In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.
The tabac shop in Belleau after the war and now
The central point of our trip was the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, and we spent nearly every day of our trip there, for a least an hour or two. Located in Belleau Wood, on the site of the battle bearing the same name, Aisne-Marne is one of the sites carefully and respectfully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, whose permission I needed, in order to take professional photographs, while accompanying Bethany. The ABMC administers, operates, and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 29 federal memorials, monuments, and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries.
The WWI monument at Chateau Thierry
After World War I, President Harding, in response to a need for federal control over the commemoration of American armed forces overseas, established the ABMC and made the agency responsible for constructing monuments honoring American Expeditionary Forces. Next, the ABMC constructed memorial chapels in the eight permanent military cemeteries in Europe, which were maintained by the War Department. President Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the Executive Order that gave the responsibility for managing and maintenance of these solemn grounds to the ABMC.
Normandy Cemetery, beautifully maintained by the ABMC
Once an option for American families who lost a soldier in the war, the military no longer buries soldiers abroad – that ended during the Korean War. Now, the military tries to bring those who die in service back home. But during WWI, 30% of grieving American families chose to let their loved ones be buried in the place where they sacrificed their lives for freedom – not just American freedom, and not even American freedom first. Here, they fought for Frenchmen, to protect Paris, and turn the tide of the war in Europe. Belleau Wood and the Aisne-Marne Cemetery is land that has been given to the United States by France for burial and commemoration.
It is here, in this beautifully maintained cemetery set up against the wood, that Eben rests rather poignantly. His family did not instruct the military to bury him there. In fact, by the time Eben was in his permanent resting place (the clerical and logistical nightmare of locating, identifying and preparing the scattered chaos of dead bodies from the month-long battle took years and multiple temporary burial sites), his family, so heartbroken, frustrated and beaten, could barely bring themselves to think of the Newburyport boulder with his name on it, much less the far-off wheat field that held his gunshot riddled body. He was interred there because nobody said otherwise. All the more reason for Bethany and I to be fully present, both spiritually and physically, on the important day.
Bethany at one of the temporary gravesites hastily created after the battle
I was absolutely honored and thrilled to be going along to see Eben and take pictures, but my job description still wasn’t entirely clear. During our planning, a delicate question had hung tactfully in the air – as a commercial portrait photographer, I generally take pictures of the living – what was there for me to photograph in the peaceful, but largely unchanging, fields of the dead?
Looking towards Lucy Le Bocage
One thing I can always count on Bethany for is a solution, and this moment was no exception. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “the men that take care of the cemetery are an interesting bunch. I wonder if you could take some portraits of them?” Visions of cigarette-smoking, weather beaten, salt-of-the-earth Frenchmen in full gardening gear taking care of American WWI graves hit my photographer buttons, and in an instant we had the makings of a proposal. After a few emails were exchanged with Constant Lebastard, Bethany’s contact at the cemetery, and a well-written pitch of mine was approved by the ABMC stateside, I had an additional project for France that supported Bethany’s book and kept me within my own bailiwick. I now got to packing my gear with a real sense of purpose and plan.
Assistant Superintendant Constant Lebastard
All of that assurance stuck with me through the first leg of my trip in Paris, got me to the rental car and through picking up Bethany at the airport, rocketed us East on the A4 (Bethany soon discovered my lead foot speaks French pretty well), and promptly left me as we slowly drove through the iron gates and up the perfectly manicured entryway to the cemetery. It was one of the most beautiful and calm places I’ve ever seen – full of roses and tall sycamores, boxwood hedges and lush grass. My grizzled and gritty vision of caretakers vanished in an instant and was replaced with complete curiosity over who could possibly keep such intensely perfect grounds.
In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site. This is part one of a four part series.
I step to the edge of the woods, my heart thumping, and look cautiously out onto the field of ripening wheat. The breeze rustles everything green, and the resulting sound is almost deafening compared to the heavy silence of noontime sun in the summer. The events of this day, in this place, one hundred years ago, still reside in the soil and in the air; if you pause, you can feel it. At least, I can as I stand here, knees a bit wobbly, my soul vibrating and aching all at once, camera useless by my side, staring. Ghosts of young men are whispering to me, asking me to listen.
Nearly one year before this moment in the woods Bethany had floated the idea to me over a sneaky workday lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. “Come with me to France”, she said, “and take pictures when I visit Eben again.” It struck me like most fanciful and far off ideas do, interesting in its spontaneous shape, but unlikely to ever become anything more than a thought. Then suddenly, something in the moment whispered, like it did in the field, telling me to simply say yes and sort the details out later. So I did.
A few more weeks and working lunches later, we had flights and rooms and a car in Aisne and seven unscheduled June days, with the exception of one – June 12th. On that day, the 100th anniversary of his death, Bethany would be visiting with Eben Bradbury, a WWI Newburyport Massachusetts Marine buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau Wood. She would sit at his grave and read him letters from his father, the ones Eben never got to read himself, as they were sent back from France unopened with ‘Killed in Action’ scrawled in red above his name.
Bethany, a historian and author, and also a Newburyport native, knows a lot about Eben. A lot. Enough to fill the terrific book she’s written about him. She knows the house where he grew up, and the schools he attended. She knows his favorite sport (baseball) and what he liked to do in his spare time (walks with Dad). She knows his nickname, and a bit about his temperament, and much about his relationship with his parents and older sister. She can tell you details about his family’s business and the interesting people he was related to. She also knows about his eventual choice to be a Marine, his training and service in Europe during WWI, how he ended up at Belleau, and how he died there.
The whisper that I heard has been in Bethany’s ear all along, bringing with it an astounding series of fortuitous events, well-timed connections and providences that have helped her understand this nearly-forgotten young man with astounding depth. (You should read the book!) Bethany wrote in 2015: “I had recently completed some research on the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, a 1918 battle famous in the Marine Corps for its terrible death toll and the bravery of its soldiers. Later that day I drove by a memorial stone on Pond Street and really looked at it for the first time. It honors Eben Bradbury, who died on June 12, 1918, at the Battle of Belleau Wood. It was an eerie coincidence, but one that convinced me to find out more about how the war touched Newburyport, and about this young man in particular.”
That was three years ago. Here we were now, in 2018, days before the 100th anniversary, in Northern France on the edge of the Marne River, walking through villages and the driving down the dirt roads where that dreadful battle was fought. We drank every detail in great gulps, minds full of the past and the present all at once separate and then intertwined. The roll of the hills the soldiers marched, the length of the fields they waded through. Bright June days, where a late sunset meant less time under cover of darkness for rest and recon. The feel of the soil underfoot, the height of the wheat, the blood red brightness of poppies and the green of trees. Church bells tolling in the present, reminding us of their use in the past as alarms or calls to action. The farmers using harmless air cannons to drive off crows – and how they sounded like rifles as we stood in the battlefield listening. Thunderstorms that seemed, for all the world, like artillery as they shook the ground. Doves calling incessantly to their mates, as if they feared losing each other in the thick of the wood. Rain. Mud. And bones in the ground…
This interview makes me realize I think a LOT about taking portraits and business photographs. Maybe more than most photographers. I think I spend so much time planning so that the actual photoshoot goes effortlessly, and that we can make changes during the picture-taking with ease and confidence. Doing your research makes you well-equipped to handle whatever may happen in the moment.
But wow it still makes me sound like a HUGE photo and story nerd. Can’t help it!
Here are a few pictures and words from the very long article…
We are the rockstar heroes of our life’s journey. Really, I swear. You know that awesome picture of yourself that you held in your heart as a kid? The one where you were a superhero, or maybe royalty, or some wild un-tame-able spirit. Maybe a wolf. Or a butterfly. Or president. Take a second and try to remember the way it made you feel. Remember the story you wove around it, how you made yourself the hero and the way you saved the entire world right before you got called into dinner?
I LOVE that story. I love it in my subjects, and I love it in me. I’ve spent my entire life exploring it, from childhood when I would construct entire environments (and costumes) for my friends to play in, then in my years analyzing scripts as a professional costume and set designer, and in my current life as a commercial, editorial, and fine art portrait photographer. I’m obsessed. Here’s why – I think that powerful story jump starts our passions, sticks with us as we move into adulthood, and drives the genuine, authentic heart of what we ultimately choose to do with our lives.
For most businesses, it is a buyer’s market, and we don’t convert sales the way we used to. At all. Our websites are our storefronts, and the main page is the shop window. The portraits we use are what our potential clients see when they come up to the virtual counter.
The one thing that a business person has that sets them apart from their competitors is their individual view on their business and the world, their mission and purpose, which has a foundation in that first hero story. When we go beyond the “good photograph” and create the fantastic photograph, the dynamic photograph, the storytelling photograph that radiates with a person’s positive intention and energy, it connects on a higher level.
The subject’s unique character and strengths invite a closer look. It doesn’t matter the profession – I’ve photographed some terrifically charismatic dry cleaners. If you love what you do, it shows. The stories that inspire us, light us from within. And great photography is about capturing the light.
I appreciate the chance to talk about my work. To check out some of the other interviews, head to www.bostonvoyager.com
I have a little sign on my desk that I love. Here’s a photograph of it:
(It is also a photograph of my Lensball – if you don’t have one, get one! Seriously, coolest thing.)
I wrote it many years ago right after a terrific portrait session, and it has remained forever true. I really do love taking pictures for the people I work for, documenting their passionate pursuit of their work, the way they believe in what they do, and their commitment to giving. They light up when talking about their goals, and I love helping them show the world their strengths.
That’s why I had such a blast visiting one of my most inspiring clients, Lisa Cantalupo, in her New Hampshire studio last month in order to photograph her story for Boston Voyager magazine.
Lisa, in a word, is cool. Not in that trendy, hip, flash-in-the-pan way (although she does make pretty big splashes with her designs), but as a designer who has been tirelessly honing her craft for years and has never rested on her laurels. Her leatherwork is intricate, of the highest quality and perpetually stylish. Her spirit is unflappable and positive but pragmatic. And she’s a survivor. I won’t re-write the Boston Voyager article, you can read that for yourself, but if I had to sum things up I would say that the road has been challenging, as it is for many entrepreneurs who are also single parents. Lisa has maintained a commitment to her family AND her work that is really inspiring. And it has paid off.
Hanging with Lisa is always fun, too – and that is definitely a part of why she’s successful. Her happy energy immediately gets you into a comfortable place – with your life, yourself – so much so that you find yourself looking at one of her gorgeous and daring pieces and envisioning yourself in it. Then you try it, and what can I say? Magic. So spending a day roaming around her workspace with camera in hand, both of us laughing and even talking about the down and dirty aspects of making a go of a business in a buoyant manner was truly nourishing.
Witnessing the energy that makes a business successful and then capturing its essence in photographs is the heart of what I do. I shoot what I see. (The filters that exist on the images come from the spirit of the business, not Instagram, thank you very much!) Here are some of the images from our day.
Christopher is very very busy right now. Please take this photo later.
Here’s the scenario.
We’re in my photography studio, and we are getting ready to take a headshot or a business portrait. Everything is set to go and I lift the camera up. And then I hear something from my client that always makes me a little sad, and full of empathy.
OH MY GOSH I HATE MY _______________! (Insert body part here)
Deep sigh of understanding and compassion. Okay. Let’s put the camera back down for a minute.
I feel you. Believe me I do. One of the reasons I love to be behind the camera is that I don’t have to be part of the photograph happening in front of it, facing up to all those things the world has told me (and the things I’ve told myself) about my appearance. My years as a costume designer made me even more sensitive and sympathetic to those moments. I’ve seen many a Tony Award level actor crumble into self doubt when faced with a mirror, and it makes my heart hurt. It shouldn’t be the way it is. (more on that in another post.)
But after taking photographs of people for so many years, I have learned some about what we see in ourselves vs. what others see in us. Here are some things to think about when the camera’s focus is on you, and you’re feeling, well, a little…uncomfortable in your skin:
We really are our own worst critic. The rest of the world sees you with far kinder eyes than you see yourself. It does. Even if there are a few loudmouths out there (tell me their names and I’ll give them a talking to!), the majority of us see you with a sense of wholeness and complete-ness that you don’t. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say ‘Ugh! My ____ is so _______!’ only to have my staff in the photoshoot say ‘I never even noticed it until you pointed it out!’ and mean it. Those things you obsess about? Even if someone else does notice them, they give far less focus, time and judgment to them than you do, and spend more time seeing your good stuff. And if they do dwell on it, you might want to consider revoking their invitation to the party that is your awesome life. So really. You are great. It’s okay. Honest.
There is a science to making a good photo. Yup, I said making, not taking. Ask anyone who has worked with me and they will tell you that I have ways to help you stand/sit/move that help you get your best shot without feeling awkward or forced. I research and test this stuff ALL THE TIME (Don’t believe me? Check it out: Proof.)
I can fix a lot of things in a way you’d never notice afterward. Eyes not open wide enough? Yup, can fix that a bit. Blemish? Gone. Rogue hair? Yes, absolutely, I do it every day. Wrinkles? Softened. Jawline smoother? Yup. And while that seems like a lot of Photoshop plastic surgery, remember that 1.) I’m an expert and 2.) I am committed to making your image a photo of you, not some plastic version of you. Natural, intuitive retouching. Always.
Consider what’s inside. Your mindset going in will help create a good photo. This is one of those things you have to do for yourself, and it may be hard if you really hate getting your picture taken, but believe me, it helps tremendously. Give yourself a pep talk, reflect on the good stuff, let it fill you up, and bring that to the shoot. It really helps! Need help with awesome self-talk? Learn from a master.
One last, important thing. You’re safe with me! If you’re reading this and I’m not your photographer, don’t worry. Good photographers feel this way and understand. (If you don’t have a photographer holding the space for you, find another one.) We’re here for one reason – to help you create a picture of yourself that reflects all the terrific things you are. I personally won’t quit until that happens. Plus I’m nice. So relax. We’ve got this. Really. I promise.