I first connected with Soleil Acevedo on Facebook. I believe it was before she shaved her head but I’m not exactly sure. I do know I took notice of her new look when I saw a photograph of Soleil taken by her friend Brooke Trisolini posted on Facebook last March. In the picture, Soleil is hanging on the pole of a subway car with a few onlookers — a nearby couple watching and a few not paying attention at all. The combination of the photograph’s composition and Soleil’s focus on the camera struck me. I’ve seen many dance photographs taken on the subway and they’re all basically boring. This one had something special, enough so I had to comment. I let Soleil know, of all the dancer-subway pictures I had ever seen on Facebook, this was my favorite!
On occasion, I go to the Thursday night gallery openings with my friend Philip Stark. I don’t really love seeing art this way but on a nice spring or fall night it’s fun to wander around Chelsea, looking not only at the art but also the people. Each gallery not only seems to show a certain style of art but also attracts a style of viewers. There are galleries for hipsters, upper east-siders, New York artists who came of age in the 1980s, aging hippies, etc. It is an interesting site. Philip loves this whole process. I only go because I love Philip. It seems to be the only time we ever get together and if I want to see one of my best friends this is the only way I can do it.
Thursday, April 26th. I did my usual round of errands – B&H, Home Depot and Michaels before heading over to Chelsea. I’m learning which routes to take if I want to find the most interesting cigarette butts. This day was special. At the B&H camera store I bought a lens-extender. Now I could use a “real” camera instead of my phone for closeups of the cigarettes. At first I bought an off-brand extender that looked good, immediately testing it on some cigarettes outside of B&H. Bad! The extender didn’t allow the lens to speak properly to the camera. I know this might seem boring but it’s important. I immediately returned the third party device and bought Canon’s extender for triple the price. I can’t say it was worth the extra money but at least it worked! That’s really what matters.
The camera with the new extender “saw” the cigarette remains in a different way than the phone. I can’t put it into words but the pictures seemed more real to me. I still see my iPhone as some kind of toy… not a device to be used as a professional camera. I was loving the results as I made my way east on 34th Street, stopping to photograph some purple flowers in memory of Prince.
Shooting all along my route, there were some nice butts along 24th Street. It was past 6:00pm and gallery openings only go until 8:00pm. I was already in the gallery district so I called Philip to check out his schedule. He was on the way and would call when he got close. I looked at my list of openings and decided to begin with Nir Arieli’s show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art.
Nir also photographs dancers and I admire his work. He is one of the few dance photographers who has a distinctive style, always molding the models to his own viewpoint. You can always tell a Nir Arieli photograph when you see one. The gallery space was smaller than I remembered it. I could tell some of the people in the space were dancers. That’s always obvious. Dancers don’t look human. I didn’t like the prints on the wall. Nir’s work is great but the printing looked like it was done by a headshot lab. I stayed a few minutes and left, waiting by the elevators for Philip to arrive.
Philip wanted to see the Arieli show and as we walked back to the gallery I ran into the choreographer Fadi Khoury. I took some wonderful photos of Fadi and his muse Sevin two years ago. Fadi has done amazing things with his company in that short time. We decided we should work together again. I’ve been working on a new project photographing companies in the dance studio and Fadi’s dancers will be perfect.
Back in the gallery I took the time to take a closer look at Arieli’s photographs with Philip. I don’t think he noticed the printing as much as I did but he did feel the images were mostly bland. I love Arieli’s work and found a brochure of his photographs lying on a shelf, beautifully printed and featuring the photographs as I had always seen them. After looking at the brochure, Philip understood why I was a fan of Arieli’s photography. I only wished the prints on the wall were as beautiful as those printed in his brochure.
During this second visit to the gallery I had kind of “stalked” a woman who was also attending the show. It wasn’t amorous stalking. I felt I knew this woman, believe it or not from Facebook. She was exotic and appeared to have recently shaved her head, now with a short growth similar to a marine’s hair cut. I have two Facebook friends with this look and I couldn’t figure out which one she was.
Philip was ready to move on. I never talk to strangers. I’m too shy. I couldn’t let this woman go. I walked up to her, introduced myself and said, “I know we are friends on Facebook.” First I asked her if she had tattoos on her arm. Wrong guess? She was the other shaved head Facebook friend. “Did you recently post a photograph of yourself on the subway?” She replied, “Yes!”
“I’m the person who posted that photograph was the best picture of a dancer on the subway I’ve ever seen!” Now she knew who I was. She is, Soleil Acevedo. It was quite the coincidence and it is why I find Facebook fascinating. Soleil called over her friend Brooke. Brooke is a dancer and photographer. Brooke took the photo of Soleil on the subway. Brooke doesn’t know it yet but I’m going to ask her to pose for the Intimate Portrait series.
Soleil and I did the cell phone thing. She gave me her phone – I called my phone. Now we had each other’s number. Sometimes doing this makes me feel old. I still like using a pen and paper though for this essay, since I’m out of town, I happen to be writing on my laptop. It doesn’t feel natural. We chatted for a while. Soleil is a charming woman. I told her we must shoot soon. When I first saw her on Facebook with that shaved head I knew I needed her to be part of my Intimate Portrait project. I told Soleil I’d call her to set up a shoot. She did seem truly excited.
The next day I sent Soleil a message on Facebook to see if she could shoot on Saturday, the next day. Soleil was available in the late afternoon. We were set.. Usually, at this point I send the model a link to my blog, www.paulbgoode.com/journal, so they can read essays about past Intimate shoots. I don’t want the models to be completely surprised by the intense emotions coming out of these shoots, let alone the physicality. For some reason I decided not to discuss this with Soleil. I waited until she arrived at my apartment. I have no idea why I made this decision. Something inside me said it was for the best. When Soleil arrived I would make tea, we would talk, look at pictures and then begin our shoot.
Soleil was late. New York City trains! It was okay with me. I was sorting photographs for the essay on Caitlin Trainor and looking at those pictures gave me inspiration for my shoot for Soleil. She arrived. I made tea. We talked. I finally explained what I wanted to do – what the Intimate Portrait project was all about – Soleil wasn’t too happy.
Soleil is private and doesn’t like her personal space invaded. I definitely invade the model’s personal space during the Intimate shoots. I used to be like her before I began this series. If a friend stood too close to me, I wanted to back away. If a friend touched me while we talked, I would jerk away. The movement was slight but my own reaction annoyed me. I wasn’t always like that and didn’t understand why I found touch an invasion of my privacy. I wondered if it had something to do with living alone for many years or if it was something deeper.
Soleil took a leap of faith, trusted me and we began shooting. Only for a few seconds did she seem distressed by the closeness of our two bodies and soon I was sitting on her lap, shooting away as I do during every Intimate shoot. I showed her some photographs in the back of the camera. I asked her if she was uncomfortable. In the pictures she looked strong and relaxed. Soleil said she was good at acting and that indeed she was uncomfortable, though at the same time willing to continue.
I needed bare shoulders, I always do, and once again Soleil pushed past her boundaries, removing her blouse, obviously more exposed than she wanted to be in her bra and jeans. But I shot on, stopping every few minutes, showing her the most recent photographs and making sure she was okay. I always worry when I do the Intimate shoots with a dancer I don’t know. I’ve shot dance for thirty-five years and I’m well known. I don’t want anyone to ever do anything for me because they feel like they have no choice. There is always a choice. I will always respect the limitations of a model. They should never do anything that makes them uncomfortable.
I was worried about Soleil and I wrapped her body in a blanket, one my mother knit for me 30 years ago. I keep it on top of my couch at all times. I wrap myself in it on cold nights when I’m watching television late at night. It’s a connection to a family I’ve rarely seen since moving to New York City almost 40 years ago. I’m not sure the blanket made Soleil feel any better but I was not stopping. Her pictures were special. Image after image was perfect. I needed her to like me – not as a friend but as a muse relating to a photographer. The friendship could come later. These pictures were important to me. Like my other muses, Soleil was making me a better photographer. There was something special in the way she used her arms and hands to frame her face and body. Soleil really was the perfect Intimate Portrait model.
I could tell she needed a break. We had been shooting without makeup. I thought Soleil looked beautiful with a clean face – still so exotic but I did want to try some shots with mascara and lipstick. I photographed Soleil while she put on her makeup, using her compact for a mirror. I was surprised she didn’t put her blouse back on during this time. I hoped that meant she was now more relaxed. Of course I was happy because her bare shoulders made the photograph — framing the bottom of my images. Shooting these images I was still very close to her. My Mirror Series photographs also require touch and the Intimate Project is an extension of what I learned when first taking those images. I remember being smashed into Madison McDonough’s side while photographing her in my bedroom mirror, only to find out while walking her home after the shoot that she was only 16. Her spirit was much older but it did make me feel a little weird.
Soleil went back to my couch and began to shoot again. She felt more comfortable this time but I knew to be careful with the physicality. I kept my body off of hers more than I had with anyone since the beginning of the series. I’ve gotten used to muses like Alyssa Forte who want to feel the full weight of my body while we shoot. It’s difficult to take a step back after photographing women like her. When I work with Alyssa it feels like our bodies are one. We move as one. The photographs are part of a joint meditation. I wanted to feel that from Soleil.
This shoot was unusual for me. Ha! I imagine it was unusual for Soleil too. What I saw through the camera was one of the most relaxed women I had ever photographed. During the last half hour I felt the tension leave her body. Still, when we spoke I realized she hadn’t let go. In some ways it was frustrating. After the Intimate Portrait shoots the models always feel like the experience was special – something positive. Every time I stopped to show Soleil the photograph I felt her discomfort. That’s not positive. It was hard to understand. The photographs were amazing appearing as if she was the most relaxed person in the world. So I moved on.
Afterwards we spoke for a long time, at length about the difficultly of being a woman in New York City. Men on these streets can be real pigs. All that emotion I had hoped for while we were shooting now came out. The Intimate Portrait shoots can be a release for the models and I realized Soleil was finally letting go. She rarely looked at me while we talked. She needed to get things out of her head. I mostly listened and agreed.
When Soleil arrived that afternoon I gave her a book of photographs by Lillian Baseman. Baseman is one of my all-time favorite photographers. A friend had given me the book the week before and I already owned a copy. I knew Soleil was interested in photography. I wanted to give this book to a young photographer who would use it for inspiration. Soleil knew of Baseman. That surprised me. It seems that most young photographers these days have little or no knowledge of photographic history. I do my best to educate the people I meet. It was the perfect gift for her.
As Soleil prepared to leave I made sure she had the book. I wanted there to be something positive about the afternoon and I had no idea how she really felt about our shoot. Now, a few weeks later I’m still not sure. I told Soleil I have an old Nikon I’d like to give her. I have many old film cameras I’ll never use again and I want them to end up in the hands of people who will treasure them as much as I did during the many years and thousands of rolls of film I shared with them. I guess the Nikon will be the reward if Soleil is brave enough for a second shoot. If there is a next time I hope she will trust me to look deeper into her soul. If not for me, I’m sure a choreographer out there will recognize Soleil’s special quality and transform her into their beautiful dancing muse.