More Than The FaceThursday, February 24, 2011
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
If I try to recall memories of faces when I was extremely young the only ones that I can see are those of my mother and father. I had no brothers or sisters to remember. I remember my grandmother, the only living grandparent I ever had. Then for reasons that escape me I can remember Mercedes Basaldúa who was our housekeeper when I was 7. She made a perfect carrot soufflé. I remember Miss Dribble who was the principal of the American Grammar School in Buenos Aires. She had curly white hair and looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. These were all familiar faces.
But my first face, the first face that made me understand that I was an individual and independent to all others was my own face. I was 6. My mother had obtained some candy corn (unknown in Argentina) from a friend in the American Embassy. She would dole them out in very small portions. I noticed that she kept them in a drawer of her armoire. One day when she was out I went into the bedroom and opened the doors of the armoir and helped myself to a large helping of the delicious candy. Then I noticed that the inside of the aromoir door had a large mirror. I saw my image on the glass. I looked at it. I stared at it and I had the sudden realization that the image on the mirror was me and nobody else. I felt shaken and I closed the doors. My mother found out and gave me a whipping.
The first face I can remember for its beauty, was the face of Susan Stone who would send her father’s Cadillac (he was the General Manager for General Motors in Argentina) to pick me up so I could play with her at her palatial home. She was so beautiful that whenever I looked at her I would blush.
By the time I was 15, I was madly in love with Grace Kelly and her face. When I bought my first camera a couple of years later, all I really wanted to do with it was to photograph people’s faces. I was shy so my portraits were full length or taken when my subjects were unaware.
When I arrived in Vancouver, in spite of the mountains and the forests, the sea, the bridges and the rivers I only wanted to photograph faces. This is pretty well what I have done since.
At first the faces had to be the faces of celebrities. I garnered quite a collection of them until I began to loose access and I would photograph the celebrities that came my way through magazine jobs. When these jobs began to disappear I rationalized (or came to believe) that taking pictures of ordinary people was not less interesting and just as much fun.
One of my dreams is to be wealthy enough that I could walk on the street, see an interesting face and I would stop the person and say, “I will pay you $500, or more, to take your picture. Why? Because.”
All the cats we have had in Vancouver have been cats with beautiful faces. Rosemary has always insisted that the faces be perfectly symmetrical with their markings. It took a while for Rosemary to like her present cat, Casa who weighs 18 pounds. It has helped that his face is handsome. Rosemary is convinced that Plata (my cat) is smart enough to read in some basic way our expressions when she stares at us as she so often does. I wonder, often, what Plata is thinking behind that apparently intelligent face.
|Plata in Rosemary's office
With the advent of the digital and the cell phone cameras, people have learned to snap their own picture to an almost point of obsession. Until my granddaughter was banned from being on facebook by her parents the bulk of the pictures in her facebook wall were pictures she had taken with her little digital camera. They had that awful wide-angle effect. She would not have been caught dead putting up the pictures that I had taken of her, which I thought were far more beautiful.
With those phone cameras and digital cameras (even some that have a screen in the front to help you in the self-portrait) photographers and people with cameras have learned to take pictures of others and it has become a norm. It is easy and fun particularly when you have Kodak Easy Share (does that sound like an ad?).
But many of those pictures are snapshots taken in parties. People hug and look semi sloshed at the camera. Sometime they have red eye. As we shift to the social networking sites and become demure on the use of phones, eye contact is becoming a rare thing. At least, I think so.
For a few years back many criticized my portraits in which I would use one soft light and I even stopped using glamorous hair lights. They criticized me for taking pictures of people who looked at the camera. “How boring,” were the comments.
As I stopped taking portraits of celebrities I began to enjoy looking into the eyes of people I photographed in my studio or elsewhere. I began to use a medium wide angle lens (a 35mm in 35mm format, and a 65 or 50mm in my Mamiya 6x7cm, format). With these lenses, I was careful how I shifted the up or down, I would get very close to my subjects (and I still do). The resulting portrait had an “in your face” quality that even if you had no knowledge of the role of focal lengths in photography, you would know instinctively that the photographer was very close to the subject. The “trick” of the past was to use a long telephoto to take very tight portraits. They were supposed to be very intimate, but to me there was nothing in those portraits that expressed the face to face relationship between photographer and subject. To me it is that relationship that will keep my shutter finger going even when my looming arthritis might make it much too painful.
Some years ago I shared a gallery show with two other photographers. The theme was the nude. My nudes were called Home Bodies. I photographed women at home doing domestic tasks like ironing, lifting weights by the TV set, taking care of the baby, and even playing the piano. I showed them from head to foot. I remember some woman (of extreme feminist tendencies) who left a comment in the gallery’s comment book, “Alex, thanks for showing their faces.”
When I teach nude photography at Focal Point I call the course The Contemporary Portrait Nude. I tell my students that no matter how tight they might get on a body part (a beautiful man’s pectorals, a beautiful woman’s breast, a graceful neck) they must never forget the humanity of their subject. By humanity I stress that they cannot forget that face. I insist that my students introduce themselves to the model, encourage the model and in the end thank the model. Too many of my students, in the beginning treat the model as if the model were a buck private and the photographer a boot camp sergeant.
You did not kill the woman.
She had only to bear her breast, and you threw down
Your sword, you let her kiss you, gave the treacherous bitch
Loving caresses – you contemptible, amorous
Helen's husband, Menelaus, upon seiing Helen and realizing all she had done determined to kill her:
…but lovely Aphrodite restrained his strength, knocked the sword from his hand, and checked his attack. She removed his black jealousy from him and roused sweet desire in his heart and eyes. An unexpected amazement came upon him, and when he saw Helen’s conspicuous beauty, he could no longer bring himself to strike to strike her neck with his sword.
Quintus of Smyrna
Itys stood at gaze;
Seeing in all things one miraculous face,
And how her tunic left one bright breast bare.
The First Vision of Helen, Stephen Vincent Benet
I wait for one who comes with sword to slay --
The king I wronged who searches for me now;
And yet he shall not slay me. I shall stand
With lifted head and look within his eyes,
Baring my breast to him and to the sun.
He shall not have the power to stain with blood
That whiteness -- for the thirsty sword shall fall
And he shall cry and catch me in his arms,
Bearing me back to Sparta on his breast.
Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again!
Helen of Troy, Sarah Teasdale
Then, then, from utter gloom stood out
The breasts of Helen, and hoveringly a sword
Now over and now under, now direct,
Pointed itself to pierce, but sank down shamed
At all that beauty; and as I stared, a fire,
The fire that left a roofless Ilion,
Shot out of them, and scorch'd me that I woke.
Lucretius, Alfred Lord Tennyson