Finding Julia*

Julia Nobis, Paris.

Avenue de l’Opéra

I’m sure if you ask any photographer who covers Fashion Week, they will readily give you a list of their favourite models, either the ones they’ve photographed or the ones they’d like to. There’s the usual list of top-flight talent that will automatically come to the lips of many (Cara Delevingne, Joan Smalls), or the current cool class (Larissa Hofmann, Hanne Gaby Odiele). For me, Julia Nobis crept into that conversation after I snapped her exiting the Celine show a year ago with Katlin Aas. I remember thinking at the time, she’s really blond, but she doesn’t look like the other models. In person at the time, she was casual in a way that I found to be a bit peculiar. I didn’t publish the photo for a couple of months, but when I did, it received a ton of hits. To this day, it receives a ton of hits.

julia nobis and katlin aas

I didn’t see Julia Nobis again until New York Fashion Week this past season, when I had been commissioned by Lacoste to shoot their collection. I remember showing up backstage quite early in the morning, perhaps 8am; there weren’t a lot of people around, maybe three or four models, but standing in the middle of the room there she was, sleepy-eyed and focused hard on trying to work out a knot from her bracelet. I said good morning to her, she mumbled back a response but barely lifted her head. The knot had confounded her. Now, I don’t get starstruck when photographing people who are noted, famous or whom I admire, but with Nobis it was different. I was humanstruck, in an almost anthropological way. Imagine this tall, lanky individual stiffened in an upright position, still fatigued from the morning hour and the shows and fittings she’d been subjected to the day before. Her head down, the only part of her body in motion being her hands. Her minute motions were unlike anyone I’ve ever seen, save for a few special people. It was too early. I knelt down, pulled out my Pentax film camera and took a photo. I’ll publish that one later.

After a short while, more people filed into the room and the day started. Nobis opened the Lacoste show, I went about the rest of my shooting day and that was that.

julia nobis - lacoste ss15

Nearly a month later, I’m in Paris walking up toward l’Opéra in hopes of finding a late lunch and happened to glance down one of the side streets about 25 metres or so. She was at a cash machine, her back fully turned so I couldn’t see her face, a beanie covering most of her head, blue headphones on… I knew it was her. (Quick tangent, and this is definitely true: I have this innate ability to recall faces, but more thoroughly, when I photograph a person, I tend to remember everything about them; not just how they look, but how they move. Around the city I often spot people from blocks away walking, people I’ve photographed years ago, and I can generally remember the exact place and time of day/year that I originally photographed them. Tens of thousands of people I couldn’t recall off the top of my head as I sit here typing. It’s just one of those things.) Of course, it’s bad form to walk up to a person while they’re at a cash machine, so I stood a safe distance away on the corner of the main street and waited for her to come out.

julia nobis - models off duty

“Excuse me, Julia?”
“Hi, I’m Simbarashe, I photographed you in New York at Lacoste…”
“Oh, right! ‘Ello!”

She unpacked in a way that I’ve only seen one other person do in my entire life; this private, minding-her-own-business individual brightened up into someone else totally, it was so unexpected. For starters, she engaged directly, firm eye contact and handshake… and she was the most Australian sounding Australian I’ve heard since Paul Hogan did films back in the 1980s—granted, I didn’t even know if Hogan is what Australians were en masse supposed to sound like back then, or if that was just an Americanised ideal… but Nobis’s eloquence was overarching in a way that is unlike many Australians (who, to Western ears could easily be confused with acting or sounding British). She spoke the way a modest boy would if he suddenly found himself at a new school in a class filled with sublimely pretty girls sitting next to him—somewhat shy, but confident, but perhaps overwhelmed with all of the things that were going on. Her limbs are impossibly long, and as her hands waved to and fro while we chatted, I couldn’t help but think of my own hands, oversized (mine, not hers) clumsily freaking people out whenever I used them because they weren’t as used to them as I was. I thought that Nobis sort of made me feel like what I must’ve made other people feel like when I was her age, before I’d fully matured and gained a mastery of my own physical self, impossibly long and possessing the kind of reach that normal people don’t expect.

We walked a couple of blocks together and talked about the Fashion Week season, she told me about the blur of shows that had past, how she was getting along in Paris and the fittings that went on until fairly late in the evenings (which is always forgotten when thinking about models walking shows all day long, that at some point they also have to be somewhere to try this stuff on). Nobis was was pretty chill in her attitude towards it, part veteran, a hint of appreciation. But really, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something else that was especially awesome about her presence. Maybe it was my conviction that she seemed the type of person who wouldn’t shy away from stuff like all-night guitar jam sessions or jumping off rooftops into swimming pools while neighbours are away, loud and obnoxious things, and then going home to someplace to marinate in silence. It just felt like there was someone else in there, under her skin, someone who was given these special, physical attributes in error but was keen to make the most of it. I wouldn’t say that Julia Nobis is an overachiever; she transcends the sort of thing I’m trying to describe.