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Elsa's Cyberspace Tin Cup

Originally published in Field of Vision, Spring 1985

On Thursday, February 10, 1983, there was a story in the Boston Herald about Barry Gerstein, a former attorney, who tricked women into allowing him into their homes. He did some research on each woman so that when he rang the doorbell, he knew the names of their husbands and children, where their husbands worked, and at what. A typical ruse was: "Maurice sent me to get the papers on his desk." When Gerstein got into the house, he pulled out a gun and a camera. He made each woman give him her jewels, strip off her clothes, and pose for him nude. He never hurt the women. If he bound them (and some he did), he bound them loosely so that they could free themselves after he pulled his Mazda out of the driveway. All he wanted was to take pictures of them.

The pictures weren't Polaroids, or otherwise instants. The instant reality was too much for Gerstein. He could do what he was doing, but he couldn't look at it at the same time. He needed to savor his victory in private.

I wonder if Gerstein used color film or black and white. Did he go home to develop his negatives and print all night? Or did he take his film to PhotoQuick, where unseeing machines processed his images as if they were of boy and dog? Gerstein did put all his pictures, neatly arranged geographically, into an album which he kept like a talisman of his power in the trunk of his car as he drove from attack to attack.

Gerstein was a man whose instrument of aggression, terror, and hatred was a camera. The photographs were his trophies and the confirmation of his power. If Gerstein hadn't been socialized as a lawyer, he probably would have attacked the women with his gun or his penis. Somehow, his hate had been sublimated into the next best thing, a camera. Only one woman realized that Gerstein thought he could do more harm to her with his camera than he could with his gun. She routed him from her house.

Gerstein is a man who intuitively knew that the camera could be capable of humiliation and terror. He even sensed one needed a relationship with one's sitter. He didn't become a peeping tom with a long lens by the window shade because he wanted the confrontation. He saw the frozen moment as necessary for his fantasy. His camera did have film in it. The images were for him. He needed the pictures as a souvenir. If Gerstein had taken the images to taunt the women, he would have used a Polaroid camera and littered each woman's house with prints of herself.

Obviously, I find this story of Gerstein riveting. It epitomizes the role of the camera and the power of the images of our decade. I want to blow up the headlines and put them on my darkroom wall. MAN RAPES WOMAN WITH CAMERA. PHOTO ATTACKER CAUGHT. IMAGES, NOT BODIES, IN TRUNK.

This story is also about men and women. Can you imagine this scenario with the aggressor a woman? Who would the woman terrorize? Would a woman stick with her gun and shoot to kill? Would she so abstract her hatred that she had to possess (the image), not just terrorize or invade? Would the man obey? Would he laugh and grab the gun? The scenario only works with the man as the aggressor and the camera sexualized by him. Gerstein's tragedy shows how much the making of a photograph is a ritual form of behavior in our time. It also shows how the pain of living (and I assume Gerstein was in pain) can be exorcised through the photograph.

I know my camera is powerful and I fear it. I don't want to reveal more than I can handle. I don't cover wars or terrible poverty. So far, I've stayed pretty close to home. My first fifty rolls of film were taken in the Grolier Bookshop, one of the most nurturing places in Harvard Square, surrounded by Gordon Cairnie, the proprietor, and local and visiting poets. Next, I concentrated on Blue Hills Avenue, the neighborhood where I lived until adolescence. Then, I began taking pictures of my friends, in the street, at my house, at their houses. I also began to take pictures of strangers I ran into in the course of my day. It's pretty tame compared to East 100th Street, the Denver Hospital Emergency Room or El Salvador. But I'm not an adventurer; by nature, I am bonded to my turf.

The impetus for my photography is not intellectual. I don't want to see the world as fresh and strange. I want to see it as welcoming and possible. I use my camera to simplify the world and bind me to it. My camera helps me make sense of my experience and eases the loneliness that is part of being human. I go places I would ordinarily never go to and do things I would ordinarily never do because I might be able to get a few pictures that work. A dramatic example is my series, His Idea, eleven images of a couple making love. I was shy about undertaking the project, and skeptical when I was first approached. But when friends pointed out that I might get good images, I went with the couple to their lodge in Peterborough, New Hampshire. (The results were published by Coach House Press in Toronto, with a poem by Robert Creeley.)

I also use my camera to help me deal with overwhelming and/or frightening emotions. When my grandmother was in the Hebrew Home for the Aged with Alzheimer's Disease, I took my camera with me on every visit to her. I could not have managed alone. My grandmother, inevitably, responded to the camera and would smile or stare into my lens. Though she didn't remember who I was, she managed to recall what a camera did. Toward the end I brought Polaroid film so that she could have her image right away. The series is titled, "My Grandmother, My Camera, and Me," and has been published in Ploughshares with a short text I wrote.

The roots of my approach to portraiture are literary. My way of stealing from the range presented seems the way of the writer. I use my camera like a pen, noting the line, the glance, the moment. When I wrote poetry, my poetry was about the minor incidents of the day. It was infused with gratitude for escaping catastrophe another day. Now, instead of writing poetry, I transform my feelings and obsessions in portraits of friends and strangers, and a diary of my life.

I think wearing glasses and having to look with concentration has formed me as a photographer. I always stared and felt I lived in my eyes. I always peered at the world. (I have worn glasses for forty-one of my forty-six years.) I always stood on the sidelines and watched. I feel comfortable with/at a certain distance. I feel I am participating by watching. For me looking is an active sport. Now, especially when I am on the verge of needing bifocals, I'm constantly adjusting my eyes to the situation, taking off my glasses (seeing nothing), looking, peering, rubbing, trying to focus my eyes as if they were camera lenses.

I use my camera to tell people I see them and that I like them. I acknowledge them. When a person says they aren't ready for me to take their picture, I put my camera away. I don't wheedle or seduce or cajole. It happened to me last Thursday. I brought my camera with me when I went for an appointment with Dr. K.C. Ho, the acupuncturist. "Not today," he said to me. "Next time." Unless he is hit by a car, I can live with that.

However, seeing the person is not enough. The photograph has to stop the eye. There has to be a reason to hang around. I don't like my hand to be too obvious in my photographs. I don't like my style to overwhelm my subject. I try not to flatter or to indulge in theatrical effect. I avoid what is obviously sensational. I appreciate my subjects and don't want to change them.

I am interested in the surface appearance of the person. I don't try to strip off the so-called conventional veneer of my subjects. On the contrary, I allow them to have it. In fact, it is the veneer that attracts me and charms me. For me, the key word is "apparently." I do not try for enigmatic portraits or ambiguity. I do not try to disclose the personality of my subject. I try for thereness. I want my portraits to look like someone lives there in the person. There is someone home. I aim for my portraits to have an adamant quality of who is there.

I try for the commonplace moment, people sitting, stopping, chatting with friends. My people aren't in the middle of important activity. They are putting on their coats, standing behind their counters waiting for customers, buying a quart of milk. I do try to have some signs in the image which anchor it. Often they are the very thing that attracted me to the person in the first place: the hairdo, the jewelry, the outfit. There is always a revealing detail that would be a line in a poem. In the portrait, "Barbara Haddon at work at Brighams," it is the ring on a chain around her neck. The minute I saw her wearing her boyfriend's high school ring, I knew I had to ask her if I could take her picture. In the portrait, Terri Divine in front of my house," it is Terri's T-shirt proclaiming the Cars.

Indications of time in the detailing of the images are important to me. I like to fix my photographs in their decade. More and more, I try in the titles to give not only the name, but the date and the place. I try to pinpoint time to emphasize the ephemerality of appearance and moment. Particular groupings of particular people, though not at all unusual, might not happen just this way at another time.

In my photographs I do not pose people or plan scenarios. I have a straightforward pseudofactual approach. I say "pseudofactual" because the minute the camera enters the situation, it changes it.

My sitter is the cornerstone of my image. The most important step I take is choosing the person I want to photograph. Usually, it is a visceral feeling. I can tell something will work. Of course, lots of times I have the right person, but I don't get the photograph. It's a case of eye failure. I missed the right moment or I was standing in the wrong spot (not leaning forward enough or back enough) or I had the relationship of my sitter to the background askew (in focus when it should have been out; out of focus when it should have been in). Usually, I can analyze what went wrong and break my heart.

I have always taken more pictures of women than of men. I find women present themselves to the world with great variety. Also, I realized with a flash last week, women are more accessible to me. I can smile at the waitress at the Wursthaus, the woman behind the counter at the Patisserie, another woman shopping at Bread and Circus. I can stop and say, "I like the way you seem, Can I take your picture?" My remark and my request are allowable, even appreciated. But I would never allow myself such a response to a man I didn't know. My enthusiasm and my request would be perceived as a "come on." It would immediately be sexualized. Even if I felt safe and comfortable with the situation, the man would not pose in a nonsexual way. He would immediately sexualize his response. (Judy Dater has stopped men on the street and asked them to pose for her. Her images from these sessions are typically sensuous.)

I find the women who I photograph in very ordinary ways. Many are women I know, well or casually. Others I see at restaurants, in the park, at the home of a friend. I always explain to friends and strangers why I want to photograph them. I am always specific. I don't beat around the bush. I told Elaine Roundtree it was her beehive hair style; I told Cindy Freedman it was her mouth full of braces.

I always name my photographs with the name of the woman whose photograph it is. It is important to me that the woman be individualized. I do not want her to be part of the landscape or fungible. I take the picture because the woman seems to me to be a special person and I want to maintain and reinforce that impression.

I try to get the person's name when I take the photograph. But if I don't get her name, or if I forget her name, I make up a name after I have made the print. Making up a person's name is one of my favorite parts of finishing the print. I stare at the person and imagine the appropriate name. Sometimes I leaf through the telephone book. I pick the first name from one end of the book and the surname from the other. I love names. Sometimes, I'll meet someone, Honoria Prince for example, and take her portrait just to get her name on my photograph. It has happened that I've given an image a name and later found out the woman's real name. My "Phillippa Moreau" is actually Marian Burros. A couple of times, people have corrected me during slide shows, and when prints are exhibited, I occasionally get a call telling me about a name. Recently, Joey Scalese told me that my portraits of Terry Devine and Marie Santos are really of Donna Murphy and Pat Hogan.

Sometimes, I take the woman within her environment. I rarely move the woman around or suggest how she should pose. I continue our conversation. I never have a preconceived idea of how I want to take someone's picture. I let my person be and from the nuances presented to me, I pick what seems interesting to me. "Interesting" can be defined as the moment my women look whole and look totally what they are.

Usually, my women are alone - or occasionally, with their children. I did not self-consciously plan to photograph women alone, but it appears to have happened consistently. The reason may be that is hard to take a portrait of a woman and her husband and have each person be equal. Usually, the image ends up a comment on the relationship and is no longer a portrait of the woman. (A good example of this phenomenon is Anne Noggle's series of couples, "A Silver Lining.")

The roots of my photography are in the snapshots and the daily journal. I have taken the journal, a literary form favored by women since Abigail Adams, and especially during the nineteenth century and transposed it to my camera. My interest in women, women's studies, and women's literature seeped into my photography and gave it form. Patricia Spacks has written that the nineteenth century journals kept by women focus on the present moments and act as a repository of reminiscence. Women, Spacks writes, naturally focus on the course of life. They collect and notice moments of emotional satisfaction. They invent their family's life as they chronicle and interpret it with selectivity.

My work is rooted in the dailiness of my life. I take pictures of my space, of my husband, Harvey, and my son, Isaac, of my street and my neighbors. My subject matter depends on how expansive I feel at the moment and on how much I can stretch outside myself. There is a tension between longing to stay home and "the need to cleave to the world." I find that sometimes my energy and curiosity don't stretch beyond ten feet. At those times, I listen to myself and photograph close by.

I am very aware of the ebb and flow of my life and the people in it. I notice how we look from one day to the next. How we use our space and who comes into it. I concentrate on the intimacies of my life and the people who are part of it. I anchor them and keep track of them. (I have taken pictures at regular intervals since 1965 of Gail and Michael Mazur, Bob Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Norm and Gail Gordon, Abbot and Nancy Meader, and Harvey.)

I have taken many self-portraits over the last fifteen years as well. At first, I was embarrassed by my self-absorption. I take dozens of pictures of myself to amuse myself. The long mirrors in the Howard Johnson ladies room are irresistible. I relieve the boredom of nights by myself in out-of-town motels. I take self-portraits to see how the light works. Also, I want to see what I look like furious, depressed, or simply frazzled. (It never looks as bad is it feels.) Several recent self-portraits include Harvey and Isaac and are ceremonial in their tone.

For me, taking pictures of myself is an antidote to self-pity (Borges says it is the worst thing in the world). I invent a ceremony: I load my camera, brush dust off the lens, set up my tripod. It is physical exertion and my mood invariably lifts. I don't take pictures of myself, by myself, when I'm happy (unless they include Harvey and Isaac) because, for me, being happy means being too busy to stop doing what I'm doing. Also, I feel silly smiling to my camera-on-tripod. It is quite different from responding to a person.

I put most of the pictures of myself into my journal where I keep track of where I am. Whereas I would never publish a journal, I can put the images into the world easily and handle them with detachment. The images are more opaque than the words describing the same moods.

Another reason I take portraits of myself is that I feel I should do to myself what I do to other people. I should know the feeling of the lens staring at me. I believe that if I can be comfortable in front of the camera, my acceptance of my machine should infuse my relationship to my sitters in a subliminal way. At the least, I will be able to sympathize with my hesitant sitters.

For a long time, I rarely took pictures of myself with my glasses on. I was obsessed with seeing how I looked without my glasses. (My eyes are so bad that even in a closely held mirror I can't see myself without my glasses.) I would focus the camera with my glasses on, take them off, make the exposure. The image was of someone I was meeting for the first time. Finally, though, I broke the pattern.

The self-portrait "January 1977" is one of the few nude self-portraits I took while I was pregnant. I waited until my situation looked like something. Later, when I was nursing, I took many portraits of my breasts leaking with milk. They were so heavy, I was fascinated by my condition. I don't particularly specialize in nude self-portraits or take more pictures of myself nude than clothed. I have always liked my body, but I have always been inaccurate about my size. When I was thinner, I thought I was heavy, and now that I'm heavy, I think I am smaller than I really am. The nude self-portraits help bring me close to my situation. I had a problem printing (though not taking or publishing) "Myself at the Halloran House, 1979." For the last three years, I have taken, but not printed, several nude self-portraits.

Obviously, for me photography is personal and about the present. As the images become their own and time passes, they are about time and memory. When I take a picture now, I am savoring the present and forging my memory. In choosing the moment I flick the shutter, I am deciding what I want to remember. I am confirming that time means change. I never select mean or nasty or ironic moments. I like the mundane and the ordinary, the clutter on the table and the newspapers on the floor.

In the darkroom, I keep my printing faithful to the negative. I try to make a print that fits the image. Sometimes I like my images to look like gems 5"x7" or smaller. Sometimes, I think that in order for one to see them on the wall, they must be larger, 10"x10" at least. I do not have a specific size which most suits each image.

I use two camera formats: the 35mm and the 2 1/4. I use whichever camera and whichever lens I feel like using (the same way I decide whether to wear a skirt or pants, or have coffee for breakfast.) I go through phases when all I want to work with is a square. I find it very difficult to compose within a square. In fact, I think an indication of Diane Arbus's genius is the variety she achieved within the square. I have a 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens for my 35mm camera, and each one has its own charm for me. I can walk around with my brain locked into its 35mm mode or its 85mm mode and know what I am getting, even if my camera is at home. The 50mm lens isn't as instinctive for my way of seeing.

I've used the 20"x24" Polaroid camera four times and I have fallen in love with that camera. It is terrifically hard to do my kind of portraits on it. Therefore, it is very stimulating for me and I learn a lot from it. I am not a photographer-director - the 20"x24" camera and its studio space cry out for a director. The camera is at the studio. I go to it, with my subject. I have to have something, however vague, in my mind. The studio is completely bare, so I have to bring along a few props: an Oak Stiffler bench, a blazing red amaryllis, some meditation pillows. (In the best of all possible worlds the 20"x24" would have its own prop room.) There is the sumptuous Polaroid color to work with. It is inevitable that one caters to the color and composes with it in mind. But I keep in mind the danger that the color will take over the image and dominate the persona of my sitter. The solution to this problem is to pick a subject who can carry the film and express his/her personality (i.e., be themselves) in front of the camera. I have taken portraits of Jonathan Richman, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky, Willie Alexander, and several newborns. The newborns work amazingly well because they fit life-size on the film.

There is a question of how close to or far from its subject the 20"x24" should be. The more I think about it, the more I think that being close to the subject is the placement most appropriate to the materiality of the camera. I think Chuck Close was instinctively right when he pulled the camera right up to his subjects' and his own face. The alternative to shooting close is to set up tableaux and to fill the space with objects.

Another thing that is stimulating and new for me about the 20"x24" camera is the use of light. One needs to have a good grasp of studio lighting to get what one wants. Unfortunately, I don't know enough and need John Reuter's help. He is in charge of the operation of the camera and the studio lights. It is a totally different experience for me to compose in front of Reuter and to be dependent on him. I have to transpose my usual approach to my sitters to this radically different situation. Most of my regular ways of connecting with my sitter and establishing rapport don't work under this studio situation (but this is very good because it makes me realize how I use other formats). For this reason, the 20"x24" portraits are a collaboration between me, my sitter, and Reuter. The cumulative nature of Polaroid, which involves getting each image, tacking it up on the wall, looking at it, deciding whether and how to improve on it, assures that all three of us are part of the process. The 20"x24" camera is an accomplice; it has a persona. The photography session invariably becomes theater.

The 20"x24" Polaroid camera is heroic: the person in front of the lens is transformed by the plasticity and the size of the film. The 20"x24" graphically illustrates what Susan Sontag has written about photography: that whatever their degree of realism, all photographs embody a romantic relation to reality. On the 20"x24" camera, people do become icons of themselves.

Finally, what I like most about photography is the feeling of arrested time. In a way, photography is also about retrieved time. Implicit in the notion of time is the inevitability of nontime, i.e., death. As Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida, the photograph is also a resurrection and provides a certain immortality. The person is alive in the photograph, whether dead in reality. It is unnecessary for the viewer to know if the person in the portrait is still (yet) alive. I had an experience recently the brought this home to me. I printed a portrait of Harvey's cousin Helen, looking gorgeous at her nephew's Bar Mitzvah. Before I printed the image (though it was taken about thirteen months earlier), Helen died a torturous death of aplastic anemia. When I was titling the picture, all I could think of was that Helen had just recently died. I looked for the secret of the disease in her hands and her neck. I made several versions of the title: "Helen Buchwald at her nephew's Bar Mitzvah, a year before she died." Finally, I realized that all my portraits necessarily are and will always be of people who eventually will have died, and so I decided to omit mention of her death.

I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that no portrait can ever be more than a version of the sitter. I know that the situation is inherently loaded with artifice and truth has nothing to do with what we are doing. If we are lucky, we are creating what may look like life. That is why I am comfortable with creating names for my subjects. I don't think the fictional names diminish the reality of the portraits. I think they enhance the portraits with their specificity. There is a paradox: by striving for reality, but by allowing for the appropriate accident and invention, one gets the feeling and semblance of reality.


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