The Photographer’s Choice

Not necessarily young, falling short of pretty, she was still the photographer’s choice. What beauty she had was of the pragmatic type: nothing more than a product of sensibility and symmetry. A vague intellect is evident in her level brows, unexciting thoughts ruminate and press against the lines of her temples, like sheep.

Even though they had hopefully dressed her as an odalisque, her body could not oblige. She possessed no animal seduction, no curves suffused with incense, none of the golden mystery of the voluptuous harem. The tapestries in the studio did not hide a flock of jealous concubines, nor a battalion of incorruptible eunuchs. All that kept her company was a blue parrot, balanced on its perch and staring down at its mistress, a graceless combination of experienced housewife and wishful concubine.

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They chose her because she was willing to pose for an hour or two, for the payment of a meal, or a handful of coins. She was their clumsy Scheherazade, willing to wear the cheap trappings born from the fancies of a western world mesmerized by dreams of the Far East. A bolero embroidered with pearls of yellowing luster, dull jewelry that stained her skin, scarves hemmed with false bullion. One arm awkwardly balances a tambourine waggishly trimmed with scarlet tassels. The other is bent so that the hand, clenched in a nervous fist, is pressed against her head. The dark smudge showing in the exposed armpit is evidence that this was a century when a lady was not supposed to manicure herself too assiduously.

The nudity of her torso is implied, rather than advertised: a startled exposure half expected and only half welcome. Her femininity is stolid and respectable – she does not belong in this dusty seraglio.

But she tried. She really did. Her assumed posture was foolish yet gallant. Her knees – daringly yet shyly – are apart. But her ankles are crossed. And she has refused to remove her sensible shoes.

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7 responses to “The Photographer’s Choice

  1. The shoes were the detail that caught my eye first: entirely sensible, and so evocative of so many women I’ve known. Perhaps, in the end, those shoes are what helped to keep her grounded. No flights of fancy for this one, it would be easy to think. On the other hand, if that were true, how did she end up posing?

  2. I didn’t notice the sensible shoes or the unshaven armpit until I read your piece. It’s like a Glamour Shots gone wrong. You would think the photographer would have spotted the awful glitches in the pose, but from looking at the tawdry set, one guesses he was probably as blind to art as she was uncomfortable with exoticism. Poor woman! Who knows, maybe if she had been dressed as a Greek goddess or even a dance hall queen (standing upright, or course), her photograph would have been more striking and less awkward.

  3. I imagine neither women nor animals were treated very well at that time…..and she looks so young! I agree with HG it has an interesting background with potential to be a nice shot if done differently.

  4. shoreacres – rather a delicious mystery, is it not? Perhaps her sense of daring only went so far? This photography session was a sort of abbreviated dream for her? (and frankly, if those shoes were on sale now, I’d buy them in a heartbeat!)

    Hangaku – I have a feeling that the photographer was as inexperienced as she was. The postcard itself bears no name of a well-known photographer or photographer’s studio. And as for the unshorn armpit, around this time – the turn of the 20th century – it was the thing to do. Later, in the ’20’s, ladies went around like that as a symbol of bohemia or rebellion.

    Emmy – I shudder when I think of the abuse that women and animals (probably put in the same category by some people) suffered during this time. The ASPCA was created less than 40 years earlier. And votes for women? Forget about it!

  5. her shoes are incredibly sensible…beautifully written!

  6. Well done, Aubrey. By the end of your piece, I felt that I knew the character and empathize with her situation.

  7. Isn’t that an awkward image?! You’ve woven a great backstory and cast the model in a more empathetic light.

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