The first time I saw her my lens was blurred-not surprising, since I was peering through a view camera. She stepped into my frame, then stood there out of focus. It was a while before I could make her out.
But even when I did, when I thought I knew who she was and who she wasn't, my vision was still blurred. It took me a long time to discover that. And then it was too late.
It had been a steaming hot July day, the kind of bad day of high humidity and noxious fumes you get in Manhattan in the summer months.
Then it rained in the early evening-a hard, fast summer rain. A little after midnight, unable to sleep, I went out looking for something to photograph. The streets were wet and smelled of iron, and there was a scent of dead flowers in the air.
I set up a couple of times in the lower reaches of Soho, executed two night scapes ('Urban Night scapes by Geoffrey Barnett'). But even as I was taking the exposures, and they were long, I knew pretty well I was wasting my time.
I headed west then, into Tribeca, prowling a neighborhood near the river, dark lonely streets of old five-story warehouses, The buildings were dark, except for an occasional loft converted into a residence, and when I spotted one of those from down on the street, I could tell the people who lived up there had built themselves a little paradise-I saw lights hanging from ceiling tracks and the tops of huge paintings mounted on the walls.
It was on Desbrosses Street, around 2:00 A.M., that I finally found something that I liked: a brick-building wall on which the silhouette of a man, ecstatic and spread-eagled, had been painted with some kind of tar.
I recognized the style. It was the work of an anonymous environmental artist whose paintings had begun during the winter to appear on walls downtown. Arms flailing, torsos twisted, his figures seemed to be pinned against the bricks by fusillades of bullets.
But there was more than the painting that drew my attention to that particular stretch of wall. A gleaming white stretch Cadillac limousine was parked just in front. There was a driver inside. I couldn't see his face; the glass was the kind that's black and opaque. But I knew he was there because I could see the smoke from his cigarette curling out of an open inch of window.
I liked the vision: that long sleek white car, ghostlike beneath the streetlamp, set before that painting of the executed man. And as I stared I knew just how I wanted to shoot it too: straight on, from across the street, the car off-center, the harsh painting strong on the right. It was so good it could have been my trademark shot-a mysterious, menacing vision of an empty city street at night.
I set up my tripod, put a 120mm. on my Deardorff, pulled my focusing cloth over my head, and began to frame and focus. I had everything composed about the way I wanted it, when I was confronted by the face of a young woman who had wandered into my frame. She stood there staring at my lens.
'Are you an alien creature?' she asked.
Since I was focused on the wall, I couldn't make her out.
'Keep moving, please? You're blocking my shot.'
'You look pretty funny,' she said.
'You seem to have five legs.'
'You must be the local comedian?' I said. She moved closer, taking up most of the frame.
'Thanks,' I said.
'Do you think you could get even more in the way?'
Still she didn't move.
'Car's great, isn't it? Belongs to the people I'm with. I've heard about the guy who does those wall paintings back there. they call him the Shadow Painter. Frankly I like the shadows better than the paint.'
'What? Oh! Sure.' She finally moved.
'You here on account of Lil's?'
'What's Lil's?' I was checking my edges. 'Thought everyone knew that.'
'Not me.' I couldn't wait to get rid of her. When you're working on the street, curious civilians can be a real pain.
'It's a club. See the door down the block? I just thought-you know, lots of famous people going in and out… Can I look?' She was standing beside me now. I smelled her perfume, dark and musky, as she crowded in to peer.
'Don't touch the camera,' I warned her, then stepped back and studied her as she bent forward. Her figure was good. Her skimpy black dress, damp from the exertions of dancing, clung tightly to her back. Her ringlets of light tawny hair were wet where they touched her neck.
'It's upside down.'
'That's the way it looks through a lens.'
She turned to me then, and for the first time I saw her face: young, clean features as perfect as a model's, but more giving, more sultry, perhaps the face of a young actress, I thought. Her cheekbones were high, her eyes were almost feline, her mouth was slightly open and her lips were beautifully carved. I thought of the young Lauren Bacall; she had that same handsome smile.
She didn't act wacky, though, not like the multitude of lost, stoned, punked-out girls who wander through the downtown clubs snorting coke and dancing until the dawn. So much free-floating powder in the clubs, I'd heard, you snort the stuff just breathing in the air.
'What are you shooting?'
'A chunk of time.'
'Hmmm. Enigmatic,' she said.
'How big a chunk?'
Something about the way she phrased her question changed my feeling about her. Suddenly I didn't want her to go away.
'About twenty-five minutes,' I said.
'I'll close down the aperture, then strobe the wall.'
'Too bad. The car'll be gone before you're finished. It's leaving as soon as my friends come out.' She was telling me I was about to lose my picture.
'A chunk of like that.' She laughed, and I took another hit of intoxicating perfume.
'And I like you, Mr. Enigmatic Photographer.' She gazed at me, waiting for a response.
'Well, that's nice,' I said.
'Maybe if I got to know you better, I might get to like you too.'
'Maybe you could get to know me better.'
'Maybe I could.'
'You're a photographer. I need some head shots. Would you shoot some for me?' What she was asking was impossible, of course, but I wasn't prepared to tell her so.
'Maybe. I don't know… I said.
'How do I get in touch?'
I pulled out my wallet and handed her my card. She studied it.
'Geoffrey Barnett. Sounds familiar. Have I heard of you?'
I shrugged; she'd asked my least favorite question.
She turned. Four young people were clustered by the Cadillac. She waved to them. A young man with a