Svetlana’s back in Moscow. I sometimes wonder if the time we spent together was real or just another one of my vivid daydreams? Then I look up at my monitor and see the thousands of photographs we took during two afternoons last week. It already seems like it was months ago but there are the images, dated June 4th and 5th. I know it has to be real!
I first saw Svetlana 10 days ago in a studio at Steps on Broadway, putting on her makeup while preparing for a performance of the Steps Conservatory group. Although at times another dancer helped Svetlana apply her makeup, she seemed separate from the rest of the performers; in her own world. Everyone else seemed to have a connection to other dancers in the room. Svetlana appeared to be alone.
I wanted to focus my camera on her but I was there to do a job. I moved about the studio, taking a variety of shots so Steps could have a selection to promote the Conservatory. There was a great energy in the room and I wanted to make sure my photographs captured that feeling.
After the Conservatory performance, I thought about asking Svetlana to do a portrait shoot but decided against it. I’m trying to move away from shooting only young dancers for my Intimate Portrait series and I figured I’d see Svetlana again sometime in the future. When I got home, I loaded the images into my computer and immediately looked for the makeup shot of Svetlana. It was beautiful. What struck me was not so much her photogenic face, but her focus and the way she held her hand while applying the makeup. There were deep emotions going on inside her head. It’s just the thing I look for during my portrait shoots. I checked the few other images I had of Svetlana and they all had that feeling of thoughtful concentration and honesty. Her look reminded me more of a Butoh dancer than a performer of modern, ballet or Broadway dance. I posted the photograph of Svetlana on Facebook.
A few hours later, I received a Facebook message from Svetlana.
“Hello, Paul! Thank you so much for the photo, it’s a beautiful work!”
“I would be grateful if you could send it to my email in full size…as I don’t have photos of such quality at all. Is it possible?”
That’s all it took to change my mind about asking her to shoot. Svetlana had made the connection. Now we had to shoot! I sent Svetlana a message asking if she would do a portrait shoot with me. Svetlana is from Russia and her English is great but we were having some minor translation/understanding problems as we messaged back and forth. I sent her links to my website and blog just to make sure she understood the connection I have with my models and the intimacy of my shoots. Svetlana was going back to Moscow the next Saturday. We set up our shoot for Thursday afternoon.
I always find my first impression of the models I meet one of the more interesting parts of being a portrait photographer, especially if the model is conscious of my work and has read my online journal. Often I’ve never seen the model before the shoot… they are a Facebook discovery, and how they appear on Facebook is not always a true representation of their look. What most people post on Facebook strips away their inner personality but I have an inborn way of seeing through that facade. My bell rings. Teel runs to the door to greet the visitor and the moment I pull the door open I know I’ve made the right choice. It was no different with Svetlana.
I opened my door and there was a woman standing in my hallway, nothing like the person I had seen at Steps. Of course Svetlana was now in street clothes with no makeup and her long hair flowing but this was a different person than the girl I had seen in the studio. The Svetlana who walked into my apartment was the woman who I had imagined in the daydreams since I first saw her a few days earlier. This was the woman who I saw, deep inside the head of the young dancer in the studio.
I hadn’t discussed the Intimate shoots with Svetlana. I often feel it’s better to talk about it in person while sitting together in my apartment. You need to see my apartment to understand. I imagine Svetlana got an idea about the style of the shoots from my journal and she was okay with the process. I began as I mostly do; slowly; adjusting the lights and background to get the look I wanted that day. It was difficult for me to begin and I took my time. Svetlana is so incredibly photogenic, I was distracted by her beauty. It’s more than her face. There’s something about her personality. Svetlana has a special warmth I’ve only seen in people who grew up in Russia. It’s special.
It didn’t take me long to settle down and as I moved on to her lap to begin the Intimate portraits, I began to move past her face and discover the person now connected to me. The Intimate Portrait project is magic. It’s a joint meditation. It’s therapy. It’s a muse and artist making a special connection and capturing that feeling on film.
It’s not often I find a face and body that fit perfectly into my photographic field of view; the way I light and compose my images. It was soon apparent that Svetlana could be one of those people. So many things need to fit into place. Besides the physical… skin tone, hair color, shape of the face and shoulders, there needs to be a certain kind of inner emotion. It’s difficult to explain. First of all it involves trust and the model’s ability to give herself up to the needs of the artist, both physically and emotionally. The descriptions can sound sexual but they’re not. The trust level is the same but otherwise it’s an emotional place completely in the opposite direction. It’s true art. That’s what it feels like photographing Svetlana. I feel like I’m creating true works of art. The photographs of Bill Brant Jeanloup Sieff, Julia Margaret Cameron, and David Bailey flash through my mind as we work. Svetlana transitions easily between artist’s muse and fashion model. She’s natural and relaxed. She makes me comfortable as I work behind the camera.
I pulled out a vintage blouse I had bought a couple of weeks ago while antiquing in the Amish area of Pennsylvania. The images I had imagined with the blouse were a combination of proper and sexy; a model standing, wearing the blouse buttoned up tight with jean shorts. The shorts would add a modern sensual look to the conservative blouse.
We had just transitioned from no makeup to a look with strong lips. Svetlana walked out of the bathroom with the blouse open and unbuttoned. There was something about the paleness of her skin under the blouse with the dark lips and smokey eyes. I let her curl back into the couch as she had done for the Intimate portraits and began shooting. Unlike the Intimate shoots, I kept a few feet away, giving Svetlana freedom in posing and allowing her to lead my vision; the variations in her posing deciding where I should stand and how I composed the photographs. She was poised, calm and intense all at the same time. Again I was blown away.
Since Svetlana was leaving for Moscow in two days, I told her she could stop by my apartment the next afternoon after class to pick up the disks with her pictures. That night, as I prepped the images, I knew I would have to shoot her again when she came over to get the disks. It would be my last chance with her until the fall. I hoped she would be able to give me fifteen minutes. That’s all I needed.
Svetlana got to my apartment and I asked her if we could do a quick shoot. She instantly said, “yes!” I planned on keeping it simple, knowing we would only have a short time. I was sure Svetlana had a lot to do before her flight to Moscow the next day.
Photographing the same model two days in a row is a wonderful thing! You both begin in the same comfort zone where you left off the day before. I didn’t have to explain my Intimate shoots. I just pulled out the camera and we began. It was different than the day before. Svetlana was immediately more relaxed and it seemed easier for her to let the emotions go, bouncing back and forth between sensual, playful, and serene. Overnight, she had gained confidence as a model. We talked a lot during the shoot. We both felt we had already become friends. After shooting for a while, I had Svetlana put on a bit more makeup and joined her in the bathroom for a self-portrait in the mirror. While shooting our portrait together I saw something new. She had already become a muse. You can see it in her eyes. Svetlana helped me relax while we shot the portrait together.
We shot in the Intimate style to finish up the shoot. Sitting on Svetlana and concentrating on her hands and face, I realized it was time to shoot some video. The video was like watching my still photographs come to life. We did five takes and on the last take I got seventy-five seconds of perfection. Each time I watch the video I feel like she’s here in the studio with me. Her eyes are so intense and focused.
I made us lunch. Chicken wraps and homemade pickles. We sat and talked for a long time about Russia and how it has changed since my visits there in the early 1990s. She loved pickles. They reminded her of home. It made us both happy. I felt like I was enjoying an afternoon with a long time friend who I hadn’t seen in while. It was real and it was easy, just like good friendships are supposed to be. In many ways that’s more important than the pictures. Great photographs will always follow a special friendship.