In my previous avatar as a Creative Director in the big bad advertising world of Mumbai, I supervised numerous photo shoot. The toughest part of the job? Take your pick: scouting the locations at 2000 feet above sea level in Ladakh; searching an antique gramophone as picture prop; convincing the delicate models to do the impossible at three in the morning as blinding arc lights bite their skin. The real bitch however, was handling the mad photographer, each one an animal of its own kind. I actually slapped one mister A. S. Had to, when they cost your skin, your allowance and sometimes your job!
I have set this story in New York, to add some exotic air.
I feel as fresh as a Daisy.
I arrange the dead bodies, all five of them, in a five pronged concentric shape--a starfish. A cut open watermelon lay precariously in the center of this star. The Prussian blue carpet I bought whimsically from Cairo is kept under them as an interesting backdrop. The carpet stinks a bit, but it will change the personality of the picture. Each head is touching the other two on either side. Their fingers are interlocked with each other’s; they would not do so willingly, tricky part, because the bodies have started to stiffen. The transparent tape did not work; it was looking very artificial and crude. Now I have used a special Poly-vinyl thread to tie the fingers together. The thread does not break, it does not show, and most important, it does not reflect the lights.
"Ding dong!" Door bell rings.
I switch off all lights; lock the studio door from outside, and walk into the hall. After closing the alley door leading to the studio, I practice a yawn without the help of a mirror and look in to the peephole. Nothing. A burning smell probably. I wait for full fifteen minutes before getting back to work.
My original idea was a rectangle with four bodies. Each head touching other’s feet. The Diamond--a linear shape. But the new idea and my girl friend Gina came almost simultaneously. I will never forget that look on her face when she entered the studio and looked at the set up. She did try to talk to the bodies thinking this could be one of my practical jokes. But she passed out when she saw that Pony’s eyes were ‘pinned’ shut. I had not put on any makeup on Pony then.
Gina is little too short and wearing wrong kind of shoes but these are small compromises. Had she come a fraction earlier, she would have been made up by Pony--a professional. Pony is NY’s most finicky makeup artist. My favorite. She spent close to three hours to give them the light blue make up, one hour each. That is fast by Pony’s standard, but I had no choice. For the special look I have in mind, nobody else could be good enough. Pony was convinced about my overall theme and the triangle idea.
"Troika. Mercedes symbol comes to my mind," she had remarked knowingly. I did Pony’s face myself. No makeup artist for a makeup artist. A bit of irony there.
Samson looks down at all of us from his perch, his green face bobbing approvingly.
"Ding dong! Ding dong!"
Again, I switch off all the lights and lock the studio door from outside. I mess up my hair as if such a thing is possible and look into the peephole.
Nothing! Only a couple of cigarette butts! I return to the studio.
Shoes, I had to clean up a few of them. Now all five shiny pairs of them are glued to the floor so that they point towards the ceiling, directly into my camera.
Attention to the most insignificant detail is part of this job. For the same reason, I banged three of them almost simultaneously. No blood, no bruises showing either. A crowbar covered in a piece of blanket does it. Plug the nose, and tape the mouth afterwards for at least fifteen minutes to be on the safe side. Dear Pony! She did not take the blow as precisely as the other three before her, but I have covered the dark welt on her neck effectively with the makeup. Clever lighting will do the rest.
All-lights now, to check the exact effect. Gina’s face has the same dreamy expression she wore when she fainted. I carefully step over a tangle of wires, bend down on my knee and kiss her tenderly, taking in a whiff of Chanel. Her angel face hardly needs any make up.
My stomach growls, takes me to the kitchen. Tap…tap…tap…tap…tap in the kitchen sink drives me crazy. Where is the goddamn plumber! I munch some chocolate cookies just to block the noise and put the coffeepot on stove. The city looks strange out of my tinted glass window, a tiny crimson and black cab chugs along the Madison Avenue. If I jump from here, I can recite Beatles' Imagine before hitting the ground. No one makes that kind of music anymore.
Back in the studio, I put the light meter on Roger’s Greek god face to verify the exposure. I have kind of hammered his mouth shut, stopping the ugly show of his perfect teeth and the blue tongue. He, pure Italian blood, arrived in NY three months back. Within days of registering with Morgan’s agency, he started to make waves on the fashion circuit. The way he carried the Armani suits on the ramp is worth a few reels of film. I never knew hetro or homo about him, now I never will. He is wearing the golden dolphin tiepin he won from me at Astoria’s gym. Those spider silk ties he talked about will be never worn. This would be his last photograph. And my swan song.
Samson screams as I reach for the room freshener, so I let it be and put some grain in his cage. His red beak munches energetically.
"Ding dong, ding dong!"
I try to calm my nerves before leaving the studio. The lights off, I sniff instinctively on the way and look in to the peephole. Nothing. No one except the cigarette butts.
Back in the studio, I poke my finger into Samson’s cage.
"Asshoole," he answers.
I still do not like the hard shadows under their chins, blue skin looks nearly black. So I change the position of overhead light box. That means I have to change the positions of other three lights and reflectors also. And take the meter readings again. I do.
I look into the viewfinder. Perfect lighting, perfect composition. Class--A make up. Ditto for expressions. History making stuff.
This Photo session started in the morning with Roger. He as usual reported earlier than expected and I took some Polaroid shots for trial. Just him. Imelda and Pony arrived by then.
Paula, now as dead as the other four is, or rather was, my model coordinator. Pony and I kind of convinced her into wearing a blue make up. "Three thousand-dollar for two hours bait smoothened the change of skin color," as Pony put it. The scar on her chin is actually a cesarean birthmark she never stopped talking about. I shall miss her, her choicest Spanish curses specially. When I smuggled her out from Mexico in my Mustang, she could hardly speak English. Now she would report to St. Peter in heaven as a hardcore New Yorker.
Imelda has kicked Gina away, spoiling the symmetry of pentagon. Again! I climb down from nine feet ladder and kick her gently. Never liked her anyway. We worked on several high profile assignments together though. Whenever I called her ‘Imelda Marcos of the West’, she would grumble that she did not have eight hundred pairs of shoes. "You have as much power as your namesake used to wield" I would say. She did not deny. Modesty is not her strongest suite. She is NY’s highest paid model but you could never guess that if you look her up in Central Park. That ninety thousands dollars a day smile is partly god's, partly hers, partly plastic surgeon’s, partly Pony’s and largely mine. Spoilt as a silly brat she is. What did it take to convince her not to bring her personal makeup man! Thank god, she came in a cab. I had not thought about the limo driver angle at all.
"Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong!"
I peep into the hole.
His hefty duffel bag lies on the floor as he puffs away his nearly finished Marlboro. ‘Corman Plumbing’ is stenciled on the side of his bag. His left hand holds the helmet. He will push the button again, after finishing his cigarette, I guess. What if he decides to wear his helmet before walking in? The thought makes me smile. Little noise from behind the door should give him the time to pick up the bag with his dominant hand.
The high-pitched vibrations fill the room as I draw the figure six on the metal-engraved door with my crow bar. I open the door with my left hand.