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Images

I examine number fourteen-a on the contact sheet. It is always difficult


to decide. The light in the small alcove is not really sufficient to judge
what is best. There is the quality of the negative, the development to be
taken into consideration; as well as the pose, the expression. Until I
enlarge it, I have no real way of knowing how it will turn out. It is only with
the first test I can see if there are inconsistencies, if the quality is
acceptable. I will have to rely on experience.

Lifting the magnifying glass to my eye one more time, I scan the
image. I check if there is anything I have overlooked. It appears to be
reasonable, to be satisfactory.
I place the contact sheet on the wooden surface of the narrow bench.
Certainly, I like the way she looks in this frame. She is laughing. Her face
is relaxed. It appears natural and unposed.
Last week when she called and asked if I could do some photos, I was
surprised. At first I understood it was to be her, Gitta, her daughter Inge
and her partner. When she arrived she apologised, saying that Anton had
not wanted to come. The daughter looked at her sulkily.
It was not an easy session. They brought two bags of clothes to change
into, argued about who would wear what. As they dressed and undressed
again, I became impatient. I wanted to say they should get on with what
they had come for. In truth I was surprised. I felt she was being somewhat
melodramatic.

The majority of the images in front of me do not say much about her.
True, she is an old acquaintance, a friend. At one time she did some
modelling for me. Yet I have always thought of her as somewhat
contradictory. There is something below the surface, an uncertainty,
something I cannot quite get at. She has a sense of remoteness and
seems rooted in an older way of life. She gives the impression she is
desperately trying to cover something up. I have always wanted to catch
this on film.

Once I showed her proofs in which her face, only lightly made up, the
poses unconventional, suggested that underneath the simplicity there was
something complex. She objected. She said she did not like the darkened
background. Her eyes fixed firmly on mine, even a little hostile, she asked
me not to let anyone see them. Could I not take something that showed
her in a less unflattering way. I tried persuading her but she was insistent.
Reluctantly, I put the negatives away somewhere hoping that one day she
would change her mind.

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She does not lend herself easily to being photographed. Laughing or
smiling, or with that bright, artificial look so popular now, there is always
something a little forced about her.
In my years as photographer I have learned this is generally true of most
people. Much of my work centres on giving people something they think
they do not have. Perhaps it is the influence of the advertising industry.
You are not good enough as you are. Or, you are only as good as the
image of yourself you project.
I am resigned to this. I am resigned to the pathos of people looking for
something to hang on their wall. It makes me sad to think of all those
faces, the one moment of being caught good side, making such a
difference. There was a time when I played with the idea of captioning my
business card with `this is only a photograph’, I decided against it. If I did
not know her personally, would it occur to me to probe any deeper below
the surface?

She sits on the balcony of her apartment. She has placed the chair
close to the railings. Her feet are on a small stool and across her knees is
an open book. The sounds from the recreation area drift up. When the
weather is good she likes to do this, likes to sit in the warmth, likes the
look of the full trees. Sometimes the air is heavy and dusty but it does not
bother her. There are children playing, a dog barking. From the corner of
her eye she notices a cat slip out from behind a tree and scurry across a
pathway.
Leaning back, she puts her sunglasses on. The lotion glistens on her
bare arms. She pulls her skirt up above her knees and then imagines she
is a famous film actress.
This is the veranda of her villa. The bright, turquoise sea, the smell of
the wild flowers, the roll of the waves from the beach, are all coming up to
her. Her head falls back. She breathes in deeply.
Perhaps she will walk down to the strand. It gives her pleasure to see
the imprint of her feet in the water’s edge, to feel the sand push between
her toes. He has arranged to meet her later. They will go into the town
after light has fallen. They will drink rosé wine in the corner of a
restaurant. Looking into her eyes, he will take her hand and kiss it. She
will not refuse. She will tell him she is working on her book. It is a memoir
of her early life. Smiling, he will say she is brave and beautiful. And she
will be happy. She will ask him if maybe he would like to come back with
her and watch the sea from the balcony of her bedroom: while secretly
she wonders if there will be any photographers creeping about in the
fuchsia of the grounds. As he takes her to bed she will wonder how the
pictures of them together will look when sensationally printed in a glossy
magazine.

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I step back into the dark. My eyes adjust to the subdued yellow of the
safety lamp. Waiting for the outline of the table and bench to become
clearer, I step over to the enlarger. I slip the negative from its sleeve,
holding it up to the lamp of the lens to check it is correct. Then, snapping
the black metal of the holder over, I push the thin strip of plastic into
place.
With a turn of the focusing ring, the lines of the image sharpen on the
board below and the details of her face become clear. My ears pick out
the sound of the bellows as they open and close. Her cheek, her teeth,
white and firm, her eyes just at that right moment of spontaneity, appear.
I pause. Should I crop a bit, should I move her face a little higher up in the
frame? No, it is good where it is. The line of her eyes crosses just about
two-thirds the way up. The direction of her smile leans just enough to one
side.
I take the focusing scope, bend close to the projected image, and one
hand awkwardly held above my head, twist the ring again until I can
clearly see the grain of the negative. To do this I have to push my glasses
up onto my forehead. This part is always a strain on my eyes. Yet there is
something relevant to it, something relevant about the fact that the image
appears in focus, but actually may be still slightly out. And after having
finally set the image, having sharpened the grain, it does in fact look a
little better.
Everything is properly positioned. Glancing again at her face, I turn out
the lamp of the lens. I open the pack of photographic paper and place the
shiny, white sheet carefully against the edges of the measuring frame.
The dial is set for fifteen seconds.

This afternoon I will make one test and then leave it overnight to dry.
At six I have an appointment. I still need to eat and take a shower.

My hand reaches out and pushes the button. There is the sudden flare
of the bulb. The switch ticks back the seconds. I take a deep breath,
straighten my back, put one hand to my neck. It crosses my mind that it is
too hot to be working. Then the light in the lens dies.

There is the day she met Anton in Dresden. It was shortly after the wall
came down. She was on the tram, on her way from work. It was busy. Her
feet were hurting. Her toes seemed to bunch against the side of her

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shoes, the skin on her instep was blotchy and her veins were swollen.
Turning her head, shaking her hair back from her face, she noticed him.
He was tall and a little awkward. His eyes were blue, a sort of salty, sea
blue, and his skin was fair, just like hers. Standing next to her in the bus,
his hand grasping the metal bar, he seemed a little exotic. He wore an
open neck shirt with a sort of light print pattern. There was a small
polyester backpack over his shoulder.
She was curious and found him attractive. She looked and looked. He
only glanced back. As she stepped out they bumped and she nearly
dropped her shoulder-bag. He did not notice. Her sore feet stood on the
tram halt in the middle of the street and she was about to walk away
when she heard him say something. He was pulling a crumpled map out of
the rucksack. His German was halting. “Bitte, bitte, meine Frau. Aah...wie
komme ich...” He pointed to a park on the map. Taking it from him, she
answered, ” Fahren sie bis zur zweiten kreuzung”. She looked into his
eyes. He did not seem to understand and looked puzzled. Suddenly the
idea came to her. He pointed, hesitated, raised his shoulders and looked
questioningly at her. Touching him gently on the arm, she indicated they
should cross the street.
“Woher kommen Sie?", she asked him.
“Niederlande,” he replied.

I let the paper slide into the developer, tip the tray and watch the liquid
run back and forth over the white surface. To my left the hands of the
clock tick away. Steadily, making sure my movements are even and
regular, I concentrate on the seventy seconds to go.

She remembers them walking along the pavement that summer’s day.
The sun shone against the side of the buildings and the air was close and
thick. There was sweat under her arms and she felt her heart had
tightened in her chest, had become suddenly in some way bigger. What
was she doing? Why was she helping a total stranger in this way? He was
strolling along beside her, smiling.

The image begins to form. The corners, the faint shadows, the ghost of

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her face, come into existence. At this point I am often tempted to hurry,
often tempted to whip the paper out and bring it to the safety light. This,
for me, is one of the most magical moments of my work. What would it be
like, if under a microscope; I could watch the emulsion revealing its
secret? This is the moment when the mystery is confirmed. It is as
interesting as the final image. The final image is what others will see, the
final image is to be viewed. This is the process. The light has travelled
through the lens to the film, has travelled through the film to the paper. At
this moment, the light is recovered. The light reforms itself, yet becomes
something else. It is as near to having light in your hand as you can get:
light in a small package.

Sometimes she thinks about her past: generally late at night. She
wakes and feels her mouth dry then looks at Anton beside her. He is
nearly always turned, his back to her stomach, his arms thrown out in
front of him. Sometimes she kisses him in the nape of his neck. He sighs,
turns over but drifts back to sleep. He rarely wakes.
Where would she be if she were not here? What would she be doing
had she stayed in Dresden?
If the weather is warm she likes to get up and walk around the room.
She likes to stand by the window, naked, feeling her body, smooth and
warm. In the faint glow from the streetlamps, embraced by the shadows
of the sleeping apartment, she stands and looks through the thin, white
gauze of the curtains. Sometimes she lets her hand fall and touches
herself between her legs. Her other hand caresses her breasts and she
curls the tip of her tongue over her lips. Then she thinks of Dieter.

I have left the paper an extra fifteen seconds. It will harden the
contrast. Finding some tongs, I prepare to move it to the next stage.
The ribbed edges grasp a corner, lift the wet, white sheet free. After
holding it over the tray a couple of seconds, letting the excess liquid run
off, I drop it with a soft splash into the Stop Bath.

It is mainly her daughter she worries about. They have lived here
nearly nine years. When they first arrived, Inge was still too young for

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school. Now she goes every day. She has piano lessons and goes to play
basketball in the afternoons.
Language was the first problem. Anton’s German did not get better.
She went to classes. Two evenings a week she walked to the school. She
found Dutch difficult. It was awkward. At times she wondered if she would
ever learn to speak it.
When she discovered her own education would not be recognised, she
was disappointed. She considered taking some courses but Anton thought
it better she tried to find work. Gradually she realised a part of her would
always be a foreigner. This was her situation. This was the fact around
which she would have to build her life. Eventually it became a strength.
She told herself she liked living with Anton. She was very much in love
with him. Whenever doubts arose she pushed them aside.
The day she met him in Dresden he had lost his way, literally. She felt
lost too, felt confused with Dieter. Her life there seemed predictable. She
was straining, wanting to be freer. Anton seemed to embody that
freedom.
When she walked with him that afternoon she felt herself become
lighter, felt herself to be daring. It was not something she would have ever
imagined herself doing. All her life she had lived close to her family. Yet
this closeness was often forced. Underneath there were tensions,
hostilities. Feelings were rarely expressed.
Her father was a stern man. He ruled the family strictly. He laid down
the law; insisted on arbitrary rules. Yet often he neglected his own
responsibilities. She still remembers the night he came home drunk, the
sour smell of beer on his breath, his eyes glazed under his sandy hair, his
speech difficult to understand. She sees it.
She stands beneath the bare kitchen light. Her hands clasp a plate. She
stares at him. He looks at her for a moment and then smiles. “Ach, meine
schönheit,” he whispers hoarsely. Clumsily stepping around the table, he
fixes a strange gaze on her. “Meine schönheit, meine schönheit.”
Something makes her tense. Something about him makes her afraid. She
takes a step back. He stands between her and the table. His eyes frozen,
glasslike, his tongue runs over his lips. Then his arms reach out. She drops
the plate with a crash. Her voice sticks in her throat. Quickly moving to his
left, she stubs her toe on a piece of broken plate. She is aware her voice,
in what seems a whisper, is pleading, “nein, nein, bitte wegehen.” It never
happened again. The next day he sullenly ignored her.

At first she struggled to understand Anton. He was so different from


Dieter. Dieter was so engaged, so fervent about everything. Sometimes
she felt there were really more important things in his life than her, than
Inge. Much of his time was spent in the University at Leipzig. Often he was
in the thick of things. He was excited about the changes occurring around
them, talked about the chance for real freedom. He even went to Berlin to
see the evidence for himself.

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She listened to Anton that afternoon as he spoke. She noticed how he
phrased his sentences, noticed he did not always understand her replies.
Sometimes he did not even seem to be paying attention.
His body was tense and hesitant, as if it were not really very sure of
itself. She found this attractive. It mixed it with his foreignness. What he
needed was her. For these few short moments she felt like another sort of
woman, like the sort of woman she always imagined existing in a freedom
she had never known. She felt herself to be more than just a figure in the
background. Here, she would bring him to quietness. She would teach him
to listen. He would change before her eyes and then she would be free of
her frustration, her boredom, she would be free of her ineffectiveness.
In the following weeks she attempted to put Dieter from her mind. She
did not want to think of him. He would still have his dreams. In fact now
he would have more time for his dreams. Eventually he would forget her.
Perhaps he would miss Inge, but there was little she could do. She
convinced herself he thought of her as only an accessory to his life. If she
stayed, she would become just like her mother: her mother who had lived
her life in the image of the good Communist woman. Who was now
resigned, becoming old, bitter and somewhat reactionary. If she stayed
her life would only be difficult. It would always be uphill. She would slip
the noose, would take Inge and leave. If Anton agreed that was.

Moving the print from the Stop-Bath to the Fix, I reach over and rinse
my hands under the tap. The print can sit there indefinitely. The chemical
it will do no harm.
Leaving the light off, I go out into the narrow hallway. I lean up against
the window and take a packet of cigarettes from my shirt pocket. My eyes
fall onto the canal outside, down onto the sunny street.

Slowly it has fallen into decline with Anton. She feels herself to be
wilting, feels herself go over the ground she was afraid she would go over
with Dieter. Yet it is different. With Dieter there was the constraint of her
background. Dieter was so tied up with her city, her family, her home.
Was she unable to separate the two? Perhaps she threw the baby out with
the bathwater.
She knows now she hurt him. She knows he did not want her to go.
Now she understands how he felt at losing the chance to see his daughter
grow at close hand. He argued and argued with her, even pleaded with
her, begging her to think again, to give it a chance.

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It was all done within a week. Her job, her home, everything was swept
away. Looking back she herself was surprised at the speed with which she
acted, the finality with which she made the break. And it was easy. The
letter arrived from Anton; he said to come.
Did she really give it consideration? Did she realise the enormity of the
step she was taking? She was twenty-nine, Inge two. How could she have
seen the future? How could she have known that things would not turn out
as she imagined?
It is imagination she blames. She was naive, feels she is still naive. Yet
she keeps looking for something else, keeps looking for some escape.
Then she gets angry. Lately she has been gripped by moments of panic.
Perhaps this is all there is. Perhaps as she approaches her late-thirties, life
may have to be contemplated as in a way complete in its incompleteness.
She struggles hard to deny this. It is then she tells herself it is Inge she is
most concerned about.

I pull on the cigarette, exhale the smoke into the afternoon light. A
bicycle lazily crosses the street. The water of the canal is dappled in the
sunshine where it meets the bridge. My eyes follow its motion.

She likes to remember how it was. She likes to remember the better
times. There they are sitting on a terrace in the Vondel Park on a Sunday
afternoon. There they are walking through the forest. There is her
daughter’s first day at school: a late evening on the beach in Castricum.
There is the afternoon, when after her first ever real shopping spree, she
stood in the middle of the Dam and looked up dizzily through the flocks,
the circling pigeons, into the sky.
Occasionally, she takes out the photo album. Best of all is the picture
of all three of them laughing. It is taken on the pier in Scheveningen.

The cigarette is finished. I return to the darkroom and check everything


is closed. I pull the cord of the switch. Yawning, I run my hand through my
hair.
Now in the light the darkroom appears smaller. Somehow it always
seems larger in the dark, the blackness pressing in, giving the impression

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that the walls have moved out, that the space has expanded. The
landscape becomes marked by the safety light, the luminous glow of the
clock’s face, the burn of the lens; they sharpen the attention, determine
my movement.
I pull the plug of the enlarger, pick up my things and put them to one
side. The paper floats in the chemical. The small inconsistencies have
become apparent. There is a twist where it looks like a hair has remained
on the negative, or been caught in the lens.
Taking the tongs, I lift the image carefully over to the sink, open the
tap and rinse it off. From under the table I find an empty tray and placing
the print in it, fill it with water.
Again I glance at her face. It is as if with a photograph of someone, my
eyes have to come back and back, searching for some answer, for the
image to say something. I have learned to avoid this, learned to look
away, to think of what must be done next.
The push of the cascading water breaks the surface, moves the image
around. It appears now only in flashes, the face distorted in the ripples, in
the shifting water.

Someone comes into the apartment. She has been dozing. Sitting up
quickly, she feels a little dizzy. The book falls from her knee. The sun has
descended in the sky, has lost its brightness, become bronze and deeper.
Her face feels dry and sunburnt. The tip of her nose is red.
Footsteps sound from the hallway. She glances at her watch. It cannot
be Inge. Inge is supposed to be staying with a friend. It must be Anton.
The steps cross the short hallway to the bedroom.
“Anton,” she calls out. “Anton, is that you?”
There is no reply.
“Anton. Anton, It’s me Gitta. I’m out here leibling. I’m on the balcony.”
She leans forward in her chair, leans forward so she can see into the
kitchen, see down to the hallway. The leaves of a hanging plant dangle
limply in the heat. The refrigerator hums.
Suddenly a movement in the doorway startles her. He steps into the
light of the kitchen.
“Yes, what did you want?”
“Oh Anton! Nothing, nothing. Just to say I was here. I was.., I had fallen
asleep. I was lying in the sun.”
“Ok.”
He moves to walk away, then turns back.
“I’m going to the gym. I won’t be home till late.”
She sighs.
“Are we going to eat?”
“No. I’m going now.”

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She hears him in the bedroom, hears the door of the wardrobe close.
Then there are voices. He must be on the telephone. She strains, but
cannot make out what is being said. Who he is talking to?
Leaning back in her chair, she lets her hand fall to one side. The
cement of the balcony is hot. She stares questioningly into the emptiness
of the hallway.

I have left the print hanging to dry. The darkroom is empty but not
completely black. Earlier, before going out, I removed the cover from a
tiny skylight. There is a full moon in the sky. Its light falls across the face.
It catches the smile, the laugh lines around the mouth, the relaxing of the
eyes, the hint of something else. There is no movement: only the
simulation of the photograph.

She lies on the sofa in the living room. The light from the lamp throws
shadows across the floor. The window is open. From the street below,
voices, the rustle of the leaves on the tree by the wall, seep in. She takes
another sip from the glass, looks at the pages of the book. He has not
come back yet, will probably not be back till much later.
Earlier she went into the bedroom. Why she did this she does not know.
What she expected to find, she is not sure
She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the telephone. She was
upset. Searching the room for evidence, for anything that would give her a
clue, she found nothing: only a couple of men’s magazines hidden in the
bottom of a drawer. Curiously, cautiously, she opened them. She still does
not know what hurts the most. The thought that maybe there is someone
else, or the thought he gets more pleasure from the pictures than her.
Why has it become like this? Who is to blame? Is anyone to blame? She
cried. Perhaps this is just the way things are. There is nothing to be done.
Or perhaps she is most afraid of what has to be done.
She would like to confront him with her suspicions. Experience has
taught her he will evade an answer. He always steps around an issue,
makes an excuse, or walks away; tersely saying he sees no problem.
It is still warm. Her hand slips under the top of her blouse. Sighing, her
eyes stare into the ceiling. She thinks of the day, remembers the morning.
It was pleasant to be in the studio again. There was something
relaxing, reassuring about its atmosphere, some sense of continuity: Still
him, her photographer friend, how he has changed. He has become aloof,
distant, a little cynical. Standing in the doorway before she left, she

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wanted to say to him she had hoped he would come and drink coffee with
them in the cafe on the corner. Instead she asked how long it would take
before the photographs would be ready. Then she turned with Inge and
walked quickly to the tram halt. As she watched the tram twist its way
over the crossing, she remembered he had once shown her photographs
she had not liked. Suddenly, she wanted to see them again. She supposed
he no longer had them, wondered if now, they would seem any different
and if it would matter.

The half-empty bottle of rosé stands on the coffee table. There is just a
mouthful left in the glass now. On the wall, the clock ticks quietly. Putting
her book to the side, she leans up on her elbow. Her neck is stiff from the
angle at which she has been lying.
The door onto the balcony is still open. She will not close it tonight. She
will also leave the window in the bedroom, open.
Above the roofs of the apartments, the moon has risen. It softens
outlines, the contours of trees. The chair is still on the balcony where she
placed it against the railings. Below, the recreation area is empty. A light
breeze pulls at the leaves of the plant and the remains of a salad, a
half-cut loaf of bread, lie on the unit next to the sink.
On the bare, tiled kitchen floor, are the splintered pieces of a glass cup
she let fall earlier.

Copyright © Peter Millington. February 1996.

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