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The Other Side of the Lens


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I used to be friends with all the patrons here. After closing time I would traipse around town with them, visiting all the speakeasies and underground clubs. I may not have been a member of their exclusive upper class during the day, but when the lights went out, I was allowed to parade around with them, acting as though I belonged. Nobody noticed that I was just the photographer. Nobody even asked me to take his picture. But of course that did not stop me. I have everything documented: all the illegal drinking, the illicit handshakes, the candid grins. When I pull out the musty photo albums and look at all the people from my past, I suddenly feel lonely. The restaurant is still posh, the people are still high-class, but now, I am no longer the photographer, I am a photographer.

I still wear a tuxedo, of course. But now the sleeves hang down a little past my wrists and the pant hems drag just enough to notice. I still shine my shoes every day. But now I do it at home with a kit, instead of paying a dollar to the young boy on Twenty-Third Street to do it for me. I still clean my lens, but now my camera is digital. I upload photographs onto my computer and email them to the society pages. Oh, how things have changed; yet, they remain similar. The old customs spawned new ones, but the former still hang over me, like ghosts whom only I can see.

Today there is snow on the ground and more coming down. Two days before Christmas, there is a magical feeling in the air. The dining room is crowded. The sparkling chandelier reflects light off of the deep red walls. Everyone is light; the wine flows freely and the trays of food never cease. I circle the round tables, snapping images that will last forever of everybody who is anybody in this town. I skip over the table of the stout old man who is past his prime and his young, flushed mistress; I skip over the table of the high-class lawyer in his designer suit involved in that political scandal. Tonight, I only take happy photographs of beautiful people. That is what the world wants to see during the holiday season.

At the end of the night, while the busboys are mopping up, I record the simple moment on film. I am careful to capture the way the dim lighting creates shadows on their faces. The dust particles in the air dance around them, like fairy dust. Lately, these are the photographs I have been enjoying more, the pictures of the “normal” people, performing ordinary tasks. I suppose it is because I feel closer to them than to the rich people who come here to dine every night. The photographs of the help are interesting and dynamic. You actually get a sense of who they are from the portrait. You can see their hopes and dreams, their fears and agony. There are no fake smiles or stiff poses; it is all real.
I look up from the lens and see Mr. Billings, the edgy manager, approaching me. Before him, there was his father. After the original Mr. Billings’ death, the young son took over. His father and I were friends. Not terribly close, but every once in a while we would share an old-fashioned at the bar. He liked it on the rocks and I liked it straight. His son is a different story, a whole other breed. He thinks of me as hired help, not necessary to the business. The way I see it, I add to the reputation of the restaurant. How many restaurants have their own photographer? I consistently get the business into the newspaper. There is a review of the menu just once a year, but there is a photo spread every week. Despite all of this he sees me as obsolete and does not attempt to hide this opinion, so when I saw him approaching with a stern face and fisted hands, I did not exactly expect good news.

“Listen, Tim, I really hate to do this during the holidays,” he begins, “but I just think that it may be time for you to retire. You have had a relationship with my family for more than half a century, but let’s face it: there is really no need for a photographer any more. And in this economy, frankly, we just cannot afford it. So…” he stumbles over the last words, “I have to tell you that New Year’s Eve is going to be your last night.”

I do not know how to respond. I had seen it coming for a while, but what could I do? I refuse to protest, that would be degrading. So instead I look the young Mr. Billings in the eye, shake his hand with a firm grip and say, “Thank you for the many years of employment. I’ll be out of your hair once the ball drops.” With those words I turn away, not allowing him to see the tears beginning to form in my eyes.

When I return home, I pull out all of my old albums. As they lie there, surrounding me on the scratchy carpet, all of the faces of my past staring back at me, I realize how few photographs I have of myself. There is no visual documentation of my own life story, only of those whom I photographed. At this moment, it is clear to me that some people spend their lives on one side of the lens, and some people on the other. Some people are in, some people are out. I had always thought that I was in limbo between these two sides, but obviously I was mistaken. I was on one side, the photographer’s side, but now, I am on neither.



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