The Rich Get Pretty: The Politics of Advancement in Modeling (and what this has to do with Rebecca Black)

First, let me start this section off by mentioning that I am still looking for data from models about their employment conditions; if you have a moment, please fill out this short survey.


“Artist” is one of those nebulous terms, used to describe a loose association of right-brain professions. Not to be confused with “artisan” — a skilled manual labourer who produces a tangible and pragmatic product — the artist is a ‘culture-maker.’ In the digital age, and in an age of high levels of education and literacy among the general population, the idea of making a living off of art has become much less realistic. If one wants to be a writer, for example, that is a much harder sell to make to a potential employer than it was even twenty years ago, with soaring rates of literacy, and everyone and their dog cultivating a blog. Most artists will assert a noble heritage of great authors, painters, musicians, and photographers–ignoring the reality that the production of what has been deemed ‘valuable’ artistically for the past several hundred years has been produced by economic elites and the privileged class in society. Just shy of thirty years ago, the feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls noted that in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), thirteen out of one hundred and sixty-nine (7.7%) of the artists whose works were on display were women, while 83% of the nudes were girls and women.[1] Either women are biologically not as talented at painting, sculpting, and drawing, or the valuation of the art produced by women (and by extension all oppressed minorities) has been lower because of factors unrelated to artistic merit.

Creative professions have been facing a bubble as incomes and individuals have become more equal. The Lena Dunham’s of the world, white kids with a BFA, MFA and two ‘artist’ parents are no doubt talented, but are they neccessarily more talented than the hundreds and thousands of other people doing exactly what they are doing, but unable to draw on privilege, legacy, wealth, and famous families? Artists who have achieved fame in the past have relied on the original affirmative action: privilege (economic and otherwise). Art seemed less competitive in the past for these elites, because the pool of talent has been kept artificially small.

What does this have to do with modeling and photography, and thus, the fashion world — the place that lives at the intersection of art and commerce? It means that you or I have probably met a 15 year old who downloaded Photoshop illegally, worked and became and expert at it, and by 16 is a better graphic designer than a good chunk of the people with an degree in it, doing it professionally. Worse yet for the creative professions, this kid is doing work for free because she enjoys it, and helps her friends out with their “site modeling” pages, creating a reputation-based economy where credibility and connections are currency, instead of actual currency. Companies with a younger consumer base are taking full advantage, selling products to models, so models can pay up for the privilege of having the big company in their portfolio, instead of being paid by the company in trade or real dollars. What happens to the profession when the civilian can produce work that is comparable, or sometimes, even better, and when this civilian can produce said work for free?

The bubble bursts. The obsoletion of demand that killed the companies making laserdiscs and 8-tracks is looming over the industry.

Modeling and photography have probably been much the same in the past in terms of networks, but real money used to change hands a lot more often. As described in the previous post on this site (Models, Labour, and Gender: The Economics), the companies that actually produce goods for sale (ie. the ‘commerce’ half of where art meets commerce) no longer have to pay artists, when so many people will do the same work for free: whether that is all of us working for Facebook by selling our data everyday,[2] or the kid with the photoshop talent who will do the labour for recognition or the illusion of advancement. This problem has analogues to the problem of unpaid interns,[3] and was described perfectly in a recent piece for the New Yorker about the scandal that broke with Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter raising over 1.2 million dollars:

This is a time-honored dodge, which might be called “the Oompa-Loompa defense.” It goes something like this: outsourcing labor to people who will work for less is fine because they are “happy” to do it. Such practices and accompanying rationales have been continually refined—think the helpline that dials a tech in Bangalore. But the fantasy of the happy worker has taken on newer and more mind-bending aspects, as has work itself. It now includes things like the unpaid microlabor of providing content for Web sites. It includes the amateur photographer who provides her images of, say, the police killing a young black man to the local news as an “iReport” for nothing but a credit and a T-shirt. Or a music lover scratching out a review on some hip site for a byline alone. Or consider the subtlest and arguably the most exemplary case: how, in wandering the byways of Facebook and Google, you are diligently rendering gratis a host of information about the preferences and habits of you and your friends—data they sell to advertisers. This, too, is unpaid labor.

In general, there is the boom in such practices that seems tied to the digital era; you can’t spell Internet without intern. As the argument goes, you are paid in access to a desirable milieu, or the chance to do good. Work for nada at an N.G.O.: you are being paid in justice itself. Oh, you might also get the vague promise that such valuable experience will pay off later. This promise is packaged with the threat that if you don’t take the gig, you will be closed out of the disastrous job market altogether. You had better be happy about it. [4]

The industry, what remains of it, can best be described as a pyramid-shaped system (a few people at the top receiving the most attention for their work) in which advancement is loosely correlated with looks and talent (except if you are a model of colour), [5] but in the middle ranks has much more to do with “authority” and “who listens to whom.” Models and photographers advance slightly by improving their skills, but they advance more if they make the right connections with the right authorities. Say you are a photographer in the alternative modeling world: this means you want to try and get Ulorin Vex, Marie-Claude Bourbonnais, Mosh, Leanne James, or Masuimi Max in your portfolio, because when other models and photographers see her there, they will perceive you to be on a higher rung of the industry. For a model in this same world, this means arranging something with someone like Rowan Murray Photography and getting a feature in Bizarre Magazine.

Really, perception is everything in a world without a real, tangible product to market, beyond the extremely socially-mediated idea of “talent,” especially for those in the bottom and middle ranks. If you work in the industry, you can probably think of a few social media fan pages that are filled with glowing reviews from lower-ranked creatives that go beyond the realm of critical praise or acclaim: “OMG I love you,” “you are amazing,” “Sighh! ❤ ❤ My Hero!,” the ever-presentstunning,” and other assorted superlatives. Objectively stepping back and looking at this praise, praise which is not “I like the colours or the lighting,” one can see the artist certainly didn’t cure cancer with a single image or status update. So what are the fans doing? They are queuing up for power in an industry that is based on having powerful networks, networks that decide what talent looks like, and also who should be paid what for their work, if anyone gets paid at all.

As this creative bubble bursts, a bubble which assigns real-world supply-and-demand value to artistic labour, it is those on the bottom of the hierarchy that are the first to lose their pay: that is, models. Photographers–facing competition from instagram, increasingly high-quality point-and-shoots, and skilled hobbyists, and also not being compensated by the commerce side (magazines and private companies)–have abdicated the position of employers: they have effectively laid off the union of models who want to be paid for their labour, and done the equivalent of hiring strikebreakers or scabs in their stead, who are happy to work for free, or even pay for the privilege of working. To get to the real point of all of this: this is the set of conditions that occurred in the music industry to make Rebecca Black’s “Friday” possible. If wealthy amateurs pay from the “bottom up,” the industry becomes one of vanity projects: like a Wild West Portrait studio offering an authentic sepia-tone portrait in costume, or vanity publishing (commonplace print-on-demand fora such as HP’s Magloud are a topic for another article). It can hardly be called “model photography” if the persons in the photograph are not being compensated for their work as models, because if they aren’t being paid, they aren’t professionals.[6]

This condition could be positive, or could be negative, depending on if the industry decides to embrace the current economic pressures, or continue to rail against them. In a forthcoming article I will discuss the emerging ways in which models are attempting to monetize their labour as social media “brands” in and of themselves (taking a cue from site modeling), and how this may be the future of the industry.
1. Women Artists Still Face Discrimination, Truthout

2. Facebook is Using You, The New York Times

3. The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not, The New York Times

4. Amanda Palmer’s Accidental Experiment with Real Communism, The New Yorker

5. ‘Fashion is probably a bit racist,’ The Guardian

6. Featured!, Alternative Model


One thought on “The Rich Get Pretty: The Politics of Advancement in Modeling (and what this has to do with Rebecca Black)

  1. wow, it honestly makes me sad to offer unpaid work now! BUT I do think that as an artist I don’t need gratification or money for what I create, because I don’t do it for the fame or money but because I love it. That’s what art is all about isn’t it. I didn’t really ever want to make a business from it. I enjoy what I do and that’s why I do it.

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