A long time ago, I wanted to be an actress. (Or an acTOR, as I called myself at the time. ‘Actresses’ were either decorative fluff or the screen idols of a bygone era – not the serious performers we female drama students took ourselves to be.) So finishing up my Uni course in Melbourne I duly bought a book called something like ‘How to Make it as an Actor’ (no such guide for actresses) and underlined the key points. An early step was to get a stack of high quality head shots printed for sending out to all those eager agents and directors itching to cast you.
My friend and fellow drama student, Gwendolen De Lacey, recommended a photographer called Maggie Diaz. Hailing from New York and Chicago originally, Maggie was eccentric, gifted and tragically under-recognised. It’s only through years of tireless work by Gwen, that her work has gained the acclaim it deserves, resulting in several exhibitions and an annual Maggie Diaz prize for a woman photographer. Maggie died at age 91 in 2016, so I am glad to have those early acting shots taken by her.
I well remember the shoot at her sparse weatherboard house in Balaclava. With her ragged New York- and-cigarette drawl, she insisted I was an ‘actress’ not an ‘actor’ and took me through my paces. I started with a bare face and an old shirt, then progressed through increasing amounts of make-up and more ‘actressy’ hair-dos, though never quite reaching the glamorous heights of the 1930s goddesses. (More’s the pity).
I loved the way the camera was an extension of her bony fingers and sharp eyes, and the way she talked to me, one moment making me feel like Lauren Bacall, the next chiding me for too much ‘dying swan’. It made me laugh, which was good for the pictures. But she also had an unsettling way of looking right through me: ‘The right side of your face is more angular and determined; the left side softer. Must be the two forces in you, huh?’ She was right, on both counts.
After the shoot, she sent me the proofs, and my house-mate Janet helped me choose two for printing. ‘This really looks like you,’ she said, pointing to one where I’ve got daisies tucked into a high bun. Really? That shot was from the end of the day, with the most make-up and Maggie getting arty with her garden flowers. But, following Janet’s urging, I picked it as a more formal shot. By contrast, the one I liked best was from the start of the day: no make-up, no messing about, just me.
Thanks to Gwen’s work, one of the daisy shots found its way into the Diaz archive at the State Library of Victoria.
Looking back, I remember one piece of advice in ‘How to Make it as an Actor’. The author warned not to get too many prints and to make sure you sent them out promptly. He told the cautionary tale of his friend who was still using excess shots many years later as notes for the milkman. If only I’d paid heed.
Shortly after ordering several hundred prints, I moved to Scotland and got distracted and got married. (One of my better diversions.) When life settled down, I sent out a few dozen pictures to various directors and awaited the phone calls. There was one interview with Borderline Theatre Company that led to a series of Saturday afternoon drama workshops for kids – a mere three hour journey each way – but no auditions. My one role came in a production at Glasgow’s Ramshorn Theatre, but I don’t think I’d even sent them a photo.
A few months later, my husband and I set off to work in Nepal for five years and the acting dream died on the vine. It’s probably just as well. I had already written my first play and knew I was more interested in expressing my own ideas than being a mouth piece for somebody else’s. The performer in me still rises whenever I give a reading and maybe one day I’ll write myself back onto the stage. (You have been warned.)
But even authors need head shots and over the years I’ve pressed friends and family into wielding the camera, with mixed results. Professionals definitely know what they’re doing: the most recent one was taken by the photographer at my parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary in Australia. But I realised late last year that it was nearly five years old and I might start disappointing people when I turned up for events. So when the Cairngorms National Park organised photographer Stewart Grant to get press shots for the launch of our Shared Stories anthology, I seized the chance and booked him for a further hour.
Unfortunately, It was -6 degrees that day and once the group shots were done, Stewart suggested we postpone the author bit. ‘People don’t normally photograph well when they’re cold,’ he explained. ‘Stewart,’ I said, ‘I don’t normally dress up and put make-up on. It’s now or never.’
Cheerfully enough, he took us down to a spot by the River Spey near Grantown where everything was rimed with frost. Wonderfully, a small robin hopped onto a neighbouring post and it seemed a sign: this was the right place and the right time. Yes, I was freezing, especially when I took off my hat and gloves, but somehow Stewart brought an easy warmth to the shoot and the results were a delight. You can see more of them in my gallery.
So that’s me set now for the next five years! And if anyone needs notepaper for the milkman, I have about 477 black and white acting shots that would be just the thing. Choice of daisy design or plain.