I’ve had the nude picture of me hanging in my back hall for years. It’s smaller than the one Willow had in the show, and it isn’t decorated. Even though it’s not obviously me, I never brought it into the living room, or even to my workroom. I wanted it up because I thought it was a great image, I was close to Willow, the photographer, and I didn’t want to insult her by not having any of her work up in my house. But I thought if I started talking about it I’d end up revealing that it was me. And then Willow, whose image it really was, would be pushed out of the frame and the whole thing would degenerate into my telling stories about what it was like being her model. And because that picture was more of a collaboration than any of our others, I didn’t want that to happen.
On a simpler level, I also didn’t want to be talked about as that guy who puts up pictures of himself naked.
Willow found me outside of her circle of artists and gallery people, and she kept me outside it. I was her secret. When she had images of me up she took me to the openings, but asked me not to tell.
“Someone else might want to use you,” she said, “but you’re all mine.”
That was fine with me, because I had no interest in having my Dean, or any of my ex-wives, learn that I was moonlighting as a model. I preferred keeping my freedom of spirit to myself, or at least inside and out of sight.
Willow liked to work at my house, which was a presentable Victorian, with a full complement of room styles. There was never any need to rush, unless it was late afternoon and we were worried about the light. We could always go down to the kitchen for more plastic wrap, catsup, Perrier, or tin foil. We sometimes used my video setup to check the posing. Willow turned the monitor so I could adjust myself.
She wasn’t an equipment freak. She did wonderful things with a Brownie Hawkeye; sometimes she used my old Nikon F instead of her new Canon, if I had a lens she didn’t. For Willow, the negative – and sometimes the print – was only the beginning.
The picture was done in my attic. We liked working there, because of the light, the interesting windows, and the floors. Willow chose the setting, and I chose the pose – head on arm, arm on headboard, all muscles strained. I tried for the most definition, even if it meant some awkwardness in wrist and foot. But my muscle sheaths and tendons cooperated, giving her good contrasts. Upper thigh and buttock were particularly effective, she thought. I tried for a man-in-agony pose, but Willow modulated me into a tense, perhaps worried or dejected one. The muscles worked either way. I still think I should have tipped my head down more, and looked more directly at the camera. But she said that might have made me recognizable.
Willow made a large print and painted a blue acrylic swirl in my lap, and laid a heavy black outline down my side. It went up in a gallery near my house.
I told my haircutter that I was on exhibit down the street, and she said she’d go over after work to check me out. When I stuck my head in the salon the next day all she said was “Nice.”
I was hoping for more. She’d been cutting my hair and listening to my secrets for fifteen years – why wasn’t she more interested? I let it drop, but I was disappointed. I think I was looking to push our intimacy further – not sexually, but into another mode of revealing. When we talked in the chair, she had only my words to go on. Meaning and implications fell away with the cut hair; when she swept up, she swept away what we’d talked about. I understood that. But my picture was another matter: physical, immutable, myself, at once presented by me and by Willow. I wanted her to understand, to acknowledge, the complexity of the collaboration that produced the image, and admire it for that.
And admire – hey, I can admit it now – my upper thighs and butt.
One February Willow took me across the Peace Bridge into Canada because she wanted to do me against the piled-up winter ice. She’d been waiting for a day with low, yellowish late afternoon light. Across Lake Erie, Buffalo’s lights would be coming on.
She’d already worked out how to keep me warm and functional: a sleeping bag, an overcoat, and a toboggan. I undressed in the car, laid the sleeping bag and the equipment on a toboggan, put on the overcoat and shoes, and pulled the whole works out onto the ice.
After each shot I got into the sleeping bag to warm up and wait for her to change lenses, move the tripod, or work with the light meter. Then I’d climb out, do the pose she wanted, and get back in. When she changed locations I stayed in the bag and she pulled me on the sled. Fortunately for my extremities the quality of light she wanted didn’t last very long.
Willow hoped to place some of those shots in a magazine. The prints were wonderful: a nude man lying on his side, a city in the background, across the lake. Long shadows. Long lens, so he’s jammed up against the city. Another, wide angle, camera high, man embracing column of jumbled ice. Man under outcrop of ice, egg pose. Man leaping – that one was tricky. Man, back to camera, legs spread, arms outstretched as if to embrace low clouds, city lights in his armpits.
“Come on,” Willow said, “Spread a little more. I want some scrotum in this one.”
I could only laugh, because my scrotum was about the size of a walnut and somewhere near my kidneys.
“If that’s what you wanted,” I told her, “you should have brought one of those hunter’s hand warmers.”