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James Digiorgio Interview: Demystifying the Mysterious World of Erotic Photography

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Written by Kevin Tang on November 17th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

James Digiorgio, also known as Jimmy D, is a photographer who specializes in erotic photography. He has written several books on the topic of glamour photography. You can pick up James Digiorgio’s e-books at PhotoWhoa. You can also check out his blog, Pretty Girl Shooter (NSFW).

How did you personally get started with erotic photography, and why did you choose to enter this somewhat controversial field of photography?

I didn’t choose to enter the world of erotic photography as much as I fell into it. For years I worked for a Fortune 500 aerospace company. I produced their  marketing media which included product videos and still photography. It was a pretty cool job! I got to do things like go up in a chase plane and hang out of the doorway of a small aircraft while shooting air-to-air video and stills of surveillance drones. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. The company was purchased in a leveraged buy-out by another company, and the new corporate owners laid off almost everyone including me. That was around 1990 or so.

I had a lot of video editing experience, and after kicking around for a couple of years doing what I could do to make a buck (there wasn’t an abundance of that type of work available, there still isn’t) I met a woman who was a video editor for an adult film company. The company she worked for needed another editor to cut smut and since I already had editing experience on an AVID digital non-linear editing system (quite new technology back then) and since I didn’t have any noteworthy morality issues with working in that business — which please let me stress, was and is a “business” in every sense of the word, and not some underground, clandestine, illegal enterprise, leastwise by the time I came into it —  I soon found myself working nights cutting their movies.  As far as I was concerned, editing was editing… whether it was footage of an aircraft in flight or of people having sex.

Not long after, the woman who got me that gig left the company. They offered me the job of post-production manager. Before long, I had 4 or 5 other editors reporting to me. To make a long story short, I was soon also directing and shooting for the company. Since photography was my great love, I was also able to parlay my relationships in the world of adult production into shooting stills on various projects. So, there I was: editing, directing, as well as shooting stills and video in the adult entertainment industry.

For a while, most of my focus was on directing, editing, and shooting video — the money was better doing those things than for shooting stills — but I loved photography and, moreso, shooting glamour and erotic stills! Slowly, I seemed to gravitate more towards that position, sometimes declining video shooting gigs, which paid slightly better, in favor of still photography shooting gigs.

In the adult biz, photographers shoot two sets of stills on a production set:  ”softcore” glamour for use as box or jewel-case art (plus ads and other marketing media) plus the erotic and “hardcore” stuff that usually goes on the back of the boxes or jewel-cases and is also used in some magazines and on the internet. I didn’t quit directing movies or shooting video altogether, although I did quit editing — too many long hours, by myself, stuck in a darkened editing bay — but my main or preferred focus became shooting glamour and erotic still photography. It’s what I liked doing best and it’s still what I like doing best.

You take erotic photography, but you present them in a very unique, almost fine-art style. How did you develop this style instead of the usual “porn” poses that other glamour photographers do?

Typical porn poses have always annoyed me even before I began shooting this stuff. You know those poses where the model puts her index finger to her mouth with a seductive, not-so-subtle, gleam in her eye, kicks out a hip and thrusts her breasts forward.  Whenever models start posing that way (many in the glam/erotic/porn modeling trades do it automatically), I stop them immediately. For me, that stuff is boring and cliché. “No porn poses!” I tell them emphatically.

Although my clients generally don’t want me to deviate too far from what they’re accustomed to seeing — pose, attitude, emotion, and that stuff — I decided I would try to give the images a slightly different feel via lighting, composition, and shooting angles.

Porn clients aren’t art patrons. Because they’re not, I can’t shoot the models in any way I want, especially if I want to get rehired by those clients. However I can still add a bit of my own style and approach to the work. Also, most of the time I don’t do the post-production.  I simply turn over disks (after a couple of quick edits over the shots) with the images burned on them. The companies I work for have art departments or they contract with independent post-production people.  So, if I want to add my own style to the images, as subtle as that style might sometimes be, I have to do it in production, not post-production. I suppose that’s why I so stress getting things right in the camera in my e-books. Not just because getting things right in the camera is the right way to shoot, but also because it reflects a personal style and approach to the work. I’m not a judgmental person but I think many post-processing actions, filters, and plug-ins do not represent a photographer’s personal style. I’m not opposed to using canned software to enhance images but I don’t think photographers should wholly rely on those things to somehow represent their personal, photographic, visions or styles.

How can someone who wants to shoot pornstars and erotic photography get his foot in the door?

That’s a tough one because it can certainly be a tough business to get into. There’s a sense of “community” in the adult biz and that community is not always so willing to welcome new people with open arms. That attitude probably goes back to the early days when a lot of this work was illegal and the people who performed it were very wary of outsiders.

Still, none of that means a determined person can’t break past the barriers and find paid work as an erotic photographer. Sure, there will always be the “being in the right place at the right time” factor which some are lucky enough to experience. And knowing someone who can help you get a foot in the door certainly has its place. But I’ve seen shooters come into the business, seemingly out of nowhere, and start getting work. There’s no blueprint or fail-proof strategies for doing so.  I’m fairly certain everyone who is suddenly new to the business has a somewhat unique story in terms of how they found themselves shooting this sort of work.  Agents? Nope. Submissions? Perhaps occasionally. Networking? Absolutely!

Regardless of the specifics of how someone gets in, just like with any other job or career determination and persistence often pays off. Learning the craft is paramount! Often, when I’m on a set, I’m not given the time I should be alloted to get the job done, i.e., to get it done well.  The needs of the video crew always trump the needs of the photographer. (Even though it’s the photographer’s work that sells the videos.) Also, many, although not all, of the models in the X-Biz are quite experienced. When they sense that a photographer, especially one they’ve never worked with before, doesn’t seem so sure of what he or she is doing, some of them take advantage of that in a variety of ways.  And those “ways” aren’t always the best ways for a photographer to snap some great pics. So,  knowing what you’re doing on a set, exhibiting a professional demeanor and being, obviously, rightfully in charge of the photo shoot are important aspects to successful shoots.

Through the years, I’ve had to learn to simplify my work as much as possible: To keep it simple and to stay away from approaches that make the work overly complex. I’ve had to learn to make the technical side of the work — lighting, exposure, the settings on my camera and all that — automatic and no-brainer. That’s how I’m able to work quickly and efficiently and, more importantly, maintain the majority of my focus on the model, and not on the gear or all the other stuff. By the way, keeping things simple and resisting complexity are the two, major, themes of my first two ebooks– Guerrilla Glamour and Guerrilla Headshots. They’re also the things, in my opinion, that will most often result in a photographer’s best work, most assuredly when shooting people, whether it’s glamour, erotic, or something else.

When you give direction to models, how do you explain what you want?

First off, my lips and mouth are always moving. “Dead air,” as they say in radio, is as much a negative on a photo shoot as it is in a radio program. For models, it can be lonely out there in the lights. It can also be intimidating and create insecurities for them. The last thing I ever want to do is shoot a self-conscious, insecure, model. Especially if I’m the primary reason for those insecurities. If you suddenly become noticeably quiet because you’re trying to figure something out or you’re dealing with something that isn’t working, sure as hell the model will assume it has something negative to do with her, whether it does or not. If I’m suddenly focused on some technical thing, I always make sure I tell the model that’s what’s happening. Otherwise, as mentioned, she will almost always assume it’s her fault or the result of something she is or isn’t doing.

When shooting, I’m constantly verbal, stroking the model’s ego even though it often comes off repetitive or lacks much sincerity. Again, dead air is not conducive to a successful photo shoot. Rote, repetitive, and insincere flattery is preferable to silence. Course, if the constant stream of ego stroking is genuinely sincere, all the better!

As for direction, it often depends on the experience of the model. With some models, those who are wildly experienced, there’s little I can say in terms of direction that is something they haven’t heard before. That’s not to say I don’t give directions to those models, I do, but it often tends to be more abbreviated and focused on small details, sometimes details right down to minor adjustments of the pointing of their toes or the positions of their fingers. For the more experienced models, my directions generally have more to do with attitudes and emotions than with physical posing. Heavily experienced models usually have the physical posing down to an art, if not a science. But it’s important not to let an experienced model go completely on auto-pilot. The posing and such might still be technically perfect but the feelings she’s projecting risk being empty.

With less experienced models, I don’t just focus on attitude and emotion, although that’s still a big part of my directions, but I also find myself needing to give many physical directions. If I can’t manage to verbally communicate my directions, I’ll resort to modeling them for them, as silly as I might look when doing so. I’ve shot models who barely speak a word of English. In those instances, modeling for the model might be the only way I can communicate.

From my perspective, the photographer’s most important goal when shooting models, especially in terms of how models will  perform in front of the camera and the shooter’s ability to effectively direct them, is a direct result of a photographer’s skill in creating a moderate (or better) level of rapport with that model… and to do it in a very short period of time! Rapport building begins the moment the model shows up and continues throughout the shoot. When you develop a good, working, rapport with the model, you’ll find the model is like soft clay in the photographer’s hands and are so much more easy to mold into what the photographer wants. They’re also more willing to contribute their own ideas and creativity to the shoot.

Before your shoot, how do you plan out everything?

I don’t really do too much planning since, I usually don’t have much of an idea of what the environments I’ll be shooting in might look like before I get there. (Unless it’s a location I’ve been to before.) There’s plenty of times I don’t even know if I’ll be shooting outside in daylight exteriors or in location interiors. This means I generally carry more gear in my SUV than I will probably need.

As for props, I don’t shoot a whole lot with props unless the client has me working with a prop or a product of some sort. Even when I’m shooting for myself, I don’t generally use props. I have nothing against props, it’s just my preference not to use them. For those who like working with props, I have one suggestion: Try to stay away from cliché props. Does the world of glamour and erotic photography really need to see another photo of a pretty girl with angel wings, wrapped in “Caution” tape, licking an oversized lollipop, or posed with a guitar to show the symmetry between her hourglass figure and the shape of the guitar? If you’re going to use props, be original and use props that are less-often seen.

Wardrobe is another matter and I try to influence, if not direct, the wardrobe the model will be wearing. Most of the models in the adult industry show up on a set with a rather large piece of baggage stuffed with wardrobe choices. Unless the client is personally choosing wardrobe or has someone picking out what the model will be wearing, I always try to be a big part of that selection. It’s fun too! I guess it’s a little like playing with a Barbie doll — not that I play with Barbie dolls — only in this case, it’s a living, breathing, talking, sexy Barbie doll.

What are your tips for improving one’s photography in the shortest amount of time possible?

First and foremost, learn the front-end of photography. By the front-end, I mean the art and science of photography. Don’t expect computer processing to make you a great photographer. Great photography begins while you’re snapping the pics.

Gear will never trump knowledge, skill, or creativity. We all want better gear. I know I do. But don’t expect that new camera body or that faster lens or the latest version of Photoshop to automatically improve your photography. There is no replacement for taking the time to learn how to do things right and how to do them better. Each piece of gear is simply a tool and tools, on their own, do not make exceptional craftsmen. Just because you own a hammer and saw, perhaps the best hammer and saw money can buy, doesn’t mean you can build a beautiful home.

Improve your communication skills. Models want direction. Models need positive reinforcement. Models want to hear that they’re not alone out there in the lights. Dead air is not conducive to great photography. You don’t have to become Mr. Personality. You simply have to communicate.

Work towards developing a personal style but not at the expense of good and effective photography. Sure, you can break the rules in developing your style. In fact, you’ll probably need to do so. Developing an obvious, unique, personal style, by the way, is not an absolute requirement for being a successful photographer. While there are plenty of successful photographers whose work is unique and identifiable, there are also many whose personal style is quite subtle and difficult to define or put a finger on.

Practice, practice, practice! It would be nice if we all could shoot like masters the first time we picked up a camera but that’s not how it works for most people. Yeah, some people seem to be born to do certain things. They have an innate ability to grasp and perform in exceptional ways right from the start. But those people are the exceptions, not the rule. For most of us, there’s no replacement for practicing and honing our craft: Practice and repetition, like one foot in front of another again and again, moves us ever forward on the path to Photo-Nirvana. It doesn’t happen overnight. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and continues with many steps. Most importantly, enjoy the journey. Have fun with it and love your craft.

Want to learn photography from James Digiorgio? Make sure to check out James Digiorgio’s e-books for 50% off at PhotoWhoa!

Posted in Photographer Interviews,Photography Tips

  • Marian Hollinger

    It’s an interesting interview. Thanks.

  • Chris Kat

    I would’ve liked to hear more about the industry in general. Salary, hours worked, those types of statistics.

  • Joakim

    He’s worked with some of my “favorite” people. Great interview.