I hadn’t been in a great mood for several days. Instead of going to a friend’s fun party on Sunday I did a self-portrait to record my mood. Melancholy days don’t happen very often in my life. I was having issues with how I’m dealing with my career. I’m working on some big projects now and they’re taking so long to complete. I often fell like the world is flying by and I’m getting nothing done. Of course that’s not true. When each month is over I look back at what I’ve done over the past 30 days and the accomplishments are tremendous. But that doesn’t always help. It’s not easy to see progress on a long term project. The results after shooting a job, a dress rehearsal for Bill T. Jones or Paul Taylor, that’s easy to see. When the shoot is over I deliver the pictures and I’m finished. Job done. I move on to the next shoot. When I’m shooting for a book or a gallery exhibition it seems endless. The amount of shoots necessary can take years. Normally that process is fulfilling but this week it brought me down.
I’m guessing the real reason has nothing to do with photography. I have too much stuff. My things fill a 2 bedroom apartment with 3 closets and 2 large storage rooms across the street. Just imagine how much space 40,000 rolls of film and 25,000 prints take up! And that’s besides my coffee mug collection, fossil and bone collection, high school and college photo albums, 1,500 cds that have been copied to a hard drive, photo equipment, etc., etc. If I didn’t do something soon I’d be featured on an episode of Hoarders! So I decided I had to get rid of enough of my stuff and downsize one of my storage rooms. I’ve been giving away my old “stuff” to Goodwill for months. I think they could dedicate a wing in my name at their home office with all the money they made off my possessions.
Anyway, at the end of last week I began the move into the smaller room and for some reason that set off my bad mood. I realized how much time I’d spent over the past few months doing what I thought was a simple task and realized how much of that time could have been spent taking pictures or working on a print version of my journal. Doing the self-portrait on Sunday helped and a walk through Central Park with a few hours spent wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art almost brought me back to normal. Sometimes great art can be mood altering. But after working in storage for six hours on Monday I just lost it. My life was in front of me among all my collections and I wondered if I was crazy keeping the fossils I collected from fifth grade through high school. Should I keep the bag of bones from some large animal I found in the northern Nevada desert?
I was so exhausted emotionally when I got home. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get myself up for Tuesday’s shoot. It was a personal portrait session with my main muse Alison (Cook Beatty) and Erin Arbuckle, one of my all time favorite models. Because of my mirror project, I’ve planned for a while to bring together pairs or groups of my muses for this series of shoots. This was the first test and I knew it would be interesting for many reasons. Alison is my main muse. I think this was our 28th shoot together. But she can be extremely shy and solitary so I was worried how she’d deal with the presence of a second muse. The first time I tried something like this with Alison it didn’t go very well.
Although Erin is one of my favorite models, having shot together three times, I’ve felt it impossible to get inside her head. Normally by the second shoot with a model I’ve made a connection. For some reason Erin was blocking me out. I did feel this shoot would be a step forward but I was wondering how I was going to deal with the emotional obstacles of the shoot when I was fighting with my own emotional state?
I woke up on Tuesday morning, fed the cats (they’re always first) and began to set up for the shoot. Normally I have endless super realistic daydreams about upcoming shoots but up to this point my mind had been blank. I pulled out some of the vintage dresses I thought might work on Erin and after seeing the pink lace prom dress images from the future shoot came flooding into my brain. It was daydream overload. The mental dam had broken. I could see Erin in the pink dress and Alison dressed in black, posing, reflected in my bedroom mirror. My visualizations can often seem so real they include complete conversations between me and the models. Now I was motivated and the energy of the coming shoot cleared my head and raised my spirits.
Erin arrived first. She has a cold so I made her a cup of tea and we talked for a while. I brought out the pink dress liked it. I wasn’t sure myself how it was going to work but when I saw Erin hold up the dress I knew it was going to be perfect. When she put it on, Erin was transformed. She looked so beautiful in the dress. It worked so well with her long soft wavy blonde hair. A person I hadn’t noticed before emerged in that dress.
I began shooting Erin alone at first, against my bedroom mirror. The daylight flooded through the garden in my window. The reflections in the old mirror were soft and dream like. I’ve owned that pink dress for decades and have used it for several shoots. But it never looked as good on anyone as it did on Erin. The tone of the dress matched Erin’s skin and they seemed as one. I would have to say her beauty left me speechless. That doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think I expected the first photographs to be so perfect. Whatever melancholy was left in my head disappeared and I got down to business. Not every shoot starts out so well and I didn’t want to lose what I saw in the camera.
After a short time I realized I needed Alison to become part of the picture. My original idea was to have Alison in all black, strong in expression, holding a mirror with a passive Erin in the pink dress as the reflection. The picture was supposed to be done with Erin against a white background but the lighting in my bedroom was so beautiful I decided to shoot the picture there. I tossed Alison a black tank top, thinking she’d come back wearing it with her jeans, but Alison came back into the room wearing nothing but the little shirt. It was kind of funny. We could tell Alison was a bit nervous wearing only the short shirt and feeling a bit exposed. I couldn’t help but laugh. I told Alison she was supposed to wear the tank with her jeans but in my mind there was no turning back. Alison has amazing legs and as long as she was showing off I wasn’t going to let her cover them up now.
Erin backed into the mirror on the door and Alison stood behind me as the reflection. Through the fog of the mirror, Alison looked like a phantom apparition lurking behind Erin. It was spooky and kind of mystical. We all became lost in the shoot as we experimented with other mirrors and positions. So few words were spoken. Nothing needed to be said. My only words directed the angle of the mirror or the direction of their gaze.
I guess I’m writing all of this to explain how taking portraits and the bond I have with the women who become my muses gives me strength. We moved from the bedroom into the daylight studio and Erin changed outfits. I’ve been doing a lot of self-portraits with my muses during the mirror series and thought it would be great to get a nice shot adding myself into the picture with Erin and Alison. After struggling to hold the camera still at one sixth of a second with one hand while trying to shoot the three of us together, I finally got smart and put the camera on a tripod and used a remote so I could concentrate as a model instead of the photographer.
So I’m shooting away and trying to look halfway decent for the portrait when I look up at Erin to see what kind of expressions she’s giving to the camera. It was incredible! I’m on Alison’s left and the camera is to the right of her. I have no idea what the camera is seeing. Erin is in front of us holding a mirror. Alison and I are the reflection seen by the camera. (It’s more confusing in life than you can believe.) 100% of Erin’s attention was into the camera even though I wasn’t there behind it. It was if I was watching my own shoot. Erin moved as if I was directing her but I wasn’t saying a word. I returned to the reflection in the mirror and Alison was doing the same. She was so totally focused into the lens of the camera which she could see reflected in the mirror. I had to watch the two of them for a few moments as I clicked away. They were so immersed in the shoot they had no idea I was watching them. Erin and Alison were working so hard to give me great photographs.
I’ve always known that but seeing it happen, away from the camera, made me feel so good and special. Both of them cared enough about me and my work to give me everything they have, even when I wasn’t behind the camera. If that’s not enough to make a person feel strong and happy about life I don’t know what is. The two of them certainly energized me.