted to demonstrate how convincing we looked. For composition purposes everyone had been arranged in a row, which is not a realistic formation for people at a cocktail party, but otherwise the effect was definitely friendlike.
“Ugh,” the ceramicist said. “I look weird.”
“You look amazing!!” everyone chorused, accurately.
But she also looked weird, it was true. There was a good reason for it. Of all the non-friends, the ceramicist was the one who most resembled a professional model. She was symmetrical, elongated, and possessed of extreme corporeal self-command—the type of person who can change the line of her jaw by manipulating some obscure muscle that nobody else is even aware of. The weirdness of the ceramicist’s image was that it looked almost, but not exactly, identical to her real self, whereas everyone else’s image looked completely unlike themselves.
(This is why I don’t feel self-conscious getting my picture taken: if you’re a normal person with a typically asymmetrical and undisciplined face, you will never see yourself rendered correctly in two dimensions anyway, so there’s no point in worrying about it. Unlike many other varieties of lie, the dishonesty of a photograph announces itself loudly and immediately.)
We filed into a bedroom and removed our fashion costumes. “Guess how much this costs,” the actor said, holding up a featureless black cotton sweater.
He caught the stylist’s eye.
“This is so embarrassing, but I sweated, like, heavily in this.”
“Okay,” she said, taking the sweater.
“Damn,” he said, morose. “I thought she would let me keep it.”
The civilian clothes of the non-friends had been combined and dumped on the floor, so our final activity as a group was to crouch and scrabble in our underwear through a garbage heap. It would have made an amazing photograph.
Two weeks later an email from the casting director arrived.
Thanks so much for your participation. We ultimately decided to move in another direction but feel free to invoice [Redacted] (cc’d) at your convenience and it will be processed. I look forward to working with you in the future.