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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Portraits

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 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.
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59 comments:

Peter said...

I'm late to comment on your preceding posts(which I have all read and watched), but I may be the first one on this post!

My feeling is that the portrait of the two of you shows that men's fashion and looks have changed more than women's ... but perhaps it's just you!

Thanks for the hint about Rauf. I have to check his blog again. (He's unfortunatley so irregular in posting.)

When in Sweden last time, I borrowed a number of old photos from my mother's albums which I'm now scanning with the intention to make a condensed photo album / book, for her, for myself and for my kids and grandkids. I try to do this whan there is still someone around to rember names and possibly some dates.

Lorenzo said...

It's good to learn where you got some of your photography "smarts". Like so many things, it began at home, with family. Your brother Bennett is very present in this post, although there are no images of him, you evoke him warmly and movingly.

Yes, indeed, "it is important to mark special events and milestones", like a beloved brother's birthday. He may be gone, but you have obviously integrated him into how you see and ponder and capture the world. That's really quite a strong presence after all.

Shari Sunday said...

Beautiful portraits! I love shooting people since I find people's faces so compelling. I like to put people even in landscape shots. You are a talented photographer.

Gwei Mui said...

The photogrphs are beautiful. Your brother sounds like another amazing member of your family. From your description I can almost touch him as he follows you around your farm taking photos.
Yes it is so important to have some kind of record. I have almost nothing to remind me of my childhood. But we have more than made up for it with our daughter, with boxes and boxes of snaps, slides, film, digi-film and video!

Oliag said...

How I love Bennett's photographs of you and Don! What a gift he gave you to relent and take these...I will be very happy to see more of his photos when you post them. I do see his spirit in the photos that you took.

Taking portraits is the biggest challenge in photography for me...and I would find it frightening to photograph someone I didn't know well. You did an amazing job. You are mistaken in one thing though...Not all children will smile and pose patiently...and if they do smile it often turns out to be a grimace...I have many many shots of proof of this:) My grandchildren resist having their photos taken lately!

Congratulations on your new venture into professional photography!

xo

ds said...

I agree with Lorenzo; Bennett is very present in this post (my favorite of the portraits of you & Don is the one at the top left--you can feel the love not only between the two of you, but between Bennett and you. The laughing one at bottom right is a close second. Neither of you has changed much since, btw)

Your photographs are, as always, stunning. Keep the connection with your "inner Bennett" but know that you are the driving force. He would be most proud of you: a wonderful birthday gift, indeed.

Jeanie said...

Oh, Ruth, my heart hurt a bit when I heard Bennett is no longer able to be at your family gatherings, a call or a mail away to answer a question about a photo, to just be and continue his gift of creating beautiful images and capturing experiences for you and others to enjoy always. What a gift to have had this man in your life, with his keen eye and persistence. And yes, his ability to grit his teeth and shoot lovely portraits, whether or not he wanted to.

I am glad his photos remain a legacy to be scanned and preserved. I'm in the process of doing that with the old family photos -- some treasures, and some that will mean something only to those of us in it. Quality -- maybe not. Memory? Oh yes!

Your own portraits? Spot on! And really, isn't part of it establishing the rapport with your subject so they look as natural as one is? You did well!

Patricia said...

Hi Ruth,
I was going through a box of slides recently and found some taken by mother's youngest brother, our favorite uncle, who had a marvelous camera.
His images, especially of one of his brothers' weddings were sublime. These pieces of time encapsulated in gelatin and pigment transport me back to a world that no longer exists to people that I love so much.
However, I think that the best thing about photography is that others who see images can read so much into them as well.
I love the photos of you and your husband as a young couple!

willow said...

Wonderful photography. I have the bug, as well, having descended from a long line of photographers. We were married in 1977. A good year, indeed.

Sandy said...

Oh your brother passed away so young, so sorry to read that. I feel my own did too and he missed being a great uncle to all these grandkids. But about the post, wow, lovely photos of you and Don, and your photos of that beautiful young girl are great. Of course, I alway love Rauf's photos and portraits which reminds me I have neglected to visit there lately.

Great post Ruth I enjoyed it and it was fun to see you and Don looking so young and happy.

I married at 20 and Mike was 21.. so we were young too.

Pauline said...

I like the way Bennett is still looking over your shoulder with his, "Wait, wait, Ruthie!" Your photos are marvelous!

♥ Kathy said...

I think you did a wonderful job on her senior portraits!!

Helena said...

Wonderful photos! And I love the cake below. :-)

bella rum said...

How wonderful that your brother gave you such advice about something you love. It really is the way you look at things, isn't it?

I loved seeing the photos of you and Don. Were we ever really that young?

The shots of Elizabeth are lovely. Bennett would be proud.
Bella

Fragrant Liar said...

Gorgeous pictures. I do love the ones of you and your young hubby. Fun to look at old photos like that (that's my "youth" era too).

Your brother's advice still resonates, and that you can carry around with you forever. Happy belated birthday to him.

Terresa said...

What a tribute to your brother, and to the importance of capturing a moment in time.

I've always preferred photos to video any day. They tell stories in so many more ways than words.

PS: That Christmas tree in the top picture makes all the difference. Your brother had a keen eye.

PPS: Love your engagement photos (as we attend a family wedding next week of my husband's step-brother, age 24, we wonder, when are we *ever* ready to get married?!).

One more PPPS: You are gorgeous! And all that hair!!

ellen abbott said...

You are so right about kids and cameras. It's hard to get candid shots of kids now.

My fav of the portraits you took is third down on the left.

westcobich said...

this got me misty-eyed, I must say. What a grand brother. We miss him, too, reading this. But what a nice legacy, his voice in your head as you shoot.
of course I love your "farm" pictures and your laundry pictures and many others you've shared with us, but how nice to see you doing the portraits, too. Yes, she's a beautiful girl, but that one picture of her in the purple top and the tulips just to her right - that one is particularly excellent.
Keep going, and keep sharing. It's inspiring.

Ann said...

It must run in your family. Your bro took good ones of you and now, you take your kids.

One of my daughter wants me to respect her privacy. She won't even want her photo taken on her birthday just in case I post it on my blog.

Elizabeth said...

What an inspiration Bennett must have been and so sad that he died young.
However, his inspiration lives on through your work.

Super portraits of Elizabeth --the loveliest for me was the one of her sitting on the grass.
So glad that you, too, are a big fan of RAUF

all best wishes

photowannabe said...

I felt pure joy reading your post and enjoying the photos.
Ruth you are so lovely and your brother captured the love you and Hubby have for eachother.
Your tribute to your brother was touching and he's right, sometimes just stepping a little to one side makes it perfect.
Terrific senior portraits too.

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth,What a bittersweet and beautiful post. The portraits you took are just beautiful. Of course your subject is as well, but the shots are candid and composed. Just lovely.

Now for your engagement pictures!! smile, grin, giggle, you are/ were beautiful.. and so was/is Don. Funny Dave and I have similar photos,me with big hair and dave with a big mustache!

I think all of your portraits will be wonderful and appreaciated. What fun for you.
You could call your photo studio
Meloncholy Baby:)
Peace my friend

Vagabonde said...

How wonderful to have had a brother to help you with your photographs – or just to have had a loving brother. The pictures of you and Don are lovely and your pictures of Elizabeth are very professional. I never had someone to teach me to take pictures – and I am sure it shows – and I am too impatient to read instructions. I need to slow down and read the books though, follow what experts tell. I look at all the pictures I took with my film cameras, and so many are really bad, but they are memories nevertheless.

Susan said...

Bennett knew what he was talking about, because my eye immediately went to the ceramic Christmas tree and thought without thinking, it was Chrismastime. I think you must have absorbed his knowledge and talent for photography, or it's in the genes, because you are an awesome photographer.

It's a good thing you don't live near my niece Brenda, whose photography website I showed you. You would give her some stiff competition. Your photos of Elizabeth are delightful and really brought out her natural beauty.

I love the engagement photos, especially the serious Ruthie in the bottom left corner. Who says young marriages don't last? I was 19 and David was 21.

Ruth said...

Peter, both of our lapels are big enough to clothe a baby. :)

Yes, I miss rauf's posts too, a lot.

You are smart to assemble that family memory book now, while your mother is with you. I have regrets over many questions I didn't ask.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Lorenzo. I'm glad you felt my brother's presence in the post as you described. Even though I have only in recent years begun to wake up, Bennett's influence has probably been greater on me than anyone's - his worldview and politics, besides how he saw Nature and beauty through a lens.

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, you are educating me on the emotions and depths of being an adoptee. Your meetups with other adoptees have truly been family reunions. Thank you for sharing as you do. And how wonderful that you have provided such a strong, loving family for your daughter.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Oliag, very much.

I haven't yet met children like your grandchildren! I have a feeling when my own come around one day, they will be used to their granny sticking a lens in their face. Whether they'll smile or frown is yet to be determined.

Since I have not met the two young men I'll be photographing next month, I kind of look forward to the challenge of connecting with them and putting them at ease. It's what I have to do in my job every day, and I realize it is very fulfilling. Thank you for helping me recognize that just now.

rauf said...

oh what a handsome couple and the wedding portrait is so full of life. Don looks like Robert Redford the Sundance kid. But you look different in the fourth frame, lot of hair an i see two shades of them. i can't say my approach is different Ruth, there are people everywhere, if you want to take a picture of the clouds you'll find some chap hanging there and its so difficult to avoid people in India. i started with portraits with my box camera, nature and wild life came later when i shifted to a camera with some controls. Only a few years ago i managed to buy a new camera Ruth, all my life i was taking pictures with old second hand cameras. i could not afford a new one. i used to go to USIS (American Library) to see pictures of new cameras and used to gaze at them which would come to my hands after ten years.

Ansel Adams refused to take pictures in colour, he couldn't accept them, made a wrong assessment that colour cannot be controlled. And i wonder how Bennett would have taken digital cameras. i jumped on them as i am very lazy, less work and less thinking for me. When i see Bennett's pictures i realise he had a perfect understanding of light. Its quite different here Ruth. Light is very harsh and there is always a film of invisible dust in the air.
As a result i don't get the clarity like i find in your pictures.

Your first portfolio is a phenomenal success Ruth. Actually it was a cake walk for you as you have been taking family gathering pictures for quite sometime. And your lovely farm is photographer's paradise. Elizabeth expected nothing less, and i see flawless chemistry between you and the subject. Obviously Elizabeth is more than pleased with her portfolio. Lucky girl.

I would have argued with Bennett, there is hard work involved in Digital as well. Half of Bennett's talent perhaps was in the Dark room as you can see in your and Don's wedding portraits. Actually those are difficult pictures to print.

Ruth said...

DS, thank you for capturing Bennett's influence on me in your reflective comment. Inspiration always creates something new, different with every shore, as Hurston's Janie Crawford said about love.

Ruth said...

Thank you so much, Jeanie, for all those good, encouraging words.

My opinion of what makes a good photo has evolved a lot since I began with a camera. Whatever "quality" is, it may or not correlate to its value, as you point out.

Ruth said...

Patricia, it really is extraordinary how we connect with images, even if we don't know the people involved. They can be evocative, because of some universal connection.

It is very nice to have at least one person in the family like your uncle, and my brother.

Ruth said...

Hi, Willow. Don and I were married 8 months later, in April 1978. How can it be so long?

Ruth said...

Hi, Sandy, yes, Bennett died suddenly, and young - 47. He loved our kids, and I often think about him during our daily lives, and the special events, like Lesley's wedding last summer. I'm sorry too, about your uncle.

rauf has been posting very seldom, and I miss his beauty and insight (and humor, of course).

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pauline. Bennett was very reluctant to interfere, but I always wanted him to.

Ruth said...

Thank you, ♥ Kathy. I really enjoyed it, and I think they turned out pretty well for my first time. :)

Ruth said...

Thanks, Helena. Do you ever make a Finnish cake? :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Bella. I am SO fascinated by what shapes a person's life. We all know that the young years are the most powerfully influenced by others. Bennett will always be in my shape.

Ruth said...

Fragrant Liar, you and I can pack our big hair into some good memory boxes, yes?

Ruth said...

Terresa, yes, Bennett's eye was wonderful. I wish I could find one of his images, of a grasshopper on a blade of grass, backlit by the setting sun. It became his avatar. (If he'd lived long enough to be on Facebook or Blogger, I think he would have used for his profile pic.)

The hair? Yes, I too am a fan of electric rollers. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Ellen. That one is one of my favorites too. I love that her hair is blowing naturally, for one thing.

Ruth said...

OH, I confess to you that there is too much here to be contained. It has to get out. The exploding life at the farm. The exploding love in my heart for my brother, and for so many and so much, and for you. If I didn't spill it out here, where would it go?

Ruth said...

Ann, that's hard. It's actually unusual for young people these days to be that private, so I find that interesting about your daughter.

By the way, I did ask Elizabeth's and her mother's permission to post these photos of her. Everyone has their own feelings, and it's important to honor them.

Ruth said...

Elizabeth, I think the one in the grass is my favorite too. So, thank you!

Rauf has had a big influence on me too, through his unique voice and eye. It's been a privilege to get to know him through blogging. I'm glad you know him and value him too.

Ruth said...

Sue, thank you so much for your kind words. And I must say, I will take "pure joy" any day of the week.

xo

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Cathy!

The big hair and big mustaches of the '70s led to bigger hair and big shoulders in the '80s. What can I say, it was August, and the Michigan humidity was doing its dance in my hair (kind of like now).

When are we going to get together? Can I pull you away from that glorious garden of yours and lure you to Ann Arbor?

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, it distresses me that you think you don't take good pictures, because they are always among the best I see in blogland. Your eye has been trained by the art you collect - in postcards and all of your travels. You are an aesthete, there is no question about it, and your photos enhance your posts.

One of these days I will take a class and learn the manual settings on my Nikon. I would LOVE to have my brother just show me, by going out and practicing together. By the way, Bennett taught photography classes too, at our community college here, which has an excellent photography department. Sadly (he would be very sad, I think), they just had to close all the dark rooms for budgetary reasons.

Ruth said...

Susie, my dear, your warm words go straight to my heart.

There is an art gene in my family, from Grandma Olive and my dad. And all over the place there are genes for attention to detail. I got a little of both, and I sure wish I had also gotten the discipline gene.

California Girl said...

hi Ruthie: I know you miss your brother terribly. This is a lovely memory to share as are the photos. You are quite the honey! Your hair and eyes and everything--gorgeous! Ah youth!

Happy 4th, xo CG

Ruth said...

rauf, I think Bennett would have jumped on digital too. He loved technology. He had a computer before most people. Also, he was not ambitious, which meant he always had little money. So not spending money on film, and being able to throw away unwanted photos with a click, would have thrilled him. He used to say that maybe one photo in a thousand was good.

It occurred to me after reading your comment and Oliag's, that one of the things I enjoy most is to connect with people and eliminate barriers. So in some way, this portrait taking is getting at that, and I think I am going to keep enjoying it. I know that you like to clown around with your photo subjects to get them to relax. With Elizabeth, I just naturally kept saying how gorgeous she looked, and by the end she didn't want to leave. :)

Ruth said...

California Girl, thank you, honey. :)

I would like to go look at the stars in an open sky tonight with Bennett. One night we watched for meteor showers for hours. They never came.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

My oldest friend is a photographer, and she is always reminding me (nagging at me, actually) to take my camera wherever I go. I tend to always have a notebook, but frequently forget my camera!

What marvelous engagement photos! A treasure.

Ginnie said...

I'm not sure why, Ruth, but my eyes have teared up thinking about Bennett. What stories would we tell now if he were still with us? And what would all the grandkids think? I'm proud of you for getting into portrait photography and that you have photo shoots lined up. You go, Girl!

Pat said...

Your brother certainly was a talented photographer. I love the top left photo of you and your husband the best. Your pictures came out really well. Excellent lighting, things in the pictures to make them interesting, soft focus on some...all great shots. You are following your brother's footsteps!

Anna said...

Oh Ruth this is such a beautiful post, I think I am going to cry, and smile at the same time. 'Wait wait, Ruthie, move over here just a couple of feet' - I will remember that, this is like adding date code to the photo. I do that all the time, but usually after the first photo, I snap snap around, they are digital and free after all. BTW I would love to see the orthodox priest portrait, I can only imagine how excellent photo that is.

Funny you say about children posing for the photos. Yesterday we set up small pool for Matthew to play in the hot weather, he had blast, lol, never knew that we would actually go into swimming position, I guess saw it on TV. But the funny thing was that I was about to leave him with daddy so I can do the dinner, that was after I shot photos of him, he looks at me, and yells: Mommy mommy take pictures!

Ruth, again, beautiful post!

Anna :)

Ruth said...

Thanks so much, Pamela. After a few times forgetting my camera, and regretting it, I take it everywhere now. Sometimes I forget my cell phone . . .

Ruth said...

Thank you for your vote of encouragement, Boots. I have a lot to learn!

I talk with Bennett a lot.

Ruth said...

Oh, Anna, that Matthew of yours, at age 2! I am envious of his childhood, having a mother such as you. I'll never forget the first time I visited your blog and saw him there, as a baby. So much love.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pat! It was a blast. I hope the two gentlemen, and the child, will be fun too.