This is me on New Year’s Eve at a party held in the loft of Molly Crabapple and Fred Harper. It was late, well after 2:00, and though it’s hard to see it, my lipstick is smeared from kissing girls. It has become my custom to ring in the new year at Molly and Fred’s, and to do it in lingerie, pressing my lips to those of other women. I don’t remember the last time I kissed a man on New Year’s Eve. It might have been 2006.
In this photo, I’m kneeling astraddle Molly and Fred’s bed. My friend Najva Sol, a talented photographer, pronounced me “New Years” and said she wanted to document it. She shoved an empty magnum of Freixenet Champagne in my hands, and circled the bed, iPhone in hand, until she snapped this image. I’m much in love with it. The twinkly lights, the undulating messy bed linens, the fuchsia of my lingerie, the quicksilver slice of my cheekbones—even the roundness of my tummy—I love it all.
Writing about photography, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes converge on the point that as photography captures an image it gestures toward death. “All photographs are momento mori,” Sontag writes in On Photography; Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, “by shifting this reality to the past…the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” You can’t capture a moment on film (or its digital equivalent) without pinning it like a butterfly to a corkboard. To keep it is to kill it. Don’t ask for whom the shutter clicks, it clicks for thee.
Perhaps. It might be that at 51 I feel a sense of urgency to document, to capture, to keep, and to look because I realize that my flesh—and my time on this wet blue planet—is finite. My body, I have realized in the past decade, can and will betray me. It’s merely a matter of time. So when I look at pictures like the one Najva took of me at Molly’s party, or the selfie I took of myself at another Molly party earlier in December, I feel that sense of conjoined immediate nostalgia and death. But that’s not all. Often I feel joy.
Being 51, I’m also aware that proudly, unabashedly, unashamedly taking photographs of myself, face and/or body, is a radical act. At 51, I’m supposed to be a shadow woman, gliding grey and ghostly into that good night. I’m not supposed to be drawing attention to my looks. In fact, I’m not supposed to look good; at best, I’m supposed to look good for my age. Thus, to draw attention to myself is to engage in a radical act and to document it smacks of the political, or at least as much as it does the narcissistic.
Recently I sat for Symon Chow, a photographer whose work I’ve admired for a while. He took a bunch of pictures of me naked on my couch, my girl dog snoozing beside me. Over the two hours that he was at my apartment, I got progressively more naked, and we finished the shoot with me on my bed. The shot of my lower body and my dogs is from this last part of the shoot.
Symon tends to what sociologist and writer Nathan Jurgenson would call “faux-vintage,” a style of photography that Jurgenson might argue, “increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past,” particularly when contextualized within the rush-rush flotsam of social media. Our ephemeral, ever-scrolling ways have turned images into a hot-and-cold running stream; only by arresting them in time, whether through the callow manipulation of images to make them appear older or through the use of mercurial platforms like Snapchat, can we give images gravitas.
For my shoot, Symon chose a blown-out ‘70s Polaroid style. He might have seen my butthole, he said, but by the time he tweaks the image, it won’t read. It’ll be obscured, to my thinking, by the hagiography of our shared cultural history. Symon and I have corresponded for years, but we didn’t meet until the day I shucked my clothes and posed for him. Both middle-aged, we are colored by those ‘70s hagiographic hazes. They are burned into our beings.
TBH, I’m a bit obsessed with photos of me. Part of my obsession derives from the radicalism that is the #selfieofacertainage. Part of my obsession comes from my sheer giddiness over how I look. I’m quite in love with the way I look these days; I want to revel in it, and I want my revelry joined by others. And part of my obsession derives from an inversion of something that Barthes said.
Barthes said that photography “produces Death while trying to preserve life.” I’d argue its sidelong opposite. I’d say that photography produces life while trying to deny death. I’ve lived more than half my life—in fact, I’ve an app on my phone, the same phone that I use to take a disconcerting number of selfies, that counts down the number of days I’ve left to live. 10,900 it announced today.
So little time, so much to celebrate.