“You have to promise not to laugh.”

“I won't laugh,” he offers quickly, almost before I finish my sentence.

As I begin to pull the small package from my bag, he notices the work's current form.

“You framed it?”

The surprise in his voice is unanticipated. I explain that the frame is a part of the piece.

“You ready?”

I lift the small black frame from my bag and place it gently on the table. He inspects the image. His response is rapid, unexpectedly flattering.

“That's nice. What's wrong with it?”

The question is understandable. I'd introduced the photo with details of what I'd affectionately dubbed “hell shoot.” Anything that could go wrong mechanically/technically during the photo session did, and what was before him represented an attempt to salvage some part of the work.

I explain that nothing is wrong with the image per se and that it's “hazy” on purpose.

“It's cool,” he continues as he pulls the frame toward him. “Hey, that's nice.” There's a beat before he adds: “You look so angry.” He shifts, studies the image. “Well, I mean . . . What's wrong with it, though?”

This time, I suspect the question has to do with my mentioning that I had thought of reconceptualizing the project.

“Nothing is 'wrong' with the photo,” I tell him.

I'd set this meeting because I wanted his input. I knew what I read in the image, but where couples were concerned, I suddenly felt I couldn't trust my judgment. Having never been a part of one, I felt completely out of my element.

“I guess that shirt's not all that bad-looking,” he says.

It's a comment related to the shoot. We'd worn matching shirts, and though the one I'd given him was a large, it fit more snugly about his chest and shoulders than I'd anticipated. He'd remarked shortly after donning it that he thought he looked like a “dork.”

I go over some of the technical aspects of the creation, then inform him, “It was the one image . . . There was something about it . . . When I looked at it, it became about two other people. What do you get from the image?”

“I dunno. It's difficult to say, you know, because I'm looking at myself.”

I ask if he can not see himself.

“I'm too wrapped up in myself to do that,” he tells me. “I look fuckin' great!”

There's no mistaking his intended humor. Laughter rises from deep within each of us. Then his tone returns to serious.

“I'm not sure what you were trying to do, but what I'm getting out of it is . . . I mean, you get a feeling that it is . . . I'm looking . . . I can become like . . . two other people. Are you telling me . . . I'm not quite sure . . . I could probably get like a challenging look out of it, kinda like a confrontational thing . . . But it's kinda weird, because it's such a soft photograph. Maybe you could also get like some other kinda like softer emotions, romantic emotions. I dunno . . .”

“What do you mean by 'confrontational'?” I ask.

There's no hesitation before he says, “I mean, we both look pissed. That's part of it.”

“You think you look pissed?”

“You also have this look on your face like, you know – let's say that this isn't us – like, 'What am I doing with this moron?' You know?”

“What am I doing with this moron?” I parrot. It's my turn for surprise.

“Or, I dunno, 'Look what I settled for.' Or something like that.”

“So there's an indifference . . .”

“'Cause your head's kinda tilted,” he interrupts. “There seems to be sort of an indifference in there. But I seem to be . . . This guy appears to be just glaring.”

I suggest that since the meeting place is so dark, he might want to re-examine the image under the light. He does.

“I mean, this is also kinda weird. Both of my arms are around you, and you don't know where your hands are at, so it looks like I'm . . . protecting you or something. And you don't have . . . Your face doesn't say 'Protect me' or 'I need this' or 'I feel,' you know what I'm saying? So that's weird.”

I explain that my “couple-ese” is weak. It's one of the reasons I'm pursuing this particular proj-ect. Couples – how they're constructed, how they function, why some work, why some don't – fascinate me.

“This could be a Benetton ad,” he says.

Laughter visits once more.

“What makes you say that?”

“Their whole . . . themes of race and stuff like that. You know.”

“But it's in black and white.”

My eyes fall toward the image. He stares at me from the frame, blond hair, blue eyes, arms wrapped about me. The delicacy of the printing lessens the difference in our respective skin tones.

Benetton's approach is light-years away. Very colorful, very “rainbow coalition.” The phrase “black skin as art direction” pops into my head. I begin to resent the connection he's formed between my work in this instance and Benetton's advertising, primarily because of Benetton's insensitivity. It's an insensitivity I project onto him. There's a moment before I soften, realizing the unfairness of the projection.

“Yeah, I guess it's obvious with this hair, I'm not exactly Scandinavian.”

“I . . . I could be from Scandinavia, though. My name could be 'Bjorn' or something . . .”

His attention drifts back to the small image sandwiched between glass.

“I think the most interesting thing is, now that I'm looking at it, the most interesting thing is that my arms are around you . . . Because that gives it . . . that sets up this kinda . . . I mean, the eyes are confronting the looker, the person looking at this thing, you know, and I'm getting from that . . . I'm getting confrontation from that. You know. I'm getting 'Challenge this. Challenge this, I dare you' – that kinda thing. That's what I'm saying.

“But then,” he continues, “when I see . . . That's totally undercut by the fact that my arms are around you, kinda like shielding or protecting you, 'cause that opens up a relationship between the two people which I'm not expecting either. It . . . From the hard glare I'm not gonna expect . . . Not glare, but from the hard look from like me and you in the photograph that I'm getting, or, at least, I dunno if it's a look of indifference or a look of just like . . .”

He stops and ponders the image once more.

“Or maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. Maybe you do look vulnerable. I can't tell now.”

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