In order to learn from the master, the apprentice must give up everything. She will be favored and abused, captive and privileged, the first to get hit, the last to complain, a receptacle for all sorts of flattery and spit. It's a medieval set-up. You apprentice yourself to a master. "We shall break for Christmas," said a founding father at the Continental Congress of 1776 " that you may all go home and beat your slaves.".

"You're taking this out of context!" my master would say. But also, "Isn't that the definition of what we do?" He has also said, "You have no right to expose me, to betray my intimacies! I let you in! And besides, I've been horrible."  And later he he said, "But that is exactly what we do."

So, where am I supposed to get my material? From someone else's life? And just because it's your life, does it mean it isn't mine? I was there. And what did I learn there? That the worst life makes the best art, and that nothing is sacred, or secret. Is that the lesson I've taken all this shit for? This is tearing me apart. 


He's my godfather and he has been photographing me all my life. Some of the pictures became famous. When I was twenty I ran into him on the street. As I was passing his studio I felt his presence and just then he stepped out of his door. We spoke on the sidewalk and vowed to meet again. I felt awe, curiosity and a longing for family, hoping to find it in him.

mr. pickle

By means of a magical apparatus he is able to extract radiant slivers of his experience and preserve them forever. He tosses out what he finds banal and arranges the rest into a new order which is unassailable, immutable, immortal. I consider this a noble operation, the only thing worth doing, and he is a master. He is the master.


When I was twenty-one he called me and asked me to work for him. I went over to his ramshackle, overstuffed lair, tingling with excitement at the possibility of a new life. We sat on his couch and he asked me about myself. He called me a genius and I felt a sick new thrill. He asked me to work for him but I smelled heroin and something else, a hormone I couldn't name, so I declined. I wasn't ready. I offered up my friend George, whom I knew was stronger. Within weeks I he was burned alive by 4 am calls from Sweden and accusations that he had "...gone over to the other side."

In a medieval set-up, hierarchy is established through the distribution of kindness and cruelty. Gifts are given, punishments too, but always at random. Nothing is earned. All things good and evil flow from the whimsey of the master. And you never see them coming.

When I was twenty-three he called again. I had been in Europe and I had fallen in love with photography. I wanted to show him what I had made, and I wanted him in my life. And I was jobless. He called me a genius again and told me that he needed me. We met at his cookie-cutter condo and we sat on his couch, glowing with affection. He asked me to fill him in on everything. I was nervous and excited. Would I consider becoming his studio director, would I whip things into shape, would I take the reigns? $30 an hour, off the books, so you can keep your Medicaid. Yes. With pleasure. And we will travel. You will be by my side. Yes. With pleasure.

The other employees smirk at my ambitious plans. Over coffee, one of them sips his latte and says, 'I admire your will to try."

in dignity

The master's studio is aflutter with activities as purposeless and persistent as leaves rustling on a tree. So much and so little happens at once. Each of us fills our station with our private business, rattling stupidly like tea cups on a battleship. Clinks, taps, clicks, sighs, creaks, hiccups, a call. We 'go out' to smoke or to pee, and then come back to make a printout or a note.

The phone rings and the caller id says 'out of area'. We know. We do not answer. It might be a good day or a bad day, or a bad day hiding behind a sweet voice. He could be rearing up to bite any one of us in the face. No-one will take the call.

Crackle, hiss, frrrrsshhhht, "Pick up this phone! I know who's there... It's your captain! vrrshhtKkK. And GUESS WHAT!! I know who's NOT THERE!!.. k k kk frshhtkk.. Do I have to COME DOWN THERE MYSELF?!!.."  Relief! It's an empty threat. Overseas or over-medicated, he must be pretty far away to try that one. It's a known fact, the captain never appears on the bridge. frrrshhhht.

the best

I'm flattered to be fielding calls from great collectors, from great Museums and great companies and from the New York Times. I am running interference between potentates and 'the difficult one' and I think I understand. I do know whose team I am on. I am a buffer , a shield and a facilitator, and from my catbird seat I can see a long way. I am a doorman at a great club, or the Maitre 'D at ***, and I speak to all of them daily. They know me now, at least my voice. But like all of them I am aggrieved, and I suffer indignities.


In the fall we travel to Europe; to Berlin for a few days, and then to Paris, for a party. Everything is paid for but I am on a tight leash. He buys me a beautiful jacket and a fancy pair of shoes. I feel them being lorded over me from the first minute. At the party he fumbles with his little digital camera that he doesn't know how to use and that takes crap pictures anyway. I hold him up and see that he doesn't fall out any windows. I get him plates of food and feed him cigarettes. A model and friend light firecrackers at a balcony and he encourages them. They get thrown out. At his apartment that night we lie on the couch and talk till 3 in the morning of sweet and intimate things. Eventually I make a call and a date to meet a friend the following day, but he has been eavesdropping. He demands the phone and flips out. How dare I make plans with someone when I am invited to his home? Crying, attacked, heaving, trapped, utterly.

mon amour

On the horizon of his studio, a storm revolves permanently. We will not escape injury and loss. It's a constant threat. We have to keep a wary eye and it's hard to focus on work. If the whirlwind actually blows in and dents a few heads, it's only a display of power, like Hiroshima; a reminder of the wisdom of surrender. After the bloody exhibition it loops back to the horizon. 


I have apprenticed my self to my master so as to learn the trick, learn the apparatus, and the theory behind it. Ha. As if he knew any of that! Instead, he teaches me that life is banal, but recollections are not. Only what you can tear from life is saved. Not the protagonists of course, who are sacrificed, who sacrifice themselves with glee, but the images which they are constantly flinging from the surface of their bodies in all directions -like translucent skins. These we capture in little jars.


I am so excited to be in Berlin. It's the day before the opening and he doesn't know where to hang the work. Slideshows revolve all around us. Rotating frames of his family and friends, all the people who have deserted him over the years, either by decision or in death. So much sadness and pain. He needs help hanging the framed work and turns to me. All eyes and white gloves turn to me. Seventy thousand dollar prints poised in mid air, the eyes have turned to me. I conduct the circus intuitively. It's about courage not judgement, and I'm fresh. I'm intact. I'm still able to decide. He looks at me, listens, pauses, then nods. "Yes. Do whatever she says."  It feels good. I wave my arms and the pictures float about the room, landing here and there. I am seating the stars at a banquet. I rename a piece for this museum level master. "Call it 'My family'". And he does.

"Go get my conditioner. Now." "Ok. Where's the laptop?" "What for?! To call your girlfriend?" "No, to find your shampoo." "No. Fuck you, you're not googling shit. Go out and find it like normal people do. Go!"

out of

..the studio door pushes open. oh god.. who left it ajar?! the flush of fear, that we might be blamed for this intrusion, is quickly overwhelmed by a truly awesome horror. The unthinkable has happened. He has 'stopped by', or so it appears, in person.

How do we know it's him?

A hot, tarry mass swells into the doorway, then slows to a stop, forming a hissing bulge which seals us in. It's surface hardens to a smoking crust. 

evidence against

He never comes. It's been so long since his last visit to the studio, that no-one can remember when that visit took place. Certainly, with the high turnover here, no-one present now was present then. Over the years, each team passes on the keys and credit cards, and the 'truth' is handed down with the same authority: 'He has not been to the studio since the beginning and he will never come again.'

and for

He never comes and yet he is here. Bingo! I recognized his M.O: the violation of every agreement. Smashing expectations is his thing! Never wait for him for he will not come. He'll miss appointment after appointment, lying motionless in his cave, gathering strength from the phones ringing off the hook. But when you least expect him, when you are finally at peace, he is in your face, ta DA!  How he would triumph at our dismay, all his suspicions confirmed! To a tyrant fear itself is guilt. Oh, and it smokes.So it is him, in one of his dark disguises.


I sit with him through every interview, carefully guarding his legacy, staring at the curls of cigarette smoke, feeding him diet coke. I grab the wheel or slam on the brakes whenever he steers toward the cliff of trash talking or over divulging. And I cut the interviewer off if we are heading in the wrong direction. I see to it that he escapes without injury. I realize that he can't do this alone. But is it me that he needs? I mean, beyond that special quality I have, of being here. I cancel my flight and stay on, missing a good friend's wedding.  I tell him and jumps up and down for about ten minutes. He glows, looking at me like I've given him my kidney. In a few minutes he is grim again.


"But which do you think are the best?" he asks all of a sudden. Imagine. He seeks the opinion of his apprentice. He asks me. But I am wary and wide-eyed, and a little scared. I've already been here a month. So he leans in and coaxes it out of me, warmly, like lifting a palpitating chickadee from it's nest... Blam! -the better to strangle it's miserable peep! Oh I may be wary but I am not yet wise.

"Hah! You have al lot to learn! little beast"


So he has come to the studio. Disguised as a finger of lava. He has pressed his way up the stairs and advanced through the filthy hallway, only to freeze upon the threshold, just inside the studio door. And there he is, still. I'm thinking: Why? Maybe he can't remember the place. Or maybe, being a photographer, the moment has crystalized. To we photographers, moments do not flee, they do not even pass, they remain. Pickled. And now, having come to a complete halt, it seems he will never move again. We are trapped, our hearts pounding in our chickadee ribcages. Our skeletons will be found one day, pitched forward, chained to stacks of magazines, the pages marked with colored arrows at each of his brilliant fucking contributions.. I spy the window, open a crack. I can hear the Bowery.. the leaves on the tree.

'Just look at all them scared little birdies. Now there's something to shoot!'

On the opening night of the great retrospective he takes my arms, wraps them around his tiny body, and I steer him through the crowd in a bear hug from behind. We cut through the mountainous terrain on his wobble legs. "Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me" I cry to functionaries, luminaries and looming obstacles alike. "Excuse ME." He climbs onto the stage in the blinding lights and tells me to stay close. I stand below the dais holding his cigarettes and fending off all on-comers. The panel is introducing him in German and he looks down at me. I light a cigarette and hand it to him and say "Don't worry. You look good." He smiles. He pretends to listen to the gobbledegook and then gestures to me to come closer again. I lean in, my back to 2000 staring eyes. "The fuck are they talking about?" I laugh and then translate. With his hand resting on my shoulder we giggle like children. He thanks me and begins his speech as I duck away. Someone hands me a massive bouquet and holding it in my arms I feel nervous and antsy, if if everyone is staring at me. He starts speaking to the crowd about me. I am his goddaughter, now traveling with him, without whom none of this would be possible. It's all bullshit. Nothing can be in balance. He stumbles off the stage into my embrace. Behind the giant screen I wrap my arms around him and we are off again, like a bicycle and it's cargo, winding through a crowd of well wishers and autograph hounds, me yelling out in German that he will give autographs later. I steer us directly into the green room. At the door, against a menacing phalanx of books and sharpies, I explain that he is tired and won't be signing autographs tonight after all. My apologies.

two horizontals and one vertical.

Today we will make a picture of a handbag. The couturier would like some authentic life attached to this bag, and that will require some authentic death. This is how it works. The company hires my master, who has seen it all, to provide the desired 'look'. He has lost many beloved friends. He is an expert in horror and grief. But what makes them think that authenticity can be achieved by models with made-up bruises? As if make-believe has anything to do with it. They will learn the true cost. My master documents real chaos in this world, also suffering, tenderness, and remorse. He is the master, and he let's it be known: this 'setting' will never give up a usable image, not until the disaster is REAL here too! Not until the model is crying, the assistants are crushed, the couturier is in despair and everyone has waited for hours and hours for a rescue without hope. "I'll show you make-believe! I'll make you believe!"

"Now THERE is something to shoot. "

Ensconced on the safety of the green room, he takes his medication, the one that makes him nod out. I have to clear the room. On a tiny leather sofa, with an old friend at his side, he sinks into oblivion. I descend to the nearby restaurant where my friends have gathered for the glittering reception. I wonder if he'll show. I feel so proud of him. Two thousand people came and drank and smoked and looked at pictures of my people, my mother, father, friends, and they wept and laughed and stared in awe. He astonishes me. He is astonishing. Well, his work is, rather. At last he stumbles in, eyes scanning the room. He tells me that my friends are beautiful. He makes me so nervous I can't eat. I am walking on glass.


How can I defend myself when my master plans the attack? He strikes from afar and without warning, straight through a moment of affection. He uses shock and awe! The missile lands in your lap. To withstand him, you have to become insubstantial, like a reed, like paper, you have to hollow out your self. If you defend yourself the relationship is over, it's time to move on. You can quit or be fired. In my case it was both. 

What happened here must never leave this room! You, on the other hand, can get the fuck out!   

I leave at last, in the middle of the storm. Straight out the window in a hail of abuse. I have learned my lesson and that is my betrayal. Behind me, my master out-does himself. He struggles to surpass his nadir, to top his worst insults -to smash the record! He must find new depths, he must break new ground! He must say things that have never been said before, speak the unspeakable, the unthinkable. Thinking of the unthinkable keeps him alive, all his creativity applied to the invention of new horrors. I can go lower. I can top that!...

The void is approached in half-steps, and therefor we are always underway.

"I've never loved you, ever. You mean shit to me and you always have!"  

Now enter the world, little beast. There is nothing more I can teach you. 

© Copyright, iO Tillett Wright 2012

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