My friend John has become absorbed in the art and practice of photography. He is eager to capture the moment on camera, both in the public faces of Cambridge in summer and the more personal qualities of the individual. His interest coincides nicely, for me, with the local paper’s request for an image to accompany a recent interview. The result of a pleasant hour or so enjoying John’s undivided attention is a series of photographs which avoids the usual horrors and seems to show me at my best, but also what I’d like to think of as the ‘real’ me. This is so rare that I’m quickly convinced that John has an unusual talent for achieving a true likeness. On reflection, I wonder if this is less about a gift and more about an attitude to his subject developed in a different context.
Argentine tango doesn’t immediately suggest unconditional positive regard. Indeed, tango has a reputation for favouring youth and beauty over age and experience. If you’re a female of a certain age, however adept a dancer you are, you are likely to be overlooked for a younger, prettier model, even if your rival is a beginner. Still, a successful dance demands that each partner is completely present, and that prejudices or hasty judgements about ability are suspended. We’re all familiar with the demoralising effects of the over-critical partner, and not just in tango. How soon an impatient correction or an exasperated sigh makes us more prone to the faults in question, whilst an approach which values what we can do allows us to do better. Rather than approaching the project with set requirements or expectations, perhaps the successful photographer, like the successful dancer, understands the importance of allowing the other half of the relationship a chance to bring herself to the dance.
Allowing yourself to be wholly known is a risky business, in any context. Often, it’s actively discouraged. So many times as a teacher I was reminded that it’s all an act, that professionalism requires that your ‘real’ self remains hidden. Never let them see you’re struggling. We’re all familiar with the notion that we need a fake face to hide behind, to protect the vulnerable core within or to hide its inadequacies. Holiday snaps of me at three are taken before I’ve learnt this lesson: my grin looks genuine, infectious, as bubbly as my head of undisciplined curls. Months later, I’m dressed up, hair restrained into neat waves. I’m either caught scowling at the photographer who tries in vain to get me to ‘be nice’, or I’m trussed up in an unforgiving frock and ankle socks, managing at best a watery imitation of a smile. Tango used to have its own version of the mask, the cara fea, literally ‘ugly face’, the stony gaze which early dancers favoured. Now in tango, it’s more usual to see a frown of concentration or a blissful smile on the face of a follower. My own experience suggests that preoccupation with self gets in the way: much better, if you can, to open up to the dance, the music and your partner; and perhaps, as a sitter, to the camera.
Photographs of Kate, Clarice & punts near Magdalene College by John Connatty: August 2015
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden