Image: Lily Cummings shot by Heather Hazzan.
Lily Cummings is your new crush. She lives the travel-packed life you’ve spent years daydreaming about, and has the kind of brain you constantly want to borrow from. Her photography accesses something unique, as if you’ve been unexpectedly invited into a moment between subject and camera, rather than remaining an outsider to the process. Cummings is big on making actual moves within the industry to get it to open up to more women, all women, and is currently working on a project with pal and fellow photographer Heather Hazzan called The Virago Journal – an index of insanely talented ladies for employers and clients alike. But she’ll tell you about that better than we could:
Catalogue: Hi Lily! You’re a model turned photographer. I imagine you would have been around photography a lot in your work as a model. What drew you to want to be behind the camera instead of in front of it?
Lily: I’ve always been interested in the intimate drama that can be created in cinema and fashion photography. I actually studied film at University, so when I began to need a creative outlet while modeling, I picked up a camera and started shooting fellow models. I prefer having the control.
Catalogue: What do you think is unique about photography as a photographic medium?
Lily: It can really be a window to someone’s soul. I know that sounds completely hippy-dippy, but when you’re locked into that almost trance-like state while shooting a subject, the camera is just the passageway between the photographer’s gaze, and the emotional heart of the model.
Catalogue: Whose work inspires you?
Lily: As far as fashion photographers go, Paolo Roversi just sends me. I definitely have a passion for the classics; Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Peter Lindbergh. Nan Goldin can send a chill up my spine. Soft spot for David Hamilton. I enjoy photos that have a cinematic quality; a story that fits the frame yet transcends it. Fellini and Antonioni are both directors with films I watch whenever I’m in a creative lull. “Meshes of the Afternoon” by Maya Deren is necessary viewing for female creatives. John Singer Sargent’s painted portraits are really something special.
Catalogue: You also work as a ‘plus size’ model. I’m interested in what you think of the term ‘plus size’: is it relevant, should it be dropped, is it damaging?
Lily: I hate it. I’m so over it. Trying to enforce labels is often ridiculous and usually only helps one person while its hurts another. “Plus Size” started as an industry term, then it became a public term, and when it did that, people began to debate what it really meant. In the industry, plus size was over straight size (0-4) to size 14/16. A woman who is a size 6/8 is not “Plus Size” in the way that the size 14+ community has decided to define it, so there is this constant, often angry and ignorant debate, and no one is winning. I have no desire to be defined by a size.
Catalogue: Because the ‘plus size’ modelling industry comes with body standards which are as rigid as the standard modelling industry, right? What’s your experience of this been like?
Lily: When I first started modeling, they wanted me to gain weight, tone up, get larger breasts, and inject botox into one of my eyebrows so my face was more symmetrical. While this might seem extreme, it’s not unusual for “suggestions” to be made to a plus size model for her to perfect her appearance, whatever the ideal du jour. I’m happy I couldn’t be bothered to make permanent alterations, but I did feel pressure to maintain a size that wasn’t always natural. It seems to be “straight size face” with a “plus size body” is a popular look.
Catalogue: How do you get treated in the industry as a ‘plus size’ model?
Lily: People just seem to be more curious than anything else. The only thing that has ever really bothered me was how often a client would hire a size 14/16/18 model but then not have large enough sizes and not like how the clothes looked. Unlike putting a 4 on a size 0 and pinning for the perfect fit, there’s no putting a size 10 on a size 14 and praying for a flattering amount of stretch.
Catalogue: As someone who has a unique perspective on body image and its representation in fashion, how do you think the unrealistic expectations of fashion imagery affect young women? Perhaps you could even speak from personal experience?
Lily: I think there’s been a very thin, white ideal for quite a long time, and that this ideal has been linked to a what makes a woman sexually desirable. Now we’re in this confusing world of “curvy.” Everyone applauded Kim K and then Emily Ratajkowski when they posted their topless photos on instagram as a “feminist” act, but their bodies have both been altered to achieve a physical ideal that was the construct of male-driven advertising over the last 60-70 years. So I have intense ambivalence over acts such as these that are supposed to give women who are watching “confidence” and help them “love themselves.” I think a more daring act would have been to show oneself without makeup or retouching (or plastic surgery), because that would have been an actual nakedness/vulnerability.
Though The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf is a bit outdated since it’s publication in 1991, there are some amazing passages:
“Images that flatten sex into “beauty,” and flatten the beauty into something inhuman, or subject her to eroticized torment, are politically and socioeconomically welcome, subverting female sexual pride and ensuring that men and women are unlikely to form common cause against the social order that feeds on their mutual antagonism, their separate versions of loneliness.”
“Consumer culture is best supported by markets made up of sexual clones, men who want objects and women who want to be objects, and the object desired ever-changing, disposable, and dictated by the markets.”
“It is considered immature for women to eat heartily, since they’re told they risk their sexuality; they are seen as mature if they starve, promised to win sexuality that way.”
The weight/model size debate is important though my solution is always to just diversify imagery and insist more designers create interesting clothing that is flattering for a diverse range of sizes. Why are plus size women always naked in editorials?
Catalogue: Do you think the industry is moving towards a more inclusive model?
Lily: Yes, because there is a lot of money to be made.
Catalogue: What, in your opinion, are the things that need to change in the fashion and modelling industries, for us to see widespread body diversity and positivity?
Lily: Let’s see some aspirational clothing in a wide range of sizes. Let’s demand excellence from the plus community of designers and models. And let’s get rid of labels. It’s exhausting.
Catalogue: The rise of Instagram and selfie culture has been an interesting phenomenon, in that, on the one hand it democratises the representation of women and gives us the power to control how we’re represented, while on the other it sells us unrealistic representations of women in a space which is supposed to be ‘real’. What are your thoughts?
Lily: Instagram accounts that are over 50% selfies make me incredibly uncomfortable. Being able to appreciate your own personal beauty is wonderful. But selfies don’t “sell” a women’s brains or humor. As a person who manipulates images for a living (through light/makeup/angle) I cannot help feel slightly responsible. And then I remember that nothing in my images tells a women to go into their bathroom and take a selfie to let the world know what they look like because #thankgod it’s #friday #party #weekend #fml #ihatemyjob #ihatemylife #myboyfrienddumpedme #whosintothis
I think the effects of selfies and created/curated “realness” are just a spin-off from the last 100 years of advertising. Instead of paying someone else to do it we do it ourselves.
Catalogue: What are you working on at the moment?
Lily: I’m actually working on the first issue of a print magazine I’ve created with my gal pal and fellow photographer Heather Hazzan called The Virago Journal. Featuring women, created by women, we are curating a portfolio of amazing female work and a website that can work as an index for clients and employers looking for incredible female talent.
Catalogue: You’re right in amongst it all in New York. Which fresh designers should we know about?
Lily: Oh man… I have heard rumours that Georgia Pratt is back in the studio and working on some new designs…..And I’m terrible with discovering new designers. I find one I like and I stick with them for years and don’t necessarily look for anything else. Been wearing a lot of Oak and Eileen Fisher lately. So I look like a cool but potentially depressed mom. Oh! Land Of Women is THE BEST. They’re definitely an instagram account to follow as well.
Catalogue: What are you hoping to achieve in 2016?
Lily: Put out two issues of the mag / Keep working on my book, The Women in My Room / Get back to Tokyo / Spend at least a week on a beach / Touch my nose to my knees