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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003

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by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Alex Waterhouse-HaywardAlex Waterhouse-Hayward was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1943. His photos have appeared in the The New York Times, The London Times, The Daily Telegraph, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Spin, Time, American Photography, Interview, Stern, The National Post, and The Globe & Mail.

He has photographed Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Candice Bergen, Liv Ullmann, Kenneth Branagh Vittorio Gassman, Martin Scorsese, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Annie Leibovitz y Elliott Erwitt Mario Vargas Llosa, Leonard Cohen, P.D. James, and William F. Buckley.



The envelope addressed to me in elegant handwriting arrived one day in 1999. In it was a postcard of an Amedeo Modigliani nude. The postcard was from Helen Yagi, a shy woman of few words who believes in unconventional methods to communicate her wishes.

Mom's Kimono, photograph from a polyptych of six, 1999
Mom's Kimono, photograph from a polyptych of six, 1999

I decided I wanted this elegant and graceful woman as my photographic subject. I had first noticed Helen at gallery openings. The tacky technique of handing out a photographer's business card was anathema. On June 2, 1998, when Helen was interim publicist of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I sent her a letter expressing my desire to photograph her undraped. I first heard this soft and quaint euphemism for the word nude during a stint at teaching photography at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

Her brief but affirmative reply would lead to a most fruitful photographic relationship. Along the way I would discover the joys of pinhole camera photography, discern what lies beneath a kimono, and discover why Modigliani's models had long necks.

During our first project I decided to test the untried (for me) technique of taking nudes with a pinhole camera. We did this during a hot summer day. Exposures were 1 minute 15 seconds and Helen had to be very still. The only noise, my studio fan, made it seem even longer but the results convinced me, that with very little direction Helen was a photographer's dream subject.

Pinholes in Paradise, photographs from a polyptych of five, 1998
Pinholes in Paradise, photographs from a polyptych of five, 1998
Pinholes in Paradise, photographs from a polyptych of five, 1998


The pinhole project led to many others.

El Piano de Cola, photographs from a polyptych of five, 2000
El Piano de Cola, images from a polyptych of five, 2000

In one I photographed her with a friend, a pianist. Helen simply asked, "I have this friend who plays the piano. Could we incorporate him into one of our sessions? I could be the piano."

In another she economically hinted, "Rita is my shiatsu therapist. You could. . . " Rita applied the relevant pressure points and my ring light brought startling surgical-like results.

Retouching Helen, photograph, 2000
Retouching Helen, 2000


In one of the "better" rooms of the seedy Vancouver Marble Arch Hotel we completed two mutually very satisfying sessions. In the first, Helen posed with a blond wig and in the other we chose poses from several Balthus paintings. We substituted Balthus' usual cat with a stuffed Hello Kitty.

Men's Pochy, photograph from polyptych of five, 1998
Men's Pochy, photograph from polyptych of five, 1998

Balthus, Nu Jouant avec un chat, 1949
Balthus, Nu Jouant avec un chat, 1949
Count Balthazar says: "Hello Kitty", photograph from polyptych of five, 1998
Waterhouse-Hayward, Count Balthazar says, "Hello Kitty", photograph from polyptych of five, 1998


But it was the kimono project that opened up unfamiliar territory. There was a knock on my studio door. I opened it and there was Helen looking as if I had been the one to have knocked on the door, a door in Tokyo. The kimono, her mother's, was tight around her ankles. She entered with little measured steps. During the shoot I could not stop thinking of the privilege and my good fortune. Item by item, I recorded the slow unlayering as Helen explained the name, history and meaning of each divested article.

In the mid 19th century, with the advent of photography, many critics predicted the death of 'realist' painting, thanks to the camera's ability to capture reality. In the 21st century, thanks to Adobe Photoshop and the airbrush technique, we can no longer trust the photograph to deliver the truth. Meanwhile, allowing for the influence of both of those seminal developments, artists, in some cases unconsciously, have been adopting the photographer's methods and techniques - to great effect. I have observed deep blue polarized skies in the contemporary realist paintings of Christopher Pratt and wide-angle and fish-eye lens type of distortion in the whimsical paintings of Vancouver's Michael Abraham.

Most of us know that objects closer to us will appear bigger. When we point a camera with a wide-angle lens at a friend's face our brain corrects the largeness of the nose but the camera's take on reality remains true because a nose that is really close will indeed appear really big. If you look at Vincent Van Gogh's paintings of wicker chairs such as Vincent's Bedroom in Arles and Vincent's Chair with his Pipe you would swear he looked at them through 28mm wide-angle lens.

When Helen's Modigliani postcard arrived I knew it was a gentle command in the direction of our next project. I took advantage of the opportunity to confirm a suspicion. I posed Helen in my studio and within minutes I shot a color Polaroid and immediately converted it into a transfer on the other side of the postcard. My camera's wide-angle lens combined with my close proximity to the reclining Helen created a picture that strongly resembled Modigliani's Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude), 1917.

Amedeo Modigliani, Red Nude, 1917
Amedeo Modigliani, Red Nude, 1917
Modiglianíssimo, photograph, 1998
Modiglianíssimo, photograph, 1998

Modigliani postcard

As a photographer I suspect that Van Gogh and Modigliani are but two of many artists whose works, often regarded as distorted, (all kinds of physical or mental aberrations are reckoned as explanations) reflect the accuracy of the camera. I further determined that Modigliani was indeed physically very close (no more than half a meter away) to his models.

I cannot look at Modigiani's work without wondering what kind of relationship he may have had with his models or why he chose not to show what hid behind their eyes. Remembering Helen's unsettling gray eyes as she lay on the couch, not a half a meter away, I think I may have an inkling.

Editor's note: To find more about the artist or to get in touch with him, please write to to the attention of Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal - Arts Editor.

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