Daphne Weld Nichols is a photographer whose goal is more ambitious than simply taking flattering pictures of her clients. She was a traditional portrait photographer when she started her business in Wollaston in the late ’70s. But Nichols recalled: “I had an epiphany one day. A client asked if it would be all right if she dropped the strap of her dress. I told her I loved the idea.”
From the outside there is nothing to distinguish the house on a side street in Arlington from its neighbors. There isn’t even a sign on its unremarkable exterior announcing that this is a place of business as well as a private residence.
But, indeed it is. That becomes evident as soon as Daphne Weld Nichols opens the door to a visitor, who enters what looks like a stage set, with opulent pieces of furniture scattered among large items of photographic equipment. Faux fur throws are draped over couches and lounges, and gorgeous pictures of gorgeous women are propped everywhere. Many photographs in black and white recall early Hollywood glamour, when actresses with sultry expressions promised excitement and romance.
They are the handiwork of Nichols, a photographer whose goal is more ambitious than simply taking flattering pictures of her clients. She was a traditional portrait photographer when she started her business in Wollaston in the late ’70s. But Nichols recalled: “I had an epiphany one day. A client asked if it would be all right if she dropped the strap of her dress. I told her I loved the idea.”
That eye-opening moment got Nichols moving in a more daring direction. She began looking deeper than a client’s physiognomy to a place of memories and yearning. The result is a beautiful portrait of a person far away from the everyday.
After a lengthy sojourn on Newbury Street in Boston, where she and her partner, Diane Dalpe, developed their very personal photographic style and ventured into other avenues of expression such as spiritual therapies, she and Dalpe moved their business out of the Back Bay and put down roots in Arlington, in the house that once belonged to Dalpe’s mother. A former senior executive of Gillette, Dalpe handles much of the administrative work of the company, appropriately named Fantasy Photography.
If their present neighborhood isn’t as tony as the old one, business hasn’t suffered. That’s because their clients believe that what the pair have to offer is worth the trip.
Melanie Hart of Hull concurs. Lovely to begin with, Hart was turned into a ravishing siren through Nichols’ considerable talents.
This 40-ish housewife and mother of two, whose days are filled with children’s needs and her own work projects, said of her experience at Fantasy Photography: “I felt I had to do something for myself. And a sitting with Daphne and Diane turned out to be just what I needed. It wasn’t just a chance to come to terms with my sexuality and inner youth. It was about making myself feel the very best I could feel.”
It might have seemed that Nichols had wandered far from her Social Register roots when she became enamored of photography while viewing an exhibition at the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy.
“It was amazing, shadowy, even Hitchcockian and mysterious,” she recalled of the black-and-white photos by Quincy native Roydon Burke.
The camera had seemed a magical instrument since Nichols first looked into the lens when she was 5 years old. But it wasn’t until she happened on Burke’s pictures, at 18, that she considered photography as a career.
Internationally known, “Roydon,” she said, “became my mentor and best friend and eventually opened doors for me.”
As suggested by Nichols and Dalpe, I agreed to have my picture taken to get a better idea of the process, despite being nervous and self-conscious, traits shared with most of their clients, according to the women.
It quickly becomes apparent that what goes on here is not typical of such establishments. The client doesn’t sit docilely in a chair working her countenance into various pleasant expressions until the facial muscles begin to seize up.
No, the first order of business is to take out various props and pieces of clothing – brought as per instruction – so that an image you’ve long held about yourself might be captured by Nichols’ digital camera. If you’re a construction worker, that might be a tool belt and a hard hat; if you’re a housewife that might be a Merry Widow waist cincher or a lacy nightgown.
The second order of business is to take from Nichols a large glass of wine so that during the ensuing conversation you become relaxed enough to talk honestly about yourself. This isn’t psychoanalysis. Nichols and Dalpe call this procedure “a consultation,” a way to understand the client’s self-perception, so that, as Nichols put it, “we can bring out the inner goddess.”
It’s no surprise that most of the clients are women. Men dare to venture into such dangerous territory only after they’ve seen stunning pictures of their loved ones, which were presented as gifts, “usually,” said Nichols, “as a way of putting zip in a marriage or rekindling a love affair.”
More than merely a photographer doing a job, Nichols sees her role as helping to liberate her female clients from the strictures imposed on them by age, work and relationships.
“They’ve gotten to a point where they’re afraid to show their sensuality,” she said.
That fear begins to erode as the client is shown before and after pictures of earlier subjects: frizzy hair tamed into gleaming tresses; eyes enlarged and sparkling; lips plumped; cheekbones shaded; cleavage enhanced; skin smoothed. That process begins with help from a make-up artist and a hairstylist. It continues during the photo session with Nichols’ careful lighting – a blend of natural and artificial – and her ability, with Dalpe, to recognize just the right pose and expression.
The finishing touch is the same sleight-of-hand that turned Margarita Carmen Cansino into Rita Hayworth, Norma Jeane Baker into Marilyn Monroe, and elicited from Gloria Swanson, as a fading actress in “Sunset Boulevard, the memorable line: “In those days we had faces.” Those faces, for the most part, were due to retouching, an arcane skill used to erase wrinkles, moles and tattoos, firm up flab and define muscles.
At this point art becomes technique, as Nichols, Dalpe and the client spend an hour or so looking at dozens of photos, deciding which should be submitted to the retoucher for the purpose of turning lovely into perfection.
With only three sittings a week and each lasting all day, a photo session with Nichols and Dalpe can run into the thousands.
Surfeited with wine, shrimp cocktail, cheese and crackers, and having posed for several hours, wearing various outfits, even doing some dancing to oldies but goodies on the radio, clients are no longer self-conscious, but ready to try some “boudoir” shots.
Where the earlier poses had been straight portraits, maybe with a saucy tilt of the head or a hand cupped prettily under the chin, the new poses would be more intimate, more revealing, downright sensual.
Lying on a chaise covered with a black throw, hair fanned out by Nichols, shoulders bare, the once timid subject smiles in a knowing way and at last feels deliciously in touch with her inner goddess.
The Patriot Ledger