15 April 09

Kokkuri-san

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Finally I got the courage to ask her out: Sami, the girl at the sushi restaurant who had been playing the eye-game with me for months, that delightful Asian way of flirting. I was certain she liked me, but it took me a while to figure this out.

“I tell you what. My friends and boyfriend and I are going to a friend’s house to play Kokkuri-san,” she said, in response to my invitation to go out for a drink after she got off from work. “This is a Japanese game,” she added.

My heart sunk a little at the sound of the word ‘boyfriend’, but then I realized that despite that she had indeed said yes. Then a moment later I was flushed with curiosity about who got to fuck her.

He picked us both up at the restaurant at about 11:30. It was a Thursday night. His name was Timothy, and and he drove his car slowly and methodically along the country roads, looking into the woods as if scanning for deer.

We went to an old farmhouse about 10 minutes outside of town. It was built in 1864, which happened to be one century before I was born. It was also filled with Asian girls; the party had been going for a while. Well, there was one other guy besides myself and Sami’s boyfriend, six women who all looked in their early 20s. When I walked into the room I felt like a spotlight was on me. I almost wanted to cover my face but I smiled politely and bowed, perhaps a little too low.

I talked with one of them, a graduate student who was up from the city for the weekend, until someone announced that it was time to play Kokkuri-san. It was a game for only three players, so most of us would watch.

Someone dimmed the lights. It was a seance game; three of the women gathered around the board, with it in their laps. It was a thing you use to contact a spirit, who was supposed to be called Kokkuri-san. It was a Japanese derivation of Ouija. With that ‘game’ everyone knew that you never could predict who was coming through.

The girls sat and softly chanted, “arigato, arigato, arigato,” and a few moments later the board shook. The girls all giggled and one of them laughed there was a new presence in the room; like someone had walked in; but she didn’t have a body.

Given how she felt, I wish she did.

“I am Yoko,” she said through the game, as one of the girls read in Japanese and translated out loud into English. “I was a prostitute in this house in the year 1900.”

13 April 09

Easter to Easter

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Book of Blue Studio at night. Photo by Eric.

Late last winter, some time in March 2008, I was working in a café and the owner walked up to me and – as far as I remember the conversation – asked me what I was doing (writing a horoscope) and if there was anything that I needed. That was Dominick Vanacore, whose café is the hub of what must be one of the last extended families that has actually stuck together.

I didn’t have to think about it for long: I said I needed a sunny room to take pictures in. He asked for my number and about four days later, on a Sunday morning, my phone rang; it was a guy named Stefan, who had a recently renovated studio for rent next door to his pizzeria, right in the old part of town, officially called Uptown (and which I am re-christening Old Kingston).

The space was big and well lit and had hardwood floors. I went and had a talk with Joe, my mentor, and he thought it was a great idea to make a space for creative work and hanging out. I had no idea how good; that I would discover. I had to be ready to commit to spending an extra $1,000 a month to see, however. So there was a gamble involved. However, I feel that if something is worth doing, it’s worth working for.

There was one last thing—the astrology for signing a lease was not that good. So I had my first opportunity to determine just how cool my landlord was going to be. I came into his pizzeria one day and handed him a Planet Waves postcard. I said that he probably didn’t know of my work but that a lot of people followed my astrology, and I much preferred to walk my talk; to be true to my craft. Could he wait till a certain date to let me sign the lease? And to give the deposit? The money part is important because that tends to seal a deal.

His only reluctance was he needed the cash; but he said he would wait. The lease signing turned out to be Easter Sunday last year, and sure enough, Stefan, his partners and I showed up and had a signing ceremony – and my photo project suddenly had a home on the ground, in physical space.

It took about six months to get set up: I started with an Epson 3800 printer, tables, lights and moved a computer from home; and slowly the place took shape. A year later, I feel like a member of the business community, doing art and web design for the friends who got me into my studio; providing ‘place’ photos of local towns and historic landmarks for a new local business project designed to promote the region, Visit Vortex.

What is interesting is that just below the surface of magnificent pictures of Kingston’s Victorian architecture, and the hundreds of Vanacore family photos that I take, and a pizza website that I do with Anatoly, are the deep, warm waters of Book of Blue.

13 April 09

Desperation

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Iris, photographed by Eric Francis.

So some people are desperate for love and others for sex and others for a relationship. Many people are desperate for someplace that feels like home. Some are desperate to know themselves and others to love themselves and others for the confidence to speak up or walk out the door. Many people are desperate to be left alone. It seems like nearly everyone is desperate about at least one thing that they need and cannot seem to access; that others could provide, but will not.

This weaves a desperate world. Our social politics reflect this. It’s also easy to forget. There is one last layer. We’re embarrassed to admit it. We’re supposed to have everything.

I have seen that what stands in the way of getting what we want or need is often the ability to receive; the inner gesture of allowing ourselves to have or to experience. This is a special kind of desperation created by guilt that we carry but do not understand.

13 April 09

Discovering humanity

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Sometimes I can discover something is true just as I’m saying it. This is what I figured out rapping with you. When I experience a woman as free, I witness her humanity. More than that: I engage directly with her. I am doing this now outside of the expectation that any woman will give me sex; I am standing aside from that particular pull, I don’t have to wonder whether you will say yes. I relax into it not happening and that means I relax into the potential.

I want to experience women as people rather than polarized out as something else – a kind of role – in relationship to me. My brain with its hemispheres mending wants to experience you in a full dialog with yourself.

I want to feel the hot brunt of your choice and celebrate that unfettered. I want to feel the empathic melt of your eye language.

I am tempted to call it power, yet that’s what it is: not the power of self-denial and the tense female energy that creates. It’s a loving gesture to give yourself what you need. Or especially what you want. If I love that you do that for yourself, that is compersion. If I love that you masturbate, that is compersion. Or course I love that you relax into yourself, breathe and feel, and I am sure you moan as you gradually let yourself go.

I didn’t ask you what it felt like to want him.

11 April 09

Biophilia

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That’s it. That’s what I’m feeling.

I am gradually reaching a place of sexual inner peace. It would be a strange feeling, if it were not so familiar from somewhere else: p’raps the world of blue luminosity, home of Akas-vari.

I am touching the feminine side of consciousness. As I write this I see how my journey has been toward reaching awareness of what female yearning feels like. I am not there, but I feel the pull in a certain direction of longing and emptiness that craves to be filled. A strain of passion that tears to express herself.

Biophlia is beautiful but is it possible to make love to everything at once?

Is it possible for everyone to be my lover?

Or is this called Being Myself?

Hierophant >> 2 Swords-Peace >> 9 Cups-Happiness

relax into the absolute safety of the moment

11 April 09

An invitation to participate

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Simone peers from the window of the Old Kingston shop where we rented the pink guitar for our spoof on Miley Cyrus. Photo by Eric Francis.

Book of Blue is an open one. It’s a creative space dedicated to drawing from the best elements of art, spirituality and eroticism. All Book of Blue projects are collaborations, created in pictures, audio, paint or the elements themselves. Whether we work in ‘media’ or not, Book of Blue is about sharing space of openness, self-awareness and an agenda of authentic communication. If you’re 18 or older and feel a calling to turn up on these pages, you’re invited to get in contact. I appreciate that via pen and paper to PO Box 3606, Kingston, NY 12402. Please include your full contact information. Photos welcome. I look forward to hearing from you.

11 April 09

45 day diet

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What I have created is a situation where I am surrounded by women who are reaching for erotic satisfaction or arriving there; who are consciously encountering a place of unfettered self-awareness; and not having sex with any of them. Sharing deeply, listening mutually, sometimes sharing m., but in effect celibate.

I’m taking this in 45 day pieces; my next destination is beltane.

This journey, going on for a while, is turning out to be one of the most interesting things I’ve ever tried – and satisfying. I am becoming achingly sensitive to nuances of erotic energy that I had never noticed before. There are actual moments when I feel I am meeting women on level ground.

This may be the great reward. Or is it the journey of its own, walking through the forest of jealousy with the light of compersion to warm and nourish me.

I am exploring the deepest mix of healing and erotic energies I’ve ever known. Pleasure and humility. Self-awareness and other awareness.

At the heart of the matter is my taking authority over my life, erotic and otherwise. I am not worthy or unworthy based on anyone’s opinion of me, or their own situation. Loving sex is always one conscious thought away. I can always say yes to myself. I can say yes to whoever else offers. If I choose to. From here I intend to heal the resentment I’ve carried for ever having been denied.

In the process I submit entirely to the destiny of Woman over herself. I celebrate your choices. I dive into my inner space of desire and surrender. I receive, first from myself, then from the world.

to amanda

11 April 09

To that girl

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the one I said disappointed me. Maybe so.

We had a gradual series of encounters, each of which was different and deep and at times unbearable. There would be a phase apart, and then gradually a magnetism would gather around us and something would happen.

You came to me open and willing, when we took those journeys. You know how to offer yourself erotically. I love that you know your erotic power, even if you go into space of doubting it profoundly at times. You invited me to drink from you when I was thirsty and you needed it. We fucked twice and I loved and received your gift both times. And there were those times we took care of ourselves together like subjects in the true surrender to an experiment in humanity.

I grew close enough to you, to feel the beauty when you fucked deeply and drank fully from the world of another man.

11 April 09

Dayworld

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To Liz, I touched a hot pan. I was too close to my center

I went deeper than I could swim, I went into that unknown museum,

I journey down the line of hips.

I am semen, I am birth through the hips.

I am seed, I am bursting forth from her breathing.

I ride the rocking journey of your hips. I ride that trip you take.

I witness the cosmic drama that created me.

I open to the universe there.

10 April 09

We need a word for it

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Midway Airport, 2008. Photo by Eric Francis.

We need a word for when we do things to avoid the jealous reactions of others. I was talking about this with a friend last night and I remembered a situation from last summer where a potential lover was coming to stay with me. I really wanted an experience with this woman. In preparation, I went into ‘monogamous mode’, which is to say, focusing on her exclusively; that’s supposed to be a good thing.

It is true that she had the history of serial monogamy. I have put this behind me to the extent that I can, but I’m aware that it’s slightly stranger than eating breakfast at night would be for our grandparents.

So, I stopped booking models. I tied up any loose ends on other pending involvements, and decided that it was time to come to closure on a longterm situation that was not going anywhere. I did all of this with the direct or indirect intention of signaling my availability and willingness. It is fair to say that the results were catastrophic.

In retrospect, I am particularly suspicious of my decision to give up making art so that someone (who does not, herself, make art) would presumably feel safer. I learned a good lesson. I was reminded that for me, life is a come as you are party. I got a close look at how when I give up this aspect of my humanity, it is difficult for any other aspect to thrive.

I reminded myself that someone who does not accept the whole person I am, who I fear does not accept who I am, does not have a place in my home, or for that matter, my studio. As my friend Beth once said to me, “Don’t let anyone be your judge and jury.”

I’ve done this before, and I notice this kind of thing all around me. it is not an exercise in feeding the better angels of our nature. It’s about feeding the dark ones. And if we feed them they get stronger.

More than a year ago, Hannah, one of the Book of Blue models you’ve seen here, summed up a kind of world situation when she said that she didn’t feel most that people are monogamous. Rather, she observes that most afraid of jealousy or making their partner jealous, so they stick to one partner, or give the appearance of doing so. In other words, we take this thing that is so precious and sacred and we fake it. Just like our culture is known to do with a lot of things, such as religion.

We need a word for this preemptive avoidance of the jealousy and control of others: for the assassination of passion that comes with specifically living in a way that is designed to not ‘make’ others insecure, regardless of the personal cost to ourselves. This denies that people come into a situation with all of their insecurities in the first place; we either deal with them ourselves or we do not.

There is a close concept, which is guilt. But I think we need a more precise word.

10 April 09

My secret mentor

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Photo by Eric based on an original by Danielle Voirin.

A photography mentor has come into my life.

I feel like I know very little about her, but in truth I may know more than nearly anyone. That’s always how it is with trust: you’re lucky if you figure out how much you mean to people.

Over the past month we had what became a heated conversation on the issue of intention. I won’t burrow into the specifics now, but let’s say she pointed out to me that I can use intention, gently and consciously, as a means of creating my work and my life. I’m not sure why I resisted the idea – I think for spiritual reasons, that is, an attachment to the idea that God is in charge.

Last night in an email unrelated to photography, I told her that I was here to reinvent sex into the egalitarian thing that it needs to be. She is where I ‘came out’ about my true intentions.

It happens that I’m doing this partly through photography. My intention as an artist is to create images where women are shown seeing themselves, and the experience is comfortable. The idea is to reach a new space of self-forgiveness and move from there. After self-forgiveness is self-allowing.

To say that our mental tendencies go somewhat the other way would be a polite understatement.

9 April 09

Notes from sacred hearth

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Moment of safety, in the fire of that. I am here to weave a web of safety, Arachne of fire, servant of Vesta. I am here to reinvent sex into the egalitarian thing it needs to be. I am here at the very least to set myself free.

6 April 09

Into the wind

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Simone and Marsha. Photo by Eric.

Dropping off Simone at her mom’s house the night before she left for Colorado, I got a hint of what it’s like to let your child go; and how vulnerable a young woman can be. Not that anyone is missing this point lately.

We’ve all been shaken up by Kaila’s death. Simone, one of Kaila’s closet friends, dances on the edge of the world where Kaila got swallowed, but she doesn’t seem to dive in. But sometimes she comes dangerously close. She drinks a lot. I think she drinks more in four months than I will my entire life. That equates to a lot of time with judgment suspended.

She doesn’t feel safe sleeping alone, so she always has a boyfriend, mainly for the purpose of bed company. At the time Kaila died, her current boyfriend was planning to move to Colorado with his family. It seemed like two losses within weeks would be too much. She wasn’t planning to go out west but then about four days before they left, she decided to go with them.

I found out because Simone wanted to come in and model one more time before she left, which took three appointments to make happen. When I spoke to her mom, we agreed that it seemed like a good idea for her to get out of the area in the aftermath of Kaila’s exit. She was not feeling good and zombies were afoot.

When I envisioned Colorado, I imagined Boulder or Fort Collins. I was a little less excited when I found out that she would be going to live in a suburb in a remote part of the state rather than in one of the cities. The Hudson Valley is rural, but it’s not a suburb in the middle of nowhere. There are options. This left me wondering what she was going to be doing with herself but no less grateful that she was going to cross the country by car and get a new environment to consider.

Just the feeling of the land out west is a particularly exciting event for most of us East Coasters. Wide, big skies still a hint of the frontier.

After our session where we did the Miley spoof, we got to her mom Marsha’s house, I said I planned to take pictures of she and Simone together. Marsha is one of these people who never lets anyone photograph her. She doesn’t feel she lives up to the beauty of her younger years, when she would have blended right in with the Woodstock festival. But because Simone was leaving she bent her rule and I photographed this moment together.

Then Simone took me down to her basement, where she has an electric piano, and played me the theme from Amelie, impeccably.

When it was time to go, she walked me outside into the cool spring evening. I held her, wrapping her in my arms and in my love, and left some of my tears on her cheek.

2 April 09

realtime

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Simone. Photo by Eric Francis.

Simone came by today for her last session before spontaneously moving to Colorado, which feels really good. The girl has never gone west. And a lot has happened to her here in New York lately.

First we did a ridiculous spoof on Hannah Montana, going so far as to purchase a blond wig at a local costume store and rent a pink guitar from a pawn shop. The picture mocked a photo that appeared yesterday in The New York Post, showing Miley Cyrus trying with all her might to make it look like she was going to smash a Gibson. Actually it was an adorable picture, and I have a soft spot for Miley.

Simone’s version is naked, and pervier. We get her and the guitar in that smash-it position, but it begins to seem vaguely phallic. Some pictures show her close-up clutching the guitar with her toes, and in a few she gently squishes the head of the instrument onto her pussy, stroking the tops of the strings lovingly.

Finally we tossed the props and experimented with this mirror. What I have come to love most about Simone is having no secrets from her: the compassion of that.

Later I dropped her off at her mom’s house. This was only the second time I’d done that – the first was nearly a year and a half ago. I wanted to photograph her and her mom, Marsha, together.

31 March 09

The Vestal Priestess

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Onyx photographed for Book of Blue by Eric Francis.

Mirrors have so many erotic overtones that I’m surprised they’re still legal. The nice thing about them – or so people think – is that they don’t remember the images that they see. I would propose, however, that each time we encounter a mirror, all the subconscious cues of all the other times we’ve encountered a mirror are called up.

Many of those uses are ‘nonsexual’ but they almost always involve some aspect of sex appeal (applying makeup, purchasing clothes, how you look before going out of the house, and so on). Then there exists the wide diversity of erotic uses of mirrors.

It is said that mirrors not used in convents, where the women are expected to be asexual. There would seem to be something inherently erotic in self-awareness.

Vesta, one of the patron saints of my photography, holds the tension between sexual and celibate. She offers herself, but not for her own gratification. She serves ‘some other purpose’. In astrology, she holds space, kind of like a hearth defines the space around which a home is designed. Onyx here is holding space open; this is an invitation to see whatever you might want or need to see. She is not looking at herself; the mirror is there for you.

30 March 09

Encounters with Onyx

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Onyx, photographed for Book of Blue by Eric Francis.

With each model I work with, I have a new encounter with female beauty, sexuality, and sexual power. I choose this as a conscious embrace, rather than (for example) frustrated desire, resentment or or indifference. Over the years I’ve noticed that it’s so rare that I get to directly explore eroticism with someone I photograph that I start there to simplify things for myself, and for her; and I set the thought aside.

It’s sometimes a difficult idea to shake. The combination of who she is, how I respond and getting into a creative process with her can leave me with an impression on every sense and every brain cell. I don’t pretend to not want someone who I feel strongly about, but it’s more of a receptive experience than an assertive one.

One thought in my mind doesn’t want to let go of the possibility that any woman is potentially available, particularly someone I have chemistry with. I discovered in this context, there is freedom in at least setting this aside; something else is liberated in the process – another kind of availability, which makes the creation of the photos possible, and often fosters an abiding understanding between us.

Meanwhile, I am soaking myself in the full ambiance of who she is: the feeling of being held in her awareness, encountering her existence in the universe and loving the gift of being able to look at her and see her with full freedom to do so. You don’t realize how rare it is to be able to do this until you have the chance.

For me, to look – to really look – is to feel and in a sense, to take in. To look is to touch, and to absorb. With Onyx, I got to take a bath in her presence. Our encounter seemed to quite directly change the trajectory of both of our lives and creative processes simultaneously. She is an Aquarius and we met during that shocking Aquarius alignment earlier in the year, right around her 25th birthday.

As for how I found her: I walked into my studio one day and she was sitting at my desk with Jim Morrison blasting on my sound system.

I had left on a Doors playlist that I had made for my colleague Richard Tarnas, gone across the street to visit Dominick and left my studio door unlocked, with Jim thundering into the space. I walked in on Texas Radio and the Big Beat and the young miss you see here with a sly little smile on her face.

“I heard Jim, so I took the liberty of coming in,” she said. True, I had been expecting her, but most people would stand and wait outside if there wasn’t anyone answering the door. It was too chilly for that, and my lobby is inviting with all kinds of photographs hung, and the music lured her up to my office upstairs: Jim, in his role as siren.

A few minutes later I came bounding in with tea and soup and was looking into those eyes. And, I melted; and I got falling in love with her out of the way early. It took one glance and the hearing the sound of her voice.

What I knew about Onyx was that she started as a child prodigy model with high expectations put on her; stepped out of the business for about 10 years, then found her way back in. She was on constant casting calls in the city, but the work was numbing her out, most of the other girls were really messed up and the environment was at times exciting but ultimately unfriendly. She referred to it as The Freezer.

In her first conversation I learned more about the business of New York City-based professional models and photographers than I had before, which made me happier than ever before that I was minding my own beeswax 100 miles to the north. Me and the city scene seemed to be operating with completely opposing purposes, for example my chosen role being to emphasize the fact that each woman who comes before my lens is a distinct individual; versus blasting that fact out of existence with the brightest possible light the most impersonal setting, and the hours and hours of waiting and waiting and waiting that comprised 90% of modeling work.

Early in the conversation, I told Onyx I assumed she would be posing dressed, and said so. I knew enough about the proclivities of the professional girls who had worked with me before, mostly in Europe. I mentioned that I was also concerned about her being part of this project at all, because of its transgressive and explicit nature. She said she had Googled me and had already read many pages on the Book of Blue. She liked the message and my work, otherwise she would not be here. Apart from keeping her clothes on, we had to use a different name for her.

“And don’t worry, I’m not a prude,” she said. This assertion always makes me a little nervous, but I felt it from her heart and it turned out to be truer than I had anticipated.

29 March 09

Where Onyx meets Neshia

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Installation studio, photos by Eric Francis.

This was a new concept in my pictures: a somewhat elaborate setup. The Neisha sessions became a lot of big, splashy photos and I decorated the studio with them. This was per plan with Onyx, to create a modern art-like setting to do her session in.

This is a kind of intent I generally don’t apply, so it was a fun day, in fact just about all day. Onyx has a thing for Edie Sedgwick, so this session was dedicated to her. And Neisha was going to stand in for her pussy; indeed for the overt side of her sexuality.

Onyx for her part could not pose nude, or so she thought along with the herd of NYC-type models – that being about the only thing she had in common with them. This was a tendency to shun nude work because it might mar her pristine reputation; in modeling you think you have to be Kellogg’s ready at all times. But everyone knows the skinny.

Hence, Onyx couldn’t let us see her own soft breasts or her sweet spot or anything of the kind. Not that she didn’t want to. Most of the women who pose dressed are itching to get rid of the clothes, despite their misgivings. For some it’s too much to cross the line from phantasy into the 3-D world of alert consciousness. Onyx gradually revealed that her quest working with me was to finally have a moment of being real in her modeling career.

Unlike a lot of girls, she knows and feels just how beautiful she is. For reasons that I’m aware of, she’s not catty about it. She works with what she has, in an extremely cold, competitive and unfriendly environment that does not exactly encourage vulnerability.

While she could not be nude herself, she could be associated with the love and appreciation of the female nude, in symbolic terms. So this would be a case of naked by association. I began working on the set and sent initial photos of the results to Onyx, with the subject header, “Too kinky, not kinky enough or just right?”

I was a pleasantly surprised when she replied “Just right!”

Sarah, my studio assistant, came in early that Saturday morning and helped me fine tune the design of the photographs and get the lighting right.

Onyx arrived with a makeup artist, a gorgeous black queen about six foot three, who was at his most graceful applying his art to her beauty. The two of them looked like they had worked together fifty times. The makeup was an exaggerated version of the Sixties, almost like a theatrical mask. When she was ready, Onyx stepped into the studio space and began to look around.

28 March 09

Memory of Kaila and Simone

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Simone and Kaila. Photo for Book of Blue by Eric Francis.

I photographed Kaila once; with Simone, the first time I photographed either of them.

Kaila vanished and I would only see her by chance. Simone became one of my favorite people to work with. She surfaces every three or four months, returning from some adventure or misadventure. We don’t say much to one another, or we didn’t until the last time we got together last week – with Kaila’s mom Tobi there, and after Tobi left, Ms. Simone seemed to come out of her shell a bit. It’s interesting that I’ve known both of their mothers for so long, from when I worked at Woodstock Times in the mid-1990s.

It’s truly beautiful to be crossing a generational line and to experience this trust, and to be able to relate almost equally to young women and their mothers. I say almost…there are differences…with the older women there is a deeper understanding and the ability to exchange ideas. With the younger ones, there is the profound experience of witnessing and empathizing with them, and the sweetest lust. One thing I love about being near Simone is she’s absolutely fine with this. She knows I see her. She can and does flaunt herself in my presence with the simplest, most graceful confidence that I will protect her and portray her as beautifully as I can; and I can barely believe I get to say this, like I’m describing seeing an actual mermaid.

I am gradually coming closer to answering a question that has stalked me since I first directly encountered the power that female beauty has in my life – which is, what is it like to be like that? What is it like to be so gorgeous, so sexy, and to possess the consciousness behind that appearance?

Well, I am learning it’s not easy. I am learning about the feeling of deep vulnerability involved, the danger, the self-questioning so deep it makes me feel like I’m the most perfectly confident person and I am absolutely not. I am learning that she does not see herself the way that I see her. It’s a lack of self-reflection that is veiled by extreme erotic and emotional power, and which in turn veils an even deeper intellectual and creative fire.

I was sitting at my computer with Simone the other afternoon, looking at our first session, the one with Kaila that she wrote to me and asked to see…just gasping with astonishment at some of the pictures, and feeling this loss she has just experienced and will experience for a long time.

And Simone, sitting there, so uncertain of her beauty, her saying her hips are too straight, this or that body part ugly or not good enough, but seeing my pleasure; and I was able to experience both her beauty and her doubt in the same moment, and love her right across the space of that seeming contradiction. It may be that very thing that creates the tension that so many women emanate. This dualism may be an attribute of that vortex of feminine beauty. The doubt itself may be the thing that draws us all in haplessly, even though it looks like something else.

Then, talking to Simone’s mom Marsha about the plight of this girl’s life, how she struggles in ways she’s never said to me, how it feels to be the mom of a girl so talented, sexually powerful and insecure of her own existence. And she is talented. When I have the technical patience I’ll link to one of her music videos. She has absolutely no interest in being a well-known singer, but she could be; she has a heart-stopping voice and the mental power to paint it onto your soul with a searing hot brush.

About this picture. I’ve studied it many times. It’s one of my very favorites out of the tens of thousands of photos in this project because it’s so spontaneous and mind-bending and intimate; the way their fingers mingle. There are some others from that night, of two nymphs exploring and seeing and feeling and finally Simone holding this mirror for her friend, but this is the one that brands itself into my soul.

There are pictures that say it’s okay to be alive, and this is one of them. Simone, if you’re reading, I want you to know that’s the message of this picture. I wish I could make all that doubt and self-questioning that torments you go away or at least take the edge off of it so you can give yourself some room to exist. I wish I could convey how beautiful, specifically, your femaleness (this thing I know you doubt the most) truly is. You seem to recognize it perfectly well in Kaila. She struggled too, we know this, with much more than being female. Her struggle to exist finally swallowed her.

22 March 09

How these things happen

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Burial service for Kaila Watson at Rosendale Plains Cemetery, Ulster County, New York. Photo by Eric Francis.

This is where we left Kaila Watson just past noon on Monday, on a magnificent, cold spring day. I waited with Simone and her family outside the funeral home in the back. We watched as the casket was put into the hearse, and followed behind, with our high-beams on, in that solemn tradition.

When I started my car, “Waltz Number 2” by Elliot Smith began playing on my CD player. I often drive around with Elliot’s music playing, and I constantly wonder about how he died, also under circumstances related to heroin, straddling the sometimes hard to see lines between accident, intent, suicide and murder. And as I drove through the center of the small village of Rosendale, with 15 cars ahead of me and 20 more behind, Elliot offered the dirge.

I am learning more about how these things happen. During the funeral service this morning, the Rev. Arlene Dawber said that the Daily Freeman, our county paper, would not list the cause of death as a “drug abuse incident,” as requested by the parents. At the graveside, she gave me the notes she used for her sermon, as if to prove the point.

I called the newspaper just now. The paper does not have a policy against listing the cause of death, according to Carol Schaff, who has typed the obituaries for the past 20 years. For example, they can say things like “died after a long battle with cancer.” But she said that, after consulting with Jeremy Schiffers, the city editor, the newspaper “felt it was better not to put the words drug abuse in there.”

Schaff said this was primarily out of concern for legal issues; i.e., the newspaper did not want to get sued. Why don’t they make a phone call or two and find out? They are a newspaper after all.

Heroin is a problem that, again and again, gets swept under he rug, or more accurately, gets buried. Like many other ubiquitous toxins, it does not make for polite conversation. We’ve just seen how that happens. May times I’ve I thought it strange that since coming to live in New Paltz in 1989, I kept hearing about heroin. It was never an issue in my particular community growing up in Brooklyn, so it was something strange to encounter. Speaking in racial terms, maybe this is ‘white’ people refusing to admit that we have a problem that we usually attribute to ‘black’ people.

There is more to Kaila’s story, of course. Simone told me this morning that Kaila’s older half-brother, who was already addicted, needed to get to Newburgh to cop the stuff, but had been busted so many times he didn’t have a license.

When Kaila turned 17, she became his ride.

22 March 09

The faces of Kaila Watson

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Kaila Watson, photographed in late 2007 by Eric Francis.

Simone was nowhere to be seen. She was hiding in her apartment in Saugerties and would not come out. I think most of Kaila’s other friends made it to the wake; I would estimate that 200 people came by in the two hours that I was there. That is probably why Simone avoided the scene. Even Kaila’s older half-brother who taught her how to shoot heroin when she was 17 was there, wearing a suit, doing his best to seem like he had a purpose. When I looked in his eyes, he felt scared and sheepish. I think it’s because he knew everyone knew; he knew he had to be there. And he knew that this conclusion was largely about Kaila’s choices, despite his involvement.

Thankfully, I haven’t been to a wake in a long time. Here in the digital days, they know how to put the fun back into funeral – next to Kaila’s casket was a flat screen monitor playing videos from year after year of her short life. Two things impressed me. One is how alive, loving and involved she seemed through nearly all of her life. Second is how she seemed to go through several distinct identities, each of which was barely recognizable in contrast to the previous one.

In the casket was the girl that I had met that Thursday night with Simone, minus the lip piercings. Her face was covered in the waxen makeup of the dead. She looked so like a plastic casting of herself that I could almost deny that it was really her.

She was dressed in a bluejean skirt and a stretchy red striped top that clung to her torso, her face etched in her permanent frown. I touched her hand and she emanated an unworldly coldness, stiff and strange. Silver rings were on all of her fingers, and she held the long stems of a rose and a carnation.

On the video monitor a few feet away from the foot of her wooden casket were many other stories. The first was the face of a small, frail and very happy toddler cardiac patient, who was in the process of surviving a series of four open heart surgeries. Haunting is the only word I can use to describe that face, which I remembered from meeting that child in person once or twice in the early 1990s.

One friend said her circulation was so bad her lips were always blue. At a certain point, a few surgeries and a few years later, she transforms into a vibrant, extroverted young girl with plenty to say, connected to everyone and everything.

She first appears as this little girl on the livingroom floor, teaching her cat to do tricks, or one trick in particular. She’s got this feather on a stick, and she’s flipping it back and forth over the cat’s body. Her kitty follows it languidly from left to right, leading with his front paws.

“You can do better than that,” she says.

The cat, pursuing the feather with new intention, starts to do this combination of a twist and a somersault. He leaps into the air over and over and landing on all paws, flipping and twisting and switching directions with agility incredible even for a cat – and having a fine time of it. Kaila is nonplussed. It seemed strange to laugh in a funeral a few feet from the body, but eventually I could not hold back.

Her cat makes another appearance in a winter scene in an elaborate snow fort. From inside it’s like an igloo, and the critter appears in the tunnel doorway like something in a nature movie, tentatively pawing across the frozen floor. In many pictures she’s connected to animals: this cat, a rat, a rabbit, a snake; and her life is always populated with human friends too. Simone makes many appearances, looking as a preteen like a scholarly, friendly, tall black girl.

There is scene after scene of Kalia orchestrating dance rehearsals, talk show programs, parties and various other modes of entertainment. There is precious footage of a grade school choral event, featuring “The Wheels on the Bus.” From watching all this you get the feeling not only of a happy childhood (which is a myth, I know) but certainly one in which she has contact with the world; she is involved; she creates involvement, participates and takes leadership. And somebody who digs her is constantly following her around with a video camera; mom, dad or both.

When she reaches puberty she starts to resemble the young woman you see above, at least in terms of how her face matured. She also becomes withdrawn (which sometimes happens around the Saturn opposition at age 14, though it doesn’t always stick). She seems sullen but healthy, fresh feeling and fully in contact with the world – just deeper into herself. Lip piercings seem to pin the frown to her face. At some point she has the word “evil” tattooed onto the fingers of her left hand. The undertaker covered this with her right hand.

When I meet her for the first time a few months after her 18th birthday, her tired was face spattered with red pustules, she was about 30 pounds overweight and not participating but rather hiding at the kitchen table while I photographed her friend Simone. I cannot remember one thing she said. Her mom told me tonight she had probably been using heroin for about a year by that time.

One week ago Sunday, her ex-boyfriend came back from California with some supposedly extra-good stuff. She had a weakness for the guy, and the drug, and when she was around him, she had to use. They went to a motel and got very, very high. She passed out.

He was so out of it that it didn’t occur to him to call 911; no call was ever made. He finally got her dressed and put her into his car and drove through the traffic associated with a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Rondout area. By the time he got her in to the ER, she hadn’t been breathing for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes. They revived her, but her brain had no signal.

After five days on life support, her brain began to swell and her family made the decision to take her off the machine. Her heart, supposedly her weakest organ, never actually gave out.

“If she had come back I would have taken care of her her whole life,” her mom said to me tonight. But her only child wasn’t coming back.

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