This week’s Fiction Wednesday prompt was to write a story based on a photograph, especially, at the request of several FW regulars, one of the photos in my collection of antique images. I’m so honored and delighted that fellow FW writers felt inspired by my collection. I have stories for each of the photos I own, but when I sat down to write one of them out, it felt weird. These stories, I guess, are sort of like a secret between me and the images, if that makes any sense.
But there is one old photo in a book I have, that's made such an impression on me, I wrote a story about it a few months ago. I’m going to share that story – and that image here. The story comes from part of an abandoned novel I was working on. The picture comes from the book 1000 Nudes, and it’s pornographic.
If you’re at work or around people who are easily offended/young children, be careful. I’ve censored out the most graphic elements, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
1000 Nudes, compiled and released through respected art publisher Taschen, contains nude photographs that date from the first hundred years of photography, 1839 to 1939. Although a lot of the pictures were clearly intended to be sold as pornography, a good amount are also aesthetic artistic experiments, movement studies for painters, or even scientific and biological references. The book was published as a social study, to show how our perception of what is erotic has changed, evolved, or stayed the same, and the subject is treated tastefully. The book is interspersed with fascinating academic essays.
The anonymous image I'm writing about was taken in 1850. Ever since I first saw it, I've wondered how and why this unusual picture came about. There seems to be such a spirit of fun to it, and daring, an ease with one’s body, and a sense of power – you may or may not agree with me, but I see it as the triumph of a woman over objectification, by laughter. I couldn’t help inventing a story about it ….
Twenty years ago, I was working as a maid here in Paris. After the ’48 Revolution, life had calmed down, and I felt ready to continue my career and habitudes indefinitely. But soon, things were all to be turned on their head.
The family I worked for knew just as much as I did what the eldest son, Edouard, was up to - which is to say, nothing. Within a few years, his gambling debts forced them to sell their home and leave the city. I wanted to go with them, but they told me it was no use; with what money was left to them, they could barely feed and clothe themselves, and couldn’t afford to keep any servants. And so, I was let go.
Though I tried to find work, I had no luck. It seemed no one needed a simple maid. As winter set in, I began to grow desperate.
Claudine was maid to the family that had been my family’s neighbors. Over the years, we’d become friends. One afternoon while out shopping for the family’s supper, she called on me in the room I'd taken in a shabby but respectable boarding house. She didn’t exclaim that it was as cold as the street outside; she knew I had no means to heat it. Instead, she sat down and told me in a low voice about how she sometimes earned a little more money than her wages.
“There is a photographer who will pay you a few sous to take your picture,” she said.
Well, I thought that seemed like a very easy way to make money. But then she explained the catch – because you know, there is always one of those, especially when currency is involved. And in this case the catch was, you had to take off your clothes.
At first I thought Claudine was joking. I’d heard rumors of such things, of course, but those were the doings of whores and dancers, not someone living an ordinary life. But Claudine assured me this wasn’t a joke. And then I thought I’d never do such a thing, but you know how hunger is. So, finally, I agreed to go.
The photographer’s studio was on the Grands Boulevards – it still is, in fact, though now a different photographer works there. The front room was for ordinary portraits. But when I arrived with Claudine, he recognized her and understood what we were there for, and invited us to follow him into a small, locked chamber in the back.
The room didn’t look sinister, but rather like a real bedroom, with a large, unmade bed in its center, and several tables, chairs, and a prie-dieu in a corner.
That day, Claudine wanted to make a few sous, too, so she went behind a dressing screen and came out only in her underclothes. I felt shocked and looked away, but the photographer seemed quite unmoved, and merely told her to sit down in one of the chairs. Then, just as calmly, he directed her to make some poses that I won’t mention here.
Claudine must have done what he said from the start, but I didn’t look at first. I’d never seen a woman in underclothes besides the mistress I used to serve, and myself in the looking glass. But time passed and I confess my shock died down to boredom – they took so many pictures. And boredom became curiosity, and so I looked.
Claudine with her angelic face was doing pose after pose. I might have been embarrassed, but her own lack of shame put me at ease. By the look of it, she was as bored as I’d been; it was all rather dull, positioning yourself a certain way and having to wait for the exposure.
What happened next may seem unbelievable. I could blame my lack of nourishment, and say it had put me in a delirious state. But really, I suppose you could say boredom can be as powerful an influence as hunger, at least for me. I’d never been so inactive for so long; I was used to cleaning up after people, and being called upon to do errands, and at night I would stay awake mending. But since I’d lost my employment, well, what had I really to do? And now I couldn’t even take my leave and stroll somewhere.
When Claudine was finished, the photographer turned to me. I shrugged my shoulders and went behind the dressing screen. I got out of my clothes, as at ease as I would have been in my own bedchamber. Then I emerged, without any sort of covering, for judging from what I'd just seen, such things seemed rather beside the point. Approaching the chair, I thought of how dull Claudine’s poses had been, and then inspiration took me. With a laugh, I positioned myself in it upside-down, just to have some fun. Suddenly, there was another laugh, a pleasant sound – when I peered up from the seat cushion, I saw the photographer chuckling, with his camera beside him like a steady horse.
“Can you stay like that for a while?” he asked, when he’d caught his breath.
“I can,” I tried to nod.
“Well,” Claudine, I think, was a bit put out, “who’s going to want such a photograph as that?”
That made the two of us laugh even harder.
But in fact, she seemed to have been right; the photographer gave me the photograph, an image on a metal plate, along with a few coins.
“Thank you,” he said to me.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Farewell,” I added as Claudine and I picked up our shawls. This money would hopefully get me through until I found another family to work for.
It all turned out quite differently than I'd expected, though. I had my money, I had my plans. But from the moment we’d started laughing together, the photographer and I had fallen in love.
We were married not long after. I brought children into this world, and photographs. Never photographs of myself, I mean, not in that way – but family portraits and photographs of young brides and veterans of bygone wars and revolutions. François, my husband, never thought like some that photography was a man’s domain. We worked side by side.
That upside-down photograph we kept – how could you throw away an object that means so much? Now I am a dull, respectable widow, but still I keep it. I do wonder what will happen to it, though, when I die?