Best Laid Plans

There are planners in this world, people who arrange things on a fine detail level, in every facet of their life. Some of us cannot even conceive of going on a vacation, or get through their work week, without knowing what the plan is, who is going to be there, what we will will do when we get there, and how long we will spend there. It's easy to see the appeal of the orderly mind; the steadfast refusal to allow chaos to rule over order, to maximize our potential, or wring every last drop of useful out of a period of time allotted. All these things are very human, very common, and even noble aspirations as we get on with our increasingly bewildering and frenetic lives.

This is where you would expect this line to drop: "I am NOT one of those people!" But no, that would be disingenuous. The line, more honestly, would be: "I wish I were more like one of those people."

I do try to plan, to stick to a blueprint, to call ahead, whatever one does to be a "planner." I do in fact get very uneasy when I don't know where I am going, or how long I will be there. So it seems that planning is in my heart, if not exactly manifest in my daily life. To quote Yeats, who I grow more and more fond of, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold." It seems destiny or fate, neither of which I really believe in, have different, er, plans for me.

I met a successful fine art photographer recently who said she plans all of her shots out, and storyboards them. She keeps a notebook of ideas. She goes to a location with a model with a plan, with the wardrobe and props needed, and takes only the amount of shots needed. The shoot may last all of 30 minutes or less, with 5-10 shots taken. The longest part of the process seems to be the journey to the location itself. I imagine it must make it very easy to communicate to the model with that idea notebook in hand, and be able to show them what they will be doing. Perhaps the success of this approach over and over again makes the photographer confident in her shooting, and allay any doubt or fear, over time. I WANT to do things this way - I see the logic in it, the ease of it, and the benefits of it. The trouble is, I simply cannot do it. I have tried, and still try now, but I simply cannot.

Now, I am not saying I am a slave to chaos, to randomness, to the blank canvas, but if I look at my body of work up to this point, and take my favorites out of it and move them into a pile, almost none of them will be of the planned variety. They were all happy accidents. Not accidents really - there is some plan, however fetal and vague, that informs them.

Let me give you an example: On my last session with Ed Barron, the only concrete idea I had going in was Jekyll and Hyde. I had just seen a BBC series from a few years back that sparked my interest in it. I had never given the Stevenson novel and characters much thought before, but upon seeing this version, I saw the metaphors at play beneath the fiction - the duality, the repressed id, the man behind the facade. It is timeless and rich - from that classic novel all the way to Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, the theme is relevant to our psychology and societal constraints. Okay, so bam, a light sprinkle of inspirations hits the exposed wire of my creative mind, and a little feeble spark ignites. So then, the mind starts turning and musing for days about what to do with it for my shoot and with my one model, who certainly can look both parts, and is a far better actor than he probably realizes. I discuss it with him a little, and we decide on him bringing a suit and top hat, which mercifully, he had in his possession, otherwise I would have had to shell out more money I don't have for a costume rental. Okay so, theme is in mind, and so is wardrobe and model. Great! But still, no ideas as to what specifically I will be actually doing with the shots, the actual compositions are not visions in my head, waiting to be born. They are more like a whisper that you can almost hear, but then the tv ads drown it out, like they do everything else. Fast forward to the morning of the shoot - full panic has set in, because a model is coming in 3 hours and I have the room ready, the lights are charged, the camera battery is charged, and the compact flash cards have been cleaned out. all is ready, but I am not excited, or eager, or even calm. I am in performance anxiety panic mode driving to Target and Michael's arts and crafts looking for something, some THING, anything, that might be purchased for the shoot in the way of a prop that will assist me in doing Jekyll and Hyde. Earlier in the week, I saw a photo from someone on using an empty portrait frame as a prop. In the shot, a person's body was coming out of it, but not on the other end - it was like a dimensional portal. Neat idea, and not mine at all.

I buy the frame and head back home.

Ed arrives, and I discuss a little about what we are doing - this is delivered in a nervous barrage of vagaries, because, well, that's all I have. I spend a ton of time trying to get a shallow depth of field shot happening, for the other feeble idea I had, which was sort of an amalgam of the eye monster from Pan's Labyrinth and the classic book cover from Stephen King's "Nightshift." This image became "Nightshift."

Michael Bilotta NightShift

After that, I stalled for time even more, by having Ed do some nude poses, some in a chair, some not. Ed is a professional figure model, and has no issue whatsoever with nudity, and I am grateful for this because, if all else fails, I will at least be able to add to my "Fine Art Nude" gallery. So now that is over, and I have Ed don his suit. But before he gets anything on but his tuxedo shirt, I stop him - there is Mr. Hyde. Edward Hyde, free of the social constraints of Henry Jekyll, I imagine, would be a rabid anarchist, not caring about being dressed or proper in any way. I see Ed, with Tuxedo shirt on, unbuttoned, and wearing nothing else, as Mr. Hyde suddenly. I shoot some shots of this, telling Ed to improv up a snarling Hyde, hair mussed. We pose him with a dagger - Hyde did murder someone, so why not? This is where the portrait frame clicked in. I thought that I would pose Dr Jekyll as if he was in a portrait sitting, holding onto the frame, which contains an image of his alter ego within. The image of the stately doctor rigid in posture, holding a portrait of a disheveled Hyde, shirt open and glaring at the viewer, was born. Not exactly by plan, and not in any notebook. This became "The Strange Self Portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll."


Now while I am appreciative of this image, and happy enough with it, it is by no means my favorite thing I have ever done.
And this is where the planning and the notebook fall apart for me.

See, I had Ed for four hours, which I pay him for, and I bought a frame that cost over $60, so I wanted to make sure I got as much coverage with model and prop as I could. So Dr. Jekyll was holding that frame sitting, standing, shaking it, whatever I could think of, in every angle i could do with my tiny studio in the basement. During editing, after the shoot was over, I immediately put the Jekyll and Hyde shot together, and well, that was that. Was there any reason to do more of them? Did the Stevenson novel need more coverage or artwork dedicated to it? Not really, no. But I had all these nicely lit shots of Ed looking dapper in his suit and hat, holding that damned, overpriced prop. So, I start to ponder on what else I can do with those basic elements. I did NOT want to copy the photo of the portrait frame as portal I had seen earlier, that type of online copycat plagiarism is enraging and ultimately empty. This is where the some of the best shots from the session came from: "That Was Another Country" in which the negative space of the portrait frame showed the warmer landscapes and memories of an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land of dark, forbidding cities. The more whimsical "Weather With You" which used the portrait as a vessel to take the inner climate, your weather, along with you. Lastly, and much later, after three frame shots had been born, I used it one last time for "The Shape of Things to Come" where the frame shows a preview of better days ahead.


There is a lesson in all this for me, and though I see the lesson, it still is a hard one to accept. My best stuff comes from an improvised sketch, done during shooting, and pulled together later, when the anxiety and stress of the shoot is over. It is almost pointless for me to plan shoots, and I am learning to let go of that desire to storyboard and plan, and let the process unfold as it wants to. This is why I shoot indoors, against a backdrop of gray seamless paper, with a model and a pose, and maybe a prop or two. It gives me a sketch, with a lot of room to fill in the blanks. I therefore shoot this way all the time now. I accept it, but it still makes shooting a panic for me, and a measure of trust is needed from the model, that I won't do something tasteless, awful, or silly with their like

ness. Where the well-known photographer shoots 5 to 10 shots, has a plan, and spends maybe 30 minutes getting her image, I spend upwards of 4 hours doing a marathon shoot with a model, taking upwards of 400 shots, a few planned, and most of them blank and bereft of ideas until I put them together later. Perhaps the pondering of the "concept" is a slow cooker in my head, taking time to stew and complete. If I look at the collection of images I got from my last shoot with Ed, I see a though-line, a continuity of theme, of duality. Jekyll and Hyde, seeing the world differently through the frame shots, the literal duality of "An Unwilling Duel," where Ed is fused together in two poses as if at war with himself. Even the latter two, a couplet or at least aesthetic brothers, "Lazarus Heart" and "I Dreamed my Genesis" both have elements of duality or juxtaposition in them - of reaching up but being pulled down, of devastating scars but an expression of hope.

So I think the concept was there, and perhaps informed the shoot, but certainly drove the editing process, albeit subconsciously. I should know by now that I will get something from the shoots, and that things will come together somehow. Maybe a few more successes and I will start to accept the process and go with it. Maybe someday I may enjoy the shoot even! But at the moment, I am shooting a new model in a week, have very few ideas, if any, and am starting to feel that panic rising in me. Something to do with ladders, and youth, and…well, no point in foreshadowing, as I have no notebook to show you! You'll know the plan shortly after I do, when the shoot is over, the model has left, and I am staring at the sketched image on the screen trying to figure out what it all means.

Thanks for spending time with a would-be planner!

September 29th, 2012