The Picture Left Untaken

Photographers collect people. They capture anyone who’s mildly interesting on film so as to not miss an opportunity for a great shot. I’ve collected Stephin Merritt, Amanda Lepore, and a few other personalities, but these images currently serve little purpose. I wonder, though, how I’ll feel when one of these personalities dies, leaving behind the image I took of him or her as a relic. Would they like how I’ve frozen them?

I used to photograph events for the art writing program I attended at SVA for forty dollars each. Lecturers and guest speakers would come by and I’d document the whole thing, trying to stay silent and out of the way. Usually people didn’t mind. So when our class was scheduled to meet with Leo Steinberg the collector in me was excited, and I felt a responsibility to represent him as in good health even though he wasn’t.

I arrived to Westbeth thirty minutes earlier than the other students in order to shoot his portrait, and when I got there he and our department head were chatting and smoking cigarettes. He spoke in a low tone, quietly. It forced others to pay close attention. He was pleasant and intellectual, and spoke with confidence.

I had a backpack with a Mamiya RZ67 in it and a tripod. So I set up, and when I was done, and had built up enough confidence to deal with the prospect of rejection, I asked, “Can I take your portrait?” He didn’t answer immediately. Maybe he was weary of where these photos would end up, protecting himself against a future internet smear of some kind. Or perhaps he wanted to maintain the meeting’s unspoken unofficial status as more of a discussion than a roundtable. What ever it was, he declined. He said something like, “I have many from thirty years ago.”

I respect people who don’t want to have their picture taken. They don’t value the image. They value the moment. They value memories, the happenings and calculations of the mind, and competent personal decisions. Steinberg upheld the no-photo ideology like someone who didn’t want to end up on Facebook the next morning.


Here’s to the picture left untaken.


Thanks Leo.

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