Guest post by Iain Thomson: How I began my career in photography

Iain’s work was featured earlier last month as one of my favourite photographers – I was extremely pleased when he volunteered to guest post for the Model Bitch blog. This post talks about his unusual introduction into the business, and is one of a series on the adult industry and photography in general.

Probably, the question I am asked most often is how I got into this business. I’ve told this story to a few people, but this is the first time I’ve written about it in detail. This is quite personal for me and as I tend to keep my personal life away from anything internet related, I had to think a little bit before deciding to write the article.
I got into this business by accident really. I had no interest in photography, in fact I had never used a camera beyond family point-and-shoot snaps, and had no knowledge of the glamour business and no particular interest in porn. Although I had always admired the aesthetics and romance of certain styles of adult glamour, in particular the work of Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine.
As the result of a typically-blunt dismissal of some glamour images of an ex- partner, I was challenged to do better. Being a bloody-minded individual, I accepted the challenge (which I pretty much instantly regretted!), so I spent a whole weekend setting up a very rudimentary glamour set consisting of halogen work lights and a borrowed camera which I somehow managed to learn to use on manual settings. I honestly didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and looking back the whole episode makes me cringe. The results surprised both myself and the ex, who was probably more impressed than I was and encouraged me to try photography as a hobby. She was actually responsible for helping me choose the first few professional models I shot.
Getting started
While I didn’t shoot and had no interest in shooting anything rude initially, I have always been comfortable around pretty girls (particularly naked ones) so it was natural that I shot nude/glamour type images. I have to confess that initially my motivation was only partially artistic. At the time I was single, a bit younger than I am now and had a healthy interest in associating with youngish, attractive ladies. In truth I spent far to much time and energy in pursuit of this particular interest. I am ashamed to admit that I initially thought glamour photography and the opportunities it afforded to be around attractive models would be an extension of this.
It didn’t take many shoots to realise how wrong I was. My perception of what a “model” was like was entirely inaccurate in so many ways. The first few models I shot were art nude type models who were clearly intelligent, professional people. It was also very apparent that there were definite model/photographer boundaries which, even at that stage, I had enough sense to respect. By the time I progressed to shooting the more archetypal glamour models, my ‘real’ interest in photography had developed and overtaken my initial juvenile motivation. I also found (to my surprise) that most glamour models were, in general, fairly average looking and probably not as attractive physically and certainly less interesting mentally, than the type of girl I was used to associating with and with very few exceptions I did not find them appealing on that level…..another disappointment! So, any illusions I had about photography being a useful addition to my social life were very much shattered at an early stage.
Tuition and equipment
I became pretty much consumed by photography, teaching myself lighting techniques and how to use a camera along the way. To this day I have never had a lesson, read a photography book or had any formal training. And people think I’m being modest when I say I know nothing about photography…What I will say here though, is some of the most valuable lessons I have learned – not just in photography but in most crafts – has been not to slavishly follow rules. Go your own way, break the rules! As long as what you do falls within common sense principals, there is no reason why it shouldn’t work. I also don’t believe in the need to have the “best” equipment. Have all the gear if you want it, but you don’t actually need it for most glamour. I started with a canon 20d, 18-85 mid range zoom, a £70 50mm f1.8 and about £500 worth of lights and brollies and was published numerous times and sold plenty of work using only this gear.
First paid shoot
It seems like I had some talent and was also pretty lucky too, as I was offered my first paid shoot about 3 months after picking up a camera for the first time. Bizarrely, it was a fetish shoot – something I had absolutely no knowledge of or interest in.
The shoot didn’t go entirely to plan. I had been hired to take fetish images of a guy and his partner who were into leather, bondage and spanking. It was going fine until the guy asked me to take ‘spanking’ stills of him caning his partner. I (rather naively) thought this would be ‘implied’. She was tied up and bent over the end of a bed and he was dressed in a full-length leather coat, brandishing a real mean-looking, fuck off cane. I said “ok, lets get started” and he started lashing her arse with the cane leaving fearsome red welts. I was initially too shocked to take any pictures, but then I got my act together, threw down the camera and had him pinned against the wall by the throat, threatening to wrap the cane round his neck.. He obvious reaction was, “what the hell are you doing…she loves it, we do it all the time”. By this time, the girl had jumped up and was hopping across the floor yelling “yeah, yeah, its ok, I like it, he’s not hurting me”. We did get it sorted out and had a laugh about it, but it was a long time before I dabbled in the fetish arena again.
Getting into adult
This particular shoot somehow led to me shooting for an adult website and gaining a little knowledge of the business. Around this time, someone suggested I submit some work to Femjoy and Met-Art (neither of whom I had heard of). So I did.
My submission to Femjoy was immediately accepted and they asked me to shoot more. Met-Art said they liked the set, but the model was “typically British and to ugly. Please find a prettier model and try again” This put me off Met-Art, to be honest, but I did find a very pretty model. Femjoy were so impressed they bought several sets of her and asked me to be their UK photographer. Met-Art said, “yes she is nice, we will take her, but we dont like the sets so please re-shoot her!”. I said yes to Femjoy – after negotiating on rates. They specifically asked me not to shoot for Met as part of the deal, so I also said no to Met-Art, who got back to me a few weeks later and said they had changed their minds and would take the sets. I said sorry guys, I dont want to shoot for you!
To be honest, I didn’t realise the significance of any of this at the time and I still laugh at my naivety and brass neck. To this day, ironically, probably being one of the few photographers to turn down Met-Art gives me more satisfaction than anything I’ve had published.
I realise now, how big a break I had, as basically having Femjoy on my CV gave me credibility far beyond my experience and ability and meant I could, within reason, shoot for whoever I wanted. At this point, I realised their was a living to be made in photography and decided to go for it. I was lucky in that I had money in the bank and was able to invest in my career, so I could actually do it (lack of finance is a very big obstacle for most photographers – I’ll explain this in another article). I set about contacting websites and publishers to drum up more business. Because I now had a “history” and a fairly major publication under my belt, I received a reply from most people I contacted. The learning curve could not have been much steeper; I learned very quickly how the business works and also learned you cannot always chase the “nice” work and you cannot always impose your own style. Shooting niches like mature and hairy was regular and lucrative, and gave me the financial platform to “indulge” in the nicer work.
Over the years, I’ve developed what I hope is a fairly distinctive style of photography and have constantly fought to impose it on clients, not always with success! Sometimes it was a case of very much “getting away with it” or being accepted in spite of, rather than because of my style. Let me explain; personally I am not a fan of hugely explicit images and ‘trashy stuff’. I don’t really like gyno-shots and try my best to avoid anything plastic and buzzy. Its not always possible, but I’m making in-roads and I think I could reasonably claim to be the least explicit adult photographer. A dubious claim to fame, admittedly, but small victories etc.
As my experience and reputation grew, I found that the tables turned slightly and rather than me chasing work, clients tended to approach me. I was able to use this to my advantage, probably not financially, due to the economic downturn, but it enabled me to develop and impose my own style. This is possibly the biggest reward I have had so far, the fact that in a lot of cases, my style of photography is recognised as a brand and is now accepted because of the style, rather than in spite of it.
In the last 5 years I have shot for a most major websites and countless magazines, adult and non-adult, had covers, centrefolds, features etc. I’ve shot everything from lingerie/implied nude to fairly hard adult and been paid for every single image apart from (ironically) some fashion and editorial stuff. Not that I’m particularly impressed with any of it and – to the surprise of many – the only magazines I have kept are one copy of Mayfair (for personal reasons) and some fashion stuff.
Getting this far
So, am I proud of what I achieved? I suppose the answer lies in the last sentence. No, I am neither proud nor ashamed, I am simply unmoved. I didn’t set out to get into this business, I haven’t achieved any particular ambition and I have done nothing which is of any particular good to society.
Do I regret getting into the business? In certain respects, absolutely. Its not a nice business at any level, glamour or adult. Its populated mainly by the socially inept, sexually frustrated and plain sleazy at my side of the camera and at the other side of the camera mainly by fantasists, attention seekers and the mentally disturbed. However, I would counter this by saying I have met some fantastic people from both sides of the camera, honest, interesting and dare I say…”normal”, most pro and serious amateur photographers I have met have been very sound people, as have by far the majority of the models who get through my deliberately exclusive and probably fundamentally unfair selection process. And indeed most  publishers and web operators, particularly in the USA, are very honest and straightforward to deal with. Unfortunately, taking the industry as a whole these type of people are significantly in the minority.
The affect on my personal life has also been fairly devastating. Far from enhancing my social life, it has completely destroyed it in a number of ways, and completely ruined my interest in women other than from a professional perspective. It has also turned me into something of a recluse and made me considerably less liberal and tolerant  than I was previously.
So why do I stay in the industry? Basically, because now I’m too committed financially and too lazy to get out. Despite the fact that I fundimentaly dislike my job most of the time, I do still get a creative buzz on occasion. Also, I couldn’t face going back to a “normal” job. My working conditions and time spent pro rata in relation to money earned and effort applied is very favourable and probably could not be replicated in another industry. I suppose the bottom line is the lesser of two evils – its either stay where I am or get a proper job, the former shades it marginally at the moment.
So, in my case becoming a photographer was a combination of luck, being in the right place at the right time, opportunity and finance. Maybe there is a bit of ability in there too, but I’m too pragmatic to think that skill or ability alone was the major contributor to the relative success I enjoyed.
Ok, having read how I got into the business and how I feel about it, you still want anything to do with it? I’m guessing you almost certainly do, because such is human nature, you want to find out yourself what its like.
 Well, this is the basis for part 2 of this article, to come soon…

5 thoughts

  1. Haha, I nearly spat out my breakfast when I read the fetish bit!

    I think you should be proud Iain. Your work proves that 'adult' doesn't have to be degrading to the model, and it can actually be quite pretty too…the only thing you shouldn't be quite so proud of are the amount of rainforest's that are being destroyed as a result 😛

  2. Hi Ruby

    Thank you. I find it difficult to be proud of something so meaningless, although I take pride in my work, very much so, but thats diffirent from being proud.

    A couple of days ago I walked out of an expensive location I had paid to hire, because I wasn't "feeling it" and felt I couldn't produce work to the standard I wanted to there.

    Caring about what you produce and taking pride in your work does add pressure and can be expensive, though..;-)

  3. Interesting and a good read, although I have to say my start was very similar. Wonder how many others have gone the same path.

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