In 2007, while shooting the centerfold spread for the December issue of French Playboy, photographer Hadley Hudson struck up a friendship with her day’s subject, Raquel Nave. Six months later, Nave invited Hudson back to Paris to shoot her again, this time in her apartment. The resulting image, Nave, coiled and serving face, perched on a mussed love seat, cigarette in hand, is a portrait of remarkable openness. There’s bared flesh, yes, but the overall effect is less passionate tryst than temporary living arrangement. Nave’s ruffled top slips off her shoulder, aping the love seat’s shirking bed sheet. A foam finger pokes out from behind a drooping potted plant. In modeling, nudity is something of a given. Hudson’s photograph suggests the height of intimacy is allowing someone to see how you live.
Since then, Hudson has added to this series. She shoots stark, hard-lit digital pictures, which locate early-career models as they are, absent art director diktats and editorial prodding. A book of these, published by Hatje Cantz, is titled Persona, after Jung’s concept of the mask. By shooting these models in their own homes, Hudson thought, the mask is loosened just enough.
The locations—squalid model apartments in New York, shabby shares in Berlin, outgrown childhood bedrooms—permeate the manufactured artifice of studio shoots and the relentless positivity of social media self-presentation. There are no artfully arranged tableaux of Influencers shilling for music festivals, or Kendall on a pleasure yacht, looking bored, or Bella, inexplicably in Cannes, looking bored. Here the feeling is tender, workaday, rather than mercilessly aspirational.
Given the premium we place on physical beauty, it’s difficult to imagine attractive people having a hard time. It’s almost unconscionable to think that models, paid to give bodily form to enviable lifestyles, wouldn’t be going home each night to the lushly-appointed, full-service glass condos on high floors that their ideally-proportioned features have justly earned them. Hudson, who has shot editorials and commercial work for Vogue, Interview, Rolling Stone, and other brands, admitted to this line of thinking, a view of which she says she was quickly disabused.
“I realized that a lot of the fashion industry is about projection, and beauty has a lot to do with projection,” she said. “And when I’m confronted with beauty, I tend to start projecting my own story, some fantasy, onto these people, how they must live based on how they look. And I realized that had absolutely nothing to do with reality. Some of the people in the book were really down and out, living this transient lifestyle, scraping just to get by. The way that they were living was almost diametrically opposed to these images we see in magazines and advertisements. Ironically, these kids were brand ambassadors for a lifestyle they were not living.”
The images in Persona are perhaps the purest antithesis of the modern working model experience—crowded parades of hopefuls warehoused in apartments to wait, herded into anterooms to wait some more, thrust before a casting director for a few seconds, approved or tossed back.
“This for them was very different,” Hudson said, “because it was about them as people, and not clothes hangers.”
The shoots were relaxed and Hudson’s instructions were minimal: wear what you like, and refrain from tidying up beforehand. Outside of that, there was no wardrobe, no styling, no set direction. Still, Hudson said she was surprised by the reflexivity with which many of her models responded.
“A lot of the people I photographed said, ‘Well, should I take off my clothes?’ and I said, ‘Well, do you want to take off your clothes?’ A lot of them thought that was what was expected of them, regardless of the circumstance.” Hudson recalls an image of one male model standing shirtless in his rundown Christopher Street kitchen, a framed picture of Kate Moss in the background, “capital-M-modeling for me. It was kind of mindblowing.”
These are photos of professionally beautiful people, but what comes across is their awkwardness, listlessness, and uncertainty. “Kayla saving for a house” locks onto a young girl with sloe eyes and a crop top presenting a produce bag of quarters. A series of images called “Charlie at his parents’” finds the titular Charlie, lanky, shirtless, and with a fair number of tattoos, posing with his punching bag, changing his pants, dryly showing off a pet parrot, his determined hardness mostly betrayed by lingering acne. “Khorey & Torey, 2015,” shows a young man, shirtless and draped in his teenage track medals, examining a dusty trophy for the “Varsity Boys 4x800M Championship 2010.”
A model apartment in Queens, which Hudson shot in 2009, looks like both a clearinghouse of testosterone and a fantasyland for lost boys—full of cheap peanut butter and white bread, Lucky Charms—the things you promise yourself as a child you’ll buy for your adult self. “It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had,” she said. “All boys, between 18-22, just working out, smoking weed, playing video games, and waiting, waiting to go on go-sees.”
Over the last ten years, Hudson says she was struck at how relevant the rough psychoanalytic framing device proved itself. “A lot of them really wanted to talk about their experiences,” she said. “And not only about modeling, but really their stories, and hopes and dreams and fears. I think as human beings, a lot of us have a real desire to feel seen and heard. And I think that they felt that way. For commercial work, a lot of models just put on the cool, detached, sexy model mask. I think a lot of them feel comfortable in that because it’s not revealing.”
Hudson told me she was preparing to move to Los Angeles, after spending her adult life in Germany. She provided a very abbreviated personal history: during her senior year of college she had met an older German man, married him, and had a baby. “I was basically a housewife in Germany when I was 23 years old,” she said. The poignancy of the project provided closure for her career in fashion photography, and clarity. “What I realized as I was shooting was, these are portraits of other people but they’re also a portrait of myself at that age, and the things I was going through, and it’s hilarious because it’s so obvious. But I figured it out much later.”