Elizabeth Clark Libert – Portraits

Photographs and text by Elizabeth Clark Libert

Memorial Day/Kelsey’s Graduation Party, Sinking Spring, PA – 2011

My boyfriend Dan has often claimed his grandfather, “Grand Pop”, is a handsome man. I finally got to meet him this past Memorial Day in Pennsylvania. We were staying with Dan’s family for the long weekend. Dan’s mom planned and hosted a big afternoon barbeque party to celebrate the holiday and the graduation of Dan’s younger sister, Kelsey. The prior night, I had met and gone out drinking with several of her friends who had also spent the weekend (it was a packed house). We were pretty hungover by the time extended family started arriving for the BBQ, and the heat wasn’t helping.

When Grand Pop arrived, I was attempting to nurse my way back into the partying spirit, sitting out back with two of the girls, Kelly and Rachel. I could see his neon plaid pants through the kitchen blinds, and eagerly swapped my beer for my camera sitting on the table. I knew I had a potential photo opportunity about to fall into my lap, so I checked to make sure a decent exposure was set.

Grand Pop had brought his latest lady friend and newly adopted Springer Spaniel, Lucy. But when he came outside, he was immediately drawn to the young girls at the table, and my camera (I find my Mamiya 7 often elicits attention from men – or at least a means for a conversation starter). As he introduced himself, he pushed his hips and gut forward towards us. We all responded instinctively to his creepy old-man advance – Kelly gaped, Rachel ignored him, and I slouched lower into my seat with the camera hiding my face. I quickly snapped the photo. The girls knew I had taken it, but I don’t think Grand Pop ever heard the quiet manual shutter.

Later in the day I felt a bit guilty with the hunch that there was a potentially exploitative but humorous exposed negative in one of the many rolls sitting in my camera bag, and decided to offer to explain how my camera worked to Grand Pop. He feigned some interest, and then announced he needed to leave soon but wanted to make sure he got a picture of the “prettiest girls at the party” with his new digital camera. I never got to see the photo he took of us, but figure it was a fair exchange.

Benedict Flying Home – 2009

Benedict is my 24 year-old cousin. My uncle John, Benedict’s father, passed away from lung cancer in 2006. He was never a smoker and fought the disease for 6 years. Benedict graduated high school a few weeks later. He recently graduated from Princeton and now works for a private equity firm in Philadelphia.

It is difficult to make Benedict smile. The few times I have been successful at seducing a partial grin have been from sardonic comments akin to the narrow view he on occasion shares with others. Or, at least with me. He defriended me on Facebook a month or so after I had friended him. During that short time, I stalked images of him posted by his Princeton classmates, and was relieved to see that he drank beer and even smoked cigarettes. He was always dressed in the appropriate preppy attire, and looked handsomely aloof. I imagine the challenge of eliciting care, admiration, or a smile not due to disdain might have been enticing for many of the other pretty young things present in the images.

My photograph of Benedict was taken in the private jet that my dad rented on the ride home after my Grandfather’s funeral in Savannah. The mood in the plane amongst most of my family members was surprisingly jovial. The private jet served the perfect distraction from what had brought us together. The champagne didn’t hurt either. I was snapping away at my parents and brother, who are used to being constantly accosted by my flash, and decided to quickly turn my lens on Benedict before he was aware of it. The one shot I took of him is one of my favorite candid portraits to date. He was the only one who did not accept a drink onboard, and seemed appropriately somber and tight-lipped. I expected a scowl after the flash, but instead he gave me an awkward, even embarrassed smile. For the first time in many years, I was reminded that perhaps Benedict is fragile, struggling to figure out how to deal with the hardships of life, just like everyone else I know and care about.

Take Out, New York City – 2009

My boyfriend Dan and I were about a half-year deep into our relationship. It was just about the time when we shed our constant concern for appearances around each other and gained, in its place, a certain level of comfort. Dan, three years younger than me, had recently moved into his second apartment in NYC. It was quite small and caught direct sunlight for a mere two hours in the early morning. But by this time, Dan had been able to save up enough money to toss some of his college dorm hand-me-downs and buy a few pieces of new furniture to call his own. These items included a West Elm couch, two Crate & Barrel black leather ottomans, and a few throw pillows from Anthropologie. Dan likes the idea of minimalist décor spiced up with “trippy”-patterns. I find that nothing looks the way it does in catalogues, and preferred to have us spend time in my bright but messy apartment (which he of course moved into once his lease was up a year later).

In this scene, I was aware of the typicality of the moment. We were just two more people in the city eating Chinese take out in front of the TV. It was probably a Sunday – doesn’t look like we had showered in over a day. Dan is shirtless and in sweatpants – his weekend uniform. I’m wearing my glasses and have carpet fuzz on my corduroys. I’m hyper-aware of the camera, but trying my best to look natural watching the TV. Dan adopted the ability to be casual in front of the camera early on in our relationship. He was usually a willing, if not eager, participant (this might be one of the main reasons we have made it this long together). He is more engaged with his food. I had grabbed my camera and tripod a few minutes prior to this moment, recognizing how much grey we were wearing – how bland everything was – and that there was something special about the moment. I think it symbolizes our growing companionship as mates. We’re simultaneously together, in the same room and partaking in the same activity, but apart, lost in our own thoughts and eating off our individual, Crate & Barrel ottomans – and comfortable with it. For me, this was a pretty big marker in the lifeline of our relationship.

These days, 10-lbs deeper and trying to fight our complacency daily, I eagerly await the non-surprising moment that Dan gets down on his knees. I want to be able to take this photograph again when we are old, engaged in whatever the latest technology has taken place of our current flatscreen TV, eating Wonton Soup and Lo Mein.