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How to Ride A Unicycle on a Tightrope: My Photo Shoot with Brooke Shaden

by Katie Johnson
featured, photo & video

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I’m accustomed to hearing an alarm sound at 4:30 AM – for an art model, the shoot starts long before the first shutter click. In the art world, operations are tight, crews are slim, and models are often expected to come “camera ready.” This means no fancy lights or talented hair and makeup artists ready to transform you into the beautiful creature the client has in mind. It’s simple – the camera will see you as you are so it’s important to do some basic tasks to look and feel your best. Get a good night’s sleep (Heidi Klum recommends 10 hours, I try for 8), get your blood moving and skin flush — all before you even set foot in front of the camera.

At 5:30 AM I arrived at Paradise Cove in Malibu. It was cold, dark, and deserted accept for one little car with one little girl standing before it. She wore layers of mismatched sweaters, hair that tumbled wildly to her waist, and a grin that no child at Christmas could ever compete with – it was, unmistakably, Brooke Shaden. She greeted me with her familiar disclaimer, “So I don’t really know if this is going to work…” which those of us in the business have come to translate as “today we’re going to do something incredible.”

I’ve worked with Brooke on several occasions and let me tell you, it’s never boring. I’ve been in various freezing, dirty, unsafe bodies of water (with and without clothes), upside down, covered in paint, powder, mud, and even posed topless with a live ball-python! Usually she explains these ideas in pieces, translating from visuals in her head. One time she said, “So, I have this idea where you’re naked in the dirt and there are flowers shooting out of your stomach – Oh and I have to pour dirt on you the whole time too…” As a model, you need to trust the photographer and that starts with clear, honest communication. Even if you are experimenting and have no idea what the end result will be, just be honest. That’s what Brooke has been with me since we met, and it’s why I knew this awkward, painful process would yield breath-taking results. And, indeed it did…

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My trust in Brooke is the same reason why I said “I would try” when she asked me if I could ride a unicycle at 5:30 AM even though I had never ridden one and envisioned myself  falling off time and time again. “Great! Can you do it balancing on top of a stepping stool in the sand?” Of course I couldn’t but I tried and I fell… a lot. It wasn’t all my fault, the unicycle was old, rusty, and way too tall for me. To remedy our situation,  we enlisted the male model on set, Bryce Rankins, to dismantle the unicycle enough for me to stand on it safely and give me the support I needed to strike the tricky balancing pose Brooke had envisioned.

Finally, we were in a position to strike my pose – but it would take several isolation shots that Brooke would later use in post production to ensure all the details were present. As a model, when you are asked to pose for isolation shots, remember to try and be consistent.  Your muscle tension, position, angle and energy should be the same so when it’s composited together in post, the body appears to be in one fluid motion.

During all this focused detail work, don’t forget about your face. Brooke asked for a soft expression – as if the balancing act was effortless for the girl I was portraying. I softened my brows, tilted my chin up, and gave the slightest pout to my lips. It was almost a peaceful, dainty, face – an expression that projects calm confidence. You could imagine it on a china doll – yet, it’s worn by a girl performing an extremely difficult task, riding a unicycle on a tightrope. It was this delicate, weightless pose that takes the subject from a model, or “cool, it’s Katie on unicycle”,  to a character with a story and life all her own. Brooke took care of the rest.

Brooke is an extremely efficient photographer. As a model this is great  because it allows me to really bring my all to each frame without worrying about ever running out of energy. There’s nothing wrong with shooting a lot of frames; I work with photographers who do so and get great results. The trick there is remembering to break your model frequently, and swap out poses when one is starting to look too stale.

A word to wise: Just because a pose looks effortless doesn’t mean it is. The more you respect your model, the better your results will be. And as a model, it’s important to remember that we all wear a lot of hats on shoots. There’s no room for prima donnas here. Be prepared to be the model, the personal assistant, the water girl, or do anything it takes to make the shoot a success.

With plenty of shots for Brooke to work with in post-production, we packed up and headed to breakfast around 7 AM. The rest of the world was just beginning to stir, but we had already created something incredible. It was an amazing feeling, an addicting feeling that we should all be hooked on.

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Katie Johnson

Katie Johnson is a Los Angeles based Fine Art Model, Actress, & Writer. She's been called everything from “magic” and “fearless” to “dependable, bendable” and even “the balliest f***ing model I’ve ever worked with!” Connect with her at: thekatiejohnson.com, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram