Noted Photographer Ellen Stagg discusses new book, ” Free to Be Naked” and much more

On the eve of her appearance at New York City’s Museum of Sex on Thursday, November 30 from 5-8pm, {which is located at 233 Fifth Avenue @ 27th Street}, noted photographer Ellen Stagg sat down for an extensive discussion.Beginning with her new book,Free to Be Naked, the Goliath Publishing hardcover book includes 255 tantalizing pages of the industry’s most popular and provocative models and performers, and fans that pre-order directly via StaggStreet.com/shop (or ShopEllenStagg.com) will receive personally-signed copies from the artist herself.

 

She’s also shot 5 covers of Hustler for 2023, directed the revelatory YouTube series Red Umbrella Talk with collaborator/ co-producer/host Laura Desirée, retraces her humble beginnings of becoming a photographer, good etiquette, correct poses for specific models, and so much more.

She is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning photographer with 20+ years of experience in commercial work in advertising, fashion, and portraiture, and her client list includes a high-profile range of popular magazines, look books, stock photography and celebrities. She holds a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, which she attended after moving from Connecticut in 1996.

Stagg has showcased her art in galleries around the world, published the books Dirty Girls Having Fun , More Dirty Girls Having Fun,  Dirty Collection, and is always expanding her artistic reach even further into new mediums.

Interview: Sherman Way

Editor: Ralph Greco Jr

All photos courtesy of Ellen Stagg

SW: Sherman Way

ES Ellen Stagg

SW: Let’s start with your book, “Free to Be Naked”. When you put the book together, how did you come up with the shots that ended up in the book?

ES: I literally sent Goliath, my publisher, every set that I’ve done that was retouched for the past like three, three and a half years. I just sent him all that work and gave him the opportunity to edit through because, at first, sent him pictures that I thought he would really like, and he said “Well, I need more variety of clothing,” because I was just sending full nudes. He said, “I need more of a tease.” I was like, ‘Okay, here’s all the pictures that I’ve shot so you can just go through them.’

SW: So, they go through them. Is there any kind of final approval from you of what ends up in the book?

ES: They sent me a PDF, and I said, “Hey, I like what you’ve done so far. I would love for you to add a couple of these other models, like Ryan Keely or Connie Perignon because they’re like getting pretty famous right now.” And like a lot of the pictures in the book he first chose were nude models, but not big porn stars. I said “It’ll help sell the book if there were big porn stars in there too.”

SW: For sake of discussion, let’s walk through a shoot you just did. You just did the September cover of Hustler?

ES: Yeah, October too. I’ve had five covers with Hustler this year so far. I’m trying to remember all the ones. I know it was February with Kiara Cole, April with Laura Desiree, July with Kiara Cole again in Sky Blue, the anniversary cover, 2023 anniversary cover, and then the newest one for October’s with De Monica Rose.

SW: So, does Hustler get you the model? Do you hire the model and then submit the set? How does all that work?

ES: I find the model. I pitch it to Hustler. They say yes or no, or maybe they’ve shot her already. Like with Kiara and Skyy Blue, I was like, I could shoot a girl-girl with them. They were interested to see that because they’d already used Sky Blue and Kiara, obviously with me with Kiara separately.

So then I pitch the model. They say yes or no. Then I do all the production myself, and then I submit the photos for them. Sometimes they might not even choose them. A lot of the times when I shoot, especially for my book, I shoot two sets on a girl. Sometimes Hustler will take both sets, sometimes they don’t, which gives me the opportunity to have content for my book and my website and all that fun stuff.

SW: Do you have an idea in your head of what the theme will be.

ES: No, because it’s more about what the model has for wardrobe and then what location. So, it’s not really, especially for Hustler, there’s not much of a theme.

The only time they’ve asked me is that I shot this burlesque performer for them, and they said, “We’d really like to play up the burlesque angle.” So, she was wearing more of a burlesque outfit. It was still bra and panty with like a big boa instead of just regular brawn panty ’cause it was still, like, rhinestone and everything. Mm-hmm. So and I shot it at a burlesque club here in New York. But otherwise, yeah, I don’t really do themes.

I kind of just go with the flow and see. I do have, like, a dropbox full of poses that I show the models. And I say to them, “If you can do this, it would be great.” They love very bendy poses or splits or anything like that. So, the poses have to be dynamic and fun for me to get it in the magazine. They don’t want just like them standing there smiling. They want different facial expressions and everything, but there’s never really a theme.

SW: When it comes to poses, is that depending on the model’s body structure, or is that her energy, or is that something you think would look cool?

ES: Yeah. I mean, like I shot Katie Kush for the September issue. I didn’t have the cover. And she’s really, really bendy. She was doing splits and fun stuff, kind of almost on the borderline of contortionist kind of stuff. But she just did that. And I said, “Oh, I know Hustler really loves that.” They even said “Oh, we love how flexible she isYeah. I mean, it just depends on the model. I would say almost every model I’ve ever worked with is a great model. They know how to move their body. They know how to position themselves. But having that Dropbox on my phone full of poses helps them to go, “Oh, yeah, I can do that pose.”

Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m cool with that.”

SW: With the typical set for you, is there a specific amount of poses you’re trying to get?

ES: As many as I can because I feel like especially for Hustler, if I have a variety, it’s just going to be even better for the magazine. But for me, whatever the model is willing to give me in the time period we have.

SW: And in the case of Hustler or maybe a website, do you need to get complete nude with spreads, the whole bit, or is that something that one outlet will ask you for specifically?

ES: For Hustler, they will not take it if there’s no spreads. So, I have to do that. So, I say that to the model, “If you’re not willing to spread, we won’t get paid.” But when it comes to my own site, all I ask them is to be nude. They do not have to spread. I have models on my site that are like just basically topless and they’ll, they’ll have like you’ll see a tiny bit of the top of their pubic area, but, but then I have models on my site that are having sex with one another, using toys, like going all out. So, it just depends to me what is the comfortability of the model. Especially if it’s trade for content, I’m not going to force anybody to do something that they’re not comfortable with. But a lot of the times, when they need the content, they need something a little more hardcore because their fans want to see that.

SW: For you, what makes a great photo? Is it technical? Is it expression? Is it energy?

ES: I always tell everybody as a photographer, there’s three things that I have to worry about lighting, composition, and problem-solving. For me, my own photography, I like good lighting. I like a great composition, but a composition, I could email it to you. One of my favorite photos was with Justine Jolie and Ryan Keeley that I shot years ago. Justine is going down on Ryan. I think unless I got it switched, I haven’t looked at the photo in a while. But it’s in a way where you don’t see it. You just see the expression on the model’s face, but there’s a mirror on the other side where you can kind of see what’s going on. So the picture has, like, a little bit of mystery to it, and you kind of have to be like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on?’ And you have to really look around the entire frame. I love pictures like that, but sometimes they might be a little too artsy for some people. Otherwise, I like photographing women where they just look confident, sexy, looking like they’re happy to be there.

SW: And when you pick a model, is there a look? Or are you concerned with things like the girl having x amount of followers?

ES: No. I don’t care about followers. I don’t care about body type or ethnicity. I like all of the above. I don’t care about age except for if I’m pitching to like barely legal. She can’t be fifty. You know, she has to look the part. But I’ve shot girls for Barely Legal who are twenty-six that they put in the magazine that they’re nineteen. Barely legal is fantasy. But for me personally, the only thing I really look for in a model is, is she cool? Is she not going to be a diva? Like girls who are divas, I can’t put up with that. I want to have a fun experience. And most of my models say that to me after. They’re like, “Oh, my God, I had the best day. Thank you so much. You made me feel confident and sexy, and I had so much fun.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what this shoot should be about.” We should be collaborating and having fun together.” I’ve been working a lot with April Flores, who’s a BBW. And April’s not a nineteen-year-old girl, but she’s so fucking gorgeous and sweet to be around and talented. The camera just loves her. You know, so I’d rather work with somebody who’s gorgeous and cool over gorgeous and a diva.

SW: How did you get started in photography?

ES: I started when I was sixteen-years-old in high school. I was put in the photography class, and it’s been what I’ve been doing ever since, which is, I guess, that’s twenty nine years later.

SW: In high school, what type of photography were you doing?

ES: Mostly portraiture of friends and stuff, and I was doing self-portraits. I wasn’t doing, obviously, nudes because I was underage. But I was pushing it where I like photographed two friends of mine, a male and a female, and the female was in lingerie, and the male was just in his boxers, and he was like blindfolded and tied up. My teacher was like, “Hey, I get where you’re going and I will celebrate the fact that you’re experimenting, but you have to be careful because when you’re underage, they’re underage, and I can’t let you show these photos anywhere in the school because there are even more underage children at the school.” So yeah, I had to be mindful. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City, turned eighteen, went to the School of Visual Arts, then I said, “Oh, okay. Now I can just take the training wheels off and have fun.”

SW: Before that, had you seen adult material or what inspired you to do that type of shoot?

ES: Yeah. I mean, yeah. I mean, like I saw Playboys and nude magazines and stuff when I was a kid. I was very influenced by Madonna and the Erotica album that came out in the early nineties. It seemed like a lot of female artists of the time were experimenting sexually with their music and art. So it was very engaging and interesting to me. So, of course, it piqued my interest.

SW: And when you saw that type of material, did the thought ever cross your mind that you shoot that kind of stuff?

ES: Yeah, It wasn’t though until 2005 because I tried to shoot nudes or I did self-portraits and stuff that I didn’t I would like shoot with friends of mine and they’d say, “Hey, can you do me a favor and not show these pictures to anyone?” And in 2005, I met Justine Jolie and it then snowballed into the women of the adult industry that I realized I was like, ‘Oh, shooting with the professionals is the way to do this.’

SW: Do you remember your first set you sold? How did that come up?

ES: I don’t think I sold a set like that. I just started a blog with the photos that I was doing and then started Staggstreet like three years later. I was just selling it on my own site for people to join. And then because of that, I got hired by places like Penthouse and Playboy TV and Playboy.com. And then people were hiring me for boudoir shoots.It just kind of snowballed that way.  One of the first magazines I shot for was Vibe Magazine. I shot Kelis, she had that song, my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. I first started shooting adult material, there was like a lot of crossover. There was this Australian magazine called Acclaim that I shot Ryan Keely and Justine Jolie for the cover. And it was the friend’s issue. So they were like best friends, doing hula hoop together and sitting on a hammock together and eating pizza together and doing each other’s nails. And they weren’t naked, but it was, like, sexy and fun.

SW: Is it easier for you being a woman to shoot a woman model? A female model

ES: Yeah, I think so only because I’m heterosexual, so I’m not interested in sleeping with my female models whatsoever. I’m not really interested in sleeping with my male models, but some of them can be hot, but there’s very few of them. But I have been told by a lot of the models that it’s nice that I use terms like vulva and I’ll, like, describe things like, “Can you slide your butt down like you’re at the gynecologist so I can really see?” I try to treat my models the way I would be treated. I live by the golden rule. I have heard so many different things from models to some models saying “Oh, some female photographers are the worst. You’ve been the best one I’ve shot with,” or others that are like, “Oh, I love working with male photographers. They’re not weird at all.” Or vice versa. I’ve had models be like, I had one model recently, she loved this male photographer’s work so much and was following him on social media and hired him, paid him. And he did some stuff that she didn’t approve of and was really upset about it. She had to get her lawyer involved. I was like like, yeah, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. I try to be as respectful to my models as possible, not because of I’m scared somebody’s going to say something, but because I think that that’s how you should treat them. And like most of my models want to shoot with me again, even if it’s not for a publication. They enjoy working with me.

SW: When you’re working with the model and let’s say things aren’t going perfect, do you have a specific way to try and get the model back in the right frame of mind.

ES: A lot of times with my boudoir shoots, if I see somebody with really tense, tight shoulders or like gritting their teeth, I will say to them, “Okay, I see that you’re uncomfortable. I want you to understand that I’m in charge of the photography. It’s digital. If you don’t like the image, it’s just going to be erased. It’s not that big of a deal. But if you need to relax a little, and I want you to think of something that actually makes you feel happy, and it could be food, a lover, money, a friend, a movie, a pet, anything that just brings joy to you. It doesn’t have to be sexy joy. It can just be joy. And you can tell me what that thing is, or you don’t have to. But I want you to find like a happy place.” When I see you tensing up and gritting your teeth, I’m going to ask you, “Let’s go to your happy place. It’s okay.” We don’t have unlimited time, but I’m like, “We have some time. It’s okay.” And as the shoot goes on, they end up relaxing and everything is okay. And showing them poses on my phone really does help too. They were like, “Oh, okay. I’ll try that. I’ll try that.” But yeah, it’s more about feeling good than looking good because when you feel good, it’ll come across in the pictures. So, I just want them to feel happy.

SW: Have you’ve dealt with models who either don’t have a lot of experience, or basically, they’ve worked with a couple of photographers who convinced them that, “These are your three best poses. Don’t do anything else.”

ES: I don’t think I’ve done that. I have worked with models that have, they’re not as comfortable with their body and I can see they’re beautiful girls and they want to model, but they have to, like, learn some poses that work with them. And then I’ve shot them later and see how they have grown. That’s why I have that Dropbox full of poses, like, look at what else is out there and practice in a mirror or practice taking selfies or practice with, like, a more amateur photographer. There’s certain things that I know are going to look better.
SW: And the question of beauty, for sake of discussion. Let’s say you have a beautiful model in front of you, but the camera doesn’t necessarily  see that. But other times, you’ll have a girl that’s maybe not as beautiful, whatever that means, but the camera absolutely adores her. Do you run into that a lot?

ES: Yes. And I think it’s literally confidence. Like, the gorgeous girl who doesn’t look good in photos, it’s because she has self-confidence problems versus the girl who might not be, like, stereotypically gorgeous, but can just take a picture. A lot of them I’ve seen that are like that are dancers because they have such a way about their body and posing. Maybe that could be an advice that I give to a newer model. Take a dance class, get used to the way your body flows because, like, a, a flat foot looks terrible in a photo, but once you point it, it looks beautiful, you know, that, that long line. So, yes, that has most definitely happened, but I think it’s about confidence.

SW: Has there been a shoot, where you impressed yourself? You looked at something when it was done and said “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

ES: Not a shoot, but I just recently did a short film with April Flores.

We had this idea; I don’t want to say what the idea is. But we had this idea to do together. And as we were shooting, I thought ‘Oh, this is coming out even better than I thought.’ And I showed her a little bit of the video, and then I edited it together, and I sent it to her. And she said, “This is way hotter than I thought.” I agreed, “Right? It came out even better.” Because we had this idea that I’ve never done before. And I even said to her when we first shot it, “Maybe we’ll just experiment today and get out the kinks and we’ll go back and tighten it up.” But it ended up coming out gorgeous. It was perfectly done. And I surprised myself. April, she’s so great and I kept saying to her, I’m like, “You’re such a great performer that the camera loves you.” But she was even like, “Wow, that was really hot.” And I had to agree, saying “Yeah, right, I think it worked.” And I’ve shown it to a couple of people and they were like, “Yeah, that’s good.” But I stopped myself thinking ‘Am I just in my head about this?’ Because sometimes you see artists who make art and they’re like, ‘I’m full of myself, and it’s the best thing in the world.’ And you look at it and you’re like, ‘Eh, not really.’ So it was nice to show some third parties and some ideas of how I should edit or do something, but this time around everybody was like, “No, it’s good. It’s actually really good.”

So that was the last time that I’ve surprised myself.

SW: And you kind of just touched on it, but when you shoot, are you shooting for commercial purposes, or do you want to make yourself happy?

ES: Well, if I’m shooting for Hustler, most definitely commercial purposes, I’m trying to make sure that we do the best work for Hustler and their criteria. But when I’m doing trade for content or making anything art-related, I do want to just make me and my model happy.

SW: Tell me about Staggstreet.

ES: My site has been around since 2008. It’s so old. I’ve had a couple of people say “You should update it. It’s really old-looking.” But my reply to that is, “I really don’t have the time or money to update it. I can update certain things with it.” It’s just recently just been a place for the newer sets to be. I used to do behind-the-scenes video, but I used to have an intern that helped me edit that. I just only have so much time in a day to edit photos. I also have Tempted, which is like OnlyFans, but on tempted, I can actually talk to the people who run it. And I put polaroids up there and some videos I’ve been working on there. I keep thinking about phasing out Staggstreet, but I realize that the way that everything’s going since CESTA FOSTA, that it’s nice that I still have that, especially just for my shopping cart, for my signed books and signed magazines, and I’m going to be putting one-of-a-kind Polaroids up there soon because there’s no place else for me to put it.

I used to put it on Etsy and they would flag me. And I’d say “Why are you flagging me for a signed Hustler when you have vintage hustlers on there?” The hypocrisy is so frustrating. And I was on Patreon and kept getting flagged there. And it’s like no matter what you do, so it’s nice that I still have a place where I could put my smutty pictures up and not get flagged because it’s my own size. Two years ago, I got kicked off OnlyFans because they emailed me, “Hey, we need the model releases and the IDs to all your models.” And I was like, “Cool. Where do you want me to put it? I’m not gonna attach it to the set where the world can see the model’s information, I need a place to put it.” And they didn’t respond to me. Then two days later, they were like, “We’ll give you a little more time to get this stuff together.” And I’m like, “Okay, yeah, I, I have it. It’s ready to go. Where do I put it?” And they were like, ”  we also now need the banking information and W-9s to all your models.” And I was like, “But a lot of this is trade for content. I have a model release in ID, but I don’t have banking information in W-9s for all of them.

So then they kicked me off, and that’s when I joined Tempted because Tempted and I actually just share a folder where I send them all the model releases and IDs that’s not on the site. So then that way, they can check and make sure, which is the way it should be. I don’t mind. Model IDs and releases, like the models know, especially for Hustler, they have to use them.

 

But yeah, it’s frustrating that places like OnlyFans, they just don’t have any customer service, so.

SW: Tell me about the gay lovers travels film.

ES: Yeah. Laura Desiree and I wrote this together. There’s these little tiny plastic men that are used as, like, wine. What is it called? Markers. So, like, if a bunch of people have wine, you have, like, different little men to show whose glasses. Laura got these, I think, as a gift. And she was like, “I would really love to do a video where these guys explore my body.” And I was like, “Okay, but where’s the hook? Where’s the story there?” And I was like, it’d be funny if these little guys were gay guys and they don’t know what a woman’s body is. And so, it’s narrated by three actors who are literally going up and around her body looking for the new hole in the wall bar when they get to her vagina and they try to spread it open to get to inside the new bar. It’s less than five minutes. It’s ridiculous and funny. It’s just supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. And I called it “Gay Lovers Travels” because of Gulliver’s Travels. I just thought it would be funny. Then I got into two film festivals with it. I’m going to Berlin to go to the Porno Film Festival there.

SW: I interviewed Laura when your layout came out.

ES: Oh, that was in Hustler. Yeah, yeah.

SW: You two ladies have done a lot of work together. How did you meet her? How did that come up?

ES: We met maybe two and a half years ago because I was shooting with Kendra Lee and Kendra put on Instagram. I’m shooting with Ellen Stag today. I’m so excited. And Laura messaged her and she’s like, “You’re gonna have a great shoot. She’s awesome.” And Kendra told me and I was like, “I don’t even know Laura. I follow her, but I didn’t even know she knew me.” So I DMed her and I was like, “I’d love to work with you if you’d be down.” And she was like, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s totally do that.” So, the first shoot we did together was for Taboo, which was the cover, I think, of January 2022 of Taboo. And then I shot her for the anniversary cover of Hustler for 2022 anniversary. And after I shot her for that, Hustler called her a ‘Honey; on the cover and I was like, “Well, technically she’s never been a Honey. Why don’t I shoot her for you guys as a honey?” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, okay. We like that idea.” And then that’s when we got the April 2023 cover. Then Laura also came to me and was like, “Hey, I, I really wanna do this Red Umbrella talk series. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I feel like you’re the only director that I think I could pull it off with.” And I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” But I said to her when we had the first initial meeting, “I’m the kind of person who likes to shit or get off the pot. If we start this ball rolling, I want to actually make it happen.” I hate people who talk about projects and then just, like, drop the ball even, like, in the beginning stages. So just promise me that there’s some follow-thru.

So, we shot it about two years ago at the Museum of Sex. You can go to www.red umbrellatalk.com to watch all five episodes. I would love to do another season with that. We’ve shot some videos for Motor Bunny. She’s a great writer, an incredible model. She’s insanely smart. Her interview styles for Red Umbrella was perfect, and I loved collaborating with smart, fun, sexy ladies.

SW: And the Red Umbrella, when you sat down for the initial meetings, was there a concept already set up where you guys knew direction you wanted to go?

ES: She knew she wanted it to be about the five sides to sex work, stripping, escorting, dominatrix, porn. And then I also brought in, like, it would be really good if we talked to legal people. So we had a lawyer episode talking about First Amendment rights and CESTA FOSTA because I was like, I think and, and still to this day, I talked to models and they’re like, “What’s Sesta Fosta?” And I’m like, “Okay. Watch this episode. You should really know how everything has changed since 2019 thanks to this ridiculous federal law.” I’ve even talked to a photographer about that who didn’t know.

He was like, “What do you mean?” So we came up with the five ideas. Then we found the people, but she was like, “I really wanted it to be an interview series where the average person gets to ask the question.” So we had a bunch of people email in questions of what they wanted to know about sex work. So that’s how the whole series is Laura’s reading the questions from the quote-unquote audience. They’re not physically there, but they were virtually there. And so, some episodes are like an hour long and some are like thirty minutes long. It just depended on how many questions we had. And we shot it over the course of two different days because video takes forever. And then it took me months to edit it because it was a lot of video. We had basically three cameras going, so just editing all that together. So yeah.

SW: Do you think that maybe the caliber of model has changed over the last 30 years? Now it seems like anybody can be a model.

ES: Well, yes, I do think anybody can be a model, and I think that that diversity is a good thing.

SW: Oh, I agree with you there.

ES: Also, some of the agencies I’ve worked with, I sometimes think they’re not all as professional as they could be. When I email an agent, and ask, “Can you please send this to the model to shoot for Hustler?” And the model would show up and ask: “What am I doing today?” And I’m like, “He didn’t email you?”

 SW: Very quickly, is there a short version of “if a person wants to be a photographer and get in this type of work, what they should do or not do.”

ES: I tell everybody, because I get people like, “Why are you so successful?” I’m like, “Because I’ve been doing this for almost three decades. The only way to be good at being a photographer is to keep practicing your craft. If you’re a baby photographer, you should be shooting the minimum of once a week, constantly protecting your craft. And then professionalism. If you’re respectful and nice to your models, the one thing that they’ll do is they’ll tell other models. If you’re awful, rude, or even worse, doing anything sexually inappropriate, people will know and you’ll be blacklisted. So just be nice and respectful.

SW: One last question. Anything you want to say to all of your fans?

ES: Oh my God. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question before, and I’ve done a lot of press over here. That’s hilarious. I love my fans. So I want to thank them

Check out Ellen Stagg at TheStaggParty.com, Linktr.ee/ellenstagg, Twitter @ellenstagg, and Instagram @ellenstagg.

SW: Thank you, Ellen

 

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