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Stephanie Tait is a very close friend who modelled for me in April 2009; this was my first ever formal photoshoot with a model who was prepared to, indeed, wanted to pose just for me. This was completely inspired on her part: she was convinced I would love portraiture but needed a bit of a push to actually try it – and so I have her to thank for helping me realise how much I really do love creating portraits. She was living in London at the time, but was back in Edinburgh for a few weeks, staying in the flat where she used to live – all these photographs were taken in that flat. I’ve written about the difficulties I had with directing portrait shooting at this stage, and am very grateful to Stephanie for her endless patience. Although I really like the images here, I do think that later photoshoots also improved on some of the more obvious problems that I can identify here.
My favourite image is this one, which I have here in a colour and a monochrome-tinted version. I think it is worth explaining why I like this so much.
For me, this is my first posed model photograph that does what I think it should do, and what I want a portrait like this to do. There are two main elements here when considering this image. Initially our attention is drawn to Stephanie’s face – after all, it is natural to look at someone’s facial expression before looking at any other part of their body. Her eyes, her open mouth, her slightly tilted head with her long hair falling loosely across her shoulder – all this suggests openness, querying, a revealing of something secret and intimate.
The second element relates to Stephanie’s lilac dress. As can be seen in the other images below, the cut of her dress meant that it always fell away to reveal her breasts whenever she leant forwards even just a fraction. Here she is not only leaning forwards a little, she is also tilting her head forwards and to one side (a gesture that is often taken as an indication of openness), and the dress has fallen away almost to the point of revealing her left breast completely (in fact, the same has happened with her right breast too, though the camera’s perspective means we don’t see that). This is why our eye is then drawn down in a diagonal line from her face in the upper left of the image, to her nearly-naked breast in the lower right of the image: we are being offered a view that we would not normally expect to see after looking at her face.
I ‘read’ the revealing of her cleavage in this context as another kind of opening up to intimacy beyond her facial expression. Because Stephanie is offering a view of her breasts that would not normally be available to just anyone, she is helping to make this a rather more intimate portrait than we might expect: it is one to be viewed with gratitude and responsibility to Stephanie for offering me – and now you – this level of external nakedness that also brings with it a degree of internal nakedness. And, of course, the revealing of her breasts, coupled with her open mouth and the deep red lipstick, also elicits a strong suggestion of sexual intimacy.
This coupling of her open facial expression with the unexpected openness of her cleavage makes this early portrait one that really ‘works’ for me, even though it is not a technically perfect image (the lighting, especially around her eyes, could have been better, for example): it clearly communicates a mood and a context.
Here are five other images from this part of our session, all of which also show a similar pose with this same dress falling away from her breasts, but with different expressions. I show these here in part to emphasise what I mean with the comments above, and why I think the first photograph works so well for me. I like these other images too, of course, though I think they are not as ‘complete’ in their narrative as the one above.
A different perspective, in the same dress and in the same chair, is offered here. This first image has Stephanie facing a window, with the afternoon light shining onto her; her eyes reflect the quadrants of the window’s frame. The line of light at the top of her décolleté is not really intentional but is quite nice and adds a little emphasis to her clavicle bones. The monochrome image is one that both Stephanie and I like a great deal – in fact, she has even used it in various professional profiles (though she has cropped it slightly: as attractive as her cleavage certainly is, it’s not what she wants colleagues to focus on in a professional context!). I like this image a great deal: it captures something essential about Stephanie as a person: her joie de vivre and her openness to the world and all the adventures it brings with it – for me, that all seems to be captured in her laughter and expression here.
The next few images I want to show are close-ups. The privilege of having someone who will pose for you and is then happy for you to come extremely close with a lens is not to be underestimated. Even when using a telephoto lens and not being that close to the subject, the fact that their face is filling the frame is an intimacy not often granted.
The last two of this little collection of images have Stephanie lying on the sofa. Especially in this first image, I think she looks as if she’s waiting, but it’s not necessarily clear what (or who) she might be waiting for. The second image is a more intimate one of her lying on the sofa. In this, I think she looks as if she is at rest, rather than expecting something to happen or someone to come; her resting is anything but passive. I include it here because although the lighting is not great, I do like her expression and the way in which the dress and the necklace have fallen.
Stephanie then changed into a gorgeous little blue dress we had gone out and bought together that morning, and we took some photographs that felt quite different to those in the lilac dress. Partly, I’m sure, this had to do with the different dresses: the soft, gentle lilac with the delicate stitching was replaced by a strong dark blue garment that encouraged a bolder interaction. Again, here are some more close-up images – I think she looks as if she has a fantastic and possibly salacious secret that she is keeping to herself in these images.
After buying the cute blue dress, Stephanie dragged me along to another shop and bought a wonderful matching fascinator, which I admit I viewed with considerable scepticism at first. In the meantime, the complete pointlessness of a fascinator is – excuse the pun! – fascinating to me: it serves no practical purpose, other than to offer suggestion. In some ways it can be a profoundly erotic piece of clothing – just as lingerie can be – that allows the wearer to be fully dressed but still exude sensual and sexual energy: after all, there is something between the wearer and the observer, and whilst it offers little by way of cover, that little is perfectly sufficient in order to create a certain tension. The Chambers dictionary indicates the root as perhaps being Latin/Greek (fascinare possibly being related to baskainein, to bewitch) and describes ‘fascination’ as inter alia‘power to harm, control, allure, or render helpless by looks or spells’, and it offers a (now obsolete) definition of ‘fascinate’ as: ‘to bewitch, enchant or cast the evil eye upon’. I’m not convinced I’ve managed to quite capture this here, but I offer three images of Stephanie in her fascinator (as an aside, of course, the trick for the photographer is to make sure that the focus stays on the eyes and not the netting in front of the eyes – manual focus required):
And one last image… all of the above photographs were taken with a digital camera (Nikon D40), but I also used a film camera (Nikon F65) with black and white film. However, after taking just a few photographs the shutter appeared to jam (the same problem that had originally prompted my digital camera purchase), and so I only ended up with half-a-dozen or so film photographs before going back to the digital camera. Nonetheless, the images that I had managed to take were not at all bad. I therefore scanned the negatives, and processed them in Photoshop.
With this one, I wanted to try and make it look a little like a photograph from sometime in the 1920s or 30s. I’m aware the lilac dress doesn’t really fit that time because of the contemporary cut. By this I don’t mean the low cut of the dress: revealing so much naked skin would have been perfectly acceptable from the later 1920s on, as we can see when looking at images of film stars such as Clara Bow and Louise Brooks (as it happens, Stephanie has a similar bust size to Brooks, so that is clearly not an issue here). Rather, it is that Stephanie’s dress doesn’t try to contain her breasts: many 1920s dresses reveal a lot of skin but do much more to hide the breasts. There was considerably less emphasis on ‘showing off’ curves: cleavage was at most hinted at rather than offered as readily to the viewer as today (the masculinisation of the female silhouette from the early 1920s on is the key concept here – various scholars have written on this). So my post-processing has in part sought to just gently point to the curve of her breasts and nothing more.
Despite these caveats, I really like the image and the processing: Stephanie looks so incredibly beautiful – a relaxed, happy woman, completely at ease with herself and the world around her, and simply a pleasure to be with.