I’ve been trying to figure out how to get Leslie Jean-Bart’s photographs into my magazine. Originally, I planned on doing a “Reflections” issue; Leslie’s beach reflections, my mirror series, and a river/stream series by a third photographer, but he fell through and that idea has to be cancelled. I will find the perfect third artist eventually.
As I began to lay out VISION #5, I found I needed to fill four more pages. I tried searching for another dancer in New York City for the dancer/artist section of the magazine but no one I found felt appropriate. Then, Leslie’s images came into my mind and I realized a dancer featured in his work would be beautiful. Typically, Leslie searches the Coney Island beach for the right surf conditions or puddles on the boardwalk, waiting for the right combination of people and colors to reflect the light in a manner necessary for his original vision. It’s all very spontaneous. At the water’s edge, the surf changes the patterns in the water and sand constantly as the beach goers stroll by. On the boardwalk, photographing the pools of water near the outdoor showers, the reflections change with each spray of water. For the VISION shoot, the surf would still be out of Leslie’s control but unlike the photographs of strangers, with a dancer, Leslie would have control over the placement and shape of his model.
If you live in Manhattan, Coney Island is a distant place. On the best of days it takes me at least ninety minutes to get there from my apartment on the upper west side. I can almost drive to Philadelphia in that amount of time! Finding a dancer who would be willing to give up that much of a day proved difficult.
While scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I noticed a post by Emily Pope-Blackman, a dancer I “friended a while ago because I thought she might be interesting to photograph. After reading Emily’s post about Coney Island, I knew she had to be the model for this shoot.
“Why do I love Coney Island so MUCH!? I’m a minority there and very at home with more than ten languages spoken around me, generations of laughter mixing with the sound of the waves, the beauty of the seabirds, ladybugs, fish, turtles, crabs, wind, and clouds. And as I hunt for stone, bone, shell, and crystals I always make a friend or two. Today, it was two beautiful sisters 4 and 6 years old who said “Did you know that God is everywhere, in everything? He has to be here because you’re amazing and now we’re here playing together. Let’s swim. Can you teach us how to swim? Thank you God, for Emily” I literally smiled and cried at the same time. Salt to salt” Emily Pope-Blackman
The day of the shoot, Leslie got to Coney Island early. Emily was running late due to bad trains. I waited for her near the Nathan’s on the boardwalk. It gave me a chance to grab a corn dog (I love them) and relax by the ocean for a while. There’s not many things I like more than sitting by the water.
I spotted Emily in the distance, coming towards the beach from the subway station. She looked different from her Facebook pictures. On Facebook, Emily seemed free and natural. Today she looked proper and “professional.” Not what I expected. It took me a few seconds but I realized Emily had dressed for a job. This was a magazine shoot! I take the shoots I do for VISION very casually and I forget what the magazine really is. It gets seen by hundreds of art museums, gallery curators, magazine editors and the artistic directors of major dance companies.
I do take the publication of the magazine seriously, but as the publisher I get to make all of the artistic decisions. I can publish any content I want. It’s hard work but the pressure is actually much less than when I photograph a big job for one of my clients. For VISION, if something doesn’t work out all I have to do is yell at myself and set up another shoot. If I make a mistake shooting for a client, it could cost thousands of dollars for the reshoot and involve dozens of people. That’s not okay.
Emily wandered past me, searching the crowd sitting around Nathan’s for my face. I got up and headed in her direction, finally making eye contact when I was a few feet away. Emily did seem nervous. I’m used to that now. Models see the photographs I’ve taken of the dance companies or other dancers and assume I have very high standards and great expectations. They’re right! I do! But the burden of perfection lies on my shoulders, not theirs. I’ve chosen them because I believe they are special. It is up to me to make the photographs from every shoot turn out great. It is up to me to calm the models so they can relax for the pictures. Each shoot is entirely different.
I was glad Leslie’s shoot with Emily was first. His work is all about the body and the shapes. Any nervous stress in Emily’s face wouldn’t matter. Leslie’s reflections capture none of that. On shoots like this a little nervous energy can be good. The model might make quirky and interesting shapes that might not have otherwise happened.
It took a while for Emily and Leslie to find a groove together. His pictures have many elements to them and even with a model moving at his every whim, timing her movements with that of the surf and light is not an easy task. I mostly kept my distance, allowing them to work without any interference. Occasionally, I’d photograph the two of them working together, looking for images I might use in the photo-essay for VISION. Most of the time I wandered the beach nearby, collecting small shells and tossing stranded horseshoe crabs back into the ocean. I could tell as time went on Emily was getting more relaxed, moving in the surf and taking directions. Leslie became more comfortable having a model at his disposal, moving to the places along the water’s edge where he could photograph the reflections he needed.
It was a magic afternoon. Leslie needs bright overhead sunlight for his photographs. I need soft, muted light. Misty days or the last thirty minutes of twilight are my favorite times to shoot. As Leslie finished up with Emily, clouds appeared overhead and the mist of the crashing waves further softened the light into something perfect. I had planned to photograph Emily wearing an earth-toned vintage dress, but as she changed out of the outfit she wore for Leslie’s pictures, now bare-legged and wearing my sweater for cover, I saw that the simplicity of my shirt, along with the tonality of the bare skin of Emily’s legs, worked perfectly in this new light.
We moved into the surf and I began to shoot. I knew I would need to completely change Emily’s focus. Where Leslie’s pictures were all about shapes, mine would be entirely about Emily’s face and her emotions.
All of my photographs are about the intensity of the models’ faces, their soul… passion, strength and warmth. I suspected Emily would be uncomfortable, forced into a direct confrontation with the camera. I was right. Emily did not like to be photographed while looking directly into the lens. I’m used to this and I am persuasive. I can quickly convince a model that they are most beautiful looking right into the camera. It’s easy because I do believe it myself. Getting great portraits is all about being relaxed and there’s nothing I do better than making my models feel comfortable.
It didn’t take Emily much time to relax. She trusted me. That’s everything. The pictures were good, nice enough for the VISION article, but not yet amazing. I stopped shooting and we talked for a moment. Emily was great. I let her know that. Now I needed her to completely let go of all her fears and trust the pictures would be wonderful.
We began working again. Emily did let go. There was very little need for talk or direction. We moved as one in the surf, Emily’s eyes focused on the camera at all times. She looked so beautiful in the glowing light.
During my shoots, at times like this when it all seems effortless, my mind begins to wander and I have visions of future shoots with the model standing before me. It’s as if my mind splits into two separate entities; one concentrating on the model, focusing the camera, adjusting the composition, and watching the moods change as I quickly shoot the photographs; the sound of the clicks are the music we focus on for our rhythm. My other half is having visions; you could say they are hallucinations of shoots to come. I see Emily laying back on my couch, window light streaming across her face, the camera close for my “intimate” portrait series. I’m sitting on her lap so she can’t move away but her face and shoulders shift in small movements with each photograph. Her expressions are soft, passionate, like a mythical muse in a Renaissance painting. I didn’t realize Emily would be perfect for the intimate series until that moment. I still think about that next shoot, looking forward to making the daydreams a reality.
The light on the beach changes. Reality. I must concentrate harder on the Emily in front of me and I have her slightly shift direction to best use the light.
I haven’t yet asked Emily to pose for the “intimate” portrait series. I feel the need to daydream about her face a little while longer. I know when we do get together again, the experience and photographs will be something special.
Leslie Jean-Bart’s photography can be seen at www.realityimagination.com