alyssa forte: rescued from the void

alyssa forte: intimate portrait

02/04/16: photographer’s note
It’s difficult to put the Intimate Portrait photographs into words. How does one explain a shoot where I’m sitting on a half-naked model for three hours while wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. When I’m away from these shoots for a few weeks I find it difficult to explain even to myself. These shoots are physical and emotional but not in a way you would think. On occasion they can be sensual but that’s what happens when two bodies touch for hours. Still, it’s not about that. It is about warmth. It is about the model finding peace in her soul. As much as I enjoy the warmth I get from so many special people, while the camera is in my hands I rarely think of anything except the images before me. I have a real need to capture the great pictures the models give me.

For many of the muses the Intimate Portrait shoots becomes a therapy session. Often I get calls to set up a shoot when a muse is struggling with a boyfriend or having difficulty finding their “center.” I often wonder if they need a physical shoot with a man they can completely trust. A person they can touch who asks for nothing of them except amazing images. I have to say the emotional warmth I feel during these sessions is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life and it has changed me. I am a better person thanks to my muses.

Today, while visiting an exhibition of the great photographer Irving Penn at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, I spied a quote in an essay written by Edmonde Charles-Roux describing a series of Penn’s nude photographs featuring a small modern dance company taken in 1967. “There was no voyeurism involved in the way he took these pictures: he simply concentrated on capturing the way the bodies moved…”

Of course my images are also about emotion but I couldn’t describe the process of the Intimate Portrait project better.

01/28/16: Artistic Funk
Once every few years I go through a period of what I call “artistic funk.” My mind is blank. I can not see. It’s not that I can’t create my art but I’ve lost my vision… the ability to have photographic “daydreams” while sitting at the computer or walking along the New York City streets.

opening spread of vision #7: work in progress

I feel content, sitting at the computer looking at past photographs or working on the next issue of my VISION art journal. This artistic vacuum is not lost time. Much has been organized. During this period of time, though void of art, has included the repair of several antique clocks, building two bookshelves, setting up a new business laptop, organizing thirty years of model releases, framing new photographs and stripping the paint off a hidden window above my bedroom door. No waste of time. No pictures.

02/03/16: The “funk” continued to get worse. I was beginning to feel like an empty vessel. The artistic void was beginning to effect my day to day life. I didn’t feel like shooting at all. Sorting through old photographs felt great. The future felt empty. I had no daydreams about my muses or future pictures.

I figured I would spend the next month working on the “Paul Taylor” issue of VISION while waiting for the Taylor season at Lincoln Center to begin in mid-March when I would be busy photographing two weeks of dress rehearsals. Maybe when that job was completed sometime in April I’d figure out how to shoot portraits again. I have enjoyed the recent rehearsal studio shoots with the Taylor company taken for the upcoming issue of VISION. Possibly I could begin a new project photographing studio rehearsals? Rehearsal shoots don’t take quite the same emotional intensity as my Intimate Portrait. I can be in the studio with a dozen dancers and still feel alone.

larissa baseman: intimate portrait

The Intimate Portrait project feels dead. I’ve photographed more than 50 models for this project, over 100 shoots. Is that enough? Future shoots for this project would be a failure if I no longer have the passion. If you’ve read my blog you know how physically and emotionally intense these shoots can be. I’m not sure I can find that artistic place again. I just did shoots with two of my favorite muses, Larissa Baseman and Natalie Deryn Johnson but felt empty afterwards. So strange, the normal post-shoot emotion is that of extreme warmth and goodness!

The muses were wonderful. I possibly had my best shoot with Natalie and the pictures of Larissa were wonderful. It was all them. They drove the passion of the shoots. I was only a robot on auto-pilot. The benefit of having 40 years of professional experience is the ability to take great pictures at any time when an amazing model is sitting in front of me. The lighting and composition are easy. The models’ talents and desires for great pictures “forced” me to do my job well. But I had no feeling. No memory of having done these shoots. That’s not me.


Natalie’s shoot, two weeks ago was when I first realized my passion was gone. Her body underneath me during the intimate portrait did not feel right. Natalie had just separated from her boyfriend so at first I blamed it on her. Of course I kept that to myself. Maybe in that emotional state the physical contact during our shoot made her uncomfortable. I never looked at the photographs. That never happens. It was only a week later when Natalie asked me to take pictures on her upcoming birthday I realized I hadn’t looked at our shoot. It was like it had never happened. Only then did I understand how the lack of comfort during our shoot had nothing to do with Natalie. It was all about me.

larissa baseman: cashmere coat

Larissa has become my friend. I wanted to see her. We hadn’t shot since Christmas. I hoped photographing her would set me on the right path again. I thought if I shot Larissa a few days before Natalie’s “birthday shoot” maybe I would return to normal.

It didn’t happen. Larissa and I chatted for a long time before we began taking pictures. I’m sure I was trying to stall as long as possible. I knew I had no vision, no excitement about shooting. Sorry Larissa. I hope it didn’t show. I was lost at the beginning of the shoot, not knowing what to do. We began with portraits, Larissa standing in my living room wearing my long black cashmere dress jacket. I struggled to capture her beauty. Larissa is incredibly photogenic. A goddess!

We should have done intimate portraits first but I wasn’t ready to touch her. We did finish off with a series of portraits for the Intimate series and of course, Larissa was amazing. She always is. Her natural beauty is startling. Again, afterwards I felt nothing. I was sinking.

I do know how to jump start my art when I’m feeling like a failure. This time I wasn’t sure if I should try. I’ve shot so much during the past few years maybe something inside my head was telling me to take a break and look to the past to see what I had accomplished? There is a business to being an art photographer. Possibly this was the only way I could move forward with the business of art?

When I began this essay I had no idea it would be about Alyssa Forte. Alyssa didn’t exist in my life except as a Facebook “friend” who only appeared in my life on a rare occasion as a post on my computer screen. I’m not sure if she friended me or I her. I imagine I saw her on another friend’s page, was intrigued by her look and made the friend request myself. I have no idea when. Natalie and Alyssa are best friends. Possibly I saw Alyssa in post by Natalie? I know Natalie wanted Alyssa to work with me on an Intimate Portrait shoot.

Last week Alyssa contacted me on Facebook about shooting…

“Hey Paul,

Natalie Johnson recommended me for your intimate portrait project – I also am in need of some decent more formal headshots, if possible.

Let me know if you’d be interested in shooting me sometime.


Alyssa Forte”

alyssa forte: one of our first images

Here I was, not wanting to hold a camera in front of my face, hoping I would spend the week laying out the first pages of VISION #7 and now I had shoots with Larissa, Alyssa, and Natalie on back to back to back days. The thought did not make me happy. I needed to get to work on the Taylor pictures. I didn’t need these shoots. At the same time I felt I had no choice.

As I mentioned, the shoot with Larissa failed to motivate me. I didn’t care. I love the time we spend together. I hoped it would be different with Alyssa. I spent time the night before our shoot looking at the photographs on her Facebook page, wondering what she was like as a person. I was positive I could photograph her well. A few of her pictures did show a spark. I wondered if I could capture Alyssa’s energy, taking her to a new emotional level during our Intimate Portrait session?

alyssa forte: skin

On the day of the shoot as I was having my morning tea and setting up the lights I took one last look at Alyssa’s Facebook pictures. I saw something. Daydreams of our future pictures together slowly filled my head… conversations took place that had not yet happened. The doorbell rang, Teel running out into the hallway to greet Alyssa as he does all the muses. She came up the stairs and I saw her face. There was something of an angel inside of her. I knew the day would be good.

Alyssa and I talked for an hour before we began. I still wasn’t ready to take pictures. I needed to watch her face in the light for a long time, to feel what the person was inside of her. Finally I could no longer keep myself from shooting and we began. Alyssa had spoken to Natalie about these shoots, read my blog. She knew what was involved. The beginning was easier with Alyssa than most of my previous Intimate shoots, not having to explain the physical contact or the need to photograph more than her face but also the skin and texture of her shoulders, her breasts. Don’t think it’s about nudity because it’s not. My photographs are determined by the light and shadows. I make skin look great.

It’s here where I realize how the quote from the Penn exhibition suits my work so well, “no voyeurism…simply capturing the way the bodies moved…” I could not have described the Intimate Portrait shoots any better!

alyssa forte: intimate portrait

Alyssa removed her top and we began shooting. I almost always begin by standing a few feet away when working with a new model, checking the light on their face; shifting my lights and their body on my couch until the miracle begins. It was fast with Alyssa. She was happy with the first photograph and after a few dozen pictures both of us began to fall into a zone. We’d shoot for a few minutes and look at the images. Talking to her felt good. It began to feel like an Intimate Portrait session. I hadn’t felt that way in a while.

I moved back and forth, sometimes sitting on Alyssa’s lap then standing above her as the light and composition dictated how I photographed her face and body. With every picture she became more relaxed, her expression better.. I got used to the shape of her body beneath me, physically using her, holding on to her hips with my legs to keep my balance. We were connected. The warmth felt good to both of us. The contact was important. During the best Intimate Portraits the model and I never want to lose touch with each other. We stop talking with our mouths and speak with our bodies, understanding how each other’s subtle movement will effect the photographs.

alyssa forte

I could feel Alyssa begin to take the deep breaths that inform me when I model has finally relaxed. At that point I feel absorbed into their bodies; the beginning of our joint meditation. The entire process begins to feel like a spiritual journey. At times the model allows me to take this journey with her. At other times she goes somewhere alone, still focused on the camera giving me the pictures I need.

Unlike the others who felt this way, Alyssa never seemed to let go of me. Our emotional photographic journey was always together. One time, when we stopped to look at the photographs we spoke about finding inner peace. It is something important in my own life and it is the bedrock that keeps me steady at all times. When I pulled the camera back up to my face I realized Alyssa had absorbed everything I had just said to her. I was sitting on a new person. Something had happened to her. She was the same but different. More at peace. More beautiful. I stopped shooting to show her the pictures. Alyssa couldn’t believe it was her. She said she listened to what I had said and had found that peace inside of her. It showed in every photograph.

We stayed physically close for the rest of the shoot. We didn’t lose touch when I showed her pictures in the back of the camera or when taking short breaks for conversation. I held on to her, tight. It’s what she asked for. I tried to stay part of her at all times. The more of me she felt the stronger the images became.

alyssa forte: intimate portrait

This is what the Intimate Portrait shoots are supposed to be about; trust, warmth, connection, emotions, passion. Alyssa was perfection. She allowed me to be inside of her head. She completely opened up to the needs of my photographs. Many times during the shoot I told her that she had rescued me from that artistic void. My appreciation of her effort is impossible to put into words. I’m not sure if she knew how important that was for me? How can anyone know except the artist himself?

I never wanted the shoot to end. My eyes tired and it was difficult to focus close up in the dim light. I didn’t realize at the time I had taken over 3,700 photographs. Each picture was still so good but I could no longer see. I didn’t want to lose the physical contact with Alyssa. I don’t think most people understand how the pure warmth of another person, one who is caring, can make you feel special.

I sensed that about Alyssa when I studied her Facebook page but I didn’t sense the depth of the goodness of her soul. Alyssa was everything to me during our shoot, giving me both great warmth and amazing pictures without hesitation. This is the first time I have been able to write in over 4 months. Alyssa brought me back to the place where I can create again. Alyssa, once again I thank you for saving me!

alyssa forte: intimate portrait

Alyssa’s thoughts, sent by text after the shoot.

“The emptiness–fullest potential to be filled and to give. All of my expressions expressed.

Pressed out onto paper, screens, televisions–

A hard copy of a lifetime of feeling. Everything that I though fleeting becomes permanent; my essence, the essence of others- The essence of others onto me. Became fixed – in time. Captured.

Until images return to extinction – there will always be this. All of those. And this.”

Those are my initial thoughts in a more abstract way… Alyssa Forte

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