I first noticed Oceane during a Buglisi Dance Theatre rehearsal for The Table of Silence. There were at least 100 dancers in the room rehearsing the piece but Oceane stood out like a black diamond in a sea of pearls. There was something about her dark hair against her pale skin. The way her eyebrows framed those piercing and expressive eyes. I couldn’t take my own eyes off her.
There were other amazing dancers in the room who I’ve photographed before in a dance studio or my home. Ursula Verduzco, Stephanie van Dooren, Suzzanne Pomerkenko, Lauren Jaeger and others are all part of special pictures I’ve taken in the past years. Still, I could not take my camera off Oceane’s face. I knew nothing about her at the time; where she danced or even her name. I began to feel guilty taking so many pictures of Oceane. I wondered if Jacque (Buglisi) would notice all the pictures of Oceane on the disks from the shoot. I did my best to shoot the rehearsal trying to pretend Oceane wasn’t in the room. One eye was always watching her. I couldn’t help myself.
Photography for me has always been a mixture of hard work, some luck, and a touch of magic. I wondered how I would be able to meet Oceane during one of the rehearsals and if she was possibly interested in doing a portrait shoot. Most photographers would just walk over and introduce themselves. It’s hard to believe but I can be incredibly shy. Walking over to a stranger and beginning a conversation is almost impossible for me.
Oh yeah! I forgot! I had decided Oceane was a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. If there was ever a face that could launch 1,000 ships it was hers. I often gravitate to classical faces, those reminding me of a Da Vinci model, Botticelli’s Venus, or a Pre-Raphaelite muse. Oceane’s aura was much older than that. She was more like a classical Greek statue. I was so mesmerized by her face.
During a break at the 3rd Table of Silence rehearsal I photographed, Oceane came over and introduced herself. (That’s the magic I talked about.) I guess I didn’t hide my attraction to her very well. I imagine she couldn’t help but notice my camera in her face every time she danced by. I felt connected to Oceane immediately. That’s not unusual for me. I can sense people by studying their faces. We connected so quickly. Oceane is extremely bright and articulate, beyond her years. A hundred people were in the room but while talking to Oceane, I noticed no one else as if we were in a protective bubble. For a second, the bubble burst when another dancer came up to us and asked if he could take a picture of Oceane and I together. I couldn’t understand why he thought we’d want that? Maybe we already looked like close friends? I told him I wasn’t interested, probably not in the nicest way, but I never let anyone touch my cameras when I’m working. It’s part of being professional. I’m there to work and if someone else has my camera I can’t be prepared if I need to move fast. Even in my bubble with Oceane I still had an eye on the room, just in case.
Back in our bubble we made plans to connect of Facebook and less than a week later we were doing our first portrait shoot. The night before I had wandered the Metropolitan Museum for hours. So many faces in the paintings reminded me of Oceane and I wondered if I’d be able to capture her in the same manner? The piercing gaze, porcelain skin, and timeless beauty.
I think the shoot started off a little slower than I had imagined. My expectations were high after photographing Oceane during the Buglisi rehearsals. Probably too high. Every shoot takes a while to develop. The model needs to settle in and relax in my environment. I need to discover how light works on her face.
After 30 or 40 shots I felt something had to change. It can often take several hundred pictures before I get into a rhythm with the model but I sensed a lack of comfort in Oceane. I had to find something to bring us both into focus. I pulled out a sheer fabric tube I often use in shoots and gave that to Oceane as her top. Immediately the dynamic of the shoot changed. The fabric stretches and Oceane quickly found ways to use it around her face and body. Whatever her concerns were about the shoot that at first might have kept her from opening up to the camera, they were instantly dispelled once she began working with the fabric. Here was the “Helen of Troy” I saw inside of her during the rehearsals. Here was the face that launched the Trojan War.
The shoot was a dream. We spent hours together shooting and talking. I can’t figure out why I feel so connected to Oceane. With most of my muses I can understand the connection instantly. Maybe with Oceane it’s my ability to bring out the true beauty of her personality into a physical form which I then capture with light into a 2-dimensional image? I don’t know for sure. All I know is when I point my camera in her direction a transformation happens which I can clearly see and capture on film.
I mention film because a week later, Ocean and I shot again and this time I pulled out an old Kodak Brownie folding camera manufactured in the late 1920′s. We headed out to one of my favorite locations in Central Park, Oceane wearing of my vintage 1940′s (50′s?) dresses. I shot digitally at first giving both of us some time to warm up. It wasn’t necessary this time. Oceane was amazing right from the start. Oceane and I must have been quite the site while I was shooting film. The folding Hawkeye doesn’t have much of a viewfinder and the glass has fogged over the past 85 years. I could hardly see where Oceane was standing while looking through the camera. I had her wave her arms and kick her feet so I could figure out where she was standing before taking each picture. I gained much added respect for the photographers of the early 1900′s. Just getting a sharp and well composed image on a piece of film was an achievement!
There is something special and unusual about the film images of Oceane; one in particular. She’s standing in an old stone tunnel beneath one of Central Park’s roads. I’m sure it was there long before my camera was built. As I was shooting, I wondered if anyone had shot a similar picture here with the same camera 80 years ago. What did this place look like then? Cleaner I imagine and a dirt path instead of cement. Most of the trees are less than 80 years old. Was it a pasture at that time?
While shooting one of the last pictures, I knew I had something special. I could see Oceane’s body as a silhouette with the sky in the background coming through the tree branches. I turned the camera to the horizontal so I could capture the width of the tunnel. I tried to center Oceane’s head in the light, knowing the old uncoated lens would break up the light and cause some ghosting in the final image. I shot a few frames, there are only 8 pictures on a roll, and went back to shooting with my digital camera.
The next day I developed Oceane’s film and scanned the negatives. The “special” picture wasn’t the first I scanned. Another negative caught my eye first. When I shot this image with the sunlight pouring through the trees, forming stark shadows on the tall stone wall behind Oceane, something reminded me of the photographs by Steichen and Jacque Henri Lartigue taken at the same time… meaning the same time my camera was built.
Oceane, don’t take this wrong but the photograph I love the most scares me. My first impression of the woman in the picture was I captured the apparition of a 17th century witch. I feel like I can see right through you. The woman in the picture looks like you but I see someone else’s soul. It’s so spooky! I did digitally give the picture a warm tone in Photoshop but there seems to be a color in the picture. I can see pink in your face and green in the trees. Is it just my imagination or is the color really there?
Oceane and I wrapped it up in Central Park and headed back to my apartment. We sat for a while, having a snack of my homemade hummus, cheese, and some vegetables. After talking for hours about everything we shot again. We took pictures at my bathroom mirror and lying on my couch using the growlight as the only light source. Some kind of wonderful energy comes out of Oceane at all times. After two shoots I still don’t understand but it’s becoming easier to capture. I don’t think after our two long shoots together Oceane has come to understand me. I don’t know why? There must be a problem with trust? It’s something that rarely happens with a person I shot more than once. Maybe the other muses have spoiled me. I can’t say if Oceane and I will ever work together again but I do know in the short time we’ve spent together she has helped me push my photographic vision forward. I see some things more clearly now. I thank Oceane for that clarity.