"Pick a chair," I said, and chose a lens for my camera.
He glanced between the simple, high stool, the plush piano bench, and the ornate armchair. Rubbing at his scalp, shaved down to short, prickly growth due to his recent service in the forces, he settled for the stool. I waved to my assistant, who shifted the other two out of the path of the camera.
The setting was a tiny English establishment just outside of London, a former teahouse with at least a hundred years of history soaked into its dark walls. It was difficult getting the equipment for the shoot up those steep, rickety stairs, made as they were for smaller, shorter people. But the strenuous set-up and the steep price for renting the room out proved inconsequential when faced with the grace and antique quality of our new, temporary studio.
Awkwardly, he surveyed around the room, as out of place in the elegant surroundings as a stream of white airplane refuse against a bluer-than-blue sky. Fresh out of the American military, he'd requested some photographs to make him seem more acceptable to backstabbing business world he was venturing to enter—something refined that smoothed all his jagged edges. Not too difficult, except that he had tattoos all over his body, reaching his neck and threatening at the back of his hands, marring whatever professionalism he wanted to emit.
I gave him a once-over as I adjusted the camera. I was a little out of sorts, just a bit disappointed by what I had to photograph. "Why exactly did you wear a leather jacket and jeans here? I thought you were trying to give off the impression of sophistication, not… delinquency."
He practically whispered his reply.
"…I don't have a suit." He didn't meet my eyes, but I don't think it was shame that made him evasive. Ambiguity and introversion masked whatever personality he might have possessed, and to be honest, I felt he didn't possess any. His was the brutish reserve of indolent beasts.
I sighed. "Well, you didn't exactly need one… just not jeans and a muscle shirt. Blaine?" My assistant, looking like heaven-in-tweed in comparison to my subject, turned from where he was adjusting the lighting. "Find Mr. Galvin something else to wear."
Blaine bit his lip. "We didn't bring any change of clothing. There wasn't space in the car."
"Find something, and don't dawdle about it."
Thank god there was a shop down the street that sold all sorts of clothing. No blazers as I would have preferred, unfortunately, but button-down shirts there were. Galvin, for all his large and defined bone structure, was surprisingly thin. His skin was naturally golden-brown, being as he was of mixed origin. We dressed him in light purple and dark trousers. Surprise—he looked fantastic.
The shoot was an experience. He refused to take out his eyebrow piercing, so we sat him with that side of his face turned away. He declined to talk about his upbringing or the story behind his body art, so we couldn't put him in a light that suggested—favorably, of course—his past. We had place him in the simplest stance, as simple as his stool and the converse shoes he insisted on wearing. Still, he looked clumsy and self-conscious, and no matter what we did, all the shots of him seemed to exacerbate that.
Eventually, I told Blaine to go purchase lattes. Caffeine would put me in better spirits.
As we waited, I attempted using various common poses for him. None of them succeeded; none were natural. Finally, I gave him instructions that seemed to help.
"Do what you normally do, when you're relaxing. Sit like you would at a game with your friends, or maybe as you would when you were working overseas."
Dubious, he tried it. He shifted the stool next to the window and slouched against the mahogany wall, his head leaning near the pane next to him. Sloth, apathy, tolerance, and tranquility echoed their strains and melodies in his expression, as a painting of an orchestra toiling for euphony suggests turbulent and majestic music. I caught my breath; sunlight streamed through the imperfect sheet of glass, highlighting the hills and planes of his face in the most gorgeously uneven way.
This photo was artistic, yes. Yet it was not what he needed from me. I knew I should urge him to change again. But I couldn't help it—I had to capture this moment, this stance.
"Hold still," I whispered, shifting the camera towards that spot. He didn't need the urging; he seemed to know what to do.
There were filmy curtains drifting near the window. His faintly veined hand brushed them away with the tender touch of delicacy, so he could look out on the cobblestone roads and the murmuring tourists meandering them. Something softened his face—some dream had awakened, some essence was revealed.
The gentle click of the camera as it memorized this pose was like anesthesia to my bad mood. But that very stance he was in, the mood it generated, the dreamy feel… I was straying from the task at hand, and I berated myself for it even as I continued to snap pictures.
Many who want their portrait taken are terrible at remaining motionless. They blink, chatter, make faces when the silence becomes unnerving. Even when there was no silence, they never could seem to calm themselves, to reveal the side of their personality they were paying me to exaggerate. All they wanted was something ideal, something that makes them other than what they are. When the product of a sitting comes out, they would be angry, or worse disappointed, that I had not done as they pleased, that the quintessence of their personalities was printed in black and white while their dream of themselves was absent.
To alleviate this proclivity towards restlessness, I was generally a talkative photographer. He, on the other hand, dictated his lifestyle by silence. He was a whole world of stillness unto himself. I wasn't used to it, even though it was the dream of all photographers to have a model as he. Silence is what I had to reflect in the outcome, not any sort of contrived pose. Knowing that, I can create the image of his type of businessman. I realized I was going about my process all wrong—what an epiphany.
A hiss of breath behind me, and a steamy cup slid into my head. "That's amazing," said Blaine.
"Yeah, what a metamorphosis, huh?"
Galvin's eyes lifted from the view to us, a couple of conspirators in a corner of the room. I couldn't stand it—he was watching us from under his brow, like a languid panther, feral and beautiful. I caught the moment with two snipping takes.
"Change the film." I told Blaine as I stepped away from the tripod. My coffee was scorching, and even with milk, bitter. Just the way I like it. "You want some?" I directed the question to Galvin. He shook his head sharply. I shrugged: whatever suits him.
"You should take a job in modeling." I was being flippant, and he didn't listen. Either that, or he ignored it. I was hoping for a smile—there was potential for a wondrous smile in his face, in the muscles around his thin mouth. I stilled another sigh. "Could you please move your chair back now, Mr. Galvin? I'm afraid that particular look isn't what we're going for."
Immediately he stiffened, his carriage straightened, and he lost the ability to create eye contact. His steps were still assured and his movements measured, but everything was robotic.
I silently chastised myself for jolting him out of his comfort level. I didn't even want to look at Blaine's expression—it must have been thunderous.
"Would you like to change chairs? The piano seat gives a more intellectual edge to the picture."
He shook his head and made to say something, but snapped his mouth shut at the last moment. Comic, seeing a strongman like him struggle for words. Or maybe he wasn't searching for words. Maybe he knew what to say, he just couldn't say it.
He put up a front of being annoyed, as if I were badgering him. But I wasn't, I was just curious. He probably treated everyone this way when he was embarrassed over his lack of sociability. "Where should I put this?" he asked in his husky, torn voice.
"Near a desk, if you'd like. What do you think when you think 'business,' Mr. Galvin? Take that idea and develop it. We want your employers to be impressed."
He sat it down next to a worktable covered with books of varying sizes and covers, following my instructions. Was he at a loss, or did he prefer to be led around?
And then, miracle of all miracles, he spoke. "Don't call me Mr. Galvin."
I think I smiled. I might have laughed, or raised an eyebrow. "What should I call you?"
"Like the river?" I had seen his first name in the application he'd filled in for clerical purposes, but it hadn't caught my attention. I was, however, sure it wasn't the name of an African landmark.
"Yeah. It's a nickname from my troop."
"Ah…." That explains it. "Ok, Nile. Go ahead, read a book or something."
He was like a hawk searching for the extent of his reach, how high he could fly. I guess he was looking to me all this time for a sense of authority, to direct him in how he should act. Only now was he taking charge for himself. "I don't feel comfortable sitting."
"Then don't." I know I was smiling now. "Do whatever feels right."
He selected a couple of novels from the desk and stacked them haphazardly on the stool, glancing at me out of the side of his eyes occasionally. I returned to my usual spot, behind the camera, and Blaine tucked himself into the armchair.
Result after two hours: one spectacular photo of him, standing by the pile of literature, holding Dickens in one hand and shifting his collar with another, his piercing unmistakable. Only a hint of his tattoos threatened at the wrists of his crisp, well-pressed shirt. His gravity was plain, both in the simple and the obvious sense of the word. The roughness of his visage contrasted with the intelligence and poise he exuded, and at the same time complemented it.
He left an hour later.
When he was gone, I dropped on the piano bench like dead weight while Blaine pulled the set-up apart. I was left exhausted, emotionally and physically. He had devastated me, tore apart all my expectations of him, caught me off-guard so many times. Watching him change from stance to stance with more fluidity than that waterway which he was named after… it was like the first sunrise of your life, the first time your innocent child's eyes saw and marveled at life.
You couldn't pry your eyes away.
And for all that potential, he didn't even smile—