She demanded an explanation. At the photographer’s request, she stood next to him and smiled at the camera until it flashed but she was not in the photo. The photographer was adamant that something was wrong with her not his camera. He took another photograph with her holding a stuffed bear. Then he took her by the arm — as if incompetent — and showed her the bear floating in the center in the photo with no one holding it. She said that she needed passport photos and refused to believe that she couldn’t be photographed. He asked her to leave.
She later claimed that she did leave the studio with photos. She got her new passport and lived abroad for many years. The story, she said, was a joke among friends that had become apocryphal as interest grew in other extant photos.
We should start with the photograph that was included in the promotional materials for the award ceremony. This often-used photo is a handsome shot with a hank of lustrous hair slightly unbalancing the frame, as if the hair were heavier than her head. Otherwise, her sensual gaze is intelligent and we are confident that if she began talking, laconically or on one of the occasions where she could not stop talking, her intelligence and wit would be apparent to those who followed her work and awarded her the prize.
After the “lecture photo” the representation of her life became erratic, chronology and place are uncertain. It started with an early photo that was an excuse or an event to present the image as if it were in a constant state of flux, unrecognizable and nonpersonal. One commentator has compared the image to that of a school project where students glue beans on a piece of construction paper. In online discussions, words such as aggregate, granulate, pixilated and pointillistic have been used to argue in turgid prose that small parts have a relation to the whole.
Her hair changed dramatically over the years, as if she wanted to make it the subject. In some of the photos there are as many as three hanks of hair. The side hanks resembled the states of Florida and California, long, not contiguous and yet clearly mapped. The top hank has the quality of a pompadour that had lost its binding agent and has succumbed to a modest combover. In her thinking, the combover conflated with the burnt-over, like the cool exhaustion of a lava bed.
The “lecture” photo is often compared to another photo, one that was unintentionally heroic. Her pose is that of a figure in a mural depicting a culture’s foundational scenes, as often seen in ethnic restaurants. Standing by the rail of a balcony with crudely turned balusters, she is forced to lean precariously under a pressed tin ceiling. She looks as if she has been working in one of the upstairs rooms and has stepped out to call to someone below. Her bodice has a revealing and exaggerated bulge. It may have been a photo taking on vacation.
In another bodice photo, she is seated with a stiff mustache attached to her upper lip. She holds a gun and appears to be happy with the silly role change. The viewer could imagine that she has just shot a whisky bottle off the end of the bar to get everyone’s attention and will make a statement when the saloon is quiet.
The most talked-about photo is of her waving the adolescent finger. This “gesture” series resembles “selfies” but are thought to have been taken before phones had cameras. The other gestures include the peace sign, thumbs up, pinkie and index finger and the much-argued pinkie and thumb — hook ‘em horns. In all of the photos she maintains the insouciant “selfie” expression that seems to be changing into a sneer. Her hair is oiled, combed back and tied tightly. She wears the same striped sweater in all the photos.
In what are thought to be the photos of old age, she looks tired, if not distraught. She doesn’t seem to have the will to turn away from the camera. In one she appears to have a speech bubble or liquid mass moving slowly out of her mouth. She is explaining something for an extended period of time and is tiring of the subject that is retreating — “recalled” — and condensing in an area around her mouth. People around her have time to observe, even monitor the liquid mass, yet still step away. It has been said that it is the making of a death mask gone bad.
The “pigtail” or obituary photograph is the most controversial, yet it has been authenticated by friends at the time of death. The photo was published with an appreciation in a small arts magazine by someone who claimed to have known her in her last years, yet many of the biographical details are in dispute. She never lived in Germany.
The famous head of hair is twisted into whisk-like pigtails sticking out the sides of her head, as if the mortician were caught having fun. She is smiling with a ghost vitality that has lead many to believe that she rose to the occasion and participated in one last hair joke.
David Gilbert’s stories have been published in New World Writing, Blip, Mississippi Review Online, First Intensity, In Posse and other magazines. He has two books of fiction: Five Happiness and I Shot the Hairdresser. He currently works as a teacher’s aide in an elementary school.