Sirenetta

siren

Siren: award winning picture of Rosita 1993

Sirens and mermaids in English are two different creatures but one in the same in Italian. Both belong to the menagerie of mythological females who lure men to their doom. In the case of the siren it is her voice that holds the fatal power, with the mermaid her sensuality.

Etruscan Mermaid

Etruscan Mermaid

That said the pagan mermaids like those depicted by the Etruscans appear to have no negative connotations implying a more balanced sexuality than in this opinion by the aptly named Jesuit Cornelius Lapide, who said of Woman, “her glance is that of the fabled basilisk, her voice a siren’s voice—with her voice she enchants, with her beauty she deprives of reason—voice and sight alike deal destruction and death.”siren.1993.PatrickNicholas.800px

One gets used to seeing the final print in a frame or in this case on a book cover, but it never fails to send a slight shiver through me to look at the original negative or transparency after many years have gone by – in this case exactly 20 years. Even handling film these days makes me feel, momentarily at least, nostalgic for a bygone age. In this case it was Ilford FP4 developed by myself. I took just one roll of 10 shots, I did not seem to shoot much film in those days, probably because I hated developing; all that mucking about threading spirals and mixing chemicals.

The print was toned blue, then I bleached it between the legs to enhance the fish tail effect. It was destined to be on the cover of a recipe book called “Se il pesce avesse le cosce“. The cover picture had to be slightly saucy in line with the title which roughly translates as “If Only Fish had Thighs” – the recipes had a slightly erotic flavour. Finally I copied out one of the recipes from the book diagonally with a soft pencil.

I entered it into the competition held annually by the prestigious Association of Photographers in London which I had just joined. It was the only time in twenty-five years of participating that I was accepted – beginners luck.

It was subsequently litho-printed in a limited edition but sadly the original print is lost.

The limited edition Belle book is on sale here

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Medusa and Metamorphosis: the shoot

I met Valeria at the Incanto restaurant in Amsterdam where she works as a waitress and sommelier. When she came to our table my friend and agent Dick Kits said, “Don’t you think she could be one of your Belle?” I showed her my website on my phone and she was enthusiastic right from the start.

That was during the non-summer of 2012. Valeria isn’t Dutch, but southern Italian from Puglia. Like so many well educated Italians she has had to emigrate to find work. Once emigrants were poor, now like her they are mainly graduates.valeria model, patrick Nicholas photographer

It took me a while to come up with an idea, but I had a hunch that she would make a beautiful addition to the Metamorphosis series. We finally organised the shoot  for a freezing snowy day in mid-March 2013. The studio was Dick’s office, not very big and not very high, but with a wide angle lens big enough. The set couldn’t have been simpler. valeria shoot-5603.PatrickNicholas

I brought my make-up artist Simonetta Baletti with me from Italy. Make-up is the Cinderella of the creative team. In fact one make-up artist became so fed up with various photographers taking all the credit for his extraordinary creations that he bought a Hasselblad and started taking pictures himself: Serge Lutens is my favourite living photographer.

Possibly as a result of visiting Holland regularly I am going through an aquatic phase. I set out to take just one image, Medusa, and yet when I got back to Italy a friend of mine was looking through the shots and she thought the ‘question mark’ looking images seemed interesting, so largely as a result of her intervention I started working on the second picture which reminded me of a seahorse. This image was to become Metamorphosis .

I wonder if I have other neglected images lurking somewhere in the depths of Lightroom waiting to be given the treatment?

valeria in Lightroom

the ‘question mark’ in Lightroom

The idea of Valeria metamorphosing into a sea creature came to me as I was manipulating the image in Photoshop and  I realised that for both artist and model the act of creation is a form of metamorphosis. Rather like Gregor in Kafka’s story, neither of us that morning realised quite how  she was going to be transformed.

See the Metamorphoses here

dancing to Bowie

after the shoot: good wine and dancing to Bowie

Metamorphosis

seahorse_metamorphosis

When Valeria Saporetti awoke the morning of 12 March 2013  from troubled dreams she found herself transformed…….”What has happened to me?” she thought. It was no dream.*

Most maritime nations from the Picts to the Chinese have mythologised the  tiny sea creature, the seahorse. The Greeks named it the hippocampo, part horse part coiled monster. In 1587 the Venetian anatomist Aranzi likened that part of the brain concerned with memory and spatial navigation to the seahorse, the hippocampus.

Whereas women use the cerebral cortex for spatial skills, men use the left hippocampus for navigation which may explain why there are more male taxi drivers. The fact that men and women’s brains are different is most likely a good thing for humanity as in this way we complement each other, the sum is greater than the parts.

seahorse and mermaid

Mermaid & Seahorse by F.Church

Like the threatened panda on land, the seahorse has become a symbol of environmental protection of the oceans, and like the panda it is a pretty bizarre animal.
Almost uniquely amongst fish it swims upright and poorly at that. It is the only fish with a neck. The male incubates and hatches the eggs and not only succours the young, but also provides them with a substance similar to mammalian milk. Like the panda it is ‘simpatico’, its endearing qualities making it an ideal ambassador for the protection of the oceans.

capture time metamorphosis

capture time

Valeria had no idea what was going to happen to her that day and, he has to admit, neither neither did the photographer! – that is the wonder of the creative process. Valeria was transformed into a sea creature on 12th March but she was really there for that 1/30th of a second. That is the difference between photography and painting, more real than painting, that flash of a moment is preserved forever, an eternal present.

*with apologies to Kafka

Medusa

Medusa

” Nature, red in tooth and claw”, these lines by Tennyson describe man’s primeval fear of nature. The jellyfish has neither tooth nor claw, it is not even a fish, but it is a pretty terrifying beast all the same: all are painful stingers, many are deadly.  Alluding to the creatures’ agonising tentacles as well as it’s chilling beauty, the Swedish poet and botanist Linneus in 1752 coined the name Medusa.

Medusa had chthonic parents but was not herself immortal, thus she was slain by Perseus who thereafter used her severed head as an offensive shield to petrify his enemies. Chthonic means from the deep, from the earth. These were the older gods who came to be displaced by the Olympians, they are the nature gods and their essence is androgynous or feminine. They represent the awfulness of nature, the fear, but also the wonder; this is the cult of Dionysius. The Olympian masculine and warlike gods replaced the chthonic gods. This is the cult of Apollo who represents masculine dominance over nature, both nature without and nature within, and significantly is the god of art and music. How many female artists and composers can you think of?

Medusa, deadly, beautiful, but not necessarily vicious comes and goes in the history of art, her frightfulness seems to wax and wane according to men’s views on women. She was for example especially terrifying in the late nineteenth century, a time of rapid social change when women were asserting themselves and when a syphilis epidemic meant promiscuous sex was deadly.

Evelyn De Morgan, Medusa

Medusa by Evelyn De Morgan, 1876.

And yet it is from this period that I have chosen Evelyn De Morgan’s sculpture of Medusa. There are precious few famous women painters and fewer still sculptors. Her Medusa is neither decapitated as she is in most art nor frightening. She looks like Ovid describes her, as a victim; raped by Poseidon, the goddess Athena and fellow Olympian then transformed the unfortunate woman’s beautiful hair to serpents and made the mere sight of her awful face so terrifying as to petrify mortal men.

Ultimately Medusa was a blameless victim with deadly power, like the snake itself which never bites unless provoked, and the medusa jellyfish which stings only if you invade its space. Nature is as cruel as it is blameless. Women and the feminine side of men have suffered as a result. Perhaps the result of all this suffering is art.

A woman’s countenance, with serpent-locks

Gazing in death on Heaven.

Shelley

Daphne

Daphne 1995

Daphne

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollo, the god of music and poetry, was afflicted by an infatuation for the beautiful nymph Daphne. He pursued her relentlessly until, unable to escape his clutches, she was transformed into a laurel tree by the river god Peneus in order to save her from capture. A popular subject during and after the Renaissance, perhaps this is the first photographic version.

The most famous Daphne and Apollo was sculpted by Bernini while only 24 in 1622 for his patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The astonishing thing about the Renaissance and Baroque is not so much the proliferation of gifted artists, but the propensity of the rich and powerful to invest in living artists: the enlightened commissioners, men not only of education, culture and taste, but disposed to try out the untried – risk takers  with a nose for genius. Bernini’s Daphne is in effect a double metamorphosis from woman to tree and from marble to leaping life.

Daphne and Apollo by Bernini

Bernini's Apollo & Daphne

No one before him had shown the potentially plastic nature of marble, it was a material not so much solid as delicate, soft rather than hard – he transcended his material. At the unveiling the guests of the cardinal were left aghast. Perhaps there has not been a reaction similar until our own times when we are rendered speechless by the whiff of formaldehyde and unmade beds, dazzled by necrological diamonds.

For three years in the mid-nineties we were a creative triangle: photographer, model Nadine – more muse than model – and sculptor Giorgio Bevignani,  working on a series of projects in which the woman was always transformed – a series of metamorphoses not only for her, but for all three of us. Daphne was created in the studio using soft steel wire and metal leaves all of which was hung from the ceiling and physically attached to the head of the model, it must have been extremely uncomfortable and rather unnerving, so I add bravery to the list of qualities possessed by Nadine. Giorgio has gone on to create extremely elaborate sculpture involving hanging objects lit by ultraviolet light. Daphne’s wire laurel tree was Giorgio’s first sculpture to be hung from the ceiling, it still hangs, rusting, from the ceiling of Giorgio’s studio.

Of all the images we created this was the most essential and thus became my symbol, a distillation of what I do. I have used this image since 1995  on my letterheads, business cards and subsequently on my website home page.

Another famous Daphne composed not at the dawn of a career, but in the twilight of a long creative life, is by Richard Strauss who saved some of his most memorable music to the last.  Bernini and Strauss both managed to pace themselves in careers spanning over 60 years. To listen to the last aria of Daphne is to realise that genius is ageless.

Metamorphoses

Nike

Nike


Metamorphoses 2011

The most famous Metamorphoses are those written by the Latin poet Ovid illustrating Greek myths and a source for countless artists, poets, painters and sculptors. Bernini based his statue Apollo and Daphne on Ovid’s tale and I was in turn inspired by Bernini. However, for the rest of the series I was more inspired by music than poetry or painting: Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

After the destruction of Munich Opera House by allied bombing in 1944, Richard Strauss sought atonement in composition and consolation in poetry: it was Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants that inspired the heartbreaking melancholy of Metamorphosen, sonata for 23 strings.

Arbor Vitae

“Plastic and forming, may man change e’en the figure decreed!
Oh, then, bethink thee, as well, how out of the germ of acquaintance,
Kindly intercourse sprang, slowly unfolding its leaves;
Soon how friendship with might unveil’d itself in our bosoms,

Daphne

Daphne

And how Amor, at length, brought forth blossom and fruit
Think of the manifold ways wherein Nature hath lent to our feelings,
Silently giving them birth, either the first or the last!
Yes, and rejoice in the present day! For love that is holy
Seeketh the noblest of fruits,–that where the thoughts are the same,
Where the opinions agree,–that the pair may, in rapt contemplation,
Lovingly blend into one,–find the more excellent world.”

In a world gone mad, Strauss turns the optimism of Goethe’s world upside down. His pain at the physical destruction, his guilt over his erstwhile support of the Nazis and horror at the destiny of the Jews (his much loved Jewish daughter-in-law thankfully survived) led him to feel that Goethe’s belief in striving for self knowledge as the key to evolution had brought about unprecedented barbarity.

camelia

Camelia

Goethe’s hope that penetration to the core of oneself would lead to a metamorphosis through the discovery of the divine within is not shared by Strauss in the very winter of German culture.

Sylvia

Sylvia

But despite his despair, the very composition of Metamorphosen was part of the transfiguration of the German soul. It may have been composed in the depth of winter, but when he conducted the dress rehearsal in January 1946, a new world was dawning.

More from this series on my web site.
Listen to Metamorphosen 

Bevignani makes an adjustment

Bevignani makes an adjustment to Pomona