My brother Nelson, holding Lesley, Christmas 1981 (Pentax ME Super)
I live in the photographic light created by my brother Bennett, who was eight years older than I. Early on I learned to frame a photograph from him. In my mom's house, above, I was about to snap a shot of my brother Nelson holding my baby Lesley with someone's cowboy hat on, and Bennett, in his sweet, quick intensity said, Wait wait, Ruthie, let me show you something. If you just move over here, you can get that little Christmas tree behind them, and you'll always know it was Christmas time when you look at this picture.
In 1977, when Don and I got engaged, we wanted a photo for the newspaper announcement. We asked Bennett to shoot us. He hated taking portraits! We annoyingly insisted, Please, please, you can make them as casual and snap-shottish as you like. I know he didn't want to do it, but he shot us anyway. Here is a sample of what he took. I was about to turn 21, and Don was 22. Yikes, were we ready to get married?
For a lot of years, Bennett spent nights in his dark room, agonizing in pleasure over the prints of photos he shot, until they were perfect. He shot what he loved, like rustic cabins in Nova Scotia, or the tall ships when they came to the New York harbor. He won grand prize for a huge print of a Greek Orthodox priest dressed in black from head to toe. After years of gallery show awards for artistic photography, he started caring more about family snapshots and family videos. He loved to chronicle family stories as they unfolded. He passed away before the age of digital photography, in 1996. My nephews have been scanning his images, and I don't know how that project is coming. One of these days I'll post others of Bennett's scanned photographs here, like the Greek Orthodox priest.
As our kids grew up, I rarely asked them to pose. I just snapped them as they were playing. Have you noticed nowadays that if you aim a camera at a person age two to twelve, they instantly pose and smile? They even have patience and will sit and pose again and again. It's like they really get the connection between the camera and the photograph, because they can see it instantly.
It's important to mark special events and milestones. As Susan Sontag said, photographs are experience captured. Imagine the visual world without portraits by Rembrandt, Modigliani or Picasso, or without Cartier-Bresson, Leibovitz or Arbus.
Rauf in India shows the range of portraiture, from a street musician in Rajasthan, to a dancer in costume. Rauf is an artist. Besides taking beautiful pictures, he also creates backgrounds in his studio and in PhotoShop.
I had conflicted feelings when a fellow teacher at Don's school asked if I'd shoot her daughter's graduating senior portraits. First, photographing people is different than photographing chickens. Then, I kept hearing Bennett's voice: I hate taking portraits! Maybe portraits are artificial, or silly. But then I thought of rauf, and other great portraitists, and I decided to say yes. I found that I enjoyed the process of shooting Elizabeth a lot, seeing her in different settings at the farm, and making it as fun as possible for a couple of hours. Here are some shots of Elizabeth. It wasn't hard to make her look beautiful, since she is beautiful.
I have two more senior pictures lined up this summer - both young men, and also one child portrait. I love some of the spontaneous "portraits" I've seen online, which blur the line between snapshot and portrait. I would love to have a brother look over my shoulder and tell me, Wait wait, Ruthie, move over here just a couple of feet, and also to teach me the manual settings. It was Bennett's birthday yesterday, June 28, he would have been 62. He would have loved the farm and most likely would be following us around with a digital video camera.