Photographer’s note: The Intimate Portrait project has evolved over the past few years into a series of photographs of ever increasing emotion, passion, trust, sensuality, meditation, and peace. They have become very physical out of necessity. I have learned over this period of time that honest touch brings an openness to the photographs that otherwise would not be possible. In theater and dance it is called “contact improv” but the Intimate shoots are much more than that. Hours of constant contact in a private and peaceful environment bring about a very different emotional state than it would in a class or rehearsal space. My essay on Natalie is the most candid I’ve written when describing these shoots.
The Intimate Portrait project is constantly changing. New muses bring their own emotions and energy. Teaching me. Giving me ideas about where the series can go. Early in the project the this process was slow. I was learning to be comfortable with the emotional and physical contact inherent in these portrait sessions. In the beginning, I would frequently shoot the same model several times, trying to take each new shoot to a more interesting place, both emotionally and artistically. As I shot more with a model, I learned how to relax them immediately, beginning the new shoots at the same intensity where the last shoot left off. I learned which lighting and location, my couch or bed, worked best with each person. I understood the feel of their bodies beneath me. The temperature of their skin. How to use the curve of their hips to help support my body above theirs.
Natalie… “I’m like high or hung over”
“And it’s the most truth I have shared with another”
Natalie just left my apartment. We had our second shoot this afternoon. She’s texting me her feelings. I understand how she feels. I’m the same… exhausted and can hardly stand but floating at the same time. Only one other thing in life has made me feel this way; wonderful love making with a person I truly love. It completely drains a person of all their strength but at the same time leaves you high with a feeling of intense warmth. You can’t move but it feels like you’re flying. How can a portrait shoot endow the same set of feelings?
I began this essay two weeks ago after my first shoot with Natalie. It was going to be a story about how the Intimate shoots have evolved in a beautiful way, especially since the days I photographed Svetlana Khoruzhina at the beginning of June. After Svetlana everything became more comfortable and sensual. Veronica Zhai came next and while shooting her, I felt she completely absorbed my body into her own. There are no words for my shoot with Shirley Dai. No one before her had been so physically and emotionally open to the Intimate process. Caitlin Trainor used the comfort of our friendship to explore her sexual energy. Rosamund Brooks is only 17! I’ve known her since the day she was born. Her recent shoots feel like eternal friendship! And then came Austin Sora. Wow! It was the first time I felt totally merged with another mind and body during an Intimate Portrait shoot. I told Austin the project would never be the same after her photo session. She was happy but could not completely understand, not knowing what had come before. Without Austin, I never would have been prepared for the emotional cyclone, faerie, good witch named Natalie Deryn Johnson.
My first shoot with Natalie began slowly. Our get together was really a meeting to talk about the “state of dance,” with a possible portrait tacked on to the end of the meeting. As we talked, I concentrated mostly on Natalie’s face. Her eyes are enchanting. She’s an interesting mix of personalities; serious one minute and seconds later silly and snorting with delight. During our conversation I watched the changing afternoon light coming through my window, wrapping around her pale skin. The moment came when the light on Natalie was perfect, her complexion glowing in the daylight. I interrupted our conversation and told Natalie it was time to take pictures.
We hadn’t discussed the details of the shoot. I knew Natalie had seen my “Intimate” portraits online but I hadn’t asked her to pose for the series. Before we met, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to shoot her. Now after our meeting, I knew an Intimate shoot was absolutely necessary.
I asked Natalie if she would pose for the Intimate series. There was a moment of hesitation before she agreed. She wanted to give it a try… to see where a shoot like this would take her. Natalie pulled off her dress, wearing only granny panties underneath. She joked about being the only Intimate model to be photographed wearing granny panties. She was right!
Natalie’s skin is translucent. I couldn’t help but stare for a minute at her beauty. She has an unusual aura, like a wood fairy who at first appears sweet and innocent but then you realize she’s really a mischievous sprite, full of energy; a little devious. You never know in which direction she’s heading. Natalie sat on my couch. I looked at her in the light and began to shoot, testing the light as I moved my florescent around the room. I could tell she was nervous. Natalie looked so beautiful. I couldn’t understand why? It was unexpected. I never asked her the reason. After I was set with my light I moved up on to Natalie’s lap. Whether I need to check my lights or not, I always spend the first few minutes of an Intimate shoot with a new model talking and moving the lights around the room. It gives the model a little time to relax and prepare for what’s about to happen.
I sat on Natalie’s lap and began to shoot. I’ve done so many of these shoots now I forget the model has no idea what to expect. Despite the early tension, or more accurately, Natalie’s internal questioning of why the Intimate shoots exist, she was perfect to photograph right from the start. It was not long before she began to relax. I can always feel it in the model’s breathing. They’re body begins to absorb mine and I can feel their chest move with each breath. As their comfort level rises, we breath together as if in a joint meditation. It happened quickly with Natalie. The apprehension changing to what appeared to be a soft feeling of wonder, through sensuality, past strength into a roller coaster of ever changing emotions. It typically happens this way, only with Natalie the coaster ride is world class. I literally held on and went for the ride, hoping I could keep up and at least keep a good focus on some of the pictures.
Natalie moved me around the couch, our limbs entangled as I tried as hard as I could to maintain the composition in my viewfinder, remembering to adjust my exposure as she moved through the light. It was exhausting both mentally and physically. It felt like Natalie was having so much fun!
It finally seemed like our energy was winding down. It’s a decision that’s most often emotionally spontaneous but this time I wasn’t ready to stop shooting. To change things up I stretched out along the couch and had Natalie sit on my lap. I had noticed something earlier about the way her hair looked when she pushed it up against her face. I wanted something wilder. Feral. More natural; the wind blowing her hair in a way that could only work if Natalie was leaning over my camera.
She seemed reticent at first. Maybe Natalie was unsure of how to fit herself on top of my body. I know when I began the Intimate series it took me several shoots with Alida Delaney’s guidance before I found a way to get comfortable sitting on the model’s body. Maybe Natalie was going through the same thing? It felt more like a lack of comfort but since we had already been physically connected for hours that didn’t seem possible. I didn’t have time to worry about it. Shooting up at her while lying down was ten times more difficult than shooting from her lap. I began to click away. After a few minutes Natalie let go and her body became part of mine. It was interesting to be on the other side, feeling the weight of her body instead of being the weight from above. I understand why the models enjoy these shoots. The weight and warmth of another person can be very comfortable. While shooting I can’t concentrate on that feeling but I can see how the muses use the connection to get into a meditative state, finding emotional places they didn’t know existed.
After a few minutes I found what I was looking for. I recorded the scene and it’s feeling into my memory and ended the shoot. We were drained. We needed to eat. It was time for homemade hummus, pesto, and pickles.
Natalie and I shot again two weeks later. There was no hesitation on Natalie’s part this time. She did not hold back in any way. It’s hard to explain without sounding sexual but the physicality of this shoot was amazing! Once again, Natalie dragged me with her as she moved around the couch but this time it was with more passion and energy. At times her intensity scared me. I had never seen this much emotion during a shoot. It’s not like I’m watching this happen from ten feet away! I’m on her body, her stomach, her breasts; the camera is inches from her face; her expression filling my viewfinder. It’s all I see as I feel her body moving beneath me. Chest heaving. It’s hot in the room. I’ve been holding most of my weight off her while hanging over her body; balancing a heavy camera. I’m drenched in sweat. My legs wrap tightly around Natalie’s torso to help with my balance.
It was the most emotional of the Intimate shoots. I shot a series of video clips to help me remember the feeling. Natalie took me to a place neither of us had ever been before. It was one of the few times I’ve felt my pictures were a collaboration with the model. Natalie took me somewhere I could not have reached on my own. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with it if I hadn’t experienced the emotion of the earlier shoots with Austin and Veronica. Still, this was the first time a shoot had left me breathless. Natalie feelings are the same. I hope I will be prepared, at least artistically, for our next journey.
Natalie’s notes for her essay. I couldn’t decide who’s words should go first. Our essays are the same! They need to go side by side and read together. That’s not really possible so think of my words as you read hers.
The thoughts of Natalie Deryn Johnson: 08/26/15
My notes thus far:
Hair, experience to release
More ease in body
Same intimacy with lover
If boyfriend could photograph me
Feel more joy in body
Allow thoughts to surface and fuel me
Listening to his cues, what is allowed
Safe environment for self to just be
After seeing images you trust his eye
You trust him based on images of others
But your self criticism is let go because he can’t not take a good image of you
Lens, looking at rim then into camera
It is an experiment of sight in sensation
Not detailed but there is detail of feeling
You are abstract in yourself and he capture you clearly
Because of touch
Video: that’s me
First time I felt that way
I can capture myself but not to this level
First time I felt this way about a portrait photographer
He thinks you are beautiful, you are
I am melting
The same way from crystal
My life pursuit of vulnerability just got good
Knee in crouch
Self evolution you experience in relationship but expedited in shoot
Attachment, but professional
To be turned on
Legit hum in privates
And it isn’t even sex, it is your own limits expanding
The feel good
Water in eyes, but images not contrite. Or sad.
I remember myself
Pushing limits of what I can do
Not just portraits
Easily move between emotional states/colors
Natalie’s final essay. She explains the Intimate Portraits better than I ever could.
My first impressions of Paul were an assortment of floating images online through the Facebook feeds of the dance community. My only knowledge of him was based on the rehearsal photos and portraits involving mirrors that continually surfaced on the web. His presence was an intimate display of various companies and movers. This began my distant relationship with the name Paul B Goode, a man unknown to me but as a dance photographer who also had an interest in black and white portraits. It wasn’t until I shared a post regarding dance criticism today that our dialogue began and I learned more about his involvement with dance over the years. As a dancer and dance photographer myself, we bonded over critical issues. The Internet may be a nuisance in the shaping of our modern times, but it certainly deserves gold stars for the connecting of periphery strangers and the possibility of the serendipitous. From a Socratic seminar, cyber style, we decided to take the conversation into the real world where real humans meet. Paul invited me over for a discussion and a possible portrait session. I hadn’t had my picture taken in awhile, yet his asking inspired an open mindedness to sit for more than just the ongoing discussion of the perils inherited by the dance profession.
When I arrived at his treasure-trove of an apartment, I had no idea what was in store for us that afternoon. I had agreed to a portrait and figured it could steer more in the direction of his usual intimate captures, which I assumed involved nudity. After discussing what we could of the current state of affairs, he mentioned his attention on my gesturing hands and face in the light. This was the shift in our gathering. It was then that he officially asked if I would pose for his intimate portrait series. He had not mentioned the series in the initial invite, but was hopeful that I would partake. He explained his methods and the results. I agreed. I wanted to, of course, especially after seeing so many wonderful images of my peers. I was excited for the challenge and also nervous. Would I be any good as a subject? Would I be able to find comfort with my nudity and someone capturing it? I wanted to be comfortable with myself, an ongoing goal, and the thought was thrilling. So, off came my shirt and I sat on his couch. He fixed lights, our banter continued. I felt at ease with him with just a few butterflies navigating the decision to pose.
Now, Paul is a very skilled photographer, both technically and personably. His approach reminds me of how a choreographer creates a safe space for exploration so that truth can be emitted in the artistic process. He does not rush me. I sit there on the couch while he takes some early images, headshot distance from my body. When we feel that I am at ease enough to really experience the shoot, he positions himself above me and forms a stronger connection of touch. If someone was to just walk in during one of these shots, I am sure it could easily be misunderstood: a man kneeling over a naked woman taking portraits. Albeit, most images are not all that revealing, except of surreal emotion. It is seen in the eyes and face of the subject so profoundly. The most revealing images, however, are beyond tasteful. This is shocking to me because I suppose I was afraid of my own nudity, but when I eventually see myself I am happy. There I am.
Here it must be said, too, that there is a difference between objectification and beauty. This series is a sensual exploration and discovery of the self that is navigated by the security of relationship and freedom. It excels past the territory of pretty faces, pretty bodies, pretty forms. In this way, the series is actually rather brilliant as it is an enriching experience for all participants. The photographer, in creating a safe space and bond, is privy to document truer layers of an evolving being while the model is given a space to experience the self more fully and be seen by another in such clarity. The necessity for touch allows this journey to unfold.
The approach interests me, particularly as a dancer. It is reminiscent of contact improvisation, a dance form involving the exchange of weight between partners. A session actually feels as if my dancer partner could capture images of me while entangled in movement and expression or if my boyfriend were to photograph me in close quarters. The feeling is warm and spacious. There is no invasion of privacy, just the closeness of friends on a very professional level. It is actually pretty obvious once you think about it. Paul is simply utilizing body knowledge: the knowledge that human connection fosters expressions of trust and movement elicits an evolution of emotion. The more I think on this, the more strange it is to me that portraits are taken with such a lack of connection and vibrancy between subject and photographer. Normally in shoots there is quite a distance between the model and the photographer, or if they are close, there isn’t any physical contact. The conditions for extreme and authentic expression are hindered in other scenarios. Touch, movement and comfort change physicality, Paul’s photos prove this. People will complain about headshots and portraits because it is such a gamble if the connection with the photographer will be there or if the result will be flattering based on superficiality. With Paul, this is certainly not the issue. You create a relationship built on vulnerability and honesty. This empowers the series because it unleashes the subject and guards from static portraits lacking in evocative presence. I am sure anyone under these circumstances would let go of ego, of concepts of being good enough or pretty enough, and instead find affection for their own humanity. I know I did. It was shocking to feel good about my body, but these images are not about being naked. They are intimate. So I felt attractive in a way I hadn’t in a long while, but that is because vulnerability and intimacy is downright attractive and here is this person appreciating every subtly of your nature.
Returning to the image of my shirtless self under the weight of a pseudo stranger, mimicking a relationship for the needs of the project with a person that feels more like a friend I have known for a very long time. We are just beginning to find comfort in our proximity, learning how to relate just as dance partners do, shifting weight and attuning our energy. Time to time sweat drops from his face on to me. He is working so hard to hold his weight above me without invading my space. I can image how difficult it is to hold your body weight over another person while also holding a camera for extended periods of time. We laughed about the rigors of this endeavor. He shows me some images. At this point I realize for the first time what he is shooting and it seems like he can’t take a bad photo. I am amazed and excited. It feels pretty good and my trust in him is without question from there forward. Any self-criticism that was lingering had been dropped. This is the key to the entire process. There is no room for criticism, only appreciation and comfort. And posing with Paul is so lovely because he sees you as beautiful and allows for a truer deeper sense of beauty to be seen. I realize that I have been captured so tastefully while posing nude. All my fears melt away and I am vibing in a place that exists between lovers. It feels playfully endearing. I am sure the energy is different depending upon the model’s personality, but I felt free to just relax into myself, a real break for the New York City hustle. The images show this. And the more we worked, the more ease I found in my body and the comfort to shift around under him, following where my body wanted to go without asking permission. My face actually felt numb after a time because I let go of all tension and facial postures, the way the face holds itself out of fear. I slowly slipped into an abstract place of energy where I was more aware of my breathing. My mouth fell open, my lungs expanded. I yawned, stretched my limbs, wiped my face, and moved my hair all around. There was no judgment. We created a place of support I had not felt in an artistic setting in a long time or maybe ever. I went from just posing to collaborating, listening to his cues and giving more and more of my instincts to the moment. I knew this would change my capacity as an artist and a lover. I am already someone so giving with my presence, but even for me, this place was new ground.
From here we entered a flow state together, only interrupted by the filling of memory cards. At this point our connection was stronger. I gave him permission to rest his weight more comfortably on me. Our shared ease and touch allows the photographs to evince more subtlety of nature, a self only seen by my boyfriend and close friends. This place of ease felt like cuddling platonically on a Sunday afternoon.
The shoot feels like a journey, especially our second shoot. I almost think it is braver of Paul to invite a soul to unleash their heart in such close proximity to his body and face in a connection that does not protect him from feeling just as his subject feels. The second day I went from the highs of laughter into a place where I was openly crying. This was brought on by some gesture I made centered on moving my hair out of my face. I was invited to repeat this action. In the repetition of movement was born unpredictable feeling and sorrow. Paul did not pull away, but let me embody this state freely. I felt so supported in those moments and thankful that there was an artist capable of cultivating enough freedom and trust in me for my boundaries of sharing to expand. At the beginning it felt like he was just capturing me plainly, sitting on the couch, collecting rocks on the beach. We were content with whatever emerged, working in the moment. Once a relationship and flow of energy was established, however, we moved into a territory of cultivating and crafting, a deeper pulling of self. We are collaborators and I am in my mind repeating phrases that seem to stimulate and elevate the emotions that have emerged organically from the physicality of covering my face with hair. My eyes are wet, but it is not contrite. I am at home in myself. It was here, while crying, that I was confronting my innards and growing a form of love for my distinct human condition. Together, it seemed like we just let my organs surface, the colors of my experiences rising and falling. And while my personality and sensations surfaced, feelings that encompass both of us intensely, the shutter was heard almost faintly. I can only guess where we will go as our photographic relationship develops.
These working conditions feel like the high I have experienced with a lover, but never with a camera lens so close to my face. The circle of sharing was complete and felt whole. During the shoot, on the couch, I am fuzzy and melting. Walking towards the train after the second shoot, I become aware of the energetic demand of our session. It hit hard. My body is buzzing because its frequency has increased drastically, similar to my first time using healing crystals. Human contact does that. After it was over, I remember feeling hung over from all the toxins. My body was so comfortable and at ease during the shoot that my muscles had released completely in the process. Having been drenched in hours of freedom, the exchange was therapeutic and healing. This is an absolute turn on, and it isn’t even sexual. It is the fact that you have just begun to feel your totality, a blissful and supported place.
By the end, we have become friends. The kinship is undeniable. This is further celebrated with pickled green beans at his dinner table, a wooden surface holding nostalgic knick-knacks in a room garnered with family heirlooms and the images of other subjects. I will say, though, there was friendship building from the start. Paul is very aware of his practice and, as a guest, you are welcomed into his home warmly. The distinction between sitting at the table and working on the portraits on the couch is essentially small. This is another human that you can honestly discuss life with and be yourself around without qualms. It just so happened that on the couch the parameters were a little different and there is quality documentation. He asks certain people he feels intuitive about to do this project, which is helpful. He can sense if a model, usually a dancer, is comfortable enough and has the capacity to rise to the occasion while working under his direction, and ultimately manifest honest emotion. This is the bravery to expose the self. This state of authentic being is one of the most wonderful places to exist, to be seen intimately. Looking at the word intimacy, one finds familiarity, closeness, connection, privacy, and personal relationships. Much of my own artistic vision involves intimacy and vulnerability, hence my immediate want to partake and collaborate with Paul. As an artist, I strive for this bare version of expression and connection in all that I do. Being asked to embody myself so deeply for a portrait shoot is a privilege. It is nice to not be considered as another pretty face, but as an individual with the courage to take down mental barriers that keep true beauty from surfacing. There is something captivating about this essence.
Reflecting on our first couple of hours working on the portrait series, especially after seeing all the photos, it is amazing to me to take in how much the contact really impacted the photographic results. As a movement artist, it makes sense, but seeing the images afterwards really hits the message home. I have never seen images of myself done by another person that display me in such a beautiful light, whether in whims of sadness or joy. The differences are nuanced, as well. I remember the more connection and freedom of movement we had, the less fear and tension there was in my body. The change is slight, but the images give evidence to these shifts. He would stand up to get more information in the frame and the energy would weaken. The photographs and expression was more potent the more we allowed the weight to be heavy and unguarded. From my perspective, it seems we were both allowing the other to let go of consideration and fear as to really focus on the project. In the process, we create images of serenity that few could capture without depth of relationship. It was as if we had hijacked time and created a world where intimacy could exist in the here and now. It is a world I am accustomed to in my own choreographic endeavors. With Paul, however, I am the subject instead of the conductor. And even in our short few hours of work, which flew by so quickly, I was beyond accessible and delighted. There is depth in the process.
The process continues after the shoot ends, however. I am still exploring myself even though I am no longer under the lens. My boundaries of connection have expanded and I am joyful about my existence. Riding the high from the session, I crave more personal contact and my loved one. Having just discovered an enlivened capacity for intimacy, I am ecstatic to share it with the one other person I trust most. I am a very vulnerable and open personal already, but in those moments with my boyfriend, I am sharing my euphoria and able to be even more relaxed. I am unguarded in my wants and being seen without apologizing for my body or my feelings. The changes in me have shifted my relationship for the better. My sensitivity is heighted and I cannot wait to work with Paul again and eat pickled ginger, but I am just as elated to know that these shoots are grounding me in my potential as an authentic voice.
The grounded self was not seen in the first capture, however. The earlier work with him from the first shoot is drastically different from the later images, and this shift is seen minute to minute. I almost feel like I look awful in the early images because we have challenged where we can go within the project. Hours into our developing relationship, you can imagine, Paul is dealing with a different person than the initial model he first photographed. The difference is based on the rapid increase in our shared ease and my growing comfort with expressing a wide range of tonality. The first image he took of me doesn’t even look like the same person in our more recent photos. It wasn’t me. Of course the face changes with emotion and tone of movement, but looking back, I can sense how much tension was in my body despite my willingness to partake. The result is something my boyfriend noticed after seeing the first and last image side by side. I looked arrogant and stand offish. I may not have felt that way, but the projection of any discomfort is seen without question. As the shoot progressed, the expression in my face conveyed more inner truth and a version of me that I was proud to recognize. It was the first time I felt a portrait photographer actually saw me and not just a smiley face I wore to suit the occasion. Paul invited the presence of my most intimate self and captured it beautifully. It is impressive for a photographer to accomplish the stilling of essence. This is his art.