“I’ve been known in the industry for being a model who poses,” says Coco Rocha, sitting in the photographer Steven Sebring’s studio in Manhattan. She acknowledges immediately that that sentence sounds odd, perhaps redundant. “That’s our job,” she says of posing, “yet some of us are not good at it.”
If Rocha was already known in some circles as the “Queen of the Pose,” the supermodel’s new collaboration with Sebring–a just-published, 2,000-page tome from HarperCollins called The Study of Pose–will secure her rep. The book features Rocha, in a simple leotard beneath stark, single-source light, as she contorts herself into 1,000 different positions. Some are graceful, elegant, and traditional. But many are bizarre, even grotesque–far from standard supermodel fare. Each pose was simultaneously captured by 100 cameras arrayed in a circle around her, meaning that for the e-book version of The Study of Pose, readers can rotate the image for a 360-degree view, offering endless vantage points on the awkwardness.
The project grew from an idea Sebring first hatched in the ‘90s. “But I couldn’t find the right (model),” he says. “I thought, ‘Is it Kate Moss? What are her poses like? Is it Gisele? I don’t know.” Sebring shelved the idea, meanwhile devoting himself to the construction of his 100-camera rig, which occupies a small, domelike structure in his studio. A mutual friend introduced Sebring and Rocha at an exhibition, and the two began talks. Soon the supermodel and her husband and manager, James Conran, were courting Sebring. “They brought me a bottle of wine,” the photographer recalls. They decided to give it a go.
It was a grueling, three-day shoot, one that required Rocha to delve into wells of creativity she hadn’t known were there. A few years ago, a video in which she performed 50 poses in 30 seconds had gone viral, spawning imitations. In three full days, then, how hard could it be to scrounge up 1,000 poses?
Very hard, it turned out. “At 500 poses, I was laughing and saying it might not work,” she says. “By 800 I hit a wall and said it had to be a book of 800.”
In a brief essay in the book, she describes the process. “At times I felt I had nothing left to give,” she writes, “and it was then that Steven or my husband James would give me new inspiration–‘Grace Jones,’ ‘an old man,’ ‘Jessica Rabbit’–and I would find an entirely new arsenal of moves. I took each suggestion and tried to emulate the spirit and energy of those various characters and personalities through my body, through a pose. What was Botticelli’s Venus’ next move? How would she allow her weight shift onto her right leg instead of the left? Often a pose wasn’t based on one influence alone but the combination of two or three. What would it look like if Marilyn Monroe and Bob Fosse fused bodies?”
Dance served as a major inspiration. So did art historical references, like the classic “contrapposto” pose–with the body’s weight shifted to one side–that Michelangelo famously used in his statue of David. As the days wore on, Rocha, Conran, and Sebring took inspiration wherever they could get it–pop music, yoga, even architecture. Straining for a new pose, Rocha might imagine a cathedral’s structure of mass. “All these concepts and more run through my mind as I search for the right persona, the right inspiration, the right pose,” she writes. At a certain point, Conran started calling out letters of the alphabet, for Rocha to emulate. “She hit every letter,” he says.
In the spirit of many entrepreneurs, Sebring and Rocha weren’t sure what would come of their product–they were simply curious to put it in the world and see what resulted. Already, though, Rocha–a queen, too, of social media–says she’s seeing a strong response from her followers. “I’ve seen already on Instagram images of fashion illustrators who are already using it,” she says, visibly pleased. She says that while being a model sometimes does have its dumb, “Zoolander moments,” a model at his or her best can serve as a muse. “I wanted to see what it could do for others,” she says. “if this book would, in fact, inspire the next great artist. Who knows?”
One of the things that Rocha is most proud of about the book, however, is its radical, unedited honesty. Since the forthcoming e-book allows readers to rotate the image, there are countless angles from which Rocha looks graceless–the opposite of a model. When Rocha does traditional modeling, there’s often a team of people using smoke and mirrors–or more literally, clamps and a wind machine–to make sure the image they’re projecting to the single camera looks perfect. In Sebring’s all-seeing dome, “there were no clamps, no wind machine,” she says.
“It was just full-on Coco,” says Sebring.
In an Instagram world where we increasingly project a highly redacted version of ourselves to the world, The Study of Pose offers what Conran calls “the polar opposite of selfie culture, where you’re only giving one angle of yourselves to the public. With this, Coco is giving you every angle.”
“What was great about the book,” concurs Rocha, “is that we didn’t Photoshop. We made sure if there was a weird crease in my side, or an awkward facial expression, we left it alone.”
Was she worried that showing imperfections might be damaging to her image?
“We’re way past doing what’s good for my image or brand,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes I look at these poses and I’m like, ‘What was that? Did James say, ‘Do a monkey’?”
While it may be easy for a supermodel to say, Rocha advises that people–whether they’re paid to be pretty or not–try letting their guard down a little, and sharing a less idealized version of their faces and bodies with the world. The era of self-casting has become an era of self-consciousness–to our detriment, she thinks.
“I say to embrace everything about you,” she says. “I wish people would relax. It’s a selfie. You’re not curing cancer.”