Emily Cooper

The Sitter

I have one portrait of myself from the year or so I spent as a sitter. It rests on the mantelpiece of my childhood bedroom, unframed. Dust is easily attracted to the surface of the metal plate: a collodion wetplate portrait of me sitting solemnly looking directly at the camera. The long exposures made smiling impossible, especially as I would sit for portrait after portrait while timings and light and positions were tested. Each photograph was developed immediately after exposure in a wooden box constructed by my then-boyfriend.

I had been promised many more portraits, but somehow they all ended up in his zip folder of plates. There were dozens of me in there, probably more than fifty; spanning the first portraits he took when we met, which coincided with when he first built his dark-room box. There are ones taken during the development phase and through to later portraits that are in focus and sharp. He kept the folder on my side of the bed, but I was always too nervous to look inside.

I did not enjoy sitting. I have never enjoyed the act of having my photograph taken, but I wanted to be helpful and I enjoyed the direct attention he gave me when I was doing his bidding. He would call me beautiful as I sat straight backed, but as a softener rather than a direct compliment. Something muttered at me as photographers do: ‘Beautiful, beautiful, you’re beautiful.’

Celia Paul, the artist and sometime lover of Lucian Freud, wrote about how she wept every time she sat for Freud. His biographer, William Feaver, wrote that it was because she knew he was being unfaithful to her, which he was, but Paul explains that she didn’t like being looked at, that she felt trapped. Paul rarely painted Freud, preferring instead to paint her mother and sisters. The discomfort of sitting was done out of familial love for Paul. More than a favour, her family members gave themselves to her. Her mother continued sitting until she couldn’t manage the steep staircase up to the studio/flat that Freud had bought for Paul, facing the British Museum. After the loss of her main subject, Paul began to paint herself more often. This is how I encountered her work, cleanly, without the interference of Freud. I feel grateful for that, to have looked upon her and her work without his shadow.

The intimacy of sitting for someone close to you is intense. You become much more than the subject. You are part of the conversation of the work. Your actions and positions are heated by the warmth of the exchange. It is different to being a model. A model is paid. They are there only to be looked at. When they leave the studio, their job is done. Sitting for a partner fits into the domestic flow. It is punctuated by discussions of what to have for dinner, whether there is enough light left in the day to go for a walk. The transactional nature of the act is obscured by familiarity, duty and affection.

Some people are only comfortable when being observed. I know people who find being on their own unbearable, who will seek out company at every opportunity. Perhaps it is something to do with being witnessed. A life unobserved can be seen as one unlived if you take a step back. Before I met the photographer, I had wished for someone to photograph me. My father had boxes and boxes of photographs he took when we were young, of us children, of my mother. They are beautiful and my mother is beautiful in them. I began to worry that the years of my youth would go by unrecorded. We are constantly taking photos of each other, of ourselves, but they are disposable: digital confetti that gets swept away with each new app and medium.

I wanted real photographs; ones that I could hold in my hands and that have a real physical link to moments of my life. It’s not really something you can ask of someone else, so I bought a film camera. A decent one after years of using point and shoot cameras I had bought in boot-sales that were grotty with mould. I took a photography class to supplement the lessons my father, leather-cased light-metre in hand, had given me in my late teens. I am not a good photographer, but I learned enough to take portraits of my friends on beaches and in beer gardens. Tokens to give to them, souvenirs. Sometimes I would pass them the camera to take one of me, first standing close beside them to show how to twist the dials and lens, how to focus and get the light metre dial to balance. Somehow these photos rarely turned out right, whether because of my poor instructions, how preoccupied I was with explaining the mechanisms, pausing only for a moment to pose, or perhaps it was because I had requested the photo and facilitated it. It was more an act of looking at myself rather than being looked at, or captured, by someone else.

The night I met the photographer he invited me home to his parent’s house to look at his newly built dark room box. It was built from heavy plywood, with a huge black curtain secured tightly around the edge. Over the next few months we spent most days completing the set up – securing red lights inside the box, setting up the concertina camera in the garden to take test shot in the bright summer light. The first photographs were of me in my underwear, standing on the stony edge of the pond in his parents’ sunny garden. Their big house was empty when they went away for months at a time to their holiday home in Greece. We would sit at the kitchen table and do calculations, discussing the exposure times, the developing chemicals. I learned how to take the photographs and how to use the dark room, rolling the developer cleanly on the diagonal to coat the plate evenly, watching as the image emerged in the tray of fixer, like magic. As the photographer worked out the process, the sitting became more serious. He set up lights and made a makeshift studio in the living room. I sat for hours. The portraits began to build up. He hid the first ones of me in my underwear on the bookshelves in his bedroom, out of view for when he flicked through the zipped folder with his friends, gently teasing plates out, holding them gingerly at the edges. This was when he would refer to me as his ‘muse’, before setting up the camera to take a portrait of the visitors.

Soon the photographer rented a studio and began to advertise his business online. By then we were spending time together infrequently, the relationship had broken down a few months after it started. He began to post my portraits online, never asking permission. He took to using one of the wetplates of me as a sample when he brought his portable darkroom to events to sell portraits. When I questioned him he told me I had no right to the images, that they were his intellectual property and that my contribution to the project was simply as a pair of eyes to focus on. Around then, I published a poem about the photographer in a small anthology, dedicating it to him under his full name. When I gave him a copy he was pleased initially but annoyed that I had included his surname. He insisted I was never to write about him again, threatening to punish me if I did.

Lucian Freud had an affinity to the sculptor Rodin. He owned several of his sculptures and collected connections such as his birthday being the same as Rodin’s lover, the sculptor Camille Claudel. Like Freud, Rodin had many young lovers who were both artists and sitters for him. Gwen John was one of them. Her paintings of women sitting – reading or with their hands gently laid on their laps – have an aura of peaceful tranquillity, the colours are muted and soft. John was eclipsed by her painter brother, Augustus John, as well as by her relationship with Rodin. It is said that she was so devoted to Rodin that at the end of their affair he actively removed her from his presence through his secretary and concierge. To my knowledge, John never painted Rodin; her paintings are demonstrations of interiority rather than connection. The figures are complete in themselves, not reaching out as in the sexually charged works of Rodin and Freud. There is a current moving between their subjects and themselves. Freud most often chose to paint nudes of women and gay men. Though he avoided explaining this fact, it is quite plain when you view the paintings that their nudity is not neutral. Sexuality is intrinsic in both their work and spilled out from canvas and bronze into their lives. The relationships are part of the work as the work could not exist without the sex. The electricity of those exchanges is what powers the paintings and sculptures, elevating them from object to an emotional exchange, palpable to the viewer.

One afternoon in the photographer’s bedroom I looked up to the top shelf where he kept the original portraits from when we first met, and found a new one mixed in with them. A picture of a school friend of mine, who had also been in a relationship with the photographer before we met. When I asked him why it was there he told me it was because he knew I would overreact and assume the worst. It took me over a year to gain the courage to ask this girl what had happened. He had met her for a drink and had insisted she come home with him so he could take her portrait, then they had sex on the studio floor. Of course he had hidden it from me because I would know, would see it straight away.

The last time I saw the photographer’s work it was exhibited in a small Easter exhibition. He had gold backed three ambrotype portraits: one of me and two of his male friends. As in the style of August Sander, he had labelled each one with a profession. Writer, carpenter and me: Madonna. This irritated me. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a profession to choose from. At the time I was working as a chef as well as writing, it seemed more that he didn’t see me as anything more than a woman. In his project, People of the 20th Century, Sander classified his subjects into groups by profession: the farmers, the skilled tradesmen, classes and professions, the artists, the city, the last people (the homeless), and women. Reading about how Sander’s portraits engaged with the complex social and economic conditions of his time, I found it telling that the photographer had chosen to carry forward that limited idea of gender into his triptych. To define me as Madonna works only as a way to apply a stereotype that suited his own idea of the aesthetics of the work, completely undermining what Sander was doing. Beyond being a woman the label does not apply; I am neither a mother nor a virgin, but simple facts like that do not matter. I sat still like an icon and in the portrait I am silent and always will be.

I think it’s curious to consider the difference in the value of an image and a description in prose or poetry. What exactly is contained of me in those portraits? What can be deduced from the posed black and white plates, sat in front of a grey backdrop or on the stones of the garden pond? Honestly, not that much. I have never placed much value in my appearance. Rather, I place my value in intellect and action, things that are more easily communicated through writing than visual means. Perhaps that is where the photographer’s fears lay, that in my portrayal of him I could allow an audience an insight into his true self, something potentially more intimate and incriminating than a photograph can communicate. Perhaps he was right to fear that.

As John Berger puts it in Ways of Seeing: ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ This idea has always bristled with me. That a woman not only observes, but observes herself being observed at all times. That our image is something that is constantly being proffered in hope of some kind of acceptance or exchange. Within this idea it is a woman’s responsibility to enforce the value of her own image through her actions and presentations, and if sold short she is solely responsible for lowering the price. Maybe this goes a way to explain the discomfort of having had one’s image taken so easily and used so freely.

The last portrait that Lucian Freud painted of Celia Paul is titled Painter and Model and shows her standing barefoot in a painting smock in front of a nude male model reclining on a battered brown chesterfield. It seems a serious portrayal of Paul, in contrast to the nude portraits, one of which includes a split boiled egg placed mockingly on a low table in the foreground. After he painted Painter and Model they broke up and Paul was replaced by Susanna Chancellor (who refused to be painted nude). In her account of their break-up in Self Portrait, Paul’s memoir, she recalls the ‘recoil of having given too much away’. After Freud’s death in 2011. Paul painted her own Painter and Model and this was the first painting I saw by her in the Tate Britain during a visit to London after I had broken up with the photographer. In it she sits with hands resting on her lap, again barefoot in a paint-splattered smock, but this time alone. The colours and composition echo the work of Gwen John, an affinity to whom she had felt through the relationship with Freud and after, when John’s determined interiority mirrored her own. Her eyes are cast downwards and she looks mournful as she silently declares: ‘I am my own subject.’

Celia Paul, Painter and Model, 2012
Oil on canvas, 137.2 x 76.2cm

Emily Cooper has been published in The Stinging Fly, Banshee, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times and Hotel among others. She has been awarded residencies by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Greywood Arts, Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris Region- al Cultural Centre, Letterkenny, and the Irish Writers Centre. In 2019 she took part in Poetry Ireland’s Introductions series and was a recipient of the Next Generation Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. In 2020 she received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Donegal County Council. Her poetry debut, Glass, was published by Makina Books in 2021.

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