Portrait


Astrid bought the Voigtlander at Ms. Fischer’s yard sale the summer after Mr. Fischer’s funeral. All winter, Ms. Fischer – she had never invited anyone to call her by first name – had kept the home exactly as it had been when her husband departed, and as old as she was, neighbors expected she’d keep it that way until she joined her husband in the hereafter. Thus, it was a surprise when the tiny old woman knocked on Astrid’s door and asked if she knew anything about hosting a yard sale.

Astrid agreed to help, of course, securing folding tables from several neighbors and placing an ad to run in the next weekend’s paper. The next Saturday morning, she set up the tables in the driveway and paid four of the neighborhood kids a dollar apiece to cart out whatever items Ms. Fischer pointed at in the house. Rather than putting a price tag on every item, Astrid suggested they put a price on each table: the big table had $1 items like hand tools, old ashtrays, books, and puzzle boxes; the next held $3 items like porcelain mixing bowls, an old auger, a gold-rimmed juice glass set, and bolts of woolen fabric; another held $5 items and the last, $10. Astrid suggested that they set a few things aside as $20 items – several quality paintings of unknown origin, the Voigtlander 35MM camera, and two impressive candelabras – but Ms. Fischer refused. “I wish the things not remain with me.”

Astrid stayed through the whole yard sale, smiling often when Ms. Fischer told anyone who inquired about any object, “Is from one dollar table. Someone moved.” The items disappeared at a steady rate, as good things at low prices usually do. Whenever there was a lull in traffic, Astrid’s attention drifted to the camera – the inexplicable numbers on the dials on the front, the precision assembly of the casing, the solid ktchk of the shutter snapping closed. She was curious in the way someone who doesn’t play music would be fascinated by a violin, wondering where in the device the magic was stored. She’d decided that if the camera didn’t sell, she would buy it herself. Ms. Fischer had noticed Astrid’s curiosity. “My husband tells me Germans made best cameras,” she said when she found Astrid fondling the machine again. “But he thinks Germans make best everything.” She looked up at the sky and made the sign of a cross. “He was proof.”

By four o’clock, most of the tables were bare, but the camera remained. Astrid retrieved her wallet from her purse and said she wanted the camera.

“You take camera. Small thanks for big help.”

Astrid shook her head. “It says right on the table, ten dollars.”

Ms. Fischer considered the sign for a moment, then picked up the box and moved it to the $1 table. “Someone must’ve moved,” she said with a smile, daring Astrid to challenge her. Astrid agreed on the price.

Knowing nothing about how it worked, she asked the man at the Photomat to give her a quick tutorial on how to use the camera, promising him all of her future developing business in return. He explained, even sketching a likeness of the camera with arrows to the parts – a line to one ring, Focus, makes pictures crisp. A line to the other Fstop. Lower means less will be in focus. An arrow to the top, Exposure, or how soon shutter closes. When she felt like she understood, he showed her how to load the film. When she thanked him, he said, “Knowing the mechanics is a small part of taking great pictures. But you’ll see.”

For a week, Astrid tried to see the world as if she were looking through a viewfinder, tried to imagine what would make a good photo. She took random pictures of pedestrians at a busy intersection, snapped the silhouette of her neighbor’s oak against a sunny morning sky, emulated Norman Rockwell and took her self-portrait in the mirror. She dropped off the film for developing, and pulled up two days later to pick up the prints, eager to see what she’d captured on film. She paid, and since there was no one behind her in line, she opened the envelope on the spot. The man in the window of the booth watched as Astrid’s smile slowly faded. She was deep in the pile when she looked up. “I confess, I’m a bit underwhelmed. I thought…..well, I don’t know what I thought.” She continued flipping through the pictures.

The clerk leaned further out the window. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Astrid looked up.

“I’ve worked here for nearly three years, and I have to check everyone’s photos to make sure they came out, so I’ve seen them all. Here’s the secret – every beginner takes basically the same photos.” He shrugged. “You’d be surprised how similar they are. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just…everyone starts out being very aware that they’re holding a camera. It’s like, there’s the camera, and the subject. But really, it’s just you and the subject. It’s not about the camera at all.”

Astrid furrowed her brow. “But, the camera does all the work.”

“It seems like that, doesn’t it? But maybe think about it this way. The camera is like a blank sheet of paper. A writer isn’t thinking about the paper, they’re thinking about the story. The paper is just for capturing the story. There’s nothing special about the paper Faulkner or Eudora Welty writes on, it’s the story that comes out of their heads. So what you need to do is ignore the paper and focus on the story, except….okay it’s not a perfect analogy, but see what I mean?”

“I’d be lying if I said yes. This is all new to me.”

The clerk nodded. “I’m probably making it too hard. It’s weird, but there’s a word for it, counter-intelligent. No, counter-intuitive. Anyway, beginners take pictures of things they think will make good pictures. Don’t do that. Instead, take pictures of things that catch your attention. Or better, that hold your attention.”

“This certainly gives me something to think about.”

“We’re all a work in progress with this stuff, believe me.” He held up a just-a-minute signal to the car that was pulling up behind her. “But for what it’s worth, your tree photo is really nice. Keep it up.”

Astrid pulled forward into a parking spot and flipped through the stack, looking for the picture of the tree.

 

© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.

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