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Our Many Selves

By Suzanne Pollak | Photography by Mark Staff

Outstanding portraitists possess eyes that pierce their subjects. They see beneath the skin, beyond the surface, into the essence of the soul. They discern what we might hide behind our many masks, offering a glimpse at what lies beyond conscious awareness, often discovering gems waiting to develop or even intuiting darkness lurking unawares. A well-known painter created a portrait of my four children together when they were in middle and high school. The background color around one son was heavily shadowed. I assumed the darker color was a composition device. Five years later, that son was diagnosed with spinal cancer that had gone undetected for years. Did the painter feel that energy?

Charleston-based photographer Mark Staff often shoots portraits, but multiplicity shots are his new creative endeavor—and they’re very different from most portraits. They involve more work for him, but the result is dynamic and exciting. He must participate and communicate with his subjects to bring out various personality traits, sometimes exposing parts they might not see or wish to see. There is a greater level of trust in this kind of portrait. It calls attention to who we are, forcing us to ask ourselves: What does this say about me? Is this how others view me? Have I developed into who I want to be? Can I? Will I?

The portrait is an exchange between photographer and subject; for a multiplicity portrait, it’s also a dialogue with the subject and herself. Mark captured my domestic life. For twenty years, my business was caring for and feeding a family. The kitchen served as the engine of our house, creating a firm foundation for those connected to me (and even cha-ching-ing change while I briefly ran an illegal bakery). These pursuits allowed me to rule the roost with calm instead of chaos, to squeeze all the potential out of one room. Cooking was my way to mother and mentor, instill manners, awaken culture, and learn history, music, and cuisine. Providing proper nourishment ensured that each child might reach their potential one day because they were fully fed and loved as they grew up. The room gave its all, and so did I! Now, I see the fruit in how my kids utilize their kitchens, smokers, grills, and dining rooms.

Today my kitchen’s job is to expand my potential (not my waistline) and reach new communities during COVID-19. Mark’s multiplicity photo brought my ultimate endeavor—teaching people the art of using food to connect with anyone, anywhere—to life, visually. The portrait defines what I have done, but it also terrifies me. Is this all I am? Can I be more? The many selves in the picture make me think of different choices I might have made and how I narrowed my expertise. It’s important not to pigeonhole yourself. For so long, I ran a household almost to the exclusion of everything else. When that dissipated, then what? I had to figure out how to use domestic skills in new ways because I didn’t have other careers to fall back upon.

The portrait is an exchange between photographer and subject; for a multiplicity portrait, it’s also a dialogue with the subject and herself.

To use one tiny example, I expanded the mighty English muffin’s role beyond breakfast. My homemade version might host quail eggs Benedict for brunch, tuna melts for lunch, homemade marmalades at teatime, or sliders for dinner. You can shower love by gifting homemade English muffins as houseguest presents. Use them to replace party favors or the regular dinner party gift of wine. People will feel your warmth the following morning at their breakfast table, and you won’t even have to be there! Why not learn to expand your repertoire in ways large and small? See what a homemade carb, a simple dinner, a specialty craft cocktail, or an entirely new domestic vision can do to connect you to the person in the next room or next door.

The kind of philosophy we study at the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits makes me wonder what it’s like to look through Mark Staff’s camera lens. His portrait represents my doctorate in household management. What will my future multiplicity shots show? An entrepreneur, a business owner, a writer, a fund-raiser, a best friend, a cool nonagenarian, a person who finds her soul mate, a passion partner? It’s for me to design, but sometimes it takes another pair of eyes to point out the potential.

Last thought: if you are in the middle of a transition or in need of one, consider getting a portrait made so you can take a look at yourself in a new way, honor your past, and start mapping out the future.

— V —

Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.

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