“…I’m not breaking down, I’m breaking out. This is my last chance to lose control”
June 22nd, 2010
That was the declaration I made to whoever was listening when I walked into the office in early 2010. Whatever the reason was, whether it be yet another canceled shoot by a flaky model or the stress brought up having to stir up all the feelings of loss and sadness that is the emotional foundation for the majority of my photography. It was probably a combination of the two. Maybe it was another reason? Whatever it was, in retrospect it was just another day that is the trials of me and my art.
On this particular day of declaration my audience was Ashley. Ashley and I formally met in August 2007, my first day at my new job after moving to Milwaukee. Ashley and I were assigned as “buddies” by our supervisors. See, where we worked together it is like you are alone in the middle of the ocean with a cramp. Everyone knows you shouldn’t swim without a buddy. That’s Ashley. At least that’s how I always looked at it. It’s also debatable which one of us is more obsessive compulsive. Maybe only one other person I’ve ever met (Brennan!) is more obsessive compulsive than Ashley and I. I also hold her in the highest regard. It probably stands to reason that I have a feeling that this story is going to be detailed, even by my standards.
Anyway, in response to my announcement that I was quitting photography, Ashley so very matter of factly states, “That’s too bad, I was going to ask you to take my picture.”
I’ve been coming to work and regaling my closest co-workers with tales of all my photographic adventures for years. Ashley was always the first to one to hear my stories and was always entertained by them. However, I never asked her to shoot and she never expressed any interest in being a subject for my photography. She even once described herself as a prude.
So when she told me that in response to me saying I was quitting, while it was unexpected, I just figured she was saying it in jest and I didn’t pay much mind to it initially. Nothing more was said.
A couple days into my retirement my thoughts kept coming back to what she said. Was she serious? I finally asked her about four days after she initially said it if she was serious or not. She said “If you don’t, I’m going to have Tom Julio take them.” Being aware of the reputation of this particular photographer I immediately ended my retirement and agreed to photograph her. I also wondered how the hell she even knew that name. The answer to that finally became clear in January 2011 but that’s another story not for here. I’m losing focus.
A few days later we were at a bar together when Ashley told me she had a dream about what our shoot was going to be. I still wasn’t entirely committed to the idea of shooting with her. While I am a strong advocate that it is up to an individual to decide for themselves what they want to do in their life, I am also a strong advocate for honest relationships. Ashley was in one at the time with a gentleman who I also considered a friend. He apparently was not supportive of this idea. All this put me in a bit of a pickle.
But for the sake of conversation I asked Ashley to describe her dream to me. At this point I still didn’t know what they hell we would shoot, if anything at all.
I fear I have said too much already, but I can’t begin to tell the story of this photograph without saying that her dream involved being tied up. It was an interesting dream to say the least and it left me a little challenged due to the awkwardness due to the logistics, my friendliness with her and the fact that photographing people tied up is not my style.
But I told her I would think about it for awhile. Truth is I was just trying to buy time to continue wrestling with my moral dilemma that this whole situation was causing.
Let’s get on with the story of the photograph, shall we?…
A few weeks later Ashley and I go to a show I had in Madison Wisconsin. We go out to dinner where she casually mentions that she broke up with her boyfriend the day before. This woman is the queen of understating things. For someone who doesn’t get surprised easily, she has been shocking me with statements a lot lately.
One thing was clear, this turn of events put my dilemma to rest.
On June 19th Ashley came to work and described to me and our closest co-worker the bathroom in her new apartment. Black and white checkered floor, exposed brick walls, a large window and a free standing clawfoot bathtub. Our co-worker wasn’t aware that Ashley and I had been talking about shooting together at this point so I texted Ashley to tell her that she just described the bathroom that I’ve wanted to shoot in for years.
By text and within 8 feet of one another we planned the shoot for two days later.
Two days later, after work I followed her back to her place. The first thing we had to do as two people inflicted with OCD’s, was clean the bathroom.
This whole situation was awkward from the beginning to say the least. I’ve never known anyone personally for this long, two and a half years, before shooting them nude for the first time. Let alone in a bathroom. Once upon a time when I first started taking photographs someone seriously, a bathroom like this was high on my priority list of locations. But my photography has changed dramatically since that time. Bathrooms typically don’t express the moods and emotions I’m going for. I got a strong feeling that this whole situation was poorly thought out in advance. I could only assume that Ashley thought the same.
We pressed on for about 20 minutes before I decided to end this particular session and suggest that we go somewhere else to shoot the other idea that I had.
The other idea that I had was spawned a couple weeks earlier after our dream conversation at the bar involving her being tied up. I was trying to conceptualize a way to tie her up while at the same time not compromising the style and general aesthetic of my photography.
What I came up with was to tie Ashley to a piece of driftwood. The driftwood is a metaphor for being adrift at sea, helpless and alone. I imagined the clouds being dark and forebodingly ominous. The waves from the water would be splashing at the souls of her feet as she lie bound to the driftwood. As the viewer of the photograph you get the foreboding sense that between the brewing storm and the approaching high tide, this girl is helplessly facing certain death. But you are also left to wonder exactly how she got into this position in the first place.
Here is the thing, she did it to herself. Both literally and metaphorically Ashley tied herself to this driftwood. I mean, in reality, yes, I was the one who tied the knots, but in context of the story being told, the idea is that she bound herself to the driftwood as a way of atonement for the sins of her life. She was giving herself up to a higher power, that represented by the looming nature around her.
Not knowing what her fate would be, if she would survive this or not, she resigned her fate to something beyond her control. Whatever the outcome would be, she would be forced to live and die by it.
If you look closely at her right forearm, between the lashes of rope, you can see black lines. Those are tattoos. I’ve always been fascinated by those tattoos. I have recollections of the first time we went out to lunch together years earlier. I asked her about those tattoos and what they meant. She was vague about the specifics, but what I understood, it is actually the spaces between the solid black lines that wrap around her entire forearm that each serve as a reminder of the virtues that she lives by.
So when I conceived of this whole concept, I decided then that when I did tie her to the driftwood, I would have to loop the rope around her arm and wood enough times so that each space between the tattoos was bound by the rope.
If anyone else had been in this position, it would have been much easier as I only would have hand to make a single pass around the wrist. But whoever thinks for a second that I do anything easy doesn’t know anything about me.
I told her about this idea a few days earlier and she loved it. I already had purchased 30 feet of rope from the hardware stop and it was in the trunk of my car. So when I told her we were leaving the bathroom and going down to the beach to try and make this idea happen, we were ready.
I don’t like to manipulate my shoots too much. We walked a long way down this beach and passed numerous pieces of wicked looking driftwood. But I was determined to find one that was already in perfect position for what we wanted to shoot. That meant it had to be about 5.5 feet from where the waves were reaching. The surrounding sand had to be relatively free and clear of debris and excessive stones. If we didn’t find it, we wouldn’t shoot and we wouldn’t create the scene. It just needed to be. If it didn’t happen, we’ll come back another day and try again. That’s just how I am.
As it was, we found this location. With the risk that anyone can walk upon us at any time, she undressed and we figured out the position. I wanted a combination of her being relaxed and at peace, but also with some resistance and tension as her survival instincts start creeping in. I remember as she lie there and I bound her hands to the driftwood, I would tie the knots and ask her if they were too tight and confirm that she was relatively comfortable and OK. She responded with a statement that really caught me off guard. Not just what she said, but the tone in which she said; “It’s fine. I’m ok. I trust you.”, was really strange to me.
Also, it really should be appreciated the possibility of someone walking down the beach and coming upon this situation. You are on a relaxing early evening stroll down the beach when you come upon a guy tying a naked girl to a piece of driftwood. What would you do in that situation? Does your mind even allow you to see this situation as it is?
That is how that shot came to be.
A couple days later I’m still thinking about what Ashley said to me and how she said it while I was tying her up when I suddenly had an epiphany. For about a year now I had been connecting with so many people who saw my photography as a way to not just express themselves, but use the experience as a way to gain some sort of control over themselves and certain aspects of their lives. Whether it be people trying to come to terms with anorexia, bulimia and the stresses and emotions of life, they were all seeking some sort of control and understanding. Here, with Ashley I realized this was the first time, at least that I was aware of, where I was shooting with someone who was trying to lose control. All the structure and rigid control that Ashley had been living with was the complete opposite of the Ashley that I tied to a piece of driftwood. It made the entire concept and story I had conceived valid. It made it all about her and not just the story I was telling.
I’m really proud to consider her as a friend. She is one of the very few people in my life who word I can rely on. She was also the only person who cried the night before I left Wisconsin.
I kinda feel like I should name this photograph “I quit” It was me coming in and saying I quit that led to this photograph and about a year later when I came into work again and vowed that I was going to quit something, she said “You can’t quit! You are the most tenacious person I’ve ever met.”
That statement has kept me going through a lot of situations this year. If I was ever stuck in the snowy wilderness somewhere with no food or drink and facing death, I swear those words would be my mantra. Those words will probably get me killed someday.
As it is, the words come from a song by the band Muse. I don’t know which song anymore. But it’s a line that I had already attached to this photo before I realized what the shoot symbolized, so I’m keeping it.