Good Portraits - Utmost Respect
Wednesday, November 04, 2020
|Wendy Grant-John - Jul7 1997
A local theatre company today squeezed my brain for
information as a photographer on the photographs and life of Tina Modotti and
Edward Weston. They asked me what made their photographs taken in Mexico so
I answered that they used 8x10 view cameras and depended on
the magical Mexican light. If they used lights in their studios (and I believe
they did) they were hot lights of a primitive kind. Harold Edgerton had yet to
revolutionize photography with electronic flash.
In this 2020, photographers with their digital cameras demand
extreme sharpness, intense (in photography the term is saturated) colours and few use
studios or spend any time posing their subjects when it is that they photograph
people and not unknowns on streetscapes with long (telephoto) lenses.
The charm of Weston’s and Modotti’s portraits is that
contrast was reduced. The photographic materials of the time really could not
bring too much detail into the shadows (although Ansel Adams pioneered the
method that did just that).
When I got home I immediately went to the file of a former
Musqueam Band chief Wendy Grant-John. I took this photograph in July 1997 for
the Georgia Straight and I have no recollection why she is holding a
For this blog I purposely made the scan (a 6x7cm negative)
darker and minimized the contrast. Perhaps it is too sharp. The view cameras
that Weston and Modotti used had shallow depth of field (another charm of their
But I am very happy with this exposure.
Most important when taking a portrait of someone you do not
know who enters your studio is to spend some time finding connections.
This is what I may have told her:
I lived in Mexico for many years. In 1975 my wife, two
daughters and I moved to Vancouver. For about a year (and even now) I could not
figure out why these Mexicans I saw on
the street did not understand my Spanish. I soon learned that Native Canadians,
Native Mexicans and my very own Native Argentines all look much the same.
Or I might have told her:
The first job I was able to get when I arrived at Vancouver
was washing cars at Tilden Rent-A-Car on Alberni Street. I was quickly promoted
to counter clerk. I was told never to rent a car to anybody whose last name was
George or John. I enquired as to why. They
did not answer. When I finally insisted they told me, “Because they are fu….. Indians!”
Two days later a long-haired man came to our establishment.
He said his name was Moving Rock and that he wanted to rent a station wagon. At
that moment I said to myself, “He is
going to get a car from me!”
A few weeks later the car was found abandoned in Arizona and
I was almost fired. I was told, “And that
black pimp from Seattle, Johnny Stone, you rent Chevrolet Vegas to, don’t rent to
While some in this 2020 might think that both Tina
Modotti and Edward Weston were culpable of cultural appropriation I would
explain that most important when you look at their portraits you know that
their subjects are treated with utmost respect.
The Lady's Dressing Room
Tuesday, November 03, 2020
My Rosemary likes to do stuff on the floor. We bought a
lovely antique dresser which she never uses to do her makeup. She opts for
sitting on the floor and using the closet mirror. I have a fond childhood memory of my mother sitting at her dresser.
She would complain of her straight hair and would use a donut device to wrap
her hair to have the then fashionable bun made popular by Eva Perón. She would
tell me the story of sitting at her dresser as a little girl while her aunt
Buenaventura Gálvez Puig would brush her hair. It hurt and my mother would
complain. Buenaventura told her, “A lady must suffer to be one.” I find it strange that the word for a woman's dresser in Spanish is tocador.
The picture here is a failed photograph I took of Myriam
Janssen this year that I believe has lots of charm in its underexposure and
The Lady’s Dressing
By Jonathan Swift
Five hours, (and
who can do it less in?)
By haughty Celia
spent in dressing;
The goddess from
her chamber issues,
Arrayed in lace,
brocades and tissues.
Strephon, who found the room was void,
And Betty otherwise
Stole in, and took
a strict survey,
Of all the litter
as it lay;
Whereof, to make
the matter clear,
An inventory follows
And first a dirty smock appeared,
Beneath the armpits
rogue, displayed it wide,
And turned it round
on every side.
On such a point few
words are best,
And Strephon bids
us guess the rest,
But swears how
damnably the men lie,
In calling Celia
sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he
The various combs
for various uses,
Filled up with dirt
so closely fixt,
No brush could
force a way betwixt.
A paste of
powder, lead and hair;
A forehead cloth
with oil upon’t
To smooth the
wrinkles on her front;
Here alum flower to
stop the steams,
Exhaled from sour
made of Tripsy’s hide,
Tripsy when she died,
With puppy water,
Tripsy’s darling whelp;
Here gallypots and
Some filled with
washes, some with paste,
Some with pomatum,
paints and slops,
And ointments good
for scabby chops.
Hard by a filthy
Fouled with the
scouring of her hands;
The basin takes
The scrapings of
her teeth and gums,
A nasty compound of
For here she spits,
and here she spews.
But oh! it turned
poor Strephon’s bowels,
When he beheld and
smelled the towels,
bemattered, and beslimed
With dirt, and
sweat, and earwax grimed.
Strephon’s eye escapes,
Here petticoats in
Nor be the
All varnished o’er
with snuff and snot.
The stockings why
should I expose,
Stained with the
marks of stinking toes;
Or greasy coifs and
Which Celia slept
at least a week in?
A pair of tweezers
next he found
To pluck her brows
in arches round,
Or hairs that sink
the forehead low,
Or on her chin like
The virtues we must not let pass,
Strephon cast his eye on’t
It showed visage of
A glass that can to
The smallest worm
in Celia’s nose,
direct her nail
To squeeze it out
from head to tail;
For catch it nicely
by the head,
It must come out
alive or dead.
Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
And must you needs
describe the chest?
wench! no creature warn her
To move it out from
But leave it
standing full in sight
For you to exercise
In vain the workman
showed his wit
With rings and
To make it seem in
A cabinet to vulgar
ventured to look in,
Resolved to go
through thick and thin;
He lifts the lid,
there needs no more,
He smelled it all
the time before.
As from within
op’d the locks,
A sudden universal
Of human evils
He still was
comforted to find
That Hope at last
So Strephon lifting
up the lid,
To view what in the
chest was hid.
The vapors flew from out the vent,
But Strephon cautious never meant
The bottom of the pan to grope,
And foul his hands in search of Hope.
O never may such vile machine
Be once in Celia’s chamber seen!
O may she better learn to keep
Those “secrets of the hoary deep!”
cutlets, prime of meat,
Which though with art you salt and beat
As laws of cookery require,
And toast them at the clearest fire;
If from adown the hopeful chops
The fat upon a cinder drops,
To stinking smoke it turns the flame
Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came,
And up exhales a greasy stench,
For which you curse the careless wench;
So things, which must not be expressed,
When plumped into the reeking chest,
Send up an excremental smell
To taint the parts from whence they fell.
The petticoats and gown perfume,
Which waft a stink round every room.
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Vengeance, goddess never sleeping
Soon punished Strephon for his peeping;
His foul imagination links
Each Dame he sees with all her stinks:
And, if unsavory odors fly,
Conceives a lady standing by:
All women his description fits,
And both ideas jump like wits:
But vicious fancy coupled fast,
And still appearing in contrast.
I pity wretched Strephon blind
To all the charms of female kind;
Should I the queen of love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking ooze?
To him that looks behind the scene,
Satira’s but some pocky queen.
When Celia in her glory shows,
If Strephon would but stop his nose
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout,
With which he makes so foul a rout)
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.