She breezes into the room, mustering something under her breath I cannot hear. I watch her every move, each nuance, how she picks something up, the way her eyes flicker when she talks, the flow of her clothes, the curl of her lips as she greets me. She is a raised chalice of charisma, exuding the heart thumping charm of an awkward teenager about to enter the doors of their first school dance.
I can sense that her image is important to her, and that this photo session will not be one where she is not invested in its outcome. It is not her ego that is driving her, it is her anticipation. She knows what is about to happen in her life, how her world will change in a few short months, and there is a hint of desperation in her stance.
Success can be overwhelming, and for someone like Cheryl Strayed who works from her intuition outward, she is trying to brace for the wave that will certainly alter the course of her family.
This was my second time photographing her. The first occasion was when we made her author photograph for her newly released book, Wild. I had met her years before at a party on my street, and as I frequently do when I see someone I would like to photograph, I approached her and asked if I could do so. I never question why I want to photograph someone, i just go for it.
It took a few years before we finally got into the studio, coinciding with the time that she needed her author photo. She was not the easiest person to photograph, as she was difficult to “reveal”…..she held back from letting herself become free before the lens. However, I could see a heat, an intensity that ran so deep, and I took the time to find a way in. I was surprised, because Cheryl is known for her openness and exposure of self in her writing. But the camera can conjure up a whole set of feelings as we place ourselves center stage before the world. I understood this. I found this aspect of her to be utterly endearing, and a purposeful platform from which she could rely upon as she embarks on the notoriety that this book will surely bring to her. A bit of self consciousness and doubt are good antidotes for anyone who is a rising star.
As we got to know each other, she quickly let down her guard, especially when I asked her to scream foul expletives into the air. We collapsed in heaps of laughter as she spewed out word by word, randomly surfacing the most blatant in her mind. Click. I knew which image would make it to the top three, and I was not surprised when she selected it as her favorite for the book jacket. Exuding just the right tinge of sexuality with a splash of backcountry confidence, there she was in front of me: lovely, poised, certain and wild. I saw the stray hairs that flew about, but I restrained from moving them. This was her, in all of her provocativeness. Let it be. Why alter that reality?
Now I was here to photograph her for the magazine, Poets and Writers. The specs were well defined, from typeset placement to locations to editorial vs portrait styling. I had a grand time with Cheryl in her home, poking into hallways and bedrooms and recessed living areas. My daughter was my assistant on this day, and we both marveled at how she can ignite a conversation with a deliberate focus of her yearning blue eyes, a tilt of her head and a deeply penetrating question.
When it was time to upload images to the magazine, once again, I was faced with a choice regarding how I would edit the images, as I retain rights to make those decisions. There was one photo in particular that was bothersome. During the shoot, I had failed to see a strand of blond hair that was twisted into a pattern that detracted from Cheryl’s face. It looked like a starburst, shot close enough to the camera that made what is referred to as a “hot spot” on the image. Glaringly white, it drew the eye downward toward its center. I agonized over this part of the image, kicking myself for not seeing it so I could have moved it into place where it would not have competed with her facial expression.
As I started to alter it in Photoshop, once again, I halted myself. This is who she is. Just because this is a rising star, photographed for a highly regarded magazine, why should I now foray into something I have long kept at bay in my work: the degradation of an authentic image just for the sake of so called beauty?
I decided to leave the starburst piece of hair intact as a testament to the miracle of photography. At times we capture something we never see while photographing the subject. This is the true delight of making images, when we, the photographers, are startled by something we did not know was present.
This starburst was something I could not have created myself. The more I looked at it, the more I saw how it was a symbol of the truth in Cheryl: although a rising star, the showmanship brilliance rests more upon her shoulders than in her soul. One can see quite quickly that Cheryl Strayed is all about the journey and not the destination.
Her star is shining now, with book tours and interviews and even discussions of larger events that will rock her world. But deep within her soul is where her truth rests, not within her stardom. If one looks past the dazzle of stardom and the bursting success that is now surrounding her, you can reach her soul through one look into her intentional eyes.
Imperfection is, after all, the gateway to sincerity.