I don’t consider myself a portrait photographer by any means, but having learned about available-light portraiture from the wonderful Ibarionex Perello I at least developed enough confidence to shoot some portraits under those conditions. (I admire the people who work with strobes and all that sort of thing, but it’s beyond the tasks I’ve set out for myself in this lifetime.)
Just after I completed the course with Ibarionex, my friend, author Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, took me to dinner and asked me to shoot her portrait as her publicity mug for her upcoming novel. Susan is primarily known as an author for children and young adults, and Frankenstein’s Monster was going to be her first novel for adults. Well, I said, I’d give it a try. Here is the result. Susan had a gift for the jaunty wearing of hats. I photographed her outside our office building, where the blurred reflection of fall foliage in the black glass provided an uncluttered background, and the light overcast sky that day was just what we needed to avoid harsh glare.
Last spring, when one of her brothers-in-law was getting married, Susan decided to get a blue streak in her hair for the occasion, and she asked me to photograph her. Not so much a formal portrait as a decent record shot. Here is one of them. The light was perhaps a bit too strong, but there was the advantage of the background being almost completely dark. Or so I thought. This turned out to be the only usable photo of the series, because for the others I turned in a slightly different direction — and ended up with a lovely tree reflection growing out of her head. Lesson learned: When shooting in the sun and you think your background is complete (or nearly complete) shadow, don’t assume anything: Check your LCD screen very carefully, preferably with a loupe, just to make quite sure.
Shortly before the blue hair incident, Susan had taken a bad fall on some ice outside her front door and used a cane ever after that. But not an ordinary, functional-looking cane. Not Susan. It was a consummately stylish cane, and she used it with aplomb, especially when it was accompanied by her usual array of colorful, flowing scarves and shawls. I regret that I never got round to photographing her with it.
The blue hair pictures may have been the last “serious” portraits ever taken of Susan. She died, suddenly and shockingly, of a suspected coronary embolism, two days before Christmas. She was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my photography. She even gave a metallic print of my Vintage Chevy abstract to her brother-in-law as a present, at the same time as she ordered an aluminum print of it for herself.
But more than that: After her funeral in New Jersey yesterday, I decided to avoid the Interstates and instead return north via the back roads through Ringwood — that intriguingly liminal area where Passaic County melts into New York’s Orange County and where my cameras and I spent considerable amounts of time during the four years I lived in Bergen County. And along Route 511 I passed the Ringwood Diner, where Susan and I once met for Sunday brunch after I had finished shooting at Ringwood Manor (“Just call me when you’re finished,” she had said). Arriving first, I took up a table by a window and before long saw Susan coming up the ramp, smiling. Someone was smiling because they were about to spend time with me. It doesn’t get better than that.
Rest in peace, Susan. No, despite what the song says, you didn’t leave us laughing when you went — you left us crying. But undoubtedly you now have the folks in heaven shedding tears of laughter.
Note to self: Got to get back to photograph the Ringwood Diner.