When my older brother Mark was a pimple-faced, overweight teenage boy with zero prospects of dating a real flesh and blood woman, he pinned iconic posters of sexy female celebrities like Farrah Fawcett and Loni Anderson all over his bedroom walls. These voluptuous babes — their firm breasts threatening to burst out of their bikini tops at any moment — were accompanied by classic beauties like Jane Seymour.
The display essentially surrounded him on all sides by the women who eluded him in real life outside of that room and provided him with an outlet for the adolescent angst he felt by the societal constraints on doing what comes naturally to teenage boys.
I would visit his room to listen to albums he owned and talk about science fiction TV shows we liked – all an excuse for me to marvel at the exceedingly beautiful faces and bodies on display like a Sistine Chapel of the Erotic.
It wasn’t even a sexual thing, strictly speaking, because I was six years younger than my brother and hadn’t gone through puberty yet. But I recognized that the aesthetic of feminine beauty held immense power, even if it was just a fantasy instead of an actual woman. Actually, especially if it was a fantasy instead of a real person.
Real women get grouchy and reject you, but the woman on the wall with the bedroom eyes would never leave a boy in limbo.
The female form has always fascinated and inspired me, just like the artists who chiseled sculptures or painted muses on canvas centuries ago.
Glamour Photography in the Context of Age
Visiting a comic book store, I recently found one of those very same posters my brother used to display. It instantly filled me with nostalgia, stirring fond memories of all those moments with Mark.
I bought it on impulse, but once I got home, I realized I had nowhere to put it. Sure, I could plaster it anywhere, really, but not without being subjected to judgment regarding appropriateness.
I imagined myself in the shoes of a woman coming home with me at the end of a successful date, letting down her defenses only to turn a corner and find herself face-to-face with the likeness of Loni Anderson in a bikini at the height of her popularity right before taking her own clothes off.
I imagine it might be like that scene from “The Graduate” where Dustin Hoffman’s Ben takes Katherine Ross’s Elaine to a strip club because he’s having sex with her mother and only agreed to go out with her to shut up his parents. He sets out to make the date so miserable that she’ll never want to talk to him again, but he falls in love with her the moment he sees a tear stream down her face.
How would any self-respecting grown man explain that to her? No, we men are expected to discard the things we enjoyed as boys: the old issues of Playboy magazine, the toy models of spaceships and cars we assembled, etc. Lesser so now with geek culture becoming so popular, but the subtext remains: Trade in childish things for a relationship with a woman or she’ll scoff at you filling your shared space with unsanctioned tokens of joy.
We saw this depicted in the movie “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in which Steve Carell’s workmates encourage him to get rid of his huge collection of vintage toys to make his apartment “sexier.”
When a Picture is More than Just a Picture
My brother never quite shed the heirlooms of his childhood. He had a great heart, but little else to offer a woman once diabetes ravaged his body. Due to a fever he had as a young child, he also suffered from a condition called Diogenes syndrome that made it impossible to care for himself.
He was so lonely living by himself after his wife and child essentially abandoned him that when I’d take him out for a bite of food or a drink, he would misinterpret the friendliness of our server as flirtation. He wouldn’t dream of harassing or stalking anyone, though.
I only mention this because it explains why his collection of pin-up photography mattered so much to him. The smile of a pretty girl in a picture represented hope when there was little to be had in the real world. He was a very religious person, perhaps because church was one of the few places he could go and enjoy socializing with people kind enough to accept him as he was.
In his final couple of years, my mother, sister and I moved my brother into a nursing home, which he hated. We attempted to make his tiny room feel like home, but he obviously couldn’t put any NSFW posters of bikini-clad women on those concrete walls, not when nurses were coming in and out to check on his vitals and feed him. I mean, there were little old ladies strolling past his open door. The only photo he was allowed to display there was a photo of Taylor Swift taped to the wall next to his recliner.
He died one sunny morning in May 2014, lying on the floor after choking on a piece of candy. The staff put his belongings in a pile for us to take elsewhere. All of those photos of pretty women that he had sadly collected — hoarded really — were just thrown away like garbage. Sad to think that in March, I’ll be the same age he was when he passed.
Maybe someday, in his honor, I’ll have one of those “man caves” where I can go to drink beer and watch football and enjoy the sight of Loni Anderson. For now, she’s rolled up in a tube and occupying the deep recesses of my closet.
Glory Days Before the Fall of the Publishing Industry
There doesn’t seem to be any corresponding stigma attached to the romance novels primarily read by women and featuring unrealistic depictions of chiseled hunks in erotic scenarios. Probably because those are mostly words instead of in-your-face visceral pictures.
One of my regular photography gigs was creating photos that would give painters the basis for producing the covers of those paperback books. We shot those mostly from a rented studio in Atlanta.
The men were the stars (they have fan clubs and sign autographs at conventions), and I typically chose the female models de jour. They only needed photogenic prettiness to complement the muscular allure of the shirtless guys shown as under the spell of their womanly charms in a gruff but vulnerable way.
Of course, this contrasted with much of the people photography I’ve done, where the focus is primarily on the aesthetic of a strong, fit, beautiful woman.
Admiration for the Female Form Becomes Advocation
Earlier in my career, photographers in the glamour niche sought to objectify models in the same, traditional way done for decades by the photographers who created my brother’s pin-up posters from the seventies and eighties.
In the early 2000s, I worked for a web start-up called Xposed.com (which I worked to re-brand into something slightly less porn-sounding, Savvy.com, so advertisers wouldn’t hang up the phone, assuming a site named Xposed would be full of beaver shots without even bothering to check it out).
Indeed, the workplace culture was a something of a frat house environment, an office full of guys talking about “hot girls” and the boss emailing everyone (except the female marketing based off-site in Australia) a daily dispatch of dirty jokes and risqué pictures of alluring models who were the same age as his daughters.
It was great fun, but I was a married geek from Alabama who didn’t fit in when my suave workmates sponsored testosterone-laced and alcohol-fueled parties in South Beach Miami. I got to go along for the ride and telecommute because I actually worked my ass off, thrilled to have escaped the soul-crushing nine-to-five at a corporate newspaper at home where I earned about 20K less per year.
I was happy as could be Art Directing photo shoots with professional models. Getting to know these women while interviewing them definitely beat sitting in boring city council meetings. I finally had the resources and the budget for a collaborative team to create the stylish imagery I had admired in fashion magazines and in music videos – a great departure from the Olan Mills-style straightforward capturing of one’s likeness.
We also had a social network connected to the editorial side, the timeline of which coexisted alongside another startup you might have heard of called The Facebook. They seem to have done well for themselves.
I got the Xposed gig because a buddy and I had created something similar called Mensclick in our spare time as an excuse to do more glamour photography in the style of Maxim (which was, essentially, just a slightly more socially acceptable version of what Playboy had done since the 60s). The Xposed guys found our site, bought us out to eliminate the competition and hired yours truly to do the same stuff I had been doing for free.
Anyway, the business model was pretty simple: Maxim and a host of other print rip-offs provided advertisers with eyeballs in exchange for giving us scantily-clad actresses in skimpy outfits or implied naked, which, in turn, gave those personalities an opportunity to promote their latest movie, which, in turn, gave them leverage to build their fan bases so they could ask for more money for their next film project. These magazines employed the same familiar formula of “hot” girls, fast cars, gadgets, sports talk, etc.
It worked well until Google ate into the publishing market by diverting advertising dollars. I left for a job with a television network before it folded, but one of my former colleagues told me Savvy stopped publishing because one advertiser had accumulated a million dollars in debt with them and couldn’t or wouldn’t pay up. The primary investor was big time in the California real estate market when the housing bubble burst, leaving him strapped for cash.
The party was over.
The Professional Dilemma
I’ve debated whether to use my experience and connections in the entertainment industry and leverage the “model photography” I’ve done over the years. Truthfully, it’s been something I’ve played low key up over the past decade since struggling to find a job after the “Great Recession” of the 2000s. I’ve also become keenly aware of shifting cultural norms, but more on that in a bit.
I realize that companies look for reasons to disqualify people who apply for positions, so having a huge quantity of glamour photography turn up when someone types my name in a search engine doesn’t do me many any favors. It’s part of the reason why I am freelancing at the moment.
It’s not that I am ashamed of that past work. I proudly include in my resume that I spent 8+ years working full time for an online magazine and a television network that were both primarily targeted at the 18-35 male demographic.
At the height of its popularity, Savvy.com had become a global lifestyle brand targeting trend-conscious, fashion-forward men and women. I consider it one of my greatest success stories that Savvy ranked for three consecutive years as the SECOND MOST POPULAR WEBSITE ON THE PLANET in the men’s lifestyle category, just behind Askmen.com.
I was relieved to see that Askmen is still chugging along. Their home page conspicuously hid any glamour photography when I visited this morning, instead featuring a photo of a shirtless man doing yoga with a headline suggesting it would lead to better sex.
Is Glamour Photography Demeaning to Women?
I’ve never viewed glamour photography as hostile to women, but then I’ve never been the type to slap a thong on a girl and direct her to pose on all fours with her ass up in the air.
The boobage can be in-your-face a bit, but glamour models usually do engage with the viewer and showcase their personality a lot more than they would if they were alternately styled for the cold, sterile aloofness of fashion photography. I know models who can do both styles and transform themselves like chameleons adapting to their environment.
One past co-worker allegedly tried to get me fired from my job, suggesting that the photography I was getting paid to produce for a swimwear calendar offended her as a feminist. Luckily, my boss kind of told her to mind her own business, from what I can gather. I blocked her on social media, which seemed to take care of it (I’m not sure why she didn’t simply unfriend me instead of trying to put a colleague out of his job. Maybe she’s just a terrible person).
It would be easier to believe that glamour photography runs counter to feminism if I didn’t know so many female photographers shooting it, including women I’ve personally hired to shoot content like Brie Childers.
After that lovely experience with a colleague trying to punish me, I started crediting photos under an alias, which is a good idea for everyone these days since Google likes to keep a permanent record.
Glamour photography is fun to create, but it can involve a lot of bullshit that shouldn’t exist, external forces like judgmental friends or family, unsophisticated men leaving crude comments, or perverts using cameras as props for conning young women, giving every male photographer a black eye. Seriously.
I’ve always tried to bring integrity to my work with models, making sure they know ahead of a photoshoot what the plan is and never asking them to do anything that goes beyond their comfort or personal level of modesty. Trust and professionalism are key.
One scenario that has happened more than once and is very annoying: The model leaves our photoshoot feeling on top of the world, joyful and empowered after I craft images that are every bit as stylish and sexy as the photos she’s been admiring on Instagram. But then she shares the proof images with dad or a controlling boyfriend, who assume the worst and convince her she was naïve and foolish. Then they feel license to threaten me like thugs.
So, which of us wronged her? The stranger she sought out to create something beautiful or the man who supposedly cares for her but shows it by shaming her for posing for pictures that show no more skin than what people will see at a public beach? She may react by messaging me, begging that I never show anyone the photos she earlier said she loved because a guy in her life isn’t being supportive.
Eventually, she comes to her senses and dumps him for being a control freak and tells me the drama was a silly waste of our time. She asks when I’m free to shoot again, and I tell her I don’t have time for drama queens whose daddies or boyfriends are going to threaten to beat me up.
My favorite type of model client is the one that tells me to make her look sexy so she can have photos to prove it to her grandchildren that granny had it going on!
Re-Branding Glamour Photography to Accommodate Cultural Change
I knew things were changing when “The Man Show” appeared on Comedy Central at the turn of the Century, satirizing misogyny and the way men reacted to shapely “babes in bikinis” for comedic effect. Some men watched that show thinking it was a celebration of manhood when it was actually a playful wink and nod to classics like the Benny Hill Show, and an affectionate farewell to our ability to laugh at ourselves and differences between the sexes.
I wonder how many kids today have no idea that Jimmy Kimmel’s big break came by standing in front of a trampoline holding a beer as busty women jiggled all over the place.
When he and Adam Carolla left the show in 2003 and were replaced by Joe Rogan and Doug Stanhope, the program took on a far less playful vibe and foreshadowed the era of the hateful troll and hostile incel. I remember being shocked by the tone and not liking Rogan or Stanhope for quite a while after the program ended in 2004.
These days, the bikini-clad cover girl has been repackaged with more of a focus on celebrating physical fitness, which just seems fundamentally more dignified than putting on a thong and sticking out your ass to sell movie tickets. Less seductive glances of submission, more powerful stances with glistening muscles. It works because even enlightened, strong women can enjoy the results of working out at the gym to look good. Especially enlightened, strong women.
One of my other model discoveries, C.J. Perry, parlayed the exposure I gave her as a featured glamour model on Savvy to rebrand herself as “Lana,” a professional wrestler signed with WWE. This sweet girl, who was a student from Florida State when I hired her, was focused on her dancing career and very modest about how sexy her photos would be because of the way she feared her religious family might react.
Elsewhere in popular culture, It was refreshing to see lesbian soccer star Megan Rapinoe in the most recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition commenting on how the sexy pictures aren’t just for men to look at and enjoy. The very notion instantly converts what has been traditionally mocked by some critics as degrading and oppressive. Her Twitter feud with the Misogynist-in-Chief just makes her comments all the more powerful.
As Callum Chapman put it in a Tweet, “Men hating Megan Rapinoe is possibly the least surprising thing ever. She’s not going to have sex with them, has a personality and is better at sport than them. She’s fragile masculinity’s worst nightmare.”
Her using SI as a platform for expressing herself is downright empowering. Plus, I’m sure SI doesn’t mind the publicity.
Increasingly, women themselves are the ones deciding how their physical allure is exploited while the men are removed from the equation and mostly reduced to consumers rather than producers.
The seductive imagery is used by women to satisfy personal narcissism, promote their influence as web celebrities, or monetize that desire which still exists within men to view pretty women they cannot attain in real life. Now we are ALL Kim Kardashian sharing selfies and calling it modeling.
Glamour Photography is a Casualty of Changing Times Yet Timeless
I have no problem when women drool over idealized celebrity males like Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, Idris Elba, David Beckham, Bradley Cooper, Jamie Doman, Jake Gyllenhaal, etc. I celebrate it in the spirit of fun and just trying to squeeze out some joy in a tough world.
I’ll never be as handsome or as muscular as those actors, but I’m fine in my own skin. My “dad bod” offers a sort of humbling dignity and hopefully doesn’t gross anyone out too terribly much. The male superstars do give me incentive to do sit-ups.
When I was a younger man, the editors at Playboy magazine stayed in regular contact with me to discover up-and-coming models to highlight in that publication. I was really proud that I helped four people get the publicity that came with being a “centerfold” model.
I built up quite a professional network, but it was ultimately of little use because the ubiquitous nature of free hardcore pornography on the Internet eventually gave the target demo little incentive to pay money to view photographs of women who were NOT completely naked. Those editors I was counting on to eventually help me get my dream job (because I’d been a great resource for making their jobs easier) couldn’t even salvage their own jobs, much less get me one, and are now scattered to the four corners of the world doing other stuff.
The impact of the content I worked so hard for so many years to create is somewhat cheapened by the fact that thieves were constantly stealing it to share as if they were the ones who had originally created it. And the fact that it was “sexy” rather than a serious literary project.
I do take heart in knowing that my efforts brought a lot of enjoyment to tons of people, the same way content offered the teenaged version of my brother an escape from loneliness and feelings of isolation.
My dream earlier in life was to become a filmmaker and entertain the world. When that fizzled, my aspirations shifted to seeing my photography published in hugely popular magazines. Art directing photoshoots and creating videos of these personalities posing and talking brought me closer to my filmmaking dream because I was producing content consumed by an international audience.
Where We Go From Here
Most of my photography today is product-focused since I am concentrating more on branding of people, services and manufactured goods. I still license high-quality lifestyle images of women (and men) to magazines and websites in the model of GQ, Bella, Ralph, Playboy, Vogue, Men’s Health, Cosmo, O Magazine, Esquire, DT, Playboy, FHM, Cosmetic Surgery Magazine, Zoo Weekly, etc.
I also create custom content for individual personalities (models, actors, musicians, entertainers, etc.) who need images for their social media profiles and regular weekly or monthly photo sets and video content on content-subscription platforms like Patreon, Izea, Onlyfans, Zivity, Diverxity, Supe, TopDolls, ManyVids — as well as branded consumer products that can be sold online or at events (calendars, posters, autographed photos, etc.).
Promoting oneself as a personality is not all that different from creating stylish images of food: The subject must look appetizing if he or she is to gain traction in the form of LIKES that translate to online influence, which is nothing more than monetizing your public image.
If you want to see more of the past photography I’ve done (and will be doing), please sign up for my Patreon for access to exclusive content. I’m updating it daily and including lots of stuff like behind the scenes photo deconstructions, tutorials, business & marketing insights, articles profiling interesting people I’ve photographed and interviewed. Everything shared with detail and clarity.
Blog 2019 Steven Stiefel | Stiefel Creative