Monday, 24 February 2014

Say cheese

When I was writing that list of things I am nervous of or uncomfortable with, it occurred to me that I haven't told you about one of my biggest fears, and how a true artist helped me get over it.

There are almost no photographs of me. I ensure I am the one behind the camera whenever possible. My next tactic is to be the one who orders the prints from Costco, and I carefully select the ones I'm not in - or crop myself out if practical.  I've even gone so far as to remove pictures of myself and surreptitiously bin them when other people showed me photos.

I know women who've had those soft-focus movie star makeover type photographs and loved them. Those friends had sworn I'd love the experience - someone to do my hair and make up, pose me and style me like a Hollywood goddess. Or, in some cases, underwear model, perish the thought. They said it was really fun and helped them relax in front of a camera. I couldn't think of anything more dreadful than being styled as an actress - mutton dressed as ham.

I hated seeing myself.  I could only see all the deeply unattractive physical traits and no sense of who I am at all. I would even do my best to avoid mirrors; I came home from clothes shopping wanting to cry more often than not.

Then my perspective changed.

In early summer 2012 Mark commented that there was an interesting sounding event at a small art gallery in Leeds. He'd spotted it on Twitter - an exhibition called One Hundred and Forty Characters by photographer Chris Floyd.

Chris Floyd is a Properly Famous photographer. He has a number of his photographs in the National Portrait Gallery. He's photographed a Beatle and a Doctor and a whole host of other cultural icons. To promote the exhibition White Cloth Gallery was offering black and white portrait shoots by Chris for tuppence ha'penny.

I looked at the preview of the photos and they looked familiar. I  pulled out How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran from my bookcase. There it was - the cover photo, although colourised, was from the same project.

I absolutely love the cover of How To Be A Woman. The picture captures the personality, warmth and humour of Caitlin. I never look at it without smiling. So if I wanted a portrait of my kids, who better to take them than the man who took it?

Our eldest, Luke, loathed the idea. I could understand that. I thought it would be churlish to expect him to do something I was too scared to do myself, so with a last look at Caitlin Moran's picture as motivation, I rang the White Cloth Gallery and booked 2 sessions - the 3 kids then all 5 of us.

When we arrived that Saturday we had a look at the pictures in the exhibition. Chris Floyd has a wonderful style. There is nothing of him intruding in the portraits; they are sort of ego-less. Each exists to give a essence of the person he's photographing. They are so revealing - of personality rather than of flesh - but not invasive or awkward. It's clear each subject was enjoying being photographed.

I loved them, but was distracted by my nerves.

When we were first called in, the stiff and resentful posture of the kids made me worry this was a bad idea. This is how it started:
Chris wasn't remotely daunted. He talked to the kids while moving them around, using the dynamics between them to play to their strengths.  Within a couple of minutes we had this:

They had loosened up, were mucking about and relaxing, and paving the way for some lovely pictures. One of my favourites is this:

Even Luke, stiff and scowling at the start, was having fun. 

When it was time for Mark and I to appear in the photographs I felt myself tense up. I felt slightly sick. A print was included in the price, so we would HAVE to have a photo, and maybe even show it to people. My fixed grin, my fat carcass, my lack of fashion sense, my plain face and double chins... all my faults there on display, ruining a portrait of my gorgeous kids and lovely bloke. Oh god.
It was all a stupid plan. What was I thinking? Chris was lovely (he signed my Caitlin Moran book too) but it was still ME he was photographing and I am not an attractive woman.  I mean, I am, I have attractive traits - I am enthusiastic, hard working, creative and a good mum most of the time - but if seeing my face reflected on my iPad screen makes me upset a photo of me would be worse.
 And then...

It was OK. I mean, I felt a bit weird being photographed but following instructions from Chris and keeping an eye on the 3 kids gave me enough distraction most of the time. Some of the things were silly - standing po-faced, then shrieking like banshees - and some were just about letting our relationships and the family dynamic come through.

Then I saw the finished pictures. We looked wonderful. We looked like us - ourselves distilled in a moment of time. The relationships between us, the way we feel about each other, it was all there. Our youngest riding on her brother's shoulders, messing with my hair; his amused face tolerating her imperiousness through his curtain of curly hair; my arm on Luke's shoulder to help him bear her weight; how Mark and Zach's eyes are just the same shape, although different colours; Mark tousling Z's hair as Zach laughs ruefully at himself. 
We didn't look perfect, but we looked both real and beautiful.

I looked beautiful.
I looked like what I am - a woman who is part of a busy, warm, playful family. I'm still fat, my double chins are there and you can't see much of my clothing to decide on my fashion sense, but I'm not plain faced. I've the face of someone who loves the people she is with and it shows. 

When Chris Floyd returned to The White Cloth Gallery in November, it was a large print of that final portrait that greeted people. As we walked in, the woman at the desk said "You look familiar, have we met?" "No, but you've been looking at me all week!"

We'd told so many of our friends not to miss the chance to be photographed by him that the gallery generously gave us that print at the end of the show.  It doesn't hang in our bedroom, for just us to see. It doesn't even hang in the living room, where we spend our evenings. It's in the hall as you come in the house, hanging alongside two more Chris took. Every visitor, delivery person, friend and neighbour sees Chris's pictures of us as they enter. They make me smile every time I look at them.

That experience had a broader affect than you'd think. I've posted pictures - including DEEPLY unflattering ones - of myself on this blog before now. That's something I would never have done before meeting Chris.  I don't try and run away from cameras, I don't crop myself out of any snaps we take.  

I haven't magically been transformed into camera loving model, but I don't feel scared of them any more. I see myself differently. I don't hate my appearance - or at least not most of the time. I still don't like mirrors much.

We gave White Cloth Gallery some money, and they gave us some photographs. But what Chris Floyd gave me was something altogether more valuable, something it took his skill and artistry to achieve. I didn't need a soft-focus makeover photo shoot to like my appearance better. The image of myself I carry inside my head is that photograph Chris took; loved and loving, broad smile, expressive face, and a good heart. 

Now that's a gift I wish I could give everyone. 

Note - all photographs are copyright Chris Floyd as per the watermark. They are used with his permission,  granted to me because he's a very nice bloke. Please don't repost other people's photos without permission, it's rather churlish. And probably illegal.

1 comment:

  1. I was at the same Leeds portrait session in 2012. I'll look back on the resulting photos when I'm 80 and say 'yes, that was the day I finally stopped hating having my photo taken'. Chris even dragged my photo-hating elderly Dad in to get a shot of us both and I treasure it.