Judith Coche, PhD
July 8 2007, edit August 5, 2007
Nicholas and Bebe Nixon did not remain strangers for long. Time was short and teaming was essential. My job was to host couples for a photo sitting with Nicholas Nixon for a New York Times Magazine article on marriage. Three couples were due to arrive shortly after I met Nick and Bebe that Sunday morning.
The equipment and I were soon in place. I had prepared my office with fresh sunflowers in the tall blue vase, homemade coffee, and red cherries. Once Nick set up the large format camera he had lugged on the plane, the old oak and black metal looked beautiful in my office. My office is graced with 10’ glass windows surrounded by green garden, and old brick of a common wall with the Academy Of Music in Philadelphia. The photographic light was clear and bright on that July morning. The old wood of the large frame formed an oddly fitting counterpoint with the mid century leather I had worked so hard to purchase. Le Corbusier would be proud to have his knock off in the room with Nick’s equipment, I decided. I wanted this moment to linger, so I took a few photos of the camera maker itself. Photos create sacrosanct moments in history for me. The photographer’s edit of interpersonal history often comes closer to psychological reality than most everything else.
I felt anxious about the day to come. It was bound to be memorable, but how? Nick and Bebe and I sat together and said hello. They sat cattycorner from one another and made me feel at home in my own space. There is something about sitting with a couple who knows itself, that reminds me of my first marriage. It always feels calming to me to be with one man and one woman and one marriage that have worked out piles of unfinished business and remain glad to be together. Nick and Bebe telegraphed that they would gracefully team with me to get great photos of our couples for this project. Each couple would spend up to one hour with Nick alone in my office. This time would yield New York Times visuals for a story on my couples groups to be printed just one month away. Words were being done by no less than Laurie Abraham, who had captivated my interest within 5 minutes of our first meeting. Laurie had sought me out because I work with couples in groups, and she thought this would be a format to tell the story of what marriage is really about. She was very right about that. I knew, as soon as I met her, that she was one of a few journalists who could write my work. She could take me on in a way most writers could not. Therapy is complex and hard to capture in words. Poorly captured therapy makes me cringe, so I had not had much success with journalists who had asked to write about my work. Since Laurie can, this couple’s group journalism project had lodged itself in my brain and my heart.
No doubt folks thought I would lose my jazz after Erich died. I imagine colleagues secretly said “Oh, poor Judith, losing that great partner….she will never be the same again.” And though they were almost right, I am too stubborn for that. I was not about to let the loss of my husband, business partner, co-author, and father of my daughter flatten me. It had taken Erich and me the better part of 1898 and 1990 to do the book and the tape about how to treat couples in a small group format we developed. It was a pretty esoteric topic for a first book. I personally doubted that it would sell much but the creativity of the way of working had grabbed our interest. To lead a couples group, you really do need to know how to work with individuals, couples and groups. Not so easy to do well, but really easy to mess up.
After Erich died, I needed to move forward to preserve my sense of balance. The European Fred Astaire, who had captured my heart and mind in 1965, had left me a legacy to grow from when he died of melanoma at age 49 in 1991. He died as he lived, gracefully and with sparkle. It seemed to me, as I looked at Nick and Bebe sizing up the situation they would manage, that Erich was a bit like Nick…deep, smart, funny, charming, reflective, and quiet. Erich had offered a complement to my quick, energetic, warm way with new people. As I sized up Nick and Bebe, I knew that I could work with them. It would be painful to be reminded of the cavernous loss that is irreplaceable after widowhood. Not even my second marriage with my own personal John Wayne can replace the completion of life as planned. I felt blessed to have John. Strapping and muscular, John Edward Anderson is the kind of husband women of an uncertain age find appealing. From the full silver head of hair to the pooh-bear belly, John is a smart businessman who would shoot to kill if needed to protect me and my honor. Yup, I was lucky enough in love. I put my yearnings for completion aside and concentrated on saying hello to our couples.
Six lives joined Nick, Bebe and me on June 30, 2007. They came from three states and drove 700 miles among them for this occasion. Two were relative newlyweds, with one baby on the way. The third was long married but had not achieved the enviable relationship patina of our photographer and his wife, or of Erich and me. They were all working with me to make their marriages survive, and better. They worked hard and deep. They went for the marital burn.
It is fair, if immodest, to say that few people know marriage better than I do. I work daily with couples in pain. I have been married for forty years to two good men, and am mother and step mother to 3 daughters in stages of wedding, marriage, and babies. I even read much of what is published about marriage if it seems worth buying used. I know marriage from the inside, from the literature, from family bonds, and from clinical and theoretical perspectives. Despite all this, I could not have predicted what was to happen when Nick started to shoot the couples.
My first inkling came when Nick shot my picture. I had looked at his prize winning book, The Brown Sisters, long enough to see that Bebe looked intimately into the camera and “told all” year after year. It was compelling to imagine the life behind her eyes as her years increased in each annual photo with her sisters between 1975 and now. Nick told me that she “got it” so I decided to pretend that the camera was either John or Erich, my husbands, and I talked silently to them when I looked into it. When I thought of Erich, dead now 16 years, I wished he present to taste the moment with me. Nick said “Wow” and took the snapshot. I could feel my lips curl slightly as I felt poignant and happy all at once. The photo was so close to my eye that it must have caught the nuances and every single wrinkle in the midday sunlight that overpowered my office. Large frame photography, Nick explained, offers a simple window of glass, through which the photo is taken. It sounded to me like he meant that it offers a window into the soul of its subject. I don’t pray so I hoping for the best was all that was available to me.
Nick and I had already established that we both consider our Leicas to be our buddies. Given that he does better things with his than I do, it still gave us a common ground for chatter while we learned to work together. I always think of “shooting” pictures as a way to hunt and capture my internal sense of a place. When I “take” pictures, I “take” the experience into me. I hunt and capture it. I often think of a hunter with a beloved gun, “shooting” peacefully into the world and taking home the bootie for later nourishment and nostalgia. Just like John collected old guns during his South Dakota youth, I understand the joy of the capture. When I shoot photos, my goal is to get to the heart of the matter in one fell swoop. Nick does that as well as anyone I have ever, or will ever meet. I wondered what his shoot of me would tell viewers. I wondered what it would tell me about me.
The first bootie was a newly married couple who are expecting a baby. They were buzzed about being captured by the camera. But then, they are cool about most things. High on the adventure scale, they change lives too rapidly, then go back to absorb the discomfort. Most people admired them, and nobody would have guessed there were marital troubles. Bright, funny, good looking professionals, they want to grab life for the 150% of it they believe is their due. Nick and Bebe disappeared into my office with them, and all emerged 15 minutes later. I checked to see if the baby had made it into the project, and was assured that she had. They left, at ease with the experience and curious about the outcome. It had been a fun, easy time for them.
The couple who had been most worried about anonymity went next. I wondered what would happen. Would he shoot their hands? Would they touch one another? Would we be worried about the outcome? I was on hand to help with discomfort but there was none. They both registered interest and delight. He shared with me that he had wanted to touch her but they had to find the “right” way to do that. She was delighted that Nick and Bebe had found a way to include the pillow she always puts in her lap when we work together. She had explained to me that the pillow helps her feel less uncomfortable about her body. I assumed that she meant that the pillow helped her feel less exposed while she was doing the very tedious, tough working through of issues of abuse. I was relieved that Nick and Bebe had helped them to produce photos that all could embrace.
The last couple was the kicker in the champagne cocktail of this day. I only know what happened from their report, and that of Nick and Bebe. The newlyweds wanted to kiss for the camera to show the New York Times readership just how tender marriage can be, but I was worried about showing facial parts. The American Psychological Association had imprinted the need for total protection when I had spoken with them at the start of the project. Since Nick and I had prearranged to stay away from faces, our newlyweds found a better solution. Removing their shirts without prior notice, they began to face each other topless for the large scale camera. Bebe giggled animatedly as she told me later that her instinct had been to run in front of the 10’ plate glass window in my office. She had noticed an old, crippled man in a wheel chair wheeling himself towards the couple. She told Nick and me later that she worried he would have a heart attack right there and then. Nick commented that it was a pretty good way to go. But the man is still healthy and we have one delighted couple. The next day the couple emailed me that they had preplanned the photo shoot. It had felt sexy, they said. It was exhilarating and fun and they were happy they had done it.
I am not to see the photos before they are chosen, and I am not to read the words about our group until the reader sees them. Journalistic ethics and control are in place, and I am jumping out of my skin in anticipation. But with a star photographer, a star photographic assistant, a star journalist, and star couples, I can rest assure….well, almost.
Judith Coche, Ph.D.
Stone Harbor, New Jersey