Friday, November 6, 2015

Henry White, the hero of "The Lisbon Portfolio" is the antithesis of Daniel Craig's Bond character. He's timid and not very physical. But he has a good brain and knows how to use it....

A short excerpt from near the end of the story:

Henry walked up the cobblestone street with its irregular sidewalks and savored the bustle of daily life among people with normal concerns. He was heading for a major intersection two blocks away. He would catch a taxi there and head back to pick up the rest of his belongings from a room at the Four Seasons. He was still woozy from the beta blockers, and exhausted from the anxiety of recent events. He also had a profound sense of loss.

He walked slowly down the street trying to sort out his feelings. Trying to separate the side effects of powerful drugs from his genuine sense of loss. Then it hit him. He’d lost his cameras. His identity. The tools of his self image. But as he continued in a slow, tired walk, weighted down by the beta blockers, he refined his self inquiry. He dissected his sense of having been diminished. He didn’t miss the digital cameras. They would be replaced by models that were newer and faster and sharper. He missed his Leica rangefinder camera very much.

And why not? It had been his companion from the beginning. Shared space in every hotel room. Shared the glories of his life and documented them well. Two more steps and he stopped to catch his breath. He knew the beta blockers would limit his heart rate and cause him to tire easily. He put a hand out and supported himself for a moment against the brick wall of an older shop. The dizzyness started to recede. He caught a glimpse of himself in the shop window looking older and grayer. And tired. Then he looked past his own reflection and saw a display of new cameras just inside the window on a set of glass shelves. He couldn’t resist and he stepped into the shop, introduced by the tinkling of a small bell over the door.

The camera store was small and most of the shelves were made of dark wood. They were filled with a collection of cameras that spanned decades. At the end of the store, seated behind another wooden counter, was an older gentleman with gray hair turning to white. He wore a white shirt, open at the collar. Over that he wore a navy blue, v-neck sweater. Glasses with thick black rims sat just so across the bridge of his large nose. He’d been writing on processing envelopes stacked in front of him on the counter and the man looked up at Henry made his way slowly down the length of the room, stopping to marvel at an old Speed Graphic view camera and then an Argus A-4 snapshot camera from the 1950’s.

Henry loved camera stores and he took this one in like a precious treat. He noticed faded posters for films long ago discontinued and he saw open cigar boxes full of orphaned filters. Behind the man at the counter was a wooden shelf with a series of diagonal cubbies into which dozens of boxes of thirty-five millimeter film were piled. Some from Kodak, some from Fuji and some from Agfa. Red, green  and yellow.

“May I help you?” asked the camera store man in nearly perfect English.

“How did you know I spoke English?” asked Henry with a little touch of paranoia.

“I traveled many places when I was a bit younger. I looked at your shoes and your haircut. I saw the way you shop. Without direction or need. It just came to me that you might speak English. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“Not at all,” lied Henry. He felt a continued sense of unease.

“I was a photographer once too,” the man continued, in a nonchalant way. “I learned to observe the things around me.”
The man’s smile was genuine and Henry felt himself becoming calm.

The old man continued, “Can I help you find something? A new camera perhaps?” He waved in a general way to all the cameras around him. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“I had an older camera that I really loved. It got... it got ruined the other day and I doubt I’ll be able to find another one like it here.” Henry felt both sad and embarrassed by what he’d said. He didn’t want the shop owner to take his comment the wrong way.

“What brand were you looking for?” asked the old man, getting slowly out of the high backed chair and leaning forward onto the counter, across from Henry.

“A Leica M series rangefinder,” stated Henry with an air of hopelessness. “That and a fifty millimeter Summicron lens for it.”

“I have just one. And you are in luck. It has the lens you asked for on the front of it.” The old man reached down behind the counter and pulled an ancient black canvas camera bag, the size of a child’s lunch box, out onto the table. “I must warn you that the camera is quite worn.” The man continued, his old, knobby fingers expertly clicking open the bag’s stays and reaching in. He pulled out a black, enamelled Leica M4 with a rare, black enameled, fifty millimeter, seven element Summicron lens mounted on it. The camera was worn but not neglected. There was not a bump or a dent anywhere on the smooth surface of the camera body but every corner and every dial showed the elegant brass metal peeking through the black enamel paint. The ultimate patina of loving use.

Henry looked up at the man’s now sad, lined face and knew in an instant that this was the shopkeeper's personal camera.

“I can’t buy this camera from you. You know what this camera is worth. I can see what it means to you. It would feel wrong.”

The old man ignored Henry. He was putting the camera through its paces. He fired the shutter at the slow shutter speeds and listened to the precision workings whir quietly. His wrinkled fingers, decorated with age marks here and there, delicately worked the focus of the lens, and Henry could see that the fingers were intimate with the metal cylinder. It was also showing bright spots of brass. The man could have been blindfolded and given ten identical models and Henry was sure he would be able to pick out his own camera purely by touch and by its sound. Like the voice of one’s own child.

“I am retiring. Someone has bought my shop. I am going to live with my daughter, in Sintra. This is a camera that should see the world, not lie in the dresser drawer of an old man, pulled out to shoot photographs of children blowing out candles on birthday cakes. I’ve had my adventures and I don’t regret them.”

The old man put the camera in Henry’s hands and turned around to pull several books and a large leather album off a dark wooden shelf behind him. He turned back around to Henry and showed him the first book. It was a hardback photo book containing black and white photographs of Lisbon. The images showed people caught in the act of being alive in the capitol city during the 1940’s and the 1950’s. The images were beautiful. A rich sense of humanity combined with rigorous composition.

The old man moved the books aside and opened the leather bound album. On page after archival page warm sensual photographs captured the beauty of a bright eyed woman as she grew from her teens into old age. Each photograph was more haunting and lovely that the one before it. Henry would have thought that a woman would be most beautiful in her youth and then slowly, or quickly, over the course of years she would lose her looks. But the woman in these photographs seemed to grow in beauty as she aged. Her eyes always clear and bright. Right up to the last photograph, dated just a year earlier.

Henry felt his throat tighten with emotion. He had seen countless photographs by famous and not so famous photographers but he had never seen anything as intimate and compelling as the photographs in this album. He looked up into the eyes of the man behind the counter and knew that the old shopkeeper was the photographer. The man’s thick black rimmed glasses magnified the tears in his own eyes. He took a white cotton handkerchief and wiped them away. He took a moment to compose himself.

“I’ve had a good life. But I was feeling sad. I have always used a Leica camera and this was my last one. I have been sad that I might pass on and no one around me would appreciate this tool. I was thinking about this when you walked into my shop. I have learned that everything happens as it should happen.” He took a deep breath and placed the books and the album back on the shelf behind him. And then he turned around to face Henry.

Henry and the old man spent the better part of an hour talking about photography. And about life. The man’s name was Ernesto Salazar. He had known many great artists and a many great photographers. He’d been to the most interesting corners of the earth. And now, like all men, he was growing old and becoming lost in the changes that life makes, generation after generation. Henry understood; he was beginning the long process of loosing touch with now, with the present. Lately he felt as though he’d stuck a foot into an inexorable pond of quicksand. But he knew that Salazar was already up to his chest in the sticky goo of life’s rhythmic decays.

“I have to go,” said Henry, wistfully. But he made no move to retreat. A bond of similarity and deep understanding had been solidly formed. He felt as though he was abandoning the old man.

“I understand. Would you like to buy the camera?” Salazar’s voice did not reveal any of the emotion he likely felt.

“I would. If you are sure.” Henry was embarrassed to take the camera from the old man. Embarrassed to reduce their encounter to a transaction. “How much are you asking?” he said quietly.

“Whatever you think is fair.”

Henry pulled four thousand dollars from the envelope he’d retrieved from Senhora Ventura. He placed it on the desk and looked up at the old man.
“Is this enough?” asked Henry, ready to pay at least a thousand more.

It was Salazar’s turn to be embarrassed. He knew the value of the camera and the lens and even though it was a rare model with an even rarer lens it was well worn. Collectors only paid prices like the one Henry offered for examples that were pristinely maintained. Most preferred cameras that had never been removed from their packaging except for the occasional exercising of the shutter mechanism.

“It’s far too much. You know that it is too much. I read Shutterbug Magazine, and even though it comes to me a month later here in Portugal I know that the camera, with the lens, is worth only half of that,” Salazar spoke firmly. He slid half of the money back across the table at Henry.

Henry smiled. He slid the money back to the old man and said, “Some cameras are lemons and never seem to work right. Some cameras seem to push their owners to do better work. And some seem like magic. I would gladly pay a premium for a camera that’s been tested so thoroughly.” The old man smiled a resigned smile.
Henry continued, “I can tell from your photographs that this camera must be one of the magic ones. No photographer creates so many great images in one lifetime without a bit of help.” He held the camera in his hands and was amazed to find that it fit so perfectly. Even more perfectly than the one it was replacing.

“It just feels so right,” smiled Henry to himself as much as to his friend. “I need a bag as well. Is that small canvas one for sale?
Salazar smiled and pushed the ancient camera bag towards him. “This, I will throw in as part of the deal. They are like brother and sister. But humor me, my friend, and let me also give you some film. What good is the best camera without film?”
With that he turned around and pulled twenty yellow boxes off the shelf. All the film was Kodak’s black and white Tri-X. He pushed it across the counter at Henry and said, “I have a feeling that this is a film you in particular might enjoy.”

Henry smiled and began stacking the film into the worn, soft canvas bag and then with a warm smile and the exchange of sincere best wishes Henry headed out into the street to find his cab. To start his trip home.

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