Working with models (especially nude models) and animals can be a logistical challenge, whether in studio or on location. A well-trained animal, such as a dog, can make the photographer’s job easier while delighting the shoot participants at the same time. A wild or untrained animal presents a different set of considerations.
One of the first things I do when planning a shoot with a human model and an animal is determine the compatibility of both with each other. It may sound like a no-brainer, but if your human model is allergic to certain types of animal fur (cat or dog, for instance), then the session is a non-starter for that particular kind of animal or that model.
Any animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, can be used to provide context to the message you are sending across. I have seen, among other things, cockroaches, scorpions, large spiders (tarantulas), octopi – even dead mice used to convey a particular mood. When considering what kind of animal will be used, a primary concern is the model’s emotional compatibility with the proposed creature. If the model has a deep-seated fear of a particular animal type, there is no sense in pursuing the concept any further. Fear is a difficult emotion for a model to mask.
Since model safety is the primary logistical concern, it is essential that a handler experienced with the type of animal being used is on hand at all times. This was the case with the beautiful and sensuous Tiffany Helms and her co-model, Galadriel the albino Burmese python. Galadriel’s handler, Erik Svensson, not only made sure Tiffany was safe (pythons can inflict a nasty bite under the wrong circumstances), he was able to reposition and redirect the snake as needed.
The concept of portraying women and snakes together is as old as recorded human history. Think back to The Original: Eve and the Serpent. Throughout the history of art, the juxtaposition of women and snakes has been used in a number of different contexts. Cleopatra, it is said, committed suicide by inducing a poisonous snake to bite her breast. That this actually happened is a matter of conjecture and some debate, but the story has a timeless appeal and has been portrayed by numerous classical painters.
On a more contemporary level, the iconic image that Richard Avedon created with Nastassja Kinski in 1981 sparked a continuing interest in portraying women and snakes in a fashion context. It was within this framework of reference that Tiffany Helms and I collaborated to create the series of images presented here; she had always wanted to do a “snake shoot,” and I dearly (and shamelessly) wanted to photograph Tiffany nude again. Plans were made, a snake (with qualified handler) was sourced, and our planets aligned. Since Tiffany wanted to work with a snake, I had few qualms about the emotional compatibility between Tiff and her co-star.
We progressed through a normal fashion nude sequence; first, fully clothed, then through successive stages of déshabillé, culminating in a full nude art series. Along the way, Tiffany demonstrated why she is such fun to work with. Fearless and willing to expand her own envelope, she showed how an unusual scenario (co-modeling with a very large snake) can be a heck of a lot of fun.
For our first look, I wanted Tiffany to be fully clothed while she got used to having a snake crawl around on her. Our sequined Little Black Dress seemed to fit the bill. After a series of straight, non-nude fashion shots, she removed her underwear so that at the right moment, she could provide us a Sharon Stone Moment. Which she did.
In the next sequence, Tiffany was dressed in a sheer chiffon tunic dress, sans undergarments. This outfit provided her an opportunity to interact with Galadriel in both standing and seated posing configurations. It was during this set that both Tiffany and I began to understand how unpredictable a python can be. Yes, you can “encourage” it to do this or that, but at the end of the day, a python is going to do what it wants. And we began to understand that even a snake can have different expressions; we realized that the most appealing photos were ones in which her tongue was at least partially, preferably fully, extended. However, a snake’s tongue is so quick, it was luck of the draw to capture her in that mode.
It was also during this sequence that Tiffany demonstrated that a quick wit can provide a lighthearted moment. As Galadriel “kissed” Tiffany’s exposed breast, she was not about to let that go unanswered and likewise addressed Galadriel’s “ear.” We could then see a bond develop between model and animal – always a good sign.
Our next outfit was a slinky, shiny wrap top. For this series, Tiffany decided to go bottomless for a different look and message. The top has a faintly fetishist feel, and she wanted Galadriel to have an opportunity to explore more skin. This proved to be a wise move, as Galadriel started to react differently to more of Tiffany’s natural body. It is always a risky proposition to attach anthropomorphic qualities to an animal, especially a reptile. But it seemed that the more intimate Galadriel was able to get with Tiffany, the more she relaxed (the snake, that is. By this time, Tiffany was well accustomed to having an eight-foot snake curl around all parts of her body). Indeed, Tiffany was now able to somewhat direct Galadriel’s movements – no easy feat when dealing with an animal stronger than a human being.
For our final look before switching to full nude mode, we substituted a very feminine lace shawl (an actual vintage piece from the 1920’s) for the hard-edged look of the black top. Again, Tiffany elected to remain bottomless for a very enticing and revealing presentation. The femininity of the lace top proved to be a perfect counterpoint for Tiffany being able to display some of the edgy emotion she is known for when she is in art modeling mode.
When in full art modeling mode – which is the style Tiffany is best known for – she can execute some incredible poses, being a very limber, bendy young lady. In fact, during this sequence, we couldn’t decide who was more bendy – Tiffany or Galadriel.
Tiffany being fully nude afforded Galadriel an opportunity for maximum skin-to-scale intimate contact. This led to something of a surprise for all of us, especially Tiffany. As you might recall, snakes are cold-blooded creatures which naturally seek out sources of warmth. Galadriel was only doing what snakes do; her next move was a bit more intimate than Tiffany had anticipated.
Once Tiffany recovered her composure, she threw herself into a sequence of art model poses using Galadriel as a geometric counterpoint.
What did we learn?
Regardless of the species, using an animal as part of fashion nude styling can be an effective way to push the envelope and convey a message that would not otherwise be presented. Also regardless of the species, having a qualified handler on set is a critical safety factor. As the photographer in charge, you will be too busy directing the shoot to concern yourself with animal behavior that can be unpredictable.
In planning the shoot, you should allot sufficient time for the model and her animal to become accustomed to one another. Once a bond of familiarity has been established, interesting and magical things can happen.
It is also important that you communicate to both your model and the animal’s handler your expectations. Emotional compatibility between model and animal is critical. Above all, plan for the unexpected, and expect it. That gentle old mare you want to pair with a model may be gentle in most situations, but if accidentally frightened can land a powerful kick that can break bones.
The Back Story
A few production notes:
- Galadriel came to us as a juvenile. That’s right – at eight feet in length and about 30 lbs., she is considered an adolescent. She had been socialized with humans before our encounter; even though quite docile, the chances for an accidental bite was always in the front of my mind. Tiffany is one of my favorite models to work with, and I want her to come back for a return engagement.
- Galadriel had recently shed her skin – it’s a snake thing. Erik, her handler, gently suggested that a bit of retouching might spruce her up. In return, I gently demurred. I wanted Galadriel to appear as natural as possible.
- I kept the lighting simple, as I normally do. Here, the key light was a 7-foot PLM umbrella with internal silver reflector and a diffusion sock to soften the light. It was augmented by a large metallic silver reflector to Tiffany’s opposite side for fill. Given that a snake’s skin is naturally very shiny, the soft light helped subdue most of the specular highlights.
- Near the conclusion of what turned out to be a very full day, we packed up Galadriel and sent her home. She had performed admirably for a reptile and I didn’t want to stress her.
- Since we had a few moments before wrapping, I suggested to Tiffany that we shoot some video sequences. She is always happy to do video, so readily agreed. The result, compiled into a short fashion nude film entitled “Sensual.ity” fully embraces Tiffany’s natural warmth, her sense of adventure and fun, and clearly shows why she is in high demand – her ability to project sensuality and the erotic is clearly evident.
- Allen Moore – photographer and videographer
- Tiffany Helms – model, hair and makeup
- Erik Svensson – animal handler
- Roger Nicholson – studio assistant and grip
Thanks for reading.