Photographer Jack Radcliffe and I like to talk when we travel, so I flipped on the GPS to think for us and didn’t notice that there was multiple routes from which to choose. Through the lens of the windshield the Sunday sun framed naked trees in a blur of a million missed photos and we didn’t care about the odd route. We had time and shutter speeds and The Decisive Moment to discuss.
My mission was to assist Jack, my mentor, during a photo-shoot of Michelle Li Murphy, a long-time muse and friend of Jack’s. As it happens, all or most of Jack’s subjects are his friends. Jack finds interesting people and then spends years with them. Like a relative who always has a camera in his hand, he becomes a part of their tribe until eventually they don’t even notice the camera.
Our destination was Michelle’s home in the small town of Hanover, PA, a place where the buildings are too shy to be above a certain height and the store fronts try to convince you that it’s 1962.
Jack’s goal was to do an updated photograph of Michelle and her ex-husband Quill, a musician visiting from the Pacific North West. Jack first photographed the couple together twenty years before and he hadn’t seen them together since that time. Here’s them with an early photo.
Michelle’s house is festooned with colorful paper streamers, artwork, and interesting vintage artifacts. A playful atmosphere to raise her daughter Marina Belle, a name she gave her because Michelle herself had lived for part of her childhood on a 40′ wooden sailboat named “Adonde.” “When we came back from open ocean, the first thing you hear is the gonging of the bell in the harbor buoy. She is my safe harbor…home,” she explained.
The day we visited was Marina Belle’s eighth birthday and Jack sat across the table, taking pictures of the family as they sang happy birthday. Jack interacted with his camera, his flash a laugh, the snap of his shutter a hummed affirmation, the lens nodding in agreement, and happiness. Jack’s just comfortable to be around, he lets you be you, and you can’t help but see it and a lot more in his powerful images.
After the Birthday cake we went up stairs to take more portraits, the streamers continued on the ceiling of the stairs as we ascended.
While we were shooting Jack and Michelle spoke about her work. Michelle makes beautiful hand-dyed accessories and clothing. The history of how she got into the business is an entire story in itself. Apparently, she recently made a connection in her small town that resulted in her work being part of this years Grammys. The local new station even covered the story.
I could see why Jack was inspired by Michelle for so many years and I wanted to learn more. So I proposed that we create a piece together, the three of us, the story you’re reading now.
We decided that Michelle would create a tableau or a set for herself with all of her various materials, Jack would document the creation, and then I would take their picture together, or end up typing this sentence and maybe a few more. Michelle was excited about the idea and we told her we’d return a few weeks later when she was ready for us to capture what she created.
In between the two shoots I had the chance to ask Michelle some questions.
Phil: How did you meet Jack?
Michelle: I met Jack at Harford Community College where he was teaching the photography course. The kids pursuing photography were the cool ones and I would hang around to be near them. There was a girl named Jen, that would roller skate in the hallway wearing wonderful vintage clothing and she was so beautiful to me.
Michelle: Jack took pictures of Carol Jean, who I knew through my hippie background somehow. I was fascinated by her artwork, style, and the mysterious aura she created. I just wanted to be near her as well. I wanted to soak up some of that feeling.
Michelle: Jack asked me if he could take pictures of my boyfriend and me. We met down by the river in Havre de Grace, and did a series in the car. We were still in love and in the early stages of our teenage romance. It was the first time I felt the energy that can happen between a photographer and the muse. I forced myself to let go of the self awareness and try to push through that surface of skin to the meat of the moment. I wanted to make good pictures for Jack… and I could feel that you had to create a kind of heat and emotional content inside of yourself. It was not the outside look of the thing that mattered, but what you were thinking of and projecting.
Phil: A moment ago you said: “I forced myself to let go of the self awareness and try to push through that surface of skin to the meat of the moment.” Those ideas seem a bit advanced for a young woman, who at the time was barely out of her teens. Can you elaborate—did Jack direct you?
Michelle: Jack guided me there (creating emotional content within) by asking me questions that were kind of loaded, and then as I was thinking about how I would answer, he pushed the button. So I figured he was getting me to look inward for his own reasons. He is deliberate about each picture. It is intimate in an odd way. I try to just look back at him as if the camera is a tunnel to his eyeball or brain. I guess it is. The more he got to know my story the more he could ask about and get a reaction from me. He captured my growing indifference to the boy in the car photos with a picture of us in front of a screen door with a tear down the middle. Perfectly captured what was going internally with me, but I could not show it outwardly.
Phil: So Jack captured the good and the bad, rather than just flatter you, he revealed you. Is that accurate?
Michelle: Jack told me once, that Carol Jean had complained about a picture he took of her cooking eggs. She didn’t feel she looked good and refused to have her picture taken anymore. That stuck with me as we continued to work together. He would show up very early in the morning and I often felt puffy eyed, bloated and my room was messy. I decided I would not want to curtail his freedom in any way. So I just let him take pictures of what ever caught his eye.
Michelle: He took pictures of all of my Baltimore boyfriends and eventually my husband to be. He caught me with my father and mother and in all of the various places I lived in Maryland. We did one series where I wore a halter dress from the 50’s and sat in a window overlooking the jail. I was living on Preston Street and working at Eddies Supermarket over by the HIppo. I wore wigs to work and roller skated everywhere. Jack told me that I looked too pretty in that picture and he felt like we were doing a fashion shoot. I have that polaroid still…I felt like I was not interesting enough. He was bored with me.
Then I moved to Washington state and eventually to New York. We lost touch and I figured it was done.
Phil: How did you end up re-connecting with Jack after you returned to the Baltimore area?
Michelle: We found each other again on the Facebook in 2011. I was occasionally dancing at the Crazy Russian, connecting with Baltimore people from my past and we had many friends in common. We finally got together for a session a year later and it was as if no time had passed.
Phil: what’s it like working with Jack now, how is it different than when you first started?
Michelle: The difference that stands out to me the most is the confidence I have now. I know that I have an interesting life and my character is more developed. So, I can relax and play now…the beauty of imperfection is part of my creative process. I learned this from being a painter for all these years and finding the flaws in my work as a catalyst for the next design. I am free to just be there for him as a subject with out the junk in my mind that worried me when I was young. Its pure and simple. I also know what Jack likes. Reflections, layers, texture and patterns…no smiling. 🙂 I do my best to be a good muse and further his story by being an open book that he can pull my history from and use to make a compelling picture.
Michelle: He has also been asking me to role play this time, before we just took shots of my natural environment. He will ask for film noir or suggest a painter for me to think about. I dig through my stuff, fix my hair and pluck my eyebrows to suit the time period. I try to think of locations that would work, knowing that he likes corners, doorways, and long hallways. Natural light is important too.
Phil: Jack and I plan to continue our travels, for me it’s a photo school on wheels, a classroom where every once in awhile an amazing person like Michele Li Murphy will pop up and change my perspective for the better.