Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

Artists are expected to see things differently. Sometimes we might see the same thing from a different place.

I see the shidduch world from the perspective of a photographer. Men and women of all ages come here who want something special. Often they have so much difficulty in deciding what they like in themselves, that I wonder how they will ever be able to recognize what they want or make a decision on someone else!

Shira (not her real name) knew what she wanted, what she needed, and why she had come to me: “an awkward stiffness that cloaked or dampened” her true personality in professional portraits or her friends’ snapshots. That is what she said in her first visit to my studio. But I wanted to see for myself. So before I agreed to photograph her, I asked that she return with her latest photos. I have learned that sometimes, a person may just not like a great shot, because they are looking for something else. And if I were to give them more great shots, they still could be looking for that something else!

Why are some people anorexic or bulimic? Because as thin as they are, they want to be thinner, or because they have lost all objectivity on such personal matters. So before I set out to solve someone’s problem with his or her image, I want to make sure that when I do solve it, they will know it. And sometimes I find that giving them exactly what they say they want has them choosing the exact opposite, and loving that! But it is a process of self-discovery that makes each journey unique–and some rather entertaining for others, but certainly not for themselves.

Shira returned a few hours later with proofs from a professional photo shoot to show me what “the problem” was. I love seeing great photography and am more than happy to acknowledge it when I see it. I never critique someone else’s work if it cannot be redone. And if I am going to be doing new photos, then those photos can speak for themselves! I only looked at her past photos to see if she needed and would be pleased by mine.

Comparing those proofs to the live, expressive, communicative woman before me, the question was, did they really convey her personality, or did they fall short in some way? Sometimes people want to see what they might get, or what is different, but that does not mean they are ready to accept that in fact it is better. So I was being very measured. Was there a reason for her to come to me, or should she be happy with the photos she had already gotten somewhere else?

While the photos were not bad, expression and demeanor were a bit stiff, with a very superficial two-dimensional personality, not at all the vibrant and alive person before me. However, she did have one photo that was quite usable and would mean not incurring the additional expense of the photo shoot, the time to select the photos with me, the other costs like hair, and makeup, or the stress of scheduling something right after work, or on her one day off, or . . . whatever.

As I observed her speaking to me, I started to see two faces. There was the vivacious, expressive, warm personality, when she was discussing herself. But then she would go into an analytic mode and I saw a caustic, critical rage that had me wondering whether she would ever be happy. Eventually I reasoned that she had legitimate concerns, and the many advanced techniques that I use would thrill her.

One of her practical concerns was that she had too round a face, and would often twist her bottom lip into a different shape from the top one. We discussed clothing, hair, and makeup and scheduled a photo session. I made notes to be sure to remember her lip and weight issue. It was urgent to her that we schedule something right away. Soon she was looking at a variety of photos–some designed specifically to address her concerns; others as experimentation, that maybe she might like; and some that I myself did not think she should like, but which I included because she specifically requested them. Those shots were not unlike the ones she had shown me. They were stiff, posed, and unnatural, and they made her look fat. One or two even had a twisted lip.

She returned and absolutely loved the first images I showed her. Her eyes welled with tears and she seemed touched by how different these images were. But such a decision should not be made alone. It was too important. Three additional appointments were needed over the course of the next two weeks. She brought brothers, sisters, friends, and friends of brothers (or was that brothers of friends? It was too confusing to keep track of for me).

She wanted me to leave her alone so she could confer with those “experts.” I heard lots of debate. Each liked different shots. Each loved one or more of the shots I recommended. But they could not agree. She was getting more confused and more desperate to make a decision. Any decision. She could have taken my suggestion. I know what people like. Even what shadchanim like. Or as everyone tells me, they themselves do not know what they like. Slowly she started to lower her standards.

Eventually she got the consensus she was looking for. That happened not when all had the same opinion, but when they lost much interest in having any opinion. After ten hours of combined discussion over several visits, during which I popped my head in occasionally, they finally decided there were so many great shots, which all agreed looked slim and vibrant and emotive and alive and attractive and were perfectly modest, they could always order them later; for right now she would defer to her advisers.

Does her choice mean she knows what she wants? Or that even when she is looking at what she wants, she does not recognize it? Or that she is not ready to make a hard decision? Or that there are just too many choices?

I received the order and put the file in for work where it would be retouched, color-corrected, cropped, and printed–the fat one with the twisted lip. v

Gary Rabenko may be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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