The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter: Cover Reveal and Excerpt
By Crime HQNovember 11, 2020
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I caught a glimpse of Amelia Straub through the front entry glass. Then the door swung open, and I stepped inside.
“Delta, darling!” Her large brown eyes landed on me with commitment. “I’m so grateful you made it here in this”—she gestured dramatically in the direction of the storm outside—“this tempest.”
We’d only just met, but the warmth in her voice was that of a close friend. She assumed the best about me. If she had a test, I’d passed it.
Behind her, a floating sculptural staircase, seemingly lit from above, with glass balustrades and bronze railings, ascended dramatically from the stair hall. A wide passage extended the length of the house so that even from the front door, I could see a sparkling kitchen in the back, and three sets of floor-to-ceiling glass-and-steel bifold doors that opened up to a deck and backyard. I’d found before-and-after pictures of the house online—a Greek Revival brownstone in Boerum Hill, with an understated façade and an interior that Amelia and her husband, Fritz, had designed and transformed. But the photos hardly did it justice. Casting my eyes about the house was like viewing a series of paintings, one more striking than the next. In and of itself, the staircase was a work of art, and seen in the context of the home as a whole, it surpassed itself.
Amelia hung my coat in a pristine hall closet next to a sleek purple down Moncler. (I knew the price of that coat: over two thousand.) Her long, slender arms danced gracefully around her body while she told me, in the most effusive terms, how much she admired my work.
She led me to the rear of the house, where a group of well-dressed tween girls sat at a long farmhouse table, in front of more than a dozen plastic containers of beads and chains. I recognized eleven-year-old Natalie Straub in that group because she vaguely resembled her mother. The planes of her face, skin tone, posture, hair texture and quality. These are the things that I notice. When photographing anyone who has a weakness in one of these areas, I compensate with lighting and angles. Natalie did not have a weakness, per se, but neither did she have a particular strength. She was a tall girl who held her arms tightly to her sides, as if she didn’t feel comfortable taking up too much space. In an otherwise bland appearance, I was relieved to see that she had sharp gray eyes. Try photographing a moron. It’s next to impossible. What I’m always looking for is the sparkle in the eyes. The curiosity. If the subject of my photograph is not thinking or doing anything, the photograph comes out blank.
A small girl on Natalie’s right repeatedly swung her red hair over her shoulder, one way and then the other. I overheard bits of the girls’ conversation, mostly having to do with their recent Thanksgiving break. “Montauk,” one girl said. “Insane traffic.”
Natalie had an oval face, fair, almost translucent skin, and nondescript dirty-blond hair. I could predict that her mother would take her to a colorist when she turned thirteen, or maybe even sooner. Most of the mothers I met touted their daughters’ academic success, sports, music, art, what have you. They didn’t think it seemly to brag on their daughters’ looks. Not to say that it didn’t matter to them. They were hardwired to want pretty daughters. They really couldn’t help it.
I’d been working as a family photographer for almost a decade. I’d started off assisting on weddings, but my talent and skill in capturing children was impossible to ignore. People want me to photograph their children because in one photograph, I’m able to give them the life they want to believe they already have. In most cases, they don’t and they won’t. But my photographs tell them the story they long for.
In the kitchen, white gleaming marble countertops and a white backsplash contrasted with the dark wood accents on the cabinetry and a suspended glass cabinet hung from the high ceiling. A handsome man, whom I presumed to be Fritz Straub, opened the fridge and took out two beers. He offered the second beer to a younger man with dark hair, perhaps a junior colleague, based on their body language.
I pulled my camera out and shot a few photos of Fritz. In order to take good photos of anyone, I need to believe in that person’s beauty. If I can’t see it, then the camera won’t see it. And no one else will be able to see it either. My subjects are always beautiful in my eyes. If they don’t start out that way, I force my brain into contortions in order to see it that way. In Fritz’s case, I didn’t have to talk myself into believing he was handsome. He had sandy hair, a strong jaw, and green eyes so intense that they blazed through his glasses.
At one moment, he appeared to be sharing some sensitive information. He lowered his voice and turned his body away from the room. He looked over his shoulder, repeatedly, to make sure no one was within earshot. I probably could have stood close enough to hear the conversation. For many people, I’m invisible, the same way a servant is. I’m performing a function, and they don’t take in the degree to which I see and hear what they say and do. That inconspicuousness usually benefits me. Years ago I felt slighted in these instances, but over time I’ve grown to appreciate them.
Several minutes later, when Fritz became aware of my presence, I turned and walked from the dramatically high-ceilinged great room, which extended the width of the house in back, through the media room and entered the library at the front of the house, where Amelia was seated in front of a roaring fire, holding court amid a group of four girls. She shone down on them like the sun. In my experience, eleven-year-old children are rarely drawn to the adults in the room. They are usually drawn to each other. But Amelia had such a powerful presence that the standard rules didn’t apply to her. It was practically impossible not to pay attention to her performance, partly because she seemed to expect that everyone would.
“Ingrid, we’re so proud of you,” Amelia spoke in a lilting voice. “Natalie told us about your tennis championship.”
Ingrid’s face colored and she giggled.
Amelia placed her fingers lightly on the child’s face and brushed the hair away from her eyes. “The semifinals? What an accomplishment.”
Objectively speaking, I was more attractive than Amelia was. I had larger breasts, a smaller waist, and fewer lines in my face. I was certainly younger, by ten years at least. Amelia had chiseled cheekbones and deep-set eyes. Overall, her features were a little sharp, but striking nonetheless, and she had remarkable magnetism—the kind of person to whom men and women alike gravitate.
A wall of bookshelves at one end of the library stood in contrast to the pristine furniture, glistening glass everywhere—a room that didn’t suggest the presence of a child. Natalie appeared to have self-control and restraint beyond her years, so I gathered that she didn’t pose a threat to the breakable objects in the room, nor did they pose a threat to her, at least not now. Perhaps she had learned the hard way.
I wouldn’t have been able to blend into the crowd so well if it weren’t for my affluent high school boyfriend, son of an Orlando lawyer, whom I’d dated for three years. I had the luxury of time in which to study his parents, his sister, and him, individually and collectively. Even at fifteen, it was obvious to me that you need to immerse yourself in the lifestyle if you want to fit in, if you want people to believe that you belong to their world. It’s a matter of osmosis. It turned out my boyfriend was a prick. He pulled a knife on me once. When I explained the nuances of the situation to his parents, they got me a full ride to the University of West Florida. It was the least they could do. If they wanted gratitude, they should have gotten me into Yale.
My talent as a photographer is multidimensional. I’m a documentarian when called upon to be that. Of course, I can disappear into the woodwork and capture the interactions that naturally occur at a gathering among family and friends, but that sort of photography often leaves me unsatisfied. I like to create the moments. I see myself as a director.
I reappeared in the dining area with my camera out several minutes later, followed by Itzhak, the Straubs’ aged bloodhound, who wandered in and among the girls, eventually sidling up to Natalie. Absentmindedly, she scratched him behind his ears.
I began with discretion, as the documentarian. From twenty feet away I snapped photos of the girls. Natalie held herself in reserve much of the time. The others were presumably her friends, but she didn’t seem to trust their friendship. Amelia might have misjudged how long they would spend on jewelry-making, because most of them finished their projects relatively quickly and soon looked bored. Natalie appeared self-conscious, as if she felt responsible for entertaining the girls.
Over the years I’d learned that the children needed to be in a good mood, or the photos would fail. I’d come up with ways to save unsuccessful parties and had become particularly adept at party tricks, such as balloon animals and face painting. I always came equipped with a dual-action hand pump, balloons, face paint, brushes, stencils. Once in a while I chose to pull some of my supplies out. Only when I sensed a party going off the rails. Surprisingly, even so-called sophisticated children, as old as thirteen, found such things delightful. Balloons especially. They usually elicited gestures and facial expressions that suggested innocence and joy. In New York City, many children lost that early on. Jaded children made very poor photo subjects. Balloons gave me the best chance of capturing something that looked like happiness.
Natalie said yes to the balloon animals. Responding to her friends’ requests, I made a unicorn, a giraffe, a cougar, a castle, a yacht, and a helicopter.
The balloons worked. I got the shots of Natalie and her friends that I needed—faces illuminated, energized, in medias res. Even the most constrained and constraining parents craved images of their child diving headfirst into the world without fear or inhibitions, living, experiencing. What they, themselves, had wanted to do but couldn’t. Most of the time, my raw material turned out well. And if all else failed, of course I could photoshop.
* * *
Toward the end of the party, Fritz gathered the girls around the dining table and Amelia brought out a large birthday cake, shaped and decorated like a cello and bow. Eyes on her daughter, Amelia beamed as she placed the cake in front of Natalie and knelt on the floor next to her daughter’s chair. Amelia’s posture, her tilted head, her soft smile, were intended to convey extreme devotion to her daughter. Not that I considered her disingenuous. But I gathered that loving her daughter in front of witnesses helped cement a necessary self-image.
The assembled girls sang to Natalie, crowding in to get a better look at the cake. And then Natalie blew out the candles. These are the most important shots: the cake, the song, blowing out the candles. If you miss them, there is no way to make up for it. They aren’t going to happen twice. No other moments of the party come close to those in magnitude and weight.
Ideally, I need to capture both parents with their child when the cake is presented. The parents rarely acknowledge it, but they want to see themselves as much as they want to see their children. They want to see themselves being good parents. They want proof. That is what I provide.
Fritz sliced the cake and handed it out to the little she-wolves. Then, like clockwork, the parents showed up and most of the children disappeared within ten minutes, except for a few stragglers.
I packed my camera case, found my coat, and was getting ready to follow, but Natalie stood in the front doorway and blocked me. “Delta! You said you’d make a balloon elephant! That’s my favorite animal!”
“Sorry, Natalie.” If I were to stay later than we’d agreed, I’d be devaluing myself and my time. And I’d also risk being viewed as intrusive. In the past, I’d occasionally made the mistake of allowing myself to become friendly with a client, and it hadn’t always ended well. But something about this family and this house was difficult to resist. The edifice itself, the rooms, the people. Every aspect of it beckoned to me.
“Please!” Natalie’s wide eyes locked with mine.
I yielded and returned to the dining area to make an elephant and a few more balloon shapes for Natalie and her remaining friends. In my peripheral vision, I could see Amelia and Fritz continuing to socialize. Fritz shook hands with the man he had been speaking to earlier and clapped him on the shoulder affectionately. “See ya, Ian.”
One by one, Natalie’s guests left, except for a precocious-looking girl named Piper, who disappeared upstairs with Natalie following her. Though it was Natalie’s house, Piper looked to be calling the shots.
When Amelia and Fritz noticed me, they appeared pleased and asked me to stay for a glass of wine. The invitation was precisely what I’d been hoping for.
In the front library, Fritz placed his glass of pinot noir on the sharp-cornered glass coffee table. “You’ve got a natural facility with kids. It’s impressive.” His green eyes—distractingly green—flashed at me through square tortoiseshell glasses. “Do you ever get tired?”
“It’s peaceful, really, spending time with them.” I noticed my nails on my wineglass and regretted my failure to get a manicure earlier that week. I imagined that a manicurist showed up at the Straub home weekly, and Amelia made business calls while an underpaid Filipino girl filed her nails.
“Do you have any of your own?” Amelia was seated next to Fritz on one of two cream-colored midcentury sofas. She leaned her back against the sofa’s arm and hugged her knees to her chest. The casual pose—faintly at odds with her feline comportment—was evidently designed to cast herself as a down-to-earth mom chatting with a girlfriend.
Itzhak whimpered at the sound of the wind outside and placed his wet muzzle on the sofa next to Amelia. Occasionally I could hear Piper’s voice from upstairs, but couldn’t make out any words.
My fingers made slight indentations in the arms of a buttery leather chair. “One son.”
“How old?” she asked, as if the answer meant a great deal to her.
“Five,” I said. “Jasper’s in California with his father. In Malibu. We recently divorced.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Amelia placed her hand on her heart in a gesture of sympathy.
“For the last two years of our marriage, Robert was having an affair.”
“So sorry,” Fritz said, but he didn’t appear terribly disturbed by the idea of an extramarital affair.
I took my cell phone out of my purse and opened my Favorites folder.
“This is Jasper.” I held up the phone so they could see the picture. “And here I am with Robert.”
“Why is Jasper in California?” Amelia’s desire for information was part and parcel of her sense of entitlement. It didn’t occur to her that any of her questions might be rude.
“His father got a job there. Robert hasn’t spent much time with Jasper recently because of his long hours. His new job gives him some flexibility. He asked if he could take Jasper for two months, and I said yes, but now I’m regretting it.” My voice sounded thin and reedy in my ears, as though it were disconnected from my diaphragm and my body. “Last week I flew there to visit him.”
“You must miss him.” Amelia frowned, and I became aware of the lines in her forehead and between her eyebrows.
The long smooth finish of the 2002 pinot noir lingered in my mouth, quite different from the malbec that I’d been drinking the night before. “Of course I do.”
Fritz leaned his body in my direction, his knee barely grazing mine, perhaps intentionally so. Amelia scratched Itzhak’s head. Neither one of them spoke. I felt obligated to fill the silence.
“In my line of work, I spend a lot of time with children. But I miss the quiet times. Reading bedtime stories. Doing puzzles together. I miss those simple activities that are so important.”
Amelia’s cell phone registered a new text. “Brigitta canceled for tonight,” she said to Fritz. “She has a fever.”
“I’m sure it’s not a date or an audition.” Fritz spoke with thinly veiled sarcasm.
“And Caroline’s out of town.” Amelia turned to me. “We have a client dinner tonight and our babysitter canceled.” She checked the time on her phone and laughed sharply. “We’re never going to find someone else.”
“Oh God.” I felt a wave of disappointment, disproportionate to the situation, an aching sensation in my chest when I recognized that I would probably be leaving the house shortly, but accompanying that, I saw a glimmer of possibility. “Can I help in some way?” I said.
“We’re supposed to leave in half an hour.” Amelia was pacing the room, looking through the contacts on her phone.
“Look, Amelia,” I said, “if it’s really important, I can stay.”
Amelia folded her hands in front of her face in a prayer-like pose. “Oh, Delta, you would?”
I saw Fritz’s frozen face, his jaw slack, and gathered that he didn’t like the idea.
“If it’s an emergency,” I said. “I mean . . . I don’t usually babysit.”
Fritz appeared to recover from his shock. He raised his eyebrows and smiled broadly, as if he now thought this was a perfect solution. “It would be really great for us. We’re in a bind.”
“We can’t cancel the dinner,” Amelia said.
Every muscle in my feet, calves, thighs, shoulders, jaw, scalp, and brow all contracted and then simultaneously released. “Yes, then. Yes.”
Copyright © 2021 by Mary Dixie Carter. All rights reserved.
About The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter:
Delta Dawn comes from humble beginnings, but in her work as a photographer for the children’s parties of New York’s elite she is used to moving, unnoticed, through their luxurious homes. As she observes their seemingly perfect lives, she adds to this veneer by transforming the images of their crying children, stiff hugs and unsmiling faces—editing the images to make sure the parents see the party they want. The party they may later, looking at the pictures, believe really happened that way.
When Delta is hired to take pictures of Natalie Straub’s 11th birthday, she finds herself wishing she wasn’t behind the lens. She would fit so well in the pictures with the Straub family, wouldn’t she, in their gorgeous home, their elegant life? This time editing the pictures isn’t enough. Delta begins by babysitting for Natalie, befriending her mother Amelia, finding chances to listen to her father Fritz; soon she’s bathing in the master bathtub, drinking their expensive wine, and eyeing the beautifully finished—and currently occupied—garden apartment in their townhouse. It seems like she can never get close enough. Until Delta discovers the one thing Amelia Straub wants most is also the perfect way for Delta to become permanently a part of the picture.