Saturday, August 29, 2015

PEARL

This week, I had the pleasure of photographing the new dance play PEARL at Lincoln Center for Time Out New York. This was special to me not only because I was one of three photographers there or because it was the world premiere of the show, but because for the first time, my dance photography work had collided with the work of one of my dear friends who is a dancer.

Raymond Ejiofor was cast in PEARL in one of its earlier choreography stages and had the opportunity to be a part of its development process along with only a few other dancers. The full cast at Lincoln Center would be responsible for telling the story of the life of Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author of The Good Earth, among other novels. One of the shows goals is "highlighting the closing of the cultural divide….'East meets West' and features a very talented cast of 30 Chinese and American dancers, Raymond being of the latter.

I met Ray in college, where I discovered what a pleasure it was to watch him dance, finding myself in perpetually in utter awe of his skill and grace. All of our friends have always been pulling for him, knowing how talented he is and hoping the rest of the world could one day see it, despite the harsh difficulties of making a life as a dancer. And now, after earning his Master's degree in Public Health, Ray is a full-time dancer, and has been employed by various companies and freelance projects in Los Angeles and other places around the world (he is going to Shanghai in September for work, as well). For example, he appears in Pharrell's music video for "Happy," Fitz and the Tantrums' music video for "The Walker," and many others, especially, most recently, as the star of Little Boots's music video "No Pressure" (video below).


Now, though, I would get to see him in PEARL, which he had been working on for the last few months. It is, he would tell me, his debut show in New York. As I sat in the theatre holding my camera during dress rehearsal, snapping away at the various, very beautiful scenes in PEARL, I was so happy Ray and I had both gotten to a literal and metaphorical place in our lives where this interaction was possible. It's always been a dream of mine to be able to shout from the rooftops how wonderful my friends are and how beautiful the work they create is, and I'm honored and exploding with delight to have been able to do that in any way for Ray, who so very much deserves it, in such a good show.

A screenshot of my PEARL slideshow on Time Out New York!
You can view the rest of the images on the site here.

Choreographed and directed by Daniel Ezralow, a talented veteran of the dance world (credits include the film Across the Universe and the Broadway show of Spider-Man, among many others), PEARL is an abstract telling of Pearl S. Buck's life. The show is told in five portions, Spring, Flower, River, Moon, Night, each representing a time in Buck's life. The narrative is clean and clear but not prosaic or overbearing--in other words, I got it, but they didn't beat me over the head with it, which I appreciated--and it's so interesting to see a story told in a different way. As I said to Ray, I photograph dance all the time, and it's nice to see something new, a story told in contemporary dance. PEARL is holding only four performances at Lincoln Center, and is in talks to travel to China in 2016. Between now and then, this may be your only chance to catch the show, and I highly recommend that you do (link here for tickets).

And after the show, if you don't mind, go up to Ray and give him a big hug for me. A head's up, he might be a little sweaty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Cold Trap

Please forgive my absence these last weeks, but I have been traveling and working! See where below...

I don't know how I was awake, but I did it.

After my flight left before it was supposed to (it was supposed to leave at midnight but instead left at 9pm without telling me), I caught the next possible flight out of Florida, where I was visiting my family, at 6am. We left my house at 4:30am. This flight would take me to New York, where I was supposed to catch a 9:30am train to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ultimately, I had to change the train times, but luckily Amtrak lets you do that for free if you do it far enough in advance (and luckily less than 12 hours was far enough in advance). But I had to get to Lancaster that day because that's when I promised I would be there. And I don't break my promises.

I tried to sleep on the plane, but to no avail. It was more of a process of just having my eyes closed and perpetually shoving my dress around my feet to keep them warm. My nerves jittered. When the plane landed, I was simultaneously groggy and wide awake. It was time to move. I went to retrieve my bag, which was supposed to have come in on the flight the night before. Instead, the airline lost it. All out of anger, I went home and just started laughing because on top of it all, a banana I had brought to eat on the plane exploded in my purse. You can't make this stuff up.

I smiled and shook my head, showered, shoved a few essential items in my bag, went to the bagel joint near my house and grabbed a bacon, egg, and cheese on a whole wheat flat bagel and a black tea with milk and Splenda and headed to Penn Station, where I got my train (and a window seat!) with no problem. Praise be to our Lordess and Savior RuPaul.

I was excited to be back in Lancaster. I loved the clean air, the endless cornfields, the Amish buggies that occasionally pass you by; I love all the greenery, the bright blue sky, and that it's still a land where you can get a bottle of soda for $1.50. And I was excited to be there for the actual reason I was there--to do production stills on the set of the forthcoming feature film The Cold Trap.

The Cold Trap is the story of George and Rebecca, a couple who refuse to recognize each other's toxicity. Their relationship unfolds in a Paradise, PA motel room which we learn, to use the production's phrase, becomes both their haven and their penitentiary. My friend, actor Peter Ferraiolo, plays George, and his partner Bianca Puorto plays Rebecca. Their friends made up the cast and crew of the film, many from The Actor's Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York where they, along with Peter and Bianca, study. The rest, like screenwriter Benjamin Spirk, reside in Lancaster. The project came about after Peter and Ben first staged a version of the work in play form in 2012 at Millersville University's Four Corners Festival. They had been talking about making it a movie ever since, and now, after raising all of the funds they needed on Indiegogo, they and the team have done it.

I remember a few months ago sitting with Peter at a bar and listening to him talk about the project. While he's an excellent actor, he's not a bullshit artist, so when he really believes in something his enthusiasm is catching. And he's not a person who ever asks for help, so when he does I know it really means something to him. I wanted to help, but we needed to figure out how--could I write about it? Could I do something else? I wondered if they needed production stills...and it turns out they did.

The fact that they were filming in Lancaster was part of the draw for me. Lancaster gets pegged often as some quiet, little Amish cow town, but it actually has a thriving arts scene--rows of galleries, scads of music venues, a bustling downtown area with great bars and restaurants; it's a city enough that even a sworn Manhattanite like me never feels far from home. If anything, I feel more at home around the friendly people who love their city. It's a shame more films don't get made out there, that it's not more of a destination.

Shooting took place at the Amish Lanterns Motel, designated with a sign out front that must be from the 1970s, with its stagecoach-style lettering and the word 'MOTEL' in giant, blaring red letters that glow on a white rectangle when it gets dark. The walls were scratched and scraped with paint, doors in disrepair with punch-holes in their centers, peeling wallpaper, and a host of other details that made this the perfect set where George and Rebecca, in their throes of frustration and misery, could be brought to life.

As soon as I arrived I set down my luggage and started taking pictures. People quickly became aware of my signature camera snap and I was grateful that they began to ignore it--I like it better that way, when people stop seeing you and just become themselves (a little bit more, anyway). I watched as they shot take after take speaking Ben's beautifully tangled and mysterious prose, setting up the different scenes from a variety of angles. It was so interesting to see talented people doing their work up so close--because really, how often do you get to see something like that? Not only that, but to be able to interact with people I know in their line of work while I was doing my own work. It felt like one of those times in your life you're fully conscious will never be duplicated (unless they bring me out to photograph their next film! Wink wink...). I chugged a Diet Mountain Dew in the early evening to keep going, which I hadn't done since college or since I swore off soda in January. It was important to me to stay true to my word for the people who had brought me out there and not pass out as soon as I arrived.

I knew how a movie was made, of course, but I had never been on an actual set of one before. I shot their rehearsals before takes, I shot Chelsea Lockie, the director, applying makeup to different cast members, I shot everyone's smoke breaks in between takes. I shot their down time before shooting began when Jesse Stone, the sound engineer, would play the guitar and talk to Shashwat Gupta, the DP; and their down time at the end of the day when everyone would sit outside and drink Red Stripe beer and eat Twizzlers and listen to a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack playlist from Spotify. Shoutout to actresses Leah Kreitz and Olivia Hardin who, in their full-on hooker garb, were both terrifying and amazing to photograph, too. I loved absorbing everyone's energy, their nervousness, how important this was to them not just to churn something out but to really create something they were proud of because they had already invested so much. Wrapping for the day felt like a huge accomplishment even for me, so I can imagine what it felt like for them. And when I left, maybe even like George and Rebecca, part of me stayed.

As of yesterday, the film has wrapped in totality. I'm excited to see The Cold Trap in all of its stages to come, and I'm so happy I could have contributed in some way to the work of such passionate, talented, motivated people. Below are a few pictures from the set, and more will come in the not-too-distant future.

 
Shot on location
Bianca Puorto and Peter Ferraiolo as Rebecca and George
Leah Kreitz, in costume
Jesse Stone, sound engineer, with
Mike Texter, production assistant
Peter assists, with Chelsea, Shash, and Bianca
Leah and Ben (as character Bertie) in costume
Shash and Chelsea
Olivia in costume as character Heaven

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Five Years

I am covered in remnants of orange Bain de Soleil tanning gel, SPF 4. I had been sitting in the park near my house in the sun, enjoying part of the day off of my new writing job, which I did not think I would get. I ate a banana, I listened to music, I read New York magazine. And now I am sitting in front of my computer, the air conditioning pushing cold air onto my back as I type. More than anything, though, I am trying to figure out what to say about the last five years without sounding like a horrible cliche.

On July 30, 2010, my mother and I pulled up to my first apartment and emptied the contents of the giant SUV we rented first onto the concrete, then into the lobby, then into the elevator, and finally into the apartment where I would live for the next four years. A giant bucket of shoes, suitcases upon suitcases upon suitcases, neverending boxes of books, and god knows what else. I had what I always dreamed of: a job and an apartment in New York.

And now, somehow, by some stroke of pure luck, I still have those things--albeit a different job and a different apartment. I remember there were parts of me that were so excited these things I had wished for for so long were finally mine, but there were other parts, deeper, under the surface, that worried they might all too soon disappear. That something terrible might happen and I would turn out not to be as strong as I thought I was, that I would fail and never be the tough New York broad and/or gal about town I aspired to be.

Miraculously, as of this writing, that is not the case. I don't think I really understood the magnitude of what I was doing when I moved to New York at 21 years old, fresh out of college, in a city where I had never stayed for more than a few days at a time. I had this sort of wonderful blindness that shot me forward. I look at the people I meet now who are 21 and I think to myself, my god, you're a baby! Sweet little dear! I know it's unfounded because I know whatever I was capable of at 21 got me to where I am now. And where am I? Still living in New York, still writing, still taking pictures, still growing as a person and a small business. 

In these last five years, there's been a wealth of experiences that have led me here, whether in my career, my social life, my romantic life, or what have you. I have this strong feeling of liking myself, and fully owning each of those experiences, be they negative or positive, because they made me what I am. I apologize for myself less, I make sure people only treat me with the kindness and respect I deserve, and I am even learning to be a little more carefree. As AM says, "Every day, you need to practice not giving a fuck about one thing." I find I am doing it, and I am a better person for it!

But I don't think I would have had this sort of personal growth if I was living anywhere else. Because I love New York so deeply, I found myself rising to the challenges it brought my way. I knew before I got here that I was the kind of person who would fight tooth and nail for what I wanted; I just never imagined I would also be fighting tooth and nail with myself, challenging myself to become a better person, the kind who could adapt to living in this ever-changing metropolis and roll with the punches it threw my way. I am not perfect--I am still learning. But I am getting better, and that is what counts.

I would not trade one night of one too many gin-and-tonics, one night walking in the snow with an unexpected hole in my boot, one trip through the Union Square subway station in the height of summer, one meal of only frozen peas, or one broken heart for the experiences and the knowledge I have gained in return. Because for every one of those not-so-great experiences, there's an afternoon spent hanging out with drag kings, there's an evening spent at a Chelsea bakery eating banana pudding with male models, there's crazy disco performance art parties where you end up happily covered in fake blood, there's a bike trip an hour outside of the city with a gay motorcycle club, there's the best burger you've ever had, there's photographing inside legendary arts venues, there's meeting Fran Drescher at a gallery opening, and the electricity of kissing someone you've just met for the first time on a too-quiet street in the West Village. Those are the moments you live for, and you can't have the good without the bad.

To all the bad moments and all the good moments from these last five years in New York, thank you. I don't know what I'd be without you.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Scenes from a Summer

Patwig 
Aja
Merrie Cherry
Brooklyn drag queens are known for doing whatever the hell they want, pretty much. They'll arrive onstage with hairy legs and chests, they'll paint their entire faces as if they were applying warpaint, they'll have ripped tights, they'll throw off their wigs in fits of fabulousness. As famed drag king Murray Hill once said, they're a hot mess, but on purpose; the punks of the drag world, one might say. And they're glorious. I had never seen a Brooklyn drag show before but I made my way out to one recently. The annual festival of drag in Bushwick is known as Bushwig and it's held in September, where the borough's queens all come out to play; but the summer version of it is called Patwig. It was a day-long festival at Union Pool in Williamsburg, where ferocious queens like Merrie Cherry, Horrorchata, the delightfully named [untitled queen], Aja, and many others all came out to play in their own brand of drag. As if to say no, there's not one way to do drag, and anything I want to do, any choice I make will be beautiful. For the rest of my life, I will never forget seeing Merrie Cherry lip-synch Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," spinning on a pole, running across the stage and jumping onto a picnic table in giant red platform heels. It was sheer genderfuck perfection. I will without a doubt be going back.

Photos are from my iPhone. Incidentally, I am also on Instagram (@MissManhattanNY)!

video 
Part of Merrie Cherry's "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Punk in Drublic
When it comes to drinking, I am a terrible lightweight. One drink, of any kind, makes me loopy, so when JW came to visit last week and we had a cocktail--yes A cocktail-- with dinner, I was done. And after dinner, around 11pm, we went grocery shopping because I had no food and it's New York so everything is open late (my grocery store is open til 1am. God, I love this town). So we were in this grocery store, giggling and wobbling through the aisles to find strawberries and yogurt and cookie dough on two different nights, and it was a completely wacky experience. JW accidentally made jokes about the phallic shape of cookie dough as we tromped through a crowd of people in the pasta aisle, my giant shopping basket filled with cottage cheese and yogurt for me, kombucha for her. They turned and stared and we burst out laughing in each other's faces. And I have to say, it was one of my greatest moments of last week.

I've probably written this before, but one of the things about living in New York is that you have to remember that it's just like living everywhere else. Yes, there are clubs open til 4am every night--trust me, I've been to them--but you know you're a real New Yorker, or at least on your way to becoming one, when you don't have to do those things or be chasing those things to have an amazing time. Sometimes you can just be punk in drublic in your local grocery store, shopping for cookie dough at 10pm with a friend. You'll simultaneously laugh and eat the dough on the way home with her, like you're still in college, as if nearly nine years have not passed since you first met. And it'll be awesome.

Nocturne Blues
It was rather toasty last weekend--easily in the 90s for a day or two, definitely. And over the weekend was the annual Nocturne Blues dance weekend here in the city (read more about what blues dancing is here). Blues dancers from all over the country and the world came to dance to DJs and live music, enter dance competitions, take blues classes, and much more. I had the pleasure of attending for two nights, both where I danced from about 10:30pm until about 3am. Hips swirl and grind, people are kind and considerate, and you leave with a warm body and a warm heart. (Not to mention you get to hang out and dance with two friends you never get to see and it's wonderful! Shoutout to the phenomenal JB and DL).

There is nothing like leaving a building having danced out your stresses and entering the dark, quiet streets of New York in the summertime, where a heated, humid breeze hangs in the air. That's the thing I've always felt about very hot weather--while it's unpleasant on the surface, on a deeper level it makes you feel alive.

Jazz on a Summer's Day
In 1959, the photographer Bert Stern arrived in Newport, Rhode Island to direct a feature film, but luckily he decided to abandon it and focus instead on the Newport Jazz Festival. The result is a documentary of a single day of the festival, featuring Stern's gorgeous cinematography and astounding jazz performances from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson, George Shearing, and many more. I hadn't seen the film previously, but what I heard about it was that each scene from the film itself was a gorgeous photograph, reflective of Stern's still work. Seeing it on Tuesday, this was without a doubt completely true. I had been invited to the beautiful Explorer's Club on the Upper East Side for a viewing of the film in one of the club's great rooms (to get to it I had to walk past a giant taxidermy polar bear!) and was utterly blown away. When you look at the film, you feel Stern looking at each of these images and understanding why he wanted to capture them, what story he was trying to tell. And it was, frankly, the perfect movie for a summer evening. As I left, I walked into the evening, dark but still well lit in the way that all New York evenings are, inspired to listen to jazz all the way home.

Check out the trailer here, but I highly recommend watching it in its entirety!


Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Story Behind the Story: Allis Markham

Yesterday, I had a story published on Refinery29 about the fascinating taxidermist Allis Markham. I wrote it after spending a weekend in her Birds 101 class, which she normally teaches in Los Angeles but was teaching in Brooklyn on behalf of Atlas Obscura, which seeks to put out and guide people toward unusual events all over the world.

One of the things I love most about my job is that it allows me to see and learn about parts of the world and society that I might not ever see on my own, or have the nerve or surface interest to seek out on my own independent from work. What I'm saying is, I don't know that I would have sought out Allis's taxidermy class on my own. I don't think I've ever been turned off by taxidermy, I just wouldn't have put it at the top of list of interests. But I'll write about anything I think has an unusual or underexposed story (within reason!). I love learning something new about how people live their lives.

So to the workshop I went. I could have participated but 1) I didn't really think it was relevant to the story I was trying to tell; that is, it was a profile on Allis, not about my experience of the class, and 2) I was frankly kind of squeamish about it.

Here's a thought I had that was originally in the piece that corresponds to this:

Growing up, we’re taught not to touch dead things, and especially not to cut them open. But taxidermy allows engagement with the the dead in idea and in practice and lets us understand it, possibly making it less scary.

There was something about touching something dead that I found unsettling, that there was this innate "you're not supposed to do it"-ness that kept me from touching the birds, a fear of...something? I couldn't put my finger on it and I still can't, really.

But after I spent the day watching as students opened the chests of birds, removing their raspberry-colored innards and scooping out their brains, it wasn't really such a big deal. In fact, that night during Allis's lecture, when she opened a yellow Indian Ringneck parrot herself, I put the scalpel in my own hand and separated the flesh, outlined in soft, fluffy feathers, from innards. And you know what? It was fun! I wanted to keep going, but it was time for someone else to have a try. I wasn't thinking about death, I was thinking about the present. I wondered if people who become interested in taxidermy simply have a different way of looking at life.

And it's important to note, when it comes to taxidermy, the proper term is 'mount' not 'stuff' because 'stuffing' is actually highly derogatory, probably like the equivalent of saying Ernest Hemingway was just a typist, or that Michael Jordan was a waterboy. This is because back in the day, people literally used to stuff whatever they could find, like sawdust, horsehair, and lawd knows what else into a half-assed sewn up animal skin just so it would have some shape; today, taxidermists will take days, weeks, or even months making sure every feather or hair, every muscle, every whisker is an exact scientific replica of how the specimen looks in real life. So 'mount' is the correct term, friends!

Over the course of the weekend, it was a blast to chat with Allis, drinking sangria, rose, and more rose (on the second day of class, she brings wine for the students so they can relax and feel free to get creative with how they mount their birds), discussing feminism in the taxidermy world, all of her favorite podcasts, our mutual love of Broad City, and how she arrived at taxidermy. I'm happy with the piece as it's published right now, I just always wish I could write about people forever. It's so inspiring to be around people who are passionate about their work, their play, their hobbies, or what have you.

And after the first day of class? Man, was I craving a burger. Nothing will put you in the mood for meat like a day of taxidermy class.

Here are some unpublished pictures from the weekend. I realized while I was editing that I became immune to the sight of bird guts, so tread carefully if you yourself are not yet immune to such sights...



 








Friday, July 3, 2015

Empire City Pride

I realize this post is coming a little late in the game, but I was excited to share it with you nonetheless.

This year, the kind fellas at the Empire City Motorcycle Club--a motorcycle club for gay men which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary--asked me if I would be a marshal in the NYC Pride March with them. Having spent a few months getting to know them, writing about and photographing them, I was more than happy to oblige. I planned my outfit a week in advance, then woke up early and got into my parade drag--rainbow eyelashes, a red rose in my hair, lightning bolt earrings and all--and headed down to 41st Street and Madison Avenue where all the bikers would meet up before entering the parade. It was an unusually cloudy and chilly day for the end of June. I wore a bright orange shirt as all marshals are asked to do, handed out ribbons and confetti blasters to the gents for their motorcycles, and walked--and occasionally ran--with them in the parade as it started. As ECMC turned onto 5th Avenue, a whirr of motorcycles roaring in unison, I marveled at the sheer badassery of these leather-bound men on motorcycles, waving giant American flags, pride flags, and equality flags. ECMC was a part of the larger motorcycle contingent, made of the Sirens MC (an all-lesbian motorcycle club) and many other clubs and individual bikers.

When we made our way down 5th Avenue, right in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library, they all honked their horns like crazy to a crowd of excited people waving rainbow flags. That was, I think, the thing that got me most: all of these people on the sidelines celebrating other people simply for who they are. As if to say, who you are is so beautiful, so exciting, I just have to cheer for how amazing and wonderful you are. This made my eyes water in the West 30s as we made our way downtown. It was humid and rainy, but it didn't matter. I was glad I was wearing sneakers so the other marshals and I could run when they got too far away from us and we had to catch up. We passed out water to the bikers and cheered right back at the crowd. During breaks, the bikers smoked cigarettes and some even let me put glitter on their faces--sometimes only one cheek, sometimes both. 

I had never walked in a parade of any kind before, save for those Halloween parades around my elementary school as a child. I felt honored to be a part of something bigger than myself, celebrating pride people take in being who they are, and how much they deserve to celebrate it after dealing with far too many years of inequality, judgement and closed-mindedness from others.

Here are is a video (where it gets really shaky is where I'm running...) and a few pictures from the parade. Thank you so much to the ECMC for having me. I wish you 50 more fantastic years.

video 














Thursday, June 25, 2015