Reads: 23

The Photographer



The hungry years. That is how we referred to them. It was during 2010-2011 when Shane was working as a freelance photographer and hoping for his breakthrough. He was taking pictures, trying to work with different themes, always sending photographs to publications. He also had a web page where he posted his work—all that effort to no avail.

Nothing seemed to work. No one recognized or appreciated the budding photographer’s work, nor was anyone interested in him. No one wanted to exhibit his photos, not even in the city galleries in Binghamton, where the professional photographers weren't even exhibiting that often.

It was one of those days when he was searching for his due when we were wandering the streets - he with a camera in hand just on the off chance we came upon something worth taking a picture of. We were walking along the path by the river, near the Main Street bridge, crossing over Chenango.

"Do you even understand, Rob?" Shane asked. "People here just don't understand the art of photography." He thought for a second. "They don't have an idea of any other art either."

"What do you mean?" I asked distractedly. I only wanted to urge him to continue speaking.

"Our city is one of mediocrity. Most people have no idea what art is. With almost no one I can talk about photography. I say "almost" because there exists the eventuality that maybe someone still exists, who I don't know yet, who can understand the struggle and the art."

"You can talk with me about art."

"Yes, I know I can. But you don't know anything about photography."

"I know which pictures I like and which I don't," I said, a little offended. "Anyone who you ask will tell you what they like, and this is the crucial thing, isn't it?

"See, don't get upset. I appreciate your moral support and so forth. What I meant to say is that there are no other professional photographers who care about art. There isn't a community of people who I can talk about what interests me professionally. I am just sick of taking photos at weddings. I want more."

"I think that there are enough photographers in Binghamton..."

"Mediocre photographers...mediocre musicians, mediocre painters. Anyone who could do something well enough with his art moves expediently to New York City. It's where the market is, and the community of professionals and people interested in real art. I need to talk to such people, to make friends with them. That is the only way I can improve my art."

Shane fell silent. The sun was low on the horizon; it was almost sunset, and the sun glazed the bridge and the river with warm yellow light. The sun’s rays reflected off the small waves of the river, shining in our eyes and blinding us.

A hobo was sitting on a bench ten yards ahead of us. We approached nearer. I looked over him while Shane took pictures of two ducks who had landed with a splash in the river. The homeless seemed to be in his sixties. He had long, matted hair and an equally messy beard, dressed in a gray, scruffy raincoat and worn-out boots. He was tossing lumps of bread to his smiling dog, who was catching them still in the air--a mutt, average in size, reminiscent of a Dalmatian with its black spots sprayed long white fur.

I went closer to the man. From up closer, I caught a whiff, but it didn't surprise me. After all, I didn't expect anything other than the smell of a hobo.

I spoke to him. "I like your dog. What breed is it?"

Both the hobo and his dog looked at me, suspiciously.

"Dalmatian," lied the old man.

"Oh? Yes, you are right; I can tell now that I am closer."

He proudly petted the dog and fed it a lump of bread, which the dog devoured fast.

"Is he good? I mean, does he bite?"

"No, he is even very tame. You can pet him if you want. His name is Rex."

I leaned down to pet Rex. He looked at the hobo, and when he saw that his owner was well-disposed towards me, he wiggled his tail, sniffed me, and licked my hand. If I took a picture with the dog, it would be a nice one that I could put on Facebook.

"May I take a picture with the dog?" I asked the tricky. He thought a few seconds and decided that nothing wrong would come out of me taking a picture with his dog, so he nodded affirmatively.

"Hey, Shane. Shane!" I called out to my friend. Distractedly he turned towards me.

"Will you snap a picture of me with the dog?" I asked.

He nodded, moved so that the sun was behind him, and said: "Smile!"

I stood behind the dog and hugged him. Both of us smiled, and Shane snapped a few pictures.

"Done," he said at last.

"Did we come out good?" I asked him.

"Not bad."

I went to the hobo and took all the money I had out of my pocket. All in all, a five-dollar bill and two singles. I handed him the five and said: "This is for the picture...and for you, to buy food..and for the dog."

He nodded and took the bill, which disappeared quickly in the right pocket of his raincoat.

Shane was standing hesitantly next to the railing guarding bystanders against falling in the river. At last, he mustered his courage and asked: "May I take a picture of you, sir?"

"Me?" the hobo asked, clearly surprised.

"Yes. I think it will turn out to be a nice picture. You are photogenic, and the light is nice."

Instead of giving Shane a verbal answer, the hobo stood up, thumped out his raincoat, wrapped himself up with it, and sat again. Then he called the dog: "Come, Rex" - who trotted immediately to his owner. After that, the tricky smiled at the camera.

Shane snapped a couple of pictures and said: "Can we do it without smiling? Be natural."

He took several more photos, and when the hobo became restless, Shane said:

"These are enough. I think at least some must be good."

After that, we said our goodbyes to the man and his dog and left. Shane padded next to me and was peeking at his camera screen from time to time.

"Did you get good photos?" I asked.

He looked at me strangely and said, "You bet!"

After that event, Shane started taking photos exclusively of hobos and poor, neglected people. He was strolling with his camera in hand in the suburbs of the city. He visited the shelter for homeless people or photographed people in front of the Social Services Office. Shane introduced himself to the poor people he met and took their picture there on the spot or in their homes. Sometimes I went with him. I got chills from the wrecks of apartments that we visited. I had never known that such misery could exist in our city. It had been pushed aside in the suburbs, in the subsidized residencies and the projects.

Shane developed a trick of predisposing people he intended to snap a photo of. He bought his photos for cheap by bringing candies to the kids if there were any or handing five to ten dollar bills to the adults, sometimes accompanied by a pack of beer. And people were happy to have their photo taken. They were probably pleased that through Shane's photos, they would somehow show their poverty to the world and maybe help themselves to get pulled out of it.

Shane sold a few pictures to some art magazines. In the end, someone took notice of his work and liked it. So, he finally had his breakthrough. He even managed to secure a job in New York City so he could take his art there. His other friends and I loaded him and all of his meager possessions onto a small U-Haul truck, bid our goodbyes, and sent him off to New York City.

For a long time, I didn't hear from Shane. From some friends, I learned that he had become a well-known photographer. One day, an invitation to his exhibition in a gallery in New York City came in the mailbox. I decided to go—I hadn't been to the City for a while anyway. After sightseeing my favorite places in the City during the day, in the evening I went to the exhibition. It was at a gallery in one of the most prominent locations in Chelsea.

It seemed that the exhibition was a total success. Just as I opened the door, the buzz of numerous voices hit me, together with a pleasant warmth. It was a drizzly, cold evening out, so the reprieve was welcome. The gallery was big, with well-lit halls with high ceilings. I suppose the ceilings were high so that the artistic spirit could soar. I made my way through the crowd towards the bar where I ordered a martini, and after a refreshing sip, I ventured around the gallery to see the photos and find Shane as well.

Going from room to room, I viewed the enlarged photographs on the walls. Most of them were black and white, depicting the same theme: poverty and misery—all poor people. I saw plenty of wrinkled, smudged faces; toothless mouths, letting out cigarette smoke, dirty hands holding burning down cigarette stubs and beer cans, decrepit, uncomely city blocks, houses, and apartments in which those people lived. The crowd that had gathered commented and admired in a high voice the artwork. The people in the pictures were so different from these well-dressed art connoisseurs. I stopped in front of the photo of a man dressed in a smudged raincoat. A white dog with black spots stood next to him. There was something familiar about the man. Suddenly I remembered—this was the first photo of the poverty theme.

In the last hall, engaged in a lively conversation with a young, lovely lady, I finally found Shane. He hadn't changed much for the previous four or five years. Maybe he had put on some weight, but besides that, he was the same Shane I once knew. He wore a chic velvet suit and a somewhat touting yellow necktie. He saw me and smiled, then gave me a sign to wait for him. After finishing his conversation, he gave his card to the lady and approached me. We shook hands, and Shane asked,

"How do you reckon?"

"A total success! It seems like things are going well for you. At last, you have gotten what you dreamed for once."

"Not gotten. Taken. Earned." Shane was deliberate about correcting me.

"Yes. Earned," I agreed.

Shane looked at a photograph on the wall in front of us, depicting a room with chafing wall paint, in a state of complete disorder. On a bed in the center lay an older woman dressed in shabby clothes who seemed to be dying.

"Do you know?" he turned to me. "I think I got what I was looking for."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, a place where I can get better at my art. Look at this picture. What do you see?"

"I see...I don't know. Misery. What else is there to see?"

"Of course. You see poverty. It's not only that, though. See, the picture is as good as it can be."

"You have always been a whiz of photography, Shane. Since the old days, since Binghamton," I concluded after a short pause.

"Bullshit," my companion cut me off. "I was just a dilettante in Binghamton. It took me time to become a professional. Now I see what would look good in a picture, and I pull it out. Now I am like a magician who can easily pull a bunny out of a thimble. This picture I took with the most appropriate lens, from the best possible angle so I could get the most of the available illumination."

We fell silent for a while, looking at the picture. Then I spoke up. "I saw that in the first hall, you had exhibited the picture of the guy with the dog. Why haven't you sold that one by now?"

"Reminds me of where I started from. In each one of the halls you’ve walked through, I've arranged my photographs in chronological order. Haven't you noticed?"

"Well, I don't know. All pictures have the same theme. I didn't see a distinct difference between them."

"I understand. You never had an eye for photography. The photos become better as you pass from hall to hall towards where we stand. And this particular photograph is the epitome of my abilities. Do you understand, Rob? This picture—it's the closest to perfection any photographer can get. Perfect. It makes poverty look so beautiful."

We fell silent again. A couple approached Shane and started talking to him. I left him and started walking around the gallery, unconsciously getting closer to the bar. I had a few, and then I decided to go. I felt I’ve seen enough of poverty, even if it was photographed beautifully. I didn’t bother saying goodbye to Shane – he was in the middle of a heated conversation with some admirers. The clamor disappeared behind the heavy glass door that shut behind me on my way out. Outside, the cold drizzle had changed to freezing rain. I sighed, unhappily, and slightly unstable on my feet ventured into the rain.

Submitted: May 20, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Robert Ratman. All rights reserved.


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