09/04/19: the final essay

I’ve always been an analog writer. I have a leather bound journal I bought decades ago in Estonia and throughout this six year journey as a photo-essayist every word has been jotted down in that book. I’ve gone through many pens and pads of paper. This is the first essay I’m writing using a keyboard, directly into the computer. It will be the last essay in what I have called my Life Journal.

teel. reflection series

The past six months have felt strange; not necessarily my happiest. It began with Teel’s sudden death. He was only seven years old. I have never had a young cat die before. Adding to the sadness was the passing of Madeline ten days later. She was almost fifteen. She was nine weeks old when I adopted her. I didn’t have time to mourn either of them. Piper, my twelve year old became sick two days later and almost died. Only the efforts of the ASPCA saved her life. I will always be grateful to them. I don’t think I could have emotionally survived if I had lost all of my cats in a two week period.

madeline. nine weeks old

I’ve had a lot of cats over the past forty-two years but Teel’s passing was different. After his death I only had two cats. I think the last time that happened was 1984. His loss is more than that. I adopted Teel at exactly the time I began my Intimate Portrait Project. The Muses all loved him and he loved them back. Everyone wanted a photograph with Teel and he obliged. He greeted each person at the door and walked them out to the elevator when it was time to leave. Part of the intimacy of my photography was due to him. Shooting portraits without him in the room became difficult. The doorbell would ring. In my mind Teel would run to the door. But he wasn’t there. It felt different without him.

teel with the muses. intimate portrait project

I adopted Matcha a few days after Teel’s passing. Their look is similar but the personalities are very different. Matcha is partially feral and is afraid of people. He rarely comes out when I have a guest but like Teel he is a lover. Matcha has now lived with me for six months and each time the doorbell rings he runs for cover. I do wish he would come out to say hello. I am a patient person. I know one day Matcha will get over this fear.


There was one silver lining to Madeline’s death. Matcha has a sister. I mean really has a sister. They are twins. When I went to adopt Matcha from the rescue home I first met his sister, Sushi. Matcha hid from me the entire time I was there. Sushi ate treats from my hand. In some ways I felt she was the cat I should adopt but deep in my soul I knew Matcha and I were meant for each other. He came home with me that night. I felt bad leaving Sushi behind.

matcha and sushi. one year old this month

Ten days later I was back at the rescue home carrying an empty cat carrier, excited to take Sushi home to reunite with her brother. Matcha was so happy to see her. Sushi didn’t quite know what to make of her new home or her brother. He had grown stronger over the ten days he lived with me. Sushi had been the dominant sibling. Now Matcha was the master of the house. It didn’t take long for Sushi to adapt. This is the first time I’ve had siblings and have never seen two cats so happy together. I don’t believe anything happens for a reason but Madeline’s death gave these two animals a happy home together for the rest of their lives.

me and mom visiting the american pickers. mississippi river road trip.

The feeling that I have lost my center has to do with many more things than my pets The emotional stress of carrying for a ninety year old mother, changes in business, friends, and philosophy are the reasons I’ve felt lost for the past six months I was unprepared for these changes.

photo group salon and summer picnic

I couldn’t focus so I tried new things. I went to book salons, I created an organization called The Photo Group. I cooked more. I took better care of my garden. I wrote epic essays for this journal. I made new friends and thought I had strengthened my emotional base but then two weeks ago I was still struggling, more than ever before. I felt stress for the first time in my life. I told the members of The Photo Group I was taking a two week break and tried to only do things that made me happy. I had picnics on Brighton Beach, I made jam and tomato sauce. I spent a lot of time hugging the cats. I dusted a few shelves and framed new pictures, now hung all over my apartment. I took better care of my health. I dumped a friend who for many years had added tension to my life. And then one day I felt better.

erin kim. framed and ready for the portrait exhibition at south x southeast gallery

I’m still not quite myself but I am close. There is energy pulsing out of my body. I love waking up in the morning and creating new work. I realized there were too many things I had held on to that needed to change and one of those things was this journal. Each essay had become too important. It wasn’t meant to be like that. I didn’t begin this project wanting to tell the story of my entire life. It was supposed to be about the small journeys that happen every day. And so it will be from now on.

The Intimate Portrait Project didn’t die with Teel but it has changed. The intimacy of the recent shoots has been greater than every before. My photographic and my personal lives are truly merging into one being. It’s an exciting time.

rosie for the new intimate portrait project. we've known each other since her birth.

Tomorrow I will begin a second Life Journal. Today it’s difficult for me to understand how my life has changed over the past six months; new Muses like Kening Zhu and Erin Kim along with the members of The Photo Group. Six months ago I didn’t know most of these people. Now they have become my best friends, sharing our lives and secrets. Wow! Sitting here at the computer it’s difficult how it all happened in such a short time. I guess I’ll figure that out while I’m writing the next group of essays.

kening zhu. the muse who has helped redefine my writing and photographs

Oh, did I forget to say I turn sixty-five in two days? I will officially be a senior citizen. Now that’s something to think about. What excites me the most… getting a half-price Metrocard!

Thank you to those who have followed my life as an artist. Stay tuned for part 2.

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01/14/19: artist’s life

For those who happen to see this photo-essay, it is a work in process. I have been working on it for months. A few more chapters of my life need to be written. My life with the new Muses needs to be processed. I do promise to finish this soon.

self-portrait on my rooftop. july 24, 1979

It is possible, exactly forty-three years to the day, I decided to become a professional photographer. I had several work choices at the time – doctor, genetic researcher, bio-archeologist, or photographer. Before this date in 1976, I had finally set my mind on archeology. My professor, Jane Buikstra, had agreed to accept me into the PhD program at Northwestern. Jane was an amazing mentor. I couldn’t wait to spend the next years working with her. The previous summer I had worked with Jane as an archeology student, digging at the Koster Site in Southern Illinois. Whenever I had the chance I photographed the dig and the surrounding river valley. Several of my photographs appeared in archeological journals along with a full page in the 1976 Syllabus, Northwestern’s yearbook.

koster site. satellite dig overlooking the illinois river valley. august, 1975

There I sat in my office, happily looking at Lake Michigan and contemplating my future life. I really did have an office overlooking the lake! It was one of the perks I received while working as the photo editor of the Syllabus. There was also a small salary of $100 per month – my first photography job. Actually, it was my second job. During my freshman year of college I worked for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, earning five dollars for each photograph they published. At the time it was very exciting!

the daily northwestern. oct. 18, 1976. my senior year

I shared the yearbook office with the yearbook editor. One day he walked in, sat down, and announced he was leaving Northwestern to finish up his degree at NYU’s Film School, and by the way, I should move to New York City and become a photographer.

1976 editors portrait with jon strauch. photo credit: charlie seton

Lighting and sparklers went off in my head. What a great idea! I could move to New York for a few years, study photography, and then return to Northwestern for my PhD. With better photography skills I would be more valuable as an archeologist, opening up greater possibilities for post-graduate work.

It’s late August, 1976. Lower East Side. Tenement apartment on East 13th St., a few doors west of Third Avenue. Five dollar hookers hanging out on my corner. My neighborhood looked like the set for the movie, Taxi Driver, released earlier that year. That’s because my neighborhood was the location for Taxi Driver. Except in the movie it looked a lot cleaner. No one would believe the movie if it showed what the streets really looked like. This was a far cry from the middle-class suburbs of Chicago where I grew up.

self-portrait in the style of duane michals. east 13th street apartment. october, 1976

The apartment itself wasn’t bad, a one-bedroom with a decent size living room and a small separate kitchen. It had two closets! I lived close to the School of Visual Arts where I took classes but more important, I was in within easy walking distance of The Village, a gathering place for artists of every type. Or so I thought. The Village was no longer the hangout of bohemian artists like Faulkner, Pollock, Warhol, Kerouac, and Dylan. The play, HAIR, took place in The Village. I wanted to see the places mentioned in the songs. The Waverley Theater and Washington Square Park were still there but the artists were gone.

broadway, before it was soho. 1977

The area had become too expensive for “starving artists.” Everything had been commercialized. The Lower East Side, Tribeca, and Brooklyn were becoming the new havens for artists but now they didn’t seem to gather together in the same manner as in the past. Or maybe that never happened except on television and in the movies. Warhol did have his Factory. Possibly it’s all his fault. Warhol was the genius who commercialized modern art. You could frequently spot him hanging out among the couches on the dance floor at Studio 54, frolicking with the likes of Truman Capote and Halston. Somehow 54 didn’t have the same feel as a local Village café.

Still, I spent many afternoons at Figaro Café situated at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the heart of Greenwich Village. I imagined beatniks hanging out in the back corner booth, smoking, reciting poetry – sharing ideas for their newest creations. I sat at my table alone, reading art journals or writing ideas for future photographs. I never saw anyone famous at Figaro’s. That would have to wait until I moved uptown, became a fashion photographer, and spent many nights dancing at Studio 54. But that life is for a different story.

old new york city skyline. empire state, chrysler, and pan am buildings

New York City — living my life as a starving artist. I was so poor I had to decide between getting a slice of pizza or riding the subway. Pizza usually won. I wore out a lot of shoes. My darkroom was in the kitchen overlooking the backstage entrance of the Palladium Theater. I could look out my window, seeing the bands arriving in their limousine – Blondie, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen – I got free concerts while printing my portfolio. I owned a book about Elliott Erwitt. He told a story about printing in his Upper West Side apartment, washing prints in his bathtub. I must have had more space than he did. I bought a big plastic tub, the kind restaurants use to carry around dirty dishes, using that as my print washer. All of this made me very happy.

fashion model mona grant in the studio. probably fall, 1977

After ten months in New York, I took a job as an intern to a young fashion photographer. I was not learning much at SVA. I was more advanced than my fellow students. I hadn’t taken me long to realize 99.99% of the people who called themselves artists could not survive on their art. Some took part time jobs. Many ended up working in photography stores, at magazines, or advertising agencies. Most left the art world all together. I didn’t give up a PhD in archeology to work in some office. I understood to survive I had to get commercial work.

janice soukup on my madison avenue studio rooftop. probably spring, 1978

After almost a year as an intern I had a good fashion portfolio and began to work on my own. I shared a studio with a small fashion-model agency. It was tough but I was surviving. It didn’t take long before I understood fashion wasn’t the place for me. I couldn’t deal with the drugs, sex, and arrogance. What you see in the movies is nothing compared to real life. I gave up the studio still struggling with my art and the difficultly of earning a living.

Then I got lucky. After three difficult years in New York I a found work as a black and white printer with a top fashion photographer whose work I admired. All those years I spent in the yearbook darkroom had paid off. I began working part time and was quickly hired to a full time position. I was allowed to take time off for my own jobs. I was allowed to used the studio for my personal shoots during nights and weekends. It was heaven.

gordon munro in his studio with sam

Gordon Munro. I spent days, then months, then years printing for him. He gave me the chance I needed to figure out my life. It gave me the time I needed to figure out how to blend my commercial and artistic work into one coherent style. I learned how to run a studio. I learned the business of photography. The person I am today would not be possible without the five years I spent working in Gordon’s studio. More important I learned how to survive using my own creativity. After eight years in New York City I was finally ready to earn a living producing my own photographs. It wasn’t always “art” but the work was mine. In April, 1984, I once again launched my career as a professional photographer.

backstage at the kirov. march, 1989

Twenty-three years later. It was the fall of 2007. I had been traveling for work three to six months a year for twenty years. I had photographed women bodybuilders in almost every state in America along with Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Canada, and Holland. I had photographed dance in many of the same places. During my ten trips to The USSR I had worked endlessly with the Kirov Ballet. I was getting tired of travel, wondering if I would ever become the artist I imagined when moving to New York City.

Someone has wondered about those twenty-three years in between 1984 and 2007. It’s not that I wasn’t creating art. I photographed for the American Ballet Theatre for ten years, shooting in my personal style. I did a project on pregnant women for a book that almost happened. I photographed tattooed women. I spent almost twenty years photographing in strip clubs. During my trips to the Soviet Union I spent many days wandering the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, shooting only for myself.

denise for my tattoo project. october 6, 1994

The difference was at that time my intent was always creating photographs that would somehow earn me money whether as a book, sold to magazines, or print sales from an exhibition. I loved what I was doing but the photographs weren’t taken only for love. I thought I had passion. Maybe compared to most photographers I did. I was certainly a commercial artist. I moved to New York City to be something more.

After 9/11, traveling with cases of photographic equipment weighing three hundred pounds became more difficult. Bags were delayed. One trip while passing the security station at JFK I saw a TSA security agents open one of my cases, pull out my video camera, run around the security area yelling to the other agents, “Look at me, I’m a movie director.” My bags got delayed because the TSA agents were having fun instead of looking for bombs. That is not okay!

Much of the video I shot with that camera appeared in a sexy women’s bodybuilding and fitness website I produced, shooting mostly in LA, Las Vegas, and Florida. The site began as an artistic black and white portfolio but I let the needs of my fans and the money I earned take me to a place that over time made me increasingly uncomfortable. The membership fees did allow me to pay off most of the debt I had incurred working as a not-so-well-paid dance photographer. I invested and saved the rest of my earnings for the future.

erika kern. pelican point, california. january, 1995

Finally I could go no further and I shut down the website. When it was over I didn’t miss the weekly membership checks nearly as much as I missed the friends I had made out west. I missed the drives I took from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, touring the rural roads through the desert and mountains, climbing ancient cinder cones and meditating on dry lake beds in Death Valley. As I slowed my travel I began to photograph more for myself, attempting to make the transition towards fine art photography. I always find it funny when I write or hear the words “fine art photography.” No one used that term when I moved to New York City in the 1970s. You were either a commercial photographer or an art photographer. Who decided to use the word “fine?” I’m guessing some gallerist thought it up, realizing equating photography with painting would raise the prices of photographic prints. It worked! Although I tried to move away from a commercial mind set, while shooting I couldn’t stop considering what might appeal to my present and future clients. A shoot in the forest on top of Mt. Charleston finally realigned my vision. There couldn’t have been a more spiritual place and unexpected Muse to make this happen.

It was July 30, 2007. The model was Joi. We did our fifth and sixth shoots together that day. The pictures on Mt. Charleston changed me instantly. I knew something special happened to the way I saw through my camera. Something more important than the pictures themselves. The photographs we took later that night in my hotel room were a preview of a project that materialized six years later.

joi in my hotel room. precursor to the intimate portrait project

I didn’t know much about Joi. I met her through Diana Dennis, a professional bodybuilder living in Las Vegas. I knew Joi has once been very overweight, hiring Diana to help her get back into shape. Joi must have lost a great deal of weight. There were places on her body where the skin was loose, not yet tightening to her new physique. Her breast implant surgery was obvious. I imagine the implants worked and were hidden when she was heavier. Now as a small woman they overwhelmed her body. It seems to be a west coast thing – little women with big breasts. I never got that. Only when it’s real.

joi. mt. charleston. july 30.2007

I didn’t care. Joi appeared to me as a 1930s movie goddess with the personality to match. Joi appeared strong but at the same time I felt she was reaching out to me for help. The movie’s story goes like this – artist falls in love with an ex-dancer who had a hard life when she was young – now unhappily married to a very rich, older man. She wants to be with the artist but can never leave her husband. In the movies it’s a love story that never ends well.

joi. mt. charleston. july 30.2007

Joi never talked about her life. I believe she worked as a cocktail waitress somewhere in Las Vegas. That town can support a lot of cocktail waitresses. I know she lived in a normal Las Vegas middle-class neighborhood with nice ranch houses and front yards. I did fall in love with Joi. It was more than “Muse love.” It felt real. As a professional photographer I kept these emotions to myself. Joi was married. We lived 2,000 miles apart. What was important to both of us was the pictures. Joi changed me. I needed to return to my roots. Joi helped me take the first steps on that journey.

alida. march 2, 2013. the first intimate portrait

My artist’s life began to come back into focus with the Intimate Portrait Project. March 2, 2013. Almost six years after my last shoot with Joi, Alida posed for the first Intimate Portrait shoot. I can’t remember what it felt like but at that time. The shoots then revolved completely around composition and light, contemplating the work of the photographer Bill Brandt, and how to keep my weight off of Alida so I didn’t squish her. Only after the first few shoots did I realize the project was about physical touch, breathing, and intimacy. I didn’t know it at the time but my life, personally and artistically, changed with Alida on that day. Today, six years later, Alida and I still photograph together. We’ve had the fortune of watching each other grow.

alida. intimate portrait project. august 14, 2018

May 21, 2016. This was my second Intimate Portrait shoot with Abby and our first shoot alone. Our first shoot was with her friend Veronica, also my friend and Muse. Abby is Intimate Muse #53. Over a period of three years, the Intimate Portrait Project had gone from close-ups of faces, models wearing makeup, me sitting on their lap; to half-body nudes, no makeup, and a search for the model’s soul. The physicality of the shoots appeared to allow the models an honest release of hidden emotions. Many of the Muses considered our work together photo-therapy. Some Muses came back for many shoots, telling me the project was life changing.

abby and veronica for the intimate portrait project

Abby and I shot for hours, at one point moving from my living room couch to my bed, taking advantage of the late afternoon light in that room. Abby had been a friend before she was a Muse. When we finished shooting we spent a long time laying next to each other, Abby still topless from the shoot, talking about life — just like two close friends do while hanging out. It felt normal. The time we spent talking allowed us to pull away from the demands of my photography. Abby’s hands rested on her chest while we spoke. I watched the light as it moved across her body.

abby in my bed: hands and torso

I began to shoot again. New emotions. It felt different than the pictures we had taken earlier. It felt different than any of the previous Intimate Portrait sessions. At the time I didn’t understand exactly what had changed. I knew it had to do with the time we spent talking. The new pictures were a portrait of our discussion. At that moment I creatively moved past anything I had ever done before. It’s as if I had been searching for decades, trying to find the feeling I had when I first moved to New York City, hoping to become an artist. Abby was helping me tear down a barrier I knew existed but was incapable of crossing on my own. A small print from the shoot sits on a shelf in my dining room. I see it every day. Every time I pass the photograph I wonder how the emotion in Abby’s face was possible? We made an important connection. This was the beginning.

abby. intimate portrait project

After Abby the portraits for the project became more intimate. I wanted this connection from everyone. The physicality of the shoots once again increased, model and photographer moving together in a close space. I found the more our bodies touched the more the models relaxed. In some ways it was feral, like two cats cuddling for warmth. This warmth showed in the images we created together. The posing of the models changed. The emotions were no longer restricted to their faces, extending outward into their entire body. I began to feel the need to include their entire bodies into the portraits. I’ve always had a talent for photographing light on skin. The Intimate Project asked for more. I’ve learned to let the emotions and light dictate how I shoot. The models, the composition, the light, they were all telling me I needed to move on to full body nudes. I was unsure how to proceed. Would the unrestricted physicality between me and the Muses still work? Would we be crossing an unacceptable boundary? I had some fears. I didn’t have the answers.


04/03/19: A short addition to this story. Last week Abby sent me a Facebook message letting me know she’d be in New York for a week. She lives in San Francisco now. Abby asked if I would be willing to take her portrait. We hadn’t seen each other in almost three years. Of course I said yes.

Yesterday we got together to shoot. Abby was forty-five minutes late because of work. She felt rushed. We talked and had tea to relax. Our discussion was intense. I decided it was not the right moment to take portraits for the Intimate Project. I told Abby we didn’t have enough time. These portrait sessions often take an hour to develop the right mood. We talked for a while longer and then she sat in silence while I put away my cameras and lights.

abby. intimate portrait project

During that time of quiet, Abby was able to process her thoughts, later asking if we could still shoot. She wanted to do “normal” portraits. That doesn’t happen with me anymore. I asked if we could keep to my intimate process and Abby agreed.

We only had thirty minutes to shoot but whatever Abby had worked out in her head made our photographs perfect immediately. It took me a few minutes to understand the light and decide on the background fabric. After that we moved forward, alternating between shooting, talking, and laughing together. Something good happened. Abby shared her soul with me, more then ever before. We shot for that short time but it was a special moment.

After we finished, we looked at the photographs on the back of the camera. There was something about the way she had held her body. While shooting there was a moment I wanted to stop and rest my hand on the top of her chest, the shallow dip right below the clavicle – my palm resting in the depression. Her body was talking to me and I wanted to listen. I told Abby about this feeling while looking at the photographs. She understood what I was saying.

abby. the room caresses our souls

Last night while sorting through the photographs, I found a series of images that felt like nothing I had ever done before. I work hard to making my apartment a safe and spiritual place but it has never spoken to me. In one photograph I could feel my apartment talking. It sensed what had happened between me and Abby. The 107 years of it’s existence — the apartment’s own knowledge and experience flowed out of the floor, the ceiling, and the walls, enveloping the space around the two of us. I’m a spiritual person but I’m also have the mind of a scientist. I don’t believe in these things. But this is what I felt. The apartment knew something was astray and made the correction. Abby and I had no choice. Our souls were meant to connect on this afternoon.


hannah appears to me as the madonna. sheer black series

I wanted Hannah to be the first nude model. It had been a long time since I did any full nudity. I’ve always been more into face than bodies and I have a collection of vintage clothes I’ve used to dress my models for years. August 10, 2016. It was our second portrait shoot together. Hannah is Intimate Muse #64. Hannah has that kind of pale skin that glows in the light. Her face borders on shy while her body is big-boned and strong. It is the perfect combination for my work.

I needed her entire body in my images. It’s difficult to explain to non-artists. Sculptors certainly understand. They see a nude model standing in front of them and they don’t see the person live, they only see their body carved in marble. I see Hannah as a Renaissance Madonna. I wanted to capture that feeling. My need wasn’t fulfilled. Hannah had already pushed herself to the edge of her boundaries. She gave me my Madonna photograph but it was for a different project. It is one of my all time favorite photographs. I never push or force my artistic needs on anyone. I hoped I would photograph Hannah again in the future, capturing that vision I still have in my head.

hollie and hannah performing in caitlin trainor's "paint"

November 15, 2016. I met Hollie while she was dancing in a piece choreographed by Caitlin Trainor. I immediately knew I had to photograph her. There’s just something incredible about her face. She tries to hide her soul but you can see it through her eyes. I wasn’t sure Hollie would agree to shoot for the Intimate Portrait Project. Hollie is full-bodied, not the physique of a typical modern dancer. I a deep beauty in her I don’t think she understands. Hollie became Intimate Muse #70.

hollie for the intimate portrait project

We shot for hours, not unusual for my Intimate Portrait shoots. As with Abby and Hannah, we moved to my bedroom when the afternoon light shifted. By the end of the shoot Hollie was nude except for her small black underwear. I can’t remember how or why we got to that point. I wanted to photograph more of her skin and was probably trying to work it out within the parameters that made Hollie comfortable. Her body has wonderful curves. As a photographer I love them. I can only imagine how Peter Paul Rubens would have painted her. I’m sure he would have followed Hollie down the streets of Amsterdam, begging her to pose for him. I know this physique is not so easy for Hollie.

Hollie was lying chest down on the bed. I was shooting portraits. Her body flowed in the image behind her, appearing as smooth rolling hills. The black panties were in the way, cutting across her body, attracting attention away from her face. I showed Hollie the images in the back of the camera and asked if she would do a few full nudes, just for this shot. I needed the continuous flow of Hollie’s body. We shot the nudes for only a few minutes. It was all the time I needed to capture the shot. Hollie got it. It was at that moment I realized the design of the Intimate Portraits needed to grow. There are times when more body is better.

hollie. precursor for the modigliani series

During those last few minutes, Hollie settled into the bed and relaxed to a place I hadn’t seen in the thousands of photographs we had taken during the hours before. It was the first full nude I had shot in a long time. I had forgotten something I learned long ago while photographing a nude series on pregnant women in the late 1990s. For most people nudity is freedom. When a person crosses that barrier, a real person, not a professional model, giving up their inhibitions — a strong emotional release happens. It’s difficult to believe but during every nude I’ve done in my life the model became more relaxed after removing their clothes. I know it happens. Still to this day it surprises me.

After photographing Hollie, I kept thinking about a photograph I had always wanted to take. I love Modigliani’s Reclining Nudes. There is something about the strength of his muses. There they are, laying completely naked yet there is nothing submissive in their pose or expression. It is if they controlled the painter instead of the other way around.

bronwyn. modigliani reclining nude

Muse. Bronwyn is the real thing. She defines the word. We shot twice in one week. Intimate Muse #74. Bronwyn was the first nude shoot where I felt no restrictions. During our second shoot on February 2, 2017, we created my first Modigliani Reclining Nude. Bronwyn forced me to break through the barriers I had put up, restricting my own creativity. My second life as an artist began with her, though now stronger with 40 years of experience and knowledge. I haven’t looked back. Photographing Bronwyn felt like a new beginning to my life.

Wait. I am jumping ahead of myself. Although Bronwyn was the first Modigliani Reclining Nude there was another Muse, photographed the week before her who paved the way for this series.

can during a dress rehearsal of "table of silence"

I met Can in September, 2016 during the rehearsals for Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Table of Silence. I did take some photos of Can during these rehearsals and we spoke during a break at the dress rehearsal. Though I could see Can had spirit I couldn’t imagine she would pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. Then there’s the fact Can is a student at Juilliard. Due to the very intimate nature of my project I try to photograph with women who are no longer in school.

By that December I had forgotten about Can, working with many new and wonderful Muses. Then I noticed Can was ‘liking’ almost every photograph I posted to Facebook. It’s usually a sign the person wants to work with me. I contacted Can and to my surprise she was willing to pose for my project.

can. intimate portrait project

To this day I don’t understand how I didn’t see the special Muse Can was to become. We had sat and talked for some time during the Table of Silence rehearsal. I imagine at that time, Can herself didn’t understand the beauty of her own soul. During the rehearsals I was too busy with the shoot at hand to see past her barriers. Possibly Can needed those few months to grow emotionally before she became the right person for my Intimate portraits. Maybe all of this is only in my imagination? I do know after several shoots with Can she gained the confidence to release the strength inside her soul. Her entire persona changed. One thing for sure, Jacqulyn Buglisi is smarter than me. She saw the greatness inside of Can immediately.

Can is Intimate Muse #73. Our first shoot was on January 9, 2017. Can and I talked constantly during our shoots, possibly more than I had spoken to any Intimate Muse before her. Can was open to my process, trusting me as I created art with her body. Trust is of utmost importance when shooting nudes. The model must trust me absolutely in order to have complete freedom in her movement with worry. I must trust the model believes in me and my artistic sensibility, otherwise my own concerns distract from my ability to photograph — my ability to see the art standing before my eyes.

can. the first nude intimate project portrait

During our first shoot, Can became the first nude Intimate Portrait. It felt right with her. One might think, “what’s the big deal?” It is a big deal because I’m often in direct physical contact with the model while shooting. It’s one thing to sit on a body that’s at least partially dressed. It’s another thing to work while sitting on a naked body. Our skin touches. There is a difference in the shared warmth. Two years later it now feels normal. The first time I didn’t understand how it would affect the process.

Can appeared comfortable from the start. It probably took me a few minutes to settle. I needed that short time not to be distracted by the warmth of her body, to redirect my concentration to what I saw in the camera. I sometimes wonder if I’m overly concerned about the model’s happiness? Muses have told me I shouldn’t worry so much. They always tell me they are okay. I can’t help it. It’s part of who I am. I imagine that’s one reason the Intimate Portrait Project works.

My second shoot with Can was six days later. If possible I try to do two shoots quickly when I’ve found a special Muse. The second shoot cements the relationship. When we begin it’s easier. We already know each other. The process doesn’t need to be explained. The touch feels natural. The friendship begins.

During the following months Can and I would take evening walks in Central Park. I’d ride my bike down to Lincoln Center, waiting at the fountain for Can to finish her last class or rehearsal. We mostly sat on a park bench in The Rambles, drinking green tea and eating snacks, but of course there was always the pictures. I’m not sure who craved shooting more, me or Can? It think both of us would have fallen into a coma if we spent too much time together with creating new photographs.

can in the central park rambles

Those evening walks with Can were wonderful. Each time we met I was aware of how much she was changing – growing as a person. I now understood what Jacqulyn Buglisi had first seen in her. One evening Can mentioned auditioning for a upcoming Buglisi Dance performance and was worried if she would be chosen. I kind of laughed and told her she was definitely in. I hadn’t spoken to Jackie about it. I just knew Can was exactly the type of dancer Jackie looked for.

Every time Can and I met she looked more like the woman in my photographs – less like the woman I first met on the Lincoln Center Plaza during the Table of Silence rehearsal. I was amazed by the change. I’m not sure Can was aware she had grown this much so fast. I think both of us helped each other release our fears.

intimate portrait with can's drawing as overlay

Can broke down the walls I had built around myself. The fear of becoming an artist. The fear of creating art without societal repercussions. Bronwyn is the Muse who dragged me over the rubble to the other side. I’m not sure if I was ready but Bronwyn gave me no choice.

As had others before her, Bronwyn contacted me on Facebook. As with the other Muses who have changed my life, I looked at Bronwyn’s Facebook page and didn’t see how she would work for my photography. It didn’t matter. At this point I know for certain if someone asks me to shoot it doesn’t matter what I think. As with all the Muses who have contacted me on Facebook before her, I suspected she also would become one of the more important Muses in my life. I wish I could figure out why that happens!

bronwyn. intimate portrait project

Bronwyn wanted to shoot. I’m didn’t say no. The moment we met I realized the strength in her. Not everyone is like that. When I open my front door to a model I’ve never met I can always immediately see their warmth. Bronwyn was more than that. I should have comprehended at that exact second, Bronwyn was the one to bring me to that place as an artist I couldn’t realize on my own. As she walked passed by me in my front hallway my brain tingled. I knew that day’s shoot would be different.

bronwyn. dark nude series. tri-x film. rolleiflex

I don’t know what to say. Bronwyn wasn’t the woman I expected. It’s possible I had no premonitions of the experience to come. I usually have daydreams before a shoot – pre-visions of what’s to come. It doesn’t matter if I’ve met the model or not. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve read their posts. Somewhere deep inside my head I always know who they are. I had no sense of Bronwyn before we met, only her desire to work with me. It only took a few minutes of shooting for Bronwyn to show me the way.

bronwyn. sheer black series

We worked on my Dark Nude series, something I had begun a week earlier with Can. I was more prepared this time, both technically and while explaining the physicality I needed in the poses. We shot for my Sheer Black series. That project had taken on a new life due to the emotional presence of the Intimate Portrait Project. For years my shoots have always begun with an Intimate Portrait, the proceeding through my other projects. The sheer fabric photographs now carry the same intimacy as the closeups. The models channel the intimacy of our physical connection to their emotions under the fabric. Bronwyn was a mystical spirit, standing between reality and an apparition.

We worked together again a week later. It was different this second time. I was emotionally prepared for Bronwyn’s freedom and energy. During the days before our shoot I had visions of the photographs to come. I had no fears. Well, almost. After this shoot was finished, then I had no fear.

Two new projects came out of the pictures we took that day. I finally got to shoot my Modigliani Reclining Nude. We warmed up with the Intimate Portrait Project. It gives both me and the model time to relax. It gives me time to study the daylight coming in my window and the emotions of the model on that given day. The close up portraits give us both time to connect physically and emotionally. Think about two dancers preparing for a pas de deux. They need some time together, touching, thinking, before a performance.

bronwyn. my first modigliani reclining nude photograph

I explained my Modigliani idea, googling ‘Modigliani Reclining Nude,’ showing Bronwyn the images found in the search. A model standing against a studio background is one thing. Laying naked on the couch – it is much more exposed and that is the idea. I rearranged the fabric and pillows on my couch allowing Bronwyn the necessary time to work out her initial pose. I turned to my desk, I don’t remember why – possibly to changed memory cards – more likely to let her settle in before I had to focus on her body. When I turned back to see her, there was my Modigliani. I was so excited I bet my jaw dropped and my eyes popped out of my head. I don’t get excited easily. “Don’t move!” I took at least two dozen shots before showing Bronwyn what we had captured. How is it possible she understood my idea to perfection? There was my dream shot. I had been thinking about this for years but had been two scared to ask anyone to model this pose. Bronwyn succeeded instantly.

If our shoot had ended there I would have been a very happy photographer. Now, possibly for the first time in decades, I felt the artistic freedom I had craved for so long. Sensing Bronwyn’s willingness to help my creative process, I asked her to be the model for one more new project.

sara jean. july 20, 1979

As I write this down, right now, in this moment in time, the memories I have about Bronwyn remind me of Sara Jean. She was there during the summer before I moved to New York City, and seemingly each time I needed an artistic push over the next few years. Sara Jean was my first muse, my first nude photographs, and my first pictures with a mirror. It was only after our lives drifted apart did I realize how much she had pushed me to be a successful artist. It was not in a commercial way. It’s as if she desperately wanted me to succeed. To help me find a vision. Forty-one years later Bronwyn did the same thing for me. I wonder if she knows that?

That day with Bronwyn I was ready to push the envelope. The success of our Modigliani portrait opened up something in my being. All of a sudden, my vision of the images I now needed to create felt clearer. During the Intimate Portraits I am always the one who sits on bodies. What would happen if the model sat on me? My thoughts at the time were not about empowering the muse, giving them the ability to move freely or determining the style and direction of the photographs. That came later. At this moment it was purely about the light.

bronwyn. intimate portrait project

My idea was to have Bronwyn sit on me and lean over the camera, allowing me to shoot through the hair falling in front of her face. I imagined ethereal images, the diffused light combined with the blur of her moving hair. I had done many Intimate Portraits with messy hair in the model’s face. The hair rarely fell exactly where I wanted. With the model over me, gravity would make the falling hair perfect. If the model’s hair was long enough it could wrap around the camera. I hoped the resulting textures and soft light would be beautiful.

standing over bronwyn

The process was different and more difficult than I had expected. I no longer had control over the distance between the model’s face and my camera. Manually focusing in low light, on a close moving subject is nearly impossible. Thank goodness for digital. It costs nothing to shoot hundreds of pictures. I couldn’t have done this with film while maintaining the spontaneity of the movement. It would have cost a fortune. More unexpected was this new feeling of touch. During the previous four years of intimacy I was always sitting on the model’s body while working. I controlled where my body was in relation to the model – how much weight and contact we had together. I had now lost that control. One might misconstrue my meaning of the word “control.” What I was controlling was the design of the photograph, not the woman beneath me. I was the one looking through the camera. I knew when the light and composition were working. Where I sat or stood above their bodies, that was determined solely by what I saw in the camera.

I let Bronwyn know she could put her entire weight on my body. I learned from my own experience that the more I could settle my own weight into the model, the more stable I was while shooting. I wanted Bronwyn to have that same stability while posing. It might not seem like it but leaning over someone’s body for forty-five minutes can be exhausting.

bronwyn. leaning over me

Bronwyn’s weight surprised me as did the feel of the contact of our skin. When I’m working over the model I rarely notice the touch of our bodies. I only feel it when we take a moment to rest and talk. With Bronwyn in control of the shoot the touch of our bodies was always apparent. I wonder if this is how it feels to the Muses? It would explain the intimacy in their posing and expressions. I never understood it before. I’m working so hard while shooting I scarcely have time to take notice of the experience.

It did take me a few minutes to get used to this new sensation while working. At first I questioned the ethics. I don’t know why it should be any different having the model sit on my body, but it wasn’t the same. But it was the same, only now the model had control. Their professionalism is no different from mine. I let my head clear and put my energy to the task of capturing the images I needed.

As our bodies got used to this new way of shooting it reminded me of the very first Intimate Portrait shoots, the time when I learned the model and I could communicate with our bodies instead of talking. I knew in advance the direction of Bronwyn’s movement by the feel of her body. I don’t think I could have captured the photographs without that connection.


04/04/19: Another short addition. When I began this essay I had no idea how much I had to say or how much certain people had affected how I approached my art. It has become all the more apparent how the Muses have changed my art, sometimes in a subtle manner but on occasion the transformation was profound. After the second shoot with Bronwyn everything was different. She completely changed the way I worked with the Muses, whether it be someone new or a model I’ve already photographed many times for the Intimate Portrait Project. The Modigliani Reclining Nude portraits became a series. I was surprised how the full body nudity helped develop the Intimate Portraits into a stronger project. I was surprised by how open the Muses were to this new intimacy. I imagine they were always open. I was the one who built up the barriers.

anna and sushi. the ever evolving modigliani series. march 23, 2019

Writing this essay over many weeks gives me the time to think about my history. Until I began the Modigliani series I never truly considered myself an artist. I might have taken artistic photographs but my sensibility was more commercial. Soon after the Modigliani series began that changed. I think it had to do with the freedom of breaking through societal norms, rules we’ve applied for no apparent reason. Why is touch bad? Why is nudity bad? These are puritanical American ideas. I walk into a dance studio and everyone there, whether I know them or not, comes up to give me a hug. In Russia, I walk with my males friends arm in arm. My best friend there kisses me whenever we meet. How is that not good?

janet in high school

I started taking pictures at twelve and began working in the darkroom at fifteen. One of my best friends at the time, Janet Williams, was the “artist” in our group. She always seemed different – so much freer than the rest of us. I didn’t always understand her but I admired that freedom. I doubt I told her at the time but I wished I could be more like her. Janet introduced me to the school’s photography teacher, giving me a tour of the darkrooms. Something about the teacher must have struck me because I took the course during my senior year.

joanne's classroom. double-exposure

Joanne Rhijmes, the Niles East photography teacher, was also an artist. She was not like my other teachers. Joanne was warm but she could also be intimidating. Joanne took me under her wing inviting me on private photo tours with her past students who were now in college. I was invited to one party at her house. Everyone was older than me. I was terrified. They were so intense. They all seemed to be crazy artists and I was too normal. They didn’t treat me like that. It was just how I felt. I imagine a few years after moving to New York, I had many parties where my younger self would have felt scared and confused. It’s amusing to think about that.

lori. my first professional looking portrait. i had already changed. july, 1972

Joanne convinced me to record me dreams. I changed during that last year in high school. I had a long-time girlfriend who obviously was no longer the right woman for me but it took me another year to leave her. It wasn’t a problem with the girlfriend. I was the one who was changing. Joanne read my palm one day and asked about my future plans. I know she wanted me to go to an art school and study photography. I told her I was going to Northwestern and planned to become a doctor. “We’ll see,” she said. There was no doubt in my mind my future plans were set. Joanne was right. I was wrong.


My second shoot with Alyssa Forte, Intimate Muse #59, was a month after Bronwyn. There are Muses who add much more to my life than just great pictures. I don’t use the word “Muse” lightly. These women are special to me and Alyssa is one of those people.

alyssa. intimate portrait project

Alyssa came to me through Natalie, Intimate Muse #43. Natalie and I have done a dozen Intimate shoots together, more than anyone but Alida who is Intimate Muse #1, working with me through the entire length of the project. You might wonder why Natalie isn’t a part of this essay? This photo-essay is supposed to be more about me than the Muses. It’s “my” artist’s life. When I finally publish a book on the Intimate Portrait Project Natalie will certainly get her own chapter. She has frequently been featured in past essays but as much as Natalie changed the intimacy of my project, she didn’t change me. This essay is about the women who changed not only my art but also my soul.

natalie. intimate portrait project

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember how a shoot felt. I have photographed more than one hundred women for the project. Some months I might do a dozen shoots. The emotions can blend together especially during a time of extreme creativity and artistic transformation. My shoots with Alyssa have blurred together. Looking at her photographs it’s difficult to say when they were taken. What I can remember from our shoots is Alyssa’s warm heart. I love who she is as a person so much.

alyssa. modigliani reclining nude

Our second shoot together was on February 26, 2017 – after Bronwyn’s Modigliani portrait. The Modigliani photographs were becoming a project and Alyssa was the fourth Muse to pose for the series. My shoot with Alyssa was the first time when I was completely comfortable with the nudity. I had been struggling with the idea of physical touch during this new body of work. It’s one thing to be sitting on a topless body while shooting. That is already pushing boundaries but then there is still a measure of societal safety. It’s another thing to be maneuvering around a naked body underneath me. A lot more skin is touching.

alyssa. modigliani recling nude #2

During the previous four years I had photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project it became apparent that the touch between photographer and muse was what drove the project forward. No touch, no exposure of the soul. No capturing of those deep emotions not even the Muses knew existed inside their heads. No photo therapy. Over time the touch became normal. Each shoot begins with a test of the light. The model is dressed. I am not physically close. I move closer, standing or sitting next to them, possibly resting my body against their folded legs and then sitting on the model’s lap. A model I have worked with before is quickly comfortable, her clothes are removed and we begin to shoot in earnest. With a new model first the top comes off and a photograph only her upper body. We might work that way for an hour.


I can sense when it’s time to move to the Modigliani series. Touch is important. I can feel their bodies relax beneath me. I can feel when they take their first deep breath. I no longer get to feel that breath with the Muses I’ve photographed many times. It happens so quickly. I’m not yet attached to their body. They’re ready to shoot before I am – while I’m still checking the light. It’s as if they become a different person after that breath. Most don’t realize it has happened. I wouldn’t know it myself if I wasn’t sitting on their body. It’s a revitalizing moment for both of us. They are opening up to the process. I am energized, excited about the pictures about to come.

matcha and sushi

Alyssa taught me how to be comfortable working with a naked body. I think it is her magic. She cast a spell on me that wrapped around my body since our first Modigliani shoot together. It’s possible I’m more physically connected to Alyssa during a shoot than any other Muse. That is saying a lot. I have two new kittens. They are fraternal twins. Brother and sister. I watch them cuddle. It is about their love for each other. It is about warmth, not physical warmth but emotional stability. Their love isn’t sexual. It is two animals needing to be close because of their connection. That is how it feels with Alyssa. It’s feral. We are two animals. There are no words for this feeling because it comes from ancient hominid emotions, something that existed before there was speech. Animals express themselves with touch. That is how it is between me and Alyssa. We express our feelings for each other with the touch of our bodies. During an entire shoot we almost never leave each others side. We embrace while shooting. We embrace while talking. We embrace as we rest.

alyssa and jasper

This changed me in ways I’ve only recently discovered. My interaction with all people has changed, not just the Muses. I am more physical with people I meet and strangely, they are more physical with me. Everyone wants to hug and I welcome their warmth. I produce events for a photographic community. I see how people respond to my words when I introduce an event. I watch all their faces. How I speak relaxes the audience. I don’t know if it is my words or the cadence of my voice. While speaking to these people say to myself, “How is this happening? Emotionally they all look like I’m about to do their Intimate Portrait.” The Intimate Portrait Project and the changes it has made in my psyche have taken my life to this new and wonderful space. I’ve always been a warm and peaceful person but somehow the Muses, people like Alyssa, have raised my inherent calm and happiness to a new level. Society needs to understand this and stop being afraid. Honest touch is so important.

alyssa. honest warmth

Jessica is Intimate Muse #87. I was already a changed person at this point. For the first time in my life I felt I was an artist. There was a different way of thinking. I was taking pictures solely to please myself. Creating without worry. Of course no one is perfect and often while working I question my process and photographs but that is part of being a good artist. Those who believe everything they create is perfect will never grow.

self-portrait with jessica

All my projects were evolving, including the portraits I took at Coney Island. I felt different. I saw in a new way. I was free. I often thought about the moment in the movie, The Turning Point, where Leslie Browne is getting drunk in a bar, pretending to be Russian. Someone at the bar asks Leslie why she came to America. In her bad fake Russian accent Leslie exclaims something like, “I come for artistic freedom.”

couple on the coney island pier

I have a funny story about Leslie. I took her portrait on February 13 and February 27, 1984. I can’t remember why we shot together twice. Maybe I wasn’t completely happy with the first shoot? Leslie came to me by way of Finis Jung. At the time I was photographing his dance company, The Chamber Ballet. Finis called me and said, “I’m sending you Leslie.” For more than a year I had been shooting portraits for the American Ballet Theatre where Leslie danced. I guess Finis assumed I’d know who “Leslie” was? I didn’t. I had seen The Turning Point. It was one of my favorite movies of all time.

leslie browne

Leslie came to the studio where I worked. Throughout the entire shoot I couldn’t figure out why she looked so familiar. I decided I must have photographed her rehearsing with some dance company. I’m not sure if I figured out who she was until after the first or second shoot? Can I really have been that dense? I loved Leslie in The Turning Point. Her acting was genius. Leslie is much more than just a ballerina. Her acting really was artistic freedom.

alida. first shoot. january 9, 2013

My first shoot with Jessica was one of those “life” moments; something you remember until the day you die. Jessica and I had talked about shooting five years earlier. She was a dance student at Marymount Manhattan College and an acquaintance of Alida, Intimate Muse #1, and a fellow student. I believe Jessica sent me a message on Facebook asking to set up a shoot. I mentioned this to Alida who by then had become one of my all-time favorite models. Alida didn’t seem too happy about the possibility. Alida was too important to me at the time to jeopardize our friendship and the pictures we were creating. I felt Jessica could be a special muse. I decided now was not the time to find out.

first time i saw jessica. buglisi dance theatre dress rehearsal

I sent Jessica a Facebook message on June 14, 2017. The previous afternoon I photographed her while performing in a Buglisi Dance Theatre rehearsal at New York Live Arts. Jacqulyn Buglisi is my favorite living choreographer. Her work is magic. I was excited about the rehearsal, a shared program between four women choreographers. Along with photographing Jacqulyn’s piece, Moss 1, I was also eager to photograph Elisa Monte’s dance. I had worked with Elisa’s company decades ago. This time I was more interested in one of her dancers than the dance itself.

maria. modigliani reclining nude series

Maria, who would later become Intimate Muse #104, was in Elisa’s piece. I had been following Maria on Facebook for years. I hoped if I introduced myself to Maria at the rehearsal, somehow we would talk and she’d pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. Happily that did happen as planned and I hope in the future we’ll work together many times. But this particular story is about Jessica.

I didn’t know Jessica would be dancing that day with Buglisi Dance Theatre. It was a surprise to see her, this dancer who I had hoped would be one of the first of the Intimate Muses. The strange thing is I didn’t get any great dance photographs of her during the rehearsal. It wasn’t Jessica’s fault. Not only was I trying to capture the piece for Jacqulyn, two of my Intimate Muses happened to be in the dance; Can Wang and Anne O’Donnell. I had already photographed Anne as a dancer before but had never captured Can on stage. Can was my favorite Muse at the time. I wanted pictures of her as a dancer. My great dance photograph of Jessica would have to come later.

the great dance photo of jessica that came a year later. buglisi dance theatre

The day after the rehearsal I messaged Jessica one photo, immediately receiving a “thank you” reply. It was my chance to ask Jessica if she would pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. I sent Jessica a link to an essay on my blog, co-written with a past Muse, Austin. Following is Jessica’s reply.

austin. intimate portrait project

“Wow, that is a powerful essay. I actually went to school with Austin, she is such a beautiful person. Everything about this shoot sounds wonderful and I think I will learn a great deal from working with you. I would like nothing more than to shoot with you. Thank you so much for asking me. Looking forward to it. Jessica.”

I doubt either of us understood the true meaning of Jessica’s words. It took almost two months before we were able to come together for the shoot on August 5, 2017.

jessica. intimate portrait project

Jessica and I laugh a lot when we’re together. We have an unexplainable connection. Our texts back and forth feel intimate. There is no reserve to our friendship. Our words follow our thoughts without hesitation. I say things to Jessica I’ve only expressed to long time lovers. I can’t help myself. It embarrassed me at first. I expected Jessica to respond with something like, “Don’t ever contact me again.” Instead she understood my words. Understood that we had touched each other’s souls. We had just met but it felt like we had a long past together. I can’t explain it. Jessica was meant to be my friend. We were meant to create art together. We were meant to heal and enrich each other’s consciousness.

jessica. intimate portrait project. trust without hesitation. raw emotions

I sometimes wonder if what I write is the truth. Are my feelings about a Muse honest or only a part of my imagination? This morning they were proven true. Last night while writing about Jessica I came upon an image from our third shoot together. A photograph I had never noticed before. It was a closeup of Jessica’s face, her eyes closed. I must have been sitting on her body at the time of the photo, the camera only inches from her face. This was a photograph of a Jessica who had changed during the two weeks we had known each other. Something inside of her had grown. I wished Jessica was with me late that night, sitting next to me while I was writing my story of her. I needed a hug from this person.

jessica. intimate portrait project. we couldn't be closer

I posted the image to Facebook. It was late, almost midnight. Here are the words I included with the picture.

“For the past two months, I have been writing about my life as an artist – the people who have influenced and changed me. Tonight I’m writing about Jessica. It’s been difficult to find the words. How do you write about a friend and Muse whose soul approaches perfection? A person who grabs your own soul as if you’ve know them for many lives over thousands of years. I must let my mind drift away into a daydream. It is the only way I can see her in my head, writing with complete honesty.”

I woke up the next morning to see Jessica had shared the image to her page along with this response.

“Over the course of my life, I have encountered quite a few men that I believed to be good, only to be shamed, violated, or betrayed. When Paul asked me to work with him I trusted my instinct and agreed. Upon meeting him, I realized I was reconnecting with a dear friend from many lifetimes ago. As we began shooting, I prayed and asked that I be reassured in my thought that Paul was truly good. I was answered with such an overwhelming sense of relief and warmth that I suddenly poured out my heart to Paul; revealing parts of my past I had never before vocalized. He continues to be one of my best friends. With Paul I am reminded of the existence of soul friends and heavenly hearts.”

jessica. modigliani reclining nude

I don’t think there is anything else I need to write about Jessica. The photographs we create together come from Jessica’s trust in me as a person and the strong connection between our souls. Jessica and I are truly friends and twins throughout time.

Kelsey. Trust. Warmth. It is very different working with Kelsey than it is with Jessica. My first work with Kelsey was a joint-shoot with Natalie on March 4, 2018. Kelsey and I connected immediately but emotionally I don’t consider this our first Intimate shoot. When I’m working with two people together I must split my energy and soul. Bringing two people to the emotional state necessary for the Intimate Portrait Project is never the same as working with someone alone. I can’t give each model what they need throughout the entire shoot. Although photographing two models together opens up new possibilities, much of the intimacy is lost.

kelsey. modigliani reclining nude

Kelsey and I shot together alone, five months later on August 17, 2018, a year after I had first photographed Jessica. There were five shoots with Jessica during that time – Jessica, the woman who had elevated my soul. I was no longer the same person. Kelsey is Intimate Muse #94.

natalie and kelsey

Kelsey and I met at a small dinner gathering at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Astoria, Queens. The group was mostly Martha Graham dancers and their friends. I had been working with the company for a several months. Graham choreography and movement is my all-time favorite. I thought Martha Graham was special while I was still in high school. I saw photographs of Martha taken by Barbara Morgan. They began a long artistic collaboration in 1935. As it turns out, Uncle Bobby, my mother’s brother, was also mesmerized by Martha Graham. In the 1940s he would have been the perfect age to dance with the Graham company. It was a time when Martha Graham was creating some of her most remembered dances. Alas, my uncle gave up his dream and spent the rest of life as a physicist.

kelsey for the reflection series

I sat next to Kelsey during the dinner and quickly fell in love, something I do with all the Muses. We talked about shooting. As often happens it took a couple of years and changes in life before we finally got together.

Shooting with Kelsey is different than working with any of the other Muses. That is saying a lot. There are 110 Muses, 109 women and 1 man. It is something physical. While on her body I feel more a part of Kelsey than anyone else. I need to make this clearer. I physically feel like I am part of her being. Kelsey nurtures me like no one else. I feel safe when our bodies are together. I don’t know the reasons why. It’s the closest thing to an adult re-entering the womb. Kelsey protects me.

kelsey. reflection series

During our last shoot I asked Kelsey to take my portrait. I’m sixty-four years old. I’ve aged well but I do not have the face and body I had when I was the same age as my Muses are now. In my entire life I’ve rarely trusted anyone to photograph me. I do self-portraits. Now here I was, lying nearly naked on my couch, trusting someone not only with my favorite camera but also giving them the same freedom to capture my soul as they give me.

kelsey by paul. paul by kelsey. intimate portrait project

Kelsey worked for a while taking over 800 pictures. It gave me the time to relax – time to let go of my concerns about how I look. She worked naked. We did not speak. It was quite the site, this amazing physical being towering over me, sometimes standing a few feet away, other times sitting on my body as I had sat on hers. It felt a little like Adam and Eve before biting into the apple; a time of innocence and self-discovery.

After I took back the camera shooting felt different. I now understood the warm feeling of the of someone’s body, their weight, while they held a camera inches from my face. You loose yourself in the experience. Your mind wanders everywhere, nowhere, in and out of the present moment. I can see why many times, the Muse I’m working with needs the touch to stay focused. It is their way of staying connected to the Earth while their soul wanders to another plane of existence.

kelsey. intimate portrait project

At the beginning of the first shoot with a new muse I explain the Intimate Portrait process the best I can. It can be confusing. At some point I tell them they will only understand after we are well into the shoot. Two hours and 2,000 pictures later I ask if they now understand. I always get a nod and a smile. After Kelsey, I have a new found perception of my own project. Few can give me this much knowledge.

naomi. portrait taken during baltogs audtion

Naomi is Intimate Muse #96. She is also much more than that. Years before the Intimate Portrait Project began Naomi was the first natural nude I had photographed in many years. She was the first muse I photographed using the daylight in my apartment, the first to use my couch as the background, and the first model for the REFLECTION series. Everything I do today came out of my shoots with Naomi.

naomi on my rooftop for the baltogs audition shoot

Our first shoot was on October 19, 2008. I was auditioning models for a Baltogs dancewear catalog. Naomi was one of the dancers who showed up for the audition. Something about Naomi struck me the second I saw her. I didn’t know if she’d be the best model for the Baltogs catalog but Naomi was certainly the best model for me. I brought Naomi up to my rooftop to make sure I got the better photographs than the typical studio lit audition pictures. I did convince Baltogs to use Naomi for the catalog shoot. That didn’t endear me to the client. It is one of the few selfish moments I’ve had in my lifetime. I don’t regret it one bit.

I can’t explain why but it took more than two years after the catalog shoot before we worked together again. I do remember finding Naomi’s audition pictures on my hard drive and wondering why I hadn’t kept in touch. In 2010 I wrapped up a twenty-five year project on women bodybuilders. I guess I was looking for new motivation. I imagine I hoped Naomi would inspire new work.

naomi: the first mirror portrait

Naomi and I shot together twice during the first week in December, 2010. I found her free and spontaneously posing refreshing, something new after the years of photographing bodybuilders; always overly concerned with the look of their physique. Our first shoot was mostly done in the studio. During a break while Naomi touched up her makeup in my bedroom mirror, in the reflection I noticed an interesting glow of daylight on her face. We stayed in that spot in front of the mirror for a long time. Afterwards I realized if I wanted to continue work with reflections I needed to find a moveable mirror. I couldn’t do every shoot in my bedroom. Naomi and I shot again two days later.

naomi. screen capture. precursor to the intimate portrait project

Everything began with Naomi. The freedom I felt working with her was exciting. A model, no, a Muse, willing to trust any idea I threw before her. This had never happened before. I was able to explore new visions of light without restriction. Naomi was comfortable in her own skin. I was allowed to experiment with her body to see how light and shadow fell across her skin. The precursors to the Intimate Portrait Project, REFLECTION series, and Modigliani Reclining Nudes all happened during those two shoots in December.

naomi. the first photograph on my couch... precursor to the intimate and modigliani projects

Naomi and I managed to work together two more times before she began traveling for work. On April 11, 2011, we began a portrait project with Zarina Stahnke. Zarina was my main muse at the time. This was a project I had planned to do with Zarina since we first met. Naomi was the first test subject.

zarina painting naomi in my studio

Zarina had also auditioned for a catalog shoot. She was a student at The School of American Ballet, the place where I found models for the catalog company, Discount Dance Supply. As with Naomi, Zarina’s audition turned into a personal portrait shoot. Zarina was a true artistic talent, not only as a dancer but also as a painter. I knew even before I had met Zarina I wanted to do a joint exhibition of our work. This is how my imagination works. The plan was to bring a model into the studio. While Zarina painted I would take pictures of the model and the process. We would match our creations together, exhibiting them in pairs. Naomi was our first shoot. Unfortunately for me and wonderful for Zarina, when she graduated from SAB Zarina was offered a job with a ballet company in Germany. We never continued the project. Zarina still paints. I once again primarily photograph nudes. I sometimes hope Zarina will find her way back to New York City allowing us to continue our project.

working with naomi and mirrors

By the time I photographed Naomi on March 19, 2012 the REFLECTION series had become my main project. I hoped the mirrors would take my portraits in an abstract direction, making them more interesting to the photo galleries in New York. I bought a box of 12″ x 12″ mirrors from Home Depot. They seemed the perfect size for the series. Once again I brought Naomi to the mirror on my closet door. She was my first nude with the mirrors. I began to see hints of Man Ray and Picasso in the photographs. I had treated the mirror series as straight portraits in the earlier shoots. Naomi’s patience gave me time to consider the composition of the images. Using an second mirror gave me an additional design element. The face in the reflection became more important, often more dominant than the real perso. I learned to guide the model with specific directions. It became, “Look at me in the mirror,” or “Look at me in real life.”

study for dark nudes series

I always knew Naomi was important to my creative work but I didn’t fully understand how much until writing this essay. Not only was she the first Intimate, mirror, and Modigliani Muse, she was also the precursor for the Dark Nude series. How do you thank someone for providing this much inspiration? Another question, which I can’t seem to answer, is why did it take me so long to find this artistic place again? I imagine life as an artist is similar to the history of the world; creative energy jumps around in fits and starts. Life on Earth sometimes gets in the way of progress. Other times it pushes you forward at lightening speed.

On March 2, 2018, Naomi became Intimate Muse #96. The woman whose inspiration helped me create my current projects would finally be part of this new work. Photographing Naomi for the Intimate Portrait Project felt the same as it does with the other Muses. The only difference was our past history. It was Naomi’s first Intimate Portrait but it felt like we had been working on the series forever. It was as if no time had passed between now and the earlier shoots when in fact it had been seven years.

naomi: modigliani reclining nude

Photographing Naomi for the Modigliani Reclining Nude series was the most fulfilling. There she was, laying across the same couch in the same daylight as seven years ago. I’ve had this couch forever. I bought it in 1980. Many friends and family members have slept on or hung out on this couch. It’s my favorite napping place. The couch is big! It’s depth and cushions are comforting. Now it had become my favorite location. Seeing Naomi there, posing now with all the changes in both of our lives made me feel connected to everything – to Naomi, my apartment, my art, my soul, the planet. As always Naomi opened up my mind, preparing my senses for new possibilities. My work with the Muses wouldn’t have been possible without her.

Selina is Intimate Muse #103. Selina is the only Muse I have contacted about working on the Intimate Portrait Project where there had been no previous connection. I had never photographed Selina as a dancer. She was not recommended by a friend. I knew nothing about her except what she had posted on Facebook and Instagram. What I saw online made me need to photograph her.

selina. intimate portrait project. no makeup. no retouching

This time it was me contacting the potential muse. When we’re strangers it has always been the other way around. I have many long messages Facebook and Instagram messages explaining why one dancer or another wanted to work with me. Some can be like novels. I kept my Facebook message to Selina short.

“Hi Selina. Would you be interested in working with me? I do think we would take amazing pictures together. Let me know and then I can explain my projects. Talk to you soon. Paul”

Sometimes I wonder if I sound like a twenty-two year old novice photographer, hoping to find models who will help me build my portfolio? You’d think with forty-two years of professional experience I’d sound more confident.

Selina replied quickly.

“Hey Paul, I would love to work with you. I’m a fan of your work. Talk to you soon. Selina.”

I was happy but now how to explain my shoots. Most dancers don’t know the details of the Intimate Portrait Project. They contact me about shooting and are excited until I tell them about the nudity; and then there’s the physical touch. Most don’t even have the courtesy to respond after hearing about the process. They were the ones who contacted me. At least they could have enough respect to let me know that what I do doesn’t work for them. Of course I understand the Intimate Project isn’t for everyone. Giving a stranger access to your mind and body takes an enormous amount of trust and a without question a suspension of disbelief.

selina. intimate portrait project

“Hi Selina. That’s great! I’m not sure it’s obvious by my Facebook and Instagram posts but most of my work involves some form of nudity. I’m working mostly as a fine art photographer now and I hope that shows in my photographs. The process of my shoots is difficult to explain. It’s more like a joint meditation with a friend than a typical studio shoot. I do give the models I work with a disk/drive with every photo from the shoot. If all of that sounds good to you then we should schedule something. I almost never ask someone I haven’t met to shoot but I felt our work together would be special and I couldn’t stop myself from contacting you. :) My mobile is 917-868-2168. Talk to you soon. Paul”

“Hey Paul. This is Selina. I read your message on Facebook. Everything sounds great. Let’s schedule something.”

I was relieved and excited. I don’t know why I wanted to photograph Selina so much? It was instinct. I have visions. I saw pictures of her in my head and needed to turn my imagination into reality. We did our first shoot on August 11, 2018.

selina. modigliani reclining nude

Selina and I connected fast; both as people and as artists. Her level of comfort with my process was possibly greater than any of the Muses who came before her. We drank tea, we talked, and then got right into shooting. Small talk wasn’t necessary. Selina relaxed immediately. We were working on the Modigliani series after a few minutes. It usually takes more than an hour to reach that level of trust.

Selina and I spent many hours together. Time appeared not to exist. Five hours of shooting. Afterwards, three hours of talking and eating. Eight hours together on the first day we met. Over 5,000 photographs taken. We worked on everything. We shot Intimate Portraits, Modigliani nudes, mirror photos, in the sheer black tube, and images for a new series I had just begun; no name yet; in an empty bathtub. I’m not sure how we had the stamina to take those thousands of images? Selina inspired me to keep shooting.

Immediately after the shoot I began to text Selina some of the day’s photographs. I think the words and pictures sent at that moment of time describe how we both felt better than anything I can write now.

talking to selina #1

talking with selina #2

talking to selina #3

talking to selina #4

talking to selina #5

I needed to see Selina again quickly. The experience with her was personally transforming. I didn’t want to lose that feeling. I wanted my art to grow from what I had learned from her. I asked Selina when she would be free for another shoot. Eight days later we were together again
“Hi Selina. Do you have any time to get together Sunday or Monday? I can give you a disk with your photos and I’d love to shoot again.”

“Would love to.”

“Is 2:00 ok?”

“That’s perfect.”

“Hooray. I can’t wait to see you.”

talking to selina #6

talking to selina #7

selina photographed by paul b goode. paul b goode photographed by selina

We continued on with our exploration of intimacy; Modigliani, working with mirrors. Everything felt right with her. I asked Selina if she would be interested in taking Intimate Portraits of me. After working with Kelsey, I was beginning to understand how reversing rolls increased the understanding of the Intimate process for both me and the model.

I was more relaxed this time, a little more prepared to expose my self to Selina and the camera; ultimately to the world. It’s now clearer how my personality effects the mood of the Muses while shooting. I absorbed Selina’s essence just as I had with Kelsey. Spirit and touch are enormous influences on how we feel.

“Muse on Top.” I’m not sure what to call this offshoot of the Intimate Portrait Project? I’m not sure what to make of the experience? The Muses all agree it feels much more intimate when they are on my body. I feel it too but in purely technical terms. Maybe it’s sad that in some ways I see parts of the Intimate process as a science experiment? When the Muse is on top I have a greater sense of their body temperature and how their movement effects the emotions of the photographs. It’s not that I don’t feel this when I am on their bodies; it’s just to a much greater level. I can feel when their state of mind becomes more sensual-sexual. There is a lot more laughing and mood changes, I imagine due to some amount of shyness and embarrassment because of the physical contact. I still have no idea exactly why the emotions are this different when they have control over the touch. I would love to have a neuroscientist come in and record our brain waves, both while I’m sitting on top of the model and then when they are on my body. I imagine the recordings would answer a lot of questions.

selina. blue film series

I can spend hours maneuvering on top of the model’s body during a shoot. It all feels natural and comfortable. During breaks I often remain sitting on their stomach while we have conversations varying from their latest boyfriends to which choreography we like best. At the time it all seems normal. But when we begin to work on Muse on Top it is different. At first the model is hesitant to sit on my body. It does get less complicated the more we shoot, but why? The Muse can now choose our physical relationship, deciding where and how much touch occurs between the bodies. It should be easier. Without question it is not.

selina. muse on top

Because Selina had photographed me, it was more relaxed when she began the process of Muse on Top. It was certainly easier for me. Not only was I completely comfortable when our bodies connected, Selina is petite and weighs no more than a typical mountain fairy. Her body felt no heavier than air. I felt her warmth but seemingly no weight. It was different than those who had come before her. The physical weight of the model on my body had become an integral part of the process. I use their weight for stability, keeping me in place while I move along with them, trying to focus and compose images as they twist and turn often only inches from my face. Selina is so light I could nudge her into the direction I needed.

selina. muse on top

Selina understood what I was looking for immediately. She is amazing! The design of Muse on Top is purely about technique. The model leans over, her hair falling around the lens of my camera; the light is diffusing through the hair in motion. It’s beautiful. The moment Selina crawled on my body the photographs were exactly as I needed. She didn’t seem distracted by the intimacy. We felt the warmth but the process was all about the pictures. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.


Selina and I have now worked together four times. This is how the Intimate Portrait Project began, an exploration of how the one’s art improves and is refined when working with the same model over and over again. Some of this is the growth of an emotional connection. Additionally it is a technical understanding of how to create better images with each other. Picasso, Modigliani, Balthus; they all understood this.

Jamison. I have so much to say about her but don’t know how to find the words. Nothing in my life has been the same since Jamison and I first photographed together. She took the Intimate Portrait Project to a new level of intimacy and somehow every Muse that came afterward has followed in her footsteps. Jamison is one of those transitional muses, a person who changes my art to such a degree that every photograph feels like a new discovery.

jamison with nadine bommer

Jamison is Intimate Muse #107. I first met her while photographing the rehearsals of Nadine Bommer. The dance company is amazing. Nadine allowed me to wander any place on the studio floor during the rehearsals, in a way becoming an additional dancer performing in the piece. The shoots were an intimate experience, not unlike my own work process. I wanted to photograph every one of Nadine’s dancers for the Intimate Portrait Project.

samy. intimate portrait project

As it sometimes happens, it too a while before I contacted Jamison; or did she contact me? I worked with another of Nadine’s dancers first, Samy Roth, who became Intimate Muse #81. It took another year and a half before I worked with Jamison. It’s how my life works. Almost every situation is spontaneous. I honestly can’t say why I ask people to shoot at a certain time or all of a sudden remember them so long after meeting. It’s some kind of spiritual thing deep in my brain. As I’ve said other times, I frequently daydream and have visions. One day Jamison popped into my head and I had to photograph her.

first shoot. finding our connection

We first shot together on November 9, 2018. I don’t think the shoot began in any way to cause Jamison to stand out from the other Muses. Looking now at the first photographs we took together, it’s obvious we initially had trouble establishing the photographic connection. It’s interesting because the emotional connection was instantaneous. It all quickly changed when we began working on the Modigliani portraits.

jamison's first modigliani pose

Jamison has always said she’s comfortable being naked. With the first Modigliani photograph she proved that to be true. Not since the initial Modigliani shoot with Bronwyn has any muse captured the mood I seek in this series without any prompting or time to settle in as a naked body on my couch. It’s not supposed to be this easy. I work with people who do not normally sit naked in front of the camera. I’m supposed to work harder for the special images. Jamison made it easy.

jamison. muse on top

Jamison on Top. This intimate offshoot of the Intimate Portrait Project crosses boundaries. I’m careful who I ask to take part in the series. Muse on Top portraits have happened with only a few Muses up to this point; Bronwyn, Jessica, Can, and Selena. I haven’t yet resolved the emotions and physicality of the process. Having an awareness of the #metoo movement and listening to a President who constantly denigrates women, my use of extreme physicality and nudity to draw out deep emotions for a portrait series needs careful thought. I believe I consider the needs and support women more than most men but the present day discussion about women’s rights should make any man reconsider his past beliefs and actions.

jamison. muse on top

Jamison and I did two Muse on Top sessions during our first shoot. It began as the others did, closeup photographs of Jamison’s face, her body leaning over mine, her hair falling over the camera. Jamison is fierce. She couldn’t sit still and began moving across and away from my body though always making sure some part of us remained in contact. It looked different. It felt different. I had begun to get used to a Muse sitting on my body; stationary. There was the constant warmth and pressure from the weight of their body. I began to perceive what the Muses felt when I worked sitting on top of them. It helped me better understand the Intimate Portraits. In some ways Muse on Top was easier for me; focusing on their movement was more difficult but as I was now the one kept immobile by another body all I had to do was lay back and take the pictures.

Jamison was dancing on top of me; an improv choreographic event. It took a while for me to get used to the movement. It wasn’t a part of my photographic plan. My bedroom now became part of the composition as did her body. It wasn’t just about faces anymore. I’m still not sure what to make of this process but it is a journey I feel must continue.

jamison. muse on top. dancing

Jamison and I have now worked together four times. We text back and forth often, sometimes about pictures, often about life. When we haven’t seen each other in a while I miss her in a way that’s different from the other Muses. It’s not about pictures. It’s about trust and touch. It’s mostly about our friendship.

For some reason I can no longer remember, I converted a Modigliani image, taken during our first shoot, from black and white into color. That’s one of the great things about digital. You can do anything. Transformed to color the photograph looked like a painting. I loved the color version so much I framed a print and hung it above my couch. A long-time photographer friend, Charlie Seton, told me about a company who makes 60″ by 80″ photo blankets for thirty dollars. I looked at the color print of Jamison and decided it might look nice on a blanket, becoming resembling a tapestry.

jamison for the modigliani series

When the blanket arrived I was blown away. Maybe it would be better to say I was shocked by the realism. I don’t print much of my work in color. I tossed the blanket across my couch, the location where the image was taken. I was now looking at a half-body nude of Jamison, twice life-size. It looked like a Pre-Raphaelite painting at the Metropolitan Museum except here I knew the model. I couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds. I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I was speechless, unsure what to make of the sensuality and sexuality of the body in front of me. I never felt like this when Jamison sat naked in front of me in real life. I think it had to do with the size of the blanket. Jamison appeared as an impression of a mythical goddess, a woman who would have stood twelve feet tall. I wanted to bow down to her beauty as a Roman would have to Venus. If Jamison had stepped out of the blanket I suspect Botticelli would have painted her as his Venus. It’s the hair. Their bodies are actually very similar. If the model for Botticelli’s Venus took a year of dance classes she’d look exactly like Jamison. I rolled up the blanket and packed it away. It is now in the possession of Jamison. I wonder if any of her friends have seen it?

jamison in her apartment with the blanket

After seeing the blanket, I wondered what some of my other images might look like in color. During the next shoot with Anna (Intimate Muse #88) I shot a few dozen color images but quickly went back to black and white. Then during my most recent shoot with Jamison I decided to photograph almost exclusively in color.

I see in black and white. I dream in black and white. It took a while to get used to seeing color images on the back of the camera. During the last shoot with Jamison the natural light on my couch was wonderful. It changes with the weather and season. On this day it was something special. Jamison appeared more serene in color than she had in black and white. When we tried Muse on Top that was another story. The pictures didn’t work nearly as well in color as in black and white. I’m glad I tried but unless I come up with a different light source it’s not something I’ll try again.

jamison. sunlight on my bed

Jamison’s back was totally out of whack during the color shoot. I don’t know how she did it, posing for hours and especially for the Muse on Top photographs. She was in pain but hid it well. When we took a break Jamison collapsed on my bed, her face falling into the direct sunlight coming through the window. I normally don’t like sunlight in my photographs. But this light was special. I guess my dirty New York City windows diffused the light enough to give me the quality I wanted. I also was now seeing in color. It all worked; Jamison’s hair color and skin tone, the pattern on my bedspread, the quality of the light. I wouldn’t have noticed any of this if I had been shooting in black and white.

jamison resting on a heating pad. back out of whack

Jamison continues to change me in so many ways. I haven’t been shooting as much lately. I need to be out in the world promoting my work. That takes a great deal of time. I needed some inspiration and began going through the photographs I had taken of Jamison. I don’t always take a close look at my work until much later. When I’m shooting several portraits each week there just isn’t any extra time. While going through Jamison’s first shoot I began to understand the reasons she makes me a better photographer. Jamison is completely natural in front of the camera. She is purely in her own world; spontaneous and full of passion. Somehow she maintains a personal focus while completely dedicating herself to my art. Last night while on Facebook I posted one of my favorite photographs from that first shoot along with the following text.

jamison. from our first shoot

“Rossetti, Picasso, Modigliani, Bailey, Stieglitz… they all married their muses. I get it. Living with your partner means they’re always nearby when the creative juices are flowing. There are times I’m in desperate need to make new work, and as much as I love Piper, Sushi, and Matcha, they’re not who I need in front of the camera. This evening my imagination is creating new images of Jamison. The new photographs exist only inside my head. If Jamison was sitting her now on my couch, posing by the dim glow of my plants grow-light, I would be clicking away like crazy. In her absence I will continue to add words to this photo-essay, something that has consumed me now for months. As it happens, Jamison is the Muse I’m writing about tonight. It’s one reason I began to take a better look at our photographs. I need to learn how to create with the Muses not only for my photography but also for my writing. Tonight I’ll do my best.”

jamison and sushi. it's sushi's first intimate portrait

When I began this epic essay Jamison’s story was supposed to be the finale. Some part of the project had finished with her and a new phase was beginning. And then Teel died. I adopted him a month before the Intimate Portrait Project began. I’m guessing he posed with 100 models. He passed away the week before Jamison and I did our third shoot. A month later while photographing Jamison again the pictures didn’t feel the same. Did Teel effect the project? I’d have to ask the Muses to answer that question. He had certainly effected the mood during the shoots. Teel was an animal who possessed endless joy and it rubbed off on everyone.

anne and teel for the intimate portrait project

I still miss Teel very much but whatever change has happened during the Intimate shoots is something amazing. I had wanted to include these new emotions in the essay. This new process would never have happened without Jamison’s specific energy during our last shoot. She was a person possessed. As I later worked with several new Muses, along with one I have known for twenty years, I couldn’t figure out where their intensity was coming from. Did Jamison cast a spell over my apartment, conjuring up a raw intimacy that had never occurred before or was it a change in me that drew these deepest emotions out of the Muses’s soul?

4 muses taking me to a new place. tl: song. tr: erin. bl: elya. br: kening.

I had wanted to include these new experiences in this essay. They could not have happened if Jamison hadn’t broken the boundaries first. I didn’t get far with the new writing. I could only manage a sentence or two at a time. I felt stuck. What I did write was contrived. Amazing things had happened during these new shoots but I couldn’t put the experiences into words. For two months I wrote almost nothing until I realized I was trying to force the new photographs into an essay where they did not belong. These images were different than anything I had taken before. Somehow they were more intimate and certainly raw in a way my portraits had never been before. I believe this new intimacy is where the Intimate Portrait Project belongs. The new work deserves it’s own story.


More than any other essay I’ve written, and I have written many, this one feels the most like a series of diary entries. When I began the blog that was my purpose; something to help me remember my history, not only as a photographer but also as a person, growing from my seemingly endless experiences. Often while writing I feel as if I’m in a dream. My life while awake can feel that way, appearing as unreal as any dream. Here I try to put it into words. Sometime what I write makes no sense to you I understand. It sometimes makes no sense to me. But it is the truth. My life is based on intimacy, honesty, happiness, peace, and trust. I hope my words can help guide you on a similar path.

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09/05/18: iconic photographs… the muse. part 1

My “Iconic” photographs are the best photographs I feel I have ever taken but it is not always about image quality. Sometimes an iconic photograph can be one that changed my life, forever changing how I proceed with my art and my life.

sara jean childers. summer, 1976. one of my first iconic portraits

I have been the Fine Art Chair of APA\NY (American Photographic Artists) for almost a year. So far it’s been an amazing experience. I have already learned so much, made new friends, and helped expand the photographic community. For ten years, from 1982-1992, I ran a small organization named The Photo Group. We were a loosely formed, every changing group of photographers who met on occasion to share ideas and exhibit our work together whenever possible. Many of us developed a close friendship that continues to this day. I hope to bring that support and camaraderie to APA|NY.

Last month I held an event I call APA|NY’s Knowledge Bank. It is a gathering where a group of photographers and other creative talents come together for an open forum, discussing anything photographic. Thirty people came to hear APA member Travis Keyes talk about Instagram, eat pizza, drink wine and beer, and make new friends. My favorite part of the evening was after the formal talk was completed, watching small groups of photographers sit together, learn from each other, and begin new friendships.

polaroid of jack deutsch in the studio. date unknown

The Knowledge Bank meetings are held in the studio of my friend Jack Deutsch. Jack and I first met in 1970 while we were both in high school. By coincidence, Jack moved to New York City in 1977, a year after I had moved to the city, and by extreme luck, got an apartment in my building one year later. We’ve been close friends ever since. When the event was over, four of us, Jack, Philip, Charlie, and I, all former Photo Group members, hung out in the studio. It’s rare the four of us find time to get together anymore.

philip and linda in the studio. december 17, 1982

I met Philip Stark in 1979. He and his best friend, Linda, were discovered in Central Park by John Drew, my roommate at the time and a friend I had known since college. Actually, it was Philip who discovered John. A minute ago I called Philip to find out how they actually met. John was in the park taking pictures, using his monopod to steady the camera. Philip was curious about the device and asked John how much it helped with the balance. I have no idea what else they talked about after that. I do know we all became best friends.

charlie seton photographed with a 4x5 speed graphic camera. probably 1978

Charlie and I met in college the day I walked into Northwestern University’s yearbook office, hoping to photograph for the publication. I was turned down. Charlie and the other editors seemed so intimidating, artistic… and old. I was only a freshman. It was 1972. I walked across the hallway into the newspaper’s office and was hired immediately – $5 for every photograph published. I got my first assignment that day. As a sophomore I did join the yearbook staff, later becoming the photo editor during my senior year. Charlie and I have been friends ever since. Charlie followed me to New York in 1978. I consider him the longest continuous friend I have.

So there we sat, the four of us with decades of friendship behind us, talking about life, religion, spirituality, and photography. I’m not sure why, but at one point Philip looked up to the ceiling and asked Jack if the skylight was always covered. Jack said it was and it had always been that way. I had to step in and disagree. In the past I often rented Jack’s studio for my dancewear clients and I remembered at that time, a shaft of light did come through the skylight. The only reason I did remember was because in the very spot Charlie was sitting, that shaft of light changed my life.

It was September, 28, 2009. I was shooting a catalog for Discount Dance Supply. Sometime during the afternoon, New York City Ballet dancer Ana Sophia Scheller was resting on the edge of the couch, the exact place where Charlie was now sitting. A shaft of light came through the skylight, illuminating her face. It was beautiful. I stopped the catalog shoot. I needed to capture Ana Sophia’s portrait before the light changed. I unplugged my camera from the strobe lights. I didn’t take many pictures of Ana. I had models waiting for me on the set. Immediately I knew I had taken a special portrait.

ana sophia scheller for discount dance supply

That photograph changed me. My life then was about shooting in the studio with professional lights or working outdoors in daylight. I hadn’t considered using daylight indoors. There never seemed to be enough light and renting a daylight studio with big windows was cost prohibitive. Only then did I realize the light coming through the windows of my apartment was beautiful. An apartment I had lived in for thirty years. I needed to find a way to make that light work.

ana sophia scheller. first portrait using daylight indoors

It took me a year to figure it out. My photography since that time has never been the same or as good. The daylight gave me freedom. Charlie said I should write an essay for my blog about the Ana Sophia portrait. I thought that was a great idea but I decided the essay needed to be about more than that. So here it is… a story about the shoots and photographs that have changed the way I think, taken since that day I noticed the shaft of daylight in Jack’s studio.

Naomi Rusalka was the model who changed the future of my photography. I’ve written about her before. Not only do my daylight photographs begin with her but the basis of two of my major portrait projects begin with Naomi. Naomi and I met earlier when she modeled for a Baltogs Dancewear catalog but our first two personal shoots were on December 1st and 3rd, 2010. Natalie was a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t yet begun to work on a portfolio of nudes. I don’t know why I asked Naomi. She was free and natural. Everything she was in front of the camera I was unexpected. I followed her lead. Naomi taught me to be spontaneous. She began to release me from my own fears.

naomi rusalka. the portrait that inspired the "reflection" series

My REFLECTION project began during our first shoot. We had been working for hours using a studio setup. Naomi needed a makeup touch-up. I followed her into my bedroom to the full length mirror. Something struck me about how the light in the room wrapped around her face and body, especially in the reflection. The way Natalie appeared in the reflection seemed like a different person. A twin but with different emotions. What I thought might be a few fun snapshots turned into something real. Later I went out and bought mirrors I could carry to different locations. Almost eight years later the project is still evolving. This past July, six of my REFLECTION portraits were exhibited at Foley Gallery.

naomi rusalka. the first "intimate" portrait

Two days later Naomi and I shot again. Years ago I learned that when I find a special muse I must photograph her a second time as quickly as possible. No matter how good the first shoot turns out it still feels purely professional. The second shoot is always more than that. It solidifies the relationship. The muse and I pick up where the first shoot left off. The second shoot feels more like friends creating art together and less a model-photographer event. That comfort shows in the photographs. It feels easier keeping in touch and working with a friend.

naomi rusalka. the first daylight portrait using my couch as the background

I didn’t set up a background during the second day. I used one small studio light to balance the daylight. Everything became more natural. Naomi wore little makeup. It was the first shoot where my couch became the background. There was an intimacy my portraits never had before. The contact between the two of us felt incredibly strong. The Intimate Portrait Project was still over two years away but the first real portrait in the series was taken on that day. I just didn’t know it yet. As an artist Naomi was emotionally far ahead of me. Looking at the portraits now, they look as if I had taken them yesterday.

Erin Arbuckle straddled my two lives, the time when I made the transition from a commercial to fine art photographer. From the time where I had to control everything in my photographs to the time when my process became spontaneous, often not deciding on what images I hoped to create until the model walked in my front door.

erin arbuckle with alison cook beatty. "reflection" series

One of my first shoots of Erin included my main muse at the time, Alison Cook Beatty. I had accomplished over thirty portrait shoots with Alison and also photographed her dance company. The work with Alison was artistic-editorial and the goal was to make work for a commercial portfolio. One of my last shoots of Erin was with Lily Balogh, who was now the main muse. In a short time, I set up over thirty portrait sessions with Lily, also photographing her as a dancer with Ballet Next. My shoots with Lily were always about my art. They were about capturing raw emotion. During that year and a half I worked with Erin my life completely changed.

I first met Erin at Columbia University during a dress rehearsal for Columbia’s Dance Collective. I believe Erin was the artistic director of the event. I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to photograph this rehearsal but if memory serves me right, the main reason was because I wanted to meet Erin. We were already friends on Facebook and I thought she might be perfect as a future muse. It seems I was right.

Erin happened to be a friend of Zarina Stahnke, a dancer who I was photographing as much as possible. I met Zarina while auditioning dancers for a Discount Dance Supply catalog. We did a personal shoot during the audition, Zarina got the job, and was the client’s favorite model. I decided to include Zarina in my first shoot with Erin. Erin seemed so much older than a college student. It was more than her intelligence. Erin had stature and a positive air of self-assurance. Although I had already photographed Zarina many times, herself a strong personality, Erin dominated the shoot. Erin became the director, encouraging Zarina to be more open. She could have been Zarina’s older sister. I wonder if Erin, like Naomi, also helped me become more open with my art.

zarina stahnke painting erin arbuckle in my living room

My second shoot with Erin was a week later. I was three times her age but she felt like an equal. It was nice to photograph a new muse where I never had to hold back my own intelligence. As we worked together over the next eighteen months I felt we became real friends. Erin helped me through some difficult personal situations.

erin arbuckle in my living room studio. the first time using daylight.

During shoot #2 I set up a background with Erin but for the first time, not using my studio lights. The background was a piece of semi-sheer wide black fabric I had picked up at my favorite fabric warehouse in Venice Beach while working in Los Angeles. I set up the background in my living room, as close to the windows as possible, still giving me enough room to capture full length shots when necessary. The light for the portrait was a combination of daylight coming in the window, my plants’s gro-light mounted to the ceiling, and a couple of cheap fluorescent bulbs in an old movie light fixture used by my uncle in the 1960s. Erin can come off as a tough woman but she shared her sensuality and softer side with me during this shoot. Erin showed me how a simple natural pose – a model relaxed, can complete a dynamic photograph.

erin arbuckle and lily balogh. portraits while hanging out in the afternoon

My shoots with Erin over the next year were all over the place. As I said, she straddled my artistic transition. I hadn’t yet figured out what I was looking for in my images. We photographed indoors and out, partial nudes, and with mirrors. Through her patience with my process I finally found my direction.

At some point Erin no longer was interested in shooting with me. I don’t really know why. My work isn’t for everyone. At the end of our time together I was photographing dancers but not dance. My photography was definitely heading in the direction of fine art portraits. Erin had began dancing again. I think our needs no longer matched. It made me sad but I understood.

alida delaney in central park. still one of my favorite pictures ever

Alida Delaney contacted me on Facebook. The message is still out there somewhere in the Facebook archives. She read in my online journal that I sometimes photograph models who reached out to me. I took a look at her Facebook page and there was nothing about the pictures that made me want to photograph her. It’s not that she wasn’t beautiful – she didn’t embody the emotional state I look for in a muse. Still, there was something about her message that intrigued me. There was a strength and sincerity in her words. I think it was late at night. I messaged Alida and asked her to take a quick selfie – no preparation – just how she was at that moment. I quickly received a messy hair, no makeup, ready for bed portrait. There was a serenity to the portrait that was special. I knew I needed to learn what was inside her head.

alida delaney. the start of the "intimate portrait project"

I met Alida and her roommate for a night shoot in Central Park. The second I saw Alida I knew her Facebook page did not represent who she really was. I had asked Alida to bring her roommate to the shoot. On Facebook, Alida always looked best when Rebecca was with her in a photograph. As it turned out I made a mistake. Rebecca was amazing but the personalities of the two women did not mix well together in my images. Alida dominated the shoot. It was unexpected.

alida delaney. after years of digital, experimenting with film

It didn’t matter. Two days later Alida and I got together again. Same time at night. Same location in Central Park. This time both of us were better prepared. In some ways it was a surreal experience. Central Park can be very quiet at night. We were alone in the tunnel beneath 72nd Street. There wasn’t much light. Alida’s skin glowed in the darkness. It’s one of the things I love most about working with Alida. Her skin! When I want to set up a shoot I send Alida a text, “I need your skin!” Obviously we’ve become friends. It’s not a text I could sent to any muse. Alida gets it.

alida delaney. recent portrait for the "modigliani" series. new art. new friendship

Alida and I have worked together for almost six years. She was instrumental in helping me develop the Intimate Portrait Project. I call her Intimate Muse #1. I have photographed Alida more than anyone else during this time. It’s rare a photographer-model relationship lasts this long. It’s because the two of us are about more than photographs. We are truly friends.

On July 28, 2014, Elise Ritzel became Intimate Muse #14. I do need to keep better notes in the future because I can’t remember exactly how we met. I’m guessing I first photographed Elise at a Current Sessions dress rehearsal. She later came over to look at the photographs. I realized when I saw her in my apartment she could be an amazing muse. Two weeks later she was.

elise ritzel for the "intimate portrait project." this is a photograph i will love forever

We photographed three times together over the next several months. I was searching for a purpose with the Intimate Portrait Project. It was still all about the eyes – closeups of a face. Elise brought something different to the project. She used her hands and arms to shape her face, adding an additional element – giving more emotion to the photographs. I began to pull the camera away from the face, capturing more of the body. It opened up new possibilities. I had more shapes to work with. I learned to incorporate the dancer’s physical knowledge and experience into the photographs.

I don’t know why Elise and I stopped shooting together. Sometimes the muse gets busy and doesn’t have time to take photographs for the sake of art. Mostly the process has run it’s course. Rarely do I want to stop working with a muse but I can see how after a few shoots the model no longer has anything to gain by having more of my pictures on their hard drive. I’m sure on occasion the intimacy of the portrait sessions is a place they no longer wish to explore. I get that. There are certain muses I miss very much.

peiju chien-pott. in a trance. "intimate portrait project"

A year later, on August 12, 2015, Natalie Deryn Johnson became Intimate Muse #43. I was still struggling with my vision. My commercial work was deemed to artistic. My fine art photography often seen as too commercial. Despite feeling like my photography didn’t fit anywhere, the direction and process for the Intimate Portrait Project was finally coalescing around a single viewpoint. Many of the Intimate muses were saying the shoots felt like emotional therapy. While shooting there had become a closer connection between me and the muses. I still photograph many of the models from that period of time. There were two in particular who elevated the project to a new place. Peiju Chien-Pott was so relaxed during our shoot I thought she had gone into a trance. I actually stopped shooting to make sure she was okay! Austin Sora taught me not to fear the physicality of the sessions. That it was okay to let the weight of my body rest on the muse while shooting. Austin said it is what helped her to relax. And then nine days later came Natalie.

austin sora. the beginnings of "intimate-passion-touch-trust." "intimate portrait project"

Natalie and I met on Facebook, got together for a discussion about dance at my apartment, instantly becoming friends and photographer-muse at the same time. I’ve had friends who became muses and muses who became friends, but in my entire photographic life it had never before happened simultaneously.

With the exception of Alida Intimate Muse #1, I have done more Intimate Portrait shoots with Natalie than anyone else. Natalie was probably the first muse to use the Intimate shoots as a way to expel her demons. The Intimate shoots can have an intense warmth between the model and photographer. Hugs are a necessity. There is the freedom for the muse to completely be herself. No makeup necessary. I have no expectations. All I need is to capture a person’s raw honest beauty. That comes from the inside. The trust is extreme. I’m often told personal stories no one else in the world knows. I consider that an honor. I’ve become a better person due to the muses. They have all elevated my spirit.

natalie deryn johnson. one of my favorite pictures from the "intimate portrait project"

Natalie can feel like a wild animal during the shoots. Until recently, no muse consistently let go emotionally as much as her. I often lose control over our shoots. Natalie is in her own world. Whatever images I had hoped to capture never happen. I allow her the freedom to let go – pictures be damned. Isn’t that what friendship is all about.

natalie deryn johnson. variations for the "modigliani" series

When a photographer works enough with a person as photogenic and artistic as Natalie, great pictures are bound to happen despite the artistic chaos. We’ve shot together for the Intimate Portrait Project a dozen times. Often it is more about therapy and our relationship as special friends. Natalie, like many of the other muses, finds my apartment a zone of safety – the plants, the cats, the jasmine tea, and of course my homemade tomato-veggie sauce. Despite the fact we’ve taken tens of thousands of images for the Intimate Portrait Project, my two favorite photographs of Natalie are not from that portfolio. The first is from my “Modigliani” series. The second, and probably the one I consider one of my all-time favorite photographs, is not from any project at all.

Whenever possible, I like to feed the muses. The Intimate Portrait sessions are exhausting. They can go on non-stop for hours. When the shoot is finished we’re both starving. I make sure to have a full refrigerator of homemade specialities including hummus, tomato-veggie sauce, pesto, strawberry jam, along with a selection of cheese and crackers. One afternoon, Natalie happened to be in my neighborhood, stopping by for tea and a taste of those snacks. We sat and talked at my dining room table. I couldn’t take my eyes off Natalie’s face. There was something about the way the dining room ceiling light flowed over her. I asked Natalie to take off her top. This is my life. She kind of laughed, knowing I must be seeing something special to interrupt our meal.

natalie deryn johnson. "reflection" series

It was something special. Maybe it was Natalie’s mood. Maybe we were more relaxed – this shoot was only for fun – whether we got any good pictures really didn’t matter. After a few minutes I was well past the “just for fun” phase. Scrolling through the pictures on my monitor, I can see the point where I began getting serious, focusing on my composition, pushing Natalie to concentrate on her poses and emotion. Her thought process in these images feels deeper than any of our other shoots. I wonder what I said to draw that out.

natalie deryn johnson. i will always love this photograph.

This is when that all-time favorite photograph happened. It is one of my iconic portraits. I have a 5″x7″ print in an antique frame sitting on a bookshelf in my bedroom. The mood is pensive, not chaotic – the mood typical during most of our shoots. It is one of the few photographs I’ve taken where Natalie appears calm. The pose reminds me of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration. Although the pose of the women in the vintage photograph appears natural, I read she deliberately posed in that manner to appear lost and in need. I had thought Natalie’s pose was natural, dream-like and searching, in need, looking for something she desires but can not have. Maybe it was a deliberate pose? Ultimately, I don’t care. The photograph looks natural, possibly taken outdoors in strong but diffused sunlight. This is what I love about photography. Each photographer has his own perception of the world. What I see will through the viewfinder will always represent my vision. Nothing is ever what it seems.


Posted in art, dance, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

07/15/18: caterina rago

It took me some time to remember when I first noticed Caterina Rago. Whenever I thought about it I would see the face of my friend Fanny Gombert. What was the connection? Likely Graham. But when and where?

fanny gombert in riverside park

There is nothing like the internet when researching connections. Fanny and Caterina danced together in 2012 during a Martha Graham collaboration with Antonio Calenda, performing in his The Bacchae at the Teatro Greco in Siragusa, Italy. The dancers in the photographs from the piece look stunning. No wonder I remembered Caterina’s name. I wish I had been in Italy to photograph the performance.

A few months ago, I made the decision to stop photographing dance – dress rehearsals and performances – anything in a theater. I won’t get into here but for many reasons shooting dancers on the stage was no longer working for me. I remember decades ago, Lois Greenfield storming out of the Joyce Theater after some dress rehearsal saying she would never photograph like that again. I can’t remember what brought on her displeasure but I do know I agreed. At that time photographing dance was still fresh enough in my career where I was able to put up with the unfriendly idiosyncrasies often involved with photographing dance in a theater. I also photographed other subjects along with dance, portraits, bodybuilders, and wasn’t constantly battered by the theater rules that made working as a professional difficult.

Fast forward to the present. Photographing performance dance no longer is artistically fulfilling. It’s not that there aren’t great choreographers and amazing dancers. The problem is the companies no longer allow me (or anyone) to photograph their dances in a manner where I can create photographs with any artistic value. Many of the dance companies have taken away the small amount of freedom I once had that allowed me to create personal images. In the 1980s I did several exhibitions in New York City featuring my dance photography. Today, New York gallery owners immediately dismiss your work if you mention showing dance photography in a gallery.

a photograph from my solo exhibition at dance theatre workshop. francine landes dancing for diane mcpherson

Sadly I have to agree with the galleries. It’s not that the photographs aren’t beautiful. But they are rarely art. Shooting dance now I’m reduced to the role of a journalist, basically copying what I see on the stage, none of my own soul becoming part of the images. My vision is integral to my photography. Dance companies rarely allow me to photograph with that vision. It is all about controlling their image on social media, even when that control invites boredom. Dance companies wonder why audiences are shrinking? Why coverage in magazines and newspapers, print and online, is all but gone? Dance is exciting, motivating, inspirational – but most often the imagery used to promote the art of dance is not. What was great in the 1980s no longer works today.

Dance is the most beautiful subject on earth to capture with a camera. That’s what I believe. When I began photographing dance in the early 1980s there weren’t so many rules. The photographers were treated with great respect by the dance companies – as equal artists. Now, partially due to digital photography, people who photograph performance dance are often treated at best as a necessary nuisance. I can live with working for free but then at least let me take great photographs. It seems the dance companies believe anyone with a camera can take a photograph that’s “good enough.” Do you want to know if I’m upset? Yes I am! I once had something beautiful and it has been taken from me. Whatever happened to artistic freedom?

dress rehearsal of twyla tharp's "nine sinatra songs" at the rainbow room

Maybe I’m being delusional? Maybe in the 1980s and 1990s I had been lucky? Possibly I’m spoiled? I do know during my shoots at The Dance Theater Workshop no one ever told me where to stand or what pictures to take. When working with Twyla Tharp on the BBC’s production of her great work, The Catherine Wheel, I was treated as an artist equal to the dancers and film crew. I photographed the American Ballet Theatre during the entire ten years Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director of the company. I was given a stage pass to the Metropolitan Opera House. I could walk into the theater whenever I wished, photographing from backstage any performance that inspired me. That is respect. That is artistic freedom. I knew what I had was special and I gave back everything in return.

jessica sgambelluri for the intimate portrait project

Last month I noticed Caterina Rago was performing in the Graham Theater at Westbeth. Despite my decision not to take any more stage photographs I do have a thing for dance companies led by Graham-trained dancers. More important, Jessica Sgambelluri, my muse and good friend was dancing with the company. It makes me happy just being in Jessica’s presence. I emailed Caterina about photographing the company. Her positive response was immediate – excited I wanted to shoot. The tone of her email made me feel good about working together. Just talking to her reminded me of the love I had for photographing dancers in the theater. I promised to photograph both the tech and dress rehearsals.

raphaelle kessedjian dancing with martha graham at summerstage

I was looking forward to the shoots. I hadn’t seen Jessica in a while and it’s always something special when I can photograph one of my Intimate Portrait Project muses as a dancer. I had previously photographed three of the other dancers when they performed with other companies – Lissa Smith with Yin Yue Dance, Raphaelle Kessedjian with Martha Graham and Jackie Rea with Graham II. I couldn’t wait to have these dancers in front of my camera again.

I’ve shot at Westbeth a lot. I’m comfortable in that space. I can be close to the dancers while shooting. I got to the theater learning I would be the only photographer at the rehearsal. I was surprised but happy. I love shooting dance alone – no other photographers to distract me. I’m always early to a rehearsal. I need time to meditate before a dance shoot, calming myself, slowing time so when the dancers are flying around the stage I can see them moving in slow motion. I don’t know how I would otherwise be able to capture their emotions. Photographing the steps is difficult enough. I need intensity in my images. I need to make the dancers look like the gods they are.

breton tyner-bryan with abdiel cedric jacobsen

I arrived at Westbeth an hour early. I dropped off my camera bags in the theater and wandered off to see if anything interesting was happening in the small studio. I opened the door expecting to find Caterina and her dancers, but instead walked into Breton Tyner-Bryan’s rehearsal. I was a bit embarrassed. I got a great hug from Breton, apologized, and headed back into the theater. Realizing I should have stayed, I grabbed one of my cameras and headed back to Breton’s rehearsal. Breton was happy I wanted to shoot. Me too. I love my life.

jessica sgambelluri. caterina rago dance

After Breton’s rehearsal I returned to the theater and waited for the dancers to appear. I warm up with the dancers, they with their bodies and me with my eyes. Jessica was deep in thought, working out the movement for what I later realize is an amazing solo in one of the dances. Other dancers arrive and move on to the stage. These women have passion. I mentally prepare myself. Something great is going to happen right in front of me and I need to be ready.

raphaelle kessedjian. caterina rago dance

I’m mesmerized by Raphaelle Kessedjian. She looked familiar when she came on to the stage. It was only a few weeks later I realized I had photographed her dancing with Martha Graham during a performance at Summerstage. Everything about Raphaelle is beautiful. Now that I’ve also photographed her for my Intimate Portrait Project I realize the complexity of her artistic process. Raphaelle is complicated, emotional, and intense. The perfect muse.

caterina rago rehearsing "labir into"

I usually photograph tech rehearsals in black and white and working with Caterina Rago was no different. If I’m shooting both a company’s tech and dress rehearsals I consider the images I take during the tech “just for me.” Only my art is important. I do more close-ups. Fortunately the dance companies I work with like those photographs, if not for press use at least for social media. I prefer images with no costumes or background detail. I don’t want any distractions. My favorite dance is Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Pointe shoes and black leotards. Blank background. It’s all about the choreography and the dancers. I get a lot of that in tech rehearsals. It’s what I like.

tech rehearsal of caterina rago's "labir into"

I did a lot of running around the stage during Caterina’s rehearsal. I crept up on to the stage floor several times. No one seemed to mind. I was in my element. Just me and the dancers. I loved them all. While shooting I had visions of the dancers, all posing for my Intimate Portrait Project. But something was different in this vision. The images in my head didn’t match what had come before. At that moment I was too busy to see the future. I knew I needed the dancers posing close together but how? I did feel their emotions but I couldn’t envision the space.

caitlin trainor and dancers for the intimate portrait project

It is something I’ve done before – group intimate portraits – two times with Caitlin Trainor and her dancers. It was an amazing process, having so many people to work with at one time. I would begin with one dancer, adding other models to the photograph when the timing felt right. The shoots had a wonderful flow. The dancers not being photographed waited in the next room. They could see the shoot happening but were far enough away not to emotionally interfere. The difference between what I had done with the Trainor dancers and what I was imagining with the Rago dancers was important. With Caterina Rago, no one would ever leave the room.

rosalia panepinto in caterina rago's "labir into"

I can’t remember much about the second night, photographing the dress rehearsal, except that it was exhausting. Westbeth’s theater is a great space to shoot for the photographer who wants to move with the dancers during the rehearsal. I did move around. I ran across the front of the stage, keeping up with the movement of the dancers. I crawled along the ground to get better angles. I know I got too close. At some point I was deep enough on to the stage to change the choreography. I didn’t see the dancer fly by. I only felt her breeze and the touch of a costume as it billowed against my legs. It reminded me of why I first decided to photograph dance – passion, intimacy, touch, and muses on the stage. I needed to get closer to Caterina and her dancers. I needed the Intimate Portrait shoot.

some pictures on my wall

I asked Caterina to stop by my apartment to pick up the disks with the rehearsal photographs. I wanted to spend time with her before explaining the process of my Intimate Portrait Project. The walls of my apartment are covered with photographs from my various projects. Often these prints better explain what my work is about than my words ever can.

We looked at pictures, drank tea, and talked for over an hour. It felt like we could chat forever. Instant friends. That usually happens after a shoot, when the muse and I relax, winding down from the emotional intensity of an Intimate Portrait session.

jackie rea, caterina rago, and raphaelle kessedjian for the intimate portrait project

We talked about the process of shooting for my Intimate portraits. Caterina’s openness surprised me. We had already passed the barrier of trust. Caterina is special in a way I can’t yet explain. I think she might deliberately, maybe subconsciously, hide some of her best qualities. There is real goodness in her soul. We agreed to set up a group portrait session. The only question now was who would be available?

Not long afterwards, I received a text from Caterina. The shoot was on. It would be her, Jackie Rea, and Raphaelle Kessedjian. I was excited to photograph these three women together. They were all filled with so much passion. I hoped I would be able to capture that in the portraits.

caterina rago. intimate portrait project

I was nervous the morning before the shoot. Raphaelle seemed concerned about the nudity. We emailed back and forth the morning before the shoot. I was afraid she would decide not to participate. After a few emails it all seemed okay but it wasn’t what I had expected. Normally when I do a group Intimate Portrait shoot I always make sure I have already worked with at least one or two of the muses in the group. They already know what to expect and subconsciously guide the other models through the early part of the session, the time when a new model is working to understand and feel comfortable with how my process works. For those who don’t know about the Intimate Portrait Project, there is a physical connection between me and the model during much of the shoot. According to our modern American society that is not normal. Touch between friends is forbidden. Society has it wrong. We have mostly forgotten the ability to share warmth and trust with our friends. My Intimate shoots try to break through that barrier and can at first feel like an emotional assault on one’s mind.

jackie rea. intimate portrait project

I hadn’t worked with either of these three women except as dancers on a stage. For whatever reason I had hoped Raphaelle would be the pillar the other two would use for emotional strength and confidence. It wasn’t going to be that way. I began the shoot with Caterina. She is fearless. I was not. It’s up to me to bring out the soul of the person in front of my camera and take it to a place of peace. If I wasn’t feeling centered how could they be? Caterina tried too hard at first. That’s a natural reaction to any shoot. I was trying too hard too! That isn’t normal. I had to find a way to settle myself and the models. Often all it’s takes is patience and time.

raphaelle kessedjian. the 100th muse for the intimate portrait project

I added Jackie to the shoot and then photographed her alone. My connection with her was the strongest and I began to settle down. I brought Raphaelle into the frame with Jackie and finally began to see the photographs form before me. I worked with Raphaelle alone. I struggled to break through to her while at the same time sensing everything about Raphaelle that makes her extraordinary and special. Patience. There can always be another shoot.

caterina rago and jackie rea. intimate portrait project

As I took a short break, I looked at the three women spread out across the room. There was a strength in them together. There was something about how they filled the room. I began to photograph the three women in more of an environmental portrait manner. They appeared comfortable in my space. In some ways it felt like we were all encased together in one of natures wombs. Some timeless place. That might seem strange when imagining a New York City space. To understand you will have to visit my apartment.

jackie rea, caterina rago, and raphaelle kessedjian in my apartment. intimate portrait project

I continued to photograph the women individually but it always came back to working with all three together. This made me see the Intimate portraits in a new light. They had always been about the physical proximity between model, photographer, and camera. Possibly after photographing my 100th muse for the project (Raphaelle), the images could now retain the emotional intimacy without the physical touch. Maybe now I could take the Intimate Portrait Project somewhere new.

But not yet. Caterina stopped by my apartment two weeks later to pick up the photographs from the Intimate shoot. Whenever possible, I turn these visits into a semi-spontaneous short photo adventure, hoping the lack of planning on both sides will lead to something unexpected.

caterina rago. intimate portrait project

We began shooting. Caterina was in a different emotional space this time. More relaxed. Unafraid instead of fierce. Her entire body looked and felt different. There was a softness to her that wasn’t apparent two weeks ago. I wanted to spend part of the shoot working with mirrors and grabbed a broken piece from my bag of shards. We sat together on my couch, the sides of our faces pressed together, arms partially wrapped around each others’ bodies. The body positions necessary to get the proper reflection and keep the camera out of the picture. As I watched Caterina’s reflection, her face appeared to melt into mine. At times I couldn’t tell if she was awake or lost in deep meditation. We spoke but I can’t remember making any sound. The physical closeness felt good. On occasion I would lose my bearing, struggling to maintain the camera’s composition and focus. Caterina pulled me into her meditation. It felt like I had entered her dream.

caterina sharing her dream. intimate portrait project

I’ve done more than 250 Intimate Portrait shoots but this was the first time something like that had happened. The muses have gone into different states of consciousness during a shoot but it had never been shared with me. I was always jealous and wondered what that place felt like. I think back now and wonder if the experience really happened. I look at Caterina’s face in the photographs and know it is true.

Posted in art, dance, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

06/27/18: reflection

Most of my photographic projects come to me in daydreams. It can be while wandering the streets of New York, sitting at a dance concert, eating dinner, or retouching my images on Photoshop. Something I see or hear stimulates my brain – visions of photographs and conversations appear in my head.

naomi at my bedroom mirror

My series of photographs with mirrors did not begin that way. Seven years ago while working my one of my favorite muses, Naomi Rusalka, I wandered into my bedroom where she was touching up her makeup using the full-length mirror on my closet door. I had recently discovered the beautiful daylight in my apartment and the light bouncing off the mirror into Naomi’s face was beautiful. I ran back into the living room and grabbed my camera, intending only to take a few snapshots. Instead, it turned into an hour long portrait session. There was something about the light on Naomi’s reflection. It didn’t appear to match the light on Naomi. Neither did the expression. The angles appeared impossible. It felt as if I was photographing twins. I realized I needed to find mirrors I could take wherever I photographed.

I bought mirrors at Home Depot – squares made to panel hallways or bathrooms and long vertical mirrors similar to the one on my closet door. I found an small rectangular mirror I had used in the 1980s… for what I won’t say. I broke mirrors to get different shapes. I probably have 100 years of bad luck waiting in my future. I shot with the mirrors in my apartment, on the rooftop, in Central Park – wherever I went I always carried a mirror.

allyson in central park

Early on the mirrors were almost always an integral part of the photograph. The portraits were a combination of the model, in what I called “real life,” along with her doppelganger in the reflection. Often the “twin” in the reflection appeared to take on their own personality. A mirror changes the emotion of a photograph. The model is no longer looking directly into the camera. She sees only it’s reflection. The perception of the session changes. The model feels more alone. The photographer’s presence diminishes. The model connects more with the reflection than the person behind the camera.

In January, I began participation in Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab. It is a series of small group seminars with the purpose of helping the member photographers develop a personal project, the result being a group exhibition at Foley Gallery five months later. I applied with my BLUE FILM series but after the first seminar my instinct was to move forward with something else. After a hiatus of several years I had begun shooting with mirrors again, during my Intimate Portrait sessions and felt this series might work better for the ExLab. Something about the intimacy of my recent shoots was changing the appearance of the mirror portraits and I thought the ExLab seminars might be an opportunity to develop my new ideas.

alyssa forte for the blue film series

Physical touch during my shoots began with the early mirror portraits. I often need to be pressed up against the model to get the proper angle with the reflection and to keep myself out of the mirror. Feeling the model breathe while we photographed helped me understand their emotion. The warm of touch appeared to relax the model. The Intimate Portrait Project came out of this shared experience.


100 muses later it’s difficult to explain the intimacy of my portraits. I’m not exactly ready to share the experience. I hoped what I was capturing for the Intimate series could be extended to my work with mirrors. The touch was no longer incidental but deliberate. My relationship with the muses has changed. During the shoots it feels as if we are one person with one mind.

The recent mirror portraits, for the series I now call Reflection, is a reflection of our shared intimacy. Often are bodies are intertwined while shooting. I can’t figure out what is going on in the mirror. Where are bodies are. Where I am in relation to the model and mirror. We do move and breathe as one. We share our warmth. The shoots are technically and emotional exhausting. I see the model’s face – they seem to inhabit another dimension outside the of reality. The photographs do not seem possible.

caterina rago. shared dreams

Could I have gone to this place without my participation in the Exhibition Lab? I honestly have no idea though I doubt I would have considered an attempt to find this place. My perception of photographs, my own and those of others, has changed. The most recent mirror shoot, a portrait session with Caterina Rago, was taken after my photographs were printed and framed for the exhibition. It’s too bad. This was the shoot where I finally got it. Caterina and I shared a lucid dream and I captured that emotion in her photographs. At the final seminar Michael Foley asked me if planned on continuing the mirror series. I wasn’t sure at the time and didn’t know how to answer. After Caterina’s shoot there’s no question there is more to discover. Her shoot was like a drug. I’m addicted to that emotion and I need more.

Following are the six photographs that will appear in the Exhibition Lab group show at Foley Gallery. As I finish this essay the opening is less than six hours away.

alida in soho

1. Alida Delaney in Soho. January 19, 2013

Alida and I were wandering around Soho one night after dinner. This was early in our friendship and collaboration. We had met 10 days earlier but it was already our third shoot together. While walking, we would stop for a portrait in some dark doorway, laughing at the people walking by who gave us a glance, I assume wondering what we were hiding. Alida and I had become close quickly. She had the exact personality and look I needed in a muse. More important, she inherently understood, possibly more than me, what was necessary to make the photographs special.

This photograph was early in my Reflection series. At that time it was an undeveloped portfolio. I was trying different styles while shooting. Variations in light and composition – mirrors of various shapes and sizes. I always carried a mirror in my backpack… just in case. As we crossed a particularly dark Soho street I turned towards Alida and saw the lights. We stopped in the middle of the street and I pulled out my mirror. It was almost to dark to see, only made worse by the car headlights passing by. We shot in the middle of the cobblestone street until the cars were almost upon us. I’d yell to Alida to get out of the way. We’d run back to the sidewalk, giggling like two young children who have been told by their parents hundreds of times not to play in the street but who couldn’t help themselves from testing the danger.

I have always loved this photograph but didn’t know what it meant to me until Michael Foley pointed out the print during one of the Exhibition Lab seminars. It was an image that struck him. His comments started me on a new path with the series — only now my life is very different than it was at the time the photograph was taken. The intimacy Alida and I had that night in Soho later became the basis of a new series named the Intimate Portrait Project. For the Exhibition Lab portfolio I decided I had to find a way to capture that level of intimacy in a reflection.

zhongjing at le pain quotidien

2. Zhongjing Fang at Le Pan Quotidien. July 24, 2014

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember exactly how I found Zhongjing Fang. Maybe she found me? Possibly I saw something about her on Facebook that intrigued me? No matter. All I remember is wherever I found her it was immediately apparent I needed to take her portrait. I do know for sure this portrait is the first time we met. Sometimes I feel it’s best if the first time I meet a future muse it happens outside my apartment, in an environment I do not control. Possibly I feel it is safer? Possibly it gives me an easy way out if I don’t think a future shoot will work out? One thing I do know is I was amazed by Zhongjing the second we met. By this time the Reflection series had become not only about capturing the soul of the model within the reflection, but also about the surrounding environment.

I chose my local Le Pain Quotidien for our first meeting. I had shot there many times and knew the beauty of the afternoon light. Of course I didn’t tell Zhongjing our meeting would also include a shoot. I’ve learned these photographs work best if the model does not have time to emotionally prepare – or get nervous.

Along with dancing for the American Ballet Theatre, Zhongjing is a multi-talented artist. I featured her photographs in the fifth issue of VISION magazine, an art journal I produce when I have free time. Zhongjing’s artistic sensibility understood immediately what I was looking for in the portraits. She is a true talent.

veronica in central park

3. Veronica Zhai in Central Park. November 24, 2017

I do remember with absolute certainty the moment I met Veronica. It was during an after-party at Caitlin Trainor’s apartment. During a shoot I can appear to be one of the most social people on the planet. That is only one side of my personality. At parties I where I don’t know most of the guests I am uncomfortable. I hide by myself in some corner of the room. Veronica, who helped Caitlin with that evening’s dance performance, found me in one of those corners. We spoke for a long time and became instant friends.

Originally I didn’t see Veronica as a future muse but as we spent more time together it became obvious she wanted to become part of my Intimate Portrait Project. We both needed to enter that emotional space if our friendship was to grow. Photographing friends is much more difficult than photographing a stranger, especially for shoots like mine that are both physically and emotionally intimate. My shoots involve touch. It feels easier to touch a stranger than a friend. Friendship has boundaries and my shoots break through those barriers. Through out shoots together Veronica and I both learned that those barriers are a false construct of society. Friends need to hug and touch. It is good for the soul.

My shoots with Veronica are an integral part of our friendship. She’ll come over for dinner and we’ll talk for hours. Sitting together I’ll see something in her that needs to be captured. Veronica understands and makes the necessary shift from friend to muse. This photograph was taken during a late night walk in Central Park. We knew the night was about work for my Reflection series but the emotion in her face is all about the bond of our friendship.

shirley in my living room

4. Shirley Dai in my living room. February 24, 2018

I fell in love with Shirley the instant we met. It was a party at Veronica Zhai’s apartment. I noticed Shirley immediately. She appeared incredibly strong. When we finally came together and talked it was as if the rest of the world disappeared. We were in a crowded apartment but all I can remember is Shirley’s voice and face. Everything else has been removed from my memory. I was standing before a beautiful earth goddess. Yes, Shirley is a physical beauty but that’s not what I mean. Shirley is an emotional beauty. I felt so much love and goodness emanating from her body. A friend of mine believes we are all surrounded by our own personal electric aura. I’m not sure what I believe but I felt Shirley’s electricity and it was all good. She calmed me.

The first time we photographed together was for my Intimate Portrait Project. I had stopped doing portraits with mirrors at that time. The Intimate series had taken over my life though it had not yet developed the emotional or physical intensity found in the shoots I do today. It would be safe to say they were more “professional” and less about developing a special bond between the model and photographer. Shirley had no barriers. She allowed me to work solely as an artist. I didn’t have to worry if she felt safe. Shirley was open and natural, giving up everything for my art.

This photograph is from our second shoot together. It was over a year later and part of a group Intimate shoot for the Trainor Dance Company. Despite the fact there were other people in the next room, chatting, eating my homemade hummus and pesto, on occasion watching us work together — I still felt the intimacy I had with Shirley the night we first met. Again it was her electricity. She enveloped me in her protective bubble. I couldn’t see or hear anything but her. Shirley bared her soul in the mirror and gave me everything.

alida in my dining room

5. Alida Delaney in my dining room. April 5, 2018

After a year or two where we rarely worked together, Alida and I began to collaborate again. It began when she asked me to photograph her headshot. That day a simple portrait shoot became a series of emotional portraits for both my Intimate and Reflection projects. I call Alida Intimate Muse #1. She was the first person I photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project. The original design and emotion of the photographs revolve around her. The Intimate Portrait shoots are difficult in so many ways. An entire book is necessary to tell the story of how Alida’s patience with my art helped me find the way.

I had been through several seminars with Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab and knew I would be soon hanging my work in his gallery. This is very special. I planned on showing six photographs from the Reflection series but still didn’t feel I had the right group to hang on the gallery wall. I believe Alida sensed my need and as with the Intimate Project, found a way to make sure I got the photographs I needed.

During the past five years I have photographed Alida more than anyone else. The fact we hadn’t worked together in a while didn’t matter. In some ways it is like a couple who broke up some time ago, only to begin a new friendship years later. There are things that have been shared that can never be lost. It is a language only the two of them understand. Alida and I did several shoots together for the exhibition. She gave me too many great photographs. The original selection for the show included three photographs of her. Only after the final seminar did I realize as much as I love Alida, she couldn’t be half of my presentation. I had to remove one image of her from the show. It hurt me but I know she will understand. I hope Alida realizes how much I appreciate her love and support.

kelly in my living room

6. Kelly Vaghenas in my living room. May 2, 2018

In some ways Kelly is my next Alida (Intimate Muse #1). Kelly is a muse who gives up so much for my art it embarrasses me to accept her treasured gift. If I stated Kelly is the nicest person I’ve ever met it’s likely I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know how a person like her can exist. Kelly contacted me last fall. She is friends with another dancer who told her I might be looking for new models. That is always true. I’m constantly looking for people who will inspire my art. There is a funny thing about many of the women who contact me, asking to collaborate on my personal projects. I look at the pictures they send and never want to photograph them. It was that way with Alida and a few others who became my favorite muses. The second they sit before my camera they all prove my initial instincts wrong. I now understand and always agree to work with each of them. In every case it is their words that tell me I must take their photograph. These future muses – they all have a story to tell. There is something sincere and honest in their voices. It took me a few months to get back to Kelly but I knew we would do special work together.

I was already part of Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab the first time I photographed Kelly. She has always been part of the my work for the exhibitioin. Initially I thought I would work on my BLUE Film series for the ExLab but things didn’t work out as planned. After the first seminar I changed paths and decided the Reflection series better suited the design of the workshop. I’ll never really know if it was the right decision but I am incredibly happy about where the process led. This portrait is from my last shoot before Michael Foley and I chose which images would appear on the walls of his gallery. I don’t always know when a shoot is a success but when Kelley and I took this picture I knew it would hang in the exhibition. I love the photograph because Kelly looks like how the shoot felt.

the photograph of alida i love that couldn't be in the exhibition

Posted in art, dance, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

04/17/18: blue

blue film series

blue film series

I now understand writer’s block. I put a few sentences down on paper and then can’t move forward. I’ve only written 3 essays during the past year and finished nothing in months. On the other hand, it’s been a fruitful year for creating photographs, new projects and old projects revisited. My work has appeared in several group exhibitions across the country and the mirror-portrait series will be part of a group show at Foley Gallery in July. My Intimate Portrait Project has morphed into something more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. There are several new, very special muses. Several of the past muses have reappeared, once again becoming part of my photographic life. If I can only get my thoughts on to paper everything will be great.

pratya studying my mirror series at foley gallery

I’m not sure why my BLUE series began but I do know how it happened. During the past few years I had begun shooting a roll or two of film, using either my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad cameras. I have owned both cameras fo a many years. Even before digital they were retired from use decades ago. Sometime around 1972 my father bought the Rolleiflex from a freelance photographer who worked for the same company. My father paid $70 for the camera. I knew he’d never use it. Against his wishes it went with me to college. There’s no question it was happier in my hands. I used the Rolleiflex for some of my favorite photographs while working for Northwestern University’s yearbook and newspaper.

ron and beth's wedding. august, 1975. photographed with my rolleiflex

I bought the Hasselblad in the early 1980s while working as Gordon Munro’s darkroom manager. The camera model is from 1960. It was already old when I bought it though at that time in photography, used cameras were treasured and would last forever. The thing weighs half as much as a tank and never needs repair.

It wasn’t these cameras that inspired me to begin shooting film again. I began because of my vintage and antique camera collection. At one point I bought a No. 1 Pocket Kodak Series II camera at an antique store. The camera was built in the mid-to-late 1910s. When I took it out of the box it looked, smelled, and felt like it had never been used. The camera has a bellows and when I opened the body, the bellows made a soft crackling sound as if this was the first time the camera had been opened for use. My imagination had this camera sitting in a big wood storage box in a dusty attic for 100 years.

04/23/18: One Week Later
As Ronald Reagan so famously said during a 1980 presidential debate with then President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” Distractions. Writer’s block. Six days ago I began this essay, only to jot down a few paragraphs before life pulled me away. Hopefully I’ll do better this time.

some of my camera collection

My camera collection. I own over 250 vintage and antique cameras. I began collecting them on occasion while antiquing across the country. The old cameras are beautiful. I owned only a few until I discovered Ebay. This was during the website’s early days when you could still get a bargain. I went crazy. I had boxes coming to my apartment almost every day. I was surprised to find how many of the cameras worked.

my great-grandmother. probably 1920s. this picture could have been taken with my pocket folding camera

Often the cameras I bought used 120 film. Kodak first made this film in 1901 and it has been in use ever since. The negatives typically are 2.25″ x 2.25″, larger than the 35mm film most people know. Many of the older cameras took slightly larger images (2.25″ x 3.25″), resulting in 8 photographs on a roll of film instead of the twelve I get when using the Rolleiflex. When I look at my parents’ old photo albums, many of their pictures are contact prints of old negatives of this size. I began searching for cameras that took 120 film when adding to my collection. It was only a matter of time before I would rediscover film and try out a few of these purchases.

I don’t know why the first camera I used was a No. 2 Cartridge Hawk-Eye Model C. I imagine it was the first camera I pulled off my shelf that was both in working condition and used 120 film. This model Hawk-Eye was built in the late 1920s. It’s really nothing more than a cardboard box with a thin glass lens and a little metal lever to release the shutter. It couldn’t be any simpler to use. The Hawk-Eye was the point-and-shoot camera of it’s day.

Alison Cook Beatty was my main muse for several years. She made herself available for my art during an important time of experimentation when I was making my transition from commercial to fine-art photography. I have photographed Alison more times than anyone else. It’s only natural I would pull out a film camera for her. That was almost eight years ago, August 30, 2010.

alison cook beatty photographed with the cartridge hawk-eye in riverside park

At that point shooting film was something I did for fun and pulling out an old camera made the models feel more important. I have to admit. It did feel exciting using a camera that was old enough to have taken pictures of a Model-T Ford or bread lines during The Depression. Still, film was a side adventure. It was the digital images I considered important. I could see my digital images immediately in the back of the camera. The film, I developed whenever I had extra time. I never thought to photograph the film as it came out of the developing tank, ready to hang over the same bathtub where my film first hung to dry forty years ago. For decades I had no problem waiting for the negatives to dry. Now I scanned my negatives instead of making contact sheets in the darkroom. I could wait for them to dry.

oceane in central park with the pocket folding camera

I finally pulled out the Pocket Kodak Folding camera while working with Océane Hooks-Camilleri on a nice fall day in September 2013. It was our second shoot together. Océane had already become a muse. She was, is an extraordinary woman. I still miss working with her. We shot on my rooftop and in Central Park. I digitally photographed Océane holding the Pocket Kodak, wearing one of my vintage dresses. I then photographed her with the antique camera. The photographs we took look like they could have been taken the day the camera was first purchased, 100 years ago. We later shot one roll in my dining room after hanging out and sharing lunch. The shoot was “officially” over but I needed more from her. That roll is the first one I digitally captured, just after pulling the wet film out of the tank. I needed to see Océane’s film images right away. I got five frames in the capture and they’re all beautiful.

I developed my first roll of film at sixteen and tens of thousands of rolls since. In the past, in the days before digital, I always had to wait for the film to dry, cut it into strips, and make contact sheets before I could see the images on paper. Now I can photograph my film, still wet, the second it comes out of the tank. A few minutes later I can see the images big on my computer’s monitor. It is beautiful. Until recently I only saw this digital capture as a reference for images I might print or use on my website at a later date. It wasn’t art.

hannah weeks and emily pacilio for the intimate portrait project

As I moved away from shooting more typical portraits and as the Intimate Portrait Project developed into a strong emotional body of work, shooting film remained an afterthought. The Intimate Portraits work best in the 35mm horizontal format. The process of shooting hundreds, no thousands of images during each shoot became a necessary part of the intimacy. I play no music during the Intimate shoots. The room is silent except for the click of my shutter. The model and I both meditate to the rhythm of the clicks. The slow method of shooting film would never work.

katie mattar photographed with my rolleiflex... before blue

Sometimes during the Intimate shoots I saw something special that might work in the square format and pulled out my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad. The antique cameras are too difficult to use in the natural, low light situations that has become typical of these shoots. Anne O’Donnell, Katie Mattar, Zarina Stahnke and Hannah Weeks – I shot film during all of their portrait sessions. At that time, I would photograph only a part of each roll when hanging it to dry. I would take a few quick snapshots of four or five middle frames on the roll. If I though the film looked special I might try to capture a few extra images near the ends of the roll.

film hanging in the bathroom

Over time I began to study this digital capture of the wet film, not just a quick glance for fun, blowing up some of the single frames on the computer. The deterioration due to the wetness of the film was interesting and unexpected. This look added to the mood of the photographs. Each image had it’s own quality depending on the how fast the film began to dry of the film or the angle of the camera while copying the wet film. It was spontaneous. The images weren’t perfect. I had always strived for technical perfection in my photography. The wet film captures weren’t like that. It was good, pushing me to see in a new way.

caitlin trainor pregnant

I began posting the wet film images on Facebook. A shot of Caitlin Trainor pregnant went up first. Caitlin is one of my best friends. I photograph her both for my Intimate Project and with her dance company, Trainor Dance. It’s strange. I never consider Caitlin as one of my muses even though we have taken some amazing pictures together. I think it’s because our friendship is so strong. I imagine I feel the photographs we create are secondary to our special relationship.

I loved the way the pregnant photos of Caitlin turned out. They motivated me to take a few rolls of film at almost every shoot. I went back and looked at the film I had shot during the past year with a different eye. I had begun a new portrait series without realizing it.

Cheryl Esposito. I have been secretly in love with Cheryl Esposito since we first met at our friend Claudia Paul’s wedding years ago. I can’t say exactly what it was that attracted me to her but it certainly has to do with her energy, spontaneous joy, and endless warmth. I don’t know what took me so long but I finally asked Cheryl if she would pose for my Intimate Portrait Project. I expected her to graciously decline. The shoots are nude and both physically and emotionally intimate. Much to my surprise she immediately agreed.

cheryl esposito. the first blue film image

I don’t know what I expected from Cheryl. Her shoot was like a dream. It was the first time we had met since Claudia’s wedding yet we both felt like we were close friends. Cheryl is one of the few models I’ve photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project who’s not a dancer, yet she still moved with precision and grace. There was something different. Her movement didn’t feel as studied and surprisingly her physicality felt more natural. It seemed easier for Cheryl to let her emotions take over her entire body than it has for many of the dancers I work with.

cheryl esposito. blue film series

I couldn’t wait to develop Cheryl’s film. As it came out of the tank I photographed a few frames but this time I forgot to set the camera to monochrome (black and white), shooting the negatives for the first time in color. As I processed the files in my computer, inverting the negative strip to a positive image… there was the BLUE.

I had never seen my work look like this before. Fifty years of taking pictures and now something new. The results reminded me of cyanotypes, only better. I felt these images looked more natural. The skin of Cheryl’s body appeared to be absorbed into the blue film. She melted into the negative. I needed to see more.

caitlin trainor pregnant. blue film series

I went back to the film of Caitlin Trainor and reprocessed the digital files in color. Whoa! Magic happened. I reprocessed Whitney Johnson, Lindsey Miller, Can Wang, and Bronwyn Updike. The BLUE series had been staring me in the face for months. I was so excited just to shoot film I hadn’t noticed what was happening. The look of the blue film matched the emotions of the muses. I don’t have an explanation for it yet. It’s possible I never will. What is important is that the models and I both understand how the process works and we’re able to create new photographs, improving with every shoot.

bronwyn updike. blue film series

I became more aware of the progress while working with the two muses who I’ve worked with the longest. Alida Delaney and Juliet Doherty. I shot film of both women years ago, Juliet in Central Park using the 100 year old folding camera and Alida in my living room with the treasured Rolleiflex. During the past couple of weeks I photographed both women for the BLUE series, now using my Hasselblad. I always first shoot digitally until we’re comfortable. We take a break. I load the Hasselblad.

alida delaney. blue film meets the mirror series

These women know me. They know what I’m looking for in my photographs. There’s an excitement surrounding the BLUE portraits. Time appears to slow down when the film camera is in my hands. Digital photography is fast. Of the moment. Film photography returns to the past when immediacy wasn’t important. Focusing and composing are more difficult with the old cameras. I only have twelve exposures to get it right, not the thousands available on my digital memory cards. I pull the camera to my face, concentrate, and let the model know I’m ready. It’s not necessary for me to say anything. They’re prepared long before I’ve composed the shot.

juliet doherty. blue film meets the intimate portrait project

Click, Wind. Click. Wind. Refocus. “Turn a little to the left.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Hold the mirror higher.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Chin up. Not so much.” Focus. Click. Click. “Move an inch closer to me.” Focus. Click. Wind. Click. “Oh, we’re finished. That was wonderful. Twelve pictures goes by so fast.” We laugh. I pick up the digital camera an continue to shoot away. For a few moments I’m still thinking about the film. I can’t wait to develop it in my kitchen sink and get it out of the tank, water dripping on the bathroom floor. I now photograph each negative with the same care as if the woman on the film is alive, standing right in front of me.

Posted in art, dance, intimate, nudes, portrait | Comments Off

07/03/17: balletnext – again

charles askegard with misty copeland. ballet next

Sometimes a great and fulfilling art project needs to come to an end, allowing something new and fresh to begin. My first shoot with Ballet Next was on November 16, 2011, a rehearsal at DANY studios in midtown. It felt like a ballet celebrity event including Misty Copeland, Jennie Somogyi, and Ballet Next directors Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles. I photographed their first performance five days later at the Joyce Theater. I hadn’t shot ballet in a long time. I love watching ballet but as a photographer it can bore me. I prefer the energy, spacing, and choreography in modern dance. I don’t want pretty. I want real emotion. Some of Ballet Next’s new choreography was edgy, giving me the precision of ballet and the energy of modern at the simultaneously.

michele wiles. ballet next rehearsal

I quickly became close to the company – maybe too close. Michele Wiles and I became good friends. My all-time best muse, Lily Balogh, joined the company in the spring of 2012. Another special friend and muse, Alison Cook Beatty, choreographed a dance for Ballet Next’s first season at the Joyce, to be performed that fall. We all hung out together, drinks at the Mexican place near DANY and picnics on my rooftop. My cats loved Lily and Michele. Michele would feed Sasha (the cat) fried chicken from the Chinese takeout around the corner. Sasha would groom Michele’s hands in return.

photographing alison cook beatty and michele wiles in a rehearsal for "tintinnabuli"

We were family. Then things changed. Charles left the company. Lily was in and out. Allison’s dance didn’t get a good review. I began to burn out on some of the choreography. After a year of amazing friendship and photography, like two lovers who don’t know how to take the next step forward, we split up and went our separate ways.

During the past few months, I began to see photographs of a “new” BalletNext on Facebook and Instagram. It was still Michele Wiles but this was a different company. The images piqued my interest. It wasn’t about how the photographs captured the dance, it was about how the dancers opened up for the camera. Everyone looked amazing. Some of the pictures seemed to be more fashion photographs than dance images. I wondered if Michele had deliberately chosen these dancers for their photogenic beauty? I thought back to the years I photographed American Ballet Theatre. Baryshnikov seemed to choose dancers who were as photogenic as they were talented as ballet dancers… think Julie Kent!

michele wiles giving class before a balletnext rehearsal

I had promised myself I would not shoot as much dance anymore for personal projects. My goal is to work solely as a fine art photographer and unfortunately, book publishers and photo galleries are rarely interested in dance as a photographic art form. I I don’t shoot what I believe the galleries might show, it’s that I have always been a portrait photographer first. If I can earn a living selling prints of my portraits and nudes, that would be my forty year dream come true.

Sometimes the confluence of the rivers of life force a person into new directions. My friend, Caitlin Trainor recently gave birth to a lovely daughter, causing her company to take a short hiatus. Nadine Bommer’s dancers spread out across the world. The New York Live Arts season had ended. I needed a new dance company to work with, one who would allow me complete artistic freedom. The first company ever to do that was Ballet Next, almost six years ago.

michele wiles with violetta komyshan and natalie stys

I kept seeing pictures of BalletNext on my social media newsfeeds. They were now rehearsing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The light in these studios reminded me of Irving Penn’s portraits from the 1950s. He was a master of light. I believe his portraits and fashion shots from that time are among the best photographs ever taken. I was still nervous about beginning again with this company and decided to research the dancers, learning if they had the right emotional fit for my work. It’s amazing what you can tell about a person from their words and photographs on Facebook.

violetta komyshan and natalie stys in "irving penn" light

I’m not sure who I found first – probably Violetta Komyshan. Her name sounded Russian, and since I had visited the Soviet Union many times in the early 1990s along with my love for Brighton Beach, I’m sure I “stalked” her first. I’m guessing it also had to do with Violetta’s face. Her look is perfect for my Intimate Portrait project. There’s a natural warmth to Violetta that comes out in pictures and while wandering the net I get to her Instagram feed… 353K followers! Really! What dancer has over three hundred thousand followers!? Wendy Whalen “only” has 32.3K followers and she’s been a ballet superstar for decades. Okay. I agree Violetta is a photographer’s dream, but still!

natalie stys. "irving penn" light

Today my Instagram feed sits at a wimpy 1168 followers. I must be the only well-known photographer with such a pitiful following!. The young muses I photograph have more followers than I do. I’ve been photographing dance for over thirty-five years! My friend, Andrea Mohin (45.9K followers), on staff at The New York Times, and one of the great dance photographers of all time, told me during a break at a Paul Taylor dress rehearsal, “You don’t have many followers on Instagram!” Ha, ha! Yes, I know Andrea! It’s a good thing I don’t care too much about these things but when I hear from gallery owners and creative directors they often find their photographs on Instagram, it becomes important for my business. My pages must be seen. I hoped, maybe, if I took pictures of BalletNext, some of their followers might find me… and just in case you’re interested, it’s @paulbgoode.

natalie stys and violetta komyshan. balletnext rehearsal

Social media can mess with your mind. I had a vision of what the BalletNext dancers would be like – Diva Goddesses From Another Planet! On May 22nd, I walked into a studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center and what do I see, two young ballet dancers sitting on the floor, waiting for rehearsal to begin. I’ve walked into similar scenes a thousand times in my life. As with all the times before, what was in the room were just young girls. Violetta and Natalie, please don’t take this in the wrong way. What I saw in the studio were two young women with hearts and souls, real people, sitting in the beautiful light streaming through the wall of windows across the room. Real people – not Diva Goddesses! I knew I was about to capture something special. The images I had seen on Instagram only scratched the surface of what these women could offer my photography. They were indeed goddesses but not in the way I had expected. Not all dancers move with their souls intact. I knew these women could do that for my photographs. Now I imagined muses moving in front of my camera, bathed in Irving Penn’s light. I quickly forgot about Instagram followers.

violetta komyshan. focused. intimate. muse. balletnext

This essay for now, should end here. But after shooting five BalletNext rehearsals I have more to say. During the first three shoots it was Natalie and Violetta dancing and Michele choreographing while I wandered the studio taking pictures in that “Irving Penn” light. The dancers worked on a lot of improv movement, steps for a new dance. I learned the piece with them. Violetta often appeared to give my camera special focus, directing her attention towards me. Maybe it was my imagination – was she staring through my camera, watching her reflection in the mirror behind me. Either way it gave the photographs a personal touch, not often found in the dance studio. Sometimes it felt as if the dancers were there, moving just for me.

the rolleiflex i've used since the early 1970s

I brought my Rolleiflex to the second rehearsal. It’s identical to a camera Penn used. One of his cameras is on display at The Metropolitan Museum, the opening “work of art” at his centennial exhibition. It looks just like mine!

I shot one roll of film while Natalie and Violetta took Michele’s class at the barre. I saved the second roll for what I hoped would be a portrait at the end of rehearsal. When they finished, I asked the two dancers if they would pose for a quick portrait. Both respectfully agreed and I moved them to a place against the wall where I felt the light might be right.

natalie stys at the barre. balletnext

Violetta is a “creature” when the camera is pointed in her direction. Photography loves her. Everything about Violetta is made for this. I was concerned that Natalie would be overshadowed in the portrait. Natalie asked if she should remove the shorts she was wearing over her leotard. Without thinking I said yes. Instinct told me her lines would look cleaner. Natalie took off the shorts and leaned against the wall. I’m sorry but I have to say, “Whoa!” This was not the same woman I had photographed for hours in the studio over the past two days. Natalie was fierce! I didn’t have to worry about Violetta taking over the portrait. Their intensity was equal. There was so much more to Natalie than I had seen or imagined. Afterwards I would expect this energy from Natalie while she rehearsed in the studio.

natalie stys and violetta komyshan after a balletnext rehearsal

Standing in front of my camera were two goddesses. It’s not a term I use lightly. I save that for my muses. I didn’t have time that afternoon to fully capture the image I wanted. I’m looking forward to my next chance. I will be ready next time

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05/11/17: spontaneous creation

talli jackson and shane larson in bill t jones's "analogy/ambros: the emigrant"

In addition to being an incredible artist, Bill T. Jones is a good man. The words “please” and “thank you” are used often when he speaks to the people around him. In America you don’t find many people like him anymore. His demeanor is from another time. Bill T. Jones inspires my art and soul.

Yesterday, I photographed a Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane rehearsal. Analogy/Ambros: The Emigrant, is Bill T. Jones’ newest work, the third part of a trilogy including Analogy/Dora: Tramontane and Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape Artist. As always, while Bill creates a new work, changes are made constantly to both movement and script. These pieces are complicated. In some ways they are like filling out yearly tax forms. If a change is made on the business C Form, several other forms need a simultaneous correction. It’s the ripple effect. When Bill adds a new paragraph to the script, movement and spacing need to fill the dialog along with new lighting cues and additional music or sound effects. I imagine it’s difficult and frustrating for the dancers. Working with Bill, almost every time a piece is rehearsed or performed there is a change that needs to be addressed. It’s not like Paul Taylor or George Balanchine where the choreography is set in stone. Their dances today are no different than they were thirty years ago.

i-ling liu and company performing "analogy/dora: tramontane"

At one point during today’s rehearsal, the dancers were struggling. The story had changed and after a few attempts Bill stopped the rehearsal, got up from his seat in theater and headed towards the stage, knowing he had to help the dancers work out the additional choreography and spacing. I imagine a thousand thoughts were streaming through his head, envisioning the movement of the dancers individually and as a whole. Climbing the steps to the stage, Bill turned back to the crew (sitting in the audience) and gave lighting instructions to the designer. It struck me how many things a choreographer needs to think about while creating a new dance. It’s much more than just the steps – costumes, lighting, sets, music – it is endless. I think the President has an easier job.

bill t jones. "analogy/ambros" rehearsal

As Bill stepped on the stage, a sense of imminent dread and fear slowly filled my head. I’m beginning to choreograph my first dance. My initial tests, each with a different dancer, seemed so easy. I’m beginning to create my own choreographic language. The dance revolves around the physical movement developed during my Intimate Portrait shoots. In my mind I have a vision of the lighting and costumes. I can even see much of the spacing on the stage. There will be seven dancers, each doing a solo to sounds found in nature or the city. Heartbeats! Pairs of dancers will come together throughout the dance, sharing their sounds – heartbeat and subway, waves and laughter – ending with a group movement between the seven dancers. This final few minutes of choreography have not yet existed in my daydreams though the sound of the seven voices is beginning to develop in my head.

can wang using hands. intimate portrait project

I knew the process of my dance, Heartbeat, wouldn’t be easy, but now it seemed impossible. I need to find dancers – so far I have three. I need to find and record the sounds – heartbeat, bird song, waves, laughter, subway – who knows what else? I need to raise money. I want to pay the dancers something for their time. So far they all seem happy just to be part of the process but this is not like a shoot where I can give them photographs at the end of a session. After a rehearsal, I have little to give them in return for their great efforts. And speaking of time, the rehearsal process for Heartbeat will be endless. I’m not a choreographer. I can’t throw movement on to the stage. I have to work out the very basics of my choreography before I have the dancers move across the dance floor. It will help that a large portion of Heartbeat is solo movement. I can figure out a rehearsal schedule for that. Trying to organize rehearsal time for the duets and the ending with seven dancers will likely be difficult. I should schedule those rehearsals after midnight. I don’t sleep anyway and the dancers should be free at that time! It would be good if the dancers are tired at the rehearsal. Exhausted bodies and minds are often at their most fluid state and I do want the piece to feel like a dream.

As I put down these thoughts on paper it doesn’t sound as scary as it felt a few minutes ago. I’m sitting in the front row of the theater at Purchase College, waiting for the rehearsal with Bill T. Jones to begin. Compared to what Bill is creating, my piece is nothing. My work is like an unformed embryo compared to Bill’s well thought out, adult human movement process. And that’s okay with me. We all begin life as an embryo.

bill t jones directing the company during a stage rehearsal of "analogy/ambros."

I wonder if I see my art differently than Bill sees his. Maybe it’s that our working process is so different. I am mostly alone with one dancer, a few at most. My photo sessions are purely an art project. The dancers aren’t paid. Though I do hope to sell prints of my work, it is never on my mind while shooting. Bill has a real company with paid dancers and a crew. Tickets must be sold. Tours must be promoted. In the theater or rehearsal space he is god and it must be that way for the company to succeed. I don’t need to be god and I don’t have the right. Bill does.

We are both spontaneous. I believe that’s why Bill’s work is never really finished. When his work is performed it is complete. That’s something different. I believe we both see that there is always room for improvement, or at the very least, modified due to a change in personnel. For Bill, it’s a new dancer in the company. For me it’s a new muse. Sometimes it just has to do with my mind getting older, learning new things – more educated. I wonder if it’s the same for Bill? Either way, my life is easier.

still photo of sammy roth during a "heartbeat" rehearsal

When I photograph dance, I capture the creations of other artists, attempting to turn their art into something of my own. The interesting thing is I had this same thought process after shooting still photographs during my Heartbeat rehearsal with Sammy Roth. While filming the dance, I was creating movement and steps, thinking about how Sammy’s section of Heartbeat would evolve out on to a bigger stage. Afterwards, while taking the still photographs, I felt as if I was capturing a dance choreographed by some other person. The emotions of creating a dance and then capturing images of that dance were completely different.

Two days after my shoots with Bill T. Jones, I went to a talk at Steven Kasher Gallery. It was a discussion about Ted Russell’s photographs of Bob Dylan taken during a few photo sessions in the early 1960s, about the time Dylan recorded his first album with Columbia Records. The photographs were part of the current exhibition at Kasher. It was wonderful hearing about those times in The Village. The five people in the panel had all lived close to McDougal and Bleeker Streets, the heart of The Village during the years when folk music clubs took over the neighboring streets. One of the reasons I moved to New York City from Chicago were the stories I had heard about artists living in Greenwich Village. I moved in 1976, my first apartment at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, a short walking distance from that scene. Of course it had all changed by 1976 but I will always remember my afternoons at Café Figaro, sipping steamed milk with Orzata and eating the most delicious cannolis on the planet.

The most interesting thing about this gallery talk was an “argument” between Ted Russell and John Cohen, a musician and photographer sitting on the panel as a guest speaker. Cohen had also photographed Dylan at that time. During the talk, Ted Russell said the photographs were spontaneous and undirected. Russell informed us, when Dylan asked what he and his girlfriend should do during the shoot, Russell asked them to ignore that he was there and go about their business. In Ted’s own words, while photographing “I was like a fly on the wall.”

bob dylan and suze rotolo. photograph copyright: ted russell. www.tedrussellphotography.com

John Cohen, who during the lecture was obviously jealous since he wasn’t the center of attention, directly told Ted, sitting right next to him, that the photographs in the exhibition looked “art directed.” That they were not natural. Worse, Mr. Cohen insinuated that because of this, the photographs had less artistic value. Cohen said he would never lower himself to shoot in that style!

There was a stunned silence in the audience. I believe we all needed time to think about the concept. Steven Kasher, owner of the gallery, said nothing. The thing is, John Cohen was right! In the exhibition, there were photographs of Dylan performing on stage and of course those were natural and undirected, but the portraits in Dylan’s apartment did have the appearance of a planned collaboration.

bob dylan and suze rotolo. photograph copyright: ted russell. www.tedrussellphotography.com

So what! The photographs of Dylan, those where he was aware of the camera, were the best images in the exhibition. In many ways, the rest were only fluff to fill up the walls in the room. There was one print in particular, featuring Dylan lounging on his bed, holding a guitar, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo stubbing out a cigarette in the nearby ashtray. The photograph is part of a short series Russell shot of the pair in bed. It’s obvious Dylan and Rotolo are engaged in conversation with other people in the room, their presence something Russell only acknowledged late in the discussion. It’s likely Dylan, Russell or possibly Rotolo suggested posing on the mattress with guitar in hand, near the nice light from the lamp on the shelf. It is entirely “art directed.” That becomes more obvious when viewing another image taken at nearly the same time, Dylan and Rotolo playing directly into the camera.

As Cohen continued to criticize Russell’s photographs, my thoughts drifted and I quickly wrote down a short note on a scrap of paper. It’s a thought I want to share with Steven Kasher. I’ll mail it to his gallery on a postcard. “Art direction can be a spontaneous collaboration between the model and photographer, with no design or emotion decided before the first click of the shutter.”

an inspirational thought

I always get some inspiration from each talk I attend. This idea was important, not only as the explanation for my own photography but also the process for my first dance. This struck me while filming Nika Antuanette for Heartbeat, two days after the Dylan lecture. I believe a true work of art can be planned as long as the emotion of the piece is spontaneous. Some of Russell’s photographs of Dylan are no more than photojournalism. That was his profession and the results are a success. The photographs that transcended purpose – those became works of art.

My afternoon shoot with Nika was planned in advance, just like Russell’s portrait session with Dylan in the 4th Street apartment. A particular time of day was set. The shoot was not arbitrary. After Nika arrived, we talked for a while, laughed mostly, while sharing a pot of my special green-mint-ginger tea. I’m sure Ted Russell didn’t walk into Dylan’s apartment and immediately begin shooting. There’s always some discussion to relax the model so they don’t appear “art directed.” Nika and I didn’t need that. This was our third shoot together and we are already close. But this time we weren’t beginning the shoot with pictures. Our first task was to record her heartbeat; the soundtrack for the dance.

wireless stethoscope recorder

Nika crawled into my bed, cuddling up next to Teel. They both seemed happy and content. Nika pulled down her dress so I could press my homemade stethoscope recording contraption against her chest, finding the spot to record the best sound. I felt half like a doctor and half like a voyeur. It’s not that I hadn’t seen Nika naked before but this was the first time I looked at her breasts without a camera in front of my face. It was exciting. Not the nudity. What struck me was the confidence and trust Nika had in the creation of my art. She was going to make this happen for me. I closed the windows and covered Nika’s chest with a thick blanket to muffle the noise coming in from the street. I put on the headphones and listened for her heartbeat. I heard the thump-thump, thump-thump, soft but clear. During one recording I held her leg with my hand. I could hear the change in her heartbeat at my touch, first faster but then calm and heavy, slow and steady. It was beautiful.

nika antuanette. intimate portrait project

I felt we needed to be close before working on Heartbeat. The light coming in my bedroom window was beautiful. We spent half an hour shooting on my bed for the Intimate Portrait series. I had never seen Nika this relaxed in front of the camera. It had taken three shoots but Nika finally let out the muse I knew was inside her.

I dressed Nika in small black bottoms and a tank top. She stepped on to the small set. We shot still photographs to warm up. I gave little direction. The images are vertical. I had to let Nika know the width of her poses were limited to the shape of the camera’s frame. Otherwise the movement was determined by Nika. She already knows what I want, though each shoot has it’s own feel based on the emotions of that day. We shot the stills. I needed to discover where Nika’s head was at that moment. After ten minutes she entered an emotional space I hadn’t seen during our previous shoots. Nika was finally letting go. Her face and body were spontaneous and free. I switched to video.

Before we began I gave Nika a set of directions – feet must stay on the ground. Do not bend your body below this point. The edge of the background is the edge of my frame. You should at times move out of the frame – out of the camera’s view. It is important how you move back into the image area – art direction.

I began the recording of Nika’s heartbeat on the computer, loud with heavy bass to make sure she would have no trouble feeling the beat. I ran the camera and Nika began to move. The first time – four minutes straight. I was mesmerized. I didn’t say a word. We did two more takes and with each of Nika’s performances I became more spellbound. We talked to each other without speaking. We hugged in-between takes. I could feel her while she danced.

still photo from "heartbeat" with nika antuanette. please click the link below to view video

“heartbeat” with nika antuanette

Yes, it was art directed. I had a plan. Nika already has an understanding of my choreographic language and uses that knowledge while rehearsing Heartbeat. But when the recording of her heartbeat began to play and the camera began to roll neither of us knew what would happen. I become that “fly on the wall,” capturing what I saw before me without interference. I think Bill T. Jones often works in that manner, allowing his dancers to improvise certain parts of the dance, knowing they understand his vision. I believe this is what Ted Russell meant when he said he didn’t give direction to Bob Dyan during his shoot. Planning and scripting are not the same thing.

It is a special thing, having an idea and watching it materialize before your eyes — not knowing what the final result will be – only knowing it will be wonderful. This is spontaneous creation.

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