PART 1: AMERICA
The Third Fire Lit by Mary Doyle, 1917
The kitchen smelled like burnt wood and water. Cymbeline closed her eyes and imagined that she and Leroy were breaking camp on a cool morning in the Olympics, the carried river water flooding the remains of the breakfast fire before they set out for a day of photography and painting, and sometimes simply lying back in the sweetness of the grass, doing nothing. Their first year of marriage had been marked by these small journeys into the empty beauty that surrounded early-twentieth-century Seattle; Cymbeline and Leroy—a naked husband modeling in nature for his pregnant wife—making good on their promise to each other to not be like everyone else. In fact, that was the very argument he had used to urge her into marriage when he first wrote to her four years ago, in 1913, while he was still in Paris.
Nineteen thirteen was the year Leroy began traveling and painting, falling so in love with his new life in Europe that when a mutual friend put him in touch with Cymbeline—a working Seattle photographer with her own rather well-received studio that allowed her to support herself if she cut all luxury from her life—he fell in love with her as well.
The original purpose of Leroy and Cymbeline’s correspondence was the organization of a small American exhibition of his work, until their letters moved easily from the logistics of the exhibition into something more personal. It was inevitable that the painter and the photographer who saw photography as a fine art would quickly find common ground, each excited by an ongoing paper conversation that seemed so warm, so effortless. All those months of shared ideas and enthusiasms were intoxicating; it was flattering to be told that she understood him so well. She was an artist, he said. He said, You are my kind.
She loved his paintings. He loved her pictures.
Still, she was thrown when he wrote, Ever since the thrill that your first letter gave me, you have continued to move me. Yes, I confess it, I set out months ago with the deliberate intention of winning your affections because I wanted them, oh, I wanted them so much!!! Underlying all this, however, is that want, that emptiness, that completeness.
She remembered the heat of her studio as she read those words, one hand holding Leroy’s letter and the other a glass of iced tea, which she pressed to her forehead. It was as if Leroy’s confession of emptiness and want had amplified the heat in the room as it touched upon her own hunger. It wasn’t safe, she knew, to feel so much need.
He wrote, You are the ideal woman for me, and fearing no longer, in all hope, tranquillity, and happiness. I ask you if you will be my friend and companion for life—if you will be my wife—Love and time in Italy! She must come to him, he said, they would live in Italy and, he added, Let’s not be like anyone else.
A million images of Italy flipped though her mind: ruins and churches; olive trees, fountains, rolling hills, and the sea. Wading in wildflowers up to her waist. The country in shades of oyster white, smoke, dusty green, brilliant New World gold, blood red, and that blue, blue sea lazing beneath the azure sky. The whimsy of Venetian palaces, and Michelangelo’s slaves straining against the stone; the unrealized dream machines of Leonardo. Leroy wrote, There are such wondrous lands to explore—
Let’s not be like anyone else.
She weighed his proposal against her studio. She weighed it against her tiny foothold in American art, having recently had her first exhibition even though the patronizing tone of the male critics who said her pictures were “pleasing” cut her a little. She balanced her present against her future; she thought about marriage (something she seldom thought about) and children (something she often thought about). She weighed out her education (the first in her family with a university degree, in chemistry and German).
She weighed out her physical aspect (she was small, with unruly red curls, metal-framed glasses, a good, if slightly pear-shaped figure), her looks enhanced by her intelligence and curiosity and willingness to accept the complexity in most things. But as to beauty, the best she could claim was a kind of specialized beauty, the sort that someone may feel happy to have stumbled upon. She weighed out her professional possibilities and the knowledge that America had not yet caught up with a woman’s ambition. She weighed out the fact that she and Leroy had yet to meet, face-to-face.
She was twenty-nine years old.
Along with the doused campfire scent, the kitchen carried the aroma of torched cotton and paint—a kind of nervy, toxic smell. The glass windows appeared slightly altered, as if the high temperature had softened them.
The damage to this room was nothing when compared to the room with which it shared a wall: Cymbeline’s darkroom and studio. The wooden floor and bits of debris crackled under her boots, though the place wasn’t completely destroyed; the damage was sweeping yet selective, the overall effect was of the room’s entire contents seeming unsalvageable, until her eyes grew accustomed to its shocking appearance. The urge to slide to the floor in the middle of the mess while surrendering to tears had to be resisted since she knew she would have a hard time getting back up, both figuratively and literally—she was eight months into what had been, and still was, a difficult pregnancy.
All this while Leroy was off painting in Yosemite, Cymbeline no longer able to comfortably accompany him as she had in the first year of their marriage. Even when she was pregnant with Bosco, their first child, now a two-year-old, she could still keep up with Leroy. She could take nude pictures of him as he posed in the forest or near a lake (she was said to have “invented the male nude” in reference to those honeymoon photographs). One of the most successful was of him as Narcissus, seduced by his beautiful reflection. This was during her Pictorial phase, when she believed that photographs could be made to imitate paintings.
Her approach to photography eventually changed, but Leroy stayed the same. The self-involvement that had masqueraded as charm when they were new was now just an accepted fact of their marriage.
When Bosco was a baby (she had gotten pregnant so quickly!), Leroy left on a monthlong trip in the spring, followed by a two-month trip in the summer, “the only time to work in the San Juans,” he insisted. She understood and complied, staying behind to manage Bosco, the house, her photography, and to pen love letters to Leroy.
And so life went on with Leroy needing to “get away” for his art (Leroy already talking about ten weeks making seascapes along the Northern California coast in late August) while she stayed behind with Bosco, her troublesome pregnancy, the even more troublesome Mary Doyle, and their now partially burned house.
On her good days, Cymbeline took pictures of Bosco as he investigated the flowers in the marginally tended garden (which she had no time for). He spilled water on the cat. He pinched a pill bug between his strong little fingers, an old discarded shoe lay nearby. There was Bosco eating a sandwich that had recently fallen in the dirt. Sometimes he slept naked in the sun, and she took pictures of that too. Bosco held her fast with his love, and his practical needs; her photographs of him were not so much a mother’s desire to record her son’s life as a consequence of all that endless togetherness.
Someone sent her a magazine with pictures by Elliot and Andrs; photographs by men she knew, had worked with; men who had mistresses, muses, studio assistants, and wives—a wealth of women to do for them—pictures that she had no time to study because Bosco was crying. Bosco wanted lunch. Maybe Bosco didn’t nap today because he was coming down with a cold that would keep him up all night.
Then there were the few clients she still saw, who felt like another demand: Could she arrange a sitting? Could she touch up the negative to, you know, fix things a bit? When could she drop off the prints, or when could someone pick them up? And yet she still loved her work so much that it almost killed her, loving it so much. The chemical stains on her fingers meant more to her than diamonds.
She wrote to Leroy, I have spent so much time in the darkroom. My mother came at 3 & took B. for a little walk. I hardly had time to speak to her because I had to get 2 of my morning prints dry & flat & spotted & get the others finished before an expected caller at 4. I’m still sick as a dog. She didn’t write, I can’t do this alone, because they had hired a young woman, Mary Doyle, to help her. He wondered why they needed the extra expense when they already lived so close to the wire. Housemaids, he announced as he finished packing, were nothing more than a luxury.
Mary Doyle, Cymbeline wanted to write, steals small, inconsequential things that become important only when they’re missing. But she couldn’t complain to Leroy about Mary Doyle (“nothing more than a luxury”) because Mary made it possible for Cymbeline to keep what was left of her photography. Mary Doyle is careless when she lights the evening candles. Once I watched her light each taper before holding the flame to the hem of a curtain. When I called out to her, it was as if I had awakened her from a trance, leaving me to rush in and slap out the sparks.
On the days when Cymbeline was too weak and worn to leave her bed before noon, Mary Doyle hustled around the house, softly singing to Bosco, baking bread, and cheerfully sweeping the floors.
No one would listen if Cymbeline tried to describe Mary Doyle setting a small, smoldering log from the fireplace onto the hearth rug, then strolling out the front door to retrieve the mail. Cymbeline smelled the burning material almost immediately as it began to catch, and she rushed to stamp out the embers, singeing the hem of her dress. She was torn between what she believed to be true about the girl (that she could not be trusted) and her need for help around the house.
So she told herself that Mary Doyle got distracted, and no wonder with all she had to do all day to allow Cymbeline the time to do as she pleased; who in 1917 would sympathize with a married woman who chose to work? Wasn’t Mary Doyle exactly like someone she deserved?
So when Leroy was off painting El Capitan, Cymbeline spent her days in the little Seattle cottage with their two-year-old son, Bosco, while Mary Doyle set Cymbeline’s darkroom and studio on fire, igniting the kitchen only as an afterthought. Cymbeline berated herself for taking her eye off that sweet, angel-faced girl whom the police gently escorted to jail.
She simply couldn’t take the pressure of More Things Going Wrong. There was never a rest from the sense of the unpredictable, and often the unaffordable, pressing in on her. The Lives of Artists, she thought wryly, and what did she expect? She had been old enough (no child at age thirty) when she married Leroy to understand that the creative life was often one of constant hustling; her naïveté had surfaced when she thought she could do it with children. How could she have known how much space a child takes up in one’s thoughts and in one’s heart? Her first thought following this last fire was Thank God Bosco was with me, his safety always on her mind. Her second was, had anything, anything at all happened to that little boy, there was nothing that could save Mary Doyle. How close motherhood could bring her to dark fantasies of murder.
Yet listening to Leroy, one would think that he was under so much more pressure than she, which was why he absolutely had to be able to nip off to Nature to paint. So he could come home rejuvenated and inspired.
Cymbeline couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt inspired. And if she did feel the familiar elation of creative possibility, it was almost instantly crushed by Bosco calling her to play with him or to feed him. Or it was Leroy who wanted supper and could she please quiet the baby? Oh, and where was that paintbrush he had so recently bought? Then furious to see Bosco loading it with mud in the garden.
This was the sort of thing that would cause Leroy to rant about the lack of order in their household and how was he supposed to paint if she wouldn’t do her part? He would accuse her of indifference to him, of professional jealousy (hers toward him), of caring more about domestic matters than she did art, you see, then pronounce her “happy with her little home life but he needed more.” This contradictory line of reasoning would sometimes segue into “I don’t even know who you are!”
Under her breath she would say, “I don’t know who I am either.”
In the wreckage of the studio, Cymbeline sorted through the ashes of film stock, prints, the burnt barrel that housed her stored glass negatives, those pictures of another life. The baby kicked. Bosco sat with his grandmother in the other room. Across the studio was a black leather carrying case, miraculously spared, that held six exposed glass plates Cymbeline told herself she would print one of these days, when she had the time. Not allowing herself to think too much about why she “never had the time” to make prints of Waiting Room, Anhalter Bahnhof or Mathematics & Love or Tulips; or Late at Night, the Brandenburg Gate or Something to Want or The Unmade Bed. Or Julius.
She picked up her old folding camera, a Seneca No. 9, the one she had bought before she went to Dresden, that she wouldn’t have left out of the black leather carrying case had she known the fate of her studio. Though it was miraculously intact, on closer inspection she could make out slight damage to the lens, a couple of minuscule holes in the bellows where it looked as if sparks may have landed. She carefully set it back down, walked into the kitchen, took paper from a drawer, and sent yet another letter to Leroy: By the time you get this we will be packed and on our way to California. We’ll be staying with your parents until I find all of us a new place to live. With love, C.
But what she wanted to write was You were wrong. We’re exactly like everyone else.
PART 2: GERMANY
Her Dresden Year, 1909–1910
Seven years before the kitchen fire, through luck and hard work Cymbeline was awarded a scholarship to study at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden with Julius Weisz, the most famous professor of photochemistry in the world. The personal time line that had brought Cymbeline to this point went something like this: reading the classics, summers spent painting and drawing, her first year of university, when she decided to become a photographer, six months to determine exactly what that meant, a love of art and the belief that taking photographs could be like painting with light; the good advice she took to major in chemistry (photography as an academic discipline? A degree in art? It did not exist); college employment making lantern slides for the botany department, her still indulgent father building her a shed-darkroom where she worked by the light of a candle in a red box (“I can’t see what all that studying at the university will do if you’re just going to be a dirty photographer,” said the man who confused the matter by doing without so his daughter could have art classes). A self-photographed nude taken in a field of uncut grass surrounding the campus, in which Cymbeline looked more playful than sexual. Then graduation, a job with a famous photographer who “took” famous pictures of Native Americans even though he was arrogant and absent, leaving so much of the work to his assistant, who, in turn, instructed Cymbeline. Then the scholarship, the black leather–covered Seneca folding-bed camera that, when closed into a relatively small box (seven by seven by four and a quarter), weighed all of three and a half pounds if not loaded with a pair of dry glass plates; everything, camera and a handful of plates, fitting into a compact black leather suitcase that was part of her prize.
She took the Seneca, packed several boxes of Eastman dry-plate glass slides, and her few belongings aboard a train barreling across the country to catch a steamer bound for Liverpool. It was during that trip that Cymbeline met someone, and, in the time it took to span the Atlantic, the affair had run its course. Neither partner mourned its brevity; when Cymbeline and the man said good-bye in Liverpool, she was already past their encounter, excited for the next new thing.
With every traveled mile taking her farther and farther from Seattle, Cymbeline could feel herself opening. Everything was new and marvelous and confounding and curious. She had suddenly, miraculously, caught up to her own life. The future stopped eluding her grasp long enough for her to enter it, breathless and happy. Even the shipboard romance was perfect in that it was nothing more than a soufflé.
Then she arrived in Dresden, a colossal confection of a city, where she enrolled in a studio art class, found a teacher to improve her German, and became the sole woman accepted into the photochemistry seminar of the renowned Julius Weisz, which was when all her best intentions to leave love alone left her.
The first day of her photochemistry class at the Technische Hochschule, Cymbeline realized that not only was she the lone woman in the room but, at age twenty-seven, she was quite possibly the oldest student in there as well. Her American smile, nervous and reflexive, was met with indifference when it was met at all.
Her solitude forced her out into the Dresden streets—curiosity too, laced with loneliness—pushed her out into this place that felt as insubstantial as an invented story with its impossibly romantic architecture, grand concourses, perfectly arranged gardens, and fountains. There were churches and palaces. And all of it as elaborate as expensive pastry. While she was in transit, being unattached was exhilarating, but the moment she stopped, so did the high.
Seattle was raw, unfinished and barely begun; surely no one could miss Cymbeline’s hayseed aspect as she wandered the gardens and city squares and wide boulevards, alternately fixated on her environment while unaware of the people within it. There was something fabulous about walking along the Elbe River instead of gazing out across Elliott Bay, or spending her days going largely unnoticed in a college class of men, or hearing only German and no one talking to her in class or on the street, leaving her unsure about her conversational skills. It was as if she had willed this dream into being then forgot to make herself visible.
Additionally, she was now cursed with all the time alone she never felt she could get enough of back in her stateside life. So novel was this situation that she barely knew what to do with herself. She tried to list the advantages of being overlooked, chief among them having to be concerned only with herself; then she would see something funny or provocative or puzzling, and, without someone with whom to share the funny/provocative/puzzling thing, her aloneness would come to her all over again.
The Advantages to Being Alone list had a single entry—that of having to be concerned only with her own desires, which pretty much exhausted the upside.
As a photographer, Cymbeline was drawn to the pictorial photograph. She loved the softness of Käsebier, the manifesto of Stieglitz, the dreamy, blurred beauty of Baron de Meyer—these pictures that could be paintings. She believed, as others did, that a camera was good for more than recording the world. A photograph wasn’t a response to something; it was something. (After Berlin, after marriage, she would say that she “shifted her own artistic expressions along less sentimental lines.”)
There was no one in Dresden she knew well enough to pose for her. No friends or models to arrange in biblical allegories, or tableaux of Greek gods and goddesses. So, on a dry autumn day, Cymbeline stowed her boxy camera in the little black leather suitcase, along with a handful of dry plates, and went into the street. If she was to be invisible, then she may as well use that invisibility.
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It wasn’t long before Cymbeline came to a massive mural made of tile. Even if it was placed at street level and not well above the sidewalk, and below a bank of windows on what looked to be an important building, the thirty-foot-high picture would still dwarf whoever stood beside it. The illustration was a parade of theatrically dressed men, some on horseback, others on foot, all resembling finely drawn ink etchings on white, with a yellow background. There had to be a hundred figures, many with names written below and just above the bottom of the ornate border that framed the entire scene.
There was no way to photograph the whole mural; the building across the street threw shadows, and photographing straight up, or when standing at one end of the hundreds-feet-long mural, caused distortion.
Cymbeline, the open suitcase beside her, camera in hand, was trying to gauge the shadows and distance when a voice said in faintly accented English, “Why don’t you photograph real people instead of drawings of people?” She was so accustomed to being unseen, it didn’t occur to her that she was being addressed, even in English. “It isn’t the original mural, you know.”
This time Cymbeline turned to see Julius Weisz, her photochemistry professor.
“Fürstenzug, The Procession of Princes—a history of local royalty—was first carved into the wall about three hundred years ago. When the years faded it to almost nothing, a nineteenth-century artist named Wilhelm Walther decided to carve it back in.”
“Wilhelm Walther?” asked Cymbeline.
“I suspect many people wondered who he was, so he etched himself as the last man in the procession. Like a ‘hanging on,’ yes? A hundred years later his painting was replaced with tiles,” he said as he was already reaching for her camera. “May I?”
He held the camera for a moment, then opened the hinged flap that protected the ground-glass viewfinder, which he turned vertically and horizontally before adjusting the bellows. “It’s a good weight for street pictures,” he said.
“You know, I do photograph real people, not lately because . . . That is, I did work in a portrait studio for the last two years. Mostly, I made prints and negatives.”
“Is that how you came to be interested in your platinum paper experiments?”
“I think there’s a way to use lead to increase the printing speed. The whites will be sharper, and the result, I think, will be more beautiful.” She stopped. “Anyway, I came to that on my own. Not from the man who ran the studio.”
“You didn’t like this man?”
“No.” She sighed. “Being well-known made him arrogant. My lessons came from his assistant, who did everything.”
“And what did you learn about people when you worked there?”
“You mean about portraiture?”
He said nothing as he studied her from behind the wire-rimmed glasses that were exactly like hers. “This bad man influenced you to stop taking portraits?” His hair was longer on top and close on the sides, and he had a small beard. His informal attire was pretty par for a scholar; her discerning eye caught the quiet money in the cut and fabric, and something else: an unexpectedly stylish quality. His face and figure were pleasing; funny how she had never really noticed that he was, well, rather handsome. For someone in his early forties, anyway.
“I don’t know anyone here,” and in that moment she could have sworn that he understood the isolation of being an American girl walking around Dresden, on a day off from class but without the company of a single classmate.
“And I’m to be somewhere.”
“Oh, sure, of course,” said Cymbeline, “I didn’t mean to keep you.”
“But you didn’t keep me.”
He seemed genuinely reluctant to leave. “May I take your picture? A souvenir of this great bathroom wall of German princes and their shameless friend, Wilhelm Walther.”
The suggestion itself was enough to make Cymbeline feel better than she had in weeks as she stood there, posing against a backdrop of blond brick, well below the image of Mr. Walther, the mural almost too high on the building to capture anything but the decorative border, boots, and horses’ hooves that hovered above Cymbeline, even with Julius Weisz standing across the narrow street. She imagined how the pair appeared to those walking by: two tourists, maybe lovers, spending an afternoon together.
“I really do have to go now, but I will see you again.” He returned her camera.
Was he asking to see her again? Was he interested in her? Her experience with men was so thin that she couldn’t quite read him.
“At school,” she agreed a little too enthusiastically in an attempt to hide her misunderstanding of his words.
As he walked away she realized that during the train trip from Seattle to New York; the week spent in New York City; the Atlantic crossing to Liverpool; her five days in London and the following three in Paris before arriving in Dresden, she had taken pictures of prairie and farmland, country train stations, monuments, museums, cathedrals and gardens, fellow travelers and other strangers, rivers and boats, and zoo animals, but not one photograph of herself. She was a kind of nonpresence in her own adventure. Her absence didn’t occur to her until Julius Weisz suggested taking her picture. It was as if he knew what it was to be apart and on one’s own, as if he knew her. Much later, she wondered if all love begins with these sorts of simple understandings, you know, just one person seeing another.
The encounter with Julius Weisz at The Procession of Princes changed everything. Having that a casual meeting on a random street meant that Cymbeline was someone living in a city where she could have a casual meeting on a random street—only that street was in Dresden and not in Seattle. This ordinary thing made Dresden more of a home to her than anything else ever could. Which set her to thinking about home and familiarity and belonging. It also had her studying Julius Weisz, if only to convince herself that she hadn’t imagined she’d once had his undivided attention. She tried to ignore the reasons why this mattered.
When she was growing up, Cymbeline’s father, a forward-thinking man enamored of the spirit world, vegetarianism, and his daughter’s education, named his daughter for a Shakespearean king—“Not a queen,” he said, “not a girl” (years later it was Leroy who delighted in the coincidence of his name translating to “king” in French and hers being the name of a king, just more evidence that they were meant to be)—instructed her in Dante, Theosophy, American Transcendentalism, Latin, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, since it offered a “foundation for everything.” He made sure she had art classes in the summer though her large family could barely afford them.
But it was when she recited Homer that she realized she wouldn’t want to return once she had left, a thought that had more to do with watching her mother labor in a home where she barely had enough time to sleep, let alone pick up a book or meditate on the spiritual beliefs of Madame Blavatsky. Life on their Seattle farm was so very hard in all the ways that a rural life, where the money seemed to come and go in proportions so exact that growth and debt canceled each other out, is hard. She loved her parents and her brothers and sisters, but, for now, in Dresden, she loved being away more.
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Everyone in Julius Weisz’s class was expected to attend the International Photographic Exposition. Cymbeline had been twice already, looking again at Stieglitz’s work—his pictures taking on a more personal meaning now that she herself was studying in Germany, much as he had twenty years before—but the work that really held her belonged to Baron de Meyer: all that glamour, all those elegant dreams embodied in still lifes and portraits.
Julius Weisz said, “There is an arrogance in the demand for the viewer’s attention.” He went on to say that if the photographer isn’t going to pay attention to the picture he is making, that if he thinks the camera is just a machine and not an avenue of expression, then he has no business asking anyone for anything, let alone their time and interest. Don’t show the world, he said, invent the world.
In this regard, the soft-edged beauty of the de Meyers was extreme. His graceful universe was like seeing life on a star. The fashions worn by the models always went one luxurious step, one extravagant diamond and pearl necklace, one highly stylized headdress or sleeve further. Her favorite picture was of two hydrangea blossoms, their stems suspended in a drinking glass, bending over the side as if they meant to fall: the glass, the water, the table, the wall ethereal. At first glance, the photograph was as simple in its subject and composition as his pictures with people were baroque.
It was at this very photograph at the exposition where Cymbeline and Julius Weisz caught up with each other.
“What do you think about photographing flowers?” she asked.
“It depends if you’re talking about living flowers or cut flowers.”
She was about to ask him about the difference when he said, “One is memento mori, so to speak. Its life is ended, its appearance in rapid decline. As a photographer you have a completely different set of problems to solve when you photograph cut flowers.”
“Like this picture with the reflection of the water and the table and wall?” she asked. They were looking at de Meyer’s hydrangea blossoms.
“Sure, okay. Let’s take this picture. There is the problem of the light bouncing on the reflection of the water, the glass, the tabletop, and the wall. But any picture could deal with the problem of light. The problem with this picture is greater than that of reflective surfaces—it’s one of death. You invite a profound theme into your work when you choose cut flowers. You are talking about mortality and time moving forward. You are saying that everything, everything we see and experience and love happens uniquely and happens only once. When you take a picture of a flower in a glass you are, paradoxically, capturing evanescence. You are also showing the indifference of Nature. There is no mourning in a flower photograph, only a shrugging of the shoulders.”
“I think it’s beautiful.”
“That would make de Meyer very happy to hear.”
Across from the de Meyers were some photographs of gypsies, dressed in a kind of exotic finery, though Cymbeline’s practiced eye could still make out their scratch living. Next were pictures of New York, so beautiful they could break your heart. Except Cymbeline had been to New York, walking herself to exhaustion during her five days there, and all its beauty could not blind her to the immigrant slums she saw, the overcrowded darkness of some parts of the city. It was her habit, as a photographer, to constantly observe the light, natural or artificial. The poor in these neighborhoods were so crammed together that one of the luxuries they were forced to forgo was sunlight. Strange to think that money bought the sun, which rightfully belonged to no one. Cymbeline slightly amazed that the wealthy would find ways to keep and control something that shouldn’t have been anyone’s to control.
Maybe it was because she had grown up from a poor girl into a young woman who had to watch every penny that things like this often crossed her mind.
“What are you thinking?” asked Julius.
“I’m thinking, Did the photographer set up the shots of the gypsies or were they allowed to be themselves?” She had not forgotten some of the artificial poses the famous portrait photographer in Seattle imposed on his Native American sitters, not to mention the antiquated costumes he forced them to wear.
“Ah, the bad man you worked for at home.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the artifice. It feels condescending.”
“You prefer the unartful de Meyers. The flowers in the crystal bowl, the grown woman in a tiara wearing a cloud of tulle, the man with kohl eyeliner dancing in the costume of a pasha?”
She wandered back to de Meyer’s pictures of his moneyed, arty society, which were pure artifice. She sighed, aware of the contradiction. “I love these. I just do.”
Julius, who had followed her, nodded.
She turned to him. “Perhaps my taste lies somewhere between reality and dreamland.”
“Why not meet me tomorrow at the Himmlisch Garten? We’ll talk about people and life.”
“People and life?”
“I mean portraits and flowers.”
She laughed. She liked his teasing.
A young man, somewhere in age between Cymbeline and Julius, and whom she thought she recognized, hurried over. As he slid his body between them, addressing Julius, he subtly forced Cymbeline out. “Julius, Sie müssen kommen und sehen,” pulling him by the hand toward the adjacent gallery with Cymbeline hesitantly tagging along.
The trio entered the high-ceilinged room to find a large crowd gathered in the far corner. From their vantage point they had to keep readjusting their sight line to see the man speaking.
“This little camera is affixed like so—” said the man speaking, holding a pigeon firmly, though not unkindly, in his hands. He held it aloft so everyone could see the tiny camera that was part of the harness buckled to the bird’s breast. There was a sound of birds cooing.
“The Bavarian Pigeon Corps, whom we are happy to introduce to you today, has been taking aerial photos for us since 1903. This camera takes automatic exposures at thirty-second intervals during the bird’s travel. On the wall behind me, you can see the results.” Through the interstices of the crowd, Cymbeline could see the photographs hung on the walls without being able to make out their contents.
The pigeon man, a Herr Neubronner, who, as it happened, was the inventor of the avian camera harness, began handing out penny postcards of the bird-shot aerial photographs.
One of the cards made it all the way back to Cymbeline, Julius, and the young man who stood near the arched doorway of the gallery. As she studied the picture, she marveled at the wonder of seeing the earth from the clouds. The closest she’d ever come to something like that was when she had hiked up a very tall mountain, though it didn’t seem anywhere close to peering down with nothing but sky below your feet. For a fleeting moment she thought about what her father, the animal lover, would have said about these birds being pressed into service wearing this ridiculous apparatus.
As she went to hand the postcard back to Julius, she noticed the young man whispering something in German to him, his hand resting lightly on the back of Julius’s jacket. This single, unremarkable gesture struck her as unbearably intimate; she could neither stand it, nor walk away.
He was saying something that made Julius laugh. Now she remembered: She had seen him once, in profile, when she was passing Julius’s office. He was sitting across from Julius’s desk, laughing and talking. Another time he was drinking coffee in a student café near the school. She had a hard time determining his age, something she attributed to his having the curly hair of a Renaissance angel.
“I am rude. I am sorry,” said the young man to Cymbeline, as if he’d only just now noticed her. “I am Otto Girondi. I teach maths at the school, and I think I may have seen you there.”
“I think I’ve seen you—” The loud, collective ooohhh of the crowd interrupted her. The small flock of pigeons had been released in the room and were diving and climbing as they swept about the gallery. It was difficult to count the number of birds because of their intersecting flight patterns, but there seemed to be at least a dozen.
Herr Neubronner announced in a loud, excited voice that these birds were, at this very moment, taking aerial photos of everyone below! Cymbeline stepped back, taking refuge under the archway, having lived among animals long enough to know that a bird doesn’t care if it’s inside or outside when it comes to its droppings. Julius and Otto crowded in next to her at the first cry of someone on the receiving end of earthbound waste. It was from this vantage point that the three watched a crowd first entranced, then panicked at the amount of scat falling upon them.
One bird landed on a woman’s hat, another on a man’s bare head, his hair worse for the experience; mostly they swooped and made a mess as amazement turned to chaos, with Herr Neubronner alternately trying to redirect the birds and regain the crowd’s attention. No one listened as they fled the room in their now white-flecked clothing, Cymbeline, Julius, and Otto pressing themselves against the outside wall of the adjacent room.
Cymbeline caught somewhere between amusement and disbelief. “Just when I was worried that taking a decent picture required no greater skill than having a camera strapped to my chest.”
“You don’t need a class,” said Otto, “you need a dovecote.”
“And a raincoat,” said Julius, laughing along with the other two. He barely touched Cymbeline on her shoulder, his hand almost hovering. “The Himmlisch on Saturday,” he reminded her. “Bring your camera. Buckled to your body.”
And just as quickly as she felt the three of them united in their luck at missing the Wrath of the Bavarian Pigeon Corps, she again felt excluded from the company of the men. She couldn’t say why, or how, this happened; she was accustomed to feeling outside the groups of her male classmates, but this was different. This was a puzzle she couldn’t quite put together.
“I want you to see the difference when photographing flowers in the garden.” Julius was coaching Cymbeline as he set up to take pictures of the few flowers still in bloom in the Himmlisch Garten before the season finally changed. She was more interested in the shrubs and the trees, with their variety of leaves and branches.
“I can’t attach any meaning to any of this,” she said. “That is, I don’t know why I would want to take these pictures.” Nor could she attach any meaning to his interest in instructing her outside of class, an interaction that left her unable to completely get her bearings.
“We can’t always photograph that which engages us—unless you are a rich girl prowling around for a hobby. Something that you can tell your friends about. Some sort of Kodak Girl,” he said in reference to the advertising posters of a well-to-do girl with a Kodak camera. A pretty amateur. The ad campaign encouraged photography as a harmless hobby, something to do before marriage.
She told herself, He is teaching me. He is a teacher. Not a friend. Not a lover. Yet the tone of his voice and his implication that she was unserious in her pursuit of photography cut her. It was unlike her to be so sensitive to something some man said—she had spent enough time with men in chemistry class and botany labs and working for the famous, awful photographer to disregard their remarks as they often disregarded her. Even an internationally established photographer like Alfred Stieglitz (something of a guiding light for her), whom she’d met when passing through New York, could barely hide his impatience as she confessed her ambition to have a picture appear in Camera Work.
She had wondered at times why her father bought her art lessons or encouraged her to attend the university. It wasn’t lost on Cymbeline that everyone loved and admired the eccentric heiress, the rich girl who defied societal expectations. It was the rebellious working-class girl they mistrusted; not only should she be working but she should be working for them. Cymbeline had learned from a very early age that money buys things that people with money never even realize they’ve bought, like time and freedom. Because their privilege came to them so naturally, it was unimaginable that others didn’t have it too; that is to say, if others didn’t have it, perhaps that was because it would be wasted on them, the rich always seeming to believe themselves meant for better things.
There was something tough at her core, Cymbeline knew. Was it being singled out by her father, who’d named her for a king, or was it wanting to be a photographer, so much so that she would suffer anything to have it?
After months in Julius’s class, she was seldom invited to study sessions or included in coffee-fueled discussions with her male classmates. They weren’t rude to her; she didn’t count enough for rudeness. True, she was older than most of them, but not by much. And she knew that she wasn’t a common beauty, something that shouldn’t matter yet always does.
The closest she came to any sort of professional camaraderie was when one of her classmates—perhaps the most talented—asked if she would sit for him. He explained that he needed the practice since he planned to open the best studio in Berlin, then said that he’d heard she had some skill in printing, so it was possible that he would allow her to print something for him. And, he added, if all went well, maybe she could do even more work for him. No pay, of course, but what a great opportunity for her to hone her darkroom skills, and besides it would free him up to take more pictures.
Cymbeline said, “Maybe,” while thinking about the rustic darkroom her father had built for her during her college years, where she printed by candlelight coming from a red paper box. There were all those botanical slides, not to mention the conceited Seattle photographer and the sheer luck of being able to work with his German assistant, who’d taught her so well and so patiently. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day for her own photography, especially when she was diligent enough to try to get it right.
She thought about the way the men in her class went on and on about their ambitions, philosophies, and ideas without ever asking her a single question. She thought about the confidence it took to believe that only what you did was important, that a man’s artistic perspective of the world was the only perspective.
It was a funny place for women photographers where they were accepted into the profession (usually taking soft-focus Pictorialist scenes of domesticity)—some were quite well-known—and they were always a half step behind their male counterparts.
So when Julius Weisz made his remark about her work as a hobby, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before. What was new was hearing it from him.
Julius sighed. “You should understand that I’m not asking you to find the thing in a subject that engages you—rather I am suggesting you see that subject in a whole new way—as photographer, see it so that everything will interest you.” He said, “You can do this, Cymbeline.”
Here was the strange thing: She understood absolutely that he believed in her ability, yet his belief had the effect of suddenly making her doubt herself. And something else, too; she had a moment of hard clarity that her life, her woman’s life, would be full of choices—ordinary ones a man might not even see as choices but as “life”—that would constantly be canceling each other out.
“These plants may not mean anything to you because you aren’t ready to understand them. Listen, we are not always meant to get everything all at once. And what I mean is that they may not have any complexity for you right now—not like the cut flowers with their combination of beauty and decay, right? Like trying to hold on to nothing. You need to see that everything has something underneath. The seen and the hidden. Nothing is what it seems to be—the underneath. Do you understand?
“It’s okay,” he said. “Come. I have someplace else to show you.”
Julius explained that the palace rooms where they stood were called Wunderkammers, or wonder rooms. Souvenirs of nature, of travels across continents and seas; jewels and skulls. A show of wealth, intellect, power.
The first room had rose-colored glass walls, with rubies and garnets and bloodred drapes of damask. Bowls of blush quartz; semiprecious stone roses running the spectrum of red down to pink, a hard, glittering garden. The vaulted ceiling, a feature of all of the ten rooms Julius and Cymbeline visited, was a trompe l’oeil of a rosy sky at dawn, golden light edging the morning clouds.
The next room was of sapphire and sea and sky; lapis lazuli, turquoise and gold and silver. A silver mermaid lounged on the edge of a lapis lazuli bowl fashioned in the shape of an ocean. Venus stood aloft on the waves draped in pearls. There were gold fish and diamond fish and faceted sterling silver starfish. Silvered mirrors edged in silvered mirror. There were opals and aquamarines and tanzanite and amethyst. Seaweed bloomed in shades of blue-green marble. The ceiling was a dome of endless, pale blue.
A jungle room of mica and marble followed, with its rain forest of cats made from tiger’s-eye, yellow topaz birds, tortoiseshell giraffes with stubby horns of spun gold. Carved clouds of smoky quartz hovered over a herd of obsidian and ivory zebras. Javelinas of spotted pony hide charged tiny, life-size dik-diks with velvet hides, and dazzling diamond antlers mingled with miniature stuffed sable minks. Agate columns painted a medley of dark greens were strung with faceted ropes of green gold.
A room of ivory: bone, teeth, skulls, and velvet.
A room crowded with columns all sheathed in mirrors, reflecting world maps and globes and atlases inlaid with silver, platinum, and white gold; the rubies and diamonds that were sometimes set to mark the location of a city or a town of conquest resembled blood and tears.
A room dominated by a fireplace large enough to hold several people, upholstered in velvets and silks the colors of flame. Snakes of gold with orange sapphire and yellow topaz eyes coiled around the room’s columns.
Statues of smiling black men in turbans offering trays of every gem imaginable—emerald, sapphire, ruby, topaz, diamond—stood at the entrance to a room upholstered in pistachio velvet, accented with malachite, called the Green Vault. Peridot wood nymphs attended to a Diana carved from a single pure crystal of quartz studded with tiny tourmalines. Jade tables, and jade lanterns. The royal jewels, blinding in their sparkling excess: crowns, tiaras, coronets, diadems, heavy ceremonial necklaces, rings, and bracelets that could span a forearm, surrounding the world’s largest and most perfect green diamond.
Above it all was a night sky of painted stars, with inlaid cut crystal set in a series of constellations.
Cymbeline had to sit down once they were outside the palace because she felt that she had just been miniaturized and trapped in a box of heat and light. It was if she had narrowly escaped a place meant to be astonishing and unworldly and desirable where all she felt was anxiety.
As she slowly recovered from this fever dream of opulence, she turned to Julius and said, “You’ve made your point. Something so glittering like—”
“—Grünes Gewölbe or, in English, Green Vault—”
“—could be heaven for someone like—” She looked to him.
“—August the Strong, who built it in the early eighteenth century—”
“—but it’s unbearable to me, even though I can see the appeal for someone else. What should be thought of as beautiful is really a show of power, though it could be thought to be merely beautiful. But it isn’t—it’s intimidating. I understand now: There’s always an underneath.”
“No, no, Cymbeline.” He laughed. “I only took you there because I thought you might like to see it. Not as a student—as a tourist. So when you went home you could tell your friends that you saw the famous Dresden Green Diamond. This was not meant to scare you.” Now they were both laughing.
Winter came and went, with spring appearing and everything coming back to itself. The air was cool and sweet. Cymbeline was still on her own much of the time, except when she was with Julius Weisz. It wasn’t difficult to see how they formed the friendship that began with taking photo journeys around Dresden, with Julius as tour guide. They would meet somewhere—a garden, a church, a palace, a neighborhood, a platz, a riverside—she with her five-by-seven camera and extra dry plates in her small black leather suitcase, and he with his Kodak roll-film camera.
Eventually the time spent together lengthened, and they would linger over coffee and a pastry. On other days, they would dine together at lunch, occasionally dinner. They talked about photography, and chemistry. Cymbeline explained her experiments that had led to a paper that spring called “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones.” They talked about the use of color, of how to use a romantic blur without being sentimental—“I abhor sentimentality,” she told him. They found more aerial photos, pictures taken from tethered hot-air balloons, kites, even small rockets. Maybe it was the fact of Cymbeline’s time in Dresden drawing to a close that edged their many conversations into more personal topics.
“Cymbeline, Cymbeline,” Julius said, “is that a common name for American girls?”
“My father has some interesting ideas about women, like giving them men’s names. He once made us live in a spiritual commune on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington.”
“A spiritual commune? Like a place of ghosts?”
“No, but he believes in those too.”
“I would like to meet this father of yours.”
Then there were times when Cymbeline felt they were speaking in code; she would offer an opinion, say, about the recent hunger strikes of the jailed militant British suffragettes, and the increasing violence toward women, and Julius’s ambiguous response about being “allowed to be who you are” would leave her to wonder what, exactly, they were talking about. It was similar to when her family members would have loud, lively and slightly aggressive political discussions that seemed to have little to do with politics and everything to do with the friction between certain family members. All those unresolved disagreements that cannot be addressed directly lest the confrontation cause permanent damage, the unkind words and frustrations laid bare. Much better to dress it up in something like politics.
Her confusion was that Julius sought her out, seeming to enjoy her company, but in what way she wasn’t entirely sure. There were times when she felt nothing but the warmth of friendship and professional camaraderie. It was the other times that threw her, when she was aware of a spark much like the little flash from the day they ran into each other at The Procession of Princes. Most likely she was simply one more temporary student-friend in a long line of temporary student-friends. It seemed so unsurprising, that students and professors sharing the same interests would share a friendship. Then the students grew up, moved on, or went home (like Cymbeline) while Julius remained in place. And maybe he was a little lonely too?
Cymbeline also noticed him “giving her the once-over twice,” as her sister Ruby would say. Cymbeline was shy around men; she was not shy around Julius.
Then there were the times when he seemed to disappear outside of class and she wouldn’t see him for days. And other times when he was with her—yet not with her—and she knew enough not to ask where he was when his attention was so clearly elsewhere.
She told herself it was a German thing, something cultural that she didn’t understand. She told herself that she didn’t ask because she didn’t want to be rude, when, in truth, she didn’t want to know. It had occurred to her that he might be married; no one wants to be in love with a married man. There. She admitted it. She was in love with Julius Weisz.
The trip to Berlin came about because Julius told her, “You really should see Berlin before you leave.” Though she very much wanted to visit Berlin, if for no other reason than that it was the city of Alfred Stieglitz, she demurred. “What would be your hesitation?” he asked.
Going away with you, she wanted to say, because I have no idea what it means to go away with you. Instead she said, “I’m not sure I have the money for it.”
They would take the train, he said, spend the day and return that evening. “You will be my guest,” he said. “Cymbeline, you have never seen anything like Berlin. It’s one of those cities that can’t be mistaken for someplace else.”
So this is how Cymbeline ended up disembarking from a train at the Anhalter Bahnhof, a vast cathedral of a train station flooded with light and possessing four separate waiting rooms, including one used exclusively by the Hohenzollerns. They stepped out of the station and into a crazy intersection of five converging boulevards (“Potsdamer Platz,” said Julius). The sheer volume of pedestrians, trolleys, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, pushcarts, motorcars, and carriages was exhilarating. There were newsboys and flower sellers. Tram bells and horses’ hooves and car horns. There were men in elaborate uniforms escorting elegant women. It was a jolt: the noise, the smells, the buying and selling and rushing and strolling and conversing and meeting and parting amid all the enormous buildings housing offices, stores and shops, cafés, theaters, and packed restaurants, spilling people into the streets. It was the thrill of being in the congested center of such a metropolitan city, populated by shopgirls, workmen, noblemen with their formal manners and air of entitlement; students, local and foreign. Scientists, artists, musicians. Poets. Factory owners, department store owners, bankers, and purveyors of fine goods. People passing through, people without the means to move on.
On this unseasonably warm spring day, Cymbeline knew happiness. And when Julius took her arm, she thought, Yes, this is where I was always meant to be.
“I thought we would wander and see what we find,” said Julius, as they threaded through the throng, passing a rather garish and massive establishment claiming an entire street corner, its name emblazoned across the facade.
“Piccadilly?” asked Cymbeline, coming to a stop.
Julius tried to pull her away.
“Let’s go to the Tiergarten,” he said. The Tiergarten was Berlin’s wildly lush city park.
But she wouldn’t budge, watching patrons come and go from the Piccadilly. “It isn’t as if we have to be somewhere,” she said.
“You won’t like it.”
“How do you know?”
“It isn’t what you expect.”
“Now you’ve just convinced me.”
“Well, then, if you insist,” said Julius, reluctantly escorting her toward the door. He stopped her from entering by placing his hands on her shoulders. “Yes,” he said as they stood face-to-face, “you really should see all that Berlin has to offer.”
“You think I’ll be shocked.”
“What’s the American expression? ‘It’s your death.’ Yes?”
“Funeral. ‘It’s your funeral.’ ”
In truth, there was a line for Cymbeline, despite her practice of free love and her unorthodox upbringing, so called for the collision of her father’s progressive and traditional beliefs, and, to a certain extent, the bohemian life she was choosing. When sex was too raw, too divorced from feeling, it displaced her. However, her knee-jerk response to someone predicting her preferences, combined with her persistent natural desire for experience, pulled her through the oversize doors.
Her eyes had to adjust from the simple sunlight of the day to being in a theatrically lit, multistory space that rivaled the train station in scale and seemed almost as populated and diverse as the platz outside. There was a grand common space, ringed with myriad rooms, whose entrances were gathered velvet drapes, or swaths of see-through silk, or strings of colored-glass beads. There were privacy booths and standing floor screens. Swan boats floated on a lake in a lobby large enough to prevent the boats from colliding.
It wasn’t just the chaos and cut-crystal chandeliers, the painted murals and ceiling of copper stars, or the four gracefully turned staircases carved with mermaids and sea monsters; it was the clash of costumes, decor, and music in many languages. All of which fractured Cymbeline’s focus into a dozen directions, everything in competition with everything else. “What is this place?” she whispered, though Julius could not hear her.
“Welcome to the poor man’s European tour.”
“Ah, this is clearly the Bavarian Room, and located, as it should be, next to the Viennese Room through the archway there, so noted for its own overblown operatic bluster. But first, let’s step out onto the Moorish terrace.”
She followed him in a daze, taking in the abundant national clichés that decorated the rooms (Bavarian, Viennese, Spanish) where patrons dined, drank, gambled, or all three at once. The serving staff were clothed according to their assigned countries, serving the German interpretation of each location’s cuisine.
Cymbeline and Julius leaned on the carved balcony of Black Forest hunting scenes that divided the Moorish terrace from the main floor. Along the man-made lake was a replica of a Paris quay.
“And I thought you were going to corrupt me,” said Cymbeline.
“I said you’d be shocked.”
“Shall we see what’s upstairs?”
As they mounted one of the curved stairways, Cymbeline said, “It’s a kitsch palace.”
“No!” Julius exclaimed as they arrived on the second floor. “It’s France! Next to Vienna!”
The third floor revealed a Budapest ballroom, with champagne, caviar, dancing, and cabaret. Tucked off in the far corner was a café festooned with enough draping to mimic a Bedouin tent, where harem girls served Turkish coffee.
The American Wild West Bar, located on the fourth floor, had patrons dancing to a black jazz band.
“Chicago jazz? In the Old West?” she said.
“What were they thinking?” He sighed. “It was all so perfect until the jazz. What do you say we return to the Rhineland and I’ll buy you a beer?”
Back on the main floor they settled into a swan boat, with a Japanese parasol resting against the upholstered bench. They floated on the indoor lake, under the imitation night sky studded with tiny lights, watching boys in lederhosen serve steins of beer to patrons sitting on blankets along the “shore.” Italian opera played in the background.
Cymbeline opened the oversize parasol, saying, “Do you think someone left this here?” Then she was startled by the sudden clap of thunder and a traveling crack of fake lightning that illuminated the fake night sky, followed by a brief downpour. She laughed as she pulled in close to Julius, who was laughing too. “That was like a one-sided conversation with God,” said Julius.
“I rather like their interpretation of the Old West as Indians waiting on cowboys. You think it’s a government land issue when it was about tipping all along.”
The stars twinkled above them in a field of indigo as Julius rowed over to the bank to receive more beer from one of the lederhosen boys. Cymbeline, who rarely drank, was feeling the alcohol. She reclined in the swan boat, relaxed, her eyes closed. Julius trailed his hand in the water. They didn’t speak, but it was a silence of contentment.
“Aren’t you glad you made me bring you in he
Eight Girls Taking Pictures
This captivating novel opens in 1917 as Cymbeline Kelley surveys the charred remains of her photography studio, destroyed in a fire started by a woman hired to help take care of the house while Cymbeline pursued her photography career. This tension— between wanting and needing to be two places at once; between domestic duty and ambition; between public and private life; between what’s seen and what’s hidden from view—echoes in the stories of the other seven women in the book. Among them: Amadora Allesbury, who creates a world of color and whimsy in an attempt to recapture the joy lost to WWI; Clara Argento, who finds her voice working alongside socialist revolutionaries in Mexico; Lenny Van Pelt, a gorgeous model who feels more comfortable photographing the deserted towns of the French countryside after WWII than she does at a couture fashion shoot; and Miri Marx, who has traveled the world taking pictures, but also loves her quiet life as a wife and mother in her New York apartment. Crisscrossing the world and a century, Eight Girls Taking Pictures is an affecting meditation on the conflicts women face and the choices they make. These memorable characters seek extraordinary lives through their work, yet they also find meaning and reward in the ordinary tasks of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. Most of all, this novel is a vivid portrait of women in love—in love with men, other women, children, their careers, beauty, and freedom.
As she did in her bestselling novel How to Make an American Quilt, Whitney Otto offers a finely woven, textured inquiry into the intersecting lives of women. Eight Girls Taking Pictures is her most ambitious book: a bold, immersive, and unforgettable narrative that shows how the art, loves, and lives of the past influence our present.
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Reading Group Guide
This mesmerizing novel reimagines the public and private lives of eight groundbreaking female photographers and illuminates their shared dreams and struggles. Eight Girls Taking Pictures offer a fascinating portrait gallery of spirited, creative women across time and against the backdrop of some of the twentieth century’s most momentous events. Eight Girls Taking Pictures is about women and the tension they experience—between wanting a private life or a public life; love or passion; art or domesticity; children or creative freedom. Each of these women comes from different circumstances and live at different times in history, yet, they all struggle with similar desires, dreams, and aspirations.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Eight Girls Taking Pictures spans the greater part of the twentieth century. How did the roles of women in society change during this time? How about women artists specifically? What might 21st-century women be able to learn from the novel’s main characters?