One day in 1999 I receive a letter from a woman, unknown to me, in Paris. She introduces herself and explains that, after seeing some of my photos in a gallery, she would like me to photograph her. She explains that she has previously made the same request of a number of photographers whose work has seized her attention, and that she likes to be photographed in a free style, according to the preferences of the photographer. I decide to act upon her request and suggest we should first meet before deciding whether to proceed with the project.
Our encounter a few months later on a Friday afternoon in her house is quite normal and at the same time rather strange. I try to find a few moments in which I can just look at her, but this is difficult to achieve during a conversation. The atmosphere is relaxed, but I do wonder what I am doing here. We talk about who she is and she shows me some pictures from her collection, in each of which she features. I see her appearance, clothed or naked. Her expression in almost every photo is neutral. I have trouble getting an impression of her. She tells me that she works as a nurse in a hospital. And that she was only seventeen when she first had herself photographed in this way. We discuss which current exhibitions in Paris are worth visiting. Even though she remains almost a stranger, she intrigues me. I cannot reach her entirely, as if she won’t quite open up to me, but perhaps this is not the issue – for whatever reason we must somehow need each other. I decide to take the work on and arrange a session with her for after the weekend, once again in her home.
On Monday morning around ten I ring her bell. She opens the door and lets me in. We exchange a few pleasantries. I tell her I’d like to take some portrait shots first, followed by some naked shots. She agrees with calm casualness. I first take some photos of her face, but no matter how I take the picture, they all appear to me to be the same, as if I am unable to truly explore her face. I pause for a moment to ask myself: where am I? In Paris there’s a street, in the street there is a house, a strange house indeed, in that house there is a woman, an unknown woman who later undresses in order to have her picture taken, following my directions.
It makes me think of the pose of a young woman by the impressionist painter Georges Seurat. The French photographer Jeanloup Sieff once made a portrait of a woman as a homage to Seurat. The reproduction of this photo, in postcard form, stood for years on my bookshelf. The woman I see before me assumes almost the same pose and almost has the same figure. She isn’t entirely naked, as in Seurat’s painting she wears panties resembling a shawl. I find the cloth, or rather wraparound-underpants, fascinating: it accentuates her femininity but is beyond all the styles of lingerie I am familiar with. She asks whether she should take it off but I decide to first photograph her as she is. I am reminded of reliefs in Egyptian pyramids showing equally scantily clad figures, often wearing just a single piece of material. I enter into a flow of shots in which I look at her to find the image I seek, for which she becomes the instrument. Her robust, lean body appears somewhat boyish too, which is also accentuated by her extraordinarily strong hands. I am touched by her beauty, as by a sculpture in a French or Italian museum. At some point she asks again whether or not to continue undressing and I assent. She loosens the cloth on the side and steps out. I now see her as if a sculptor had chipped away the final piece of stone to reveal her nakedness in its entirety. At the same time she remains a mythical presence, as if I am not really there. Her presence exudes something erotic, but this is perhaps because I am really there. I see her naked body, her breasts, her shoulders, the hands and her lightly shaved vulva. She poses according to my instructions and my gentle suggestions lead to slight changes in her posture and impressions of movement, creating a scope in which to work with my images.
I then ask her to sit. Now she has to decide what to do with her hands and legs, which interests me. Sitting like this, huddling in her new position, makes her presence endearing. As if the image contains more narrative. Then, almost suddenly, it’s finished, and it feels like waking up from sleep. She dresses, we chat, I promise to show her the product of our session and I leave her house.
A few months later, when I’m in Paris again, I arrange to meet her at the terrace of a cafe on the corner of Rue Daguerre and Boulevard Porte d’Orléans, just past Cimétière Montparnasse. When in Paris I often stay in the 14th arrondissement. It’s sort of my home in Paris. Amidst the hubbub of the street she looks intensely at the pictures I show her, the tranquil, almost empty images, all showing closed eyes, while Paris races past. She is enthusiastic and visibly moved. Afterwards I give her an occasional update of my work or we may have a brief encounter at Paris Photo, the annual photography show in the Carrousel du Louvre.
(translated from the Dutch by Simone Veenstra)