01/09/14: balthus & me: muses and cats

oceane and jasper on my couch

As an artist it can be a scary thing, pushing conventional boundaries. Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal in 1865 Paris. The painting still elicits discussion to this day, so important PBS did a documentary on the painting and the “shock of nudes in art” in 2000. The first performance of Rite of Spring by Ballet Russe in 1913 supposedly caused a riot in the theater. The traditional ballet audience could not handle the intensity of the dance. Then there is Balthus. An exhibition of his paintings, “Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations” hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I write this essay. The New York Times, at the beginning of their review states, “He painted alluring, disturbing pictures of nubile adolescents more than he painted anything else…” It doesn’t matter what the review says afterwards. We’ve already formed an opinion of the work. The reviewer from The Guardian was less subtle in her review. “Balthus always denied any hint of pedophilia. But get real: these are erotic images of children.”

the author in the bath at 3 years old

It’s interesting because so many, over time have wanted to label Balthus as a creep, but there is no historical proof of anything but his dedication to his art. Sally Mann has also been labeled perverse for her photography of young girls/women. I’m sure Ms. Mann knew the girls she photographed looked “sexy” but she didn’t make them look that way. It is how young girls look when they’re serious. We now live in a society where a parent can be arrested for child pornography if they show pictures of their 3 year old children frolicking naked in the backyard pool. Really! When I grew up those pictures were considered cute. One of the photographs I treasure most is a picture of myself in the bathtub when I was 3 years old. It’s not porn. It’s part of life.

Sophia, the daughter of my long time friend (and photographer) Marsha Feinberg, has been photographed since the day she was born. I photographed her and Marsha together a couple of years ago when Sophia was 7. Because Marsha is so open about life I think Sophia is already aware of her sensuality in photographs. You point a camera at Sophia and she poses like a woman. In pictures she is not a little girl. Even though the pictures are wonderful it can at times be a little unnerving. Sally Mann would love her.

sophia and marsha in the jacuzzi. riverside, california

I don’t care if people like my work. I do it for myself, though I am too concerned about what people think of me. My shoots with young women can be emotionally intimate and I’ve let the prejudices of others, and the fear of their potential wrath, get in the way of my art. I know my heart and soul are in the right place as do my models. I have to let go of the fear. In the end, it’s all about knowledge, friendship, and most important, the pictures.

“One of the greatest things about art is it’s ability to provoke thought and discussion.”

sasha and lily (the cat whisperer)

zarina stahnke. on the day the young muse project began.

Balthus: Young Muses and Cats
Yesterday, after walking around the Central Park reservoir, enjoying the lovely day and Fall leaves, I skirted the crowds watching the New York City Marathon and ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was only 90 minutes until closing but I had no agenda and figured I’d walk around the museum, looking for galleries I’ve never seen before. Upon entering the museum, I noticed a sign for a Balthus exhibition. He is one of my favorite painters so I headed in the direction of that gallery.

my girlfriend, lori, in 1972, with balthus's painting, "therese dreaming"

I’ve always been attracted to Balthus’s paintings but for some reason never noticed his fondness for cats and young women. Saying that I have the same fondness outright sounds kind of creepy but it’s not that way. Ha, ha, ha! At least the women I photograph are legal. Mostly! Can I pretend my situation is different because I’m a dance photographer; there are so many amazing young dancers these days. Either way, I have no idea what Balthus thought when he worked with these young women.

rosie in the studio

I do know how I feel. I see them all as young adults, deserving the same respect and attention I give to any person of all ages. I’ve taken portraits of women from 7 to almost 70. Through my lens they are all goddesses. How they feel or what they think about when photographed I have no idea.

Originally I decided I should wait to write this essay until after my next shoot with Rosie. I thought it might give me some ideas. Not only is Rosie my youngest muse, but she is also the caretaker of my cats when I’m out of town. Rosie often seems more mature and womanly than her nearly 16 years although on occasion she is certainly a young girl. Too bad Rosie is allergic to my cats. She would be the perfect model to recreate some of Balthus’s paintings.

I wonder if Balthus was distracted by the young age of his muses as I sometimes am. When I’m shooting a portrait, I’m completely lost in the image I see in the viewfinder. Nothing else in the world exists. All there is, is the face in front of me. I’m looking for perfection. I don’t mean perfection in beauty but perfection in expression, emotion, light and composition. The first time I photographed Madison, one of my younger and favorite models, we were shooting her reflection in my bedroom mirror. I’m furiously clicking away, trying to get the right angle and at some point I realize I’m pressed into Madison’s side. It’s where I needed to be to get the light right on her face and at the same time, cropping myself out of the picture.

madison in my bedroom mirror

I stopped shooting and asked Madison if she was okay with the physical contact, explaining why I needed to be there. I’m not sure Madison had even noticed and obviously was much more relaxed about it than I was. At that time, it was early in my mirror series and during regular portrait shoots I rarely get this close to my models while shooting let alone in physical contact. When I was a fashion photographer I never would have thought about it for a second. Intimate shoots were part of the business and the models understand a photographer has to do whatever was necessary to get the shot. But dance, and especially ballet, is more conservative about photography (especially due to the internet), and I didn’t want to push the boundaries with a model at our first shoot together. And then, while walking Madison home from the shoot, I found out she was 16! Ha! I thought she was several years older than that. I think the last time I was pressed up against a 16 year old was when I was 17 and it was with my girlfriend. It made me think.

Juliet Doherty was 14 when we first worked together. At first I didn’t want to shoot her because I thought she was too “normal” for my style of photography. But I knew she was an amazing dancer and I convinced Discount Dance Supply to let me photograph her for some of their ads. Now she is one of their favorite models and I can understand why. Juliet is a special woman, mature well beyond her years. This comes through in all of my pictures of her. It is always a surprise. In life Juliet looks so much younger than her years. She reminds me of the young Balthus models. Juliet is somehow poised and natural at the same time. When the camera comes up to my face and I see Juliet through the lens, the young woman disappears. My muse appears in her place. Funny that her name is Juliet. She will be perfect when she dances that role on stage. In my 30 years of photographing ballet I have only met one other young dancer who moved me this much as both a person and a dancer. Her name is Julie Kent.

juliet as my muse, and with her mother krista, appearing as a young girl

I’ve never danced. Of course I’ve danced at clubs and parties but I never danced professionally or took a dance class. In a way, some of my mirror shoots and self-portraits with my models, are similar to an improv rehearsal between two dancers. Much of the time you dance alone but at times you need to come together with the other dancer to complete the dance. The physical contact enhances the emotion of the dance just as that contact enhances my photographs. A good dance partner is one who you can trust. One who makes you,stronger; more relaxed. When you feel the breaths of your partner, then the two become one.

I think Alida is my Balthus model. I can be close to her with no fear. More than anyone, she understands that the picture is everything. Our shoots are often like a slow dance; moving and breathing together, following each other’s movements. While shooting I often don’t realize I’m so close to her until I realize the full weight of my body is pressed on Alida’s leg and I’ve cut off her circulation. My view through the camera is so close up on her face as we’ve moved with the light coming through the window, I haven’t realized I’m half sitting on her lap.

alida on my couch

Alida has so much patience with me. She never complains. She’d let her entire body go numb if it meant I could get a great photograph. 500 pictures often go by without either of us uttering a word. These shoots with Alida are more like living in a dream than with any other muse.

I wonder why Balthus chose those models? I’ve realized young women have much more patience for the creation of art. Time isn’t as important for them as it is for adults. Time does seem to move faster as we get older. Sometimes an artist, including me, takes the path of least resistance when finding their vision. I do know some artists prefer subject matter that is a challenge but that’s not where I come from. My challenge is to find the emotion and beauty in something simple. I prefer my shoots to be a meditation.

Looking at the “young girl” paintings of Balthus, many seem to have been painted during a lazy afternoon. What an amazing way to live, creating great art while finding calm and peace in your life.

maddie posing in my bedroom with teel

This essay wouldn’t be complete without the mention of Maddie McPhail, one of my newest and youngest muses. I have a bond with her I can’t yet explain. While shooting we breathe as one. She is a young woman of incredible warmth and goodness. Our bodies often touch during the shoot. We seem to talk through our skin. Neither of us could imagine it any other way.

I asked Alida to read this essay before I made it public. Her thoughts are as follows.

Alida’s response:
I have always been fascinated with the back stories behind a piece of art–the relationship between the artist and its prime focus, whatever that may be.
Having been behind and in front of the lens, I understand both views and both worlds.

While the responsibilities differ, the experiences and discoveries themselves play an equal role in coloring and shading the palette.

My back story with Paul has been something that I cannot seem to find the right words for.

Our shoots together have moments of intensity and silence, flickering images where you feel exposed but in a way that’s more like yourself than you have ever felt.
I feel secure and calm as the shutter quickly opens and closes, as Paul captures life’s fleeting moments.

He captures and sees me for me, the good and the bad, the dark and the light.

alida rose. sunlight through my garden. 01/07/14

Final note:
After Alida read this essay and wrote her response we shot and talked for hours. The two of us met almost exactly a year ago and have worked together many times. This shoot was very different than any we had done in the past. Part of it had to do with our conversation but I knew after our last shoot, a few months ago, the next one would be special. I wasn’t wrong. Alida had changed. It was disconcerting at first and I had trouble concentrating on the photographs. Alida had been like a young Balthus model in our previous shoots, not unlike Juliet Doherty. In life, Alida is full of goodness but at the same time a little bit quirky and awkward; not unusual for a young ballet dancer. A person who I would want as my friend, not someone I want to photograph. But when the camera is aimed at her face she transforms into an amazing, sensual woman. A true muse.

Alida isn’t awkward anymore. I’ve always told her there was something inside she needed to find so she could grow emotionally. I guess she found it. Yesterday at the shoot she almost knocked me off my feet. At times her strength and sensuality made me feel uncomfortable. I was distracted by her beauty. On and off I had a hard time seeing the light and forming my composition. That almost never happens. I am very much looking forward to our next shoot.

teel as a young muse posing for my mirror series


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