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photo confrere collapse

December 14, 2018

Last year, I was trying to find a shortcut to improving my skills at photographing human beings, so that I could leapfrog directly to better self-portraits — that were truly portraits.


I think I’m pretty skilled at portraits of nonhuman subjects. I take my time at observing them closely. I approach them from various angles (then crop tightly). It’s possible I even establish some rapport with them.

But, outside of Spouse, I rarely photograph human beings, and those few tend to be at a distance: people playing soccer in a park; people in an art museum.


Spouse is excellent at catching candid not-‘posed’ moments of true portraiture. He captured the best shot from my brother’s wedding reception 25 years ago, and he (Spouse) was just shooting for his own enjoyment.       He also has accumulated years and years of experience with art models.

Dating back to our newlywed days, I’ve occasionally been an art model for Spouse. He’s often been pleased with the results… but I usually wasn’t. It took me a long long time to realize, I was (unconsciously) trying to be the art director so he would capture the right moments: portraits of me as I perceive myself. Something I would recognize, at a level much deeper than surface visual.

Moments like that have been captured on film. In at least a couple cases by my mother (but I was acting as the art director).

So it seems like all I’d really need is to have Spouse paying attention at the correct times, doing his own portrait-magic-thing, and I’d get what I want. But…

Our ideas of what constitutes a “portrait session” … don’t overlap for this.

He has been beside me, with me, photographing me even, and still missed the specific moment(s).

He’s also been in the same general area, photographing, but caught by the surroundings, and therefore, paying no attention whatsoever to me. In one of those circumstances, I fished out my own camera, and took a picture… of my feet. All I could manage.              He was right there, but he wasn’t looking.


When he’s photographing an art model, he wants to capture cool moments (and he often does), but — I’ve asked him — he’s not feeling himself in the shot, as if he were the model. He just wants a cool shot, of whatever’s possible then and there.

When I look at… even his photos of art models, I feel myself in the shot. (Because I have been in the shot.)


If I could just borrow all his expertise at portraiture, somehow, and put it to my own uses, I would. But I can’t.

Next best thing, I thought, do a joint session with him and an art model. Work up to me doing solo sessions with art models; eventually transition to being my own art model, art director, and portrait photographer.

(A zillion layers of ‘fiddly’, for me on my own, is pragmatically unpossible. Hindsight, tho.)


I was an observer at a session he did with an art model in late 2017. I think October. I definitely had ideas for what I would’ve done differently, creatively.                   My thought process was somewhat hampered by the model behaving as if I were there for social reasons; in retrospect, my presence was likely puzzling to her otherwise.

Spouse and I did a joint session with a different art model, in November. He and I worked excellently together, we both agreed — synergy improved both of our results.              But working with the model, for me, was … tricky. She’d been willing to work with a ‘beginner’; I was out to her as nonbinary. I guess I assumed she and I and her sibling would have the commonality of not being cis guys and that would count for something in developing rapport?

Professionalism was all there was, I discovered later. Which made me doubt everything either she or I had said or did.

Being autistic and having been raised by people who mostly disliked me, I just still don’t have enough data points to differentiate between (1) this person is behaving pleasantly and politely because they’re a professional, in a work situation, and (2) this person genuinely enjoys being around me, and the two of us are developing rapport.                               {See also, AROHO 2013.}

Spouse and I both got some really good photos. I appreciate that. But the interpersonal stuff was deflating, and embarrassing.

Spouse and I did another joint session with a third art model. I adjusted my interpersonal expectations, and did not have the same problems. But this model — whom I liked very much — misused some of the tree branches from my studio I’d agreed to include in photos. Branches were (accidentally) splintered, then broken. I… narrowly… avoided a complete meltdown mid-session, but my enjoyment evaporated, and it was all I could do to finish at all.

Some of the photos were good, but so what.


It seems ludicrous now that I somehow thought having a solo session with an art model — after all these mixed results — was the next best step.

Yet, preparing for the solo photo session was actually the most satisfying creativity I’d had in years!

I could do everything at my own pace (not shoehorn myself into Spouse’s timetable). My energy engages in clusters, not continuously, so whenever my ideas and enthusiasm were flowing, I ran with it. (When not, I rested, and did other things.)            I prepared across almost 3 months.

Before the early March session, I:

  • Read 12 books on portrait photographers: Edouard Boubat, Adger Cowans, Imogen Cunningham, Natalie Dybisz, Gregory Heisler, Terry Hope, Mary Ellen Mark, Steve McCurry, Joyce Tenneson, and others.
  • Hung cheesecloth in my studio windows; Rearranged the room; Blocked the studio for backdrops; Created backdrops; (innovatively) Affixed backdrops.
  • Practiced using Spouse’s (lent) studio light.
  • Rethought allowing an art model to collaborate with my tree branches; Decided to not allow branches at all; Reconsidered use of flowers.
  • Bought a variety of unusual fabrics; Experimented with draping (myself, Spouse).
  • Got Spouse to stand-in for practice shots with fabric and flowers.


With all of these efforts, I invested in my own artistic development. I engaged with the world, and my imagination. I had loads of fun. I regret nothing.


The session with the model was disappointing.

I picked her up at the train station and drove her back to our apartment. Within 5 minutes of her arrival, I could tell the session was not going to succeed. Even so, I was surprised at how blah it was.

I did not think we had rapport. All the talking — when it was just me having to do all of it — was exhausting; I did not enjoy it.

Spouse post-processed a handful of the photos, and I think they’re decent.

Until last month, I never even looked at the whole session’s photos myself. Some efforts can likely be salvaged.


I don’t expect to work with an art model again.

All my lovely nebulous Next Steps in Portraiture dissolved. I was too disheartened to even try to see what I might try next.



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