Apr 282016
 



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Aussie Cyril

This photo of Aussie Cyril’s from our very first encounter at the Shanghai Art Nude group reminded me, at first glance, of one by Lucien Clergue, ‘Deux nus chez Jeff’, except that Clergue’s is actually a picture of two women (yes, the clue is in the title). To model for a photographer who can glean something wondrous from the body, who can bring out the model’s essence, his or her true self – is a sheer privilege. I’d gladly work for free with any photographer whose images I’m totally wowed by – images that don’t give me the urge to crop or change them in any way. Who has been that good? Fei Mo Di, for one.

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…’
    Definitely not!
    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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Apr 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Another belly pic by Mike Little, from the second session with Trish his artist wife who projects her drawings onto me. According to the philosopher-semiotician Saussure (says Trish), the words we use are not a true record of the reality that we are looking at, they are ‘motivated signs’ – and the meaning is only within the sign. Bel was recording Trish‘s ramblings: ‘There was a movement among painters away from attempts to paint realistically; you know – figuratively. I think this was due to a distrust, because they thought that this kind of “realism” pretended that it knew what the world was like…’

Good morning Cyril,
have read all the photographers’ essays in this book you’ve lent me. I like Lucien Clergue best for his prioritisation – even above setting up the cameras – of his relationship with the model. “Both the model and I may be completely exhausted at the end of a session, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion”. He says that, when photographing the model, he is completely content. Some of the others in this book – they couldn’t give a toss about the model as a human being. Can’t write more, Bel is just bringing through our elevenses.
Suki

Days have gone by with no proper conversation with Bel. Not my fault. If she talked, I’d talk. What’s the story of her child? Why is Elise in a psychiatric hospital?
    Then this morning, over our tea-break, a conversation happens.
    ‘Your turn.’ She sets down two cups of English tea on my desk in the bedroom. ‘Why are you really here?’ She settles on the bed. ‘I mean, it’s not all about writing your novel, is it.’
    The question is chilling. I shiver. The January weather, too, is chilly. Humidity, when the temperature drops and there is no adequate indoor heater, gets into your very bones. Could I make Bel happy by saying I came to Shanghai to be with you?
    But I have to be honest. ‘Um. Okay, I’m avoiding my unsuccessful life.’
    Bel reaches over, squeezes my arm (it’s always a shock when we touch): ‘Still on your quest,’ she says, generously.
    ‘Actually, you know, something’s started haunting me – I mean, being here, with time to reflect: I keep reading articles about women giving birth at fifty. Ageing first-time mums are all over the news. If you’ve got enough money you can make it happen.’
    ‘God. Materialism in extremis.’
    ‘But I’m jealous.’
    ‘Look, Suki. Being a parent can ruin your life. And that’s even people like us with all the benefits and support of living in the West. Wait’ – she leaves the room.
    Is she going to show me something to do with Elise? Photos? But she returns with – oh god – not another article, which she urgently skim-reads, then summarises:
    ‘Listen: tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru can only afford to eat for five days each week. Most of the world is exhausting its ground water because of overpumping… la la la…’ – she skims down – ‘…yields are flat-lining in Japan… Here! In northern and Western China, and the Sahel region of Africa which is an area wracked by insurgency and conflict, people are running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres the world over are turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing!’
    ‘It sounds a bit sensationalist, Bel. I wouldn’t just take it all as read.’
    ‘This American scientist Lester Brown who’s never been wrong about any prediction is saying it.’
    ‘Look, just don’t worry about big stuff, Bel. Enjoy little stuff. This cup of tea.’
    But Bel has dropped back into her default mode.
    I’m rubbish at dealing with my own depression, never mind hers.

Evening. It is a relief to go out of the flat for the second session at Trish and Mike Little’s place. A good distraction for Bel.
    Video-camera in hand, she unobtrusively gets to work.
    ‘Is your neck ok?’ Mike fusses over me, supervising my positions. ‘Are you warm enough? Do you want to sit in that chair? We’ll have a cake break in a bit. Happy days!’ Then gets on again with his pedantic, conscientious photographing.
    Trish bumbles about, switching different spotlights on and off, shifting her projector to create new shapes on my body. ‘I’ve been getting my ideas from this Swiss guy Saussure, who advocated “the detachment of the sign from the referent”. Are you with me? It’s all ever so difficult…’
    ‘Clever, isn’t she,’ Mike grins indulgently. He takes another careful photograph. And another. And all the while, Bel – gifted photo-journalist and film-maker extraordinaire – sidles around us, doing what she is brilliant at; a silent presence, close to the room’s walls, by necessity an outsider, recording it all with her unique eye.


 

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