Notes From A Photographer's Journal
OUT OF FOCUS
A PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER'S dream. I didn't know if I was that kind of photographer, but I could recognize the dream; and among other things she was that dream: Elizabeth Taylor.
She was oh so click click click click click click flash fondling my camera and with each movement wrapping it tighter around her body. I was coiled, firing away at the red-centered bull's eye. Elizabeth Taylor had come to town, not our town, nor Thornton Wilder's, but Harvard Square, home of the ivy laurels and the very ta ta.
Interesting at least, I thought as I signed up almost two weeks in advance to photograph her for the school newspaper. Days passed, some more self-consciously than others, as I'd realize and rationalize the kind of motives I had--you know the feeling--for participating in such an event. Her spell had been cast. Now and then I would mention just who would be coming to town and who was going to take her picture.
I moved closer; my camera purred as I weaved. A large crowd had gathered in front of the Union and everybody stretched for that magic glimpse. A solitary fire engine embellished in excitement came into view. It looked out of place in this rainyday afternoon grey, but who was I to brag? Supporting members of the Hasty Pudding mingled in costumed delight. The Harvard Band tooted about. Ballons bearing her name bubbled above the wet streets, ready-mades for the collector of inflated history. Just swell, swelling.
There were plenty of cameras too. The cheezeweeze type as well as bigger bazooka models would be filling both public and private scrapbooks. Once again I felt self-conscious with the "instant" history machine around my neck.
Click. The entire event had been begat in that emotion. The feeling lasted about two seconds, long enough for me to intuitively accept the absurdity of the situation and click.
And closer. "Change cars. Let's move her out," a young, well dressed and important looking moustache said. Sounded like a cattle drive, I thought. Playing it cool, I mosied down the road towards a smaller but more feverish-looking crowd. Somewhere inside that mass she was waiting. Waiting to blow our minds in 30. Like a professional I worked my way through that jungle of human bodies. A smooth curve connected to a beautiful well-kept body which she'd soon be inside. I went for it. I was determined. I jumped on top of the fender and was king of the hill. She was mine.
So fine. Click click click click click click click. Into that big brass bed of a back seat she came ... Cleopatra ... ravaged husbands ... headlines ... southern charm ... headlines ... diamonds ... bigger diamonds ... Farrah Fawcett-drip Majors and "One Million B.C." bosoms paled in comparison. She was The Queen Bee, the dream of very press photographer. And now here I was rising above the multitude of lenses to claim my prize. Almost instantaneously I straddled the fenders and lay prostrate on the firm hood of that convertible '58 Lincoln Continental. The picture was mine.
But I was lost. Subsumed by her massive creation and by my reflections of it. I was pure reflex to her every inclination. Although I had won my prize she had seduced my identity.
Last Tuesday Elizabeth Taylor came to town. I went to see her and brought my camera along, because that kind of seeing is believing. Funny though, nobody else showed up. Just me and her in the middle of a wet Cambridge street. She undressed. Gone were the diamonds, the stories, the furs, the front page-photographs, the swirling masses, the beehive and the queen bee. Gone was the press event.
When she finished there was an awesome void; she shriveled up and disappeared. Gone. The next day's Crimson ran a story about a missing person of unknown identity. Gone was the fanfare, the Hasty Pudding's massive publicity, the flash-bulb impressions. Gone were the front pages of every major newspaper. Gone were our illusions about ourselves and the world. Gone was our mythology. Static.
When she finished I told her "You look like a fat housewife, you're extravagant, self-indulgent, gaudy and have midriff bulge. I don't need you."
"But you do," she said...
He rolled off the car and onto a cold snow bank amidst a stampede of legs. Fending them off he raced back to his room to change lenses. His roommates didn't recognize the trembling madman who foamed at the mouth with alphabet soup. Ravaging the room he flew out the door, down the stairs, and outside as if possessed. His steps followed the parade.
On through the whirling masses and up the steps of the Hasty Pudding he went. Crowded into the front rows of other photographers he awaited her appearance in the magic theater. Spotlights followed her steps and so did his camera, click. Click click up the stairs of the stage she came to humor herself with the Hasty pasty of Harvard men. But he didn't care; she could have done anything. She was hot.
Temperature rising as he flashed his badge and journeyed upstairs to the press conference. It was in a small room, with little sunlight and tight around the collar. The speaker's table was engulfed by a grotesque blob of lenses and flesh and cigars and cameras and elbows and underarms. In the middle of the frantic enterprise she appeared. Like a jelly donut atop an anthill. They swarmed.
He screamed. Black snakes crawled towards her with mouths wrapped in microphones. Her every breath was sucked down by the surging mob. She communicated in gibberish and lights flashed their response. Everything oozing as Cleopatra's heat wave burned inside him.
That's all I heard for weeks afterwards.
"She was fat."
Sumptuous sounded more accurate to me. Powerful. "Cleopatra," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Reflections in a Golden Eye" where she takes a whip to Brando's face. There were times when she'd made us squirm, uncomfortable with the guts of her performance, shown us the violent capacity of human emotions.
SUMPTUOUS in her public persona as well. Husbands, husbands, husbands--no man could control her energy; not this Cleopatra. Diamonds, bigger diamonds, romances, affairs, riots and more adorned her every step. We knew all about it. Time, Newsweek, People, CBS, The National Enquirer and The New York Times had told us so. We listened to the vulgar details for the same reason we watched her on the screen. She is excess. She exploits extremes of love and hate and self-adornment. She articulates those feelings inside us and pushes them to their extremes. Intensity: we love it and we need it. And that need, vicarious or otherwise, is very real. Without the Elizabeth Taylor in us life certainly would be a lot duller.
Air. He needed air.
He got up off her elbow and moved to one side of the room. There for the first time that day the blur focused and he saw a young girl, beautiful and sad. She didn't belong there.
Maybe she'd like the river; the sunset would be nice. All that stood between them was her mother and a 35mm lens.