I’VE BEEN SHOT TWICE AND I SURVIVED!
I always urge my students who want to become portrait photographers to have their photo taken; you learn a lot by sitting on the “wrong” side of a lens, feeling that special shade of tension that comes with giving another person the power to decide what you officially look like.
I really don’t like to be photographed, even though there are so many pictures of me around, that one might think I love to look at my own face.
But the thing is, I know how to take care of my uneven features, I know how to feel comfortable in a silent empty room. I know that every photo I won’t like will be deleted, disappearing from this plane of existence forever.
When I was in Atlanta I don’t remember who asked me to pose for their camera first; Zack or Bernard. I remember both moments, I just don’t know which one came first. I said yes to both because I trusted them, because I liked their work and most of all because I would be a lousy teacher if I didn’t take my own advice.
It was Zack’s idea to turn this into a contest, that’s for sure. At this point I’ve learned to recognize how he always burns the bridge behind, forcing himself to move forward. He makes sure he has something to lose and then he fights not to lose it. Where most people plan around ways to avoid failure, I’ve seen him grab failure and strip it naked, just to have a constant reminder of what might happen. To turn it up a notch, we just had a very emotionally loaded conversation about photography and life a couple of nights before, and I think some of the things we talked about were still lingering in his head.
[Editor’s Note :: Those things are STILL lingering in my head Sara. To this DAY! -Z ]
Zack decided to go first.
We started from a simple setup I remember thinking he would be very comfortable with, and he made it clear from the get go that this wasn’t about two friends having fun, but rather a professional photographer giving his best to his subject.
I don’t know if starting with a tethered medium format camera was a choice he made for this specific reason, but the message he sent from the very beginning was: I got this.
I was taking care of my own hair and makeup and Zack asked me to fix some stray hair (humidity in ATL is not friends with my hair, that’s for sure) and after a couple of test shots he noticed two eyelashes were clumped together and asked me to fix that too. This level of attention to details let me know that he had my back and I relaxed a bit. The first setup was all a matter of very small adjustments. I didn’t have to do much, just sit there and move my head slightly. Not having to worry about what to do was a great way for me to stop being anxious about the whole thing.
The weird thing with Zack is that I feel we are — at the same time — completely opposite and exactly the same when it comes to photography. We share the same urge to find meaning in what we do and the same struggle to separate bullshit from the stuff that will still matter after we are gone. We are both well aware of what’s missing and still willing to do the best we can, with what’s there. But on the other side I am a messy shooter and I work like my hair is on fire, most of the time. There’s a big deal of unpredictability in my process, while he’s always very intentional. He goes after something and just plows through until he gets that exact picture that is in his mind.
He’s methodical and precise, focused and present, but at the same time I could see gears moving in the background of his head.
When we started shooting for the second photo I was under the impression that he wanted to do something to bridge the gap between our approaches and turning what could be a one way process into a conversation.
He has described how he lit and set up the photo in his post and I was extremely curious to see how the final picture would turn out, because I could see the light reflecting on the broken mirror and I thought it would be cool. I figured he was trying to go for a more intimate and unguarded, but still subtle shot, and as soon as he found the light he was going for, the ball bounced back in my court.
I knew that I needed to start building the bridge from the other side if we wanted to meet in the middle: this was supposed to be a collaboration rather than his mere interpretation of my face. I allowed myself to just slip into a state of mind that I think shows in the final photo. I love his first photo, because it’s clean and I look awesome, but his second shot is my favorite of the four. It is revealing of me as a person without making me feel exposed. It’s obviously posed, but still very honest and I think that little sparkle in my wedding band is the perfect detail that turns the image into a narrative. It stops being about “me” and it becomes about the feeling of being lost between light and dark, being an individual and finding your identity as part of a couple, of being present and yet still somewhere else. It captures in a very subtle way the uneasy feeling of being a “36-years-old-female-bunch-of-walking-contradictions”.
Bernard, to be fair, could have won this.
In the days leading to the photo shoot, our relationship had turned into this kind of siblings-from-a-disfunctional-family dynamic and there was a playful vibe between us, that he could have turned into photographic intimacy very easily. His ideas were solid, he showed me reference photos for what he had in mind, pulling from things I had said and things that were important to me, and I was at complete ease with him.
Then, as soon as he started shooting, he stopped looking at me. I mean, of course he was looking at me; he was adjusting lights and checking focus and making sure everything was okay, and he was also talking to me, but he was only looking at my image on his camera, and not at me. His eyes, for some reason, were never meeting mine.
This was super weird.
Taking someone’s photo, especially if it’s the first time, in many ways is like a first date. You’re on your best behavior, a bit nervous and a little hopeful, but you know you need to make things happen without forcing it. There’s a subtle balance of tension and being at ease that needs to be found; you’re trying to find a connection and your chances of getting something, increase a lot, if you are able to make the person in front of you feel as if he/she is the only person in the universe. Bernard not looking at me felt weird because it wasn’t coming from him being a shy person — just minutes before we were cracking jokes and the shift happened instantly, as soon as he picked up the camera.
I’m sure a big part of it was him being anxious; shooting another photographer is a nightmare, but here’s the dirty truth; I wasn’t trying to figure out what he was doing. I honestly had no idea what kind of images he was getting; I was just hoping I wasn’t making that stupid face I always seem to have when I’m being photographed. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend behind a camera, when you sit in front of one you are vulnerable, and you just have to trust the person taking the photo and hope they’re taking good care of you. And even though I knew all this, even though this is what I teach, even though I have spent the last 15 years taking self portraits, part of me instantly went into “he’s not giving me feedback because I suck and I’m ugly” mode.
Me being me, which is a bossy Italian who speaks her mind even when she feels insecure, I decided to stop Bernard for a second, point at my eyes and lovingly say, “Oi. Look at me. You’re not fucking looking at me.”
And then we laughed about it and things were much, much better.
But who knows how many times I have done the same to my subject in the past, without noticing. I never knew what this felt like, which is why I’m so grateful I got to experience it with a friend.
I love his first photo and I think it could have been a winner if he had done two things:
1- I think at some point he wasn’t 100% happy with the light, but he still probably decided that he would fix it later, maybe because he thought he was taking too much time, and feared I might get frustrated. I have the exact same problem all the time and this always bites me in the ass. What I learned from Zack is that the best way to approach this is to keep working to get the picture, while interacting with the subject, talking them through the process.
2- I think Bernard stepped on the post processing pedal a bit too hard. He is good with photoshop, this isn’t a lack of skill on his part, I think he hasn’t found his voice yet, and he goes a little too far, assuming his photo by itself might not be “enough”.
His style goes a little more towards photo-illustration and I’m totally fine with that, but there is some dissonance between the way he worked the skin and the hair, which makes the photo looks either too retouched or unfinished. I also ended up looking way younger and more beautiful than I am in person. This is great, but it also took me a lot of years and work to develop wrinkles and I like not being 20 any more. My goal in life is to become the old Imogen Cunningham.
Bernard then needed my bare back for the second setup he had in mind, and because we talked about it and he had already made sure I was okay with it (his first suggestion was for me to wear a bra that he would have photoshopped out, I told him I was fine with a bare back), I was completely comfortable and this was just fun to shoot. I loved the unretouched image, but I get what he was trying to do, and I liked it a lot. Here, though, I think that to really make it work he should have probably photoshopped this more, to make the spine curve in the middle and get the two halves of the image seamlessly merge into a weird, alien creature.
When I was done in front of the camera, it was finally my chance to play a little and go back to where I feel at home — actually holding the camera. Right before my workshop we were having fun and Bernard was being a smartass to Gigi, one of the models; after she braided his long blond hair, he told her he could probably wear the dress better than she could, or something along those lines. So I smiled and told him that after he’d shoot me, I would make him wear the dress and take his picture.
His answer was, “Yeah, right. I’m never gonna do that.”
Bonus photo: we had some white paint around. This was bound to happen.
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