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From Rhonda's essay, Picturing Women

From Rhonda's essay, Picturing Women

I never imagined that so many would strip. I never expected that women at Goddard College would take off their clothes for my camera, for me.

I told them they could if they wanted to but only if they wanted to strip. "Just for you," I said. "Nobody else has to see." "Only if you feel comfortable enough." "But wouldn't it be nice?"

So many exposed women in one place, one week. One.

For me each session was like a meditation. Attention. One person at a time only. Vital. Just one, or it became noisy and not so much about us and how we moved together.

"What makes a good portrait?" some ask.

Breath.

I would begin each session by breathing before we met, whether early morning or evening.

Inhale

With hushed morning tones we chatted, we subjects, on the way to a spot worthy enough to contain us ­ the forest usually. We talked more concretely of the upcoming shoot. What did she want? Where would we go? And I would sometimes have to breathe for her.

Exhale

Upon arrival at our destination, slowly I would move and spin to notice light and how it fell on her, background and how it accompanied her, foreground and how it hid and exposed, camera settings and how they helped it all, and anything else that would express her, express us.

Inhale

If she wanted to feel her body uncovered, comfort with this kind of exposure took more time for some, and less for others. But remembering that rhythm depends on the space in-between, we rested when we needed to.

Exhale

I would attend to our breath in flashes as the time unfolded, breathing through tightness and inflexibility.

"What do you want me to do?" most would ask, not sure where to put their hands, how to hang their arms. "Tell me what you want."

Feel yourself move. Just Feel.

Inhale

I was aware when my eyes were not attentive to the woman before me.

Breathe

I could feel when too much of a focus on line and shape and f-stops and film burning made her start to disappear before me.

Breathe and breathe

Most sessions were quiet and about the presence of bodies: hers and mine.

Bodies: ours. I was present enough to forget all that wasn't before me. She was present enough to forget what stood in the way. And we were both present enough to forget the rest of the campus as we danced our way toward incarnation.

Anne was my first, since I knew her already, knew she was open, knew that I myself needed to get used to such a new rhythm between women. I don't think she saw how I transfigured there, breathing in and out, in and out, there in the tall grass that flew up between us, sometimes revealing, sometimes hiding. I need a new perspective, I thought then, a higher angle. So I crawled onto her truck's tailgate and forgot. I forgot my legs, forgot I couldn't. Forgot.

See how Lynn, whose study focus is grief, hunches, giggles, then straightens there in the trees that become her. And how Debbie laughs, calls me crazy, and says with light in her eyes, "I'll take it all off, but just skin. No breasts or crotch. Just skin. Only skin."

Sylvia's body is not so much her own yet. I saw that. I saw her eyes leave and float somewhere beyond, behind me, ripped from their sockets, I think, by a life of high fashion, of modeling body alienation.

"One good picture terrified me," she said. "I worried that in the next I would be too fat, too old, too freckled. You know what I mean. Not good enough."

I knew what she meant.

Elaine hates everything above her neck. "Not my face," she said. "I don't like my face at all ­ or my brain, but that won't show up on film." I didn't tell her that it all shows up. I respected her self-loathing and photographed her nude silhouette. But I regret it. I regret that I pictured her as a shadow ­ like a man might.

Lise, an advisor, sees right through me. At the residency, I felt uncomfortably naked around her, having already exposed myself to her through language for an entire semester.

"I'm not going to take my clothes off," she said as we ducked into the trees, having heard the rumor.

"I wasn't expecting you to," I said. We both felt awkward. I could tell this as I stood there exposed, noticing how the light fell through her skin.

Carol and I locked ourselves in an upstairs bathroom with nice window light, and we wonder still that nobody tried the handle.

"Just my breasts and necklace," she said.

Carol Scott, named for her dead grandfather ­ Carroll - and dead brother - Scott. Both dead. But laughing breasty in a corner by the toilet. Alive.

Carolyn has breast issues. "Boys always made fun of them," she said. "Girls too." Carolyn didn't want to get wet or dirty and theorized beforehand about easing into nudity, exposing her crotch first. Carolyn with her breasts and her ideas, losing all her clothes at once, flying her arms in the air and thrusting her body forward to say, "Look at me! Look at me!"

I looked.

I could hardly hear quiet Olivia say okay to a portrait, could hardly hear that she wanted to wear clothing, could hardly hear much of what she mumbled. But I felt she really wanted to, felt that she might someday speak louder - yell maybe.

Emily stripped in the trees with such attention that I could see her feeling it, see her knowing something new. Was it air? Skin? Relationship? Was it the integrity of being a beautiful body there with nature, there among her own?

Melissa, Favor and I swam naked at the quarry in the early morning with the haze. We photographed one another half on land, half in water. Morning-touched bodies tiptoeing over pointy rocks and squishing through mud to rest in the ease of water, and nakedness, and connection. The haze cleared as we went on.

Anne photographed me in a field of flowers. "No, they're weeds," she laughed.

Beautiful nevertheless, I thought, when seen up close without the cover-up of a name. I felt beautiful too, without clothes, without symbols, for the simple reason that I was standing naked in a field of white and green things shooting up around me.

Jeanne was my last and thanked me for asking, for taking the time for her. Earlier in the week, she wore clothes for a session. Later she wore none. In the meditation room, she wore none. In the trees, she wore none.

"Do you realize what you are doing for women here?" she said to me throughout the week.

Did they realize what they did for me?

"What does embodiment feel like?" Lise asked me.

Like I felt when picturing women. Passion. Connection. Joy.