Notes on Lee Miller (Excerpt)
35. The night before I left, you said I had to choose. "You're better at this than me," you said. "I don't even know what you mean by that," I said. "Yes, you do," you said. You put your hands in your pockets, creased denim flecked in paint. You had taught me the colors. You carried them on your arms, from wrist to elbow. Burnt sienna. Yellow ochre. Cadmium red. Colors I loved but would never use. I was already comfortable in the space between black and white, in the burned-in corners of a silver gelatin print. But those flecks of color looked good on you. "We do the same thing," you said. "And you're better at it than I am." Your tone suggested that an apology might follow, that I would be the one to provide it. "We don't do the same thing," I said.
36. Because I have a tendency to take photographs with windows in the corners, I have to learn how to dodge and burn earlier than the other students in my class. Left untouched, the image will fade into its white border. In the darkroom, I move two overlapping pieces of middle gray card back and forth above the contact paper like the wings of some giant moth. The grains in the image ignite, moving light to its right place. It isn't easy, but this is how brightness is accentuated, darkness too. When I do this, I take a photograph and alter it so that it no longer matches its thumbnail twin on my contact sheet, the box I marked with an X in white pencil as worth the struggle of growth. This is how I heal my mistakes.
37. "You were always my template," you once said, as if I were an apple in a still life, a static object you'd need to measure against your thumb, asking to be shaded, challenging you to match my colors. Outside of a darkroom, template can be a frightening word. Perhaps this is why I didn't say anything. "What are you thinking?" you asked. The song we were listening to had ended, the B-side reduced to silence punctuated by occasional pops as the needle moved over scratches on the record. I was thinking of Vertigo. Of Pygmalion. Of Man Ray and Lee Miller. Of generations of misunderstood women and the frustrated men who learned to worship them before listening. I was looking at you, knowing that eventually, I would have to leave. I was memorizing the way your eyes looked behind glasses, your mussed hair. I realize now that in that moment, I had already started to say good-bye. I made an excuse about needing to change the record. "It'll do it automatically," you said. "It'll just take a second," I said.
38. Some potential health hazards caused by exposure to darkroom chemicals include burns, difficulty breathing, lightheadedness, and severe allergic reactions. I ruin several shirts with chemical splashes before learning that fixer doesn't stain visibly at first, only binds its silhouette to fabric, dark and indelible, after a cycle through the wash. My clothing is stained with the copper-colored ghosts of hours spent in complete darkness. My hands are cracked with effort and chalked with chemical residue. But I have never gotten dizzy.
39. Sitting on a grassy bank of the Seine, Jo and I listen to Tom Waits on a shared set of tiny headphones strung like a wishbone between our ears. She chain-smokes while I pick at dandelions. We look across the river at industrial Clichy. We came to the suburbs to photograph a historic pet cemetery, and instead found this quiet space beside the river. It'll take an hour to get back into Paris, and it's warm out, so we aren't going anywhere until it gets dark out. We talk about getting a studio space in Brooklyn. We talk about western Massachusetts, about the people we miss at home. "I love that 'Tu me manques' doesn't mean 'I miss you,' " she says. "No," I say. "It's more like, 'You make me miss you.' " "For once, something makes more sense in French." Then Tom Waits sings, "I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you," and I go silent. "You know," says Jo. "It's okay that you loved him, even if it didn't work out."
40. In the darkroom, I slide the fiber paper out from the enlarger and into the tray of developer emulsion-side up. I turn on the timer for one minute and gently lift the tray up and down so the chemicals cover the sheet evenly. I watch as an image blooms slowly out of nothing, visible even in this darkness, filling the sheet up to its white border. I have done this hundreds of times before and it is always like witnessing a miracle. I lift the image out of the tray with a pair of tongs, and slide it into a new tray of stop bath solution, then into the fixer. To photograph something is to see it clearly. But to create an image from what was seen is the closest I will ever get to alchemy.
41. In April, winter finally loosens its grip, and Jo and I return to the Centre Pompidou. The surrealists have now been gone for months, replaced by a Lucian Freud retrospective. We stand transfixed in front of angular elbows and landscapes made impossibly out of heavy bodies in yellow ochre and burnt sienna. The only real landscape is a snowy junkyard view from the artist's studio. The green leaves of a potted plant are activated as a jungle. We are still wearing a layer of coldness from the street outside, but we feel warmed. We are animals emerging from hibernation. We are entire ecosystems. We are mountains in repose. Is it cruel to say that this was the beginning of not missing you anymore?
42. I peel the finished print from the tray with my fingers. I don't notice the sharp, clean smell of the chemicals anymore. I'm not tired, either. Sometime after 3 a.m., I stopped counting the hours. I sensed my body beginning to wake up again. I place my print emulsion-side down on the rack to dry. I wash my hands, dry them on my jeans, lift one of the blinds. The sun is just beginning to rise. The folds of my knuckles are cracked white and dry. My eyes burn with ghost images of last night's prints, superimposed across my field of vision, over slender trees, the empty street. This is what it is to be alive. Daylight. I watch as the leaves catch it, engraving millions of yellow reflections into pavement, flinging them across orderly green shutters like flecks on the edge of a filmstrip. Solarizations. No one else is awake yet. I am the last one to leave the studio. I turn the lights off on my way out.
43. Maybe her leaving had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with her. That she went where she needed to go in order to be taken seriously as an artist cannot be questioned. Nor can it be ignored. And maybe that was never about him. Maybe it had nothing to do with him.
44. When art historians talk about Lee Miller, they almost always end with her face. As in, "With her youthful, patrician beauty, and her soulful, saucy personality, Lee Miller swiftly ascended from apprentice/model to lover/muse for Man Ray." Five years earlier, not content with simply being photographed, she had recommitted herself to art from the other side of a camera. "I would rather take a picture than be one," was how she explained it to one journalist.
45. But I will end at the beginning. When Lee Miller is ten years old, she watches a film for the first time at the Poughkeepsie Opera House. Sarah Bernhard is the opening act. The curtain falls, then lifts again not on an elegant performed death, but on frames moving through a projector, single images pushed into narrative by their multitudes. She has never seen anything like it. Years later, this is how she will recount it: "The 'Motion Picture' was a thrill-packed reel of a spark-shedding locomotive dashing through tunnels and over trestles. The hero was the intrepid cameraman himself who wore his cap backwards, and was paid 'danger-money.' On a curve across a chasm, the head of the train glared at its own tail...the speed was dizzy, nothing whatever stayed still and I pulled eight dollars worth of fringe from the rail of our loge, in my whooping, joyful frenzy."
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