Out of State
A Summer Chronicle, part 3: NATASHA STAGG talks about how vanity has changed and reflects on what her favourite movies have in common
On the topic of strip clubs, per my last column, my boyfriend worked as an art director in one this week, interacting with a cast of strippers for a music video. (He wished I were there, he said, the exact right thing to say.) Later, he worked on a music video starring a fashion model that comes from a short line of fashion models. Most of the American ones do now: The Hadids’ mother modelled as Yolanda van den Herik, the Gerbers’ as Cindy Crawford, the Jaggers’ as Jerry Hall, the Aldridges’ as Laura Lyons, the Richards’ as Patti Hansen, etc. There is really nothing I can do about any of this.
I once dated someone who left for a month to assist with an issue of Playboy’s College Girls. He toured the South, setting up casting calls at big campuses. There was some stipulation that the magazine expressed to readers, I guess, about all the girls in the issue currently attending a state school, but the reality, he told me, was that they couldn’t scout enough models from even the surrounding community colleges that fit the part. They started in on Hooters restaurants and strip clubs next, first asking women if they were currently in school and then giving up on that, too.
Print periodical college babe franchises used to act as propaganda for universities, promising the sexiest and most exciting girls within arms’ reach, all day every day, for four years. Is the average reality that girls that sexy don’t go to college, or that they would rather not tarnish their reputations with a scintillating photoshoot? Not to sound like an old millennial, but there was once a time when that kind of thing could hurt your career. Remember the Vanessa Williams Penthouse scandal?
A thing I read the other day was calling out a new wave of sleazy photographers who have acted predatory. We’re on to the “celebrity” sect now, past the old school of once-respected fashion photographers. In what I read, there are hundreds of accounts of hopeful models that wanted a sexy photoshoot with a celebrity photographer and were outraged by an inappropriate exchange in a DM or in person.
Photographers hired personally by celebrities to create extra content that is under their control – behind the scenes, but retouched, with final edit given to the star – are a special type of person. They’re like street style photographers with no interest in fashion, buffers in gluts of tabloid journalists, capturing the centrefolds of the digital age paparazzi-style, then editing out all signs of ageing, awkwardness, folds, cellulite, dullness, and other imperfections. If someone wanted to prove an alibi with an image, this might be the kind of person who could fabricate that for them.
These are the photographers who get into the job because it means scouting girls who want to be famous and won’t be. That type of girl is the easiest to manipulate – the famous ones are just calling cards for these blind seductions, the ones that start with “Are you okay with nude” and lead to a power play that ends in tears, then, later, confessions. It is embarrassing, to be taken advantage of. It is easy to imagine that the shoot will be fun, even if you are aware of the photographer’s character, maybe especially so. It feels good to be looked at with ravenous eyes, and then to be happy with the pictures he takes, even if they’re a little manipulated, even if you have been manipulated, too.
But I’m trying to avoid writing about current events, mostly because I want to be in a new mindset, one more conducive to fiction (not as strange as fact). So, here are some movies I’ve recently watched and enjoyed: The Souvenir (2019), Non-Fiction (2018), The Queen (1968), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Stunt Man (1980), Thoroughbreds (2017), The Celebration (1998), Living in Oblivion (1995), and Blue Collar (1978).
Something they all have in common is a washed-out palette that feels serious but delicate, like shadows on the bottom of a pool. Strange how that can determine so much. You see it when you look at a person’s Instagram page, if they are obsessed with a palette. I have no intention of only taking photos that have similar colours in them, but here we are, everything with that greenish bluish fade like a slab of concrete on the beach, or the chiaroscuro of Chinatown at night.
Manhattan is more cinematic after it’s rained, with puddles reflecting the hanging red lights that welcome one to a neighbourhood. It’s pouring outside now and yesterday it was so hot I had to sit down in a bar on my way to the train in the early afternoon. On Saturday I went to Brighton with Emily and we did all of our favourite things. The water was perfect and we got a spot very close to it. I’ll never understand trekking all the way to Riis or Tilden, just to eat overpriced nachos and fight for space on the sand, then be stuck out there waiting for a bus and then another bus, when you could be asleep on an air-conditioned train that goes straight into the city, holding a bag full of pickled Russian groceries. If I could afford a second apartment it would be on Brighton beach, overlooking the boardwalk that leads to green-rusted and sun-faded Coney Island.
At the beginning of this year, I wanted to be a movie reviewer, but now I don’t know. I change my mind about movies. I don’t think I’m right for reviewing art, either. I like what I like (Gretchen Bender’s “So Much Deathless,” just closed at Red Bull Arts; the group show “Cutting the Stone,” closing this week at Miguel Abreu; Robert Bittenbender’s “Space Vixen,” which closed last month at Lomex; the group show “A Detached Hand,” closed last week week at Magenta Plains). But just look at the colour palettes there. A lot of light blue like the white from a VHS tape and salmoned drawing paper, even a pink and blue painted metal chandelier I bought for myself and then gave to Robert because it shorted the circuit in my apartment when an electrician tried to mount it.
(That electrician sold me another chandelier, one made of green metal and painted ceramic, that he had lying around in his basement in Queens, luckily. He mounted it in the library slash dining room, among some paintings and prints in the schemes of faded blue, pinkish-yellow, watercolour black, and avocado green.)
An article I read recently told of a woman who is marrying one of her favourite chandeliers, a female fixture named Lumiere. She wants to prove that even though she loves chandeliers and hopes to continue collecting and re-selling them, she is truly devoted to only one, the one that will wear her ring.
But I said I would try and avoid current events. I have posed for a couple of photoshoots this year, tempted by my own vanity, most of them black and white, all fully clothed, in the interest of promoting my new book. (I’ve gotten the occasional “are you okay with nude” DM and ignored it, but I can’t say I’m not flattered.) I can see my own insecurity in my eyes when I look at the pictures, something that isn’t easy to edit out. I wonder, like anyone my age, what the images of me as a teenager would look like if phones with cameras existed back then. Instead of a likely massive file of selfies, though, I have disposable camera prints with blown out features, their scenes oversaturated with colour to make the blacks greener, the reds brighter, and the whites of snow and eyes and clouds silvery bluish or improbably warm.
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).
A new instalment of Out of State will be published online every Monday for 8 weeks. Last week, she wrote about going to strip clubs and being in love.