I now understand writer’s block. I put a few sentences down on paper and then can’t move forward. I’ve only written 3 essays during the past year and finished nothing in months. On the other hand, it’s been a fruitful year for creating photographs, new projects and old projects revisited. My work has appeared in several group exhibitions across the country and the mirror-portrait series will be part of a group show at Foley Gallery in July. My Intimate Portrait Project has morphed into something more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. There are several new, very special muses. Several of the past muses have reappeared, once again becoming part of my photographic life. If I can only get my thoughts on to paper everything will be great.
I’m not sure why my BLUE series began but I do know how it happened. During the past few years I had begun shooting a roll or two of film, using either my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad cameras. I have owned both cameras fo a many years. Even before digital they were retired from use decades ago. Sometime around 1972 my father bought the Rolleiflex from a freelance photographer who worked for the same company. My father paid $70 for the camera. I knew he’d never use it. Against his wishes it went with me to college. There’s no question it was happier in my hands. I used the Rolleiflex for some of my favorite photographs while working for Northwestern University’s yearbook and newspaper.
I bought the Hasselblad in the early 1980s while working as Gordon Munro’s darkroom manager. The camera model is from 1960. It was already old when I bought it though at that time in photography, used cameras were treasured and would last forever. The thing weighs half as much as a tank and never needs repair.
It wasn’t these cameras that inspired me to begin shooting film again. I began because of my vintage and antique camera collection. At one point I bought a No. 1 Pocket Kodak Series II camera at an antique store. The camera was built in the mid-to-late 1910s. When I took it out of the box it looked, smelled, and felt like it had never been used. The camera has a bellows and when I opened the body, the bellows made a soft crackling sound as if this was the first time the camera had been opened for use. My imagination had this camera sitting in a big wood storage box in a dusty attic for 100 years.
04/23/18: One Week Later
As Ronald Reagan so famously said during a 1980 presidential debate with then President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” Distractions. Writer’s block. Six days ago I began this essay, only to jot down a few paragraphs before life pulled me away. Hopefully I’ll do better this time.
My camera collection. I own over 250 vintage and antique cameras. I began collecting them on occasion while antiquing across the country. The old cameras are beautiful. I owned only a few until I discovered Ebay. This was during the website’s early days when you could still get a bargain. I went crazy. I had boxes coming to my apartment almost every day. I was surprised to find how many of the cameras worked.
Often the cameras I bought used 120 film. Kodak first made this film in 1901 and it has been in use ever since. The negatives typically are 2.25″ x 2.25″, larger than the 35mm film most people know. Many of the older cameras took slightly larger images (2.25″ x 3.25″), resulting in 8 photographs on a roll of film instead of the twelve I get when using the Rolleiflex. When I look at my parents’ old photo albums, many of their pictures are contact prints of old negatives of this size. I began searching for cameras that took 120 film when adding to my collection. It was only a matter of time before I would rediscover film and try out a few of these purchases.
I don’t know why the first camera I used was a No. 2 Cartridge Hawk-Eye Model C. I imagine it was the first camera I pulled off my shelf that was both in working condition and used 120 film. This model Hawk-Eye was built in the late 1920s. It’s really nothing more than a cardboard box with a thin glass lens and a little metal lever to release the shutter. It couldn’t be any simpler to use. The Hawk-Eye was the point-and-shoot camera of it’s day.
Alison Cook Beatty was my main muse for several years. She made herself available for my art during an important time of experimentation when I was making my transition from commercial to fine-art photography. I have photographed Alison more times than anyone else. It’s only natural I would pull out a film camera for her. That was almost eight years ago, August 30, 2010.
At that point shooting film was something I did for fun and pulling out an old camera made the models feel more important. I have to admit. It did feel exciting using a camera that was old enough to have taken pictures of a Model-T Ford or bread lines during The Depression. Still, film was a side adventure. It was the digital images I considered important. I could see my digital images immediately in the back of the camera. The film, I developed whenever I had extra time. I never thought to photograph the film as it came out of the developing tank, ready to hang over the same bathtub where my film first hung to dry forty years ago. For decades I had no problem waiting for the negatives to dry. Now I scanned my negatives instead of making contact sheets in the darkroom. I could wait for them to dry.
I finally pulled out the Pocket Kodak Folding camera while working with Océane Hooks-Camilleri on a nice fall day in September 2013. It was our second shoot together. Océane had already become a muse. She was, is an extraordinary woman. I still miss working with her. We shot on my rooftop and in Central Park. I digitally photographed Océane holding the Pocket Kodak, wearing one of my vintage dresses. I then photographed her with the antique camera. The photographs we took look like they could have been taken the day the camera was first purchased, 100 years ago. We later shot one roll in my dining room after hanging out and sharing lunch. The shoot was “officially” over but I needed more from her. That roll is the first one I digitally captured, just after pulling the wet film out of the tank. I needed to see Océane’s film images right away. I got five frames in the capture and they’re all beautiful.
I developed my first roll of film at sixteen and tens of thousands of rolls since. In the past, in the days before digital, I always had to wait for the film to dry, cut it into strips, and make contact sheets before I could see the images on paper. Now I can photograph my film, still wet, the second it comes out of the tank. A few minutes later I can see the images big on my computer’s monitor. It is beautiful. Until recently I only saw this digital capture as a reference for images I might print or use on my website at a later date. It wasn’t art.
As I moved away from shooting more typical portraits and as the Intimate Portrait Project developed into a strong emotional body of work, shooting film remained an afterthought. The Intimate Portraits work best in the 35mm horizontal format. The process of shooting hundreds, no thousands of images during each shoot became a necessary part of the intimacy. I play no music during the Intimate shoots. The room is silent except for the click of my shutter. The model and I both meditate to the rhythm of the clicks. The slow method of shooting film would never work.
Sometimes during the Intimate shoots I saw something special that might work in the square format and pulled out my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad. The antique cameras are too difficult to use in the natural, low light situations that has become typical of these shoots. Anne O’Donnell, Katie Mattar, Zarina Stahnke and Hannah Weeks – I shot film during all of their portrait sessions. At that time, I would photograph only a part of each roll when hanging it to dry. I would take a few quick snapshots of four or five middle frames on the roll. If I though the film looked special I might try to capture a few extra images near the ends of the roll.
Over time I began to study this digital capture of the wet film, not just a quick glance for fun, blowing up some of the single frames on the computer. The deterioration due to the wetness of the film was interesting and unexpected. This look added to the mood of the photographs. Each image had it’s own quality depending on the how fast the film began to dry of the film or the angle of the camera while copying the wet film. It was spontaneous. The images weren’t perfect. I had always strived for technical perfection in my photography. The wet film captures weren’t like that. It was good, pushing me to see in a new way.
I began posting the wet film images on Facebook. A shot of Caitlin Trainor pregnant went up first. Caitlin is one of my best friends. I photograph her both for my Intimate Project and with her dance company, Trainor Dance. It’s strange. I never consider Caitlin as one of my muses even though we have taken some amazing pictures together. I think it’s because our friendship is so strong. I imagine I feel the photographs we create are secondary to our special relationship.
I loved the way the pregnant photos of Caitlin turned out. They motivated me to take a few rolls of film at almost every shoot. I went back and looked at the film I had shot during the past year with a different eye. I had begun a new portrait series without realizing it.
Cheryl Esposito. I have been secretly in love with Cheryl Esposito since we first met at our friend Claudia Paul’s wedding years ago. I can’t say exactly what it was that attracted me to her but it certainly has to do with her energy, spontaneous joy, and endless warmth. I don’t know what took me so long but I finally asked Cheryl if she would pose for my Intimate Portrait Project. I expected her to graciously decline. The shoots are nude and both physically and emotionally intimate. Much to my surprise she immediately agreed.
I don’t know what I expected from Cheryl. Her shoot was like a dream. It was the first time we had met since Claudia’s wedding yet we both felt like we were close friends. Cheryl is one of the few models I’ve photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project who’s not a dancer, yet she still moved with precision and grace. There was something different. Her movement didn’t feel as studied and surprisingly her physicality felt more natural. It seemed easier for Cheryl to let her emotions take over her entire body than it has for many of the dancers I work with.
I couldn’t wait to develop Cheryl’s film. As it came out of the tank I photographed a few frames but this time I forgot to set the camera to monochrome (black and white), shooting the negatives for the first time in color. As I processed the files in my computer, inverting the negative strip to a positive image… there was the BLUE.
I had never seen my work look like this before. Fifty years of taking pictures and now something new. The results reminded me of cyanotypes, only better. I felt these images looked more natural. The skin of Cheryl’s body appeared to be absorbed into the blue film. She melted into the negative. I needed to see more.
I went back to the film of Caitlin Trainor and reprocessed the digital files in color. Whoa! Magic happened. I reprocessed Whitney Johnson, Lindsey Miller, Can Wang, and Bronwyn Updike. The BLUE series had been staring me in the face for months. I was so excited just to shoot film I hadn’t noticed what was happening. The look of the blue film matched the emotions of the muses. I don’t have an explanation for it yet. It’s possible I never will. What is important is that the models and I both understand how the process works and we’re able to create new photographs, improving with every shoot.
I became more aware of the progress while working with the two muses who I’ve worked with the longest. Alida Delaney and Juliet Doherty. I shot film of both women years ago, Juliet in Central Park using the 100 year old folding camera and Alida in my living room with the treasured Rolleiflex. During the past couple of weeks I photographed both women for the BLUE series, now using my Hasselblad. I always first shoot digitally until we’re comfortable. We take a break. I load the Hasselblad.
These women know me. They know what I’m looking for in my photographs. There’s an excitement surrounding the BLUE portraits. Time appears to slow down when the film camera is in my hands. Digital photography is fast. Of the moment. Film photography returns to the past when immediacy wasn’t important. Focusing and composing are more difficult with the old cameras. I only have twelve exposures to get it right, not the thousands available on my digital memory cards. I pull the camera to my face, concentrate, and let the model know I’m ready. It’s not necessary for me to say anything. They’re prepared long before I’ve composed the shot.
Click, Wind. Click. Wind. Refocus. “Turn a little to the left.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Hold the mirror higher.” Focus. Click. Click. Click. “Chin up. Not so much.” Focus. Click. Click. “Move an inch closer to me.” Focus. Click. Wind. Click. “Oh, we’re finished. That was wonderful. Twelve pictures goes by so fast.” We laugh. I pick up the digital camera an continue to shoot away. For a few moments I’m still thinking about the film. I can’t wait to develop it in my kitchen sink and get it out of the tank, water dripping on the bathroom floor. I now photograph each negative with the same care as if the woman on the film is alive, standing right in front of me.