09/05/18: iconic photographs… the muse. part 1

My “Iconic” photographs are the best photographs I feel I have ever taken but it is not always about image quality. Sometimes an iconic photograph can be one that changed my life, forever changing how I proceed with my art and my life.

sara jean childers. summer, 1976. one of my first iconic portraits

I have been the Fine Art Chair of APA\NY (American Photographic Artists) for almost a year. So far it’s been an amazing experience. I have already learned so much, made new friends, and helped expand the photographic community. For ten years, from 1982-1992, I ran a small organization named The Photo Group. We were a loosely formed, every changing group of photographers who met on occasion to share ideas and exhibit our work together whenever possible. Many of us developed a close friendship that continues to this day. I hope to bring that support and camaraderie to APA|NY.

Last month I held an event I call APA|NY’s Knowledge Bank. It is a gathering where a group of photographers and other creative talents come together for an open forum, discussing anything photographic. Thirty people came to hear APA member Travis Keyes talk about Instagram, eat pizza, drink wine and beer, and make new friends. My favorite part of the evening was after the formal talk was completed, watching small groups of photographers sit together, learn from each other, and begin new friendships.

polaroid of jack deutsch in the studio. date unknown

The Knowledge Bank meetings are held in the studio of my friend Jack Deutsch. Jack and I first met in 1970 while we were both in high school. By coincidence, Jack moved to New York City in 1977, a year after I had moved to the city, and by extreme luck, got an apartment in my building one year later. We’ve been close friends ever since. When the event was over, four of us, Jack, Philip, Charlie, and I, all former Photo Group members, hung out in the studio. It’s rare the four of us find time to get together anymore.

philip and linda in the studio. december 17, 1982

I met Philip Stark in 1979. He and his best friend, Linda, were discovered in Central Park by John Drew, my roommate at the time and a friend I had known since college. Actually, it was Philip who discovered John. A minute ago I called Philip to find out how they actually met. John was in the park taking pictures, using his monopod to steady the camera. Philip was curious about the device and asked John how much it helped with the balance. I have no idea what else they talked about after that. I do know we all became best friends.

charlie seton photographed with a 4x5 speed graphic camera. probably 1978

Charlie and I met in college the day I walked into Northwestern University’s yearbook office, hoping to photograph for the publication. I was turned down. Charlie and the other editors seemed so intimidating, artistic… and old. I was only a freshman. It was 1972. I walked across the hallway into the newspaper’s office and was hired immediately – $5 for every photograph published. I got my first assignment that day. As a sophomore I did join the yearbook staff, later becoming the photo editor during my senior year. Charlie and I have been friends ever since. Charlie followed me to New York in 1978. I consider him the longest continuous friend I have.

So there we sat, the four of us with decades of friendship behind us, talking about life, religion, spirituality, and photography. I’m not sure why, but at one point Philip looked up to the ceiling and asked Jack if the skylight was always covered. Jack said it was and it had always been that way. I had to step in and disagree. In the past I often rented Jack’s studio for my dancewear clients and I remembered at that time, a shaft of light did come through the skylight. The only reason I did remember was because in the very spot Charlie was sitting, that shaft of light changed my life.

It was September, 28, 2009. I was shooting a catalog for Discount Dance Supply. Sometime during the afternoon, New York City Ballet dancer Ana Sophia Scheller was resting on the edge of the couch, the exact place where Charlie was now sitting. A shaft of light came through the skylight, illuminating her face. It was beautiful. I stopped the catalog shoot. I needed to capture Ana Sophia’s portrait before the light changed. I unplugged my camera from the strobe lights. I didn’t take many pictures of Ana. I had models waiting for me on the set. Immediately I knew I had taken a special portrait.

ana sophia scheller for discount dance supply

That photograph changed me. My life then was about shooting in the studio with professional lights or working outdoors in daylight. I hadn’t considered using daylight indoors. There never seemed to be enough light and renting a daylight studio with big windows was cost prohibitive. Only then did I realize the light coming through the windows of my apartment was beautiful. An apartment I had lived in for thirty years. I needed to find a way to make that light work.

ana sophia scheller. first portrait using daylight indoors

It took me a year to figure it out. My photography since that time has never been the same or as good. The daylight gave me freedom. Charlie said I should write an essay for my blog about the Ana Sophia portrait. I thought that was a great idea but I decided the essay needed to be about more than that. So here it is… a story about the shoots and photographs that have changed the way I think, taken since that day I noticed the shaft of daylight in Jack’s studio.

Naomi Rusalka was the model who changed the future of my photography. I’ve written about her before. Not only do my daylight photographs begin with her but the basis of two of my major portrait projects begin with Naomi. Naomi and I met earlier when she modeled for a Baltogs Dancewear catalog but our first two personal shoots were on December 1st and 3rd, 2010. Natalie was a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t yet begun to work on a portfolio of nudes. I don’t know why I asked Naomi. She was free and natural. Everything she was in front of the camera I was unexpected. I followed her lead. Naomi taught me to be spontaneous. She began to release me from my own fears.

naomi rusalka. the portrait that inspired the "reflection" series

My REFLECTION project began during our first shoot. We had been working for hours using a studio setup. Naomi needed a makeup touch-up. I followed her into my bedroom to the full length mirror. Something struck me about how the light in the room wrapped around her face and body, especially in the reflection. The way Natalie appeared in the reflection seemed like a different person. A twin but with different emotions. What I thought might be a few fun snapshots turned into something real. Later I went out and bought mirrors I could carry to different locations. Almost eight years later the project is still evolving. This past July, six of my REFLECTION portraits were exhibited at Foley Gallery.

naomi rusalka. the first "intimate" portrait

Two days later Naomi and I shot again. Years ago I learned that when I find a special muse I must photograph her a second time as quickly as possible. No matter how good the first shoot turns out it still feels purely professional. The second shoot is always more than that. It solidifies the relationship. The muse and I pick up where the first shoot left off. The second shoot feels more like friends creating art together and less a model-photographer event. That comfort shows in the photographs. It feels easier keeping in touch and working with a friend.

naomi rusalka. the first daylight portrait using my couch as the background

I didn’t set up a background during the second day. I used one small studio light to balance the daylight. Everything became more natural. Naomi wore little makeup. It was the first shoot where my couch became the background. There was an intimacy my portraits never had before. The contact between the two of us felt incredibly strong. The Intimate Portrait Project was still over two years away but the first real portrait in the series was taken on that day. I just didn’t know it yet. As an artist Naomi was emotionally far ahead of me. Looking at the portraits now, they look as if I had taken them yesterday.

Erin Arbuckle straddled my two lives, the time when I made the transition from a commercial to fine art photographer. From the time where I had to control everything in my photographs to the time when my process became spontaneous, often not deciding on what images I hoped to create until the model walked in my front door.

erin arbuckle with alison cook beatty. "reflection" series

One of my first shoots of Erin included my main muse at the time, Alison Cook Beatty. I had accomplished over thirty portrait shoots with Alison and also photographed her dance company. The work with Alison was artistic-editorial and the goal was to make work for a commercial portfolio. One of my last shoots of Erin was with Lily Balogh, who was now the main muse. In a short time, I set up over thirty portrait sessions with Lily, also photographing her as a dancer with Ballet Next. My shoots with Lily were always about my art. They were about capturing raw emotion. During that year and a half I worked with Erin my life completely changed.

I first met Erin at Columbia University during a dress rehearsal for Columbia’s Dance Collective. I believe Erin was the artistic director of the event. I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to photograph this rehearsal but if memory serves me right, the main reason was because I wanted to meet Erin. We were already friends on Facebook and I thought she might be perfect as a future muse. It seems I was right.

Erin happened to be a friend of Zarina Stahnke, a dancer who I was photographing as much as possible. I met Zarina while auditioning dancers for a Discount Dance Supply catalog. We did a personal shoot during the audition, Zarina got the job, and was the client’s favorite model. I decided to include Zarina in my first shoot with Erin. Erin seemed so much older than a college student. It was more than her intelligence. Erin had stature and a positive air of self-assurance. Although I had already photographed Zarina many times, herself a strong personality, Erin dominated the shoot. Erin became the director, encouraging Zarina to be more open. She could have been Zarina’s older sister. I wonder if Erin, like Naomi, also helped me become more open with my art.

zarina stahnke painting erin arbuckle in my living room

My second shoot with Erin was a week later. I was three times her age but she felt like an equal. It was nice to photograph a new muse where I never had to hold back my own intelligence. As we worked together over the next eighteen months I felt we became real friends. Erin helped me through some difficult personal situations.

erin arbuckle in my living room studio. the first time using daylight.

During shoot #2 I set up a background with Erin but for the first time, not using my studio lights. The background was a piece of semi-sheer wide black fabric I had picked up at my favorite fabric warehouse in Venice Beach while working in Los Angeles. I set up the background in my living room, as close to the windows as possible, still giving me enough room to capture full length shots when necessary. The light for the portrait was a combination of daylight coming in the window, my plants’s gro-light mounted to the ceiling, and a couple of cheap fluorescent bulbs in an old movie light fixture used by my uncle in the 1960s. Erin can come off as a tough woman but she shared her sensuality and softer side with me during this shoot. Erin showed me how a simple natural pose – a model relaxed, can complete a dynamic photograph.

erin arbuckle and lily balogh. portraits while hanging out in the afternoon

My shoots with Erin over the next year were all over the place. As I said, she straddled my artistic transition. I hadn’t yet figured out what I was looking for in my images. We photographed indoors and out, partial nudes, and with mirrors. Through her patience with my process I finally found my direction.

At some point Erin no longer was interested in shooting with me. I don’t really know why. My work isn’t for everyone. At the end of our time together I was photographing dancers but not dance. My photography was definitely heading in the direction of fine art portraits. Erin had began dancing again. I think our needs no longer matched. It made me sad but I understood.

alida delaney in central park. still one of my favorite pictures ever

Alida Delaney contacted me on Facebook. The message is still out there somewhere in the Facebook archives. She read in my online journal that I sometimes photograph models who reached out to me. I took a look at her Facebook page and there was nothing about the pictures that made me want to photograph her. It’s not that she wasn’t beautiful – she didn’t embody the emotional state I look for in a muse. Still, there was something about her message that intrigued me. There was a strength and sincerity in her words. I think it was late at night. I messaged Alida and asked her to take a quick selfie – no preparation – just how she was at that moment. I quickly received a messy hair, no makeup, ready for bed portrait. There was a serenity to the portrait that was special. I knew I needed to learn what was inside her head.

alida delaney. the start of the "intimate portrait project"

I met Alida and her roommate for a night shoot in Central Park. The second I saw Alida I knew her Facebook page did not represent who she really was. I had asked Alida to bring her roommate to the shoot. On Facebook, Alida always looked best when Rebecca was with her in a photograph. As it turned out I made a mistake. Rebecca was amazing but the personalities of the two women did not mix well together in my images. Alida dominated the shoot. It was unexpected.

alida delaney. after years of digital, experimenting with film

It didn’t matter. Two days later Alida and I got together again. Same time at night. Same location in Central Park. This time both of us were better prepared. In some ways it was a surreal experience. Central Park can be very quiet at night. We were alone in the tunnel beneath 72nd Street. There wasn’t much light. Alida’s skin glowed in the darkness. It’s one of the things I love most about working with Alida. Her skin! When I want to set up a shoot I send Alida a text, “I need your skin!” Obviously we’ve become friends. It’s not a text I could sent to any muse. Alida gets it.

alida delaney. recent portrait for the "modigliani" series. new art. new friendship

Alida and I have worked together for almost six years. She was instrumental in helping me develop the Intimate Portrait Project. I call her Intimate Muse #1. I have photographed Alida more than anyone else during this time. It’s rare a photographer-model relationship lasts this long. It’s because the two of us are about more than photographs. We are truly friends.

On July 28, 2014, Elise Ritzel became Intimate Muse #14. I do need to keep better notes in the future because I can’t remember exactly how we met. I’m guessing I first photographed Elise at a Current Sessions dress rehearsal. She later came over to look at the photographs. I realized when I saw her in my apartment she could be an amazing muse. Two weeks later she was.

elise ritzel for the "intimate portrait project." this is a photograph i will love forever

We photographed three times together over the next several months. I was searching for a purpose with the Intimate Portrait Project. It was still all about the eyes – closeups of a face. Elise brought something different to the project. She used her hands and arms to shape her face, adding an additional element – giving more emotion to the photographs. I began to pull the camera away from the face, capturing more of the body. It opened up new possibilities. I had more shapes to work with. I learned to incorporate the dancer’s physical knowledge and experience into the photographs.

I don’t know why Elise and I stopped shooting together. Sometimes the muse gets busy and doesn’t have time to take photographs for the sake of art. Mostly the process has run it’s course. Rarely do I want to stop working with a muse but I can see how after a few shoots the model no longer has anything to gain by having more of my pictures on their hard drive. I’m sure on occasion the intimacy of the portrait sessions is a place they no longer wish to explore. I get that. There are certain muses I miss very much.

peiju chien-pott. in a trance. "intimate portrait project"

A year later, on August 12, 2015, Natalie Deryn Johnson became Intimate Muse #43. I was still struggling with my vision. My commercial work was deemed to artistic. My fine art photography often seen as too commercial. Despite feeling like my photography didn’t fit anywhere, the direction and process for the Intimate Portrait Project was finally coalescing around a single viewpoint. Many of the Intimate muses were saying the shoots felt like emotional therapy. While shooting there had become a closer connection between me and the muses. I still photograph many of the models from that period of time. There were two in particular who elevated the project to a new place. Peiju Chien-Pott was so relaxed during our shoot I thought she had gone into a trance. I actually stopped shooting to make sure she was okay! Austin Sora taught me not to fear the physicality of the sessions. That it was okay to let the weight of my body rest on the muse while shooting. Austin said it is what helped her to relax. And then nine days later came Natalie.

austin sora. the beginnings of "intimate-passion-touch-trust." "intimate portrait project"

Natalie and I met on Facebook, got together for a discussion about dance at my apartment, instantly becoming friends and photographer-muse at the same time. I’ve had friends who became muses and muses who became friends, but in my entire photographic life it had never before happened simultaneously.

With the exception of Alida Intimate Muse #1, I have done more Intimate Portrait shoots with Natalie than anyone else. Natalie was probably the first muse to use the Intimate shoots as a way to expel her demons. The Intimate shoots can have an intense warmth between the model and photographer. Hugs are a necessity. There is the freedom for the muse to completely be herself. No makeup necessary. I have no expectations. All I need is to capture a person’s raw honest beauty. That comes from the inside. The trust is extreme. I’m often told personal stories no one else in the world knows. I consider that an honor. I’ve become a better person due to the muses. They have all elevated my spirit.

natalie deryn johnson. one of my favorite pictures from the "intimate portrait project"

Natalie can feel like a wild animal during the shoots. Until recently, no muse consistently let go emotionally as much as her. I often lose control over our shoots. Natalie is in her own world. Whatever images I had hoped to capture never happen. I allow her the freedom to let go – pictures be damned. Isn’t that what friendship is all about.

natalie deryn johnson. variations for the "modigliani" series

When a photographer works enough with a person as photogenic and artistic as Natalie, great pictures are bound to happen despite the artistic chaos. We’ve shot together for the Intimate Portrait Project a dozen times. Often it is more about therapy and our relationship as special friends. Natalie, like many of the other muses, finds my apartment a zone of safety – the plants, the cats, the jasmine tea, and of course my homemade tomato-veggie sauce. Despite the fact we’ve taken tens of thousands of images for the Intimate Portrait Project, my two favorite photographs of Natalie are not from that portfolio. The first is from my “Modigliani” series. The second, and probably the one I consider one of my all-time favorite photographs, is not from any project at all.

Whenever possible, I like to feed the muses. The Intimate Portrait sessions are exhausting. They can go on non-stop for hours. When the shoot is finished we’re both starving. I make sure to have a full refrigerator of homemade specialities including hummus, tomato-veggie sauce, pesto, strawberry jam, along with a selection of cheese and crackers. One afternoon, Natalie happened to be in my neighborhood, stopping by for tea and a taste of those snacks. We sat and talked at my dining room table. I couldn’t take my eyes off Natalie’s face. There was something about the way the dining room ceiling light flowed over her. I asked Natalie to take off her top. This is my life. She kind of laughed, knowing I must be seeing something special to interrupt our meal.

natalie deryn johnson. "reflection" series

It was something special. Maybe it was Natalie’s mood. Maybe we were more relaxed – this shoot was only for fun – whether we got any good pictures really didn’t matter. After a few minutes I was well past the “just for fun” phase. Scrolling through the pictures on my monitor, I can see the point where I began getting serious, focusing on my composition, pushing Natalie to concentrate on her poses and emotion. Her thought process in these images feels deeper than any of our other shoots. I wonder what I said to draw that out.

natalie deryn johnson. i will always love this photograph.

This is when that all-time favorite photograph happened. It is one of my iconic portraits. I have a 5″x7″ print in an antique frame sitting on a bookshelf in my bedroom. The mood is pensive, not chaotic – the mood typical during most of our shoots. It is one of the few photographs I’ve taken where Natalie appears calm. The pose reminds me of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration. Although the pose of the women in the vintage photograph appears natural, I read she deliberately posed in that manner to appear lost and in need. I had thought Natalie’s pose was natural, dream-like and searching, in need, looking for something she desires but can not have. Maybe it was a deliberate pose? Ultimately, I don’t care. The photograph looks natural, possibly taken outdoors in strong but diffused sunlight. This is what I love about photography. Each photographer has his own perception of the world. What I see will through the viewfinder will always represent my vision. Nothing is ever what it seems.

END OF PART I: INTERMISSION

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