Most of my photographic projects come to me in daydreams. It can be while wandering the streets of New York, sitting at a dance concert, eating dinner, or retouching my images on Photoshop. Something I see or hear stimulates my brain – visions of photographs and conversations appear in my head.
My series of photographs with mirrors did not begin that way. Seven years ago while working my one of my favorite muses, Naomi Rusalka, I wandered into my bedroom where she was touching up her makeup using the full-length mirror on my closet door. I had recently discovered the beautiful daylight in my apartment and the light bouncing off the mirror into Naomi’s face was beautiful. I ran back into the living room and grabbed my camera, intending only to take a few snapshots. Instead, it turned into an hour long portrait session. There was something about the light on Naomi’s reflection. It didn’t appear to match the light on Naomi. Neither did the expression. The angles appeared impossible. It felt as if I was photographing twins. I realized I needed to find mirrors I could take wherever I photographed.
I bought mirrors at Home Depot – squares made to panel hallways or bathrooms and long vertical mirrors similar to the one on my closet door. I found an small rectangular mirror I had used in the 1980s… for what I won’t say. I broke mirrors to get different shapes. I probably have 100 years of bad luck waiting in my future. I shot with the mirrors in my apartment, on the rooftop, in Central Park – wherever I went I always carried a mirror.
Early on the mirrors were almost always an integral part of the photograph. The portraits were a combination of the model, in what I called “real life,” along with her doppelganger in the reflection. Often the “twin” in the reflection appeared to take on their own personality. A mirror changes the emotion of a photograph. The model is no longer looking directly into the camera. She sees only it’s reflection. The perception of the session changes. The model feels more alone. The photographer’s presence diminishes. The model connects more with the reflection than the person behind the camera.
In January, I began participation in Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab. It is a series of small group seminars with the purpose of helping the member photographers develop a personal project, the result being a group exhibition at Foley Gallery five months later. I applied with my BLUE FILM series but after the first seminar my instinct was to move forward with something else. After a hiatus of several years I had begun shooting with mirrors again, during my Intimate Portrait sessions and felt this series might work better for the ExLab. Something about the intimacy of my recent shoots was changing the appearance of the mirror portraits and I thought the ExLab seminars might be an opportunity to develop my new ideas.
Physical touch during my shoots began with the early mirror portraits. I often need to be pressed up against the model to get the proper angle with the reflection and to keep myself out of the mirror. Feeling the model breathe while we photographed helped me understand their emotion. The warm of touch appeared to relax the model. The Intimate Portrait Project came out of this shared experience.
100 muses later it’s difficult to explain the intimacy of my portraits. I’m not exactly ready to share the experience. I hoped what I was capturing for the Intimate series could be extended to my work with mirrors. The touch was no longer incidental but deliberate. My relationship with the muses has changed. During the shoots it feels as if we are one person with one mind.
The recent mirror portraits, for the series I now call Reflection, is a reflection of our shared intimacy. Often are bodies are intertwined while shooting. I can’t figure out what is going on in the mirror. Where are bodies are. Where I am in relation to the model and mirror. We do move and breathe as one. We share our warmth. The shoots are technically and emotional exhausting. I see the model’s face – they seem to inhabit another dimension outside the of reality. The photographs do not seem possible.
Could I have gone to this place without my participation in the Exhibition Lab? I honestly have no idea though I doubt I would have considered an attempt to find this place. My perception of photographs, my own and those of others, has changed. The most recent mirror shoot, a portrait session with Caterina Rago, was taken after my photographs were printed and framed for the exhibition. It’s too bad. This was the shoot where I finally got it. Caterina and I shared a lucid dream and I captured that emotion in her photographs. At the final seminar Michael Foley asked me if planned on continuing the mirror series. I wasn’t sure at the time and didn’t know how to answer. After Caterina’s shoot there’s no question there is more to discover. Her shoot was like a drug. I’m addicted to that emotion and I need more.
Following are the six photographs that will appear in the Exhibition Lab group show at Foley Gallery. As I finish this essay the opening is less than six hours away.
1. Alida Delaney in Soho. January 19, 2013
Alida and I were wandering around Soho one night after dinner. This was early in our friendship and collaboration. We had met 10 days earlier but it was already our third shoot together. While walking, we would stop for a portrait in some dark doorway, laughing at the people walking by who gave us a glance, I assume wondering what we were hiding. Alida and I had become close quickly. She had the exact personality and look I needed in a muse. More important, she inherently understood, possibly more than me, what was necessary to make the photographs special.
This photograph was early in my Reflection series. At that time it was an undeveloped portfolio. I was trying different styles while shooting. Variations in light and composition – mirrors of various shapes and sizes. I always carried a mirror in my backpack… just in case. As we crossed a particularly dark Soho street I turned towards Alida and saw the lights. We stopped in the middle of the street and I pulled out my mirror. It was almost to dark to see, only made worse by the car headlights passing by. We shot in the middle of the cobblestone street until the cars were almost upon us. I’d yell to Alida to get out of the way. We’d run back to the sidewalk, giggling like two young children who have been told by their parents hundreds of times not to play in the street but who couldn’t help themselves from testing the danger.
I have always loved this photograph but didn’t know what it meant to me until Michael Foley pointed out the print during one of the Exhibition Lab seminars. It was an image that struck him. His comments started me on a new path with the series — only now my life is very different than it was at the time the photograph was taken. The intimacy Alida and I had that night in Soho later became the basis of a new series named the Intimate Portrait Project. For the Exhibition Lab portfolio I decided I had to find a way to capture that level of intimacy in a reflection.
2. Zhongjing Fang at Le Pan Quotidien. July 24, 2014
I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember exactly how I found Zhongjing Fang. Maybe she found me? Possibly I saw something about her on Facebook that intrigued me? No matter. All I remember is wherever I found her it was immediately apparent I needed to take her portrait. I do know for sure this portrait is the first time we met. Sometimes I feel it’s best if the first time I meet a future muse it happens outside my apartment, in an environment I do not control. Possibly I feel it is safer? Possibly it gives me an easy way out if I don’t think a future shoot will work out? One thing I do know is I was amazed by Zhongjing the second we met. By this time the Reflection series had become not only about capturing the soul of the model within the reflection, but also about the surrounding environment.
I chose my local Le Pain Quotidien for our first meeting. I had shot there many times and knew the beauty of the afternoon light. Of course I didn’t tell Zhongjing our meeting would also include a shoot. I’ve learned these photographs work best if the model does not have time to emotionally prepare – or get nervous.
Along with dancing for the American Ballet Theatre, Zhongjing is a multi-talented artist. I featured her photographs in the fifth issue of VISION magazine, an art journal I produce when I have free time. Zhongjing’s artistic sensibility understood immediately what I was looking for in the portraits. She is a true talent.
3. Veronica Zhai in Central Park. November 24, 2017
I do remember with absolute certainty the moment I met Veronica. It was during an after-party at Caitlin Trainor’s apartment. During a shoot I can appear to be one of the most social people on the planet. That is only one side of my personality. At parties I where I don’t know most of the guests I am uncomfortable. I hide by myself in some corner of the room. Veronica, who helped Caitlin with that evening’s dance performance, found me in one of those corners. We spoke for a long time and became instant friends.
Originally I didn’t see Veronica as a future muse but as we spent more time together it became obvious she wanted to become part of my Intimate Portrait Project. We both needed to enter that emotional space if our friendship was to grow. Photographing friends is much more difficult than photographing a stranger, especially for shoots like mine that are both physically and emotionally intimate. My shoots involve touch. It feels easier to touch a stranger than a friend. Friendship has boundaries and my shoots break through those barriers. Through out shoots together Veronica and I both learned that those barriers are a false construct of society. Friends need to hug and touch. It is good for the soul.
My shoots with Veronica are an integral part of our friendship. She’ll come over for dinner and we’ll talk for hours. Sitting together I’ll see something in her that needs to be captured. Veronica understands and makes the necessary shift from friend to muse. This photograph was taken during a late night walk in Central Park. We knew the night was about work for my Reflection series but the emotion in her face is all about the bond of our friendship.
4. Shirley Dai in my living room. February 24, 2018
I fell in love with Shirley the instant we met. It was a party at Veronica Zhai’s apartment. I noticed Shirley immediately. She appeared incredibly strong. When we finally came together and talked it was as if the rest of the world disappeared. We were in a crowded apartment but all I can remember is Shirley’s voice and face. Everything else has been removed from my memory. I was standing before a beautiful earth goddess. Yes, Shirley is a physical beauty but that’s not what I mean. Shirley is an emotional beauty. I felt so much love and goodness emanating from her body. A friend of mine believes we are all surrounded by our own personal electric aura. I’m not sure what I believe but I felt Shirley’s electricity and it was all good. She calmed me.
The first time we photographed together was for my Intimate Portrait Project. I had stopped doing portraits with mirrors at that time. The Intimate series had taken over my life though it had not yet developed the emotional or physical intensity found in the shoots I do today. It would be safe to say they were more “professional” and less about developing a special bond between the model and photographer. Shirley had no barriers. She allowed me to work solely as an artist. I didn’t have to worry if she felt safe. Shirley was open and natural, giving up everything for my art.
This photograph is from our second shoot together. It was over a year later and part of a group Intimate shoot for the Trainor Dance Company. Despite the fact there were other people in the next room, chatting, eating my homemade hummus and pesto, on occasion watching us work together — I still felt the intimacy I had with Shirley the night we first met. Again it was her electricity. She enveloped me in her protective bubble. I couldn’t see or hear anything but her. Shirley bared her soul in the mirror and gave me everything.
5. Alida Delaney in my dining room. April 5, 2018
After a year or two where we rarely worked together, Alida and I began to collaborate again. It began when she asked me to photograph her headshot. That day a simple portrait shoot became a series of emotional portraits for both my Intimate and Reflection projects. I call Alida Intimate Muse #1. She was the first person I photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project. The original design and emotion of the photographs revolve around her. The Intimate Portrait shoots are difficult in so many ways. An entire book is necessary to tell the story of how Alida’s patience with my art helped me find the way.
I had been through several seminars with Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab and knew I would be soon hanging my work in his gallery. This is very special. I planned on showing six photographs from the Reflection series but still didn’t feel I had the right group to hang on the gallery wall. I believe Alida sensed my need and as with the Intimate Project, found a way to make sure I got the photographs I needed.
During the past five years I have photographed Alida more than anyone else. The fact we hadn’t worked together in a while didn’t matter. In some ways it is like a couple who broke up some time ago, only to begin a new friendship years later. There are things that have been shared that can never be lost. It is a language only the two of them understand. Alida and I did several shoots together for the exhibition. She gave me too many great photographs. The original selection for the show included three photographs of her. Only after the final seminar did I realize as much as I love Alida, she couldn’t be half of my presentation. I had to remove one image of her from the show. It hurt me but I know she will understand. I hope Alida realizes how much I appreciate her love and support.
6. Kelly Vaghenas in my living room. May 2, 2018
In some ways Kelly is my next Alida (Intimate Muse #1). Kelly is a muse who gives up so much for my art it embarrasses me to accept her treasured gift. If I stated Kelly is the nicest person I’ve ever met it’s likely I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know how a person like her can exist. Kelly contacted me last fall. She is friends with another dancer who told her I might be looking for new models. That is always true. I’m constantly looking for people who will inspire my art. There is a funny thing about many of the women who contact me, asking to collaborate on my personal projects. I look at the pictures they send and never want to photograph them. It was that way with Alida and a few others who became my favorite muses. The second they sit before my camera they all prove my initial instincts wrong. I now understand and always agree to work with each of them. In every case it is their words that tell me I must take their photograph. These future muses – they all have a story to tell. There is something sincere and honest in their voices. It took me a few months to get back to Kelly but I knew we would do special work together.
I was already part of Michael Foley’s Exhibition Lab the first time I photographed Kelly. She has always been part of the my work for the exhibitioin. Initially I thought I would work on my BLUE Film series for the ExLab but things didn’t work out as planned. After the first seminar I changed paths and decided the Reflection series better suited the design of the workshop. I’ll never really know if it was the right decision but I am incredibly happy about where the process led. This portrait is from my last shoot before Michael Foley and I chose which images would appear on the walls of his gallery. I don’t always know when a shoot is a success but when Kelley and I took this picture I knew it would hang in the exhibition. I love the photograph because Kelly looks like how the shoot felt.