Still Life

Every person I have ever photographed has had their own vision of what a portrait should be. When they come to have their portrait taken, they expect me to say, “Stand up straight” and “Tuck in your shirt.” It would be considered unprofessional 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 remember the portraits my family would take every year. My father, a professional photographer, would drape his studio in black fabric that blocked the outside light, the streets below, and the world. He would set up soft white reflectors and bright lights to drive the shadows from our faces, taking away our depth, our imperfections, our character. My brother and I would stand like soldiers at attention, our shoulders touching, knees locked. He would pinch me and step on my toes until I demanded he stopped. My mother would hover, whispering to hush. My dad would stand back and look at us, making little measurements, calculating how much to move each of us. We wouldn’t dare move a muscle. The shutter would click and the camera with its monstrous black hood would capture us on celluloid. We would take the portrait once, twice, 40 times until it met 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 a closet and found my dad’s first camera, a Nikon F2 35mm from the 1960s. I wandered out onto the streets of Manhattan, overflowing with passersby, and realized why I had never sought out the camera before. The only type of photography I knew was to force people to stand in stuffy rooms while they pretended to be happy. That wasn’t photography. Camera in hand, I captured the graying, wrinkled men in the park enjoying one last happiness: chess matches played with the strategy of army generals. I unloaded frame after frame of a bespectacled college student begging for bus money to make his way home. People walked by, consumed by their life, unaware of the kid capturing the most sincere moments they will never recognize. I still have those negatives. The film is grainy, overexposed, anything but perfect. Nowadays, I can unload a hundred rolls and every single one is perfectly exposed, without a scratch or mark. They’ll never be as meaningful as those first frames that opened my eyes to the world that I was letting pass me by. That black and white film has come to represent me, imperfectly perfect. Photography is about capturing a moment as honestly as possible. My photos 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 people don’t know they are being photographed, they are vulnerable. Their flaws are on display, and they are so much more beautiful for it.

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