I found her at the bottom of a box of photographs, amongst the stray faces looking up at me, lost in narratives that had disappeared long ago.
She was still wrapped in tissue that was sepia-stained, the color of regret and recollection. She had been waiting 100 years for someone to look into her face, a country of devastating feminine symmetry, and to wonder: who is she?
Her eyes are spaced wide, with a world of thoughts oscillating between them, taking measure of the cameraman, drawing him in, daring him, holding him for as long as she desired. How he must have trembled during this session!
But the eyes are weary, too – there are dark smudges, like guilty memories, beneath them. They speak of late nights, chandeliers and sly fingers on bare arms. This is no ordinary lady. So – who is she?
She is dressed painfully and stylishly. Her corset is a dominatrix – abusive, torturous. Yet it does exactly what she wants it to do. It gives her a waist with the width of a dime: she is a part of fashion's currency. Her ribs have folded like fingers, embracing her in the fashionable 'S' silhouette – bosom slightly outward, hips pushed away.
Her hat, like a velvet ship, has unfurled its feathered sails, ready for battle. Rosettes climb up her arms like small animals, hungering after her pale, languid hands. She sits in her chair, coiled and feline. Her fingers rest against her cheek, like rivers emptying into a white lake that is calm on the surface, teeming with impish wit below. She is relaxed yet intense, young but experienced, beautiful and extremely dangerous. Who is she?
The fingers are patient – awaiting the viewer's next move. Her mouth is a threatening curve, the edges considering a smile: to welcome, to flirt, to mock. She is not some housewife or bride or dutiful daughter posing nervously in front of a camera. Who is she?
Is she a courtesan, a citizen of satin beds, rising from the perfumed depths of the demimoinde to have her picture taken? Is she a professional beauty, her career riding on a penny postcard? Is she an actrress, with bouquets at her feet like gardens of immoral adulation?
It's impossible to know. But sometimes the imagination needs to be untethered. Its hunt will be long, but invariably it will come back – exhausted but exhilirated, and full of its own wisdom.