Gigi Stoll: A Photographic Model Becomes a Model Photographer, Part One

Gigi Stoll began as a top fashion model, but she has transformed herself into an empathetic and eclectic photographer who shoots everything from searing images of life in distressed areas of the world to fine art nudes and the haute couture of New York and Paris. Here is the story of her remarkable journey and the philosophy that motivates her unending quest for timeless images in part one of our interview with her.

Q: How long were you a professional model and how did you break into that business? At what point did the unplanned switch to being a photographer take place and how long have you been shooting professionally?

A: A scout from a top agency came through Texas in the late ‘80s. Within a month I had a one-way ticket to City Models in Paris. My modeling career lasted over 20 years. In fact, I still do special bookings through Click Models in NYC. I was just shot last week for Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door campaign with one of my favorite photographers, Pamela Hanson. In 1990 while I was modeling, a friend gave me a Polaroid 195. I started shooting all of my beautiful model friends. Model agencies saw the photos and asked me to shoot more of their models. Then I met a famous tattoo family in Switzerland — The Leu Family Iron. They gave me my first Canon SLR for my first professional photo assignment — to document the family at a tattoo convention in Amsterdam. People dropped their clothes to show me their tattoos and the images ended up in Marge Neikrug’s gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The next thing I knew, I was shooting nudes and I met Arts Unlimited there and they started selling postcards of my nude work worldwide. In 1990 I also moved to NYC where I met Flo Fox, a famous street photographer. She taught me how to print and became my first mentor. She introduced me to numerous galleries and we have had several shows together. We’re actually looking for a gallery now for our next show. Whenever I wasn’t busy modeling, I worked at my photography career. I was switching from one side of the camera to the other all the time. I always had a camera on me throughout all of my travels. Modeling took me to great locations and whenever I was off the set, I was building huge archives of portraits and travel reportage. I began shooting portraits for magazines around 2000, but I had been exhibiting my nudes in galleries all along.

Q: You mention that you were shooting film, both medium format and 35mm, but that you only switched to the Leica when you discovered the M8. Can you tell us something more about the qualities of that camera, aside from its compact form factor, quietness and digital capture that make it especially suitable for your work?

A: I started shooting for NGOs in 2008, on a yearly documentation of a pediatric medical mission, ISMS Operation Kids. During the 10-day mission, I usually shoot thousands of images. It would have cost a fortune to shoot film. Leica Cameras came to the rescue and I was immediately amazed with the optics. I couldn’t shoot with any other cameras after that. The precision was unbelievable. I have to shoot the surgeons working in the operating room and many times they have me “shoot in the hole” (open wounds). To do that, I have to be very fast and very precise. There is no second chance. I can also move around with the compact and quiet M8 or M9 seamlessly without disturbing the surgeons and their intricate work. The Leica gives me the tremendous advantage of remaining unobtrusive around my subjects and allows me to capture the definitive moment on every assignment whether it is for NGOs or for my portrait work.

Q: You noted that you spent at least five years in Europe and one of the things you learned there by observation and study is “European lighting.” Can you tell us how you define that type of lighting and did your European experience influence your work in other ways?

A: Modeling introduced me to a wealth of photographic experiences in London, Paris, Milan, Spain, etc. Several photographers used cinematic lighting gear — Mole Richardson baby solar spots/hot lights/fluorescents, etc. I fell in love with this style of continuous lighting. I rarely ever use a power pack/flash combo– I don’t like how it blows everything out making everything look so even. I love strong shadows. I want to control the light in my nudes and portraits. There was also a certain aesthetic every time I was shot on a European location or studio that I love and I incorporated this into my own work. I define it as classic and timeless.

Q: Clearly you love to shoot portraits and nudes, but you also do a lot of work with NGOs serving children in distressed areas and have documented the medical work of Save The Children. Is there any underlying unity to your creative approach to these widely diverse genres or do you adjust your approach to the subject at hand?

A: The five bullet point concepts when shooting pictures for NGOs are: kids, VIPs, brand, location and activity. I love all the diverse assignments I receive; there’s never a dull moment in my schedule. I customize my creative approach depending on the assignment.

Q: You seem to be very happy shooting with the full-frame Leica M — is it your favorite Leica? Do you still use your M8? Which Leica 75mm and 28mm lenses do you use and what characteristics do they possess that you find particularly conducive to your type of shooting? Do you think that there is a “Leica look” has something to do with their special indefinable optical qualities?

A: I own an M8 so I shoot with this camera the most. When I can get my hands on an M9 I am very happy since it is really the perfect camera. My Summicron 75mm certainly gives the Leica look. I love focusing with a rangefinder camera. It allows me to spot focus while everything else is blown out. It’s my favorite portrait lens. My Elmarit 28mm is very sharp and I have been using it a lot for my nude work.

Q: Have you ever considered using a Leica MP or other 35mm Leica, and which older Leicas do you have in your camera collection? For that matter, have you ever considered shooting with the “minimalist” Leica X1 or a full-featured compact camera like the Leica D-Lux 5?

A: Besides the Leica M8, I own a Leica D-Lux 3, which is a fantastic little camera. I use it like a Polaroid, to check composition and several times the images I’ve shot with it have been used for the main editorial spread. Plus, I like it for movement. I am looking forward to working more with the X1. I prefer it with a viewfinder and grip.

Q: How do you think that social media like Facebook and Twitter are changing the face of photography and which of the other new social media platforms do you think will become more important going forward?

A: Social media provide more ways to showcase your work — more press, more fans and more countries than you could ever reach with a mailer/promo card. I look forward to new social media. It will keep branching out and changing the way we see the world. Smartphones are already dropping the sales of point-and-shoot cameras. Why bother with a small camera when I can have eight cool camera applications in my iPhone and it fits in my pocket. Where’s the Leica version?! I really love Instagram. It’s my latest obsession. A great way to pull shooters of all walks together to create one ongoing slide show. There are a lot of funny cat and dog images. And it’s another way to meet people and feature new work. I also use it for editing and for people’s responses. I enjoy putting different Instagram filters over Leica M8 images. It becomes a whole different image, sometimes looking like Polaroid or 35mm film. And it’s fun to double filter or cross process with iPhone & other applications.

Q: You mentioned that your nudes convey sensuality rather than explicit sexuality. You also imply that they embody a female sensibility and that men see the nude form, especially the female nude form, somewhat differently. Do you agree with this interpretation of your dialogue and can you say something more about these observations?

A: In my opinion, it’s quite different. A man sees and a woman feels. The sexuality is taken away when a woman shoots a female nude and the subject is more comfortable too. I love shooting male nudes as well; I believe that when shooting male nudes there’s a certain sensuality that comes from a woman’s eye.

Q: You state rather puckishly that you are “a gun for hire,” an apt description of any freelance photographer, but do you have any underlying sense of mission in pursuing your passion for photography?

A: My jobs vary every week like any freelancer’s. I enjoy different locations and meeting new clients. But my love will always be portraits and nudes. I want to make several books one day. I would like to live and work in other countries doing private commissions and contract work. I would also like to shoot more advertising.

Q: What do you think the fundamental difference is in your approach to shooting nudes in controlled spaces using shadows and artificial lighting versus portraits and documentary work on location? Are they really different art forms or are they united by your personal vision or some overarching concept?

A: They are completely different. The nudes are intimate and private and I work a lot with shadows. I have a big wall that I shoot on and we usually have a lot of fun collaborating and trying different forms and shapes. Dancers are my favorite subjects; it really helps when a subject is aware of his/her body. With all the right elements, we create magic, one frame of art at a time. The portraits are normally done on location since the setting of the subjects’ surroundings makes them more comfortable. It’s more interesting and colorful to my eyes instead of plain studio walls behind them. I call them environmental portraits. Most of the time, this is commissioned work and I am hired under a specific time frame to shoot the subject for an editorial spread or feature.

Q: What does it feel like moving from the brutal reality of life in distressed areas of Africa and the Middle East to a fashion shoot in New York or Paris? Does one seem more real than the other? And does the posh self-consciousness and stylistic focus on externals of the fashion world seem vapid and inconsequential by comparison?

A: I approach each assignment with the same integrity and personal quest to create classic and timeless images. Each world has it’s own reality and set of players. I am the neutral artist in the middle trying to make a difference with my images.

Q: How do you see your work evolving over the next five years or so? Will you still be covering the incredible mix of genres and subject types you do now? Do you see yourself moving in a new direction in any particular areas.

A: I love exactly what I am doing now. I will always be shooting portraits, nudes, travel reportage and documentation for NGOs. I love the variety and different experiences. Plus, the people I meet in each medium are fascinating. I also would love to have an agent, but a different kind of agent. I don’t want to be a number in a stable. I need help with my work besides what my interns complete. I am too busy shooting and traveling to promote my work. My dream would be to shoot portraits for American Vogue and to shoot advertising campaigns for influential brands like Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, Nike, etc.

Q: As a former diehard film fanatic, does shooting film have any place in your present work and do you think film offers any advantages in any of the work you do?

A: Honestly, I haven’t shot film in a long time. I would love to shoot medium format again to get that color/tonal quality that I loved with Portra 400NC. I would have drum scans made of the negatives and then a huge fiber print to exhibit. In my opinion, it would be hard to beat a Pentax 6×7. I am selling one such print — a 44×60 — and the level of details is amazing. (Portrait of Mila) I thought it would be the black & white that I would miss the most, but actually it’s the color film. Perhaps I have to try out the Leica S2 one day. I would love to compare the two.

In part two of this series, Gigi Stoll shares her experience on her latest mission to Kisumu, Kenya that took place after the filming of the interview. The hospital where she worked serves 5 million people, four people to every bed. Eighty percent of the population doesn’t have running water or electricity. Weekly income per household: $1.50.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Gigi’s work on her website, http://www.gigistoll.com.