Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Paris, France
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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AUGUST 10, 2011 11:30AM

Fiction Wednesday: Upside-Down

Rate: 20 Flag

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 ….

____________________________________________________________________

  Upside-Down       

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?

 

nude

 

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Everyone's welcome to participate in Fiction Wednesday. If you feel inspired, why not give it a go?!
Oh My!!! I am such a fan of upsidedown things that this story and photo really amused me. What a picture!! I like how you made it all seem very real and possible.
I liked the happy ending. The historical background you give is very accurate. Most of the nudes were show girls or prostitutes. However, I think your fictional account is very accurate too. R
zanelle- I'm glad you liked the story - and the photo! I hope that whatever was the actual story behind it, it ended happily.

Trudge- Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you like how I ended it. As for the historical accuracy comment, I've just shortened the intro, and that part is now taken out....But thank you.
Btw, how was she able to hold up the black cards while maintaing that position? ; ) I couldn't resist.
Trudge, they must have glued them to her :-)
Hilarious photo!!
I think you wove a fabulous tale around the fabulous tail...
...oh, couldn't resist.
(and it might be a fabulous tail, hard to tell really : ))
I can't help thinking of Conrad's "The Secret Agent" and wondering if it was this sort of silliness that Verloc was selling. heh
Are you saying this isn't the normal way to use a chair?

I like the story. It's a good characterization of the times.
Alysa's blog is NSFW. And arse-over-teakettle.

Oh dear, oh dear, what IS this world coming to?
I’ll call her Lysistrata, in honor of the bawdy anti-war comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, in which Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. Modern adaptations of the play are often feminist and/or pacifist in their aim, but the original play was neither particularly feminist nor unreservedly pacifist. The same thing is happening in this photograph. The interplay between photographer and model seems to demonstrate empathy with the female condition, yet at the same is pornography intended to reinforce sexual stereotyping of women as irrational creatures and sexual objects. Certainly, the photographer is not actually advocating real political power for women. At the same time the photograph itself is unable to restrain Lysistrata’s gutsiness.
loved this and reminded me of my naughty french postcards from 1920 I once had..
HUGGGGGGGGGGGGG
An interesting story and a delightful story to go with it. The ending was quite a surprise.
Oops. I meant to write "an interesting photo and delightful story." Just got home from work. Still stupid.
A really good story with a very human feel, very nice.
I just love artful nudes, especially those of the vintage variety. Pornography is so commonplace these days, a multi-billion dollar industry in a puritanical society...go figure. In your lady's day, only the very daring and/or desperate sort could have done such a thing. Interesting stuff.
The prompt was the perfect jumping off point for your colorful imagination to take flight, and bring us this fanciful, delightful story - and I enjoyed it very much. Thank you, Alysa!

♥R
Now this, dear friend, is how you stretch the traditional forms
and make yourself insigned.
Make an emblem of your words to say: this is me writing this,
and what i have to say is indeed
meant to be said,
from somewhere, from me, from out there, from in there,

this is a miracle, a short story based on reality
and continuing the chain of events that led up to this pose.


"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 …."

these are the words of firm traditionalist re. the language,
but a mighty thought, a meme as they call em,
an idea,
is carried on. on.

you have achieved a historical incident, minor, sure, but
not to the soul you pulled out
of your collection of old folks.

dylan: "pullin these long dead souls out of their graves..."
The story reminds me that no matter how modern we think we are -- in our mores and our relationships -- that other generations were there first! Excellent. Rated.
Hahahaha. Delightful.
I loved this! A new side to you.
I hope Harry's Ghost doesn't know something more than the rest of us! Fantastic tale, and use of the prompt.
I must say you have taken this story down to the bare essentials.
R
Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m glad you enjoyed this..and that it’s still here. I was so scared of posting the photo, even though it’s censored….

Just Thinking – I think her backside is rather nice. Also, surprisingly the front part seems to be shaved, which is very unusual for real people in photos from that time. It might just be that she doesn’t have a lot of hair (apparently, Kiki de Montparnasse, muse of many artists in 1920’s and ‘30’s Paris was like this).

jramelle – Thank you for reading, and I’m so glad you liked it!

Seth – I don’t know “The Secret Agent”…will have to look that up. If it involves naked people sitting upside-down on chairs, I’ll probably enjoy it. :- )

Stim – Uh…well….hey, whatever works for you, chair-wise : - )

steve – I am so sorry. Though I have to admit…I’m kind of proud to have one NSFW blog…I feel like a rebel! It won’t happen again, though…I don’t think….

Mark – I really enjoyed reading your analysis. Women’s rights in the 19th century is a very complex issue. I felt in this photo that at least there was a sense of humor involved, and it seemed that the model wasn’t an “innocent victim”, as, for example, many other subjects of erotic photography from this time were (i.e., girl with skirt and petticoats “accidentally” caught on something, revealing naked lower torso, etc.). In reality, I imagine this woman was probably a dancer or prostitute – and though these jobs did not lead to perfect lives, in many ways, women of this social class were freer from moral constraints and often mingled freely with men – not only for sex, but also for amusement. You can take the example of several famous prostitutes/circus performers/dancers who became muses of artists – and, in some cases (Kiki de Montparnasse, Suzanne Valadon), respected artists themselves. There was no way for a woman at the time to be treated as a complete equal to men, of course, but this is one of the ways of coming close. I also feel that laughter can transcend – even momentarily – that divide. But of course I also realize that this might have been an image that said to many contemporaries, “Ah, women are crazy and stupid!” I find it hard to feel that way, but those were different times, of course.

Linda – Once again I am amazed at how much we have in common! What happened to the postcards?

Eva – Thanks for reading, and you are never stupid! I appreciate what you wrote.

Macco – Thanks for reading and for your kind words, and and I am honored to have shocked you TWICE in so little time!

DH – Thank you for reading, and I’m so glad you enjoyed this.

BB – Thanks for reading and I love your insight. I agree – it wasn’t just any woman who could or would have participated in these photos, which makes them all the more intriguing….

Fusun – Thank you! I’m glad you liked the prompt idea and what I did with it.

James – Thank you for reading. I think that because I’ll probably never transcend traditional forms of writing, I have to try extra hard to do go beyond them in other ways. I’m glad you think I did so here, although I still don’t think it’s gone far enough.

Bellemeade –Yess! That’s so much how I feel when I look at antique photos, be they with dressed people or undressed people. There are just some things that are a part of human nature.

Matt – Glad you enjoyed it!

Harry’s – Thanks for reading. Yes, I have this thing about nude photos – not a fetish or anything that turns me on, but they just fascinate and intrigue me. A lot of it involves what BB wrote in her comment, as well as just seeing other people as we don’t get to see them every day. But I don’t know that I’ll do anymore “naughty” posts in the near future… : - )

Out on a limb- Haha! I love how you always have a little joke in your comments. As for what you said about this being the bare essentials, it’s funny you noticed that. I originally intended to use this as a short piece of backstory for a character in a novel I was working on. The novel was only in its first draft, so a lot that I’d written hadn’t been padded out. In this case, I just wanted to get the basic details down, since it wasn’t an essential scene or memory to vividly describe. When this prompt came up for FW, I decided to adapt it here, but I didn’t have a lot of time yesterday to really work and fill in details, so I decided to post it as-is. It’s sort of an incomplete work, but I hope the main idea and message still came across all right.
Now that's what I call a crotch shot!!! Hahaha! What a great story. I wonder what happened to the model in the photograph???
As long as it was all compiled and released through a respected art publisher and the subject is treated tastefully, I guess it is okay, Alysa.

Wish I had time to write more but I have a video from pornhub going in the other browser and we are finally getting to the action.
Susie - I'm glad you enjoyed this. Yes, I very much wonder, too. I hope whatever happened to her, she lived a life filled with as much laughter and joy as I feel in this picture.

Brassawe - Thanks for reading, and I think you should write a story about that video! :-)
This is my favorite story this week, for sure. Completely believable as a charming, yes, charming memoir, with many insights (Yes! Boredom is a kind of Hunger!).

Could easily make a movie as good as Eat, Pray, Love.

I did not see the end coming (no pun, please), but it too redeemed with charm the initially sad and sordid possibilities of her situation. It just goes to show you, you never know...

Very R
"Oh I could never do something like THAT!..... Wow, you're boring at it, let me show you how to do it right!"

I love that photo, she put a lot of personality into it. NO wonder the photographer fell in love with her. =o) Beats dusting, bedmaking and sewing.

Great story, Alysa.

rated