Talking to illustrators and photographers you get to see their process from the inside — the tools and methods. The path followed to achieve the desired outcome. But there’s a major component that is rarely talked about. The model. The human figure is a major working part in most art — whether built from memory with an understanding of anatomy or drawn from a live model, the figure is a living thing beyond the canvas.
I first saw Austin-based model Sarah Pope in the photographs of highcastle. In highcastle’s world, she was an authentic face — real and humble. I started noticing her show up again and again in different roles. Playful. Coy. Youthful. Mature. That’s what a model does, transforms and bends to fill the role they’ve been hired to perform.
The model performs an interesting function in art — the illustrator, photographer, sculpture, or painter makes the art and moves on, while the model remains the art after the film has been developed or paint has dried. It’s a tired definition, but the model acts as muse. Inspiration. Sarah was kind enough to chat with me about her work and how she approaches her role as ‘model.’ She gave a candid and honest look what it’s like to be in front of the camera.
CJ: Your portfolio spans a lot of looks – sweet and demure, youthful, mature, rebellious. A classic beauty. Is there an image of you that comes close to representing the real you? Or is the real thrill of modeling to be as far away from yourself as possible?
SP: Many of my images show a side of me that is true to who I am. However, there are certain aspects of my personality that aren’t always on the surface for all to see on a daily basis.
It is totally a thrill to have those traits and emotions surface and have them captured by another person. Modeling has given me the freedom to play out any role that I could see myself in. Like you said, some sweet, some rebellious. These are all different pieces of who I am. I just choose to expose them when I feel comfortable or see a purpose in doing so.
One of the first photos I saw of you were with highcastle, the set ‘The Most Beautiful Thing in the World’ is pretty incredible. That series is what got me inspired to contact him and I bought the entire set.
There’s an easiness to you in those photos – a great warmth that feels real. When starting a project like that, how much time is spent with the photographer discussing their vision? Do you just trust that he knows what he’s doing, or do you want to be involved?
With highcastle, that was really my first time shooting with a professional. We met a few weeks prior to the shoot at a coffee shop. It was highcastle, a female photographer (CameraForAFace — who you should totally check out if you haven’t already. She and highcastle used to do a lot of work together here in Austin) and myself.
They brought books and photos to give me an idea of their style. We discussed my limitations / what I was comfortable with as a model (which I ended up tossing to the wind in our shoots together) and theirs as photographers.
As for the sets we shot, highcastle and CFAF we great at giving me direction, and I did well at picking up what they were throwing down. I trusted that they knew what they were doing and would get the shot. And we did, over and over again.
That really set the standard for how I approach projects. I like to get an idea of what we want, but trust them to pull it out of me and capture it.
Some of your photos with highcastle are quite daring. He’s a photographer with a very strong sense of voyeurism to his work, yet they’re still gentle. What does it take for you to be comfortable in a position like that? Is the tone on set determined by you the model or photographer?
The tone is set by both of us. Highcastle came up with the setting and idea, while I brought the mood that I thought I would feel if I were actually in that scenario. To be honest, I didn’t really understand highcastle’s work at first. It has always been daring and wonderful — but the voyeurism you talk about, I didn’t even see that until much later after our working together. So it wasn’t hard to be comfortable.
He and CFAF were both kind and gentle with me so the idea that we were creating something so taboo didn’t even cross my mind. There are a few photos we made that I, being who I am now, wouldn’t pose the same way or recreate certain themes with other photographers.
That being said, my work with highcastle is some of my personal best. Many of our images are among my favorite I’ve ever created.
You have photos like the ones with highcastle that feel like two friends quietly making art, and then there are the images with Mr. Glass, playfully sexual. The fashion shoots are perfectly lit and staged, designed to show off you and the clothes.
How do you prepare for these shoots? Is there any mental preparedness? Do different shoots require different things from you?
Different shoots definitely require different things from me, but it’s not that exhausting of a preparation. My prep is usually the same and is pretty simple. I usually get ready with hair, make-up and wardrobe, then (if I am allowed to smoke in my wardrobe) I go take some time alone and smoke a cigarette.
I think about why I am here, what I’m doing and what I want to project to the lens. I don’t typically practice my posing or facial expressions — I just kind of go with it.
Nudity in art gets talked about a lot. Sometimes that’s all an audience can see. Do you set boundaries with photographers when it comes to nudity?
When I was a little younger, between 20 and 24, I didn’t have a lot of limits. In the very beginning, I didn’t want to shoot full nudes at all — but highcastle broke me out of that shell and after that I didn’t care. I knew (or at least thought I did) how to hold myself tastefully and just went with that. Over the past couple of years I have become a little more reserved.
I no longer shoot nudes. This disappoints many artists and they always ask me Why not?’ It’s difficult to explain. It’s not judgey parents or a disapproving boyfriend that is ‘making me’ keep my clothes on. I just started to realize that it wasn’t progressing my work any further. Most photographers who were reaching out to me only wanted to shoot me nude.
My nude photos always got the most hits or ‘likes’ and I started to feel like my naked body was all people wanted to see. I didn’t really like that. I’ll be honest, at first, I loved the attention. I didn’t feel like the bombshell Barbie in high school and so I loved feeling sexy and wanted after I grew into my body.
But now I know that there is so much more to me than T&A. And I don’t mean to say that all the people viewing my work didn’t see the artistic beauty to it, but I was getting sick of only getting recognition from people that had no influence on my career, like my close friends and local peers in Austin.
Also, there were many photographers who wanted to work with me who’s work I considered to be kind of trashy (to be nice about it). If they could think that I would like their work and be interested in joining their portfolio, how did they view me and my work?
So now I keep my clothes on. It’s sad to see how little work I get offered now but that’s alright with me. I’ve grown into my skin and now choose to keep most of it to myself! 🙂
That’s a tough call to make, but I totally get where you’re coming from. Nudity gets attention, but you have decide if it’s the type of attention you want.
When you first started modeling, you went by ‘Sadie.’ Was this a nickname you already went by or was it created specifically for your work as a model?
A few people called me Sadie, but mostly my mother and only when she was trying to be cutesy. It’s a blend of my first and middle names, Sarah and Mercedes. I always thought Sarah, alone, was just too plain for me… and I also love ‘Sexy Sadie’ by The Beatles, so it seemed like the perfect alias for my modeling. Really, it all comes down to a love affair with my middle name and wanting people to know it.
For a time, I was working with grade school kids and I was scared they would google my name and see a picture of me nude. To keep it under wraps, I didn’t advertise ‘Sadie’ to anyone, except photographers. I enjoyed having another name. It felt liberating at first, but that started to change after awhile.
I begun to feel like I was having to hide something, which then made me think about what I was doing. Sadie was really just for my nude work. I started to think that if I didn’t want my real name attached to it, why was I doing it? Am I hiding? Am I ashamed? Why?
Well, I soon realized that I wanted to make a change in the type of work I did and that’s when I dropped the alias and went back to Sarah Pope. Or Sarah Mercedes Pope if I felt like drawing it out.
Sometimes when I look at a photograph I find that I stop and consider what part each person plays – the photographer controls the camera, lighting, and to some extent the environment. But the model controls their body, the figure, without the model we’d have a landscape. A still life.
Your face and body, you — are what makes a photograph interesting, but at the same time you can’t mention a photograph without giving credit to the photographer who pulled it all together. It’s a unique relationship. One almost can’t do their job without the other. What do you think makes a photograph successful?
Many things, but it’s also hard to draw those lines. Photography is an art, so what is success? I think it depends on what you’re looking for. I’ve had photos planned from lighting to pose that turned out awesome, we got exactly what we wanted, and then there are those beautiful mistakes that organically become the best pieces created by those involved.
I personally feel successful when I’m given direction (which I almost always appreciate from photographers / directors) and I’m able to project the emotion we are trying to capture. I take pride in being a blank canvas for artists to paint their picture. I love becoming the art they see behind their eyes.
You’ve worked with professional and amateur photographers. How do you choose what projects to take?
When choosing who to work with I consider a few things. What does their previous work say to me? How do they portray their models? Do they have a good list of references I can contact? I usually ask what their ideas are for our shoot.
These days, I only accept paid gigs so we have to be able to work that out. I like to discuss all of this out over coffee or tea (If they’re local, anyway) that way I can have a better handle on who I’m dealing with and that we are on the same page going into our work together. I’m much pickier with people that I don’t have the opportunity to meet in person before hand. I need to really dig your work and be able to talk to a few of your models you’ve worked with in the recent past.
I’d love to give new artists the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t risk putting myself in a sketchy situation. I’ve heard too many horror stories to work with any Joe-Shmo who ‘likes my look.’ After I’ve checked out the photographer and it’s now time to consider the project, I like doing a lot of different shoots. I like fashion projects because they make me feel like a little dress-up doll for designer and stylists.
I love abstract portrait projects that showcase elaborate make-up juxtaposed with a run-down setting or outfit. Pretty much anything that I find creative and beautiful. I realize that may sound vague, but I can be fickle and my tastes change as I grow.
You act as a muse for a lot of different artists, whether you know it or not. Is that a strange position to be in? Painted and drawn by strangers? Have you done any modeling specifically for artists?
It is a little strange, but also very beautiful. I love inspiring artist to create something with their hands. To sketch or mold or paint — it’s very personal. Almost like a therapy that you can choose to share with the world, or keep to yourself. Both are extremely liberating.
I’ve modeled for life drawing classes in the past whose mediums ranged from charcoal to linoleum. You are actually the only artist I’ve seen paint an image inspired by me and I absolutely love what you’ve created. The woman in your painting is so strong! And at the same time so calm and at peace with herself. I enjoy photography immensely, but really appreciate art that is formed by hand. There is something so timeless about it. I feel like they will last forever.
That reminds me of another reason I love modeling, (and this is probably just my ego talking, but) I feel like it immortalizes me to a certain extent. When I look at old photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures — I think about the model or person who inspired the piece. It blows me away to think that I am enjoying this person’s beauty or feeling their emotions sometimes hundred of years after they have lived and died. I guess this is how I’ll live forever.
It’s cool to hear that you liked my painting of you, but I can’t help but feel that I can’t take credit — I used a photo from your session with highcastle as reference. I didn’t really bring much to it, besides re-creating it in a different medium. The strength and calm you see in the painting is there in you, in the photograph. Really, all I did was not fuck it up too much.
When you look at a photograph of yourself, or a painting of yourself, do you feel an ownership of it? Is it easy to separate yourself from the work and enjoy it as an a member of the audience?
It depends. There are times that all I can see is myself and I can be my own worst critic. But then there are some beautiful pieces where it doesn’t even feel like me. I am just an appreciative audience member. I like those photos the best. And it’s not because it’s so far out from who I truly am.
I think the closer it is to showing my true self, the more I’m able to step back and appreciate the beauty of it. It’s easy to see a photo of one’s self and focus on the flaws, but it is such a wonderfully unique experience to see the whole picture and enjoy it without knit-picking it apart.
Being a creative person, what’s next for? Are there any new adventures or creative outlets you’re exploring? I guess it comes down to this, does something have to be next? Is the life of a traveling model and muse give you what you need creatively?
What’s next? Who knows? I’m always interested in discovering new outlets but I usually let them come to me. I am very creative but I feel like I work best in collaborations. I like when someone says to me, ‘Hey! I have this awesome idea I’d like to share with you! How can we take this and create something amazing?’ I rarely devise my own shoots.
That might be my insecurities coming through, but I just love helping other people create their art. I don’t feel like there has to be anything specific coming next. Que sera, sera.