Michelle in the black dress.

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.


  1. This is my favorite of your photos that I've seen. Vermeer would be happy to have made it. I have absolutely no qualms about calling it a masterpiece, not in the hackneyed sense that gets tossed around all the time but in the "an exceptional one or two or (maybe) three works by an artist that establishes her/him as truly outstanding in their craft" sense, so I'm not at all surprised it still draws you down the years.

  2. She's an amazing model. I've worked with some and done that same walk. It's a cool feeling. Congrats!

  3. Kirk, these portraits, many of which are breath-takingly beautiful, what do you do with them? Prints, a book? Never mind the lighting books, it's the portraits.

  4. I'm thinking of writing a book called something like, "Re-imagining the Portrait." Or "Re-inventing the Portrait. But thanks for you kindness.

  5. There's a lot of nostalgia comming off this post. And by God, what a beautiful portrait. Keep them coming. Please.

  6. Kirk, whenever I find the time to do so I read your blogposts, sometimes daily. Really inspiring. I'm working as a photojournalist in a rural area in the northern part of germany and over the time I felt the need to accelerate my style of work more and more to keep up with the changes in the business. Your last postings makes me want to slow down and really see again. Thanks a lot for that.


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