12/16/12: the fading muse

I was in the middle of writing an exuberant essay about an early shoot with Twyla Tharp but after walking through the George Bellows exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, I feel the need to write a more somber piece. I’m sure the recent shooting of 20 children in Connecticut doesn’t help either. As I walked through another exhibition, this one on manipulated photography taken before the invention of Photoshop, I dwelled on Bellow’s paintings. Near the end of the exhibition, I came upon a series of photographs by Duane Michaels. Michaels was one of my early inspirations during the time I turned from an amateur into a professional photographer.

self-portrait on east 13th street (1976)

When I moved to New York City, I was mostly alone. I took a few classes at the School of Visual Arts but didn’t find anyone who could be a close friend. I wanted to be inspired but no one seemed to have any artistic energy. Everything about the school was so disappointing. Often late at night, I would wander the East Village neighborhood I lived in at that time, passing by the many “bums”, as the homeless were then known, while I walked along The Bowery and Houston Street. Since I knew no one and was much too shy to ask a stranger to pose, I often took self-portraits in sunken doorways and dark streets. Duane Michaels’ photographs, taken with long exposures, the subjects appearing ghostly or multiple times in each image, were my inspiration.

self-portrait with sara jean #1/3 (october, 1976)

I had one friend at NYU. He had been the editor of Northwestern’s yearbook during the time I was the photo editor, my junior and senior years of college. He had moved to New York to finish his degree in film. A few months after my move to New York City, he asked if I wanted to drive with him back to Chicago for a weekend, to visit friends at school. The thought of doing two 800 mile drives over a weekend was not very appealing to me but when I moved to New York I had left behind the love of my life. I was desperate to see her. I decided to make this visit to Sara Jean a surprise. She had visited me a month before and we had a wonderful time. I couldn’t wait to see her.

self-portrait with sara jean #2/3 (october, 1976)

My welcome back to Northwestern wasn’t so grand. The excuse was something like midterms and since Sara Jean was a totally dedicated student I believed her. She reluctantly let me stay in her small dorm room but there was little happiness between us during the weekend. Feeling pushed away by a woman who I felt was my twin hurt me in a way I’ll never forget. My emotions were already on edge. When I moved to New York to become a photographer, I gave up graduate school in archeology, moved away from everyone I knew, and now, my true love appeared to be dumping me without warning.

self-portrait with sara jean #3/3 (october, 1976)

The one evening that weekend we spent together, Sara Jean needed to study so I set up my tripod and began of series of self-portraits with her in the Duane Michaels’ style. In the short time Sara Jean and I had known each other, she had become my first real muse and despite the difficulties of this weekend, she was still there for me while I photographed the two of us that night, separately but together. As much as the pictures from this moment make me sad, I love Sara Jean for allowing them to happen.

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