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The Subject of the Subject: Getting on the Other Side of the Canvas

by Deanna Duxbury

I don’t like to talk about my “sometimes” modeling. I know that many people go into the industry with professional interests, but that was never my intent.

I’ve done a range of things from beach shoots to jewellery advertisements. Though, personally, I prefer doing collaborative portrait work that captures a city scene or casual moment. These kinds of photo-shoots are usually unpaid but allow me to exercise some creativity and explore the city of Montreal.

Oftentimes I bring a friend along (if I’m going to visit a photographers home studio for the first time) and buy them a coffee for their time. Otherwise, I shamelessly pose in public. It’s not easy keeping a straight face when people are trying to shop or walk their dogs past your obvious modelling. I’ve hung out on (a ridiculous amount of) people’s fire escapes, submerged myself fully clothed in the water at a public beach and held my aloof look in a moment of panic as I teetered at the edge of a dock in heels. The people of Montreal must be used to this kind of display by now, it’s probably completely normal.

It’s hard for me to feel truly embarrassed in public now, and I thank modelling for that.

I highly recommend it, actually. It helped me break out of my skin and get comfortable with my body. There’s a lot you can’t take seriously, and a kind of criticism you need to shrug off but (I find). That’s a small price to pay. If anything, it has left me more comfortable with the reality of not being picture perfect. Seeing photos of yourself trying to “vogue” in a pair of overalls and utterly failing will do that to you.

I’ve been in the focus of cameras and seen the harsh hand of Photoshop on my features, but modelling for a painter is an entirely new type of exposure for me. The final product won’t be the image in the camera. You will be what they see and how they choose to see you.

The painter I posed for, who I interviewed last fall, deals with with portrait work, expressionism and powerful emotional tension. Faces and features, in her work, are always captured with a sense of motion. Her paintings are set against anything from clotheslines to concrete to an array of poetry. My familiarity with her work meant that I knew how much of the subject was left to her own artistic interpretation.

She explained to me that she wanted to do a casual shoot around Montreal rather than have me sit and sketch live. Later, she would work with recreating and melding the photos together over her computer to create a skeleton draft she could use to paint off of. It seemed simple enough; I was incredibly excited to give this a try.

Some things mattered less. Picture quality, catching the light, the focus. Much of what we did was candid and comfortable. But the angles and focus were entirely new and abstract. She wanted to encapsulate my feeling rather than the mechanics of my form. This wasn’t about advertising a new jewellery line or about trying to look pensive in a pair of jeans. This was about sparking an artistic inspiration and that’s incredibly intimidating.

She gave me a write up before the shoot. Her paintings for this season would focus on positive change, embracing the unknown, and being in a state of static curiosity. She thought that this person was me. She wanted to see that personality in the way I moved.

The first part of the shoot actually took place in the empty upper-level of the 3Brasseurs on McGill College. She paid for my meal and we started talking about lighting and setting. If you’ve been to the 3Brasseurs on McGill College, you would know the soft-lighting and casual atmosphere is very appealing. We asked our waiter if it would bother them if we took some shots in a far corner of the bar and he replied, “The whole upstairs is free if you like?” They have an assortment of leather couches and open railing area to see their microbrewery. I felt very cool watching all the action of the bar from a birds-eye view and making myself at home on their lounge furniture. The manager came to check on us and we got a few shots with him too for the hell of it.

The rest of the shoot happened in my apartment, which was much less exciting.

I’m still waiting on the finished products, and am formally invited to the gallery on the opening night. I’m never nervous to receive photos back. Either they’ll be good or they won’t. But I’m hesitant to see what she sees in me, and if I gave her what she wanted. This whole experience has been highly flattering, nerve racking, as well as tremendously exciting.

If you ever get the chance, I’d tell you to do it. It’s an unusual form of self-assessment that definitely makes you wonder about what people want to see in you, and it is entirely not about you. It’s about the artist’s moment and their vision. I was just along for the ride. She had something to say and she wanted me to help her say it and I find that amazing.

It seems, to me, like the purest opportunity to see yourself through another person’s eyes while also experiencing the mind of another person. Intense, I know.

I’m just happy I was let into her world and we were able to work together in a creative capacity. If anything, it will be an insane experience to stand in a room full of paintings of me- I’m still not used to the idea.

Until then, I plan on continuing to write, to tell stories and to send my friends hilariously hideous photos of me as I study to keep the vanity in check.

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