The damp mid-January chill of Pudong’s underlying swamp-land has seeped up into the apartment block, turning it into a natural refrigerator. Bel buys two barely adequate plug-in radiators – one each for us to crouch over. We are still miserably cold.
Monday morning. Bel trails without enthusiasm to her classroom, and I set out for Shanghai’s famous boho art quarter, 50 Mo Gan Shan, a warren of ex-factories and warehouses where Cyril has booked a studio. I expect the shoot to be an icy experience. But it’s money.
Just inside the compound, a private photographic gallery has a poster in English advertising a course clearly aimed at ex-pat blokes: Art Nude Photography: Theory and Praxis. Judging by the illustrative examples, it’s going to be a day of photographing a drop-dead gorgeous nubile Chinese girl’s perfect body. In my case they’d have to photoshop out the varicose veins, the birth-mark, the unruly pubic hair, the mottled knees, the sag-folds, the wrinkles. In fact if I were the model, they’d ask for their money back.
‘My dear Suki!’
I squirm out of Cyril’s bear-hug. The barren concrete art-space has three small electric heaters dotted around it. Could be worse.
‘Here – before we begin the shoot, may I confer you with this warming quasi ginger latte – i.e. Chinese version thereof – and I’d like to read you these words by the great Lucien Clergue whom you so admire.’
I sip the synthetic drink. ‘I love Clergue’s photos.’
‘Well, I think you’ll agree that my own modus operandi is identical to Clergue’s. As he says, you have to be responsive to what the model brings you; models are not objects, they are real people who…’
‘Yes – I love that statement. Whereas so many artists just want a piece of wood.The guys who always wanted to record me like an architect’s drawing, why didn’t they save themselves the fee and just go draw the bloody town hall?’
‘Absolutely! Whereas Clergue says models are “real people who, with a single gesture, can convey a special feeling…”’
‘…Brilliant – he sees a model‘s feelings!’
‘As Clergue writes, “These women become my friends and we co-operate in the making of the photographs.” I think you’ll agree, Suki, that this precisely describes my relations with you…’
Cyril clearly hasn’t noticed the look on my face. He continues, ‘Clergue also says he doesn’t like working with professional models because the clock-watching interferes with his relationship with them. What are your thoughts about that?’
‘He prefers not to pay them?’ (Is Cyril intending to convey that he and I now have a “friendship” that makes paying me for shoots inappropriate?) ‘Tuh. That puts me off him.’ (I must make my position clear!) ‘The thing is, Cyril, you and I don’t “co-operate”. I transform your pictures all by myself with no negotiation. I don’t ask for your advice or your opinion.’ I add, callously, ‘Nor do I care about your opinion when I’m done.’
‘You’ve created some truly wonderful versions.’
‘But even when you don’t like what I’ve done, you never put your foot down.’
‘Because I respect you deeply, Suki.’
The more doting Cyril is, the more irritating. ‘You always acquiesce. Submit to my ideas.’ Oops – that was almost a sneer.
But his eyes twinkle all the more. ‘I don’t think you know how very fond I am of you.’
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