“Exactly where the word “mascara” comes from is unclear, but it is most frequently thought to be based from the Spanish word máscara meaning ‘mask’ or ‘stain’ and the Italian word maschera meaning ‘mask’. The Oxford English Dictionary also cites an alternative Catalan definition that describes soot or a black smear, or a Portuguese root (the Portuguese word máscara means ‘mask’, but a similar word, mascarra, means dark stain or smut) There is even strong support for a possible source from the Arabic word maskharah or ‘buffoon’. The Hebrew word משקרות (MaSQROTh) as relating to women's eyes is found in Isaiah 3:16.” Wikipedia
On a September evening in New Orleans last year, a gathering of the glamorous Burlesque Festival community offered me and my partner the opportunity to meet, greet, interview, and discuss my photo documentary project titled Acting Out, with performers from around the globe. We arrived fairly early at the venue and found a good spot to begin the process of introductions. A wide range of performers were interested enough to stop and engage with us at this, our first experience of a national event of this kind. Many of the people scheduled to perform were honestly interested in our work and wanted to talk with us. They wanted to know who we were and why we’d come. They pored through my published monograph of portraits from my recent graduate thesis, of the same title, Acting Out. They listened carefully. Among those attending were two extraordinary performers from New Zealand, MisRed and Duchess DeBerry. In this work everyone uses a stage name. I sometimes wonder if I should have one?
As with all performers, we discussed a variety of different aspects with them. We seek permissions. In this world of image making and in the power exchanges which come along with that, permission is key. We ask permissions (formally, on paper) to shoot during the rehearsals, during the shows themselves, backstage, in the hallways, and sometimes, depending on timing and comfort levels, in the dressing rooms. We contact producers, stage managers, assistants, and group coordinators in order to do this, with every single participant. We ask for permission to post my edited images at a secure site where producers and performers can access them. We delete any images that they do not approve, for any reason. We ask for permission to pursue further permission, at a later date, if we wish to use an image for publication, as we recently did for New England’s Take magazine. We do as we say we will do, based upon a signed agreement, which is critical for us and for the performers.
Over this last year, and after attending numerous Burlesque events, we’ve learned that some of these performers have become wary and suspicious of guys with cameras. A few may summarily shut you out. Others will grant permission, as long as you stay very clear and do not expect attention from them. This is perfectly understandable, when considering the control a performer wants to exert over their image. But most Burlesque performers are the opposite and very happy to engage. They are really interested and passionate about the work of photographing their performance and also in portraiture, if there is extra time during a festival. Festivals generally last a few days, with a lot of workshops, rehearsals, and sometimes two shows each evening that keep performers working until nearly dawn. But they often see what we’re doing as an opportunity for their image to go somewhere unusual and they enjoy the collaboration, so some will try to make time in their schedule for a private portrait session.
This last piece of the greater discussion always includes the opportunity to make appointments for individual portraits, as reflected in the images these performers see in the book I published for my graduate thesis. The discussion is often of great interest, and it opens a deeper conversation about the project. We discuss Gender studies, Theatre arts studies, and American studies. They are told they may have as much control over the details of these private portrait sessions as they wish to exercise. MisRed of New Zealand told us the images in the book moved her. “They’re so raw,” she had said. These two New Zealand performers, in their evening gowns, at the swanky meet and greet, enthusiastically made an appointment with us on the following afternoon for individual portrait sessions. Interestingly, they both arrived the next day, having decided on bathing themes.
More than ever, simplifying these sessions for a clean, brief, respectful, generous exchange of light and reflection, within a context of conversation, is the whole goal. If it feels good for us, for the subject, and for the project, I put that down to easing into communication, at the level of what we make, more than what we say. In this work the idea of exchange appears again and again. I’ve become very aware that these people don’t know us. They make a fast decision to trust me as an artist based on my expression of my motivations, (and, based in no small part on how endearing and kind my partner is. They think, “that guy must be Ok or someone that wonderful wouldn’t waste her time with him!”), and on the examples of my images in Acting Out. For me, the work is so much about the moment, and the light, the perspectives, the angles, and trying to find the true and unusual rather than the safe and expected. It’s a physical and intellectual flow, improvising on what I see. Some photographers plan and construct. In this work I flow.
That afternoon, when MisRed appeared with her performer friend, Duchess DeBerry at the location for the session, their concepts, distilled down to minimalist terms, included the use of a shower and towels. I worked first with Duchess DeBerry exploring beautiful window light and her purple hair and yellow dress, and then in an after-shower towel look. With MisRed the conversation ended up happening in two parts. As I shot the Duchess, MisRed put on makeup and explained that she’d always wanted to try a certain look, using heavy mascara, running wild down the face as if while crying, or alternatively, showering. She said she wanted to explore a set of portraits about washing off the costume, the veneer, washing off the act, as it were. After MisRed explained her concept, she entered the nearby bathroom, turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature so it wouldn’t be too cold, but not so hot as to fog up my lens. At first as we shot, studying and adjusting light, she was all smiles and confidence. But as her mascara ran, she eased into a place that I can only assume she was seeking. She was close to tears and became very quiet. We worked quickly. The entire shoot in the shower was not more than ten minutes.
Afterward, I asked both women to return to the window with their towels and they goofed with each other as we made paired portraits. Over recent years I have studied and conceptualized this approach to portraits, distilling it to a very simple idea. I seek to empower the subject, as much as they are willing to engage. After years of shooting professional actors, (and this is not to denigrate that class of performer), the wonder of the alternative performer I’d discovered in Burlesque really grabbed me. Rather than working within the rigid structures of a canonized repertoire, Burlesque engages a broad range of amateur and semi-professional performers, blazing off the reservation to spend spare time practicing, choreographing, making props and costumes, and taking classes. The only obvious motivations seemed to be those of enriching life and building community. Unlike their professional work at selected venues, no one gets paid much to perform at a Burlesque Festival, rather, the performers pay an entrance fee and are selected based on the producer’s reaction to their submission materials.
So I set about asking why. What compels you to want to do this? In our society of fear, why do you want to expose yourself? Why in these forms? Why, in front of so many people, family, friends and strangers? And then, for the sake of making portraits, I put this out to them: “If you could do anything, bring anything, go anywhere and make a portrait with me, which expresses your motivations, how would you choose to do it? Please take as much control as you like.” I know that, to some of these subjects, it may have felt like doing homework, but I’ve found that with the majority, they really liked being asked to have a voice and to contribute. I tell them there’s no right or wrong way to conceptualize a photo session. They can be glamorous or silly, serious or angry, political or religious, postmodern… they can take a session along whatever path they might wish.
As the work of the Acting Out project began to unfold and evolve, I learned many things. Two really stand out. First, asking the question about motivations didn’t mean I would often get cogent or easy answers. What it did, instead, was supply a conversational context; an umbrella under which the image making could live and thrive. Secondly, by sharing control of physical details and ideas, I opened myself up to the repeated chance for surprise and the regular need to marvel in and explore decisions these individuals brought me. In no small way this opened up wonderful explorations into styles and ideas of propriety and taste. The work became, more than anything else, about freedom of expression.
As the session with the Duchess and MisRed wrapped up, MisRed realized she’d forgotten her passport which we need for release forms. After she came back minutes later with it, she spoke with my partner and me more intimately about the shoot. She spoke of real life, of the difficulties, and of the triumphs. The effort. She explained why she’d wanted to go where she went in her portrait session and we were both deeply moved to realize what she had brought to us and to the portraiture for Acting Out.
The whole encounter, from the minute these two wonderful and generous performers sat with us on Bourbon street until their portrait sessions were finished, defines the microcosmic essence of what I seek in this approach to portrait photography, and why I so love this art form. MisRed, more than any other individual we’ve met on our Burlesque Festival travels this year, looked into the images in my book, and understood the project it represents -- she got it. She perceived a chance to share the agency of this making and create images which may have arisen from the Burlesque but are something much different. In the encounter, she found the opportunity to give not just me, but herself and an audience, permission to look at part of the experience of her private world. I’m always conscious of the lies photographs seduce us into believing. We presume to know far more from an image than we really do. That’s why it’s called art. Only MisRed knows what she wanted and what she took from the portrait session. The viewer may take away a hundred possible fictions or perhaps none. All I can assert with certainty is, that act of washing away the mask helped me create something ethereal and important, and for this I am forever grateful.