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Portrait of the Portrait Photographer

Originally published in The Journal of Photography in New England, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter 1981

1-14. I think about doing portraits all the time. When I'm without my camera, listening to a person and talking to her or him, I think about the picture of her/him. When I am doing mindless tasks like folding laundry, cleaning the bathroom, or going to pick Isaac up at nursery school, I mull over the direction of work and the problems in specific images. It happens spontaneously. I spend so much time thinking about my work without a camera in my hand, that when I do have the camera I can concentrate on nuances. My range of subject matter as a portrait photographer is specific. I photograph my family and friends, friends of friends, strangers who pique my curiosity. Occasionally, five or ten times a year, I work with people who call and ask me to photograph them. I can talk about components of what you call "the vital connection" and what I would call "what turns me on." But I can't give you the complete answer. Sometimes it is the person's personality. Character, perhaps more than personality. There is a sense that someone is home. Sometimes, it is the way the person puts herself/himself together. I get a sense of the person that I like. Sometimes, it is the environment which turns me on. Sometimes, too, it is my affection and relation to the person, my sense of the person's place in my world. I tend to project charisma onto the men and women that I include in my life and these feelings seem to help when I go to take their pictures. But there are one or two people whom I love that I can't photograph.

I always buy Tri-X film because I am used to it and because when I am taking pictures I like to be able to go to my film stash and grab. I do not pay too much attention to light, except that (1) I try to avoid having people sit in front of windows and (2) I make sure I have enough of it. Years ago, I would shoot in dimly lit rooms and I'd go home, push the film to 2400, and pray. Now I'm too old for that kind of hopefulness. I am passionate about making my subject feel comfortable with the shooting situation. I want my subject to feel she is sharing the control of the situation with me and that she is in charge of her own persona that she projects. I shoot in available light, though I have been thinking that I should use lights in some situations. A single flash is too harsh for my kind of image.

I love Annie Liebowitz's photographs that I see in Rolling Stone. I have never met her and would love to talk shop with her. I pick up a lot of ideas about composition when I look at her images. Another person whose work I like is James Hamilton. Usually I see his images in the Village Voice. And Fred MacDarrah. He's not a portrait photographer per se, but as a photojournalist, he often has dynamite portraits. He had a picture of Jimmy Carter in the Village Voice before the election that was as devastating as the best political cartoon. There is a Diane Arbus portrait of a transvestite that I wish was my own image. I look at other portraits to see what I can use for my own work. I usually ask myself, could I do that / would I do that? I identify immediately with the photographer and the photographic issues. I don't see the portrait with a pure eye.

Only occasionally do I suggest poses for my subjects. My M.O. is to talk to her and let her be. I never have a problem taking pictures of my family and friends in my house. The situation takes care of itself. With commissions and assignments, it is a little different. If I think I am getting pompous pictures or frivolous pictures, I usually say, hey, this is a little pompous. Or I ask, do you really want to appear frivolous? This summer, I took a portrait of Jayne Anne Phillips for her book, Black Tickets. She is a very attractive woman who has an aspect of frailty. It is very tempting to put her in romantic settings because of her looks and the clothes that she wears. She has written two books of short stories and works very hard at her fiction. I was very straight with her. After all, she knows herself and knows that she has this particular look. I explained that I thought she was the most interesting when she looked like a serious woman who worked hard at her work. We worried that the marketing people at Dell would want a romantic image for the youth market, but we worked hard at a serious image. We got a good one and they published it.

I rarely impose myself and tell my subject what to wear. What a person wears is personal. No matter how tired in the morning someone is, they have some sense of what they are reaching for in the closet and on the shelf when they get dressed.

I have been tempted to be manipulative, however. Years ago, I was at Anne Sexton's house taking her picture. She was very interested in photography and knew how to respond to a camera. In fact, she had been a model. We were in her study. On her mantel over the fireplace in a prominent place, was a framed portrait of Sylvia Plath. Anne talked about Sylvia a lot during the session and seemed both fond of and competitive with her. I really wanted to place Sexton near the mantel, but I didn't. She stayed by the typewriter and that's where I took all my pictures. For a while after that session, especially immediately after Sexton's death, I thought I'd made a big mistake. I'd lost the big flash by not asking her to go to the mantel. Now, years later, I feel comfortable with my impulse to let her be. In fact, Sexton was a savvy woman; she was probably testing me to see if I could pass the obvious picture.

I started taking pictures when film was about 50 cents a roll for 36 exposures and I never learned the knack of parsimony. I click the shutter to encourage my sitter to signal that they were going in the right direction. I use as much film as I have grabbed when I was leaving the house. Or, if I'm at home, I use up whatever is in the camera. With prices going so high, I am trying to restrain myself, but old habits die hard.

Environment is important to me. I get turned on by clutter in people's houses. The evidence of dailiness in the kitchen or the living room. I am a sucker for women in uniforms at Dairy Queens, Brighams, Howard Johnson's, PhotoQuick, Avis. The gestalt is my kind of image. These situations are naturals for my 35mm lens. I don't even try to take this kind of picture with the 85mm lens. Sometimes I make myself move back with the 85mm lens in order to get more of the person's scene, but I feel more comfortable with a tighter frame when I look through that lens. Though I care about background, i.e., environment, I don't get obsessed about whether all or part of the background is in focus. It is rare with available light that I have the luxury of a tiny lens opening. I do as much as I can.

I am sure that someone could go through my portraits and calculate that I prefer to be a certain distance from my subjects. I am steady in my way of seeing, in my relating, and in my habits. It has to be reflected in my work. But I'm not conscious of where the magic split is. I have to discuss it with each person I shoot. I do know that I love to hold the camera horizontally.

In a serious shooting session, I try to include close-up hosts of the person's face as well as shots of the whole body. Just to cover myself. I've learned from my contact prints of a single person that my images are very similar to each other. There are the merest differences that only Lawrence Wylie and other students of human physiognomy and body language would discern. I'm not frisky as a person. I like to sit, stay in one place, and that comes out in my images. I once had the idea of taking dancing lessons holding my camera. I thought it would help me learn to move the camera. Help me stand on step ladders and boxes. Help me kneel and lie on the floor. I even got the name of a dance teacher from my dancer/photographer friend Amy Greenfield. But I never followed it through.

I rarely make an exposure longer than a 15th of a second. I do what I can with the light that I have. I prefer not to go below a 60th. I'm not that steady. I have a tripod set up at home and I use it if I have to go to a 15th.

I have a 35 mm and a 2- 1/4, and I have used the Polaroid 20x24 for an afternoon. I certainly get different images from the different cameras. With the Polaroid 20x24, I took whole body shots of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Their bodies filled the frame. I never get too close to my subject with the 35mm lens because I don't like distortion in my images. I have an 85mm lens for the 2- 1/4. The square format is a nice change and I go through periods where all I shoot is a square. I feel it is very good for my mind. It isn't easy to arrange something in a square. I always tell my subject, this camera takes a square image. So if I seem to be slow, it's because I have to think. Rarely do I take all three lenses with me when I am shooting outside my house. I decide which lens I am in the mood for and work within its constraints.

You ask what I'm seeking by making portraits of people. That's a hard one to answer. Consciously, I'm not trying to make an interpretation of the person. I know how unreliable the camera is in making likenesses. I know I don't click the shutter when a person looks ridiculous. Usually I don't click it if the person looks too vulnerable. I try to acknowledge that my subject is a person. That somebody is home. I started to take pictures of people because I like people. I appreciate their variety and need their responsiveness. I respect their condition. Last year we completely gutted and rehabbed an old house. In the process of finding the house and working on it, I began to notice and to fall in love with buildings. I could probably get into buildings, if I learned how to handle perspective. By then, probably all my favorite buildings will have been torn down. I once asked Bevan Davies, a marvelous photographer of buildings, if he got into his buildings. He barely understood my question. It was obvious the roots of his energy and his empathy for buildings was intellectual.

Can there be dishonest portraits? My answer to that is "sure." A photographer with a bag of tricks can do anything. But there is something to think about. Personality is elastic. Each of us has a range of possibility. In my self-portraits some days I look like a prisoner and other days I look like the warden.

You ask if portraiture is outside the mainstream. Like everyone else, I want to believe that my crucial interest is important to other people.

Thank God most people like my pictures of them. If they don't like the picture, I don't use it. Only once, in vanity, did I publish a picture of a person who hated my picture of her. It was Anais Nin. She hated the image. True, she didn't look 35, but I should look so good at 75. Ms. Magazine loved it. Anyhow, after Ms. printed the image, Nin insisted that they publish in the next issue a more youthful rendition of her person. Allen Ginsberg, who is the subject of some of my best pictures, fortunately, usually likes my portraits of him. Of course, he is the ultimate subject. No photographer takes a bad photograph of him. You should have asked if there were people who were absolute natural subjects. He is definitely one.

What kinds of portraits are possible in a single image? Are you asking, is a single image enough? A single image is like a kiss. One is enough; a whole lot is enough too. One tells you something. A whole lot might not tell you that much more. On the other hand, there's more variety possible in a whole lot. And maybe more fun.

If you see a picture of yourself on this page, and you do not want it to be here, contact Elsa immediately.