Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 21—Ian and the Camera
Ian Emory Hobart’s grandfather brought back a camera from the European slaughter; the civil war of the human race Lucy called it. It was a good one, the camera—a Leica, and actually paid for. Lucy bought it from a Czech refugee for a fistful of colorful, inflated currency. Conquering armies were known to have cavalier attitudes toward property left lying about; the Czech seemed grateful. At age ten, the same age when his grandfather discovered explosives, Ian Emory found the camera on a high closet shelf, safely sequestered within cedar walls lest—as Cat told him—the moths get at the film inside.
Life occurred to Lucy’s grandchild, a procession of unremarkable things to be preserved on film: first tattoo, first shave, rolls of skinnydippers taken from concealment—fuzzy female blobs against a horizon line. Ian learned about lenses, processing and depth of focus, and attended high school with no serious malfeasances. He raked blueberries on the down-county barrens in the summer for pocket money. Considering his father Elliot’s boyhood steeped in the Puritan work ethic—honest sweat, honest toil, value given for value received plus ten percent—this was not unusual, despite Lucy’s best efforts.
At loose ends and listlessly waiting for the next war’s draft to scoop him up, Ian Emory took over the portraiture studio of Peter Sinclair, dead at eighty-two. He was hired at $2.00 an hour for two days to clean the place out. “Just dump it somewhere,” said Phil Devereau, the landlord. “Don’t get caught. Broom clean.” The dead man’s studio was filled with the trappings of a proper nineteenth-century photographic salon, useless, but he could not bear to throw the stuff out. He did no cleaning; Ian instead went downtown to play pool and drink beer.
“Done?” asked Phil after the two days had passed.
“Yep,” said Ian Emory, palm out. Thirty-two dollars in worn bills followed. Ian reversed the pile 180 degrees and thrust it back at his new landlord. “Sold,” said Ian Emory, Phil Devereau’s new tenant. Life had commenced. Huh, how about that, thought Ian Emory.
Shadows playing at shadows. A mustachioed young husband and a lacy-throated young wife poke their heads through a painted canvas flat portraying a foreshortened canoeing scene. They are happy.
Ah!... but behind the scenery lies a toppled satyr, at his side a sawed-off fluted plaster column, new, with a shattered capital nearby suggesting old ruins. The backdrop is a convent garden at dusk; giant bumblebees prowl the thick wisteria, its knotted vines frame a lovers’ bower.
Twice a year and regular as clockwork, when Barbara’s School of the Dance trotted in the latest corps of majorettes and ballerinas, Peter Sinclair’s classic backdrop—Mediterranean hillsides with Raphaelite shepherds and shepherdesses discreetly about their distant businesses—was requested.
Ian Emory would wrestle the plaster base and capital to stage front as Barbara bustled about draping her nymphs into wooden poses before collapsing, glasses pushed back on the top of her head, into a canvas director’s chair. The chair creaked as it accepted her 250 pounds and she eased herself out of too-tight spike heels breathing a great sigh that bespoke a satisfied esthetic and the deeper contentment that comes with good advertising. Someday somebody would want to be immortalized with a leering, panting satyr, its lips curled in a sneer of passion. But not Barbara, not today.
Ian had built a set of platformed risers to get some unobtrusive elevation for the back rows in his group portraiture. The girls with the skinniest legs or unsightly tummy bulge lined up on the risers, their batons at port arms. Grimly they awaited the arrival of the rounder thighs, the more developed bust lines. The front row walked in late and jockeyed for position as they sorted themselves out at floor level.
Barbara had struck a deal with a costumier for epaulets in bulk. It was those Boston trips of hers with her modeling hopefuls; the big city brought out the Pygmalion in her. Weeks earlier each child had carried home a package and a note. “Please, please make sure that Jenny wears these for our Gum Drop Parade number in the Pageant.” Cellophane-wrapped lavender plaques with orange yarn dangles were dutifully mother-stitched to the shoulders of bolero jackets. There was a clatter of toe-taps and an overall military ambience.
Barbara called her Gum Drops to order. “People... people! We’re on stage now. This is the real thing. Attention!” Barbara ran a tight ship.
The girls froze into snappily dressed lines. Their glossy headgear imitated dragoon guards’ high silk tasseled helmets, true grenadier parade majorettes. The girls had the determined look of a formation of police repelling a charge by strikers. This was a big class for Barbara and Ian was hoping to get them all in the shot without squeezing them together. He squinted through a viewfinder and winced. A palette of smiles from rictus to leer rippled across the tableau. This was a mating flight of 100-watt fireflies—thousands of little ellipses, squirming sequined nymph-generated reflections on reflections blazed against his retina.
“That one over there, the coy little minx in the spangles. What do you think of her, Mr. Hobart?” They all wore spangled outfits, home-sewn, of various descriptions. “That’s Melissa Bradley, one of the Bradley girls...? A piece of work, that one. But talent...? You better believe it.” The director’s chair gave out a desperate creak as Barbara shifted her weight. She whispered closer as he fussed with the focus and dollied back the camera.
“She has star quality... she could be someone. I know she doesn’t look like much now, but believe me, I work with these girls every day, and with the proper training... nurturing...” Barbara indicated a scrawny nymphet in a sequined bathing suit who was genuflecting in a forward lunge. “In a few years she could be a force to be reckoned with.”
Barbara formed up the remaining girls in a phalanx, the front row a kneeling V, batons thrust at the camera. Thirty-two pairs of eager eyes stared down the lens with a migraine intensity. “Some of my girls have real talent. For modeling, you know...?” Barbara was still speaking but Ian Emory tuned her out.
They were close to that terminal perimeter where most of them still thought this was fun. Soon they would start to sweat, fidget and horse around. One of them would have to go to the bathroom. Then the avalanche. One by one, they will take a turn in the tiny lavatory and reassemble having lost half an hour, refreshed but looking stiff and posed. These fair-haired moppets arching and posing for my camera and one another are blissfully unaware of the darker implications of their photographic occasion—their military posturing a prelude to slaughter, their suggestive glitter at the edge of pornography.
In the newly found, hard-won prosperity that followed Lucy’s war, mortality was anathema. The glands and the grave were threatening but distant, and no more thought of than a cyclone touching down in Dubuque a thousand miles away. Murder and death flourished far from the neat yards and cautious aspirations of the families who boasted the discretionary income to pay for dancing classes.
Peter Sinclair had never beheld a woman in any stage of undress in all the years he spent behind the bellows of his great studio camera. With the end of Lucy Hobart’s war, however, came the profusion of photographic art magazines. Cosseted in the dens and libraries of the heartland, they were to be found along with the National Geographic, Liberty and Pageant, where at least once in every issue—the “photographic essay”—light and silver nitrate performed their magic upon naked female bodies. True, the standard fare was combat stills and compilations of Balkan desolation, Gypsy families at their riotous carouses, Slovenian women, black-cowled and toothless bent over tubs of wash, but usually some tits and ass to leaven the bread of despair. Camera sales bloomed, providing libidinous middle-aged males a reason to subscribe to the magazines. Few pictures were, to Ian’s knowledge, taken of the available family members, as disallowed by the unwritten code of the heartland—the mothers, wives and daughters—for they were children of the century, and clothing was to be shed in the dark.
Dry goods brokers who once coveted nouveau curlicues to frame their Carpenter Gothic mansions were carnivores in secret. Supple spines and pixy-breasted torsos topped by elfin faces sprouted from their office walls, an extension of unsatisfying experiments with sex at home, even as flotillas of Bauhaus furniture settled out front. The successful suppression of the flesh was celebrated with a vegetarian triumph—angular furniture in the lobbies of commerce, tables and chairs for improvement of the public mind. Not yet out front with the naked ladies, and certainly not American naked ladies. There was a naughtiness to art, making it suspect.
The beauty of a naked woman was not at issue, for New Englanders were raised on the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. All the bomb craters Over There tempered lust while fields of corn and unbroken waves of grain bespoke fruitfulness. It was the crusty white bread and sour red wine that did it. European women were soulful while New England girls who dropped their pants in front of the lens were not the sort one invited home to meet mom.
The Kodak Brownie camera that made technology accessible brought with it facility without comprehension; this is something every photographer had to face up to: eager mothers and their no less eager daughters, an establishment of trust as they essayed their first trembling steps on the ladder to stardom.
Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Capa, Steichen—the giants of the craft, their names seemed chosen for the ring of fame. Ian Emory Hobart, hometown photographer, was a chronicler of the ordinary. The pursuit of fame beyond the pool hall and Wednesday night bowling did not interest him. Ian Emory would give up on the pursuit of living human beings and clip celebrity pictures from magazines.
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