Previously published in the Berkeley Fiction Review, “Behind the Dark Slide” follows an ambitious young 19th-century photographer, Raymond Greeley, who works in a well-respected New-York photography studio, endeavoring to advance his skills and profession photographing the living and the dead.
Raymond Greeley stood at the counter, polishing a small golden frame as he waited for the clients to arrive with the corpse. Framed photographs adorned the walls which surrounded him, the many faces of famous actresses and Tammany Hall politicians evidencing the studio’s long-standing respect as a venue for securing memories; and indeed, it was able to regularly keep an advertisement in the Tribune.
As Raymond returned the gilded oval frame to the display, he glanced up. His gaze fixed on the far wall and he noticed that the photograph of Laci Goodnight, a Negress singer and dancer, was hanging at an angle. He walked across the room and straightened the frame. He loved this photograph. Her skin was as dark as hematite, just like his, and she photographed beautifully. Raymond had been there—in the room—as Mr. Lassar took her picture. He’d even helped develop the plate.
With Laci on the level, Raymond returned to the front desk and finished adjusting the display. Then the silence was disturbed by the creek and jingle of the front door as Jacob, their sixteen-year-old assistant, came inside, his cheeks pink from the cold morning air.
“Shake a leg, Ray,” he said. “They’re here.”
Raymond nodded before he stepped out from behind the desk and glanced in the mirror. His features blended together a little bit in the shadows so he turned his face to catch the light. His strong jaw was clean-shaven, his coiled hair cut short against his skull, the edges along his temples meticulously maintained. He smiled at his reflection, slipping on his charcoal jacket to complete a three-piece ensemble, and followed Jacob outside.
Two black horses snorted puffs of steam as they pulled the flatbed hearse along the thoroughfare and stopped in front of the studio. Two palominos pulled a hansom cab up behind it and a man in a black beaver top hat opened the door to step out onto the street, his jowly face very pale. He reached into the han’ for a small woman to lay her fingers on his palm. She wore black from coat to collar to hem and wheezed from her corset as she took to the sidewalk. She rested a hand against her belly and pressed a white handkerchief to her face. Her gray curls were attempting to escape their pins on the wind and she pulled her coat tighter around herself.
The man put a hand around her shoulder and Raymond tipped his head to them as he walked toward the hearse. Mr. Lassar had come to the door.
Lassar stepped out, all six feet and two hundred muscular pounds of him, and offered his hand to the lady. In a hushed tone, he said, “Mr. and Mrs. Brierley, welcome.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mrs. Brierley said as she shook his hand. Mr. Brierley just nodded wanly.
“Please come in,” Lassar said. “My men will take care of your dear departed.” The wind picked up Lassar’s thin gray hair and he carefully brushed it down as he gestured toward the door.
Raymond and Jacob untied the coffin and carried it through the back door into the studio, which was full of curtains and furniture and apparatuses. A sturdy, armless walnut chair reposed in front of a flat gray background. A high, square window, obscured by a thick cotton velvet curtain, occupied most of the right wall.
Raymond opened the coffin and found within it the thin, pale corpse of a young man. Raymond reckoned he’d died of some sickness, given his waifish appearance, though his ghoulish pallor was offset by his fine black suit and unexpectedly jaunty royal purple tie.
The two young men sat the corpse on the chair and arranged him in a generally upright position. Then Raymond turned, tugged down his vest, and opened the door to the reception area.
Jacob retreated to the dark room as Raymond stepped out into the daylight. Mr. Lassar was showing the Brierleys the display Raymond had just arranged.
“All done, Greeley?” Mr. Lassar asked, straightening.
“Yes, sir,” Raymond said in a quiet, but resonant voice.
“Good,” Mr. Lassar said. Then he turned to the woman. “Mrs. Brierley, do you wish to attend to your grandson’s appearance?”
“Yes,” she whispered tremulously.
“Please.” Mr. Lassar offered her his arm and escorted her into the studio.
A gasp caught in her throat as she saw the body half slumped in the chair. His eyes were closed and he looked as if he were sleeping—which was one style, of course.
However, that’s not what the Brierleys wished for. Mrs. Brierley walked over to the boy and picked up a comb from a table, which she used to carefully arrange his hair into a proper style. He at least looked fine in his deep sleep.
She adjusted his necktie and then brushed her fingers against his cheekbone. Raymond had fallen back into the shadows behind the camera and he watched her turn to Mr. Lassar. “And…” she began, “he’ll look … like himself?”
“I assure you, Mrs. Brierley,” Mr. Lassar said confidently and gently, “that we shall do our best for your grandson.”
She hummed in ascent and choked a cry before holding the handkerchief to her lips. Mr. Brierley led her out of the room and Lassar followed, closing the door behind him. He would commiserate with the couple before coming back to approve the arrangement and take the photograph.
Raymond rubbed his hands together. Now he must play his part. He turned and retrieved an old posing stand, which he then carried over to the corpse of young Mr. Brierley.
Lassar had a few posing stands left over from his early days shooting with his father in the ’40s, when the old daguerreotypes still took ages to expose. He’d kept the stands around in the intervening decades, being disinclined to throw away expensive equipment. When Raymond had come on after Lassar senior’s passing, he’d proposed reusing the stands on the dead.
Lassar had found the idea splendid and was surprisingly eager for creative input; for he never consulted other photographers about manners of posing. They are a rather secretive and competitive lot. And, indeed, unlike Lassar’s, other studios mostly photographed their cadavers with little arranging, favoring more “death-like” appearances.
But Raymond knew that his employer was nearly as ambitious as he. Once he’d assured himself that Lassar would be open to good ideas, Raymond had done his best to make himself indispensable. He could define the lighting and he also had no distaste for arranging corpses. Mr. Lassar had seemed especially relieved by this and Raymond deduced he disliked touching dead skin.
Raymond sat the posing stand behind young Mr. Brierley. He loosened some screws in its joints and then pulled the boy’s body up against it, adjusting the arms of the device around his pale neck, making sure it was obscured from the camera.
Raymond wasn’t entirely thinking about the process, however. He was acutely aware, every time, of the incredible contrast between the dead flesh of a white man and the living flesh of his own dark hands. He found it strangely stirring, compelling. But then contrast and color always moved Raymond in a way he could not fully describe. He enjoyed colorizing prints, for instance, taking great pleasure in carefully mixing and applying tints. Posing a corpse was certainly less fanciful, though his determined precision made the final results satisfying. Raymond enjoyed denying death.
When young Mr. Brierley was in a proper position, Raymond pushed up his eyelids so he stared blankly off to the left. Then Raymond walked back toward the camera to observe his work.
Mr. Brierley was upright, as if alert, aware, and able to move about, his right hand resting on his thigh. Raymond nodded and turned to open the curtains, flooding the room with natural light. Then he arranged a mirror for fill light and another near the camera.
Once he was satisfied and had closed the curtain again, Raymond strode across the studio and opened the door to the showroom. Mr. Lassar looked up and met eyes with Raymond. “All prepared, Mr. Greeley?”
“Yes, sir,” Raymond replied.
“Very good,” he said. “Let’s see how things stand.”
Mr. Lassar patted Mrs. Brierley’s hand before getting to his feet, and Raymond stood back to let him enter the studio. Once inside, the broad man looked down at the corpse and nodded.
Raymond left through the back door and found Jacob in the dark room, fanning away the fumes. He left as Raymond dimmed the lights and coated a plate in collodion. Then he carefully put it in the silver nitrate bath. After three minutes, Raymond removed it and slid the plate it into a light-proof holder. He quickly went back into the studio, dripping a few drops of silver nitrate as he went.
Raymond offered the prepared plate to Mr. Lassar, who was beside the camera. Reflexively, he checked the body with a glance as he walked swiftly to the window. Mr. Brierley had not slumped from his own weight, thanks to the posing stand, and his eyes remained unblinkingly open.
Mr. Lassar looked up at Raymond. “Very good. Let’s shoot.” Lassar loaded the plate into the camera. Once he had, Raymond opened the curtain, flooding the room again with bright light. Then Mr. Lassar withdrew the dark slide, bent forward, and detached the lens cap.
Before packing up young Mr. Brierley and sending him to the mortician, Raymond had helped Mr. Lassar develop the photographs. They’d taken two shots.
For the first time, Mr. Lassar asked, “Which do you think, Mr. Greeley?”
Raymond felt his cheeks heat up a bit, but Lassar wouldn’t notice. He took a breath and squinted at the plates. Then he bit his lip and said, “I believe the second one you took is the sharper.”
Mr. Lassar offered a “Humph,” scratching his scraped chin. Then he said, “I agree. Very good work.”
“Thank you, sir,” Raymond said, trying his best to transform a grin into a polite smile.
After that, they took several living portraits and the day sped by quickly. Raymond’s hands were dry from his work in the dark room, but he washed them in a basin and figured he’d apply a cream that night when he got home.
Mr. Lassar had left for dinner an hour before Raymond was finished preparing the next day’s emulsions. Jacob would remain only a short while to finish cleaning the place. Night had set in and the wind was cold. Raymond wondered if it would snow. It smelled of snow when he stepped out into the night: fresh and sharp, almost metallic. He pulled the brim of his John Bull hat down against the wind and lifted the collar of his black wool coat around his neck. He looked like a chess piece wandering through the streets: like a Rook or maybe the King himself.
He’d gone maybe a block when he heard someone running up behind him. He turned and saw Jacob. “Ray!” the boy shouted, waving.
“What is it?” Raymond asked.
Jacob was huffing from the cold, but he held out a small note. “This came for you.”
Raymond took the note and opened it. It was from Mr. Lassar. “My wife is poorly,” it read. “I have an appointment at 9 in the morning I cannot attend. You must do the whole of it yourself, please.”
Raymond felt his heart hammering away, pounding in his face. Excitement rushed through his veins like rivers cleaving through a mountain. Then he looked up at Jacob. “I’m shooting an appointment tomorrow. Mrs. Lassar is poorly.”
Jacob’s mouth opened wide in surprise. Then he grinned. “Good on you, Raymond!”
“Do you know what the first job is tomorrow?” Raymond asked.
Jacob shook his head. “I didn’t check. Does it matter?”
Raymond blinked. He noticed a few white flakes fall upon Jacob’s bare head, melting into his black hair. Then Raymond inhaled thoughtfully and said, “No.”
Raymond walked home in a daze, his ears buzzing as light snow flurries danced and whirled around him. The streets were empty, the city strangely quiet. He walked his hour-long commute without paying attention, to the point of passing home by nearly a block. He stopped and chuckled at himself. Then he turned and walked up the stairs to his accommodations.
Raymond unlocked the door and stepped inside the single room. He threw wood into the stove, lit a fire, and rubbed his dry hands together. He turned and opened a jar of glycerin cream, rubbed it into his skin, and sighed.
Then Raymond felt a jolt in his stomach. He would be taking the photographs tomorrow. He would arrange the subject, ensure proper lighting, and take the photographs himself.
Raymond had not fully articulated his highest ambition. He had considered getting a cheap tintype camera so he could photograph the tourists or sell novelty prints at carnivals. But money was a mundane concern. In reality, he deeply longed to have a studio of his own, one as fine and established as Mr. Lassar’s.
Maybe he would even photograph Laci Goodnight. He could have a whole wall of Negro singers, dancers, and even his neighbors. His studio would be full of varied and challenging pictures, inspiring his customers to try new things beyond cabinet cards and daguerreotypes. He wanted to take full-color photographs, no matter how long the exposures took, and maybe even the opposite: high-speed photography for motion studies.
Thinking on these dreams, Raymond remembered the day that Mr. Lassar had asked him for a unique favor after years of enjoying his clever ideas and hard work.
Raymond had been polishing frames, yet again, when Mr. Lassar came up to him. “Excuse me, Greeley,” he had said politely.
“Yes, sir?” Raymond had responded.
“May I ask how tall you are?”
Raymond blinked. “Nearly six feet, sir,” he said.
Mr. Lassar put his palm on top of his own head and then extended it out towards Raymond’s, comparing the two of them. Then he smiled and said, “Very good.”
He clapped his large hand on Raymond’s shoulder and said, “I have a client coming in for a photo manipulation and I need you to stand in for a missing party.”
“Sir?” Raymond had exclaimed, brow furrowing.
“It used to be more common during the War,” Mr. Lassar said, “when all the boys sent home terrible calotypes. But I still get requests for stand-ins now and then. A couple is coming in to take a picture with their deceased son. His body was destroyed in an outrage out West. They have a portrait of him we’ll print on albumen so it can be transferred to the photograph we’ll take today. You will put on a uniform and pose between the couple, though I must say the one you’ll be wearing is not nearly as dashing as one of the old Union Blues!” He laughed.
Raymond had restrained a smile before nodding and following Mr. Lassar to the studio, in which he had only cleaned or posed the dead.
Raymond changed into the uniform as Mr. Lassar left to greet his guests and he was adjusting his collar as they walked in. They were a well-seasoned couple who looked very similar, both maybe a half foot shy of his height, both brown haired, and both very thin.
They stared at him and blinked, taking in his uniform. The man nodded and said, “He’s got the bearing of our Adam, that’s true.”
“Mr. Greeley is a fine young man,” Mr. Lassar had replied, and Raymond couldn’t help but feel the compliment as he closed the curtain in the room so it was illuminated only by a low lamp.
Mr. Lassar had directed him to stand between the mother and father, taking care to hide his hands. Then Mr. Lassar took his place beside the camera. His daughter, Marie, came in from the dark room with the prepared plate, which Lassar slipped into the camera. He ordered them to keep still, pulling out the dark slide as Marie opened the curtain; and then he removed the lens cap.
It was the first time Raymond had been photographed.
As Marie led the couple back out into the showroom for coffee, Mr. Lassar invited Raymond into the dark room, which was another first. He observed his employer prepare the photograph by sliding the glass plate into the basin to wash off the collodion and silver nitrate. He stared down at his own image as it appeared in the plate, which sharply contrasted with the gray background.
“Hmmm,” Mr. Lassar had enunciated. “You know, the darkness of your skin tone will make this manipulation very easy.” He looked up at Raymond and smiled. “You’ll come back to see the results, eh?” Raymond dipped his head in agreement.
When, at last, the two paper images of both the son and Raymond were bathed and dried, Lassar found Raymond and gestured him over to a work table to observe as he carefully used a pointed razor to cut out Raymond’s head from the print. He set the head aside and repeated the process on the albumen print he’d made from the plate provided by the deceased’s parents. With an adhesive, Lassar affixed the paper head to the new photograph on a card background.
After mere minutes, Raymond observed the result in amazement. Where he had stood, he stood no longer. Instead, he gazed down at a family portrait, as realistic as if the boy had lived and posed for it himself.
“Not bad!” Mr. Lassar said. “See what I mean? The pallor of a white man makes it more difficult to cleanly cut away his head, since the contrast between his skin and the background is not as defined as it is with you. It seems luckier and luckier that you came to work for me, my boy!” He grinned and slapped Raymond on the back. Then he chuckled and said, “Would you like to keep your head, Greeley?”
Raymond blinked, looking down at the shape Lassar had set aside, not sure how to feel. Then he looked up. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Lassar.”
“Not at all. Thank you for your help, Greeley.” Then Mr. Lassar had left the dark room to frame the finished portrait. Raymond continued to look down at his likeness for a while. He didn’t pick it up until he’d finished his work for the day. Then he took it home and tucked it in his diary.
After reveling in these memories, Raymond looked out of the window as the snow fell. He smiled to think of that moment. He opened his diary and carefully lifted the small photograph of his head. He grinned and slid it between the pages again.
Raymond flipped through the book and began a new entry, cataloging the details of his day, noting how hard he had worked to properly pose Mr. Brierley. He excitedly wrote about how he was finally getting the opportunity to work the camera himself. He’d take the photographs with his own hands. He’d direct Jacob as his assistant. And, as he again remembered his first day in the dark room, he wrote that he would also personally develop the photographs. Tomorrow he would truly be a professional. He had dreamed of this, though a part of him had not believed it would happen.
But Raymond felt ready for it. He had carefully practiced every new technique and process he learned from Mr. Lassar and developed several of his own. Though he did not feel as though his employer considered him an apprentice, he had instructed him well. At the very least, he had appreciated Raymond’s skill and knew how to treat proficient employees.
Regardless, Raymond knew he was talented. He knew he had solid instincts and aptitude for directing subjects. He had innovated methods of posing and lighting. And he was adept and quick with the necessary processes of development. He felt sure that he would prove to Mr. Lassar that he was masterly enough to take on new projects. And he could not help but hope that this appointment would present a truly challenging responsibility, something even Mr. Lassar would find difficult to achieve. Then, when he came in to hear of the results, he would be all the more impressed with Raymond’s abilities.
The next morning, Raymond awoke to a clear, bright day. But the roofs and sidewalks were covered in a thin layer of crisp snow. He dressed quickly and ate hurriedly before donning his hat and dashing to work.
When he arrived less than an hour later, breathless, Raymond found Jacob stoking the fire in the stove and shivering. “Morning, Ray,” Jacob said. Raymond nodded at him as he took off his hat and walked in back to hang it up along with his coat. He turned into the studio and began preparing it for his appointment.
He went to the dark room to lay out materials as he sent Jacob to busy himself in the reception area. When he was finished in the dark room, Raymond emerged and continued his regular duties. Finally, it was nearly nine o’clock.
Raymond felt his nerves jolt. Then he realized he hadn’t checked the appointment book. He dashed over to the desk and looked up his assignment.
“Chamberlin DBB, 9 o’clock,” was all it read.
“DBB?” he said aloud. He frowned. He could not remember what “DBB” stood for. He shrugged. In the end, as he had said to Jacob, it didn’t really matter.
Raymond saw a cab pull up outside so he swiftly went to the door. A tall, thin man with a black pencil mustache stepped out of the han’. He looked up at Raymond.
“Mr. Chamberlin?” Raymond said.
“Yes,” the man replied.
“I am Raymond Greeley,” he said, “Mr. Lassar’s assistant. He is unable to be here, so I will be serving you this morning.”
The man blinked, seeming unsure and surprised. Then Raymond added, “I assure you that Mr. Lassar has taught me well and I will do my best to satisfy your needs.”
The man took in a deep breath. Then he nodded and turned back to the han’. Raymond saw a long-fingered hand take Mr. Chamberlin’s and he helped a similarly tall, statuesque woman out of the carriage. She was in a high-collared black gown and coat, a black lace veil over her face.
When she stepped onto the sidewalk, Mr. Chamberlin reached into the han’ and pulled out a lidded basket, as if for a picnic.
Raymond remembered what “DBB” stood for. He felt his neck prickle and blood drain from his face, ghostly fingers tickling his spine. He held the door open for the couple and then walked inside. He led them back to the studio.
Then he asked, “How would you like me to depict your child?”
Mrs. Chamberlin took in a shaky breath. After a moment she said, “I would like her …. Could she be … sleeping?”
“Of course, ma’am,” Raymond said. “Would you prefer the basket or something else? We have a crib.”
“Yes, a crib,” she replied in a dreamy voice. “Where is the crib?”
Raymond turned to the back and called to Jacob, “Excuse me, Jacob, could you retrieve the crib?”
“Yes, sir,” Jacob said. The word “sir” rang in Raymond’s ears, though he couldn’t fully comprehend it.
Raymond turned back to the couple. Then he gestured to a coat rack hung with fabrics. He pulled down a long piece of white velvet. “Would you like me to use this as bedding? It will look richer, as opposed to linens.”
Mrs. Chamberlin lifted her chin and said with mechanical politeness, “Yes, that would be lovely.”
“Would you like to pose her?” Raymond asked.
Mrs. Chamberlin put a hand over her mouth. He wished he could see the details of her face, but it was obscured by the black veil. Then she closed her eyes and whispered, “Could you please do it?”
“Of course, ma’am,” Raymond said, his heart beating very hard and fast.
Then the back door opened and Jacob appeared, carrying a white, wooden crib.
“Will this suffice, ma’am?” Raymond asked her. She looked it over and then nodded.
Mr. Chamberlin carefully offered the basket to Raymond. He willed his hands not to shake as he reached for it and he gripped the handle very tightly, determined not to drop it.
“Jacob,” Raymond said, “would you please serve the Chamberlins a cup of tea or coffee?”
Jacob looked pale, but he pressed his lips together and then said, “Of course, sir.” Then Jacob bowed his head weakly at the couple and gestured them out into the showroom. Raymond knew he’d guide them to a sofa surrounded by pictures of living people, babies and children. Raymond wished they had a place devoid of photographs for the bereaved to occupy without the observing gallery of lifeless living eyes.
Raymond shut the door on the showroom and turned back to the studio. He carefully sat the basket in front of the camera. Then he moved the walnut chair under the window. He pulled the crib into its place. He arranged the white velvet within it and angled it so the clear, cold light of morning would illuminate the bedding. With great effort, Raymond turned back to the basket. He stared down at it for a minute, feeling shaky, feverish. Then, he turned to the mirrors and angled them toward the crib.
Raymond walked back to the camera and stared down at the basket. He picked it up very carefully and walked over to the crib, where he sat the basket on the floor. He put his hands on his knees, pulled up his trousers, and knelt down in front it. Then, he took a deep breath and slowly lifted the lid. A yellow knitted blanket laid over the outline of a small child, an infant. He wondered if Mrs. Chamberlin herself had made the blanket.
Raymond’s hands were shaking now. But he had no audience, so he let them. He slowly reached out and pinched the soft fabric between two fingers. And after a breath, he carefully pulled the blanket back from the child.
She did look like she was sleeping. Her cheeks were fat and round. Her lips were small and puffy. Her fingers were short but slender, like the little protruding gnarls on a ginger root. Her skin was as pale as ivory and she was dressed in a precious cotton gown, the white lacy collar gathered around her delicate neck.
Raymond took a deep breath and steadied his hands. He reached into the basket and lifted the child, cradling her head very carefully; her skull felt as cold as the frost that clung to the windows. She smelled faintly of lavender and his heart began pounding when he caught the scent wafting up from her skin.
He held his breath as he carefully laid her in the crib. To give the illusion of comfort and warmth, he adjusted her head on the pillow and carefully tucked the velvet around her arms. He lifted and rested one small hand on her belly.
Raymond knelt there for a moment, just staring down at the little body in front of him. He felt the strange impulse to hush her, console her, as Mr. Lassar consoled the living babies they photographed together.
In all his years there at the studio, Raymond had never posed the corpse of a child. Photographing the dead was becoming less popular and Mr. Lassar had always been called out to photograph children in their homes, as if parents could not bear to bring their little ones out into the world with still hearts.
Raymond realized with a start that he’d lost track of the time. He looked at his watch. His reverie had stolen five whole minutes from him.
But he could not hurry this process. Fortunately, he did not have to pose her further. She looked utterly content in her slumber, unburdened by the grief of her parents, unafraid of a loud and colorful world swirling around her like snow, and unaffected by the nightmares that plague youth and are forgotten in old age.
Raymond adjusted the mirrors minutely, ensuring the light which cast on her small form suggested that at any moment she would wake, yawn, stretch out her fat arms and legs, and smile up at her mother, anticipating breakfast. Raymond knew that even when a baby dies, their mother is still full of the milk she made for them. Raymond squeezed his eyes shut as he thought of Mrs. Chamberlin overflowing with grief.
Jacob came back into the studio and walked to the window. “Don’t go out and tell them I’ve finished until I confirm the exposure,” Raymond said in a firm voice. Jacob nodded, not looking at what lay in the crib. Then Raymond left the room to prepare the first plate. After three minutes in the bath, he packed it up and returned to the studio.
At last, standing on the threshold, Raymond had no other detail to attend. So he shut the door behind him and walked briskly to the camera. He slid the plate into its body, gazing at the small, pale child before looking away quickly, his throat constricted.
He realized Mrs. Chamberlin had not told him the girl’s name. He longed to know it but did not know how to ask.
Raymond settled himself with a deep breath. He looked back up at child. And, without thinking, just as he bent forward over the camera and withdrew the dark slide, he found himself whispering, “Sleep tight, Miss Chamberlin. Don’t mind me.” He nodded at Jacob to open the curtain and light burst into the room. Raymond removed the lens cap and waited.