Monday, August 15, 2016

Why self portraits?

This is going to be a more than frank post about why I chose to dedicate my craft to photographing myself. Maybe I posted a little about this before but here I will write deeply what my thoughts have been over the years.

It started with the fascination I had for beautiful women (and some men). I sought out to photograph people that I wanted to possess the beauty of. If you have been reading my blog, or if you know me, you know the childhood I endured. So when I was in college, I asked the beautiful ones - mainly fellow students - to pose for me. 

But before I continue about how I ended up turning the camera onto myself, I have a huge confession to make.  It really wasn't just because I wanted to possess their beauty but it was also because I needed to be the center of attention. This is the truth.

I am the youngest of three girls in my family and I remember becoming excited and happy when I had my picture taken but every time I asked my mother to do so, she would become annoyed. There are some photos of me through the years but when I look at them, I can almost remember that response from my mother. One photo in particular was taken by her after I cried incessantly because she said no at first. I was around 6 years old here. She only took my photo to quiet my tears and whines of "why won't you, mom?"

You can't tell I was crying, could you? Well, it's because once the camera was on me, I felt loved. I felt like I was finally getting the positive attention I deserved. Positive attention that I felt was not given to me in any other way.

However after what I continued to go through with abuse, bullying and ridicule over the years, the yearning for any attention went away. So, with photographing others, I truly wanted to photograph them and put the focus on the beauty ideal.

And I was happy with that. It was easy for me to pose these women because, in my opinion, there were no bad angles on them. However, the more I photographed, the more I saw things different. First of all, I spoke to my models and often they would tell me what they didn't like about their looks. I was shocked then to hear those things. Also, on some, it became difficult to find the right angle. They were very beautiful in my eyes and in person, I found no flaws. However, when I held the camera up to my eye and try to pose them, I saw something different. In fact, there were several models that I made big efforts to make look good on film...even if they looked good in front of me.

It made me think about beauty in photography more and what's more is that I asked myself, "what am I saying with these photographs? Aside from them being classic portraits, is there a message? Does there NEED to be a message?"

I went back to look at a photograph of me that I had to take for a self-portrait assignment. When the assignment was given, a little joy was felt inside but there was also dread. How did I want to photograph myself? What do I want to show the class or anyone else looking at the photo? I took my shirt off but not my bra and thought of being sexy because in my mind then, sexy equals beautiful. Just like society says and sexy/beautiful is held in high regard.

In the media, in American (and some European) society, if someone wants to take your picture, then you must be worthy of that. Being sexy and beautiful was the only way to be photographed and since I wasn't going to get a photographer to want to photograph me, then maybe I should just do it.

And after several years in university, I became courageous in that I was going to show another kind of beauty. I wasn't 100% convinced with feeling it but I knew it would be important to do so. And if it wasn't just enough to photograph my face, I would shove my body in their faces to show that I, too, was beautiful and worth having her photo taken.

And then I got attention. I received attention from the school, from my peers and from the local art community afterward with other images.

I'll go further in saying that the art modeling and encouragement and compliments I received from other artists helped me become more confident and so I decided to use photography to delve into my psyche and really learn about myself. I made an affirmation that I would dedicate my artistic life to the self-portrait. I do photograph others and other subject matters as well but I believe I will always need to say something about who I am through my art.

 Things have changed a little in terms of motive. I moved from a more physical and social one to a more psychological one. I have gained and lost a lot of weight over the years and now I am 47 years old and facing a new era in my life soon. 

Is the self-portrait photographer egocentric/narcissistic? I can only speak for myself and say no. These words are used in a negative connotation defined as selfish, and disregarding of others, only caring about his/herself. I don't consider myself any of these. What I am doing is for self-preservation - loving my inner child and loving myself as I could not do for a good part of my life. I am giving myself the positive attention I deserve in a way that I can relate to.

Friday, August 12, 2016

9 years of this

I have been thinking about what memories I would like to write about next but I scrolled through this blog and realized I have had it for 9 years. And there was a time I was going to shut it down but I think not. I may not have a big following, though I am trying to change that, but if anything, it helps to look back and read things I have written, as one would with a diary.

So, here's to another 9 years as long as this format is still in existence! I'll be back next week with a new memory post.

In the meantime, I leave you with a new "nymph" image I shot last week.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Memories Part IV - Modèle Vivant Extraordinaire

After I graduated from the university, I felt empowered. I began teaching Adobe Photoshop workshops at a chain computer store (not Apple) and then got a job in New York City working in a photography department for a dot com company that went belly-up after 6 months. After I was laid-off, I had a hard time again. I went on many job interviews for photo assistant jobs knowing I didn't want to assist most of the photographers I went to see. Needless to say, I wasn't hired.

In between the university, though, and the Photoshop gig, I photographed other artists' work for their gallery submissions, for pay. This was back in the days before JPEGs and CDs. I shot chromes of paintings, drawings and sculptures. One of those jobs was for a watercolor artist. After the shoot, we talked a bit and I told her the type of photography I was doing - self-portraiture.

A side remark: it was in the university that I was able to become brave enough to photograph myself and nude. My thesis project was called "She or Me?" - 20 x 24 inch color nudes that won me the aforementioned award of excellence. And here is a photo from that series:

Back to the watercolorist - we talked about my work and what I was trying to accomplish personally, which was to accept my body, myself. She asked me if I would ever consider modeling for an art class. I was hesitant at first but then I thought it made perfect sense to try as it was a part of the goal I was trying to achieve. In addition, I loved drawing the nude and the models I drew were great and to be able to do what they did would be pretty cool.

So, in 1998, I modeled for a group of artists at an evening atelier at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The woman in charge of the group was older and so were most of the artists...and they were serious as well so that put me at ease. In other words, I wasn't thrown into a group of young people that never drew a nude before (that came later!) So, I got up on the model stand, disrobed and began to pose. What surprised me is that I was a natural with the poses. I knew to turn in different directions so everyone got a front, back, side, etc. I also knew that I wanted to pose the way I wanted to be seen - as beautiful and graceful so I did just that. At the end of the session, I received an applause - something that apparently doesn't happen TOO often - and then was asked to come back. From that moment, I began getting phone calls from other ateliers and then I met a few art professors who used me for schools and so on. Soon after, and even when I wasn't working elsewhere, I was able to almost make a living from modeling as I was doing it for every art school and organization in Long Island, New York.

Over those years, I have some very fond memories. There was the time, early on in my modeling career that an older man came up to me with calipers to measure my head and it startled me as I was in a zone and didn't expect someone to do that. The instructor yelled at him that he couldn't do that and I wanted so badly to laugh. 

But one big memory that will stay with me forever took place around 2009. I was really not feeling so wonderful about my body. I lost a lot of weight at that point and the skin on my body was just hanging off me. I looked at myself with disgust because I felt like a science experiment. It was definitely an "ugly" day.  Honestly, there are days when I model, I need to be "on" but there are sometimes challenges like this.

I was posing for a beginning drawing class at Nassau Community College. It wasn't the first nor the last. The students that go to this college are generally made up of young adults from blue-collar backgrounds or from lower-income families so their exposure to the arts is usually limited. I say usually because there are students from other backgrounds, too but in a beginning class, the students are usually those of my previous statement. I walked in to a very full class and groaned as they were loud, noisy and being silly. I got ready and the instructor-  a dear woman I knew well - was teaching but wasn't their usual teacher. I groaned again knowing how students get when there is a substitute.

She lectured and gave them instructions on what to do for the gesture poses - the quick 1 or 2 minute poses that an artist/art student should do to warm up. After her lecture, she cued me. I sighed,  turned on my music, disrobed and began to pose for them. The class got very quiet which I was shocked at. Then the teacher told me she had to leave the room to go make some photocopies and if I was OK with that. I said I was because at this point in my modeling career, there was/is very little I was uncomfortable with. Still, as I mentioned, I wasn't feeling very good about myself but I tried to put those thoughts aside and listened to the music to get inspiration. I did my dynamic, graceful and beautiful poses that I do specifically for gestures. I was doing my last one when the teacher came back and when I ended, the students stood up and gave me a standing ovation AND cheered! I felt my face get warm and I became so full of emotion. I realized this was it. This was the reason I got into modeling. At the end of the class, I had male students say I was great (uh, in ghetto slang but it was respectful) and I had young ladies come up to me to tell me how inspired they were by me because if how accepting I was of my body....and if they had only known that day of what my thoughts were.

It's now 19 years that I am modeling. I started to get work here in France, mainly in Paris with a few suburbs thrown in. I have begun to get compliments from the artists here and at the end of last month, I modeled for an atelier in Paris who, at the end of the session, applauded me and told me how much they loved my poses.

I found my calling. I love my job. I am grateful for the inspirations and I am grateful to the woman that asked me all those years ago to model for that small atelier.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Memories - My Grandparents

So far, I have posted memories regarding some of my childhood and how I have been involved in the arts and I also wrote about the bad, serious things that happened to me as a child. However, to paint a clearer picture, I did have some very fond family memories and they all centered around my maternal grandparents.

Grandpa Vito (Willie) and Grandma Bea (Mary) came to the United States (and apparently stole identities?)  from Sicily when, I believe they were teenagers. They lived in Brooklyn, like most Italian immigrants did back then, met, married and raised 3 daughters, my mother being the youngest. In fact, my grandfather was engaged to another woman when he met my grandmother and the story he would tell us was that he saw my grandmother's "healthy breasts" and he left the other woman for her. My grandmother would nod in agreement when he told that to us. True story!

When my parents moved to Long Island, New York, and then after I was born - the last of 3 daughters as well, my grandparents moved a few blocks away to be closer to us. And the memories of them that make me smile and laugh today are plenty. My grandfather quietly "breaking into" our house every Sunday morning to leave us fresh rolls and pastries from the Italian bakery, to all the times I spent at their house. I was there, sometimes more than at my own house. My grandfather had a small vegetable garden, a grapevine (he made his own wine) and various fruit trees and flowers that surrounded the house. I would help pick the vegetables and fruit sometimes and I would sit with him while he killed flies and relaxed. Many times, I would get picked up from school (down the block) from my grandfather either by car or he would walk there and hold my hand the whole way back.

And then there was the food. First, were the lunches of egg sandwiches that were made for me - I won't dare repeat the botched up Sicilian pronunciation for what it was but my guess is that it was considered almost like an omelette - it was very basic - eggs, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese scrambled and fried and put in between some crusty Italian bread. That and a half of a banana was the main lunchtime meal for me.

But Sunday/holiday and special occasion dinners were the all-day "fêtes alimentaires" that began at 11am and ended around 3 or 4pm. We had the pasta dish, the salad dish, the meat dish with sides, the dessert and then the fruit and nuts. Yep, we ate until we burst and then sometimes, we would play cards after. It was my family, plus my two aunts with their husbands and children and it was a really fun time. There were several other parties during that time too, notably my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary where I had my first taste of really cheap beer and the holidays where I had shots of Anisette - a licorice-tasting liquor which I grew to hate but still have fond memories of.

And in the summer time was the all-mighty Meat Fest. My grandfather would fire up a pit and grill steaks, sweet and hot sausage, hot dogs, hamburgers and sometimes porkchops. Yes, my grandfather made it ALL and was served at the table in a big soup pot that we affectionately termed "The Pot of Meat". We had this with corn on the cob, baked beans and salads. It was seriously a wonder how we were able to eat so much but it was stretched out through the day, so we managed somehow.

But aside from the food, the thing I remember the most is that the aura was always that of love. My grandfather was my hero - he was the pillar of strength and the sweet loving man that I looked up to. He always hugged me and let me sit on his lap and the smell of his stinky cigar was one I cherished. My grandmother always gave me affection and told me how beautiful I was even as a teenager, when the braces, fat and frizzy hair were present. She always held my face, smiled and said "my bella". And when she said her 45-minute rosary in the mornings (well, it felt that long anyway) she would smile at me when I rudely interrupted.

I remember how religious they were. The house was decorated with photos and statues of Christ, Mary and various saints. And in the bedroom was the holy shrine, which honestly, scared the hell out of me, especially since I slept in there a lot when I spent the night. A huge photo of God adorned with plastic red roses and candles. They were Catholic (as my whole family is) and what I remember most though, was that they never preached religion. They just led good, honest and hard-working lives and enjoyed the good moments together.

Of course there were moments of fighting and cursing at each other but it never lasted and their love prevailed. As they got older and their health began to fail, they moved into our house. There were several really funny moments with the two of them then but the time was shortened when my grandfather was transferred to a nursing home. We would take my grandmother everyday to see him and I remember well, how they never let go of each others' hands  during the entire visit.

My grandmother passed away when I was 13 years old and my grandfather when I was 16. Their memories stay so close to my heart and when I am in the middle of a difficult time, I think of them. I also create an homage to them when I cook certain foods - like the egg "omelette", swiss chard with garlic, olive oil and tomato, and escarole, olive oil and chick peas, I think of them and hope they are somewhere watching over me with love.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Memories Part III - Art again

In my last post, I wrote about my first memory of photography and the art classes I took when I was a child. I really only dabbled in art then - drawing a little and the usual children's projects and I felt both at home and intimidated when I entered art classes then.

After I graduated high school and failed to become a hairdresser (thankfully as that was really not my calling), I went on my first job interview at a wedding photography studio. I was 17 years old at the time and my boss - the owner of the studio - was an old Swedish man named Tryg (like trigonometry). In fact, he and his wife Ann ran the studio with a stern hand but they had their soft sides too and I saw them as gradnparents. I was taught how to print color in the strangest of manners. I don't recall it all but I remember learning to just look at a negative and "know" the timing to print it. It definitely was not the way I was taught later on at the university but it was instinctual based on the density of the negative. So I printed everything, I put together all of the orders/albums and then I was "promoted" to being a sales person and photographer booker (I hired the photographers). I never photographed nor was I asked to but I did get to load films into the Hasselblad backs a few times. At that point, though, I was doing every job except take photos.

To you, readers, that might sound disappointing but at my age, it was an excellent learning experience. I worked long days and was there for 6 years or so. I got to observe a lot and I learned so much about interacting with different personalities, as well. Tryg and Ann decided to retire and they sold the business to two men that were, well....let's just say, not worthy of owning his business and had no idea how to run a photo studio. In fact, I think Tryg was so burned out by that point (he owned the business for over 40 years!) that he just took the first deal that came along.

Everyone was fired except me because I was the one that knew every aspect of the business by that point. The lab part of the studio was shut down, though, and the work was sent out to outside labs. Some of the photographers quit because they couldn't handle the new owners' attitudes and soon after, did I, because I was verbally abused by these guys.

However, when Tryg was there, I loved that place. I worked with a small staff of office workers, a quirky retouch artist (back then, ALL of the photographs were retouched by hand. Computers didn't exist at all and our retoucher was great at her job.) and a bossy saleswoman that I had to work with at times. I witnessed a torrid love affair between our videographer and one of the salesgirls that was hired for a short period of time (yeah, she was fired because of the drama that was created there). And it was my first experience with customer service and my exposure to wedding photography...of which I decided then was not the type of photography that I wanted to do.

When I quit, I immediately got a job in a very small camera repair shop and realized that obviously I needed to become a photographer but I wanted to expand all things in my life. I wasn't doing much of anything at that time other than work and getting drunk with friends so I wanted more in my life.  I decided to go back to college and at 23 years old, I was considered an older student. I went to a community college first, because I was afraid to dive into a university environment. I matriculated immediately into the art program with a concentration in photography but because I was working a full-time job, I only took a few classes a semester.

After 3 years of that, I saw that I was learning at a slow pace and I knew that my job at the camera shop was not going anywhere. I quit my job, transferred to a university and went to school full time. I took a part-time job answering phones in a hospital and the rest of the time, I threw myself into learning and art-making. I was so into my craft that I spent long long days at school, getting up at 6:30am to be the only one in the darkroom when it opened at 8 and in-between classes, shooting and printing some more. I took the first Adobe Photoshop classes given and it was really a new technology then and I took other art classes too. I took all of the other well-rounded classes - English literature, math, science, economics, philosophy and needless to say, I was burnt out. By the time I graduated, I was at the cusp of 30 years old  but with a university degree. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with high honors (magna cum laude) and also with that year's award in photography via the school's visual arts department. At the graduation ceremony, I cried. I had worked very hard to get to that moment. It was the first time I did something I wanted to do and succeeded. I was proud of myself and I was driven and from that moment on, I never stopped creating art. It was, in my opinion, my very first success. Maybe in reality there were others but this was the first huge one.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Memories Part II - Art

In my last entry, I talked about the music teacher that inspired me - not to become a famous musician, but to become a huge music lover/appreciator and more importantly, she was the first person to make me feel a sense of pride in who I was.

Well, it was definitely different with art. Naturally, since the age of 5, I gravitated to anything artistic and I remember spending days trying to draw and cut a perfect circle freehand - something I am still not able to do and if you, dear reader, can, well kudos to you and let me know your secret, please.

I was fortunate that art and music were mandatory courses in elementary school (ages 5-11) and were elective-based after that. So, when I turned 12 and entered middle school, the first courses I chose were art and chorus. And, in fact, it was at 12 that I took my first photography course. Mr. D was my teacher and the first day he handed me a manual light meter and a Yashica TLR. I was intimidated. He explained the workings of the camera a few times but I saw this heavy beast as something to fear. I admit I struggled with the whole technical concept of it, thus the imagery I created was sparse and lacked creativity, imagination, it. It also wasn't easy because we had to share cameras so my time with it was limited. So, here is the one successful print I created.  I intentionally didn't re-touch the scan to show you how BAD it was. I suppose there were 2 saving graces - the wheel (this was at my house) was somewhat interesting and the glassine envelope I used to expose the negative through to create the texture were it.  Maybe if I learned sepia toning back then, it would have helped.

The following year, I took a course called Graphic Arts. It was a year of learning all about page layout, book-making/binding, printmaking (in the BASIC of forms) and there was a little photography thrown in. It was the first time I shot with a 35mm and I felt more comfortable with that. I got a better handle on the technical aspects of shooting but, again, I had limited time with the camera and didn't produce one artistic thing with it.

Sadly, after those courses, things took a drastic turn. Wanting to please my mother first, being told the special Photography program was not offered at my school and wanting to escape high school for at least part of the days, I went to a vocational school part-time during my last 2 years of high school for cosmetology. Yes, I went to study hairdressing knowing I wanted nothing to do with it. After graduation and failing the physical aspect of the licensing exam, I finally went to work in a wedding photography studio as a printer/album manufacturer/salesperson/photography assistant. I was 18 years old.

Next entry, I will talk about that time and what happened next that led to serious photography.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Memories Part I - Music

From the last post I wrote, I thought maybe I should begin to write a memoir of sorts. I thought about my memories from 2 years ago, from right before I moved to France but I thought I should start at the beginning...try to think of my earliest good memories. Sadly, for me, the bad memories are what stick in my mind because there were plenty of them and because of their impact they had on my "becoming" as I began to write about in my last post.

So what do I remember as a child that was good aside from my rock-crushing fascination and small observations of nature? Well, even before I really got interested in the visual arts, I was very interested in music. At age 5, when I attended kindergarten (interesting German word, huh? Side note: For my non-US readers, kindergarten is the second level of school we go to with the first being pre-school - mostly for socializing. Kindergarten actually begins the real learning process in addition to the socialization of humans), I had trouble adapting to other children, except for a boy that I chased around the classroom until I cornered him and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. I lost interest in him after that kiss though, and he said hello to me every morning, I hid from him. I suppose I felt I conquered him so it was time to move on.

But I digress. It was kindergarten that I was introduced to a woman that would inspire and influence me for many years to come. Mrs. C was a huge light in my life. Her personality, and hair, was huge. She would walk into the room and whatever mood I was in at the time, would change dramatically and my focus was on her. She was the lead music teacher not only in my school, but in our town community. Her involvement, musically, was everywhere. I clung to her that first year, following her wherever she was in the classroom. In fact, she told me at one point to please let other kids be near her also. I wanted her all to myself though. When she taught music, I was attentive 1000%. I learned rhythms, I learned how to read music and from that moment on until I graduated from high school at 17 years old, I either sang in the choir, played clarinet, the bells, and guitar. I participated in the County Music Festival and I helped her sometimes after school. 

In high school, she was asked to teach the guitar class for one year - coincidentally a class I was in but had no idea she would teach. One very proud moment for me was when the very-tough band teacher came in to teach alongside with her. In the class, I was the only female student and in the 80's, among guys that had long hair and wore leather everything thinking they would be the next Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads. The band teacher casually quizzed everyone with their knowledge of music reading. I was the only one that answered every question and correctly. Mrs. C smiled at me proudly while the guys in the class stared at me stunned. The band teacher pointed to me and said "This girl knows her stuff so she will be the successful musician, NOT you if you don't learn how to read music. You need to take her example!" 

So why did I not become a musician? Maybe it was  because I found the visual arts/photography more of what I needed, perhaps it was the discipline I lacked at some point but it was also the lack of support I had at home. I took private guitar lessons for awhile but I really wanted to sing. However, at that time, my self-esteem was pretty low as well and I was too afraid to stand in front of an audience (especially alone) to perform. Strange, how I can model nude now in front of a large amount of people...maybe it's because it's silent performance? Hmm...

A number of years ago, I learned that Mrs. C died. I believe she died a legacy. If not in my town, in the very least, in my heart.