I Wrote - She WroteMonday, January 28, 2013
One way I try to help the serious problem of navigation is to post links to old blogs into both facebook and Twitter. My choice of blogs in most cases is random. Today I am doing something different. I am re-posting two separate blogs that were up on the same day, Dec, 7, 2006. I am very proud of these two blogs in which I write and she (the model) writes about the experience of posing in the nude for photographs in a studio. I smiled when I looked at the original files of Joanne Chabot (the nom de plume that the quite prominent local journalist used for her essay). I smiled because my essay was originally titled: Communicating with your subject while making love with your camera. The bulk of the pictures that I took appeared at an erotic photography show in December 2003. I cannot really post these here as I have tried to maintain a fairly loose (I have broken it few times) policy of not showing bits that might offend.
I received another impetus to my pursuit of the undraped female figure two days ago. Rosemary and I watched the 1969 film Age of Consent (only available at Limelight Video) directed by Canterbury-born Michael Powell and produced by Powell and no less than James Mason who played Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita. What is most relevant to my story here is that in Age of Consent, Mason plays a cynical and bored but successful painter who has lost his lust for life and decides to live for a while on an island off the Queensland, Australia coast. His time of relaxation is soon broken by the appearance of a very young (and very well endowed) Helen Mirren! By the end of the film, Mason who never shows anything but a professional approach to his sketches and paintings of the nude Mirren is refreshed and finds a purpose in his life and new inspiration to paint. He thanks Mirren, “You have given me back my eyes.” What makes this film a most un-Lolita kind of film is that Mason, until the final credits begin to run, keeps his professionalism intact (not to touch) and Mirren says, I don’t only want to be the model you sketch and paint… Unlike Mason in 1969 who was a youthful 60 I am now 70. But I have regained my vigour to keep on with life pursuit of the undraped female figure.
With the photographs at that erotic show there was a framed hand-written note by Joanne Chabot that some might find interesting.
The Tension Is There, Dec 7, 2006
It was a combination of the anticipation of a sexual interaction with someone unknown and what I was going to do with her that had me not sleeping nights waiting for my 4 pm, January 18, 2003 appointment with Joanne Chabot.
Joanne is a 33-year-old writer with a ballet background. I know her professionally. She was coming to my studio to pose nude for my camera. I have photographed many women and quite a few men in the nude. But still each one provides me with pleasure, surprise, and excitement– similar to the feeling of anticipating one of my photographs on the cover of a magazine. Even after a few hundred covers the thrill is always there.
Just like at one time people said they bought Playboy to read the articles, there are photographers who say they like to shoot nudes because they like the simple and compound curves of the human body. They say the body can be abstract or can resemble a sand dune. They may be right but I would point out that ostriches and skunks are also made up of curves... And sand dunes don’t charge by the hour.
I like to shoot nudes because I am attracted to the human body. It’s a myth that there is no sexual interplay in figure photography. There is. And it is because of this sexual conflict that the photographer must practice special care.
Elliott Erwitt, on a Life Magazine assignment to photograph an open-heart operation, decided to watch a day before the shoot. As soon as the patient was opened up Erwitt promptly fainted. The surgeon had second thoughts in allowing Erwitt back but Erwitt asserted, “I’ll be fine tomorrow, my camera will be my barrier.” And so it was.
And so it is with nude photography. If your subjects trust you, like patients with their doctor, they’ll allow you to peek into their soul. Through mutual trust you can sometimes reveal the subject’s most intimate emotions. This professional relationship can be fragile when your subject is nude.
The best piece of advice I ever got on the subject was, “ If you don’t plan to take photographs, don’t take your camera.” There seems to be a long running cliché that photographers do it more often. Could it be that there is the pressure to overtly make a pass at the model in an intimate photo session? The idea that women are turned on by photographers was popularized in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up. Verushka, the super model of her time, seemed to achieve sexual climax at the feet of camera toting David Hemmings on his studio floor. I can feel sexual tension when I photograph my nude subjects. I think this tension helps in the taking of the photographs. I allow it to remain. Touch could make it crumble.
I told Joanne to change in a special cubicle I have in my studio just for that. The idea of telling an almost complete stranger to strip in front of the camera is not only difficult for the subject but for me the photographer, too. Since I was formed firmly in the 20th century I do not have the carefree approach to nudity that the younger Joanne seemed to have. She removed her clothes in my presence, and I chose to do the gentlemanly thing and I turned around.
There are some who believe that with a model in front of your camera all you need do is click the shutter and the model will do the rest. This rarely happens but if you watch your models during rest periods they invariably strike a good pose. I like to pre-conceive my photographs and I use a couple of tricks that have served me well. One of them involves the idea of the narrative. Can I take 5 pictures that will tell a story when placed in a row? I think of an introduction shot, a strong central shot, a fun shot picture that may run after the first shot and at the end (a profile) looking at the previous 4 pictures. I always pick a theme and work around it. I knew Joanne was a dancer and as such I could feature her graceful hands.
Usually I don’t experiment with new techniques, new film combinations, or use tricky lighting with a model I have not photographed before. For the first session I keep it simple. I like to use one soft light. By using a reflector or moving my subject close to a white wall or away I can control contrast. I will take with a main camera loaded with normal B+W film, and load a 35mm camera with B+W infrared to supplement the pictures, because I like what that film does to skin. I don’t believe that bad photographs can be fixed later. They have to be near perfect from the beginning. If you cannot correct the problem it is best not to shoot it.
Sometimes the reason for not shooting is more than just technical. In 1990 I faced noted writer George Plimpton. I was awed. Plimpton shared a story with me that broke the ice. “Years ago when Muhammad Ali was known as Cassius Clay, the boxer lay defeated in his dressing room after having been out punched by Frazier. Photographer Gordon Parks and I were covering the event for Life. Norm raised his Nikon to his eye and what he saw was defeat. It almost looked like the corpse of Che Guevara on the marble slab of that Bolivian morgue. He lowered his camera and looking at me he said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And he didn’t.”
I always have Plimpton’s story in my mind. The photographer has to respect his subject, particularly one who may be in a vulnerable position. Being nude in front of a camera surely is. For some models certain parts of the body are okay to be photographed, others are not. If I disagree I sometimes will take a Polaroid (which as a record can be destroyed) and sometimes my model will come around. But if they are adamant I must respect the choice and refrain from shooting. The camera is a barrier but it shouldn’t be so opaque as to prevent us from seeing and thinking of what we are doing.
Posing For Alex, Dec 7, 2006
When I learned of the opportunity to pose nude for a joint photo/writing project with Alex, the first thing that came to mind were black-and-white images of beautiful women a former boyfriend had taken. A talented photographer outside his day job, he chose nude women as his preferred subject matter. His shots, some of which hung on his living-room walls, were erotic not pornographic, tasteful not tacky.They also made me crumple.
Instead of seeing pieces of art, I saw women far more appealing–far more lovely and gorgeous and smooth and delicate–than I would ever be. He never compared me to the women who modelled for him, but I did. “I’ll never look like that,” I thought. I turned those images into direct comments on my own body. I would obsess on my small-ish breasts and a less-than-smooth butt. I allowed his photos to make me feel inferior, inadequate, sometimes ugly. Once or twice the photos reduced me to tears.
So the prospect of putting myself in front of another photographer’s camera, unclothed, was daunting. If I was so aware of my self-perceived flaws in front of the mirror, surely they would be the first thing I’d notice in stark black-and-white prints. In revealing my imperfect body to this artist–also male–I would be unveiling not only my physical imperfections but also my emotional vulnerability. Alex left the choice up to me. He never tried to persuade me to do something I didn’t want to do. It helped that he is a professional with a solid track record–he’s photographed Evelyn Hart and has had his work in publications like Readers’ Digest. I knew I could trust him–and ultimately, that trust made our time together work.
I knew he had no ulterior motives or inappropriate goals. I knew he wasn’t some dirty old man looking for an excuse to see some flesh, or worse, to try and get me in bed. He wasn’t out to create soft porn. I wouldn’t have said Yes if I felt the least bit wary of his intentions, and I’d never put myself in a similar position, so to speak, with someone who I felt lacked professionalism, skill, and integrity. The project depended as much on his technical ability as his interpersonal skills. And given his breadth of experience, I knew he would find a way to make me feel as comfortable as possible. We had a purpose, and we had to work as a team.
So as much as the session was a challenge, it was also an opportunity. It was a chance for me to face my fears. And it was a chance for me to say to someone–and to myself–this is the real me. It was a very real test to see if I could put my insecurities to rest.
As a rookie “model”, I didn’t know exactly what to expect or how to prepare. I had envisioned Alex’s studio as a small, semi-swank joint given its Robson Street address instead of the sparse grey room with a faux brick fireplace in a creaky old building. Two of his portraits hung on one wall. Perhaps the room’s unpretentious ambiance helped create a relaxed mood. It also helped that we chatted about that day’s peace march and weather before determining, together, where to start. We picked a theme: a dancer portrayed in “undancerly” poses. We flipped through a book of Edgar Dégas paintings to generate ideas but not to pick a pose to re-create. We began with me in my favourite pair of jeans. It wasn’t so bad to stand in front of a single light and a camera without a shirt on– if I was going to spend an afternoon in the buff I might as well lose any sense of discomfort or embarrassment from the top. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel any apprehension. That said, the situation never felt horribly awkward. Alex was encouraging when it came to coming up with specific poses without being condescending or overbearing. We seemed to have a mutually respectful rapport that included rational, intelligent dialogue.
Once we’d decided on a pose, Alex would set up the shot and take a Polaroid before using “real” film to make sure the image was one we were both happy with. Having a good idea of what the final product would look like was incredibly helpful; I didn’t have to worry that the results would be horrible. And Alex had assured me that if he couldn’t make a pose look good, we wouldn’t do it.
My voice of insecurity whispered a bit louder when it came time to strip to the raw. We joked a bit about this being the “embarrassing” part. For about half a minute I did feel embarrassed about standing fully naked in front of Alex. Still, his easy, professional manner put me at ease. And I think he was probably more embarrassed to learn that I’m an advocate of Brazilian waxing–than I was to show him my bare bum.
I had long wondered whether such a situation would be erotic for either the artist or the subject. I can’t speak for Alex, but for me, although the experience can be a sensuous one in fantasy, it wasn’t in real life. Maybe I was too consumed with trying to do a good job. However, for a few brief instances, like when I was lying on a silk sheet, I felt like the one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
There were niggly things about the session, like me being too hot then too cold. We didn’t play any music because it was more of a distraction than anything. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was fatigue. We spent nearly five hours together. I didn’t think about the experience actually involving some “work” on my part. But posing took concentration and patience and creativity and openness; about three-quarters of the way through I started to run out of steam. I imagine that Alex felt the same way.
In retrospect, I wish I had been more bold or inventive with poses, but at the time my level of confidence would only go so far. The fact that I was able to pull it off–no pun intended–was an enormous accomplishment.
I took six Polaroid images with me after we were done. In two, the first thing I notice are what I perceive as flaws. In four, I think I look pretty good. Some day I might even think I look hot.
I’m grateful I had a chance to work with a photographer I respect and whose work I admire. In that regard, the session was an honour. I’m also thankful I’ll have lasting images of me at this stage of my life. When I’m 90 and wishing I could still dance, I’ll have these reminders of the way my body used to be, the way I used to look. I’m sure then I’ll think how ridiculous it was for me to feel anything but radiant.
Like any experience, fine details fade away. But what lingers after this session with Alex are two qualities that seep into other areas of life: how important trust is in a personal relationship, and how crucial self-love is to begin with.