Living Life Unretouched
I LOOKED at the 1917 picture of my grandfather being sworn in as an American citizen. From the camera's angle, he appeared tall. I remember my green-eyed grandfather was a short man whose nails were stained by photographic darkroom chemicals. On Sundays, our family drove from Flushing, N.Y., to Brooklyn so I could watch him photograph brides.
Grandpa, in white socks, labored on his knees using straight pins to secure each fold of bridal satin to his carpet, then stood on an unpainted wooden stool to adjust the veil. He would roll down a backdrop scene of an archway or chapel, insert a glass plate into the cumbersome tripod-mounted camera, adjust the bride's head tilt, then squeeze a rubber ball to seize the moment.
His slender fingers removed each thin dressmaker's pin before he would put his shoes on and roll up the backdrop.
In a small room illuminated only by reddish glowing light, I was fascinated with the magic images that appeared from blank paper. ``Teach me, teach me,'' I would say. Grandpa placed my tiny hands around a hard circular metal gadget that clamped a photo above a mirror.
``What should I do if I smush one and the thing breaks, Grandpa?''
``Save your hand-framed picture, but just throw away the broken mirror glass. That you've made something is important.''
He smoothed my limp flaxen strands with fingers that smelled of his familiar chemicals and praised my efforts. He allowed me to open his bulky brass cash register with its big round numbers, hear its bell signal open, and remove a nickel for a treat.
In the cafeteria below his studio, I bought a nickel charlotte russe (a sliver of white cake in circular cardboard, topped with whipped cream and a cherry) to share as we'd shared mirror-picture making.
Some Sundays I didn't see Grandpa. Later I learned that his being ``away'' meant he was touring with United States presidents; he photographed every one from Taft through Truman.
``Grandpa,'' I asked one Sunday morning in October 1945, ``can I pretend to be a bride and hold your fake flowers? Can I?''
As I was still shorter than he was, he kissed the top of my head: ``Just a few minutes `till the first bride.''
``But I want to hold the bouquet.''
``Here. Don't grab or clutch. Place your left arm underneath, then drape, not drop, your right hand over the handle. Just the back curve of your hand should gracefully appear.''
Fake calla lilies were not as light as they looked, and their cascade was too big for my tiny frame. I felt pretty, embarrassed, and wonderful all at the same time. I was the ending of every fairy tale I'd ever read.
Grandpa grinned. ``Don't grow up too fast, monkey. Just enjoy being young.''
He adjusted the fake bouquet that in black and white looked magnificent, but in real life looked helpless and dull. ``Ready? Now turn.'' He put a piece of veiling over my face.
``When I'm grown, will you buy me my very own wedding gown?'' I asked.
He smiled softly; the corner of one eye seemed to be collecting fluid. He pretended to take my picture, and I giggled.
His first appointment came toward me, her lace train pulled along the rug. Her headpiece was tall and crisp; my pretend veil looked like an unpressed hankie.
Grandpa labored with lighting, forcing it to make faces glow or satin-gown folds shimmer. But this bride was wearing all lace, which didn't reflect light, so he made every detail sharp as snowflakes against a windowpane. As with weighty fake flowers that looked light and lovely, he strained to bring out details so pictures would seem natural.
After that sitting - I never knew why it was called a sitting since the brides were always standing - Grandpa gave me a penny to buy shelled Indian nuts, which we shared.
``Always feel you're important,'' he said as he cracked shells, dropped crumbs into a metal wastebasket, and passed nuts to me. ``Whatever you do, feel, or think is special.''
My eyes used to smart when I left the red-lit darkroom and re-entered the incandescent lighting of his studio. He was working; I was enchanted.
He developed a technique (using my mother posing in one of her fluffy hats) for photographing a person in front of multiple mirrors without getting a flashbulb reflection. He made a postage-size stamp of one image for pasting on World War II overseas mail that didn't have to pass through the censors as V-Mail. I glued four tiny images of my mother on the blank area of a broken picture mirror.
GRANDPA seemed to do everything: take cash, move huge lights, photograph, develop, dust a counter. I absorbed this message of self-esteem and dignity with labor, of making tasks seem as light as pictures of fake flowers when I knew they were heavy and clumsy - the message that one could love work.
Grandpa taught me, by example, that nothing is menial. Whether one photographs a president on gelatin silver, a bride, or a Sunday-best-dressed-up child, each is equally important. On his knees sticking silver pins into fabric and then wool carpet or onstage with Eleanor Roosevelt during a speech she delivered, my grandfather still had dignity.
He helped me develop pride in completing a task. And I knew, from the word ``refugee,'' that he had pursued, not compromised, dreams. He had courage to accept ``no'' along with ``yes,'' and this made him ``tall,'' no matter that the yardstick measured only 5 feet, 4 inches.
Grandpa acknowledged when he lacked dexterity or ability. At a table filled with sable brushes of various sizes, a retoucher removed a facial blemish. ``Retouching fools the eye,'' Grandpa said, ``but what we really are, before sable wipes out imperfection, is never disguised.'' My aqua eyes looked at this giant who knew everything there was to know, even when I didn't really understand what he meant.
I watched photos being oil colored with transparent paint. When I pushed cotton in quick circular strokes over my own children's black and white photographs decades later, I realized that some simple creative things do last and remind us of our ability to produce with our fingers, eyes, and imagination. And a worker's task of hand coloring, then cleaning up messy cotton-ball clumps stained with pigment, wasn't menial. How that lesson runs through my life! Grandpa said that I should sometimes ``see'' the way I'd like things to be, not what really is there.
I recently learned more about some of his political photographs when the International Museum of Photography started an archive on William Metz. But he was still Grandpa, who tickled my back, taught me to enjoy creating, with courage to accept rejection, and personally to prove that all labor has significance.
I last saw my grandfather in 1956. I was on my way into the adventure of marriage and he to retirement in Miami. But, like his photos in folders in the International Museum of Photography, he was still tall and strong and ``unretouched.''