Every person I have ever photographed has had their own vision of what a portrait should look like. They come in and get ready to have their photograph taken. They expect me to tell them things like “stand up straight” and “tuck your shirt in.” It would be considered a lack of professionalism if I didn’t tell them to tilt their head one degree or to shift their hands by half an inch. People expect that: They want to be told what to do and how to act. They want me to show them how to be perfect.
I can still remember the portraits my family would take every year. My father, a professional photographer, would drape his studio in thick black fabric that blocked out all the outside light, blocking out the world and the streets below us. He would set up soft white circular reflectors and bright vivid lights around the room. They were to take out all of the shadows from our faces, taking away our depth, our imperfections, our character.
We would stand together perfectly like soldiers at attention: side-by-side, tallest in the back, shortest in the front. My brother and I would stand with our shoulders rubbing past each other, knees locked together. He would pinch me and step on my toes until I demanded he stopped. My mother would hover behind us, whispering for us to hush. My dad would stand back and look at us ?all standing perfectly? and make little measurements in his head, calculating how much to move each of us. We would all move to our precise locations and not dare to move a muscle. The shutter would click and the huge 8×10 camera with its monstrous black hood would capture us on celluloid. We would take the portrait once, twice, forty times until it was to my father’s standards. His insistence on perfection was legendary. It was what drove me away from photography.
When I finally found my way to a camera, it was by sheer coincidence. I was searching through an old closet and found my dad’s first camera, a Nikon F2 35 mm straight from the ‘60s. I wandered out of my father’s studio into the streets of Manhattan, ? overflowing with passerby ? and realized why I had never sought for the camera before. The only method of photography I knew was to force people to stand in stuffy rooms while they pretended they were happy. That wasn’t photography at all.
I stood in the street, camera in hand, capturing the graying wrinkled men in the park enjoying their one last happiness, bouts of chess played with the strategy of army generals. I unloaded frame after frame of a naive bespectacled college student begging for bus money to make his way home. People walked by me, consumed by their life, unaware of the kid capturing the most sincere moments they will never recognize.
I still have those first negatives I ever took. The film is grainy, overexposed, anything but perfect. Nowadays, I can unload a hundred rolls and every single one is perfectly exposed, not a scratch or mark on them. They’ll never be as meaningful as those first frames that opened my eyes to the world that I was letting pass by me. That black & white film has come to represent me, imperfectly perfect.
Photography is capturing the truth in every moment, as honestly and directly as possible . My photographs are portraits of imperfection. “Tell me your story,” I say to my subjects. I want to hear their pain, their happiness. They get so caught up in telling me what has changed them, what has inspired them?they don’t even notice the camera. If someone doesn’t know they are being photographed then he or she is completely vulnerable. They are defenseless. Their flaws are on display, and they are so much more beautiful for it.