In this age of countless cell phone snaps, profile pictures adorning every Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn account... with all the photos taken with numerous mobile devices, cameras -- not to mention the notorious heap of selfies -- what does it really mean to have a photographic portrait these days?
"There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment."
-- Robert Frank
I find myself agreeing with this. I believe the portrait has meaning when we're moved by the humanity of the people in the portrait. And by the raw power its story tells.
Here's one such story.
Camille and Edward were married for 43 years. They dreamed there would come a time after busy careers, working hard, raising their little family, watching them grow and venture off to begin their lives, that they'd travel a bit, enjoy life together, playing cards, catching movies, sipping wine, taking strolls after dinner for a doughnut, watching the sun sets holding hands from their porch like two lovers do, and enjoy their time together.
They did. Ed worked as an accountant, a one-man operation throughout those years. Camille taught history at the local school. During the summers they both volunteered some of their time to the local youth groups. Their friends said, "it's because they miss having their kids around." They'd joke. "Those youth groups aren't called 'youth groups' because of the kids. They're called 'youth groups' because that's how Cammy and Ed stay young."
Two years after they were married, they bought a modest house when Camille became pregnant with their first child, Ellie. Ellie was named after Camille's grandmother. They had two more children in the years they lived there, Edward Jr. and Daniel.
They all have beautiful memories of those days, growing up in that house. But years pass by soon enough and little ones grow up too quick. Ellie was the first to leave, to get her law degree. She had moved to the mid-west to attend law school there, and stayed, having fallen in love with how beautiful everything looked there and the more relaxed pace.
Soon Edward Jr. and Daniel left to follow their paths. Edward Jr. to California to find work in the film business as a director. Daniel, well, Daniel's not sure what he wants to do. He had visited friends in Oregon and thought he'd fit in well there so there he moved to seek his way. Camille and Edward wished he had a clearer idea of what to make with his life, but they gave him their blessings anyway. They only want him to be happy. They were sure he'll find the way to do that.
That chapter done, the new chapter opened.
Things remained quite the same for a while until the urge to indulge in their dreams woke up again. So they made plans to adjust their lives, now going into their later years. Many people don't plan their lives and then wonder where it all went.
They weren't going to let that happen to them.
Edward cut back a bit by not taking on as many clients as he used to. Camille continued to work full time but she and Ed made the time to enjoy themselves together. They travelled just a little bit, but mostly stayed near home. And when they were home, they enjoyed date nights and were very social with friends and family. And time flew by.
"I look in the mirror and see this older woman looking back, and I say, 'oh my, who's that?'" laughs Camille. "Because inside, I'm still 22. You don't feel any older when you're feeling from the inside." Her husband Edward will swear she hasn't changed at all.
This is just about when they called me to create a photography portrait of the two of them. They had never had anything like that done before, and really thought it would be nice to render something artistic that spoke to their feelings for each other. A portrait piece to celebrate who they are, and their love.
So that's what we planned to do. Camille told me a bit about their lives. About their feelings for each other, what they've been through together. I think I got a good feel about who they are.
As a portrait photographer I hear the stories of life's expectations and dreams from engaged couples to the stories of love's paths journeyed from older married couples.
We scheduled a portrait session.
It means something to me to photograph couples in love like that. It's very emotionally moving. Some couples go through life and become its victims, and let themselves suffer. They've lost their love. And they didn't look to save it. They didn't even look to help it. They hide it and let it die.
Others rise above. Their dark times only makes them shine their love brighter.
It's beautiful to see. I think when you see this, what you're really looking at, is love.
"We're as much in love today as we were when we met," Camille said. "That's why I'd really love to have a photo that shows that. It'll make me smile whenever I see it. Just the thought of it is making me smile right now." I could feel her smiling as she said that to me even though we were on the phone.
Photographers trivialize how significant a miracle enduring love like this is. They portray it with cookie-cutter snapshots, taking something so powerful and rendering it as something so mundane. To those photographers it's all about getting the couple to conform to a pose. The couple may not feel it's them, but it doesn't matter to those photographers. It's never about the couple. It's always about the pose. I don't understand that. I'll never understand that.
Perhaps it's a lack of empathy they have. A lack of reverence for the magnificence of how true love profoundly impacts people. How it lifts those whose hearts it has touched. How it can sustain two people over decades of life in both its joys and tribulations. So I believe their photos are the result of how the photographer views it, because when I see a couple's emotions in that grand way, it affects how I photograph couples.
Real love is taken for granted. We say things like, "I love my car" "I love my job" "I love that color" "I love that song" "I love that movie" "I love those shoes."
Love has been trivialized.
And here I am, seeking how I can capture this sentiment from their hearts, portraying these powerful emotions as a timeless testament to them. Especially with Ed and Camille! Forty-three years together, journeying through life hand-in-hand. Can you imagine? I was deeply feeling this responsibility of giving them back a stunning portrait showing them how beautiful their hearts are, without props or pretense.
But I didn't want to make myself nervous thinking about it. I know I can do it. I awoke the day of their portrait session early, as I do, to prepare for the day, feeling fully confident this would be one amazing experience.
There was an email in my inbox. Camille had written me around 3:30 a.m.
"I'm sorry. Ed was rushed to the hospital. I'll have to call you," was all it said.
I didn't hear back from Camille. There was silence. I dreaded calling almost a week later, afraid of what I'd hear. But I had to call, you know?
They never had another opportunity to make that portrait together.
We spoke for a while. You can't just call, find out someone died and say, "Okay, thanks, just checking in." I can't do that.
She had said, "I wish I had one more chance to see Eddie again. God, just give me one."
Those are the words which tear at me most.