This title was just asking to be used…!
What is a muse? What is a muse for me? I have regularly referred to my good friend Stephanie Tait as my muse, and as I am presently hoping she’ll be visiting the UK again later this year (she now lives in Los Angeles), I wanted to reflect on what it is about her that makes me regard her as my muse, and what that means for me.
I have thought about this at various times over the last few years, and, unusually, I have not spent any time researching the topic by reading about it. What I mean by this is that I have not followed my usual academic-inspired route of studying the question of muses and how they have been seen and understood in the past by artists. This has been very deliberate: although I do, of course, have a general sense of the idea of muses and have regularly come across artists who have seen particular individuals as muses (for example, Harry Callahan photographed his wife Eleanor Callahan extensively: Suzanne Shaheen’s obituary in The New Yorker on 2.3.12 described her as ‘[o]ne of the greatest muses in photo history…’). I have also engaged with artistic representations of the question of muses (narratives such as Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse comes to mind, for example). However, whilst noting en passant that these are mostly gendered relationships – as is mine! – which almost automatically makes them an interesting object of study, I have not sought to actively research muses in a scholarly way. Exercising such deliberate restraint is not that easy for me to do, but I have wanted to write this blog posting for some time, and I very consciously wanted to try and write it in such a way that it would be a reflection of and on my own emotional experiences, rather than a treatise on the place of artistic muses in history. Doing the latter would be easy for me, whilst I knew that doing the former would be more difficult. However, I was also clear that engaging my own emotional experience would be much more interesting – at least for me, perhaps for Stephanie, and possibly for others.
The idea of muses in western contexts comes, of course, from Greek myth: the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who are the goddesses of the arts are the original muses, though I would not have been able to name them all without a reference work (see, the academic in me breaks out after all…!): Calliope of epic poems; Clio of history; Erato of love poems; Euterpe of music and lyric poems; Melpomene of tragedy; Polyhymnia of sacred lyrics; Terpsichore of dancing; Thalia of comedy; Urania of astronomy. There is clearly an inspirational connection here, but until fairly recently it has not been very clear to me how this might relate to my own thinking about muses. To understand this requires a wider understanding of some personal history… indulge me…
My most beautiful model
Although happily married to the person I want to be married to, long before and throughout our marriage I have held – and articulated – the belief that one other person can never be a complete counterpart for anyone, at least, not in the sense of being someone who can reflect all their interests, needs and desires: maintaining otherwise is to create an idol of the other, leading to (self-)deception and unrealisable expectations. All long-term relationships are unique creations built on certain mutually agreed foundations between individuals, whether spoken or unspoken, and in this case, this understanding about idolatry of the other is one that both of us in this marriage have always understood in broadly the same way, with a similar sense for the boundaries and parameters (of course, my wife might articulate these things slightly differently, but that doesn’t detract from the fundamental mutuality). This understanding manifests itself in different ways, not least in the form of friends: we have mutual friends with whom we share a great deal, and equally, we both have friends to whom the other has less of a connection or affinity. Exploring varying aspects of our personalities through relationships to other people is completely normal.
So how does all this connect to Stephanie? Without wanting to elaborate on the details, a few years ago, during a particularly stressful and difficult period, Stephanie became someone I found I could rely on and relate to as a good friend: the kind of person who really was there when needed, if that’s not too much of a cliché. That this happened is all the more remarkable in that she is (and, I hasten to add, was already at that time) a former student of mine – it cannot be taken for granted that a connection initially based on a structured power relationship (such as lecturer-student) can be transformed into one that is more about people relating to one another as equal human beings. She knows that she has my immense gratitude for her kindness to me in this period.
As I have described here, it was Stephanie who first suggested I might work on portraits, and she has been a source of inspiration to me ever since (it’s interesting to me that this was a hurdle to her too, but she didn’t give that away at the time – I think she knows that would have intimidated me even more!). Given that Stephanie is a script-writer, film-maker, and film-scholar, it is perhaps appropriate that she reminds me of Radha Mitchell’s Syd in one of my favourite films, Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art. For sure, it is rather presumptuous to compare myself to Ally Sheedy’s Lucy, the photographer in the film, but my comparison rests loosely on the inspirational role that Syd plays in relation to Lucy. Long dormant, Lucy rediscovers her desire to pursue her photographic life through her encounter with Syd, although this has tragic consequences for the main protagonists of the film, especially Lucy and her partner, Patricia Clarkson’s Greta (I’ll say no more, but I do highly recommend the film!). I don’t think I had realised how much I wanted to photograph people until Stephanie more or less made me photograph her.
Now, I’m aware that this perhaps sounds a bit like a teenager’s first proper kiss, with Stephanie taking the role of my first true love! That is not what I’m seeking to suggest here. Of course, at the risk of veering into psychobabble, all relationships also involve some form of physical connection, and it would be completely naïve to pretend that didn’t exist: yes, I see Stephanie as a beautiful woman, and in other circumstances I may well have been very attracted to her – but that is not really the issue here. I encounter a great many people that I think of as beautiful in one way or another, both male and female, but I don’t want to pursue physical relations with all of them. In that sense, I tend to take a broadly conservative attitude to my marriage! 🙂
Furthermore, I have photographed many other people, and I have enjoyed the engagement with both friends and professional models who have been tremendously forthcoming in their openness to my photographic ideas. I very much want to continue to do this. But… but… photographing Stephanie is somehow qualitatively different to all of this.
Initially, I can identify two significant elements that make photographing her such a different kind of experience for me. Firstly, I have an intimate relationship to Stephanie based on our profound empathetic encounter from a time of adversity that fosters and encourages an almost totally free exchange of thoughts and ideas (insofar as such freedom is possible; even if it is, some ideas are never meant for sharing, even with the most intimate of confidantes). Secondly, her role as my muse is an active one: she is herself an incredibly creative person who brings her tremendous energies to bear in all areas of her life. Photographing her becomes an active process of cooperation in transforming ideas into photographs.
These two elements – her profoundly sensitive nature and her own rampant creativity – mean that when I’ve described ideas to her, or developed ideas that she has brought, they suddenly seem totally natural, no matter how crazy they may have seemed at first: I feel as if she intuitively and intimately understands where I am coming from and what I am trying to do, often without too many words needing to be spoken. Injecting her own personality into the process, she is, for me, an inspirational woman who engages in intimacy with me on a level that makes the attempts to create something just work. The end-result may not always quite reflect the extent of the initial vision, but that is probably down to my technical failings rather than her lack of engagement or understanding. So Stephanie is not only one of my best friends. Stephanie is also, for me, an inspirational goddess, a muse: the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place.
There is, however, a third element beyond the intimate empathy and creativity Stephanie embodies: when I say she is “the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place”, I find I want to ask both how this manifests itself, and why it might be the case. When I seek answers to these questions, I find that they are, unsurprisingly, dialectically related to one another. For a long time, I wasn’t completely clear about this. However, what has recently helped me understand this is a very simple realisation: whenever I have an idea about something I want to do that involves a model, it is always Stephanie who first comes to mind. As I seek to try and envision an image, she is the one I imagine posing, she is the one I imagine wearing whatever garment I am thinking of, she is the one who is asking the questions about how and why something should be done one way and not another… I suppose I am conducting long conversations with her about my images, even when she isn’t there. She may not be the person who appears in the final image – and given the distance between us that is increasingly unlikely! – but she is always the one I am thinking of initially, to the point where my sketchbook of ideas is, in fact, largely a collection of sketches of her. In so many ways, she is not only a model for me, she is my model model, as in: my model for other models, irrespective of gender or appearance.
This can sometimes have interesting and slightly strange repercussions: I have a small series of images in mind that picks up on something important that has happened to me, but I very much want to ask Stephanie to be the first model in that series. I haven’t spoken to her about this yet so she doesn’t know what I’m thinking of – that’s something I’ll describe to her when I see her – but I have already partially created the second and third set of images. What is rather strange about this is that I feel I can’t show these other images until I have created the first one, ideally with my muse, my inspirational goddess, addressing issues of pain and beauty that are very personal for me.
Incidentally, I have long been enticed by her online name: in various places, such as her blog and her Twitter account (do read and follow!), she uses “Queendom of Mab” to identify herself. From Shakespeare’s description of a fairie who comes to lovers in Romeo and Juliet, to some of the stranger usages by other authors, there is something about the inspirational, unexpected, and supernatural in her usage of this moniker that really appeals to me – but perhaps that’s just my own view, coloured by the emotional attachment I have to my friend.
I would like to think that this muse-relationship will continue: that when we’re both old and rickety, even though we will perhaps still live on different continents, I might see Stephanie every once in a while and want to photograph her – and she might continue to be happy to be photographed. We’d spend time discussing and gently exploring our way forwards in the mutual transformation of a particular vision into a photographic reality – and we’d enjoy doing it. After all, the inspirational goddesses don’t stop inspiring just because time progresses…
Before concluding, I think it is important to note that muses can take many different forms. For some, it is a person, for others it can be a place: I don’t know if he would use the term ‘muse’, but a landscape photographer I know has spoken of a particular hill that he has photographed in numerous different ways almost as if it were a person. When I look at his photographs, which are connected to poems, I feel as if I am eavesdropping on an intimate conversation he is having with the landscape. It seems to me that ‘his hill’ is a place that he ascribes with conceptions of intimate refuge, occasional struggle, and substantial creative energies – perhaps it is a kind of muse to him? There are undoubtedly many different forms that such inspiration can take.
I’m interested in other people’s understanding of their muses…