To the jaded or happily coupled, personal ads can be the object of amusement or even suspicion. These familiar calls for companionship take an empathetic turn, however, in Maybe It’s You, a compelling new series of portraits by photojournalist-turned-art photographer Jeffrey Aaronson.
The project began with words, not images. Aaronson pored over personals found on the popular online classifieds site craigslist.org, which don’t show their poster’s picture, and chose the most intriguing entreaties. The intense fellow shown here, for example, began his ad this way: “Clingy, emotional, and co-dependent? Where do I sign up?” Aaronson then e-mailed these ads’ authors to ask if he could photograph them, sight unseen. Most men turned him down, suspecting he was scamming them. Most women said yes.
Booking studios in four cities, Aaronson set up shop with a camera that should have intimidated his subjects: the 20×24 Polaroid. It wasn’t the instant-film colossus that artist-photographers have come to know and love, but rather a supersized mahogany-and-brass Wisner field camera (shown below) with a red leather bellows big enough to sleep in. This version of the 20×24 stays “portable” by offloading the Polaroid processing hardware, which allowed Aaronson to keep the latter in a separate room. That in turn meant the photographer could peel apart and inspect his Polacolor print — a single exposure, unless the sitter blinked — without being swayed by pleas for a reshoot. He didn’t want his subjects to know he was using instant film, because they likely would have wanted another shot had they seen themselves in the unsparing detail of a 20×24 Polaroid.
There was more to Aaronson’s idea, though, than the warts-and-all approach of modern fine-art portraiture. Before blasting his sitters with 14,400 watt/seconds of flash, Aaronson recorded each of them reading his or her personal ad aloud. Those recitations, often deeply affecting, were an essential part of Maybe It’s You’s fall opening at the Kashya Hildebrand Gallery in New York City. Attached to the wall beside each 30×40 digital print (made on Kodak Endura paper from exacting scans of the original Polaroid) was an iPod Shuffle; visitors plugged in a borrowed headset to listen while they viewed Aaronson’s in-your-face, larger-than-life headshot of the speaker. You can listen and look for yourself by clicking on the audio files that accompany each portrait presented here.
At first you may feel that image and words are at odds. Aaronson’s subjects often have a more idealized view of themselves than any sales pitch might have warranted. If our reaction is any indication, though, the longer you study their flawed faces and listen to their heartfelt appeals, the more you may be tempted to answer their personal ads yourself.