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Letters To DOMAI


Most of the models featured at Domai give us a pleasant, easy smile. I sometimes wonder if the photographers ask the models to hold certain thoughts as they pose in order to show us the natural smile. I don’t know any Domai photographers but I have an old friend who is a busy commercial photographer, so I asked her. Janet said that she mostly shoots objects, especially food, for websites and glossy magazines. She said that when she does photograph models it is usually for fashion stories and there is almost always an art director there who has already prepped the model and knows what look he wants.

But then she smiled a little crookedly and began to tell me a story from the late 1960’s, when we were both attending art college. We had both done some posing for life drawing classes but the instructor was always more interested in the pose and placement of limbs and how the light and muscles worked together. The expression on our faces was of limited interest.

Janet said that one day one of the instructors asked her if she was interested in posing for a local photographer who was working on a project for a photography magazine. It would be several afternoons a week through the winter. It would not be Playboy-type material (just as well, Janet said, as she did not have that kind of figure). She agreed, and went off the next day to the man’s shop. He had run the town’s main camera store and photography studio but had now turned the business over to his son and daughter-in-law. The old fellow wasn’t really needed at the shop but his wife was not well and he needed something to do, so he dreamed up this project. The store was on the first floor and the studio and office was on the second floor, but the man had a workspace and darkroom on the third floor, and that was where Janet went to work.

She said that the first couple of sessions were really quite strange. Mr Forsith had never done figure photography before . She said that he was very gentlemanly and professional and she never felt awkward, but she said that for the first several days she felt like she was sitting for her high school graduation portrait except that she was naked.

After her third or fourth session Forsith gave her several sheets of contact prints and suggested that she take them home and study her expressions. He said that she would find it useful in life to know which face she wished to show to the camera. Look at public figures and politicians, he said. They know that they will always be photographed, so they decide which expression works the best for them, and they learn how to put on that face. Big smile, wry smile, no smile, lots of teeth, closed mouth, knowing eyes, amused eyes, whatever. Forsith said that you needed to have a state of mind and attitude that went with the face, so that you could summon the same face by summoning the same attitude. Janet should practice that. Practice in the mirror, and they would practice with the camera at the next session.

Another time, he wanted her to laugh. He wanted delight on her face, and he wanted her to work at showing that.  Janet said that he tried telling her jokes and funny stories but she said they were so lame that she groaned more than laughed. One day he played some Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart records during the session, and because he knew all the stories he was ready with the camera just as the big laughs came. Janet said that he got lots of good shots that day.

Janet said that she was pretty sure that he did not know what his project was to be. She could tell that he was reading the back issues of his photography magazines because he would try new lights and lighting, and he was always adjusting the settings on his camera. It was all black and white film and he was developing all of his own negatives and prints, and he was always playing with the process, shading and burning as he printed. (Janet said that she wished that she had been interested enough to pay attention to his techniques, but colour photography was new and that seemed to be the way of the future to her.)  Sometimes there would be big blow-up prints hanging in the darkroom, and there were often snapshots pinned to the wall with little notes written on them, suggestions for a different approach or angle.

She said that he was very gentlemanly and respectful, and quite formal. At the end of each session he would pass her an envelope with her pay and perhaps a few prints, and he always said “Thank you, Miss. You are quite lovely.” Always.

Janet said that at one point Forsith definitely began to take glamour photos. He began to direct her limbs, looking often for poses that were not exactly provocative but not exactly casual either. He had done so much portrait work that he knew how to balance lines and angles, how to turn the head just so, how to show the body to best advantage. He said that no matter how much of a subject is in the frame we always look at the eyes, and for a good shot they always have to be in focus.

And then he started asking for face acting. Forsith began to ask Janet to imagine herself in particular situations. Scolding a naughty dog. Greeting a friend. Seeing a beautiful flower. Trying to open a stuck jar lid. Relaxing in the sun. Singing a familiar song. Sitting up straight in church. Trying not to look bored during a sermon. Watching a sleeping child.

Janet said that these were fascinating afternoons. All of this was before electronic flash, so Forsith would set up his studio lights and reflectors and screens to get the lighting he needed. It was also before digital photography or even motor drives, so Forsith had to wind the film forward between each shot, and he had to change the film after every 50 exposures or so. He set Janet up on a low dais and gave her a stool for a prop and he asked her to turn away, enter into the mood they were working on, and then turn to his camera, composed. He made his shot, and while he advanced the film she turned away, reset, and then turned back. She said that they got into a rhythm that became very easy and natural, broken only when he had to go into the darkroom to change film.

Janet told me that she was amazed at how much the face and the body both expressed emotion. She would look at prints from previous sessions and could see how her body language and her face language mirrored each other, and how incomplete one looked without the other. She also said that she had no idea that she had so many “faces”, nor that her body had so many “faces” either.

Towards the end of the winter Forsith decided that the most beautiful part of a slim woman was the soft pouchy part of her belly, and especially the small white hairs that grew there. The second most beautiful part was the small of a woman’s back, and he decided that his project for the photography magazine would be closeups of these regions.

Janet said that those were peaceful afternoon sessions. Forsith brought in a padded table and he set up his lights and screens for closeups. He was using magnifying filters and lens extenders to get a close focus, and Janet got to just lay there in the warmth of the lights and daydream. She said that for these pictures he kept her modestly draped, which was just as well, she said, as his camera was pretty near. On the second afternoon he got his equipment all set up and focused, and then he threw open the window to let the winter air in. Turns out he wanted to see if goosebumps would make the little white hairs stand up!

That was about the end of the project. He had her come in for a few more sessions, but she said that there wasn’t anything new in the work. Janet said that she thought that by that time Forsith just liked having her around with her clothes off, and she said that she was liking that too.

Forsith gave her a little present of a few weeks’ pay on the last day and he gave her a few photos from their previous work. He had made some prints of images from the day that he played comedy records for her, and he had caught her in that instant when the eyes register the joke but before the laugh distorts the face. Janet said that they were beautiful portraits, but ever-so-slightly odd because her face and body were relaxed but her eyes were not. She said that she had never seen quite the same effect since.

- Byron

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