May 262016



Bel’s picture of my back reminds me of photographer Helmut Newton’s many beautiful backs. He ‘adores hard light’ because it ‘brings out those muscles… The back of a woman shows a tremendous amount of sculpting and modelling’. Although Bel’s ‘back’ photos are not in Newton’s brilliantly light-drenched Californian settings, they do make me look sculpted. Newton states that ‘naturalness’ is not necessarily what he wants. This provokes the ire of some feminists – or purists, perhaps – who hold ‘naturalness’ to be kind of morally favourable. Newton claims models themselves often choose to put their bodies into positions that are not ‘natural’, and that anyway, manipulation just gets more interesting results.

And another week passes – with the Lantern Festival in it. Another phenomenon we watch from the sidelines – from our balcony – with disengagement; incomprehension. I’ve looked it up in Wikipedia but… how does it feel to those people? Does anyone care? Is it sentimental? Party time? Is it meaningful, or just kitsch for kids? Is it like Hallowe-en? Is it Easter-ish?
    And the students are back. And Bel’s teaching re-starts. We are back to normal. But what is this ‘normal’?

    ‘What I like about you is,’ I call out, ‘comparing you to Helmut Newton doesn’t make you go ballistic.’
    Bel is in the kitchen tending to a sizzling wok. ‘Why should I object?’
    I wander into the kitchen. ‘My ex Ilka, as a hard-line feminist, was venomous about him coz he says that ideally a nude should give you an erotic feeling.’ The latest of Cyril’s loaned books is open in my hand. ‘Like, he criticizes Bill Brandt‘s nudes for not being erotic. What’s good about you is, although you think all men are bastards you’re still relatively tolerant.’
    Bel pushes the tofu around with a spatula. ‘To be honest I do find Newton a bit self-contradictory and a bit full of himself.’
    ‘But at least he genuinely likes women! Listen: “I want a woman who has personality, who is the real thing. She may have a less than perfect body because a perfect form is not interesting by itself. In fact, it is a turn-off. To me, imperfections are much more attractive.” See – he’s definitely not one of those passionless measuring men. He relates intimately with his models.’
    Bel uses her fore-arm to wipe hair tendrils from her forehead. ‘”Intimately” – like Picasso, then?’
    ‘I’m fine with Newton being sexual with his models. At least he wants to know them. And I like him for being especially interested in the female body and finding it so much more aesthetic than the male body…’ I skim on through the chapter – ‘and that he likes immediacy… abrasiveness… spontanaeity… and – get this – unashamed voyeurism! “The trouble with a very controlled nude is that it is not voyeuristic any more”.’
    Bel turns off the cooker. ‘It’s about ready to eat.’ I leave the kitchen to go put cutlery on the table while Bel drains and divides the noodles.
    At last she emerges, two steaming plates in her hands. ‘So what else do you like about me?’
    Gulp. I go on fussing with the condiments, straighten the forks… ‘What was that?’
    Bel’s eyes, when I look up, are levelled at me, chin jutted, as if standing up to a potential blow – ‘What else you like about me.’ Her tone is flat.
    ‘You are absolutely the most brilliant thrower-together of strange Chinese ingredients. This looks fantastic.’ I ceremoniously take the plates from her hands and lay them on their place-mats. ‘Voila! Dinner is served!’

Later, the Delightful Peony provides refuge. And I finally make myself formulate an overdue email to Aussie Cyril, spelling out, at last and in no uncertain terms, the nature and limits of my relationship with him – as I would wish to have it.

I want to make a clear point about our collaboration. As photographer and model we bring together entirely separate skills. Some might believe that the product – the photograph – ought to be entirely the creative domain of the photographer; that the model’s part ends with the end of the shoot. Not in my case. Like Lee Miller, I have engaged myself fully with ‘post-production’ decision-making – as in, making modifications to your original images. While I find certain of your images lovely and perfect, I very often crop the pictures you send me. Radically and with huge enthusiasm. Regardless of whether you might find this an unacceptable adulteration.
I’m being straight with you and I’m sorry if this upsets you. Suki

Oh Suki – absolutely, absolutely not. You are a very strong person… Presence… I love our collaboration. I feel so proud of giving you something to get enthusiastic about. It’s a joy and a privilege to be shown it all as you see it. I think you are a wonderful person and I feel so very, very lucky to have met you and to be involved in this kind of creativity with you. Crop away, dearest Suki. I am always so intrigued to see what you come up with.
Warmest affection
PS I am now able to announce – in explanation of my recent disappearance to Australia – that my
decree nisi has, at last, come through. Please could you meet with me to celebrate this?



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