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How do you refrain from biting?

How do you refrain from biting?

It's just an ordinary photograph. Woman applies makeup in a mirror, while voyeur or friend watches. But there are lessons here.

This shot is seven years old, was lit with three lights, and the aperture was wide open at f/2.8 on a macro lens known for its sharpness. I'd become recently obsessed with the tones in the backgrounds of an epic battle between the photographers Paul Outerbridge and Edward Steichen and set out to copy those tones in an ordinary scene. By keeping the model's eyes and personality out of the picture, which is not a portrait, I could force the focus on the tone and on the action in the shot. And there is barely any action.

There are triangles and rectangles, and the most prominent two triangles have corresponding rectangles, with one set light and one set dark, with the triangles above the rectangles in each instance. There are three major highlighted sections of the picture, and three major dark shadowed sections. The highlights complement each other vertically, from ceiling, to cheekbone, to shoulder, while the dark shadows move horizontally across the picture, from her hair, to the dark abyss framing the action of makeup and face, to the dark triangle-rectangle geometry of the left edge. There are also three mid tone greys which offset both the highlights AND the shadows. So there are nine fields of extreme tone in the picture, fulfilling that most basic rule of thirds in its simplest equation: three rows, three columns, nine little boxes.

This photograph also represents the return of the amateur to f/2.8. What does this mean? Every photographer who gets an SLR spends too long chasing the light, shooting at f/2.8, usually the widest aperture on their lenses, and the place you can coax a bit more light out of sunsets or alleyways. But that light is horrible, usually, compromised by noise and extremity in tone, and brings the added dread of a tiny focal field, inches wide, guaranteeing that most of your shot is out of focus. When making a portrait with wide apertures, inevitably one of your subject's eyes will be out of focus. We don't notice it when we do it, because our minds compensate for the clouded darker eye, but very few photos can be declared competent if one eye is out of focus and the other is laser brilliant. So I spent a long time at f/2.8, trying to figure out why my pictures sucked. It took a good six months with smaller apertures ("f/8 and don't be late" is the only advice young photographers got in the newsroom in the pre-digital age) before I understood even the most basic use of light, and I was coming to this from years of using a video camera in the most artistic and experimental ways imaginable. None of that video knowledge translated into help with f-stops. So why do I say this shot represents a "return" to f/2.8? Because this was the first time I dialed down to widen the aperture to its maximum knowing what I would get, which was the action lit prominently in the light: her fingers on the triggers of her weapon, painting an illuminated plane. The noise was acceptable in this case because it set the film noir mood; she is playing a killer on the run. She is taking a moment to obey the sexual/cultural imperative of fifty thousand years of human evolution, even while she is hunted globally for transgressions against polite society. Applying embellishment to gain what, exactly? My approval, my friendship, my interest, my curiosity? In this case, in my fictions, the character knows exactly what to do to keep my attention so I can create a history of her actions: I am her only audience in this bridge between killer mode and magnet of desire.

Kneely, the subject of the photo, is a Cherokee, a Tsalagi. She claims descent from Chief Dragging Canoe, who said:

"Whole Indian Nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man's advance. We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains, and have settled upon Tsalagi land. Finally the whole country, which the Tsalagi and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of the Ani Yvwiya, The Real People, once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There they will be permitted to stay only a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Tsalagi, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed. Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than to submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will hold our land."

Despite his noble words, Chief Dragging Canoe got beat, and the utterly desperate towns left to Tsalagi rule in the United States produce a rubbish of humanity that future generations will regard with awe. It was from this trash heap that Kneely sprung, self-educated and ambitious, a potential medicine woman for what is left of her nation after fifteen thousand years of fruitful habitation in a land that we now know was a cultivated garden on an epic scale in 1491.

So this is also in the picture, an intimacy in the presence of seething spirit, an anger of community that demands action but is impotent, fragmented and lost, barely wisps of smoke in the hot factory smelt of European ingenuity and profit margins. In fact, these tones and this focal plane on the makeup brush, instrument of disguise, is meant to convey these politics of nationhood, not just in this photograph of course but in its cousins that frame the story.

And in this way we arrive at the most critical aspect of photography: the need to tell a story if you are not merely being a journalist. In my opinion, a pretty picture, no matter how technically adept, is almost worthless, except for its possible commercial exploitation. I have taught dozens of photographers whose chief realization in the past year is the utter uselessness of online galleries of good pictures that nobody sees. Many of these shooters retreat, like the Tsalagi, from the wide open plains of picture-taking to small nooks of commerce and finally to the pinched reservations of "fine art," a graveyard of impulses in which pictures without stories are shredded into fleeting memories. I've posted this picture because it could tell so many stories even though it is not a remarkable portrait in any way. It was born in the deeps of somebody's imagination, and its DNA was puzzled together in long form literature, in the need to illustrate an idea, and any photographer who finds himself discarded in the tiny places left to practice art for a living can find rescue in illustrating what you will never see in the picture.

Finally, though, there is the author, me, and the continuous ballet of self-expression that only art can satisfy. I see Olympic heroes and movie stars and even scientists and inventors through a prism of pity: You had a lifetime, and all you did was animate Shrek? All you did was win four gold medals on the ski slopes or in the swimming pool? All you did was build this city? When the asteroid hits and obliterates the record books and the shopping malls, how will you express the astonishments of a lifetime? This wondrous act of being, what language have you learned not to brag but to inspire other people into using a life as an excuse to invent multiple selves in every situation of love and pain that can be imagined?

Of all the lucks in my life, none is so great as having been the chastity belt for a series of young women in Beirut in the city's reign as the second Paris. Princes and poets would bribe me all night with candy and toy until the time came to move in on my nanny, whereupon I became a snarling dog, hanging onto my nanny's underwear for dear life, and the reward for this protection from my nannies to me was intimacy. And this is the most interesting story I have to tell, even though it is not for everyone: the powers in desire, not for conquest or copulation, but for witnessing the nervous moments of the secret self, when decisions are made to embark on new paths, when somebody wants me to look as a way of affirming that they are being watched, and being encouraged, and this is the heart of the photograph. I may be voyeur here, but I am whispering "Go go go go go," as my friend Sueraya always likes to point out, and this is a powerful medicine to both watcher and subject.

I have a friend, Jonelle, who appreciates this kind of story more than anyone I know, and who also understands my need to tell them as a way to lessen death's approach. I posted another picture of Kneely recently, with the simple tag line of "A fab portrait is not about how the photographer sees, but about how the person being photographed wishes to be seen." Jonelle quickly comments on these pictures as being "magical cross sections where the influence you have on the subject of your lens overlaps with the way they'd like to be seen -- or maybe the way they'd like to feel most of the time but can't due to the company of most men: beautiful, adored and safe to express themselves physically and emotionally. It's an incredible gift -- to be able to allow women this space, to be a wolf in sheep's clothing -- with an eye as sharp as his teeth. How do you refrain from biting?"

And that's really the purpose of every image, to elicit response, to dance with its viewer in a way that becomes its own spectacle. A gem is a gem, until it is found and described, when it becomes treasure. This picture of Kneely applying makeup, carefully constructed and imagined, comes to life seeking definition both from its author and its audience, as any good act must. And despite this longass essay, the boil of the moment comes down to a single impulse, meant for me and the viewer of this picture: "How do I refrain from biting?"

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Regarding Paul Outerbridge, unsung photo hero of the last century, and his duel with fine art posterboy Steichen, here is a fantastic summary by Getty Museum curator Paul Martineau on a recent Outerbridge retro:

"Among Outerbridge's final black-and-whites, The Triumph of the Egg (1932), showing an egg somewhat absurdly perched on an elongated pyramidal element, is a wry commentary on Steichen's well-known Triumph of the Egg of 1921. It upped the ante on the existing rivalry between the two artists. "It was rumored," writes Martineau, "that Steichen had made more than 1,000 photos of teacups. Outerbridge, not to be outdone, let it be known that he had exposed more than 4,000 plates before he 'discovered how an egg really should be photographed'."

8 responses

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt gave props (8 Aug 2014):

    Your skills as a writer and photographer are boundless!

  • Deborah King

    Deborah King said (8 Aug 2014):

    What a great read. Thank you for sharing this here. Your photos are outstanding. I love reading about the evolution of a photoagrapher.

  • JPG

    JPG gave props (14 Sep 2014):

    Congrats on having the Story of the Week!

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt gave props (15 Sep 2014):

    Congrats!!!

  • Pamela Haberman

    Pamela Haberman gave props (15 Sep 2014):

    Captivating.

  • Davide Simone

    Davide Simone said (15 Sep 2014):

    Congrats!!!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (18 Sep 2014):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (18 Sep 2014):

    Congrats on making Story of the Week!

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