Exercising the craft—May 6, 2013

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: You get back to your studio to develop pictures from the hour you just spent in the park. All of the pictures turn out well, except for a select few. In six photographs, there is a man in the frame. Something seems slightly off, and rather strange about each picture. Who is he and what is weird about the photographs?

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts/the-man-in-the-park

I pressed the camera straps around my neck close to my chest with one hand to keep my prized possession from banging against me.  In the other hand I carried the last of the chemicals I needed to develop the pictures in my dark room.  Despite the advancement in technology and the fact that I owned two digital cameras, when I wanted to do some serious work I always pulled out my old film camera.  It had gotten harder to find inexpensive places in the city to develop film.  Besides, I liked how involved I felt with my art when I developed my pictures myself.

The weather had been exceptional today, and I’d seen the usual mix of young people, couples, and tourists.  Despite the fact that we had no long weekend in sight until Memorial Day, people always managed to make their way to Central Park in the middle of the day.  I guess I couldn’t blame them.  It certainly held a certain magical quality, especially through my camera lens.

I pulled my camera off my neck, placed it carefully in its place on its table, then prepared my trays with the chemicals.  The entire routine felt so familiar, I let my mind wander as I took out the photo paper and the photo tongs I would use to dip the paper into the developing fluids.

My dad had bought me my first camera.  He’d taught me everything I knew about taking pictures, about framing my intended subject and making sure the lighting did full justice to my chosen frame.  But he also taught me about bringing the soul of a picture to life.  He taught me look for what made the heart beat in a picture, a two-dimensional depiction that should bring to mind three-dimensional emotions, he’d said.

Whenever I developed pictures I thought of him.  Oh, how I missed him.  It seemed like the older I got the more I missed him.

I ran the film through the special machine that would superimpose the images I’d caught onto the photo paper.  Carefully I used the tongs to pick up the paper from the corner and began washing it through the three trays of developing fluid.  When I pulled the picture out of the third tray, I let it drip for a few moments before hanging the pictures on the laundry line at the far end of the darkroom.

I had a full roll of 36 and the rhythm of developing the pictures felt so soothing that I didn’t really pay attention to the images until about the tenth or eleventh shot.  I recognized most of the pictures as the images resting in my memory, but several of them contained something I knew I hadn’t shot that afternoon.  I stared at a few of the finished pictures to confirm my suspicions, and suddenly I couldn’t develop the rest of the roll fast enough.

When I hung the last picture to dry, I went to the end of the line and began examining the photos.  Some of them seemed normal enough, but six of them certainly didn’t match what I’d done that afternoon.  They all had the same thing in common: a man stood in various poses in these six photos.

As soon as I thought it safe enough to handle the pictures with my own hands, I took down the six with the man and left the others to dry.  I left the darkroom, and once I’d shut its door firmly behind me I left the dark hallway and came into the kitchen to look more closely at the pictures.

No mistaking it: I saw the same man standing at the end of all of them.  In each photo my original shot started out vibrant enough from the left and progressed toward the middle of the 8×10 paper where it began to fade.  About two-thirds of the way across the paper my photo disappeared completely and the man appeared in what looked like the melding of two photographs in Photoshop or some other software.  I’d done it myself dozens of times when I wanted to play with the modern advantages of photography.  But I certainly hadn’t done it now.  Nonetheless the man’s photo faded from light to full resolution to the right-hand side of the picture.

For a few minutes I couldn’t take my eyes off just his face.  I knew I’d seen him before.  But where?  And in what context?

Finally I managed to look at the rest of him, and I realized that his clothes placed him in some other decade.  The 1970s, maybe.  The bell bottoms, turtleneck, and leather jacket that came to his thigh somehow didn’t look like someone trying to capture the retro look.

But he didn’t wear the same clothes in all six pictures, and I realized that the photos had been taken in different seasons.  The foliage around him also confirmed the passing of seasons, and his expression conveyed the lightness of spring, the shivers of winter, the oppressive heat of summer, and the crispness of fall.  In all of the photos he smiled at the photographer, although his smile became more carefree in the photos of moderate weather.

Who was this man?  He looked like someone from my parents’ era, like someone who might have gone to college with—

Suddenly the photos changed.  In each photo the man now held a small placard, although the rest of the photo—the seasons, the clothes, his smile—never changed.  It took me a moment to reorganize the photos so that the words made sense.

“Will you be my wife, Rachel?”

My heart felt like it had stopped for a few beats.  Rachel.  My mother’s name.  But this man wasn’t my father.  So who was he?  And had he really proposed this way to my mother?

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