Molly Steele UnfilteredWe get deep with photographer, philosopher and intrepid soul Molly Steele
Introverted with an outward perspective, philosophical and poetic, Molly Steele doesn’t read as your average Playboy model. Hell, it’d be hard to see the botanist-turned-photographer even buying the men’s magazine for its articles.
But the 27-year-old is as complex as her photos are warm, an inquisitive, intelligent and searching soul whose raw images evoke a vulnerability she quietly admits is intrinsically her. And since emerging as a promising eye courtesy of an engaged Instagram audience, the former model has spent more time behind the lens for magazines than in front of it.
She only shoots on film. Predominantly in the outdoors. And her outlook on her existence is as unique as her photos. In fact, it very well inspires them.
Meet Molly Steele.
THE RED BULLETIN: You grew up on a small farm in North Central Florida. Were you adventurous from the start?
MOLLY STEELE: I don’t recall identifying as adventurous. I grew up pretty secluded so spent a lot of time reading and listening to and playing music. Many hours spent doing homework, helping on the farm, or taking walks alone through the woods where I grew up. I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors.
And that’s where the inquisitive nature comes from. The outdoors is your muse…
Yes, I often reflect on the nature in Florida as being “all-consuming” in that it’s so dense and powerful. After moving to Los Angeles, there were a few years in which I spent more time interacting with the city until reaching the understanding that I’m profoundly happier and more in-tune with my senses when I’m following through on my inquisitive nature outdoors.
You’re poetic by nature and there’s a real elegance and rawness to your pictures.
I’m a raw and vulnerable person and everything I make is a reflection of that. Whether it be music, writing, visual art, or in general demeanor, I hope to see more honesty in art. I’m always aiming to capture intimacy in varying degrees. I simply prefer the great outdoors.
Your pics are warm and have a real retro, rustic vibe to them. And you only only shoot on film, why is that?
Over the years, I’ve gravitated toward photographs that make me feel uplifted because I could use more of that in my life. The retro, rustic vibe you’re picking up on can also be attributed to the fact that I shoot on film, and most often use a film type that lends itself to the warmer tones. All of my work is shot on film because that’s the medium that feels best for me. I like to take a picture and then immediately return to the moment without compromising my focus in order to fixate on the photo. Once I get a roll of film processed at the lab, I scan the negatives into digital form and only then do I direct my attention to the images themselves.
You picked up your first camera as a teenager. When did it become an appendage?
As a teenager I did video art and started shooting film sometime around 2008. However, that was all really awful! My focus started in 2013 and has been growing since. I’m self-taught with the help of many friends around me without whom I would not likely be where I am now.
Describe your ultimate adventure.
The best adventures are those that are given room to shape themselves. I want a bush plane to drop me off deep in the mountains so that I may hike over them, paddle down waterways, and find myself in the company of friends along the way. Perhaps find myself in a city, walking the streets and learning a new language. Then I may get on a train to another country, where I’ll fall in love and live on a sailboat, or in the hollow of a fallen tree. I want it all.
You’ve carriage jumped trains, hiked mountains and paddles rivers. You’re not shy to get involved for your art…
I’d like to think being involved is the priority in everything I do. There’s no particular sport I practice, but hiking or being on the water - kayaking, canoeing, swimming - helps me get places.
You’ve said if you were alive during Vietnam you’d be a war photographer?
I’ve come to believe that life itself is war. I’m interested in seeing people fighting for a better way to live, and less interested in shooting things that further drive home classism and privilege. Now more than ever, I’m sensitive about the idea of exploitation and about the limitations of journalism, and especially photojournalism. It only tells one part of the story. Because of this, I’ve actually not been taking photos for the last couple of months while I take time off to further investigate my hangups and try to find a route for moving forward…if there is one.
In that time, you got in front of the lens for Playboy. How’d that come about?
An old friend, Nate Walton, shot the series. I modeled for the better part of the last decade, so being in front of the lens was not foreign to me. As I become more aware of how patriarchy has oppressed my perception of beauty, it becomes more important that I distance myself from that ideology. Unfortunately, as a young woman conditioned in Western culture, I think the male gaze is built into how I experience myself and others. That being said, it was not taken into account during this shoot. To be clear, I did this for myself and for women. I didn’t do the shoot with men in mind. I did it because I wanted to honor and celebrate my body, and to do it in a way that women could appreciate and relate to.
In a mad world where things like feminism, sexism and sexuality means so many different things to so many people, what’s your personal take?
I can only speak to my own perspective and experience when it comes to sexuality. Historically, I’ve had a tendency to sexualize life to varying degrees. Considering Playboy in advance was not a question of if I should do it or not, but instead about what part I wanted to play in the conversation that’s already taking place. Reflecting on the shoot itself and the images published in the magazine, I perceived it more as an homage to femininity. The creative team at Playboy shared the same perspective and built the pictorial in a way that was more demure than overt, in terms of sex.
Sexuality and Instagram are one and the same, while also being in opposition to one another…
I’d like to see less policing of bodies both on social media and in society. I don’t think an awareness of sex should be under attack, but rather objectification of the form itself. I personally don’t think of sex when I see the human form, so nipples don’t trigger the same reactions in me as they do for some others. Also, the censoring of art and nudity (on Instagram specifically) is so wildly inconsistent and enraging. I’ve seen photos of nude marble statues removed, accounts deleted because of partially-exposed butts, nude-paintings, and even had several of my own modest images pulled. Yet thousands of profiles dedicated to the objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies remain, in addition to the countless images of full-exposure that slip under the radar. Their system and its enforcement are flawed and should be abolished completely if it cannot be maintained intellectually and evenly.
Who do you identify as an ideal role model?
Still searching… I’ve never really connected with the idea of a role model. I know many people have role models, and I think that’s great. For me, my expectations are immeasurable. My own sense of goals and ambition are so vast and frankly, overwhelming, that I can’t imagine weighing them against the accomplishments of another.