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Alice Carey

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The Lines of My Life

Posted: 06/11/2012 2:50 pm

Admit it. The reason you rent The Picture of Dorian Gray from Netflix, is to gaze upon that famous portrait of evil decrepitude, knowing you'll never wind up like that.

Then, after pouring a glass of chardonnay to help you rummage around for that yellow-paged college paperback, don't you shudder in delight at the last paragraph of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece?

When they entered they found, hanging on the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.
Well, I used to shudder in delight, but not after seeing my own portrait.

I was recently interviewed by Girls Like Us (GLU), a European feminist arts magazine about my less-than-ordinary childhood surrounded by gay men in the 'theatrical' house my mother worked in as a maid. They were also interested in hearing about my off-off Broadway theatre days and commitment to the gay community during the AIDS crisis.

GLU's editor, Jessica Gysel, had the appealing idea of twinning pictures of my young self with new portraits. And I have lovely early photos taken by an admirer of Cecil Beaton in his romantic period.

One, a profile with my long hair streaming down my back onto a peacock blue crushed velvet dress, is especially evocative. Though black and white, I still see myself in the vivid colors of that glorious moment in time, the 1970s.

Three 'old' pictures were selected to be recreated in precisely the same fashion, and I was asked to bring similar matching outfits: a white T-shirt, a sleeveless linen dress, a cashmere dress with a similar neckline that would stand in for the velvet gown and other clothes for 'glam' shots. As I packed everything up, I realized I took fewer clothes to the Middle East last year.

The photographer, a lovely young woman, went to great pains to match new poses with old, going so far as to capture the ephemera of a girlish half-smile and the wistfulness of eye that appears only when one is young. Four hours later, I left with a new respect for Kate Moss.

Yet when I saw the new photos, were I a boozer, I'd have reached for the gin bottle. I looked old, shockingly old, and it disturbed me mightily. For two days I stewed alone, not even showing them to my husband, nor emailing my feelings to the editor.

Though beautifully composed, the photos, effused with harshness from the white-hot lighting required for black and whites, emphasized every freckle, every line, every nook and cranny I hope, if not believe, I can eliminate with face cream and panache!

Side by side, the contrast between the 'young' me and the 'old' me was so dramatic there was no way I'd ever consent to put them online where they would remain forever.

Wilde's words, "Vanity, how it plays lurid tricks with our memory," played on a loop in my head as I berated myself for being vain. Yet when I finally showed them to my husband, he said I looked elegant.

When I finally emailed the editor and photographer with my reaction they were surprised, if not dismayed. 'Beautiful,' 'distinguished' and 'glamorous' were tossed around.

I took another look, hoping to see what the others did, but all I could see were the ravages of age. Then I got it. What I saw -- what disturbed me so -- was the sadness of all my years clearly etched on my face.

What photographer Sophia Wallace captured in what can only be called psychological portraits is a life well lived -- mine. A life of pain, sadness, pestilence, plague, fear, loathing and regret, mixed with rivers of happiness that will live forever on my face.

Elizabeth Taylor once said that every wrinkle tells a story. Fine. When I was young Taylor's words of wisdom seemed great, but not now. Not to my generation who truly believed "all you need is love," not face cream.

Then Sophia came up with 'an elegant solution.' Why not merge youth with age in a Janus-style picture, where through the genius of Photoshop, you can't really see where youth ends and age begins?

Happily, GLU's editor did not choose the picture of me in the cashmere dress that was standing in for the crushed blue velvet where I look like Dame Edith Sitwell in her dotage, but photographed by Cecil Beaton.

Indeed, the camera does not lie. The youth and age mélange is an intriguing progression in my dance to the music of time. And it made GLU's cover, with a blue wash camouflaging the lines of my life.

 
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