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The Grateful Wretch 2: Facing the Camera

A photo session.

“The reason we don't use tungsten is that is gets very hot,” she says.

She takes meter readings around my face. I am a living material that absorbs and reflects light. The goal of the evening is to get the essence of me onto 120mm film. That sounds impossible; that essence is still barely represented by the 450,000 words on this Web site, not to mention the other projects in the works. But she's a professional.

I spill some wine on an expensive white chair. I am upset and agitated; she is calm and finds some sort of chemical that froths when you spray it, and the wine stains vanish. I change my clothes in the open studio. I iron a shirt.

She clicks and turns through rolls of color and black and white film. I don't like giving up control over this part of my identity. I'd rather hold a cheap digital camera two feet from my face and look up into it - another form of hiding. She is climbing up and down a ladder, moving large tripods, positioning screens and pieces of paper, laughing at my nerves. She shows me how the 4x5 works.

There is a dachsund here, with a long white scar along its back from surgery. It hops, pathetic, and begs for attention. The click and shuffle of its nails on the floor, with its hopeless expression of absolute love, is appealing. I squeeze it slightly, affectionately, and it pees on the floor and chuffs and snorts and tries to put its nose into my ankle.

She directs me to a bench. I look up at the camera, my expression winsome and wide-eyed. “That's your digital self-portrait face,” she says. “That's not you. I'm afraid if I leave this room you'll be holding the camera two feet above you and looking come-hither.”

“You're right, I would do that.”

“I know,” she says.

I relax, getting a little tired. I project different moods, try to focus my mind on the lens. I think of a song by the Shins and a novel by Thomas Hardy. I think of different sex acts with different people. I think of my grandfather. The shutter clicks over and over. “There, we're getting at you,” she says. “Look over here—” standing on the ladder the puts out her left arm. “Now look back at the camera without moving your head. Good.”

It's 1am and I'm groggy from all the me, a sheaf of Polaroids in hand as an archive, a few dozen shots on their way to the lab. I can pretend to toughness but being photographed - being noticed and seen, and the possibility of others seeing me without a gauzy curtain of language between - makes my stomach twist and my hands curl into fists.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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