I remember our session like it was yesterday. Michelle walked into my studio in this fantastic dress and I was enchanted. She always had a regal presence and the austere black dress against her pale skin made a wonderful contrast in tones.
We started our session as we had several times before, shooting some film and then stopping to talk. Taking a Polaroid and then sharing it to see where we wanted to go next, what we could change about the pose or the expression to make the photographs a little more interesting. And then we'd start again.
It was generally quiet in the studio. We always shot alone. No make up people, no assistant. And we were unhurried in a way that seems almost impossible today. We might start at three in the afternoon and not stop until after six in the evening.
The pauses between rolls of film were always longer than the actual photographing. We'd talk about life and gossip about people we knew in common and we'd talk about things like 'what makes something beautiful?' We'd talk about silly stuff and we'd take more photographs.
I work quietly and I try to give my subjects lots of feedback. Nearly everyone needs to ratchet down their expectations. We're not trying to sway to music or change poses every time the flash goes off. We collaborate and build up slowly to an expression and a pose that I like. That I'm sure she will like too.
Shoots done well have a natural rhythm. When I took this portrait we were working with film. This camera got 15 images on a roll of film. The camera took film inserts instead of film backs. I would load four or five inserts and we'd work our way through them and then take a break, change scenes, or Michelle would change clothes while I unloaded the spent film and reloaded new film and we'd start again.
In every session there's stuff that almost works but you know you're not quite there. If you are in sync with a subject you'll both know when you've built up the energy to something special and you try to ride that wave but it's inevitable that there's one real crescendo in a session and everything after that is just due diligence. You wind down and at some point, though you know you'll regret breaking the spell, you have to say, "I think we got it."
Then you hug and promise to get together soon to share the contact sheets or the files and you walk your beautiful subject to her car and say, "goodbye." And then, if you're like me, you can't sleep until you've souped the film and looked at every frame, holding your breath a little bit and searching for that one frame that encapsulated all the work you'd both done on a rainy, wintery afternoon in a big studio in another time.
Later, when it's freezing outside and you've got the time in an evening you go into the darkroom and bask in the solitude. Tanning to the red safelights. Listening to an old CD from a long time ago and praying that the print you just stuck into the developer tray will come out half as well as you hope it will. And then you try again, and again and again. You drive home at 2 in the morning knowing you have something good on the drying screens. And then you show it on the web and write about it many years later. That's how you know you really like an image.