Waldo Geier set out into the streets of the city in search of work the day his father died and left him penniless. Always lucky, Waldo soon happened upon a shop window with gilt letters saying:
M. Augenblick, Photographer
Memento & Vignette
and below this, penciled on a sheet of paper:
Help Wanted– Experienced Photographer’s Assistant. Inquire Within.
Waldo did not hesitate. He strode in, snatching the paper sign and crumpling it into his pocket. Though unable to define precisely what a photographer was, Waldo brazenly told the aged proprietor that he had years of valuable experience. “In my house,” he assured him, “we became photographer’s assistants as soon as we could walk.”
Though the lie was obvious to M. Augenblick, the sign had been in the window three months and this brash young charlatan was the only person to express any interest at all in the position. The old man was also painfully aware of the eighty barrels of gallic acid in his cellar, purchased at a discount the year before. It had proven to be defective, the silver liquid congealed into a thick green slime that smelled like a gangrenous limb. Those barrels needed to be moved, and soon. Waldo looked strong. M. Augenblick hired him on the spot.
Waldo was an enthusiastic and uncomplaining apprentice. Shrewd, too; it was the boy’s idea to affix printed labels to the foul-smelling barrels and sell them at a profit to the charity hospital as roborative ointment for victims of the yellow pox.
M. Augenblick’s ardent desire was to instruct the boy in the finer points of the photographer’s art, but his studio was in an unfashionable neighborhood whose residents could hardly afford food, let alone portraiture. Professional ethics forbade M. Augenblick to make photographs of non-human subjects. Without a living model, he could show the boy the workings of the camera, but almost nothing else.
Several weeks passed without opportunity. Then one evening a thoroughly intoxicated tramp attempted to urinate in the doorway. As the man fumbled his buttons, M. Augenblick saw his chance and sprang through the door. He pulled the staggering beggar inside the studio where Waldo forced the astonished man into a gilt armchair and quickly lashed him in with a stout rope. When the captive began to howl, M. Augenblick poured sulfurous ether onto a rag and bade Waldo hold it firmly to the man’s mouth and nose. The tramp possessed enormous vigor despite his inebriation. For several anxious minutes he writhed like a ferret until at last he slumped into slack unconsciousness.
M. Augenblick leapt into action. He rummaged his closet and produced a shabby topcoat, a nearly new bowler hat, a crisp white collar with red silk tie. He directed Waldo to dress the unconscious man while he himself arranged the background setting. He fetched various pieces of furniture and knick-knacks until the studio had the appearance of an elegant parlor. He then dragged out braces and racks and attached them to the prostrate model. Crouching beneath the black velvet hood draped over the camera’s back, he gave direction as he peered through the viewfinder. “Move the left hand up. Good. Now tilt the head. More. Fine.”
The tramp made no noise whatsoever during this ordeal.
“An excellent tableau,” said M. Augenblick, fingering his white beard. “But we must do something about the eyes. Closed eyes look most unnatural. They utterly destroy the illusion of life. I once possessed a pair of tinted spectacles, but I have no idea where they might be.”
“Perhaps we can paint his eyelids?” offered Waldo. “So they appear open?”
M.Augenblick saw the sense of this and immediately set to work. Within ten minutes, the tramp looked supernaturally awake, the glaring eyes seeming to jut from the slack face like organ stops.
The old man stepped back, nodded with satisfaction. “This will do nicely.”
Having watched M. Augenblick repeatedly jab the paintbrush at the unflinching eyelids, Waldo was uncomfortably reminded of the morning when he’d found his father’s corpse curled up in bed. He rose and took the man’s wrist, cold as a pickled ham.
“Beg pardon,” said Waldo, “but I think we’ve killed him.”
“We must work quickly then,” said the practical M. Augenblick, “before mortification sets in!”
For the next several hours they exposed dozens of photographic plates of the model in various postures. He was depicted sitting, standing, lounging in bed, reading by the fire, holding a pipe. It was Waldo who discovered the marvelous effect of changing the position of the painted pupils to show different expressions. Pleasure, complacency, curiosity, even rage.
M. Augenblick was delighted. He’d never had so pliant a model, a subject who could be arranged into the most artistic and avant-garde poses, could hold them as long as necessary until the shutter was released. Flash powder was not required, since the lens might stay open indefinitely. The old photographer became increasingly bold in his use of natural light, even daring to take several photographs using a single candle as illumination.
But it was in the darkroom that the rare genius of this method became plain. As M. Augenblick projected the developed plates onto the special photographic paper, the vivacity and clarity of the images stunned him.
“My boy,” he said to Waldo, “I see now that all the limits of photography I have heretofore encountered had nothing to do with the equipment or technique. It has all been the fault of the models. I believe we have invented an entirely new art form!”
Thus, Augenblick & Geier became the most fashionable studio in London for post-mortem photography. Thousands of the recently departed were likewise immortalized in various attitudes of lively repose.
During an epidemic of measles, infants became a specialty. M. Augenblick could usually convince the grieving mother to agree to his stipulation that she also be unconscious while the photograph was taken. “It heightens the effect,” he would say. “You will be most pleased when you see it.”
Note: This piece was recently entered into the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest, where it scored zero points out of a possible fifteen