That famous photograph

A short story by Euan Currie

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We weren’t ready to say goodbye to Fran but that had long ago been taken out of our hands. As we gathered on the steps of the gallery – most of us making special journeys to be here that involved setting aside the demands of our individual lives for a few days, falling quickly into familiar patterns – we smoked hurried cigarettes, and someone referred to them as transitional objects, helping us make the journey from one place to another. 

We had enough to catch up on, from the everyday factualities of children and homes and jobs to the more abstract niggles that could only be aired in this type of company. The night before, we took a round table at the back of a restaurant and sat cloaked in candle-light, pretending our faces were not so lined with time. Someone announced that it had been twenty six years and we shook our heads in disbelief, before this was used as the perfect excuse for the next bottle of wine to be opened. 

Late in the evening, a chair from the next table was pulled over and we toasted Fran, a glass of red poured to be left untouched. Some of us let tears spill from our eyes but there was a tacit agreement that this was not a moment for sorrow, but for pride and appreciation for our friend. That night was our private commemoration that we’d been working up to half our lives, before we had to give Fran back to the world the next day. 

The stairs of the gallery seemed impossibly high. The columns that framed the entrance were emblazoned with Fran’s name and a ten foot high printout of her most famous photograph hung above, rippling in the breeze. We’d seen it so many times, printed in magazines or newspapers or just in our own heads, its authoritative status taking precedence over our own memories. As we climbed the stairs, our youthful panicked selves towered over us, grey blurs snatching at Fran’s ankles. 

The young man who managed Fran’s estate had invited us to the opening, although we declined to participate in publicity. We stood next to the famous photograph and smiled for posterity, faces numbed by complimentary wine. We agreed, loudly, that it didn’t matter how classy the gallery, the free wine was always bad, and the young man pretended he hadn’t heard, flicking back through stills on his phone.

The walls were lined with Fran’s images, all with her unmistakable imprint. Art school lecturers pontificated on the technical prowess, the formal inventiveness, the role of self in Fran’s work. Some wondered aloud how she’d executed the images, the angles often jarring and unsettling, as if capturing the perspective of a disembodied presence. 

Most people there didn’t know our connection to Fran. Even those of us who were most prominent in the photograph weren’t exactly recognisable. The open mouths, clawing hands, smudges of grainy hair across faces, frozen hysterical bodies trying to wrench their friend back to earth, Fran’s black boot and spectral hand visible across the centre of the frame – whether reaching out or shooing away, we’d never reached agreement. One of us had mentioned that any time they saw the photograph they could hear Fran laughing and the rest of us nodded, replaying her throaty, joyous cackle privately. 

Fran’s work had a dark, gloomy reputation. This was at odds with our memories of a person who was greedy for life, for experience, who relished the chaotic tapestry of the world and was gluttonous in her appetites. While some of us had been trained into obedience and passivity in our youth, Fran had none of this, never being scared to state desires and set out to realise them. It was a thrill to be around someone so infectious, dynamic and all those things that many people believe themselves to be but few truly are. 

We’d all heard the campus myth about Fran before we met her. It lent her a mysterious and untouchable air from afar, which she soon dispensed with in person. “Honey, what do you think?” she’d ask, long fingers stroking your arm or fixing your hair as she spoke. “There’s no mystery – it’s true”. 

Fran was never detained by worry. She had no anxiety over others’ perceptions. If that meant confirming the rumours that yes, of course she’d briefly levitated at a high school party, then so be it. She made you feel that doubting the veracity of these events was somehow ridiculous.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened, no word of a lie”, she’d told us. “It was a marvellous night, late summer, and everyone was at Eliza Reeder’s place because her parents were gone for the weekend. We all sat around in her father’s study, feeling terribly sophisticated. The boy I was seeing, Tom – bless him – let me have a chair and he sat on the floor in front of me, his head on my lap like a little kitty cat!” Fran stifled a laugh, delighted with her elaborate scene-setting. 

“Well, Eliza’s boyfriend – a real hunk, a football type, you know? – wasn’t in the room. Nobody had seen him for hours. The boys were yammering on and my mind was wandering. I was so comfortable, and dreamy”. Fran elongated the words for effect, fanning out her fingers as if stroking a fragile aura. “It was the perfect night – good company, good wine, exquisite surroundings. But before I knew it, my stomach lurched and when I reached out to put my glass on the table it wasn’t there, just empty space. It was like the floor had given way. Of course, the wine spilled all over the beautiful rugs, which I felt dreadful about. I thought I’d drunk too much, eaten something that didn’t agreed with me. I reached out to Tom but I just grabbed handfuls of air. I could hear gasps and screaming. Everyone’s faces, shocked, their hands over their mouths, and I realised I was looking down on them. I was in the air! Tom tried to force me down, but he couldn’t, despite his effort. I was bobbing around in the air just a couple of feet high, and it was the queerest thing! Suddenly the wind was taken out of me and I dropped down like a stone. Tom threw his arms around me – so scared, the little lamb – and I could hear him panting, the smell of sweat in his hair. The whole thing had been no more than thirty seconds. I felt so calm, I could see so clearly. Everyone was pale as ghosts! One of the girls was sick in a wastepaper basket, the poor thing. Eliza was backed up against the wall, her knees up to her chest. I managed to prise Tom off me and crept towards her.

She jumped when I touched her, looking at me with wide, unblinking eyes like an injured animal. I should have mentioned that just before I lifted up, when I’d been getting good and dreamy, there were so many great images flowing into my mind. I could see photographs that I knew I’d take, some of them months, years away, like I was plucking them out of the ether. One of those images – well it was more like a moving picture – seemed like it was wrong, like it wasn’t meant for me. I kept trying to bat it away, get back to the good stuff. Then, I realised. It was Eliza’s boyfriend. I could see him, in my head, another girl’s arms around his neck amongst a backdrop of the pale roses. I thought, I know that place! Then I knew I had to tell her. I held Eliza’s face and whispered ‘He’s outside, in the garden, with someone else’. Well, if she looked scared at first she got even worse after that! Eliza led the way, tearing down the stairs and out the front door, all of us spilling out after her. I hung back and watched as she started screaming, slapping her boyfriend, crying, the other girl scurrying off down the driveway. It really was the strangest thing…”

Fran told stories like that, with a shrug, expecting that you would take her version as gospel. She often spoke of plucking images out the air then using her camera to capture them in reality. She had no time for people who treated this as airy fairy nonsense. It was her practice, her method. She was withering in her response to those who dismissed this. To her, this world of spectral images was as real as the hand in front of your face.

After graduation, Fran arranged for us to spend a few nights in a cabin in the woods. While the rest of us were mulling over next steps like the children we pretended we no longer were, Fran had secured her first solo exhibition for later that year, and announced that the surrounding area provided the perfect setting for the photographs she had in mind. 

The next morning, Fran led us deep into the woods. It seemed at first to be an aimless expedition, meandering through rough forest trails, but when we came upon a derelict structure nestled under a cliff side it became clear that this was what Fran had been looking for. 

“This is the place!” she exclaimed, running ahead, gesturing for us to join her. It looked like an old school, with vaulted wooden ceilings that concentrated into points of darkness. Fran threw open the shutters on the first floor, flooding the room with light that diffused and scattered amongst the floating dust and trembling cobwebs. She paced around, sizing up the room, nodding, smiling, deep within herself at the same time as she was open to every sensation around her. She caressed her camera against her sternum, narrowing her eyes as she planned the shots she wanted. 

Fran often said we all had a role to play in her work. We remember it not as some offhand remark to placate us but rather as a core part of Fran’s worldview. It was as if the atomised fiction of life – all of us divided into collections of cells that dared to pretend there was no common thread, no shared frequency – was a fallacy that she permanently worked to overcome. 

She directed us to dance in the centre of the room, shouting more, more as we swayed and twirled, our long hair painting luminescent swirls in long exposure. She moved her lens inches from our feet as they pounded the floorboards, snapping the swirling dust that we brought up from between the slats. We whooped and shrieked, Fran too, swinging her camera, taking frantic shots from the midst of the spontaneous dance party. 

None of us remember how long we spent, carefree, embracing the movement of our collective joyous bodies. We remember it as a celebration. Our individual revelry merged into a communal, wordless joy. It might have been Fran’s idea, but that day it felt like the images were flowing from us as one, in tune with the vision in Fran’s head, which was suddenly all of our vision. 

We remember it now as that famous photograph. When we first spoke of it, years later, years after Fran was gone even, we discovered that what we all thought alone was a trick of memory had in fact been shared between us – the sense, before it happened, that we already knew the image, that we could see it taking form inside the camera, that we were as much responsible for its creation as Fran. 

The suddenness with which things happened, however, took us all by surprise. The rampant chorus became feverish as one by one we realised that Fran was rising through the air, her face luminous in bliss. We snatched at her, begging her to come down. Despite knowing the story of Eliza Reeder’s party, this suddenly felt too acute, no longer confined to the safe wondrous distance of retelling. Her crimson lips mouthed I’m fine over and over, her camera focussed on us flailing down below. Tears spilled down some of our faces, mixing with the dust into chalky trails across our skin. Others rode the adrenaline high into focussed action, pointing at a spot on the floor and willing Fran to lead herself back to it. Through it all, she was laughing, that rich throaty call. 

It ended as abruptly as it had begun, Fran landing back amongst us with practiced grace, a sheen of sweat on her brow. Anxiety soon quietened into acceptance. 

That night, Fran fashioned a dark room in the cabin’s windowless store and we lay around together picking through the images from the day, selecting the best takes, finding an easy consensus, the sticky warmth of friendship in the air. 

After the exhibition closed we made the usual promises not to leave it so long next time before dispersing into the night. Weeks later, our group chat lit up. The picture of us in front of the famous photograph had done the rounds online, drawing the attention of a man with whom we shared some mutual friends. He messaged some of us, tentatively, introducing himself as an acquaintance of Fran’s from back home. He had stumbled across a review of Fran’s exhibition. Four stars, he confirmed, with several exclamation points and a misused emoji. He was not, he pointed out, an art guy, but he was sure this was the same Fran. He went on to explain that he’d once gone out with a girl called Eliza Reeder. In halting messages, he told a version of the party story. He didn’t believe the rumour about Fran, but maybe we’d heard that too? 

Something had bugged him all these years. He knew why Eliza had been mad, but the strange thing was that he hadn’t kissed the other girl yet. He was going to, he pointed out. He was no angel. No, the thing was that he could see it happening, playing out like a movie in his head. It felt like he had no choice, that this scenario was being guided from somewhere outside of him. The kissing and everything, he said, had seemed so real! 

He was delighted to find out that Fran had become a successful artist. Of course, the article mentioned her passing and he was truly sorry for us losing our friend. He alluded to having lost people too, before their time and in sudden, shocking accidents that had seemed to so easy to prevent. One of the things he’d read, though, haunted him. It was an excerpt from Fran’s diaries which had been transcribed in the exhibition catalogue. Fran’s handwriting on coffee stained paper read – “What people need to realise is that the images come to me as possibilities, often fully formed, and my job is to follow the snail trail and bring them into being. This has been a feature of my life – not only in photography – where I can envision a scenario and will it to be so! Often, this is accompanied by a sensation of drifting, ascending, pure ecstatic bliss. In these moments, I know I am tapping into the trajectories not only of the light and shade within my camera, but of every thing in this world – pebble to mountain, squirrel to king – all of them vibrating at a frequency I can momentarily detect. The myth of myself as a separate being dissolves and I know I am just a visitor here, to this everyday world which is so much fiction, so much illusion.”

We decided not to reply to the man’s messages. Instead, we turned to the exhibition catalogue – mostly left unattended for another day, face down on coffee tables – and noticed the mentions of ourselves in Fran’s facsimiled archives. We cropped up often, scraps of handwriting on the edge of a page, blotted ink sketches that resonated with specific memories – they all seemed familiar and connected to us, making reference to moments in our lives that we thought had slipped by unnoticed. As our lives had been fanning out in all directions, Fran had been building this body of work, this monument to our friendship, in a secret language accessible only to us. The analysis of her work by noted scholars missed all of this, of course, which was fine by us and, we imagined, by Fran too. Although it was tempting to see Fran as laying out some grand plan for posthumous realisation, we decided this kind of tragic arc was for others to imagine. We knew she’d have preferred to have been here with us. 

There were so many ways that Fran had remained a central figure in our lives in those years between college and her death, from the no-strings-attached bursary she provided to one of our sons, to the regular opportunities she took to boost or promote whatever we were doing individually, or the regular letters that dropped through all of our letterboxes, often in unison, usually accompanied by a book or a movie recommendation that brought us all together despite the physical distance. What we had never really noticed was the way we had been central for her.

Fran had emerged from myth and now returned there, a symbol stripped of the forceful realness of a living, breathing person. We remember her as such – the weight of her body draped across us, the scent of her breath, the way she’d scoop handfuls of candy into her mouth – and for those moments she is back, a presence we can taste in the air. As the world takes her for their own and the brief flurry of her physical life dwindles into history, we make a commitment to ourselves that, in our corner of existence at least, she will always remain a tangible part of us. As life unfurls with devastating quickness, splaying us out as singular pieces, we promise: We will not abandon her. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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