Many years ago I was asked by Town & Country magazine to photograph an elderly Lady Caroline Blackwood at her home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. In all the years I have been a photographer, this was the only assignment that I have been asked to do for them, so I must assume, and rightly so, that I failed miserably.
The shoot and all it’s ramifications has remained with me all these years, and I have tried, to no avail to resolve the complicated issues that this shoot presented to me. It raised questions as to what it truly means to be a photographer and what is one’s role when making a portrait. Interestingly enough the above painting was done by her first husband, Lucian Freud, who is one of my favorite painters.
Lady Caroline Blackwood in her day was an extraordinary Anglo-Irish beauty whose family was heirs to the Guinness fortune. She married Lucian Freud, the painter, was photographed by Walker Evans, and Lord Snowdon, and ultimately ended up with Robert Lowell, one of America’s finest poet’s. All her husband’s were very tortured and depressed people. Their temperament wore off on her. Her personal life was tumultuous like all these men. She married and was filled with fits of depression, alcoholism, etc. But as a young woman she was an eccentric and elegant beauty with turquoise eyes that continually captured the interest of photographers and painters.
And now along comes me, some 35 years later. The magazine had sent along many beautiful portraits of a young woman who was truly extraordinary. And asked, and expected me to make a portrait of this glamorous woman today.
With my folder filled with images of this beautiful, delicate woman in hand, I made my way to her home on Long Island, and was greeted by a woman who had been transformed into an extraordinarily depressed, highly unattractive, alcoholic, whose body face and mind have been ravaged and destroyed by years of unhappiness and abuse.
This woman had no aesthetic relationship to the young vivacious Caroline Blackwood in my folder. She had aged beyond belief, her face distinguished and lined by years of alcohol and to make matters worse, she came out to greet me wearing skin tight leggings and an inappropriate blouse which we asked her to change, that made her look even sadder. She too, I could tell, felt terribly uncomfortable and never was without a drink in her hand. In retrospect if the magazine had realized what my subject looked like at the time, we may have brought a stylist, hair and makeup person, and scouted a new location that would have been more appropriate and have been able to find something more fitting for the needs of the magazine. But this was not in the budget and this was never requested of me. I was simply asked to shoot a portrait of the present day Caroline Blackwood using her own clothes at her own home.
So this is where my story really begins. You see I immediately saw the dilemma that I faced. Why was I there? From the onset I was extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know where to look. I shoot portraiture, yet what the magazine requested and what was asked of me was to shoot a more glamorous picture of an aged beauty. I was there to find some glamor and beauty, to remove all the sadness and wrinkles on her face, and make this woman somewhat reminiscent of the youthful beauty seen above.
Most photographers could do this. They would work to flatter her features, to soften the light, to stand back and find some way to hide what lied before them.
For myself at the time and as well today, I am completely torn. My instinct is to get right in there with her, to hold her hand to look deep into her soul and reveal all her fears and unhappiness. This is portraiture. I am not frightened by her disfigurement and unhappiness. I actually find it interesting. I wanted to reveal who Caroline Blackwood was at that moment, but (and here lies the dilemma) I also wanted to protect her from my camera. By looking for the real Caroline, what had I accomplished except exposing a deeply troubled and sad person who wore this sadness not only on the inside, but also all throughout her face and body language. What great insight was I providing to myself or to anyone else, yet it was not my intention to simply make her look like something she was not. There was no way to find glamor in the present day Caroline Blackwood. At least there wasn’t for me.
Obviously today, the photographer or the magazine could retouch and resolve some of the issues. They could have softened everything and perhaps changed the photograph into an illustration, but that is not my style and that was not the way back then.
I blew it. I was lost. I don’t know anymore today what the right answer is. In retrospect the problems are the same today as they were then and I am not sure I have learned anything. The light I use is revealing and penetrating. It may be, but it also may not be flattering. My instinct is to get close, when maybe it would be best to stay far away. I am not thinking of pleasing the subject, I am thinking of finding a way into the person I am photographing. What I find interesting, the general public probably finds unflattering. Irving Penn often had this dilemma. His subjects were terrified that he would make them interesting, but unattractive.
So there you have it. I took an unattractive and unsuccessful portrait of Caroline Blackwood both for the magazine and for myself. I failed on all accounts by not pleasing myself, n0r the magazine. The many early beautiful portraits of her were the real Caroline at the time, but what who was the real Caroline these many years later?
She died not to many years after I shot her portrait and she deserved much more from me, but I am not sure what that means. Do you?