Friday, October 23, 2015

Becoming Greater than the Sum of my Parts

Me by Me

Let me acknowledge first that this final installment in my self-portrait project is over a month late in happening and explain why, because the reasons turned out to be a huge part of the process that finally brought these images into being.

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

For a long time I have been struggling with attrition. The older I get, the more losses I collect. It’s a constant challenge to eye happiness with anything but suspicion when the preponderance of evidence persists that any sought, believed or embraced source of happiness will swiftly become a source of betrayal of trust, followed by acceptance of loss. Being an optimist, I keep falling for it, and keep getting slammed. This may be why I can count so many losses. Maybe I’d have had fewer losses if I had done less seeking, believing and embracing. And certainly, there have been those gained shining moments of joy I did indeed experience which are not to be entirely erased by the shadow that overtook and eclipsed them.

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

Still, my life has become increasingly reduced it seems. I am a poet who doesn’t publish, an athlete who doesn’t train or compete, an artist whose work isn’t displayed, a businesswoman whose business sees no profit, a citizen without a job, assets or quantifiable contribution to society, a woman without child, mother or mate. It would be easy for me to retreat deeply into myself and become a figment of my own imagination. My daily existence is so isolated and independent of outside confirmation, definition, recognition and measure, there are times I doubt my own corporeality. 

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

And yet, there are times I am nothing but my body, the way the very fit and the very ill, during their long hours of solitary interiority, become acutely aware of and attuned to the immediacy and vagaries of their own systems and symptoms in their evolving strengths and frailties. How else to know I am alive and real some days than the advancing and retreating aches of my joints, the alternating eagerness and lassitude of my muscles, the inflation of my lungs making my chest rise and fall?

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

My routines and pursuits, and the places and social structures surrounding them, have been dismantled and reassembled so many times, I am not even sure what wholeness means anymore. The internal pieces have been there always, abilities, values, aversions, attractions, to be combined anew like the fragile shards of glass in a kaleidoscope. There is always consistency and order, and always impermanence to anything I become with a twist of the self-contained cylinder.  It can only be the sum of its parts, just as I am, parts that have been shaken too often, and now are far from whole themselves, but, in the end, all I’ve got to work with, all I ever will, so best keep trying to make something beautiful while there’s still time, until there is nothing left to shake but a tube full of dust.

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

I went into this shoot psychologically cornered by the accumulated losses, absences, fears, doubts and sorrows of my life to date, and a not entirely hopeful vision of the next shake of this old kaleidoscope of an identity and its place in the outside world in which I do, after all, have to live. But I came out swinging. I accepted that I am the sum of my parts and that it doesn’t matter whether this sum amounts to more than those parts, or anything at all. It’s something. It’s a start. It is not, as I feared in my hesitation to complete this project, an end. Silly girl, this project was never about 12 themes to be explored and filed away as a finished work, any more than I am. The process continues whether or not it is demonstrated by a monthly set of images, or validated by any worldly definition of worthiness through accomplishment. The project is me.

Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe and Me by Me

Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women's Bodybuilding Champion, in 1980. Over the next several years they collaborated on a series of portraits and figure studies, a film, and the book, “Lady, Lisa Lyon.”  Throughout the 80s, Mapplethorpe produced many images that simultaneously challenge and adhere to classical aesthetic standards: stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities, to name a few of his preferred genres. In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite his illness, he accelerated his creative efforts, broadened the scope of his photographic inquiry, and accepted increasingly challenging commissions. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective in 1988, one year before his death in 1989.

This shoot is dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe, an inspiration for all artists, then, now and forever, to keep fighting the good fight.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Becoming a Whore

The hardest thing about this shoot was how easy it was to become a whore. 

As I recovered from my last shoot and began contemplating ideas for the next one, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to attempt something more overtly sensual after so many sessions that were more about using composition or pose to evoke emotion and meaning, reducing the body to landscape, motif, idealized image or merely a woman upon whom the viewer is discreetly eavesdropping in a private vulnerable moment.

 Odalisque by Ingres

The odalisque portrait, which runs (or reclines) rampant through art history, is unabashed in its representation of the female body as sexually available object. It’s about as close to pornography as you can get and still be believed that you are actually creating art. There is in fact a whole genre of erotic photographs that feature women in this attitude of exposed repose, with a few props to establish a bordello or harem setting and a somewhat disdainful “come hither” look to make it clear what’s on offer. As a photograph, it’s a purely sexual calling card. As a painting, thoughtful presentation makes it art.

 Odalisque by Delacroix

How to keep such an image on the proper side of the often fuzzy erotica line wasn’t my concern. There are technical ways to soften realism. How to find sufficient luxurious textiles and draperies and accessories to convincingly portray a lady of idle pleasure on her couch of indulgences or her attitude of unapologetic indolence wasn’t that difficult either. 

My biggest worry was that I, a modern woman accustomed to a more liberal and less libertine view and experience of sex, would be incapable of staring down the camera with that convincing look of mixed pride and vulnerability, hauteur and hunger, amusement and boredom, control and submission those odalisque ladies did so well.

Then I remembered every man who has ever made me feel like a temptation visited, enjoyed, and abandoned. An availability made use of and once used up, devalued. The ones whose beds and tales of sorrow I shared while their hearts belonged to someone else. I remembered that love is something I have too often felt for men who couldn’t or wouldn’t love me as they did other women, the ones in other kinds of paintings, princesses and goddesses, remote figures on distant cliffs, weeping into rivers, looking away, looking beautiful while breaking hearts, the ones they couldn’t have or had and lost, those unforgettables, those timeless, elusive, immortalized in song women, those women so very much not me.

This shoot stirred all that up for me. Years of anger and grief. Years of pride and scorn. And the love. All that love wasted on men for whom sex was all that was required, for whom I was a little bit more than a pornographic snapshot, but way less than a work of art.  Years of guilt that I had been a willing participant in, even a seeker of, this less than ideal arrangement, because a beggar at the table of love must either make do or starve. And ultimately, years of recognizing that not one of these men diminished me in any way by their comings and goings, that no matter how many lovers made use of me only briefly and incompletely, this said more about their limitations than mine, and where are they now? Gone.  But I remain, complete, and timeless, and yes, a work of art.

And I wrote a poem too. Here it is.   


Take me I’m yours
said the eyes of the whore
from her languid repose
in the comfortable chaos
of lace and cut velvet
covering her loosely
lightly briefly
like lovers that come and go
come and go
come and go
followed by eyes
so weary of saying
I know you I love you
I’m waiting and watching
your longed for approach
while solitude hangs
like dark silk keeping
the sunlight from hurting
my eyes as they see
in the way you arrive
that hot path
cleared by hunger 
the cold road 
by which you’ll depart
you who are all the one I needed
you who are all the same
when retreating
so take me I’m yours
do your best
do your worst
but take me already
my body my heart
unbreakably naked
receiving impressions
that leave me unchanged
or leave me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


It continues to pleasantly surprise me how each new installment in my self portrait project becomes both a reflection and harbinger of what’s going on in my life at the time.  My last shoot occurred in a context of defiance and renewed immersion in music. This one coincided with a shift to a quieter more inwardly oriented time, in which a natural reaction to too much time spent out in the social world and a bad case of tonsillitis conspired to keep me home and in my own company, the perfect contemplative and yes, admittedly self-absorbed context in which to explore and embrace this month’s theme.

I usually go looking for my next theme soon after the last one is done. I always have a brief moment of panic – what if I’m out of ideas? what next? – followed by my new theme dropping right into my lap and being instantly recognizable as the right one, the only one.  This time, a review of an exhibit of paintings featuring images of women at their toilette prompted me to research further than the usual French paintings depicting scenes before during and after the bath, which led me to some beautiful modern Japanese drawings of women combing their hair, a motif known as kamisuki.

 Kamisuki (Combing her Hair) by Torii Kotondo

I had already made plans to include something in a Japanese style among my themes, and this was perfect. Especially as a course correction following what I felt was a slight detour in my last shoot, which was a bit of a stretch for a project exploring classic images of female nudes re-imagined. The kamisuki aesthetic brought me back to the heart of the matter – the woman self-absorbed  and observed in a moment of vulnerability, both intimately objectified and distantly adored by the artist.  

What drew me to this motif was that unlike other compositions in which women seem more posed and less poised – here the artist seems almost an afterthought.  These women are too involved in a pure act of attending to their own bodies, an almost meditative state, as anyone who has spent time combing their hair can attest, to notice if anyone is eavesdropping, or acknowledge the presence of a guiding hand. It’s self-love and self-oblivion combined in one repeated rhythmic motion. It says, for now at least, I am taking care of myself and myself alone, without shame or guilt, and without you. 

Which is just what I have been doing these past weeks of retreat and recovery. Art imitates life imitates art.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Becoming a Young Lion

No Young Lion 

It all began a month ago right after my last shoot.  Around the day Ian Curtis of Joy Division being 35 years dead prompted me to watch the movie “Control,” re-listen to his music, and remember that my other favorite dead too young rock baritone, Jim Morrison, also needed some listening to. Not that I go for any extended period of time NOT listening to more music in a day than most people experience in a month, but for weeks during yet another installment of my dark night of the soul, I seemed to be immersing myself in the stuff with a vengeance and liking the feeling.

Young Lion
One day on Facebook I floated the idea of classic rock images for my next shoot. To my horror, I then floated the idea of using one of the most iconic rock visuals of all time, Jim Morrison’s Young Lion photograph, as my source material. It would seem as this project proceeds I am determined to make it evermore difficult for myself. Admittedly, this one went way beyond difficult to downright terrifying.

For anyone possessed of sense and senses, it’s obvious that Morrison is a man, a very beautiful man, possibly one of the most beautiful of all time, and I, well, I’m not.  More than ever, this shoot was going to have to be more of a re-imagining than an imitation of the original. It was in fact, I said to myself in eerie prescience weeks ago, going to be a collaboration.  

I have always felt a kinship with Jim Morrison. The Doors arrived in my listening life when I was a teenager and Jim had been dead almost a decade already. I was an instant insatiable lover of the man, the music, the myth. I calculated exactly how long he had lived, to the day, and was fairly certain I would die within that span. Maybe even in France. It didn’t hurt that his birthday is one day after mine and we are both crazy poets as likely to be committing outrageous acts as retreating into our hideouts.  The kind of people who get doubtful looks when we claim we are shy.


For this shoot I wanted to get as close to Jim as possible. Playing the Best Of The Doors wasn’t enough. So I donned jeans, a big hippie belt, black boots and a handmade replica of his bead necklace and got myself into as Dionysian a mood as possible while remaining sober for the sake of technical ability. 

Then something strange happened. Or really, more than one strange thing happened. My fully charged batteries died. Twice. The firmly screwed into place and focused camera kept slipping slightly and needed re-securing. Images did not appear in the preview mode. At one point the tripod jumped an inch to the side with absolutely no provocation. Finally suspecting I had company I said out loud “C’mon Jim, let me do this! or am I done here?” upon which, the camera shut itself off. I shit you not.


It took me an hour to recover from the shoot and approach the task of downloading and editing images. I totally expected all files to be erased. Gradually I came to the understanding that this was not a malicious intervention, the Lizard King obstructing the little girl with the balls to think she could impersonate a god. It was friendly mischief. From one vagabond imp to another.

And I downloaded 100 photos, the best of which you see here. Many of them feel as if they were retrieved from some 1970s photo session with an unknown but very surly and possibly drunk rock star.  One with the balls to think she’s Jim Morrison. 

Nope, Jim, just me. Just us. Thanks for being there. Then, now and forever.