Mike's Portrait Theory #1 or I would have made a good psychologist. Suck it up, Buttercup. See?
Last week, I relived history. Or, at least an early part of my history. Here’s what happened.
I was called by a client to go to an office near the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and do an environmental portrait. I always get a little weird when I go anywhere near Baltimore — it’s my old stomping ground — and memories surface. Some great, some not so great. Just, memories.
But I was shooting a professor — a doctor actually — a psychiatrist. And he was a character. I drove from my home on the Eastern Shore to his 1950’s style government office just off UMBC’s campus. It’s a strange area — the GPS doesn’t work, it takes you to the central office, and you get back in this hidden complex on roads resembling those found under high tension power lines. It turns out it’s a psychiatric hospital complex, and there are — people — lounging around everywhere. At the entrance. In the halls. They seemed normal enough, helpful even — but a bit odd.
I have a different approach to portraits. I don’t like static head shots, where the subject is glaring at the camera with their smile plastered on their face. And (of course!) I have a theory:
MIKE’S PORTRAIT THEORY NO. 1: At some point, somewhere, there was a photo (usually in high school) where a person smiled a particular way, and they liked the photo. They’ve been trying to reproduce that smile ever since, unsuccessfully, and now their photo comes out as an awkward leer grimacing at the lens.
So, my approach is to trick them into forgetting they are having their portrait taken. I talk as I’m shooting, barely pausing to put the camera up to my eye — I talk about ANYTHING that pops into my brain, which, of course, can be a bit awkward. I even have a name for my little trick: Instant Intimacy. If the person is responding to me — laughing, hopefully — as I talk and shoot, they are responding to the camera. If they are responding to the camera, the final image will be one of someone looking genuinely HAPPY.
So, I prattled on with this psychiatrist. But to tell you what I said, I have to back up….
Go back 25 years or so. I was a student at UMBC, studying psychology, and was interning with a psychiatrist named Dennis Harrison. Dr. Harrison was FAMOUS. He was on Oprah, Phil Donahue — remember Donahue? — even Sally Jesse Rafael (who I LOVED). All before they went trashy. Why was he on these shows? Harrison was the forensic psychologist on the Dr. Elizabeth Morgan case. Morgan was a plastic surgeon in Washington, DC, who was divorcing her husband. She alleged he molested their daughter, and refused to give the daughter over to the husband, for visitation, custody, etc.., fearing for the welfare of her daughter.
I don’t remember (can’t write about) the details of the case, but Harrison was squarely on the side of the mother, Dr. Morgan. He worked with her on her case, and interviewed the daughter in his office — and I was there, as Harrison’s intern. Then, the daughter disappeared. The police, FBI, accused Morgan of hiding the daughter from the husband; she was thrown in jail for contempt of court. It was a major case. Later, the police accused Harrison of having involvement in the disappearance of the daughter, but I don’t remember what happened. In fact, Harrison disappeared. Poof. Vanished. That’s a story for another day.
Now, back to my portrait shoot. There I am, camera to eye, when I say….
“Did you ever know a psychiatrist named Dr. Harrison?”
“Dennis Harrison?” He responded.
“Yes,” I said, “The psychiatrist in the Dr. Elizabeth Morgan case…”
“OH MY GOD WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO HIM???” He asked me.
I continued shooting. “I’m not sure,” I said, guardedly, “I take it you knew him?”
“He was my neighbor. Then one night, he and his family disappeared….”
I finished up the shoot. Driving home, I was a little concerned. It seems like I’d hardly worked at all. I couldn’t have taken more than 20 photos. The shoot flew by. It was no work. What had I missed?
The next morning I processed the photos for the client — there were about 80. How can that be? Well, it seems my chatting with the psychiatrist, he wasn’t the only one who relaxed. I looked at the pictures — they were great, if I do say so myself.
I never knew what happened to Dennis Harrison. He disappeared. And, with him, my career in psychology. The entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth, and while I finished my major, I decided I did not want to be a psychologist.
Shortly after Harrison evaporated, I got a job as a photographer for a local paper. But from time to time I wonder: how would things have been if Dennis Harrison hadn’t disappeared? Would I have become a psychologist?
Let’s see if I’m good at it. You tell me:
Lie back, tell me how things are.
Wait, hold on, we discussed that last week.
No, I think one week covering your loser of a job is enough.
Suck it up, buttercup. Get out, we’re done for the day. $250 please. I accept insurance.
See? What do you think? I think I’d of been great.