Twelve in a Series of Twelve B+W Portrait Photographs, 2011
(click on photograph for full size image)
Above is the twelfth (12th) and last of the twelve black and white portrait photographs in the recently made series featured here in the last few weeks. This is not a trick photograph, there is no hidden person conveniently named “Hope” to look for in that “Where’s Waldo” vein. The photograph is what it is, a close-up look at the top end of a grave in a Southport North Carolina graveyard. The photograph contains, among other things, a word, “Hope.” And, for purposes of this portrait series I made and assembled, it is a portrait photograph of me.
I have shied away from portrait photographs for many years. I guess landscapes appeal to me more, or rather; landscapes will stand still long enough for me to make my photograph the way I want to see it. People, especially my children, can’t stay still long enough for a photograph to be made of them these days. Others do not want photographs made of their likenesses, their perceived imperfections magnified, and put on display for others to critique. I also have thought that portraits were the domain of professional photographers, those whose business it is to make photographs of people for keepsakes, document weddings, and illustrate businesspeople in their suits for the walls and marketing paraphernalia of their companies.
So, I did not set out to make this set of a dozen portrait photographs. I just made photographs, and in the process found I made some decent pictures of friends and family. The picture of Henry I made during my family’s beach-trip this summer. Henry is my favorite nephew (and only one so far!), and on said beach-trip the genuine astonishment at the fact there was an ocean, and love for interacting with it shone on his face all weekend like a neon sign. I can see in his face that he is in his element, as much as a young boy can be.
Another “happy accident” as I like to refer to it is the photograph entitled Brothers. I attended a birthday party of the younger brother, and after cake and ice cream the brothers retired to their family’s fish pond to show their young friends the koi fish. I started asking the brothers about everything under the sun, and when they both turned to face me to answer the questions, I made the picture.
I am unsure how professional portrait photographers decide how to photograph someone they may have just met. I say that because in some of these photographs the subjects’ personality shines through, but only those who know them (and I have known all of the subjects in the photographs for years) may pick up on those subtleties. The photograph of Dennis is a bit dreary as portrait. If Dennis were paying a photographer to make his portrait, he’d hardly be satisfied with what I came up with. But, Dennis is a new father. I saw him at a backyard barbecue put together as a send-off to two mutual friends who were soon heading off to new cities. Though I can only surmise, I estimate Dennis spent most of the day working, then arrived home not to a beer and television, but to assisting his wife with their young daughter, getting ready for the barbecue, making sure the babysitter would arrive soon. At this tail-end of the day, arriving at the party around 7pm, this may have been the first time all day he had time to think, and using his face as a guide, he just realized how tired he was. I have seen that look of “the weight of the world bearing down on me” in the faces of many new parents, and in my own mirror. Here, Dennis gives that feeling away, and I was there to capture it.
In the photograph of Ally, my friend of many years, such a photogenic woman doesn’t seem to be smiling in such a stereotypical “photogenic” way at all; the big expressionless smile, shoulders arched back, as seen on magazine covers. Rather she smiles in an, if this is possible, adversarial way. That’s because I didn’t tell her I was making a photograph, I just asked to see a cell phone picture of her new dog and added a joking comment,a staple in our friendship. The photograph made records her reaction. When I see this photograph I smile, even laugh, seeing that expression her face. I feel as though I am still talking to her.
In other portraits in the series I learned that if I needed to credit the maker of the photograph, I would not be able to just list myself, the photographer. Some of the subjects collaborated, through either their sheer force of will, or creative expression. Hank, in the first photograph of the series, is a good friend of mine. Of all my friends he is my favorite person to go get a drink with, to sit and talk about anything and everything, which with Hank usually turns in to laughing and laughing about everything. There is a lot of leadership in Hank’s personality. He’s not pushy, he just seems to be the leader of anything he participates in; a dinner party, or a workgroup, the result of a quiet way of suggesting. At a summer dinner party I remarked that I liked his sunglasses, and asked if I might take a photograph of him. I made one picture, a straight-on picture of his face. Then, Hank turned to position diagonal to the camera, and suggested that may be a better angle. It was, the better picture I made.
In the Walker photograph my own son is featured. He hates for me to make a photograph of him, because it means he has to stay still for more than a second. Not his strong suit. On this day, he owed me one, I had made sure he was able to procure a small plastic whistle out of a friend’s Easter candy bowl, after the friend’s mother suggested all should take something. All I asked was that I could take a close-up picture of him, I did no suggesting of pose. In a split second Walker came up with what you see in the photograph, a creative play on the idea of speaking and hearing. He blows the plastic whistle loud and cups his free hand to his ear, as if he was having trouble registering the shrieking sound the whistle was making inches from his ears.
The Bryan photograph really doesn’t resemble a typical “portrait” at all, but rather a group shot, or even a snapshot. You may see a group of friends and family sitting on a car, saying “cheese” for the camera. And, you would be right. But, I see more. I see a portrait of Bryan, the gentleman posing down on his knees in front of the automobile. When you first meet Bryan you may get the idea he’s a bit aloof. He’s quiet, stands out of the way, isn’t quick to introduce himself. But the opposite is true. He has a great capacity to love and care for others, his amazing wife of many years, and their extended families. He also treats his friends like his family, one of the three dozen reasons that though I have personally never been good at having “best friends” I would count him as one, or really more like a brother. But, in the picture he doesn’t look so “touchy-feely” does he? He’s well, just not. He has impeccable manners, so he instinctively lets the women and children in the photograph sit while posing. But, more importantly, he stands just to the side (something I do), because he is always looking, scanning, people-watching. He does so for ideas, but also, because it is enjoyable, to have a grand view of the life you live.
To continue my idea that the best portrait photographs are made of those you know well, over the past summer I have been the guest of a few “summer suppers” at the house of friends. One of the family members is a professional photographer, making great portraits and wedding photographs that look more like art photography hanging in galleries than the boring old wedding photograph hanging over so many mantles. In this family’s house hang portrait photographs, of each other. These are my favorite pictures I have seen of the photographer’s work, as she knows the subjects so well.
My favorites in this series of twelve are also of my family. Pauline, the woman smiling directly into the lens as she drinks Kefir at the co-op grocery store is my wife. I don’t always illicit a smile in her, but I did this day, Father’s Day. And the photograph Lois shows the wonderous smile of my daughter, whose capacity for caring for others and making them feel loved is greater than mine has ever been or will be. I am lucky that she directs that smile to me, often.
Back to the twelfth photograph. I do not substitute an actual photograph of myself for a piece of carved stone out of vanity. I am too old to have any vanity (or hair) left to selfishly cling to. But I, like everyone else, do not like every picture made of me. I have finally figured out why that is for me, I can’t control the process. I possess little in the way of superiority about my photographic skill, but I do have a certain way of doing things, and I guess I want to see myself that way too. My wife, who is an excellent and creative photographer, recently made some pictures of me for a quick headshot I needed. I quickly dismissed them all, frustrating her in the process. Afterward I went upstairs, held my own camera in front of my face, and set about making 3 dozen photographs of myself. Finally one clicked with me, I liked it! Was it better than my wife’s photographs? No, not at all. But, through trial and error, I made a picture of how I saw myself, not how she did. And, we always like our view of the world better than others, don’t we?
Other photographs made of me just do not work at all. I present proof below, a photograph made of me with my own camera by a friend, who was trying out my camera. I have become oddly attached to this photo. The photographer here is a very artistic person, but music is his creative outlet, not the making of photographs:
Besides my bullheadedness to see the world my way through photography, the photograph above, “Hope” is a great symbol of my life this year. I have spent a lot of time in graveyards this year, making photographs. But that is nothing new. More to the point; the physical object in this picture is the gravestone of a deceased person. Though there is despair and longing in the people left behind to deal with the absence, the stonemason instead chose to focus on the positive, the word “Hope.” He also inscribed a dove, or bird; a symbol of resurrection in the Christian faith.
That is how I choose to see things these days. The positive. Self-loathing, despair and self-deprecating humor have been staples of my personality at different times in my life. In my twenties I wore these staples like some kind of badge of honor, daring others to call me out on it. A weird source of strength. But today, as I hurdle towards my forties, I refuse it. Yes, there are many reasons to despair; injustice, economic woes, 537 people in Washington DC who just do not seem to get “it” anymore. But, what’s the point in giving in? I choose Hope, to see good in everything, to make even the most unfortunate of circumstances work for me and those around me. Laughing at the cynicism and irony in the world has become boring.
It sounds corny, I know. But, speaking of corny, every once in a while I will read through books, magazines or online articles that promise to help you be a better businessperson or salesperson (for my work). Most of the advice is filler, leaving me to wonder why I took the time to read it. But in one book I read the author instructed you to visualize what you wanted. If you wanted to grow your business ten-fold, visualize it, write it down. If you wanted to make “x” amount of new sales, just see yourself doing it. As stupid as it sounds, it works. Yes, you never achieve exactly what you set out to do, but even if you get halfway there you are much better off than before.
So, why can’t this work with everything? With my camera and in everyday life I’ll visualize the wishes and dreams of the young and old in these portrait photographs. The Hope in the face of my child that life is going to be great. Full of blessings. And it will.