Floundering in the Forest with Sam Wu

January 2, 2016 at 8:05 pm | Posted in Modelling Stories | 3 Comments
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Some modelling experiences stayed clear in my memory. Others were blurred – a short scene or two retained, nothing more. I remember the early ones well: the sessions with Peter Gowland, described here; my first assignment with Ron Vogel, when we shot the cover for Carnival in his studio, followed by a series of outdoor photos in Malibu.

My memories for these two experiences were constantly refreshed whenever I viewed the B&W prints Gowland and Vogel gave to me or the two magazines – Cavalier and Carnival – that published the pictures taken during these sessions. These 1962 prints and magazines were keepsakes, stored and occasionally revisited.

Scenes that occur at the beginning of a sequence, such as my experiences with Gowland and Vogel, are likely to be retained. Also, those that are retrieved and reviewed, and those that are unique, are seldom forgotten. Another factor associated with the long-term recall of events is emotional arousal. Some people say they best remember happy occasions; I am more likely to retain clear memories of unpleasant experiences.

That is why I have always remembered my session with Sam Wu, even though I didn’t see the photos he took for 45 years.

The session occurred in early August 1962. Until July, I had modelled on Sundays and worked as a secretary during the week. Then I quit my job and moved into the Hollywood Studio Club, hoping to become a full-time model.

Prior to this change, my agent, Bill, had always phoned to arrange a new assignment; I never took the initiative to search for new jobs. A week after moving into the Studio Club, having not heard from him, I phoned to prod him. Two months had passed since my last modelling session.

“I’m settled,” I told him. “I’m available to work on weekdays now, not just on Sundays.”

“I’ll get back to you,” Bill replied.

Four days later, he phoned.

“Go to see Sam Wu tomorrow morning at ten,” he said. “He wants to look you over.” Bill gave me Sam’s address, which was only a few blocks away.

After hanging up, I wondered why I needed to be looked over. When I started modelling – yes. Both Peter Gowland and my agent wanted to take test photos. After that, I never again had to audition for a job.

I’d never heard of Sam Wu. In retrospect, I can see how naïve I was about the business. I didn’t know the important photographers nor anything about the magazine market; I simply relied on Bill to find me jobs.

The next morning, I walked five blocks to Sam Wu’s studio on Sunset Boulevard.  I paid little attention to my hair or makeup, using, as always, only eye liner, eyebrow pencil, and light lipstick. If my wavy blonde hair got tousled by the breeze and my eye liner smeared a bit while strolling under the August sun, it mattered little to me; I was a proven commodity, an experienced figure model.

But I was impressed upon arriving at Sam’s studio. In the windows were pictures of dozens of magazine covers – True Story, True Romance, True Confessions and similar women’s romance magazines. All featured faces of beautiful young women.

After entering and introducing myself, I asked, “Did you take the photos of those covers?”

“Yes,” Sam replied.

I thought but didn’t say, I would love to be a cover girl. Instead I asked, “How much do you pay a magazine cover model?”

“Girls come to me. They walk in off the street and work for free.”

Sam turned away from the cover display and examined my portfolio pictures. He never asked me if I would be interested in posing for a cover, although I wanted him to. I’m not pretty enough, I thought. I’m cute. I’ve got a good figure. And that’s why I get modelling work. But I’m not a cover girl beauty.

After inspecting my photos, Sam looked carefully at me.

“Tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at nine. Fifty dollars.”

I left, happy that I had a job.

The next morning, the ride alongside Sam was long and tedious. Generally, photographers drove to a spot near their studio. Generally, photographers tried to get me to relax because a relaxed model was a more flexible one. Once at ease, I would talk and talk – and talk. No one who knew me considered me shy, but I was an introvert who needed someone to break the ice. Ron Vogel put me at ease immediately, as did my Studio Club roommate, Adrianne. Nothing more was needed than a few words of encouragement to calm my apprehensions.

Sam Wu offered no such encouragement. He remained silent and, therefore, so did I. Sam drove for over an hour. Finally we entered a hilly area where I saw a sign by the roadside – Angeles National Forest. Immediately I became wary. In 1962, the laws against public nudity were strict and I would be arrested if found nude or semi-nude in a public place. On my first shoot with Ron Vogel, he was taking photos in Malibu on a deserted beach in front of a private residence. Ron wanted some topless photos and so he kept watch on a small group of people in the distance. When it became obvious they were not going to leave, he gave up on the idea of topless beach photos and shot his nudes in the back yard of the private residence.

The Angeles National Forest would offer no private secluded area. I hoped Sam knew where he was going.

He didn’t appear to. Twice he slowed the car, peered down a ravine, then moved on. He was obviously looking for a place he must have scouted earlier but was not exactly certain where to turn off. Finally, we stopped. He parked the car and we walked down a narrow path with our gear. He carried his camera equipment, a blanket, and a bulky coat and pants; I carried a bag containing my usual modelling accessories – black bikini panties, black front-opening bra, open-toed gold shoes, tight blue sweater, low cut blouse, and white shorts.

My modelling apparel was not needed because once we reached our destination, Sam wanted me to completely disrobe. The clothes I was wearing were placed on the blanket, along with the bulky jacket and pants. In bare feet, I tread cautiously on ground that was mostly sand and rocks with a few tufts of grass. Although sunlight filtered through the trees, it was cool in that gorge. A long branch had broken from a tree, stretching over a sandy basin. Maybe during the rainy season a stream ran through there, but now it was dry.

Sam asked me to stand in the sand holding that branch while he took photos from behind a camera secured to a tripod. After shooting a few, he walked up to me, moved a leaf on the branch and lightly brushed my breast at the same time. I shivered. The photographer was not supposed to touch the model. That was the rule. Sam’s movement was so quick – he immediately returned to his camera – that I wasn’t certain whether this was deliberate. Had he meant to touch my breast?

Then we heard voices. Hikers. I quickly dressed in the thick jacket and saggy pants that Sam had carried.

The hikers passed close by but we didn’t see them and they didn’t see us. We must have been close to a hiking trail, although the sandy gorge was not directly on the path.

When their voices could no longer be heard, I again undressed and once more approached the branch. This time, Sam wanted me to put my leg over it. How do you straddle a prickly branch when you are naked? Carefully. I stretched my leg alongside it, not completely mounting the branch, and tried to look sexy while being poked by twigs. Sam took a few more photos.

Then we heard more voices. Another group of hikers. Quickly I put on the jacket and pants. Again we didn’t see the hikers and they didn’t see us, but from the sound of their voices, this group came closer. I didn’t want to remove the pants and jacket. I shivered and said I was cold. It wasn’t really that cold, just a bit cool, but I was frightened of being discovered nude in a public place. Sam took a few photos of me balancing on the branch while wearing the jacket and pants. A few more with the jacket open to show my breasts. Then we heard voices from a third set of hikers. Sam gave up trying to film in the gorge. We gathered our belongings and returned to the car.

Sam drove further down the road, looking for a place to shoot. He stopped when he saw, some distance from the road, a shady tree near a mound of large boulders. After walking to what was a relatively secluded area, he again laid down his blanket, had me disrobe, and started taking photos. He had taken very few, when he walked up to me and moved my arm, softly brushing my breast with the back of his hand. I tensed up. Shortly after he returned to his camera, I said I felt ill under that hot, early afternoon sun. I trembled and shivered and put on Sam’s bulky jacket.

A car drove slowly down the road. We watched, but it didn’t stop. Still, this was the last straw for Sam. We packed up and took the long drive home.

We arrived at Sam’s studio around three in the afternoon. I just wanted to sign a model release and get paid but Sam wanted to take more photos. Normally a session ended around four. So Sam improvised with items he had in his studio and took a few photos of a very sullen, uptight model. I didn’t smile, didn’t stand on my tip-toes, didn’t attempt to look sexy. Finally, Sam finished and wrote my cheque. I left the building without glancing back.

I never mentioned the episode to my agent because I was uncertain whether Sam had meant to touch my breasts. If he had groped them, I would have been indignantly angry. But he moved so quickly, touched so lightly, that I couldn’t be sure.

A week later, my agent drove me and two other girls to Palm Springs to take part in a bikini contest. That evening in our motel room before the contest, the three of us bonded, telling each other stories. One girl, Paula Angelos, had modelled for many of the same photographers that I had, including Sam Wu. When I mentioned that he had touched me, she said that he had touched her also, but she thought that was because he was Oriental and Orientals liked to feel things. Paula was sweet but naïve.

He touched her and he touched me, I thought. He’s a pervert. I was glad I had disrupted his planned modelling session.

I didn’t see any of Sam’s pictures until 2007, when I found a centerfold layout in a 1963 issue of Nugget. Three-quarters of the double page displayed a colour photo of me with my leg stretched alongside the branch. The photo was nicely composed and I was standing on my toes so I was still trying at that point, but my expression wasn’t sexy and my hair was disheveled. In the top corner of the double page layout was a small colour picture – me standing behind the branch looking perplexed. The rest of the layout contained B&W photos of me wearing the bulky jacket and pants, one where I was fully clothed while straddling the branch, two others where I was posed behind the branch with my breasts slightly exposed.

A while later, I discovered a full-page B&W photo published in Figure Annual, and again I’m leaning on the branch. My poise and relatively neat hair suggest that this was one of the first shots Sam took – an attractive picture that is a harbinger of what might have been had he not upset me.

Since then, I’ve seen a small colour photo of me with the branch published in Gent and a colour photo taken in Sam’s studio that was part of an erotic playing card collection. One fan sent me a B&W photo that appeared in a photography book Sam published; I’m sitting on a blanket, shaded by a tree, eyes glaring.

Sam must have made enough money to cover his expenses for that day but he probably didn’t make a profit.

Wu_Figure_Annual

Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Figure Annual.

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Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Nugget.

Sam Wu - in darkness_r_f_j

Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Sam Wu’s photography book.


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