An experience of intimacy in pictures

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Kelvin Lim, “the voice of the cello inside” — 2020

“I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner [..]. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked.”

Montaigne, Essays, Advice to the Reader, March 1st 1580

How this one came up is probably hard to say. It might be just another of these desperate attempts to cling back on time. Latin phrase engraved on solar clocks is “tempus fugit”, which means times flies, literally time escapes us. It seems that all of this goes way to fast. Getting good pictures of us, now, while we might never look better — and treasure them as keepsake when we grow old. Probably that was the original thought idea. J turns 40 at Christmas, and we are all together turning an important page for the family as for the first time in thirty odd years, we are deciding where we want to live next. So, something simple and great was needed. And I needed a present for our wedding anniversary too.

So, I started to look around to find a way to immortalize us. And I have found many photographers, who were in their pictures reflecting decently the bound, the love, the attraction between people. That is what I wanted to find. We kissed, then got together some 14 years ago. That day, we realized that we just fit each other neatly. We are one of this couple where the other one is obviously the missing piece. Forever. Since that very first day, we are always close — which does not mean we cannot be apart from each other. It is one of these attractions that is hard to explain. A perfect fit. We know it, feel it, breath it even when we are not together. One friend talked about the feeling of “having arrived” into a sort of destination.

Sometimes the tightness of the fit hurts to — when you are so close, nestled into the other’s space, any move, any distance, any dissention takes huge proportions, and is extremely uncomfortable. But most of the time it is symbiotic, and unavoidable. That is what I wanted to see into the pictures of us. So, I went on the internet, “couples pictures Singapore”, and found the “top 10” — like you would do nowadays for anything you want to buy or do, and don’t know where to start. Most sites on the list were offering great shots, where a lot of the essence of the couples seemed to have been captured right by the photographer. And then I found Kelvin’s website, and I was in a different dimension. That of an artist. It really felt like suddenly, love, energy, beauty of the people I could discover on his website was couple orders of magnitude above and beyond any of the other ones. Simple yet beautiful. Touching but technically perfect. With lights, shadows, smiles. Capturing the curves, the tenderness, the love, of these couples who seemed accomplice on a journey, and that had a stop at the studio of this artist. But I quickly developed another feeling. In awe with the art, I was feeling we could not be part of it. That we were simply not worthy. I felt like a was trying to find someone to repaint the bathroom ceiling, and I came across Michelangelo on a quattrocento internet. We could not afford it — money wise, and most importantly from a worthiness point of view. The respectful thing was to forget about it. So, I booked a session with someone else, a nice photographers’ agency, that I had interactions with through the internet too. It was easy enough — they knew what we wanted, and there was a price displayed on the website for the session. And how much they would charge for another person, or a pet.

I did not want at that time nice family pictures, because when I saw Kelvin’s art, I knew what I wanted — and they said they could do it. Nude photographs of us.

I think both of us — for different reasons — are uneasy with our bodies. I was a fat boy — 107 kilos at 16 years old. The mental image I have of myself at 47 is still a snapshot of that huge teenager. Even after having lost 30 kilos, completed many long-distance races that built up a great fitness for my age (my Garmin pretends I am 20), even looking vaguely skinnier after the dengue, I am not comfortable with the idea of seeing my body. And even though I know that she is beautiful, gorgeous, sumptuous, she does not feel this way. And looks at all these “skinny sportive ladies” as a different league — that she does not yet realize she totally rightfully belongs to. We both are probably semi-knowingly unsure about our looks, unsafe. I saw the pictures of Kelvin, and I knew I wanted us to give it a shot — as a definitive reconciliation between who we think are and how we look.

I gave this voucher to her our anniversary date. I was impatient and excited, so did not wait long. We were sipping champagne on a terrace on Boat Quay, “Braci”. The note I wrote on the voucher was referring back to Serge Gainsbourg’s commercial for Konica — where he says he would regret in twenty years the look he then had, so he should fix it on paper right away. I was nervous to explain the process that led me to suggest we would do these pictures together, “normal” pictures with both of us dressed, but that the session could evolve more towards “boudoir” photography, mostly practiced by women in lingerie. I was extremely anxious about how she would react — I do not think we had ever really talked about such a thing. I might have heard about it (as pre wedding gifts in parts of Asia), but I did not even really investigate the topic just a few weeks before. I told her that I would be perfectly happy to stop at the most “vanilla” step that would be her comfort zone. But she smiled, and I could see in her eyes that “spark” — there was, right in front of me that night, over champagne, one of the reasons why I love her the way I do. She wanted to try, she could sense the beauty and the togetherness of the act. We talked a bit about it during the dinner, getting the warm feeling it would be a great experience — and a great excuse to buy lingerie at least. We would remember the experience, and we would have the memories. And we were fully confident that we would just consensually go as far the other one would feel comfortable to go. And that regardless of how far we went, we would treasure this.

I told her I would send her some examples of what the studio picked had done in that style of intimate shoot of couples. And, that I would share with her the work of Kelvin, the one website that pushed me to dare offering that present to her — to us. And unsurprisingly, whilst finding the work of the studio we had that voucher with quite pleasant, she had the same vibration I had for Kelvin’s work — how he magnified love, relationship, couple, women. Also, his pregnancy work caught her eye. Exploring his work in the community, in nursing homes, also with cancer survivor, added to the picture of the nice individual he seemed to be. The kind of humble hero we would all dream of being. Kelvin is a league of his own. Checking his website was actually a bit sad, like being in a restaurant where you really like something on the “a la carte” menu, but your wallet or your diet keeps you limits you to the “lunch special”.

I had to do something. And then I dared try to reach out to Kelvin. A “contact me” email on his site — like a message in a bottle. I was ready to stomach a no reply, a rebuff — that it was unaffordable, that we had to wait for months to get a chance to meet him, that he would tell us we were not worth it. But I did not want to digest the regret of having settled for something that was not the real thing without having tried. I was really embarrassed though. Not so much about asking how much he would charge for his work, but mostly because I did not feel we were confident about nude photography, or worth it anyway. And from the first message back it was clear. A great sense of humor (assuming I was not Singaporean because I was trying to apologize for reaching out to me, while locals would just have said “how much????”). A simple and warm welcome into his artistic world — I was proud, glad, humbled at the same time. We would do it with him. Interestingly, not charging more than the regular photographers we had approached — if you needed more proof that talent, passion, love and monetary compensations for all of that are practically unrelated, that is a solid evidence.

We agreed enthusiastically to meet on the Monday 12th of October, in his studio, for the shoot. J would be treated like a queen — with hair do and make up. Elaine would be there too — she shares his life, and his work. We exchanged texts in the next following days, about how far we were ready to go, and if we had any plan in mind. We answered sincerely that we had no clue about that, and truly little ideas about what we wanted to do — which was absolutely fine for Kelvin. We talked about what to bring, what to wear, practical details. But we really started to bond during these conversations. Some things are intangible yet fully real. This simple bond between us felt like one of those. And we also said we would bring J’s cello, which is clearly one of the most sensual musical instruments in the world. So close to womanly curved it inspired this famous art from Man Ray, with a lady whose back bears marks resembling the f-holes. Integral parts of the alchemy the whole instrument resonate beautifully.

The Monday morning was busy. Things to do and prepare for the shoot. What shall we bring? What shall we wear? The nervousness of the preparation was palpable — we were like kids, that would go and face a huge challenge for the first time. A first sleepover, a first summer camp. A first kiss. I felt “out of place” doing it, selecting what I would wear, what would match J’s attire. Looking good, but not too uptight. Being anxious of not have brought enough, and ashamed to have probably taken too much. A last shower — attention to details, to our bodies, that we would potentially reveal to the camera later that day. There is a Dutch word that expresses best this excitement, it is “spannend”, a mix of fear and positive excitement.

We arrived at the parking lot after lunch. Everything took more time than we would have thought. We texted Kelvin that we would be late, and he said that we should simply take our time. Like good friends do. The building is a modern industrial building, the studio sits on the top floor. Far from view. It’s quite weird to walk through these corridors of sterile, industrial environment with a suitcase, a duffle bag, a costume bag and a cello, looking for a sign on the door. And there it is. Suddenly, we are in a professional photograph studio, in an artist’s den. Whilst walls are neat concrete, Elaine and Kelvin have managed to create a warm a cozy corner, nearly as a watch station over the studio on the other side, minimalist with couple of chairs, pieces of furniture, and the last two rolls of background left. It is clear we are not here for the things, but for the human beings. Always an awkward introduction in times of Covid 19, where no one really knows what to do — is shaking hands off limits? Is waving enough? An immediate feeling of relaxing togetherness though surrounds us. The make-up artist is already here, waiting, but there is no rush. We have first to talk about a bit of everything, from the practical details to our family, to why we are here to what Elaine and Kelvin like and do not like in the world they live in. It is clear all along: there is passion and art floating around. Looking at them one thing is obvious too: they have found their missing part in the other.

Tea, coffee, J gets her hair done, and some make up. I even get some make up to reduce the shine of my head. We chat, like old acquaintances, with Elaine and Kelvin. Kelvin is already in his shoot though; you can feel some tension built up. He is going through the stuff we brought. He is impressed by the cello, the more than 100 years of history it carries. He selects the clothes for the shoot — we have been through what we had brought, and told him the reasons, what we liked, the history behind some of the items. He starts to arrange the lights. Make up is done, and we have some snacks. We have been there just two hours maybe… and time is not of essence here, it is experience that counts. It went so quickly, but we talked so much! About what we like about Singapore, about our life experience and the big leap we are making into our future. About Elaine and Kelvin’s life two, and how they see the society they live in — as outcasts at time. A tension which only those who love and live intensely can understand, the difficulty of a love-hate relationship with certain things that only passion fuels.

And we go.

Kelvin suggests what we should wear as a start. My green Z&V jacket I bought more than 10 years ago; she has a blouse. And we take positions in the light. Kelvin’s voice is dissipating anxiety and empowering us. “You are beautiful! You are natural, you do not need directions”. He is perfect. He is the artist and has his artistic vision meeting who we are. Magnifying our intimacy, not directing a fashion show. We look relaxed, even though we feel tension inside. He does not take many pictures, at the beginning, which I internalize at that moment as a sign he likes what he sees. We are moving through the motion, changing clothes, on the bed, sitting, standing up, on the floor. Each break for a change is an opportunity to pick up the conversation where we left it. It is a flow. A voyage. I remember that one transition is the opportunity to say that I think my resignation was only the second important decision of my adult life. Leaving a certain life to be with J, and now parting from a company that I never really chose — not a whole lot in 47 years. All the rest seems to have been a series of consequences of who I was in the world I was in. As existentialists would say, a world in which I let the contingencies drive the ship — now my conscience is more acute, and my will is stronger, and like 14 years ago, I feel empowered by the recent decision we made together.

And it continues, we do nothing but being natural — going from one pose to the other. We want real pictures of us. Nicole Kidman is mentioning about “eyes wide shut” that her and Cruise being a real couple, living in the Pinewood studio of Kubrick for weeks has given this sense of “authenticity” of the movie. They felt so much “at home” that they would bring their own stuff and follow their habits — like the one of Tome of emptying his pockets on the drawer in the entrance. Being real.

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Kelvin Lim © 2020 — my arm behind your back

Very naturally Kelvin invites J to move on, and suggests we go to lingerie shoot. Interestingly we “hide” from view in changing room to swap clothes between the sessions. She comes back, looks gorgeous, and we continue. There is a kind assertiveness in the way Kelvin directs us from now on and invites us to take poses. And I think we need this confidence. It is not anymore anything we’ve experience before. He is here to help reveal our intimacy, bring it to visible life, and we need his help. His invitations are pretty direct and prevent us from thinking too much about it. The session goes, I am now bare chest and J is on a piece of furniture that magnifies her beauty. We are chatting, joking, touching each other, kissing. Like we would do in a moment of intense love and care for each other. There it comes — “can you undress her please”. No time to think — a deep breath, eye contact with J, in which I can read “I’m reasonably emotional but fine”. I struggle to undress her — a new piece of lingerie, and probably some awkward moves too. She is so beautiful. Kelvin invites us to continue, while he takes pictures — many more than while we were standing up in our full clothing. Probably the moment is more intense, more fugacious, and need more care to be captured by the camera. Also, there is more to see — clothes hide a lot of what is underneath. I do my best to act beautifully, graciously, respectfully. I hope this care will be captured by the lens.

Next comes the time for me:

– Can you take your pants off, please?

– Sure, shall I keep my underwear?

Kelvin says, and I can hear he is smiling:

- J is naked, that would not be fair.

So here we are, the two of us. I do not remember exactly how long it lasted. I do not know. It is a beautiful moment. Kelvin asks us to change positions many times, to move around. I think we are probably more than three hours into this, as I realize it feels gradually darker. He moves many times the lights around us, I suppose to reveal and hide the shapes as he sees it with his eyes. I remember a moment of intense intimacy, of anxious love. The remembrance of a first kiss, nearly fifteen years ago, in every caress I make. It makes me think about the writing at the bottom of a cross marking the top of Klein Matterhorn in Switzerland, 3800 meters summit… “mehr mensch sein”. It is perhaps what this nude session is all about: be more human.

And it is over, or so we thought. “We forgot the cello!”, says Kelvin anxiously. So, we go again. I do not remember if I stand naked when she started to play, maybe I had a gown on. What I remember vividly is that the scene is surreal. It is now dark outside so the whole light is Kelvin’s creation. J and her cello, playing sitting on this little white box, against this concrete wall, is for what seems ages, the center of the universe. For a little while — and the time seems to have slowed down all around her — her bow dictates the pace using some insane magic. Nothing on earth matters more than her. Nudity sublimes the relationship between her, the instrument, and the air around her that vibrates to the music. Elaine suggests that I take videos — I am glad she did. I would not have dared otherwise and did not want to jinx anything by asking.

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Kelvin Lim photography (detail) — cello playing

Kelvin is in an intense moment of creation — running like an electron around the nucleus of our atom. It is magic. He asks me to join, and I feel absolutely blessed to be part of this. Sitting awkwardly behind her, revealing my body too. We are one, and we are the world at that moment. “Look at those curves”, Kelvin says, “He is beautiful too”. I did not cry but was overwhelmed.

That was our climax. Elaine asked me very tactfully whether we had enough “intimate pictures”. I spoke for us two saying that we went as far as we could and were over the moon with where they both took us.

It is late already when we leave the studio. All awkwardness of our Covid-style introductions hours before is evaporated, and we leave Elaine and Kelvin after a long, warm hug. That was nothing compared to what they gave us, but the best we could do at that moment. Something really has happened.

I have since thought a lot about concepts that collided in my mind, before and after the shoot. About intimacy, privacy, secrecy, nudity, eroticism, pornography. These are lots of words that are overused today in our society — to the point of losing their meaning. I view intimacy as the highest expression of togetherness. It has multiple level — the couple, the family, different circle of friends shares a form of intimacy. Here, what Kelvin does is revealing the strength of the intimacy between the people who want to be shot together. Nudity helps, as when clothes are gone, we are altogether strong and vulnerable, and much less capable of lying.

Intensity of the relationship expresses itself in there. Truth is told when bodies are naked.

Nowadays, there is an abuse of “intimacy” to describe sexual intercourse. I do not think we need to have sex to feel intimacy, intimacy does not necessarily lead to sex, and sex can exist way before intimacy is at its apogee. Will some our pictures be erotic? I think so. But looking at J in a restaurant, playing her cello in front of the family, magnificent while she rides her bike at brisk pace in the city, when she sips her tea on a terrace on a hot summer day, can be erotic to me. Is all this pornography? No. So such pictures of us will not be pornography to me. They were not made to arouse anyone. They can, possibly — and we might be the only ones to ever see them in this way — but that is not the intent. The nude shoot was to celebrate togetherness, and possibly cling on a fragment of temporal beauty.

And we should talk about it, to continue to modestly combat secrecy around bodies, which inevitably leads to half-lies, deception, manipulation, and guilt. Secrecy about bodies and sexual practices has kept many under undesirable domination. Sexuality suppression, pleasure ignorance, body covering, seems to be something that many societies have been keen on doing — some for long, some more recently. And as far as I can see in history and in contemporary times, it is counterproductive in many ways. It has led to many abuses that were covered up and has been a clear way to ensure male domination of society — I recommend the movie #femalepleasure about this.

Being open does not mean that there is no opportunity for a secret garden. For instance, I generally do not mind that people see me naked — I am not prudish, especially when I take my glasses off. But I would certainly not impose it in any sort of ways when that can be a problem for anyone. There comes some form of privacy. Some aspects of sexuality and intimacy seem to call for it. Decency and privacy come as the right to protect yourself and others. They are pillars of a two-way social contract. It is of the quintessence of freedom — that stops where others’ starts.

But talking about how I felt during this photo shoot, just as Montaigne says, “in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner” is important. Doing it in a dignified, respectful manner. I want to be able to share this experience — as I find it incredibly revealing about ourselves and amazingly empowering. It does not mean eventually flashing nude portraits of us to anybody at any time but as a beginning sharing our feelings about a fantastic experience, and what we did that afternoon in Sembawang. And I hope that our friends, and family, would be curious about it, would be happy for us, and above all — will not be judgmental. As Kelvin writes beautifully, I hope “[they] will hold no prejudice, and welcome [us] with the warmth that only genuine friendship brings”.

Needless to say, the pictures are all to die for.

Hemka, Singapore, October 2020.

Pictures of Kelvin there. https://kelvinlim.com.sg/

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Husband and dad. Engineering a better world. Putting things on paper.

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