01/14/19: artist’s life

For those who happen to see this photo-essay, it is a work in process. I have been working on it for months. A few more chapters of my life need to be written. My life with the new Muses needs to be processed. I do promise to finish this soon.

self-portrait on my rooftop. july 24, 1979

It is possible, exactly forty-three years to the day, I decided to become a professional photographer. I had several work choices at the time – doctor, genetic researcher, bio-archeologist, or photographer. Before this date in 1976, I had finally set my mind on archeology. My professor, Jane Buikstra, had agreed to accept me into the PhD program at Northwestern. Jane was an amazing mentor. I couldn’t wait to spend the next years working with her. The previous summer I had worked with Jane as an archeology student, digging at the Koster Site in Southern Illinois. Whenever I had the chance I photographed the dig and the surrounding river valley. Several of my photographs appeared in archeological journals along with a full page in the 1976 Syllabus, Northwestern’s yearbook.

koster site. satellite dig overlooking the illinois river valley. august, 1975

There I sat in my office, happily looking at Lake Michigan and contemplating my future life. I really did have an office overlooking the lake! It was one of the perks I received while working as the photo editor of the Syllabus. There was also a small salary of $100 per month – my first photography job. Actually, it was my second job. During my freshman year of college I worked for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, earning five dollars for each photograph they published. At the time it was very exciting!

the daily northwestern. oct. 18, 1976. my senior year

I shared the yearbook office with the yearbook editor. One day he walked in, sat down, and announced he was leaving Northwestern to finish up his degree at NYU’s Film School, and by the way, I should move to New York City and become a photographer.

1976 editors portrait with jon strauch. photo credit: charlie seton

Lighting and sparklers went off in my head. What a great idea! I could move to New York for a few years, study photography, and then return to Northwestern for my PhD. With better photography skills I would be more valuable as an archeologist, opening up greater possibilities for post-graduate work.

It’s late August, 1976. Lower East Side. Tenement apartment on East 13th St., a few doors west of Third Avenue. Five dollar hookers hanging out on my corner. My neighborhood looked like the set for the movie, Taxi Driver, released earlier that year. That’s because my neighborhood was the location for Taxi Driver. Except in the movie it looked a lot cleaner. No one would believe the movie if it showed what the streets really looked like. This was a far cry from the middle-class suburbs of Chicago where I grew up.

self-portrait in the style of duane michals. east 13th street apartment. october, 1976

The apartment itself wasn’t bad, a one-bedroom with a decent size living room and a small separate kitchen. It had two closets! I lived close to the School of Visual Arts where I took classes but more important, I was in within easy walking distance of The Village, a gathering place for artists of every type. Or so I thought. The Village was no longer the hangout of bohemian artists like Faulkner, Pollock, Warhol, Kerouac, and Dylan. The play, HAIR, took place in The Village. I wanted to see the places mentioned in the songs. The Waverley Theater and Washington Square Park were still there but the artists were gone.

broadway, before it was soho. 1977

The area had become too expensive for “starving artists.” Everything had been commercialized. The Lower East Side, Tribeca, and Brooklyn were becoming the new havens for artists but now they didn’t seem to gather together in the same manner as in the past. Or maybe that never happened except on television and in the movies. Warhol did have his Factory. Possibly it’s all his fault. Warhol was the genius who commercialized modern art. You could frequently spot him hanging out among the couches on the dance floor at Studio 54, frolicking with the likes of Truman Capote and Halston. Somehow 54 didn’t have the same feel as a local Village café.

Still, I spent many afternoons at Figaro Café situated at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the heart of Greenwich Village. I imagined beatniks hanging out in the back corner booth, smoking, reciting poetry – sharing ideas for their newest creations. I sat at my table alone, reading art journals or writing ideas for future photographs. I never saw anyone famous at Figaro’s. That would have to wait until I moved uptown, became a fashion photographer, and spent many nights dancing at Studio 54. But that life is for a different story.

old new york city skyline. empire state, chrysler, and pan am buildings

New York City — living my life as a starving artist. I was so poor I had to decide between getting a slice of pizza or riding the subway. Pizza usually won. I wore out a lot of shoes. My darkroom was in the kitchen overlooking the backstage entrance of the Palladium Theater. I could look out my window, seeing the bands arriving in their limousine – Blondie, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen – I got free concerts while printing my portfolio. I owned a book about Elliott Erwitt. He told a story about printing in his Upper West Side apartment, washing prints in his bathtub. I must have had more space than he did. I bought a big plastic tub, the kind restaurants use to carry around dirty dishes, using that as my print washer. All of this made me very happy.

fashion model mona grant in the studio. probably fall, 1977

After ten months in New York, I took a job as an intern to a young fashion photographer. I was not learning much at SVA. I was more advanced than my fellow students. I hadn’t taken me long to realize 99.99% of the people who called themselves artists could not survive on their art. Some took part time jobs. Many ended up working in photography stores, at magazines, or advertising agencies. Most left the art world all together. I didn’t give up a PhD in archeology to work in some office. I understood to survive I had to get commercial work.

janice soukup on my madison avenue studio rooftop. probably spring, 1978

After almost a year as an intern I had a good fashion portfolio and began to work on my own. I shared a studio with a small fashion-model agency. It was tough but I was surviving. It didn’t take long before I understood fashion wasn’t the place for me. I couldn’t deal with the drugs, sex, and arrogance. What you see in the movies is nothing compared to real life. I gave up the studio still struggling with my art and the difficultly of earning a living.

Then I got lucky. After three difficult years in New York I a found work as a black and white printer with a top fashion photographer whose work I admired. All those years I spent in the yearbook darkroom had paid off. I began working part time and was quickly hired to a full time position. I was allowed to take time off for my own jobs. I was allowed to used the studio for my personal shoots during nights and weekends. It was heaven.

gordon munro in his studio with sam

Gordon Munro. I spent days, then months, then years printing for him. He gave me the chance I needed to figure out my life. It gave me the time I needed to figure out how to blend my commercial and artistic work into one coherent style. I learned how to run a studio. I learned the business of photography. The person I am today would not be possible without the five years I spent working in Gordon’s studio. More important I learned how to survive using my own creativity. After eight years in New York City I was finally ready to earn a living producing my own photographs. It wasn’t always “art” but the work was mine. In April, 1984, I once again launched my career as a professional photographer.

backstage at the kirov. march, 1989

Twenty-three years later. It was the fall of 2007. I had been traveling for work three to six months a year for twenty years. I had photographed women bodybuilders in almost every state in America along with Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Canada, and Holland. I had photographed dance in many of the same places. During my ten trips to The USSR I had worked endlessly with the Kirov Ballet. I was getting tired of travel, wondering if I would ever become the artist I imagined when moving to New York City.

Someone has wondered about those twenty-three years in between 1984 and 2007. It’s not that I wasn’t creating art. I photographed for the American Ballet Theatre for ten years, shooting in my personal style. I did a project on pregnant women for a book that almost happened. I photographed tattooed women. I spent almost twenty years photographing in strip clubs. During my trips to the Soviet Union I spent many days wandering the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, shooting only for myself.

denise for my tattoo project. october 6, 1994

The difference was at that time my intent was always creating photographs that would somehow earn me money whether as a book, sold to magazines, or print sales from an exhibition. I loved what I was doing but the photographs weren’t taken only for love. I thought I had passion. Maybe compared to most photographers I did. I was certainly a commercial artist. I moved to New York City to be something more.

After 9/11, traveling with cases of photographic equipment weighing three hundred pounds became more difficult. Bags were delayed. One trip while passing the security station at JFK I saw a TSA security agents open one of my cases, pull out my video camera, run around the security area yelling to the other agents, “Look at me, I’m a movie director.” My bags got delayed because the TSA agents were having fun instead of looking for bombs. That is not okay!

Much of the video I shot with that camera appeared in a sexy women’s bodybuilding and fitness website I produced, shooting mostly in LA, Las Vegas, and Florida. The site began as an artistic black and white portfolio but I let the needs of my fans and the money I earned take me to a place that over time made me increasingly uncomfortable. The membership fees did allow me to pay off most of the debt I had incurred working as a not-so-well-paid dance photographer. I invested and saved the rest of my earnings for the future.

erika kern. pelican point, california. january, 1995

Finally I could go no further and I shut down the website. When it was over I didn’t miss the weekly membership checks nearly as much as I missed the friends I had made out west. I missed the drives I took from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, touring the rural roads through the desert and mountains, climbing ancient cinder cones and meditating on dry lake beds in Death Valley. As I slowed my travel I began to photograph more for myself, attempting to make the transition towards fine art photography. I always find it funny when I write or hear the words “fine art photography.” No one used that term when I moved to New York City in the 1970s. You were either a commercial photographer or an art photographer. Who decided to use the word “fine?” I’m guessing some gallerist thought it up, realizing equating photography with painting would raise the prices of photographic prints. It worked! Although I tried to move away from a commercial mind set, while shooting I couldn’t stop considering what might appeal to my present and future clients. A shoot in the forest on top of Mt. Charleston finally realigned my vision. There couldn’t have been a more spiritual place and unexpected Muse to make this happen.

It was July 30, 2007. The model was Joi. We did our fifth and sixth shoots together that day. The pictures on Mt. Charleston changed me instantly. I knew something special happened to the way I saw through my camera. Something more important than the pictures themselves. The photographs we took later that night in my hotel room were a preview of a project that materialized six years later.

joi in my hotel room. precursor to the intimate portrait project

I didn’t know much about Joi. I met her through Diana Dennis, a professional bodybuilder living in Las Vegas. I knew Joi has once been very overweight, hiring Diana to help her get back into shape. Joi must have lost a great deal of weight. There were places on her body where the skin was loose, not yet tightening to her new physique. Her breast implant surgery was obvious. I imagine the implants worked and were hidden when she was heavier. Now as a small woman they overwhelmed her body. It seems to be a west coast thing – little women with big breasts. I never got that. Only when it’s real.

joi. mt. charleston. july 30.2007

I didn’t care. Joi appeared to me as a 1930s movie goddess with the personality to match. Joi appeared strong but at the same time I felt she was reaching out to me for help. The movie’s story goes like this – artist falls in love with an ex-dancer who had a hard life when she was young – now unhappily married to a very rich, older man. She wants to be with the artist but can never leave her husband. In the movies it’s a love story that never ends well.

joi. mt. charleston. july 30.2007

Joi never talked about her life. I believe she worked as a cocktail waitress somewhere in Las Vegas. That town can support a lot of cocktail waitresses. I know she lived in a normal Las Vegas middle-class neighborhood with nice ranch houses and front yards. I did fall in love with Joi. It was more than “Muse love.” It felt real. As a professional photographer I kept these emotions to myself. Joi was married. We lived 2,000 miles apart. What was important to both of us was the pictures. Joi changed me. I needed to return to my roots. Joi helped me take the first steps on that journey.

alida. march 2, 2013. the first intimate portrait

My artist’s life began to come back into focus with the Intimate Portrait Project. March 2, 2013. Almost six years after my last shoot with Joi, Alida posed for the first Intimate Portrait shoot. I can’t remember what it felt like but at that time. The shoots then revolved completely around composition and light, contemplating the work of the photographer Bill Brandt, and how to keep my weight off of Alida so I didn’t squish her. Only after the first few shoots did I realize the project was about physical touch, breathing, and intimacy. I didn’t know it at the time but my life, personally and artistically, changed with Alida on that day. Today, six years later, Alida and I still photograph together. We’ve had the fortune of watching each other grow.

alida. intimate portrait project. august 14, 2018

May 21, 2016. This was my second Intimate Portrait shoot with Abby and our first shoot alone. Our first shoot was with her friend Veronica, also my friend and Muse. Abby is Intimate Muse #53. Over a period of three years, the Intimate Portrait Project had gone from close-ups of faces, models wearing makeup, me sitting on their lap; to half-body nudes, no makeup, and a search for the model’s soul. The physicality of the shoots appeared to allow the models an honest release of hidden emotions. Many of the Muses considered our work together photo-therapy. Some Muses came back for many shoots, telling me the project was life changing.

abby and veronica for the intimate portrait project

Abby and I shot for hours, at one point moving from my living room couch to my bed, taking advantage of the late afternoon light in that room. Abby had been a friend before she was a Muse. When we finished shooting we spent a long time laying next to each other, Abby still topless from the shoot, talking about life — just like two close friends do while hanging out. It felt normal. The time we spent talking allowed us to pull away from the demands of my photography. Abby’s hands rested on her chest while we spoke. I watched the light as it moved across her body.

abby in my bed: hands and torso

I began to shoot again. New emotions. It felt different than the pictures we had taken earlier. It felt different than any of the previous Intimate Portrait sessions. At the time I didn’t understand exactly what had changed. I knew it had to do with the time we spent talking. The new pictures were a portrait of our discussion. At that moment I creatively moved past anything I had ever done before. It’s as if I had been searching for decades, trying to find the feeling I had when I first moved to New York City, hoping to become an artist. Abby was helping me tear down a barrier I knew existed but was incapable of crossing on my own. A small print from the shoot sits on a shelf in my dining room. I see it every day. Every time I pass the photograph I wonder how the emotion in Abby’s face was possible? We made an important connection. This was the beginning.

abby. intimate portrait project

After Abby the portraits for the project became more intimate. I wanted this connection from everyone. The physicality of the shoots once again increased, model and photographer moving together in a close space. I found the more our bodies touched the more the models relaxed. In some ways it was feral, like two cats cuddling for warmth. This warmth showed in the images we created together. The posing of the models changed. The emotions were no longer restricted to their faces, extending outward into their entire body. I began to feel the need to include their entire bodies into the portraits. I’ve always had a talent for photographing light on skin. The Intimate Project asked for more. I’ve learned to let the emotions and light dictate how I shoot. The models, the composition, the light, they were all telling me I needed to move on to full body nudes. I was unsure how to proceed. Would the unrestricted physicality between me and the Muses still work? Would we be crossing an unacceptable boundary? I had some fears. I didn’t have the answers.

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04/03/19: A short addition to this story. Last week Abby sent me a Facebook message letting me know she’d be in New York for a week. She lives in San Francisco now. Abby asked if I would be willing to take her portrait. We hadn’t seen each other in almost three years. Of course I said yes.

Yesterday we got together to shoot. Abby was forty-five minutes late because of work. She felt rushed. We talked and had tea to relax. Our discussion was intense. I decided it was not the right moment to take portraits for the Intimate Project. I told Abby we didn’t have enough time. These portrait sessions often take an hour to develop the right mood. We talked for a while longer and then she sat in silence while I put away my cameras and lights.

abby. intimate portrait project

During that time of quiet, Abby was able to process her thoughts, later asking if we could still shoot. She wanted to do “normal” portraits. That doesn’t happen with me anymore. I asked if we could keep to my intimate process and Abby agreed.

We only had thirty minutes to shoot but whatever Abby had worked out in her head made our photographs perfect immediately. It took me a few minutes to understand the light and decide on the background fabric. After that we moved forward, alternating between shooting, talking, and laughing together. Something good happened. Abby shared her soul with me, more then ever before. We shot for that short time but it was a special moment.

After we finished, we looked at the photographs on the back of the camera. There was something about the way she had held her body. While shooting there was a moment I wanted to stop and rest my hand on the top of her chest, the shallow dip right below the clavicle – my palm resting in the depression. Her body was talking to me and I wanted to listen. I told Abby about this feeling while looking at the photographs. She understood what I was saying.

abby. the room caresses our souls

Last night while sorting through the photographs, I found a series of images that felt like nothing I had ever done before. I work hard to making my apartment a safe and spiritual place but it has never spoken to me. In one photograph I could feel my apartment talking. It sensed what had happened between me and Abby. The 107 years of it’s existence — the apartment’s own knowledge and experience flowed out of the floor, the ceiling, and the walls, enveloping the space around the two of us. I’m a spiritual person but I’m also have the mind of a scientist. I don’t believe in these things. But this is what I felt. The apartment knew something was astray and made the correction. Abby and I had no choice. Our souls were meant to connect on this afternoon.

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hannah appears to me as the madonna. sheer black series

I wanted Hannah to be the first nude model. It had been a long time since I did any full nudity. I’ve always been more into face than bodies and I have a collection of vintage clothes I’ve used to dress my models for years. August 10, 2016. It was our second portrait shoot together. Hannah is Intimate Muse #64. Hannah has that kind of pale skin that glows in the light. Her face borders on shy while her body is big-boned and strong. It is the perfect combination for my work.

I needed her entire body in my images. It’s difficult to explain to non-artists. Sculptors certainly understand. They see a nude model standing in front of them and they don’t see the person live, they only see their body carved in marble. I see Hannah as a Renaissance Madonna. I wanted to capture that feeling. My need wasn’t fulfilled. Hannah had already pushed herself to the edge of her boundaries. She gave me my Madonna photograph but it was for a different project. It is one of my all time favorite photographs. I never push or force my artistic needs on anyone. I hoped I would photograph Hannah again in the future, capturing that vision I still have in my head.

hollie and hannah performing in caitlin trainor's "paint"

November 15, 2016. I met Hollie while she was dancing in a piece choreographed by Caitlin Trainor. I immediately knew I had to photograph her. There’s just something incredible about her face. She tries to hide her soul but you can see it through her eyes. I wasn’t sure Hollie would agree to shoot for the Intimate Portrait Project. Hollie is full-bodied, not the physique of a typical modern dancer. I a deep beauty in her I don’t think she understands. Hollie became Intimate Muse #70.

hollie for the intimate portrait project

We shot for hours, not unusual for my Intimate Portrait shoots. As with Abby and Hannah, we moved to my bedroom when the afternoon light shifted. By the end of the shoot Hollie was nude except for her small black underwear. I can’t remember how or why we got to that point. I wanted to photograph more of her skin and was probably trying to work it out within the parameters that made Hollie comfortable. Her body has wonderful curves. As a photographer I love them. I can only imagine how Peter Paul Rubens would have painted her. I’m sure he would have followed Hollie down the streets of Amsterdam, begging her to pose for him. I know this physique is not so easy for Hollie.

Hollie was lying chest down on the bed. I was shooting portraits. Her body flowed in the image behind her, appearing as smooth rolling hills. The black panties were in the way, cutting across her body, attracting attention away from her face. I showed Hollie the images in the back of the camera and asked if she would do a few full nudes, just for this shot. I needed the continuous flow of Hollie’s body. We shot the nudes for only a few minutes. It was all the time I needed to capture the shot. Hollie got it. It was at that moment I realized the design of the Intimate Portraits needed to grow. There are times when more body is better.

hollie. precursor for the modigliani series

During those last few minutes, Hollie settled into the bed and relaxed to a place I hadn’t seen in the thousands of photographs we had taken during the hours before. It was the first full nude I had shot in a long time. I had forgotten something I learned long ago while photographing a nude series on pregnant women in the late 1990s. For most people nudity is freedom. When a person crosses that barrier, a real person, not a professional model, giving up their inhibitions — a strong emotional release happens. It’s difficult to believe but during every nude I’ve done in my life the model became more relaxed after removing their clothes. I know it happens. Still to this day it surprises me.

After photographing Hollie, I kept thinking about a photograph I had always wanted to take. I love Modigliani’s Reclining Nudes. There is something about the strength of his muses. There they are, laying completely naked yet there is nothing submissive in their pose or expression. It is if they controlled the painter instead of the other way around.

bronwyn. modigliani reclining nude

Muse. Bronwyn is the real thing. She defines the word. We shot twice in one week. Intimate Muse #74. Bronwyn was the first nude shoot where I felt no restrictions. During our second shoot on February 2, 2017, we created my first Modigliani Reclining Nude. Bronwyn forced me to break through the barriers I had put up, restricting my own creativity. My second life as an artist began with her, though now stronger with 40 years of experience and knowledge. I haven’t looked back. Photographing Bronwyn felt like a new beginning to my life.

Wait. I am jumping ahead of myself. Although Bronwyn was the first Modigliani Reclining Nude there was another Muse, photographed the week before her who paved the way for this series.

can during a dress rehearsal of "table of silence"

I met Can in September, 2016 during the rehearsals for Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Table of Silence. I did take some photos of Can during these rehearsals and we spoke during a break at the dress rehearsal. Though I could see Can had spirit I couldn’t imagine she would pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. Then there’s the fact Can is a student at Juilliard. Due to the very intimate nature of my project I try to photograph with women who are no longer in school.

By that December I had forgotten about Can, working with many new and wonderful Muses. Then I noticed Can was ‘liking’ almost every photograph I posted to Facebook. It’s usually a sign the person wants to work with me. I contacted Can and to my surprise she was willing to pose for my project.

can. intimate portrait project

To this day I don’t understand how I didn’t see the special Muse Can was to become. We had sat and talked for some time during the Table of Silence rehearsal. I imagine at that time, Can herself didn’t understand the beauty of her own soul. During the rehearsals I was too busy with the shoot at hand to see past her barriers. Possibly Can needed those few months to grow emotionally before she became the right person for my Intimate portraits. Maybe all of this is only in my imagination? I do know after several shoots with Can she gained the confidence to release the strength inside her soul. Her entire persona changed. One thing for sure, Jacqulyn Buglisi is smarter than me. She saw the greatness inside of Can immediately.

Can is Intimate Muse #73. Our first shoot was on January 9, 2017. Can and I talked constantly during our shoots, possibly more than I had spoken to any Intimate Muse before her. Can was open to my process, trusting me as I created art with her body. Trust is of utmost importance when shooting nudes. The model must trust me absolutely in order to have complete freedom in her movement with worry. I must trust the model believes in me and my artistic sensibility, otherwise my own concerns distract from my ability to photograph — my ability to see the art standing before my eyes.

can. the first nude intimate project portrait

During our first shoot, Can became the first nude Intimate Portrait. It felt right with her. One might think, “what’s the big deal?” It is a big deal because I’m often in direct physical contact with the model while shooting. It’s one thing to sit on a body that’s at least partially dressed. It’s another thing to work while sitting on a naked body. Our skin touches. There is a difference in the shared warmth. Two years later it now feels normal. The first time I didn’t understand how it would affect the process.

Can appeared comfortable from the start. It probably took me a few minutes to settle. I needed that short time not to be distracted by the warmth of her body, to redirect my concentration to what I saw in the camera. I sometimes wonder if I’m overly concerned about the model’s happiness? Muses have told me I shouldn’t worry so much. They always tell me they are okay. I can’t help it. It’s part of who I am. I imagine that’s one reason the Intimate Portrait Project works.

My second shoot with Can was six days later. If possible I try to do two shoots quickly when I’ve found a special Muse. The second shoot cements the relationship. When we begin it’s easier. We already know each other. The process doesn’t need to be explained. The touch feels natural. The friendship begins.

During the following months Can and I would take evening walks in Central Park. I’d ride my bike down to Lincoln Center, waiting at the fountain for Can to finish her last class or rehearsal. We mostly sat on a park bench in The Rambles, drinking green tea and eating snacks, but of course there was always the pictures. I’m not sure who craved shooting more, me or Can? It think both of us would have fallen into a coma if we spent too much time together with creating new photographs.

can in the central park rambles

Those evening walks with Can were wonderful. Each time we met I was aware of how much she was changing – growing as a person. I now understood what Jacqulyn Buglisi had first seen in her. One evening Can mentioned auditioning for a upcoming Buglisi Dance performance and was worried if she would be chosen. I kind of laughed and told her she was definitely in. I hadn’t spoken to Jackie about it. I just knew Can was exactly the type of dancer Jackie looked for.

Every time Can and I met she looked more like the woman in my photographs – less like the woman I first met on the Lincoln Center Plaza during the Table of Silence rehearsal. I was amazed by the change. I’m not sure Can was aware she had grown this much so fast. I think both of us helped each other release our fears.

intimate portrait with can's drawing as overlay

Can broke down the walls I had built around myself. The fear of becoming an artist. The fear of creating art without societal repercussions. Bronwyn is the Muse who dragged me over the rubble to the other side. I’m not sure if I was ready but Bronwyn gave me no choice.

As had others before her, Bronwyn contacted me on Facebook. As with the other Muses who have changed my life, I looked at Bronwyn’s Facebook page and didn’t see how she would work for my photography. It didn’t matter. At this point I know for certain if someone asks me to shoot it doesn’t matter what I think. As with all the Muses who have contacted me on Facebook before her, I suspected she also would become one of the more important Muses in my life. I wish I could figure out why that happens!

bronwyn. intimate portrait project

Bronwyn wanted to shoot. I’m didn’t say no. The moment we met I realized the strength in her. Not everyone is like that. When I open my front door to a model I’ve never met I can always immediately see their warmth. Bronwyn was more than that. I should have comprehended at that exact second, Bronwyn was the one to bring me to that place as an artist I couldn’t realize on my own. As she walked passed by me in my front hallway my brain tingled. I knew that day’s shoot would be different.

bronwyn. dark nude series. tri-x film. rolleiflex

I don’t know what to say. Bronwyn wasn’t the woman I expected. It’s possible I had no premonitions of the experience to come. I usually have daydreams before a shoot – pre-visions of what’s to come. It doesn’t matter if I’ve met the model or not. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve read their posts. Somewhere deep inside my head I always know who they are. I had no sense of Bronwyn before we met, only her desire to work with me. It only took a few minutes of shooting for Bronwyn to show me the way.

bronwyn. sheer black series

We worked on my Dark Nude series, something I had begun a week earlier with Can. I was more prepared this time, both technically and while explaining the physicality I needed in the poses. We shot for my Sheer Black series. That project had taken on a new life due to the emotional presence of the Intimate Portrait Project. For years my shoots have always begun with an Intimate Portrait, the proceeding through my other projects. The sheer fabric photographs now carry the same intimacy as the closeups. The models channel the intimacy of our physical connection to their emotions under the fabric. Bronwyn was a mystical spirit, standing between reality and an apparition.

We worked together again a week later. It was different this second time. I was emotionally prepared for Bronwyn’s freedom and energy. During the days before our shoot I had visions of the photographs to come. I had no fears. Well, almost. After this shoot was finished, then I had no fear.

Two new projects came out of the pictures we took that day. I finally got to shoot my Modigliani Reclining Nude. We warmed up with the Intimate Portrait Project. It gives both me and the model time to relax. It gives me time to study the daylight coming in my window and the emotions of the model on that given day. The close up portraits give us both time to connect physically and emotionally. Think about two dancers preparing for a pas de deux. They need some time together, touching, thinking, before a performance.

bronwyn. my first modigliani reclining nude photograph

I explained my Modigliani idea, googling ‘Modigliani Reclining Nude,’ showing Bronwyn the images found in the search. A model standing against a studio background is one thing. Laying naked on the couch – it is much more exposed and that is the idea. I rearranged the fabric and pillows on my couch allowing Bronwyn the necessary time to work out her initial pose. I turned to my desk, I don’t remember why – possibly to changed memory cards – more likely to let her settle in before I had to focus on her body. When I turned back to see her, there was my Modigliani. I was so excited I bet my jaw dropped and my eyes popped out of my head. I don’t get excited easily. “Don’t move!” I took at least two dozen shots before showing Bronwyn what we had captured. How is it possible she understood my idea to perfection? There was my dream shot. I had been thinking about this for years but had been two scared to ask anyone to model this pose. Bronwyn succeeded instantly.

If our shoot had ended there I would have been a very happy photographer. Now, possibly for the first time in decades, I felt the artistic freedom I had craved for so long. Sensing Bronwyn’s willingness to help my creative process, I asked her to be the model for one more new project.

sara jean. july 20, 1979

As I write this down, right now, in this moment in time, the memories I have about Bronwyn remind me of Sara Jean. She was there during the summer before I moved to New York City, and seemingly each time I needed an artistic push over the next few years. Sara Jean was my first muse, my first nude photographs, and my first pictures with a mirror. It was only after our lives drifted apart did I realize how much she had pushed me to be a successful artist. It was not in a commercial way. It’s as if she desperately wanted me to succeed. To help me find a vision. Forty-one years later Bronwyn did the same thing for me. I wonder if she knows that?

That day with Bronwyn I was ready to push the envelope. The success of our Modigliani portrait opened up something in my being. All of a sudden, my vision of the images I now needed to create felt clearer. During the Intimate Portraits I am always the one who sits on bodies. What would happen if the model sat on me? My thoughts at the time were not about empowering the muse, giving them the ability to move freely or determining the style and direction of the photographs. That came later. At this moment it was purely about the light.

bronwyn. intimate portrait project

My idea was to have Bronwyn sit on me and lean over the camera, allowing me to shoot through the hair falling in front of her face. I imagined ethereal images, the diffused light combined with the blur of her moving hair. I had done many Intimate Portraits with messy hair in the model’s face. The hair rarely fell exactly where I wanted. With the model over me, gravity would make the falling hair perfect. If the model’s hair was long enough it could wrap around the camera. I hoped the resulting textures and soft light would be beautiful.

standing over bronwyn

The process was different and more difficult than I had expected. I no longer had control over the distance between the model’s face and my camera. Manually focusing in low light, on a close moving subject is nearly impossible. Thank goodness for digital. It costs nothing to shoot hundreds of pictures. I couldn’t have done this with film while maintaining the spontaneity of the movement. It would have cost a fortune. More unexpected was this new feeling of touch. During the previous four years of intimacy I was always sitting on the model’s body while working. I controlled where my body was in relation to the model – how much weight and contact we had together. I had now lost that control. One might misconstrue my meaning of the word “control.” What I was controlling was the design of the photograph, not the woman beneath me. I was the one looking through the camera. I knew when the light and composition were working. Where I sat or stood above their bodies, that was determined solely by what I saw in the camera.

I let Bronwyn know she could put her entire weight on my body. I learned from my own experience that the more I could settle my own weight into the model, the more stable I was while shooting. I wanted Bronwyn to have that same stability while posing. It might not seem like it but leaning over someone’s body for forty-five minutes can be exhausting.

bronwyn. leaning over me

Bronwyn’s weight surprised me as did the feel of the contact of our skin. When I’m working over the model I rarely notice the touch of our bodies. I only feel it when we take a moment to rest and talk. With Bronwyn in control of the shoot the touch of our bodies was always apparent. I wonder if this is how it feels to the Muses? It would explain the intimacy in their posing and expressions. I never understood it before. I’m working so hard while shooting I scarcely have time to take notice of the experience.

It did take me a few minutes to get used to this new sensation while working. At first I questioned the ethics. I don’t know why it should be any different having the model sit on my body, but it wasn’t the same. But it was the same, only now the model had control. Their professionalism is no different from mine. I let my head clear and put my energy to the task of capturing the images I needed.

As our bodies got used to this new way of shooting it reminded me of the very first Intimate Portrait shoots, the time when I learned the model and I could communicate with our bodies instead of talking. I knew in advance the direction of Bronwyn’s movement by the feel of her body. I don’t think I could have captured the photographs without that connection.

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04/04/19: Another short addition. When I began this essay I had no idea how much I had to say or how much certain people had affected how I approached my art. It has become all the more apparent how the Muses have changed my art, sometimes in a subtle manner but on occasion the transformation was profound. After the second shoot with Bronwyn everything was different. She completely changed the way I worked with the Muses, whether it be someone new or a model I’ve already photographed many times for the Intimate Portrait Project. The Modigliani Reclining Nude portraits became a series. I was surprised how the full body nudity helped develop the Intimate Portraits into a stronger project. I was surprised by how open the Muses were to this new intimacy. I imagine they were always open. I was the one who built up the barriers.

anna and sushi. the ever evolving modigliani series. march 23, 2019

Writing this essay over many weeks gives me the time to think about my history. Until I began the Modigliani series I never truly considered myself an artist. I might have taken artistic photographs but my sensibility was more commercial. Soon after the Modigliani series began that changed. I think it had to do with the freedom of breaking through societal norms, rules we’ve applied for no apparent reason. Why is touch bad? Why is nudity bad? These are puritanical American ideas. I walk into a dance studio and everyone there, whether I know them or not, comes up to give me a hug. In Russia, I walk with my males friends arm in arm. My best friend there kisses me whenever we meet. How is that not good?

janet in high school

I started taking pictures at twelve and began working in the darkroom at fifteen. One of my best friends at the time, Janet Williams, was the “artist” in our group. She always seemed different – so much freer than the rest of us. I didn’t always understand her but I admired that freedom. I doubt I told her at the time but I wished I could be more like her. Janet introduced me to the school’s photography teacher, giving me a tour of the darkrooms. Something about the teacher must have struck me because I took the course during my senior year.

joanne's classroom. double-exposure

Joanne Rhijmes, the Niles East photography teacher, was also an artist. She was not like my other teachers. Joanne was warm but she could also be intimidating. Joanne took me under her wing inviting me on private photo tours with her past students who were now in college. I was invited to one party at her house. Everyone was older than me. I was terrified. They were so intense. They all seemed to be crazy artists and I was too normal. They didn’t treat me like that. It was just how I felt. I imagine a few years after moving to New York, I had many parties where my younger self would have felt scared and confused. It’s amusing to think about that.

lori. my first professional looking portrait. i had already changed. july, 1972

Joanne convinced me to record me dreams. I changed during that last year in high school. I had a long-time girlfriend who obviously was no longer the right woman for me but it took me another year to leave her. It wasn’t a problem with the girlfriend. I was the one who was changing. Joanne read my palm one day and asked about my future plans. I know she wanted me to go to an art school and study photography. I told her I was going to Northwestern and planned to become a doctor. “We’ll see,” she said. There was no doubt in my mind my future plans were set. Joanne was right. I was wrong.

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My second shoot with Alyssa Forte, Intimate Muse #59, was a month after Bronwyn. There are Muses who add much more to my life than just great pictures. I don’t use the word “Muse” lightly. These women are special to me and Alyssa is one of those people.

alyssa. intimate portrait project

Alyssa came to me through Natalie, Intimate Muse #43. Natalie and I have done a dozen Intimate shoots together, more than anyone but Alida who is Intimate Muse #1, working with me through the entire length of the project. You might wonder why Natalie isn’t a part of this essay? This photo-essay is supposed to be more about me than the Muses. It’s “my” artist’s life. When I finally publish a book on the Intimate Portrait Project Natalie will certainly get her own chapter. She has frequently been featured in past essays but as much as Natalie changed the intimacy of my project, she didn’t change me. This essay is about the women who changed not only my art but also my soul.

natalie. intimate portrait project

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember how a shoot felt. I have photographed more than one hundred women for the project. Some months I might do a dozen shoots. The emotions can blend together especially during a time of extreme creativity and artistic transformation. My shoots with Alyssa have blurred together. Looking at her photographs it’s difficult to say when they were taken. What I can remember from our shoots is Alyssa’s warm heart. I love who she is as a person so much.

alyssa. modigliani reclining nude

Our second shoot together was on February 26, 2017 – after Bronwyn’s Modigliani portrait. The Modigliani photographs were becoming a project and Alyssa was the fourth Muse to pose for the series. My shoot with Alyssa was the first time when I was completely comfortable with the nudity. I had been struggling with the idea of physical touch during this new body of work. It’s one thing to be sitting on a topless body while shooting. That is already pushing boundaries but then there is still a measure of societal safety. It’s another thing to be maneuvering around a naked body underneath me. A lot more skin is touching.

alyssa. modigliani recling nude #2

During the previous four years I had photographed for the Intimate Portrait Project it became apparent that the touch between photographer and muse was what drove the project forward. No touch, no exposure of the soul. No capturing of those deep emotions not even the Muses knew existed inside their heads. No photo therapy. Over time the touch became normal. Each shoot begins with a test of the light. The model is dressed. I am not physically close. I move closer, standing or sitting next to them, possibly resting my body against their folded legs and then sitting on the model’s lap. A model I have worked with before is quickly comfortable, her clothes are removed and we begin to shoot in earnest. With a new model first the top comes off and a photograph only her upper body. We might work that way for an hour.

alyssa

I can sense when it’s time to move to the Modigliani series. Touch is important. I can feel their bodies relax beneath me. I can feel when they take their first deep breath. I no longer get to feel that breath with the Muses I’ve photographed many times. It happens so quickly. I’m not yet attached to their body. They’re ready to shoot before I am – while I’m still checking the light. It’s as if they become a different person after that breath. Most don’t realize it has happened. I wouldn’t know it myself if I wasn’t sitting on their body. It’s a revitalizing moment for both of us. They are opening up to the process. I am energized, excited about the pictures about to come.

matcha and sushi

Alyssa taught me how to be comfortable working with a naked body. I think it is her magic. She cast a spell on me that wrapped around my body since our first Modigliani shoot together. It’s possible I’m more physically connected to Alyssa during a shoot than any other Muse. That is saying a lot. I have two new kittens. They are fraternal twins. Brother and sister. I watch them cuddle. It is about their love for each other. It is about warmth, not physical warmth but emotional stability. Their love isn’t sexual. It is two animals needing to be close because of their connection. That is how it feels with Alyssa. It’s feral. We are two animals. There are no words for this feeling because it comes from ancient hominid emotions, something that existed before there was speech. Animals express themselves with touch. That is how it is between me and Alyssa. We express our feelings for each other with the touch of our bodies. During an entire shoot we almost never leave each others side. We embrace while shooting. We embrace while talking. We embrace as we rest.

alyssa and jasper

This changed me in ways I’ve only recently discovered. My interaction with all people has changed, not just the Muses. I am more physical with people I meet and strangely, they are more physical with me. Everyone wants to hug and I welcome their warmth. I produce events for a photographic community. I see how people respond to my words when I introduce an event. I watch all their faces. How I speak relaxes the audience. I don’t know if it is my words or the cadence of my voice. While speaking to these people say to myself, “How is this happening? Emotionally they all look like I’m about to do their Intimate Portrait.” The Intimate Portrait Project and the changes it has made in my psyche have taken my life to this new and wonderful space. I’ve always been a warm and peaceful person but somehow the Muses, people like Alyssa, have raised my inherent calm and happiness to a new level. Society needs to understand this and stop being afraid. Honest touch is so important.

alyssa. honest warmth

Jessica is Intimate Muse #87. I was already a changed person at this point. For the first time in my life I felt I was an artist. There was a different way of thinking. I was taking pictures solely to please myself. Creating without worry. Of course no one is perfect and often while working I question my process and photographs but that is part of being a good artist. Those who believe everything they create is perfect will never grow.

self-portrait with jessica

All my projects were evolving, including the portraits I took at Coney Island. I felt different. I saw in a new way. I was free. I often thought about the moment in the movie, The Turning Point, where Leslie Browne is getting drunk in a bar, pretending to be Russian. Someone at the bar asks Leslie why she came to America. In her bad fake Russian accent Leslie exclaims something like, “I come for artistic freedom.”

couple on the coney island pier

I have a funny story about Leslie. I took her portrait on February 13 and February 27, 1984. I can’t remember why we shot together twice. Maybe I wasn’t completely happy with the first shoot? Leslie came to me by way of Finis Jung. At the time I was photographing his dance company, The Chamber Ballet. Finis called me and said, “I’m sending you Leslie.” For more than a year I had been shooting portraits for the American Ballet Theatre where Leslie danced. I guess Finis assumed I’d know who “Leslie” was? I didn’t. I had seen The Turning Point. It was one of my favorite movies of all time.

leslie browne

Leslie came to the studio where I worked. Throughout the entire shoot I couldn’t figure out why she looked so familiar. I decided I must have photographed her rehearsing with some dance company. I’m not sure if I figured out who she was until after the first or second shoot? Can I really have been that dense? I loved Leslie in The Turning Point. Her acting was genius. Leslie is much more than just a ballerina. Her acting really was artistic freedom.

alida. first shoot. january 9, 2013

My first shoot with Jessica was one of those “life” moments; something you remember until the day you die. Jessica and I had talked about shooting five years earlier. She was a dance student at Marymount Manhattan College and an acquaintance of Alida, Intimate Muse #1, and a fellow student. I believe Jessica sent me a message on Facebook asking to set up a shoot. I mentioned this to Alida who by then had become one of my all-time favorite models. Alida didn’t seem too happy about the possibility. Alida was too important to me at the time to jeopardize our friendship and the pictures we were creating. I felt Jessica could be a special muse. I decided now was not the time to find out.

first time i saw jessica. buglisi dance theatre dress rehearsal

I sent Jessica a Facebook message on June 14, 2017. The previous afternoon I photographed her while performing in a Buglisi Dance Theatre rehearsal at New York Live Arts. Jacqulyn Buglisi is my favorite living choreographer. Her work is magic. I was excited about the rehearsal, a shared program between four women choreographers. Along with photographing Jacqulyn’s piece, Moss 1, I was also eager to photograph Elisa Monte’s dance. I had worked with Elisa’s company decades ago. This time I was more interested in one of her dancers than the dance itself.

maria. modigliani reclining nude series

Maria, who would later become Intimate Muse #104, was in Elisa’s piece. I had been following Maria on Facebook for years. I hoped if I introduced myself to Maria at the rehearsal, somehow we would talk and she’d pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. Happily that did happen as planned and I hope in the future we’ll work together many times. But this particular story is about Jessica.

I didn’t know Jessica would be dancing that day with Buglisi Dance Theatre. It was a surprise to see her, this dancer who I had hoped would be one of the first of the Intimate Muses. The strange thing is I didn’t get any great dance photographs of her during the rehearsal. It wasn’t Jessica’s fault. Not only was I trying to capture the piece for Jacqulyn, two of my Intimate Muses happened to be in the dance; Can Wang and Anne O’Donnell. I had already photographed Anne as a dancer before but had never captured Can on stage. Can was my favorite Muse at the time. I wanted pictures of her as a dancer. My great dance photograph of Jessica would have to come later.

the great dance photo of jessica that came a year later. buglisi dance theatre

The day after the rehearsal I messaged Jessica one photo, immediately receiving a “thank you” reply. It was my chance to ask Jessica if she would pose for the Intimate Portrait Project. I sent Jessica a link to an essay on my blog, co-written with a past Muse, Austin. Following is Jessica’s reply.

austin. intimate portrait project

“Wow, that is a powerful essay. I actually went to school with Austin, she is such a beautiful person. Everything about this shoot sounds wonderful and I think I will learn a great deal from working with you. I would like nothing more than to shoot with you. Thank you so much for asking me. Looking forward to it. Jessica.”

I doubt either of us understood the true meaning of Jessica’s words. It took almost two months before we were able to come together for the shoot on August 5, 2017.

jessica. intimate portrait project

Jessica and I laugh a lot when we’re together. We have an unexplainable connection. Our texts back and forth feel intimate. There is no reserve to our friendship. Our words follow our thoughts without hesitation. I say things to Jessica I’ve only expressed to long time lovers. I can’t help myself. It embarrassed me at first. I expected Jessica to respond with something like, “Don’t ever contact me again.” Instead she understood my words. Understood that we had touched each other’s souls. We had just met but it felt like we had a long past together. I can’t explain it. Jessica was meant to be my friend. We were meant to create art together. We were meant to heal and enrich each other’s consciousness.

jessica. intimate portrait project. trust without hesitation. raw emotions

I sometimes wonder if what I write is the truth. Are my feelings about a Muse honest or only a part of my imagination? This morning they were proven true. Last night while writing about Jessica I came upon an image from our third shoot together. A photograph I had never noticed before. It was a closeup of Jessica’s face, her eyes closed. I must have been sitting on her body at the time of the photo, the camera only inches from her face. This was a photograph of a Jessica who had changed during the two weeks we had known each other. Something inside of her had grown. I wished Jessica was with me late that night, sitting next to me while I was writing my story of her. I needed a hug from this person.

jessica. intimate portrait project. we couldn't be closer

I posted the image to Facebook. It was late, almost midnight. Here are the words I included with the picture.

“For the past two months, I have been writing about my life as an artist – the people who have influenced and changed me. Tonight I’m writing about Jessica. It’s been difficult to find the words. How do you write about a friend and Muse whose soul approaches perfection? A person who grabs your own soul as if you’ve know them for many lives over thousands of years. I must let my mind drift away into a daydream. It is the only way I can see her in my head, writing with complete honesty.”

I woke up the next morning to see Jessica had shared the image to her page along with this response.

“Over the course of my life, I have encountered quite a few men that I believed to be good, only to be shamed, violated, or betrayed. When Paul asked me to work with him I trusted my instinct and agreed. Upon meeting him, I realized I was reconnecting with a dear friend from many lifetimes ago. As we began shooting, I prayed and asked that I be reassured in my thought that Paul was truly good. I was answered with such an overwhelming sense of relief and warmth that I suddenly poured out my heart to Paul; revealing parts of my past I had never before vocalized. He continues to be one of my best friends. With Paul I am reminded of the existence of soul friends and heavenly hearts.”

jessica. modigliani reclining nude

I don’t think there is anything else I need to write about Jessica. The photographs we create together come from Jessica’s trust in me as a person and the strong connection between our souls. Jessica and I are truly friends and twins throughout time.

Kelsey. Trust. Warmth. It is very different working with Kelsey than it is with Jessica. My first work with Kelsey was a joint-shoot with Natalie on March 4, 2018. Kelsey and I connected immediately but emotionally I don’t consider this our first Intimate shoot. When I’m working with two people together I must split my energy and soul. Bringing two people to the emotional state necessary for the Intimate Portrait Project is never the same as working with someone alone. I can’t give each model what they need throughout the entire shoot. Although photographing two models together opens up new possibilities, much of the intimacy is lost.

kelsey. modigliani reclining nude

Kelsey and I shot together alone, five months later on August 17, 2018, a year after I had first photographed Jessica. There were five shoots with Jessica during that time – Jessica, the woman who had elevated my soul. I was no longer the same person. Kelsey is Intimate Muse #94.

natalie and kelsey

Kelsey and I met at a small dinner gathering at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Astoria, Queens. The group was mostly Martha Graham dancers and their friends. I had been working with the company for a several months. Graham choreography and movement is my all-time favorite. I thought Martha Graham was special while I was still in high school. I saw photographs of Martha taken by Barbara Morgan. They began a long artistic collaboration in 1935. As it turns out, Uncle Bobby, my mother’s brother, was also mesmerized by Martha Graham. In the 1940s he would have been the perfect age to dance with the Graham company. It was a time when Martha Graham was creating some of her most remembered dances. Alas, my uncle gave up his dream and spent the rest of life as a physicist.

kelsey for the reflection series

I sat next to Kelsey during the dinner and quickly fell in love, something I do with all the Muses. We talked about shooting. As often happens it took a couple of years and changes in life before we finally got together.

Shooting with Kelsey is different than working with any of the other Muses. That is saying a lot. There are 110 Muses, 109 women and 1 man. It is something physical. While on her body I feel more a part of Kelsey than anyone else. I need to make this clearer. I physically feel like I am part of her being. Kelsey nurtures me like no one else. I feel safe when our bodies are together. I don’t know the reasons why. It’s the closest thing to an adult re-entering the womb. Kelsey protects me.

kelsey. reflection series

During our last shoot I asked Kelsey to take my portrait. I’m sixty-four years old. I’ve aged well but I do not have the face and body I had when I was the same age as my Muses are now. In my entire life I’ve rarely trusted anyone to photograph me. I do self-portraits. Now here I was, lying nearly naked on my couch, trusting someone not only with my favorite camera but also giving them the same freedom to capture my soul as they give me.

kelsey by paul. paul by kelsey. intimate portrait project

Kelsey worked for a while taking over 800 pictures. It gave me the time to relax – time to let go of my concerns about how I look. She worked naked. We did not speak. It was quite the site, this amazing physical being towering over me, sometimes standing a few feet away, other times sitting on my body as I had sat on hers. It felt a little like Adam and Eve before biting into the apple; a time of innocence and self-discovery.

After I took back the camera shooting felt different. I now understood the warm feeling of the of someone’s body, their weight, while they held a camera inches from my face. You loose yourself in the experience. Your mind wanders everywhere, nowhere, in and out of the present moment. I can see why many times, the Muse I’m working with needs the touch to stay focused. It is their way of staying connected to the Earth while their soul wanders to another plane of existence.

kelsey. intimate portrait project

At the beginning of the first shoot with a new muse I explain the Intimate Portrait process the best I can. It can be confusing. At some point I tell them they will only understand after we are well into the shoot. Two hours and 2,000 pictures later I ask if they now understand. I always get a nod and a smile. After Kelsey, I have a new found perception of my own project. Few can give me this much knowledge.

naomi. portrait taken during baltogs audtion

Naomi is Intimate Muse #96. She is also much more than that. Years before the Intimate Portrait Project began Naomi was the first natural nude I had photographed in many years. She was the first muse I photographed using the daylight in my apartment, the first to use my couch as the background, and the first model for the REFLECTION series. Everything I do today came out of my shoots with Naomi.

naomi on my rooftop for the baltogs audition shoot

Our first shoot was on October 19, 2008. I was auditioning models for a Baltogs dancewear catalog. Naomi was one of the dancers who showed up for the audition. Something about Naomi struck me the second I saw her. I didn’t know if she’d be the best model for the Baltogs catalog but Naomi was certainly the best model for me. I brought Naomi up to my rooftop to make sure I got the better photographs than the typical studio lit audition pictures. I did convince Baltogs to use Naomi for the catalog shoot. That didn’t endear me to the client. It is one of the few selfish moments I’ve had in my lifetime. I don’t regret it one bit.

I can’t explain why but it took more than two years after the catalog shoot before we worked together again. I do remember finding Naomi’s audition pictures on my hard drive and wondering why I hadn’t kept in touch. In 2010 I wrapped up a twenty-five year project on women bodybuilders. I guess I was looking for new motivation. I imagine I hoped Naomi would inspire new work.

naomi: the first mirror portrait

Naomi and I shot together twice during the first week in December, 2010. I found her free and spontaneously posing refreshing, something new after the years of photographing bodybuilders; always overly concerned with the look of their physique. Our first shoot was mostly done in the studio. During a break while Naomi touched up her makeup in my bedroom mirror, in the reflection I noticed an interesting glow of daylight on her face. We stayed in that spot in front of the mirror for a long time. Afterwards I realized if I wanted to continue work with reflections I needed to find a moveable mirror. I couldn’t do every shoot in my bedroom. Naomi and I shot again two days later.

naomi. screen capture. precursor to the intimate portrait project

Everything began with Naomi. The freedom I felt working with her was exciting. A model, no, a Muse, willing to trust any idea I threw before her. This had never happened before. I was able to explore new visions of light without restriction. Naomi was comfortable in her own skin. I was allowed to experiment with her body to see how light and shadow fell across her skin. The precursors to the Intimate Portrait Project, REFLECTION series, and Modigliani Reclining Nudes all happened during those two shoots in December.

naomi. the first photograph on my couch... precursor to the intimate and modigliani projects

Naomi and I managed to work together two more times before she began traveling for work. On April 11, 2011, we began a portrait project with Zarina Stahnke. Zarina was my main muse at the time. This was a project I had planned to do with Zarina since we first met. Naomi was the first test subject.

zarina painting naomi in my studio

Zarina had also auditioned for a catalog shoot. She was a student at The School of American Ballet, the place where I found models for the catalog company, Discount Dance Supply. As with Naomi, Zarina’s audition turned into a personal portrait shoot. Zarina was a true artistic talent, not only as a dancer but also as a painter. I knew even before I had met Zarina I wanted to do a joint exhibition of our work. This is how my imagination works. The plan was to bring a model into the studio. While Zarina painted I would take pictures of the model and the process. We would match our creations together, exhibiting them in pairs. Naomi was our first shoot. Unfortunately for me and wonderful for Zarina, when she graduated from SAB Zarina was offered a job with a ballet company in Germany. We never continued the project. Zarina still paints. I once again primarily photograph nudes. I sometimes hope Zarina will find her way back to New York City allowing us to continue our project.

working with naomi and mirrors

By the time I photographed Naomi on March 19, 2012 the REFLECTION series had become my main project. I hoped the mirrors would take my portraits in an abstract direction, making them more interesting to the photo galleries in New York. I bought a box of 12″ x 12″ mirrors from Home Depot. They seemed the perfect size for the series. Once again I brought Naomi to the mirror on my closet door. She was my first nude with the mirrors. I began to see hints of Man Ray and Picasso in the photographs. I had treated the mirror series as straight portraits in the earlier shoots. Naomi’s patience gave me time to consider the composition of the images. Using an second mirror gave me an additional design element. The face in the reflection became more important, often more dominant than the real perso. I learned to guide the model with specific directions. It became, “Look at me in the mirror,” or “Look at me in real life.”

study for dark nudes series

I always knew Naomi was important to my creative work but I didn’t fully understand how much until writing this essay. Not only was she the first Intimate, mirror, and Modigliani Muse, she was also the precursor for the Dark Nude series. How do you thank someone for providing this much inspiration? Another question, which I can’t seem to answer, is why did it take me so long to find this artistic place again? I imagine life as an artist is similar to the history of the world; creative energy jumps around in fits and starts. Life on Earth sometimes gets in the way of progress. Other times it pushes you forward at lightening speed.

On March 2, 2018, Naomi became Intimate Muse #96. The woman whose inspiration helped me create my current projects would finally be part of this new work. Photographing Naomi for the Intimate Portrait Project felt the same as it does with the other Muses. The only difference was our past history. It was Naomi’s first Intimate Portrait but it felt like we had been working on the series forever. It was as if no time had passed between now and the earlier shoots when in fact it had been seven years.

naomi: modigliani reclining nude

Photographing Naomi for the Modigliani Reclining Nude series was the most fulfilling. There she was, laying across the same couch in the same daylight as seven years ago. I’ve had this couch forever. I bought it in 1980. Many friends and family members have slept on or hung out on this couch. It’s my favorite napping place. The couch is big! It’s depth and cushions are comforting. Now it had become my favorite location. Seeing Naomi there, posing now with all the changes in both of our lives made me feel connected to everything – to Naomi, my apartment, my art, my soul, the planet. As always Naomi opened up my mind, preparing my senses for new possibilities. My work with the Muses wouldn’t have been possible without her.

Selina is Intimate Muse #103. Selina is the only Muse I have contacted about working on the Intimate Portrait Project where there had been no previous connection. I had never photographed Selina as a dancer. She was not recommended by a friend. I knew nothing about her except what she had posted on Facebook and Instagram. What I saw online made me need to photograph her.

selina. intimate portrait project. no makeup. no retouching

This time it was me contacting the potential muse. When we’re strangers it has always been the other way around. I have many long messages Facebook and Instagram messages explaining why one dancer or another wanted to work with me. Some can be like novels. I kept my Facebook message to Selina short.

“Hi Selina. Would you be interested in working with me? I do think we would take amazing pictures together. Let me know and then I can explain my projects. Talk to you soon. Paul”

Sometimes I wonder if I sound like a twenty-two year old novice photographer, hoping to find models who will help me build my portfolio? You’d think with forty-two years of professional experience I’d sound more confident.

Selina replied quickly.

“Hey Paul, I would love to work with you. I’m a fan of your work. Talk to you soon. Selina.”

I was happy but now how to explain my shoots. Most dancers don’t know the details of the Intimate Portrait Project. They contact me about shooting and are excited until I tell them about the nudity; and then there’s the physical touch. Most don’t even have the courtesy to respond after hearing about the process. They were the ones who contacted me. At least they could have enough respect to let me know that what I do doesn’t work for them. Of course I understand the Intimate Project isn’t for everyone. Giving a stranger access to your mind and body takes an enormous amount of trust and a without question a suspension of disbelief.

selina. intimate portrait project

“Hi Selina. That’s great! I’m not sure it’s obvious by my Facebook and Instagram posts but most of my work involves some form of nudity. I’m working mostly as a fine art photographer now and I hope that shows in my photographs. The process of my shoots is difficult to explain. It’s more like a joint meditation with a friend than a typical studio shoot. I do give the models I work with a disk/drive with every photo from the shoot. If all of that sounds good to you then we should schedule something. I almost never ask someone I haven’t met to shoot but I felt our work together would be special and I couldn’t stop myself from contacting you. :) My mobile is 917-868-2168. Talk to you soon. Paul”

“Hey Paul. This is Selina. I read your message on Facebook. Everything sounds great. Let’s schedule something.”

I was relieved and excited. I don’t know why I wanted to photograph Selina so much? It was instinct. I have visions. I saw pictures of her in my head and needed to turn my imagination into reality. We did our first shoot on August 11, 2018.

selina. modigliani reclining nude

Selina and I connected fast; both as people and as artists. Her level of comfort with my process was possibly greater than any of the Muses who came before her. We drank tea, we talked, and then got right into shooting. Small talk wasn’t necessary. Selina relaxed immediately. We were working on the Modigliani series after a few minutes. It usually takes more than an hour to reach that level of trust.

Selina and I spent many hours together. Time appeared not to exist. Five hours of shooting. Afterwards, three hours of talking and eating. Eight hours together on the first day we met. Over 5,000 photographs taken. We worked on everything. We shot Intimate Portraits, Modigliani nudes, mirror photos, in the sheer black tube, and images for a new series I had just begun; no name yet; in an empty bathtub. I’m not sure how we had the stamina to take those thousands of images? Selina inspired me to keep shooting.

Immediately after the shoot I began to text Selina some of the day’s photographs. I think the words and pictures sent at that moment of time describe how we both felt better than anything I can write now.

talking to selina #1

talking with selina #2

talking to selina #3

talking to selina #4

talking to selina #5

I needed to see Selina again quickly. The experience with her was personally transforming. I didn’t want to lose that feeling. I wanted my art to grow from what I had learned from her. I asked Selina when she would be free for another shoot. Eight days later we were together again
.
“Hi Selina. Do you have any time to get together Sunday or Monday? I can give you a disk with your photos and I’d love to shoot again.”

“Sunday!!”
“Would love to.”

“Is 2:00 ok?”

“That’s perfect.”

“Hooray. I can’t wait to see you.”

talking to selina #6

talking to selina #7

selina photographed by paul b goode. paul b goode photographed by selina

We continued on with our exploration of intimacy; Modigliani, working with mirrors. Everything felt right with her. I asked Selina if she would be interested in taking Intimate Portraits of me. After working with Kelsey, I was beginning to understand how reversing rolls increased the understanding of the Intimate process for both me and the model.

I was more relaxed this time, a little more prepared to expose my self to Selina and the camera; ultimately to the world. It’s now clearer how my personality effects the mood of the Muses while shooting. I absorbed Selina’s essence just as I had with Kelsey. Spirit and touch are enormous influences on how we feel.

“Muse on Top.” I’m not sure what to call this offshoot of the Intimate Portrait Project? I’m not sure what to make of the experience? The Muses all agree it feels much more intimate when they are on my body. I feel it too but in purely technical terms. Maybe it’s sad that in some ways I see parts of the Intimate process as a science experiment? When the Muse is on top I have a greater sense of their body temperature and how their movement effects the emotions of the photographs. It’s not that I don’t feel this when I am on their bodies; it’s just to a much greater level. I can feel when their state of mind becomes more sensual-sexual. There is a lot more laughing and mood changes, I imagine due to some amount of shyness and embarrassment because of the physical contact. I still have no idea exactly why the emotions are this different when they have control over the touch. I would love to have a neuroscientist come in and record our brain waves, both while I’m sitting on top of the model and then when they are on my body. I imagine the recordings would answer a lot of questions.

selina. blue film series

I can spend hours maneuvering on top of the model’s body during a shoot. It all feels natural and comfortable. During breaks I often remain sitting on their stomach while we have conversations varying from their latest boyfriends to which choreography we like best. At the time it all seems normal. But when we begin to work on Muse on Top it is different. At first the model is hesitant to sit on my body. It does get less complicated the more we shoot, but why? The Muse can now choose our physical relationship, deciding where and how much touch occurs between the bodies. It should be easier. Without question it is not.

selina. muse on top

Because Selina had photographed me, it was more relaxed when she began the process of Muse on Top. It was certainly easier for me. Not only was I completely comfortable when our bodies connected, Selina is petite and weighs no more than a typical mountain fairy. Her body felt no heavier than air. I felt her warmth but seemingly no weight. It was different than those who had come before her. The physical weight of the model on my body had become an integral part of the process. I use their weight for stability, keeping me in place while I move along with them, trying to focus and compose images as they twist and turn often only inches from my face. Selina is so light I could nudge her into the direction I needed.

selina. muse on top

Selina understood what I was looking for immediately. She is amazing! The design of Muse on Top is purely about technique. The model leans over, her hair falling around the lens of my camera; the light is diffusing through the hair in motion. It’s beautiful. The moment Selina crawled on my body the photographs were exactly as I needed. She didn’t seem distracted by the intimacy. We felt the warmth but the process was all about the pictures. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

selina

Selina and I have now worked together four times. This is how the Intimate Portrait Project began, an exploration of how the one’s art improves and is refined when working with the same model over and over again. Some of this is the growth of an emotional connection. Additionally it is a technical understanding of how to create better images with each other. Picasso, Modigliani, Balthus; they all understood this.

Jamison. I have so much to say about her but don’t know how to find the words. Nothing in my life has been the same since Jamison and I first photographed together. She took the Intimate Portrait Project to a new level of intimacy and somehow every Muse that came afterward has followed in her footsteps. Jamison is one of those transitional muses, a person who changes my art to such a degree that every photograph feels like a new discovery.

jamison with nadine bommer

Jamison is Intimate Muse #107. I first met her while photographing the rehearsals of Nadine Bommer. The dance company is amazing. Nadine allowed me to wander any place on the studio floor during the rehearsals, in a way becoming an additional dancer performing in the piece. The shoots were an intimate experience, not unlike my own work process. I wanted to photograph every one of Nadine’s dancers for the Intimate Portrait Project.

samy. intimate portrait project

As it sometimes happens, it too a while before I contacted Jamison; or did she contact me? I worked with another of Nadine’s dancers first, Samy Roth, who became Intimate Muse #81. It took another year and a half before I worked with Jamison. It’s how my life works. Almost every situation is spontaneous. I honestly can’t say why I ask people to shoot at a certain time or all of a sudden remember them so long after meeting. It’s some kind of spiritual thing deep in my brain. As I’ve said other times, I frequently daydream and have visions. One day Jamison popped into my head and I had to photograph her.

first shoot. finding our connection

We first shot together on November 9, 2018. I don’t think the shoot began in any way to cause Jamison to stand out from the other Muses. Looking now at the first photographs we took together, it’s obvious we initially had trouble establishing the photographic connection. It’s interesting because the emotional connection was instantaneous. It all quickly changed when we began working on the Modigliani portraits.

jamison's first modigliani pose

Jamison has always said she’s comfortable being naked. With the first Modigliani photograph she proved that to be true. Not since the initial Modigliani shoot with Bronwyn has any muse captured the mood I seek in this series without any prompting or time to settle in as a naked body on my couch. It’s not supposed to be this easy. I work with people who do not normally sit naked in front of the camera. I’m supposed to work harder for the special images. Jamison made it easy.

jamison. muse on top

Jamison on Top. This intimate offshoot of the Intimate Portrait Project crosses boundaries. I’m careful who I ask to take part in the series. Muse on Top portraits have happened with only a few Muses up to this point; Bronwyn, Jessica, Can, and Selena. I haven’t yet resolved the emotions and physicality of the process. Having an awareness of the #metoo movement and listening to a President who constantly denigrates women, my use of extreme physicality and nudity to draw out deep emotions for a portrait series needs careful thought. I believe I consider the needs and support women more than most men but the present day discussion about women’s rights should make any man reconsider his past beliefs and actions.

jamison. muse on top

Jamison and I did two Muse on Top sessions during our first shoot. It began as the others did, closeup photographs of Jamison’s face, her body leaning over mine, her hair falling over the camera. Jamison is fierce. She couldn’t sit still and began moving across and away from my body though always making sure some part of us remained in contact. It looked different. It felt different. I had begun to get used to a Muse sitting on my body; stationary. There was the constant warmth and pressure from the weight of their body. I began to perceive what the Muses felt when I worked sitting on top of them. It helped me better understand the Intimate Portraits. In some ways Muse on Top was easier for me; focusing on their movement was more difficult but as I was now the one kept immobile by another body all I had to do was lay back and take the pictures.

Jamison was dancing on top of me; an improv choreographic event. It took a while for me to get used to the movement. It wasn’t a part of my photographic plan. My bedroom now became part of the composition as did her body. It wasn’t just about faces anymore. I’m still not sure what to make of this process but it is a journey I feel must continue.

jamison. muse on top. dancing

Jamison and I have now worked together four times. We text back and forth often, sometimes about pictures, often about life. When we haven’t seen each other in a while I miss her in a way that’s different from the other Muses. It’s not about pictures. It’s about trust and touch. It’s mostly about our friendship.

For some reason I can no longer remember, I converted a Modigliani image, taken during our first shoot, from black and white into color. That’s one of the great things about digital. You can do anything. Transformed to color the photograph looked like a painting. I loved the color version so much I framed a print and hung it above my couch. A long-time photographer friend, Charlie Seton, told me about a company who makes 60″ by 80″ photo blankets for thirty dollars. I looked at the color print of Jamison and decided it might look nice on a blanket, becoming resembling a tapestry.

jamison for the modigliani series

When the blanket arrived I was blown away. Maybe it would be better to say I was shocked by the realism. I don’t print much of my work in color. I tossed the blanket across my couch, the location where the image was taken. I was now looking at a half-body nude of Jamison, twice life-size. It looked like a Pre-Raphaelite painting at the Metropolitan Museum except here I knew the model. I couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds. I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I was speechless, unsure what to make of the sensuality and sexuality of the body in front of me. I never felt like this when Jamison sat naked in front of me in real life. I think it had to do with the size of the blanket. Jamison appeared as an impression of a mythical goddess, a woman who would have stood twelve feet tall. I wanted to bow down to her beauty as a Roman would have to Venus. If Jamison had stepped out of the blanket I suspect Botticelli would have painted her as his Venus. It’s the hair. Their bodies are actually very similar. If the model for Botticelli’s Venus took a year of dance classes she’d look exactly like Jamison. I rolled up the blanket and packed it away. It is now in the possession of Jamison. I wonder if any of her friends have seen it?

jamison in her apartment with the blanket

After seeing the blanket, I wondered what some of my other images might look like in color. During the next shoot with Anna (Intimate Muse #88) I shot a few dozen color images but quickly went back to black and white. Then during my most recent shoot with Jamison I decided to photograph almost exclusively in color.

I see in black and white. I dream in black and white. It took a while to get used to seeing color images on the back of the camera. During the last shoot with Jamison the natural light on my couch was wonderful. It changes with the weather and season. On this day it was something special. Jamison appeared more serene in color than she had in black and white. When we tried Muse on Top that was another story. The pictures didn’t work nearly as well in color as in black and white. I’m glad I tried but unless I come up with a different light source it’s not something I’ll try again.

jamison. sunlight on my bed

Jamison’s back was totally out of whack during the color shoot. I don’t know how she did it, posing for hours and especially for the Muse on Top photographs. She was in pain but hid it well. When we took a break Jamison collapsed on my bed, her face falling into the direct sunlight coming through the window. I normally don’t like sunlight in my photographs. But this light was special. I guess my dirty New York City windows diffused the light enough to give me the quality I wanted. I also was now seeing in color. It all worked; Jamison’s hair color and skin tone, the pattern on my bedspread, the quality of the light. I wouldn’t have noticed any of this if I had been shooting in black and white.

jamison resting on a heating pad. back out of whack

Jamison continues to change me in so many ways. I haven’t been shooting as much lately. I need to be out in the world promoting my work. That takes a great deal of time. I needed some inspiration and began going through the photographs I had taken of Jamison. I don’t always take a close look at my work until much later. When I’m shooting several portraits each week there just isn’t any extra time. While going through Jamison’s first shoot I began to understand the reasons she makes me a better photographer. Jamison is completely natural in front of the camera. She is purely in her own world; spontaneous and full of passion. Somehow she maintains a personal focus while completely dedicating herself to my art. Last night while on Facebook I posted one of my favorite photographs from that first shoot along with the following text.

jamison. from our first shoot

“Rossetti, Picasso, Modigliani, Bailey, Stieglitz… they all married their muses. I get it. Living with your partner means they’re always nearby when the creative juices are flowing. There are times I’m in desperate need to make new work, and as much as I love Piper, Sushi, and Matcha, they’re not who I need in front of the camera. This evening my imagination is creating new images of Jamison. The new photographs exist only inside my head. If Jamison was sitting her now on my couch, posing by the dim glow of my plants grow-light, I would be clicking away like crazy. In her absence I will continue to add words to this photo-essay, something that has consumed me now for months. As it happens, Jamison is the Muse I’m writing about tonight. It’s one reason I began to take a better look at our photographs. I need to learn how to create with the Muses not only for my photography but also for my writing. Tonight I’ll do my best.”

jamison and sushi. it's sushi's first intimate portrait

When I began this epic essay Jamison’s story was supposed to be the finale. Some part of the project had finished with her and a new phase was beginning. And then Teel died. I adopted him a month before the Intimate Portrait Project began. I’m guessing he posed with 100 models. He passed away the week before Jamison and I did our third shoot. A month later while photographing Jamison again the pictures didn’t feel the same. Did Teel effect the project? I’d have to ask the Muses to answer that question. He had certainly effected the mood during the shoots. Teel was an animal who possessed endless joy and it rubbed off on everyone.

anne and teel for the intimate portrait project

I still miss Teel very much but whatever change has happened during the Intimate shoots is something amazing. I had wanted to include these new emotions in the essay. This new process would never have happened without Jamison’s specific energy during our last shoot. She was a person possessed. As I later worked with several new Muses, along with one I have known for twenty years, I couldn’t figure out where their intensity was coming from. Did Jamison cast a spell over my apartment, conjuring up a raw intimacy that had never occurred before or was it a change in me that drew these deepest emotions out of the Muses’s soul?

4 muses taking me to a new place. tl: song. tr: erin. bl: elya. br: kening.

I had wanted to include these new experiences in this essay. They could not have happened if Jamison hadn’t broken the boundaries first. I didn’t get far with the new writing. I could only manage a sentence or two at a time. I felt stuck. What I did write was contrived. Amazing things had happened during these new shoots but I couldn’t put the experiences into words. For two months I wrote almost nothing until I realized I was trying to force the new photographs into an essay where they did not belong. These images were different than anything I had taken before. Somehow they were more intimate and certainly raw in a way my portraits had never been before. I believe this new intimacy is where the Intimate Portrait Project belongs. The new work deserves it’s own story.

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More than any other essay I’ve written, and I have written many, this one feels the most like a series of diary entries. When I began the blog that was my purpose; something to help me remember my history, not only as a photographer but also as a person, growing from my seemingly endless experiences. Often while writing I feel as if I’m in a dream. My life while awake can feel that way, appearing as unreal as any dream. Here I try to put it into words. Sometime what I write makes no sense to you I understand. It sometimes makes no sense to me. But it is the truth. My life is based on intimacy, honesty, happiness, peace, and trust. I hope my words can help guide you on a similar path.

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