The Great Model Search Photo Shoot

by Gary Keith,

Producer of The Great Model Search and Great Model Showcase

    One might think getting women to agree to a free magazine style photo shoot which could ordinarily cost up to a thousand dollars would be easy, but it turns out it was nothing of the sort. Over the last decade I sent out email solicitations to over 4,000 women via their social media profiles with just such an offer.

    In 2003 I began what would eventually become the Great Model Search, but then it was a simple photo project, an exercise. A photographer, then of over 30 years, I always felt mature women made far more interesting and compelling photographic subjects than very young women, especially when the object of the image had anything to do with sensuality. So I began seeking out women who were 40+ in age and who had either never modeled, or if they had, their experience was far in their past. I thought one day the project might be a gallery exhibition or perhaps even a coffee table photo book, but in the beginning I had no specific plans for the project. It was a curiosity of mine, not a product in development.

    The responses to my outreaches, when there were responses, ran the gamut from those who thought I was trying to score a date, to others who were sure it was a rip-off or scam. Still others who responded thought I was a stalker or worse. Then there were the 75% or so who never responded at all. 

    In an effort to allay their fears or concerns, I sent my prospective subjects links to all of my professional resources and profiles. I even sent a copy of my drivers license to those who asked and offered to put them in direct contact with anyone who already done the same photo shoot before them for reference. I sent a full and detailed explanation of my project and a copy of the binding legal release that very specifically spelled out the allowed uses of the photos. Still, only about one in four responded at all to my initial contact and of those, only about one in ten agreed to do the photo shoot.

    What was the outcome? For me this project has been a complete success, not to say that I got exactly the photos I expected from every photo shoot, but even when the photos were not what I considered to be the best, the subjects, in nearly every case came away changed by their experience. They saw themselves as they never had in any snapshot or “selfie” they had ever seen. These were not pictures, but photographs, carefully composed, crafted, and whether shot in soft natural light or under piercing studio lights what emerged were true photographs. They exhibited a wide range of emotions and revealed each subject’s sexuality and sensuality in ways they had never seen before. There were many tears, often surprise and amazement. I would estimate that in at least 90% of the cases, the experience for the subjects was an immensely positive one. And in no case that I am aware of was the experience a negative one.

NOTE: Rather than insert a number of quotes from the models, I offer to make available for interview all the “Showcase” models and many of the “Search” models who have agreed to make themselves available for interview. Contact Gary Keith to make arrangements.


The process

The process called for each subject to submit a general information online form and attach a few photos, most often “selfies” or snapshots. It was specifically expressed that nude or semi-nude photos were NOT required or requested for consideration. Following review of the information on the model form a telephone interview was conducted to cover what the subject should expect at the shoot we would discuss and decide the various types or genre of the photos we would shoot during the approximately four hour photo session. The subjects could bring one person to the shoot and about 50% did bring a guest.           

    There were specific rules regarding guests. First, no husbands or boyfriends were allowed, it would be far too intimidating for the model and for the photographer. No children, or anyone under the age of 18 was allowed at a shoot. And while the guest was welcome to be “on the set” during wardrobe or set changes and to assist the subject with hair or make-up adjustments, while we were actually shooting only the subject and myself were allowed on the set. The guest could remain close enough to render assistance if called but out of sight of the subject and photographer while we were shooting. I needed the subject’s undivided attention to develop the rapport required to get the best possible shots during the session.

   The subjects brought their own wardrobe, usually six to seven outfits of various types and did their own hair and make-up. Depending on what content the subject wanted to shoot, the whether and the subject’s comfort level, we shot either in a studio or at an outdoor location, not so public that there might be people observing the shoot, but not so remote that the subject might be concerned for her safety. In about 75% of the cases I chose a location shoot as a studio and light kit can be intimidating for first timers and my mission was to put my subjects at ease.

    And softer natural light is a friend, especially for mature subjects, whereas studio lighting can be unduly harsh unless an expert make-up artist is on hand. As these shoots were financed out of my own pocket, there simply wasn’t budget for hair or make-up, though the subjects were given advice in advance about camera-friendly make-up applications.

“I don’t want to wear red lipstick and you can’t make me!”

    I explained to every subject that my photographic inspiration came principally from the great pin-up artists and glamorous film actresses of the 1940s and 50s.

    In pin-up art, in film, and certainly in glamour photography, one iconic make-up touch adorned every glamour icon and movie harlot from Marlene Dietrich to Jean Harlow, from Jane Russell to Marilyn Monroe, and even unto Jessica Rabbit: classic bold, unabashedly red lipstick. Striking red lips were so defining that even in black and white photos and film du noir of the 1930‘s and 40‘s there was no doubt, if it was a glamour model or screen vixen, those lips were red! Over the decades, ever improving make-up techniques and space age products have evolved the art, but even today, if you want to convey glamour and over the top sensuality, glossy, crimson lips are a must. I wanted that identity for the GMS so red lipstick became the one absolute. If you were gong to do this shoot, you would be in red lipstick. I would take a few shots in whatever shade the subject would normally wear, but the subject would, for almost every shot, be in dynamic, glossy, red lips.

    It was not an easy sell. By the turn of the millennia most women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s had graduated away from hard red colors in favor of more demure shades. That’s one reason why I was so insistent. I needed to take these women out of their day-to-day existence, to another place, for many of them, a place they hadn’t been for many years and for some, a place they had never been.

    At the beginning of the shoot many hated the red lipstick and fought me on it, but I was unrelenting. The lips had to be red, not pink, or coral or burgundy. The subject could name her fruit; strawberry, cherry, cranberry or candy apple. It could be crimson, cardinal, or carnelian, just as long as it was red! As I said, often, a tough sell.

   I actually lost a few prospective subjects because they simply wouldn't agree to wear the red lipstick. I knew if they couldn’t make that one concession, there was no way they would embrace the central theme of the project and ultimately the photo shoot would be unsuccessful.

    But for those who complied something interesting happened fairly regularly. As the shoot progressed and photos got a little hotter and more glamorous, many began working up to those lips. Often, during wardrobe changes, I’d notice the lips getting redder and the gloss a bit heavier. A few of the more difficult converts even left the shoot when it was over, adorned with a fresh application of red lipstick and gloss, kind of their very own red badge of courage.

    The red lipstick is so defining and emblematic of the GMS that I eventually made a red lip print the logo.

“Glamour” vs Nudity

    During the initial phone interview, invariably the question of nudity arose. I explained to each subject up front that we were not shooting portraits, that the style was glamour/fashion. The entire premise of the Great Model Search was to demonstrate that a woman's sexuality and sensuality were not reduced simply by adding years, that maturity is sexy, that age is life and it symbolizes experience, knowing one’s self and sexual sophistication. Nudity was never required during the shoot but I encouraged all the subjects to be bold. 

    My heroes were the giants of glamour and pin-up art and photography, Playboy’s Alberto Vargas and Esquire’s Al Moore,  were my favorites so I know explicit nudity is not necessary to convey sexuality. Though pin-up art was almost always drawn nude, eventually clothing, skimpy (for the day) swimwear, lingerie or some kind of minimal coverage was generally added to the image to comply with the particular publication’s policies and standards. A viewer with a keen eye might even recognize the same artwork “dressed” more, or less provocatively depending on the publication in which it appeared.

   Through over 40 years of shooting with models of every type and description, and especially mature models I know that with very few exceptions, women look far better wearing something than they do wearing nothing. Lets face it, there are reasons why lingerie is a multi-billion dollar industry. Besides wearing something gives the photographer greater range in the composing the editorial aspects of the image and makes the photos more emotive and interesting. I’m not at all opposed to shooting nudity, but for this project, nudity would not be a priority and if nudity were to be shot, it would be in the artistic and implied genres, not explicit.

At the photo shoot

    It was rare that I would actually meet the subjects in person ahead of the photo shoot though we did do a telephone interview and occasionally a video chat but most of the time all I had to assess the subject were a few snapshots or selfies they had sent with their model form. In our pre-shoot phone interview we would decide generally what genre of photos we would shoot and set their specific limitations.

    My job was to challenge them, to push them so they would get the most out of this unique experience and themselves while respecting their stated limits. The best way to do that was to take them on a journey, beginning with the simplest and least intimidating photos, generally head shots. We would progress to more sophisticated poses and more emotive and provocative shots as their confidence and comfort levels grew. I turned the camera around often so they could review the shots and see for themselves, their progress. I encouraged them not just by telling them they looked great but by teaching them about position and balance, posture, presentation and camera and lighting angles that would be the most flattering. As the shoot progressed the subjects understood more of what I was looking for and strove to give me those looks.

    It was “Modeling 101” and those lessons were empowering. In a matter of a few hours these women, most of whom had absolutely no modeling experience made the journey from clueless novice, to active participants in the creative process. “The photo shoot” became “my photo shoot” and when it was over they didn’t leave with some photos and memories, they had skills. They were a GMS model, a title they seemed to wear proudly. 

    Interestingly though, as we got deeper into the shoot, many of these women were inspired by their new-found confidence, and they pushed themselves, often beyond those previously stated “limits”. It seemed to be important to take a few of semi-nude or even totally nude shots, normally the last set, or sets of the day. In many cases nobody, or perhaps just one special somebody would ever see those particular photos but it seemed to be important, certainly not for all of the subjects but definitely for some, to take those photos and to have them.

    There was one woman I recall, absolutely beautiful in person and spirit, who I shot with three times over eleven years, when she was 49, 55 and 60 years old. These weren’t GMS shoots, she paid me for each shoot. I once asked her who got to see these wonderful, though definitely revealing and provocative photos and she told me, “Nobody, these are just for me”. But, she added, “I dearly hope that someday, after I’m gone, I’ll be looking down from an ethereal place when my children and grandchildren (who are all grown) are going through my things and they find these photos, and one of the screams, ‘Oh my God, look what Grandma was into!”. She howled just talking about it.

When the session was over, we would usually look through the photos in my camera or after I had transferred them onto a DVD or thumb drive for the model to take with her. There were often tears as these women saw themselves in a way they didn’t think was possible at this point in their life. It wasn’t that the years had disappeared or suddenly they were a dress size smaller or three inches taller. What they saw in those photos was that they are, beautiful, sexy and sensual, not as they were 15, 20 or more years ago but as they are today. For so many that photo shoot was a journey of self-discovery and personal enlightenment. So many commented to me that it was literally a life-changing event compressed into a few all too brief hours.


The GMS Photo Shoot