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More Than a Muse

There’s no muse without an artist—and, arguably, no artist without a muse.

More Than a Muse

Full Look: Lidow Archive

Lauren Withrow
Amanda Mariko with Laird and Good Company
Cameron Lee Phan with Kev MGMT
Ezra J. Robinson
Julie Kelaidia
Photo Impact Imaging

When Lauren Withrow and Cameron Lee Phan create images together, the story they’re telling stretches back more than a decade. Photographers, best friends, and collaborators, the pair met in their freshman year at the University of North Texas and have been muses to one another ever since. “We've grown up together in this world,” says Withrow. “Cameron's somebody I trust wholeheartedly with my vision, and I always feel like I can get my words across best to him.”

In the early years of their friendship, they would take road trips together, photographing each other in vast, open landscapes and cheap motel rooms (an upgrade after their first-ever shoot, in an abandoned house, ended when “an old country guy came out with a gun,” Withrow recalls). That rundown, time-worn aesthetic has held a certain nostalgia for the two ever since. Withrow wanted to revisit it this year as the backdrop for a shoot that played with the concept of artist and muse—a relationship often seen as one-sided (the muse giving, the artist taking). She and Phan have a deeper mutual exchange.

Dress: Alabama Blonde; Shoes: Ariel of Jersey

Bodysuit: Tata Kartvelishvili; Skirt: Vex Latex; Cuff: Ashton Michael

“As much as a person could be a muse, for me, I really feel like I have to open up to that person, too,” she says. In that scenario, “we can both be our absolute purest, most unguarded selves in order to create.”

Phan also notes the importance of longevity. “Muses don't always last because sometimes that boost of inspiration is just temporary,” he says. “With Lauren and I, it's an in-it-for-the-long-run type of inspiration. And I think that says a lot when you're growing with someone and constantly being inspired by their growth.” A muse can be a spark, he says; it can also be fuel.

For this shoot, Withrow and Phan used the cinematic idea of the “fourth wall” to illustrate the reciprocity of their relationship. The photographer appears in glimpses from frame to frame: her silhouette reflected in a mirror, her gloved hand reaching for her subject to hold.

“I wanted to incorporate myself into the imagery since we do a lot of personal work together,” she explains. “The idea of being able to see my shadows in the images, the feeling that I'm there with Cameron documenting these moments.” There is, after all, no muse without an artist—and, arguably, no artist without a muse.

Dress: Lidow Archive

Dress: Sonia Carrasco; Necklace: Apartment 1007

Withrow took cues from the late fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, whose haunting, ethereal work often had a documentary quality as if the artist stumbled upon the scenes. “I like how it feels like she is there witnessing these moments,” says Withrow. The most recent Maison Margiela Haute Couture collection—itself an homage to photographs of the dissolute and decadent environs of Paris in the 1930s—was also a key influence for its rich textures and subversive approach to gendered silhouettes.

Here, the styling—sequined showgirl dresses, vertiginous platform heels, monochrome mesh and latex—told a personal story for Phan. He recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, where he spent “a really intense amount of time diving into gender expression, gender identity, and inner freedom.” These images, he says, were a chance to reflect on that period. “I think naturally with my own work, there's always been kind of a rebellious nature to gender norms for me. So it felt like a comfortable place to be in…and also just a moment to be fun and free.” In the road trips of their twenties, they would typically shoot in whatever clothes they happened to be wearing (or no clothes at all), so this was a welcome opportunity to play dress-up.

Reflecting on the finished story—and the body of work she and Phan have co-created over the years, Withrow credits the full breadth of emotions and experiences they’ve shared. “We've gone through pretty much every aspect of our lives, from very high highs to very low lows. We've seen every little element, and that comes across in all the photos we've created together.”

Dress and Pants: Taotto; Shoes: Ariel of Jersey

Rapid Fire

Coveteur: What’s the last work of art that made you swoon?

Cameron Lee Phan: “It was an album by this artist, her name is Nala Sinephro, and the album's called Space 1.8. It's this ambient jazz album that's all instrumental. It's a journey. I listen to it every day. That's a piece of art I think is really special because we live in [an era] that is so focused on commercializing art, and it feels like it was made from such a pure place. I think when you blend art with these big industries, it can be hard to find something that's like, 'Oh, that hit my soul in a really profound way.'”

Lauren Withrow: “That’s how I’ve been feeling lately—there's so much always happening visually that I feel like it's been so long since something just really hit my soul, to be honest. There have been things I've been moved by, but nothing that's been like, 'Mph.' There is just this overstimulation with everything going on right now. You’ve gotta share that album.”

I think maybe we all need to go listen to some ambient jazz.

CLP: “It's really healing. I feel like it's really good for the world right now.”

What’s your guilty pleasure?

LW: “Do I admit this? I've watched Lord of the Rings one too many times. It’s something about my brain—I’ll put on the extended edition and do it in [succession] while I'm editing, and it helps me focus. I've done this for years. I don’t know what it is about [those movies]—I can just have them running in the background, and that's how I edit my photos.”

CLP: “I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures because I’m just like, ‘Why would I feel guilty for this?’ I'm a human being; I feel like we all do embarrassing things in secret.”

LW: “I mean, I could probably quote Lord of the Rings backward and forwards at this point.”

Hidden talent?

LW: “I don’t know if it’s a hidden talent, but I used to dance for 10 years. Ballet. I was en pointe for a while. That's something I don't nourish anymore, so I guess it's kind of hidden in that regard. I was in The Nutcracker.”

CLP: “Organizing a mess. If there’s the most chaotic mess in front of me, and if people think there's not a way to organize it and there's a bunch of things out of order, and they're like, ‘There's no way that this can all fit in there,’ I'm like, ‘Yes, there is.’”

What’s something you used to hate, but love now?

CLP: “Pop music. That’s what I used to say was my guilty pleasure, but I'm not guilty about it anymore. Which is funny, because [before that,] I used to hate pop music. I was like, ‘This isn't real music.’ But it does a lot for me when I'm feeling down. I love pop music to help lift my spirits.”

LW: “That's how it was about country music. I grew up in a small town in Texas—it's country, and that's why I kind of hated my upbringing a little bit. I was like, ‘No, I don't want to be this country girl.’ I hated country music. And now, I have a lot of cowboy hats and a lot of cowboy boots. I listen to country music at least once a day.”

CLP: “If you're from Texas, you either are born in it and you love it, or you hate everything, and then the moment you leave Texas, you're like, ‘Oh, I'm a Texan.’ And you start buying boots and cowboy hats and you have really weird pride and you start to love Texas after you hated it for all your life.”

LW: “I have a Texas tattoo at this point.”

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