Finding our focus

Saturday, 6 March

And so here we are. 6th March 2004. 

I have been visiting Elmfield House for just over a month now. Leonard and I began our work together with a few basic photography sessions so that he could experiment with positioning for the pastel portrait and lay down some ‘explorative work’ - which is not as perverted or painful as it sounds, I can assure you! The idea seemed straightforward at first; I was instructed to bring photographs of myself - taken alone or with family or friends - to our sessions so that we could discuss our favourite aspects of each picture, but, when I revealed that I was camera-shy and made the pitiful excuse that my camera is too cumbersome to carry in my tiny handbag on nights out with friends, Leonard decided that he would take one or two photographs of me himself, ‘to break you of your sense of self’ as he would repeatedly tell me. 

The phone conversation on the night before our first photo session was truly bizarre to say the least. Leonard insisted that I had bare shoulders and wore nothing around my neck as detail in that area would ‘busy the picture’ and the entire conversation had the uneasy feel of a punter dictating to a prostitute the specifics of a uniform that he would like her to wear for the evening. Upon arriving at Elmfield House the following morning I apologised profusely for my apparent inability to obey direction as the temperature that day was particularly chilly and I was forced to wear multiple layers of clothing in order to keep warm during the bus journey. I explained to Leonard that I was wearing a vest top beneath my jumper that I hoped would be suitable but I had brought along a few alternative tops that I would be more than happy to change into. Leonard was amused by my flustered apology and he assured me that what I was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but nevertheless I took out my selection of clothes and laid them out on the chairs in the workroom like a market trader displaying her stock.

The taking of the photograph was much more involved than a simple point-and-click affair. An elaborate ritual ensued during which I was precisely positioned and repositioned until Leonard was satisfied that the light from the window was falling correctly on my face and my eye line was at precisely the right angle. Mercifully the position was only held for only a few seconds before the shutter clicked and I was allowed to move freely once again. Leonard then asked if I would allow him to take a second photograph and for this one I would wear a black top that was much tighter fitting and lower cut than the top that I was wearing. I was unsure about this second photograph at first but Leonard assured me that the photo would be in black and white, adding somewhat cheekily that ‘monochrome is flattering to even the most grotesque sitter’. I quickly changed my clothes in his bathroom while scrutinising the light-fitting and shampoo bottles for hidden cameras.

I was pleasantly surprised by the final results when I visited Elmfield House the next day after lectures. Initially the first photograph appeared to be as basic as a passport photo, but under closer examination I could see that my positioning, the soft lighting and the deliberately minimalistic composition had brought out elements of purity and serenity in my appearance that were particularly striking. It was quite a surprise to see myself portrayed in such a serious light! The second photograph was much darker and moodier and the harsh contrast of black and white brought out the shine of my dark hair and bleached my skin as white as bone.

The wait between the photography session and seeing the finished result can be very frustrating, but I am learning to be patient. This delay is due to the fact that Leonard does not own a computer and so at the end of each session he passes his digital camera to a young man named Luke who kindly prints the images for him. Leonard and Luke clearly have a close friendship and Leonard speaks affectionately about Luke as though he has known him for some time. I understand that Luke is a ballet student and Leonard introduced himself to Luke after attending one of his performances in the city centre because he had been impressed by his gracefulness during the performance and he believed that the elegance of his movements would translate easily from stage to canvas. The two men struck up a friendship and they started working together straight away and now Luke visits the house whenever Leonard’s work requires a male sitter. Luke sounds like quite an elusive character, but Leonard assures me that he will arrange for us to meet very soon.

Leonard and I have recently progressed from our photographic work to the first preliminary sketches for the portrait. Our conversation is still somewhat formal and we occasionally struggle for subjects to talk about, but when our discussions finally gain momentum I can close my eyes and easily be speaking to a man not many years older than myself. Only faint intrusions of age cause his voice to falter slightly. Most of the time we talk about theological issues and topics that I am currently studying in my classes but sometimes Leonard will tell me about his life or I will formulate questions about interesting objects in the workroom or paintings that I have spotted around the house - there is, for example, a large framed print of Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego in the hallway, a brass rubbing of the knight Sir John D’Abernon stands guard at the foot of the stairs and a print of Francisco Goya’s Group on a Balcony is situated next to the window in the kitchen (for some reason I find the Goya picture very disconcerting indeed). 

Leonard is an extremely complex and fascinating character and I enjoy hearing the tales that he tells me about his life; for instance, he trained as a mathematician in his youth and he has a particular interest in geometry, he sleeps for approximately three hours each night, he is highly skilled at carpentry and he built most of the shelving and some of the furniture in the workroom and his nearest relatives live in London but most of his extended family are spread across Europe. When I enquire about the identity of the sitters in the portraits stacked against the shelving in the workroom, he speaks enthusiastically about a Chinese man that he met at a nearby college, an Indian woman who works in the local supermarket and a young mother who once visited him with her daughter for a family portrait. Although he speaks fondly of his family in London, I suspect that the individuals in the portraits that are displayed around the house constitute Leonard’s immediate and everyday family and, although this may sound terribly sad and depressing to you and I, I suspect that Leonard would have it no other way.