By David R. Topper

I was faced with the task of choosing a picture to put in her obituary. Where to begin? 

You see, at my age I read the obits every day. And I must say that I often look at some of the pictures and mumble under my breath, “Couldn’t they find a more attractive picture of this person?” That’s one reason why I put a lot of thought into this. I guess I saw it as a mission. 

I couldn’t use any recent ones, say in the last five or so years. That would be, well, just plain cruel. The progressing dementia was altering and distorting her in ways that she would have found mortifying – if she knew. By then she had lost her sense-of-self: and so, she wasn’t aware of her features. Indeed, I never saw any evidence that she even recognized herself in a mirror; at least, not since she was deep into the dementia. I suppose you could say that’s one of the mitigating features of this disease. Well, maybe. 

I’d also noticed that recently in obituaries it was more common to use dual images: one from the younger years juxtaposed to a more recent one. It helps to diminish the ravages of old age. I gave that possibility a thought, but I guess my aversion to what happened to her beautiful face with age, well, … anyway, I eventually chose a picture of her in her early twenties. Okay, I know that’s 55 years ago. But that’s what I did.

In fact, the picture was taken around the time when we first met. I know this, because I took the picture. Not only that, I also developed it.

* * *

It would be pitch black in this little room if it weren’t for the safelight. Its red glow allows me to see everything I’m doing. Right now, I’m putting a negative into the enlarger. As I shine the image of her onto the screen below, I adjust the focus. It’s an image, really a portrait, of her head but with a bit of her neck showing. It’s a quarter-face view of her lovely smile. I think it will be a great picture – but, of course, you never know from the negative alone. The acid test (no pun intended) is when the positive image emerges in the developer tray. That safelight is sufficient to watch the process in action – always a delight to see. Then, when the print gets to the contrast I want, I’ll quickly move it into the stop bath, before I finally put it in the fixer, so I can take it out into daylight.

Yet before all this happens, I make a judgement – I don’t know why; at least, I don’t remember why I did it – but I decide to vignette this negative. So, I pick up a piece of cardboard much larger that the size of the print I am making, which already has a hole in the center. The hole is purposefully not cleanly cut out; rather, the edge around the hole is jagged and rough. 

Once I’m satisfied with the focus and where the image of her face strikes the screen, I insert a piece of Kodak Bromide photographic paper into the slot and get ready to expose the projection of her image onto the paper. (By the way, I checked the expiration date on the paper and it’s good. It doesn’t expire until 1968, and that’s three years away.)  Now, with my left hand on the enlarger’s button, I pick up the cardboard in my right hand, and hold it horizontally about half-way between the lens of the projector and the paper below. When I press the button, and the light beam streams from lens to paper, I immediately adjust the height of the cardboard – simultaneously keeping it horizontal to the beam – such that the size of the hole encompasses only her head on the paper. If it’s held too low it won’t show her entire face, and if too high I won’t get the vignette effect that I want. But that’s not all: I also need to keep the cardboard rotating, ever so slowly, so that I create the sought-after blurring around the head. Otherwise it will just be a round image of her, not a vignette with the halo effect that I want.  

I guess I need not say that all this takes practice, which I possess, having done this many times before. But this day I especially want to get it right, for I very much like this girl whom I recently met. I really do.    

* * *   

It’s the start of the fall term in grad school and I’m living in a co-ed residence for graduate students. This is my second year here, and one evening I am with some friends in one of the rooms, when a new girl knocks on the open door. We wave her in, give her a glass of cheap wine, ask her name, and she joins the group. I am immediately drawn toward Sylvia, and we chat endlessly the rest of the evening, finding that we have much in common. The next morning, when she joins us at breakfast in the dining hall, I ask her to go to a movie with me that evening. This is the mid-1960s and I am into the so-called Art Films scene: movies by Ingmar Bergman and others. Gladly, Sylvia also likes these films, and so we have another thing in common. I later find that she likes classical music and jazz, just like me. Although several other guys have their eyes on her – oh, didn’t I say that she’s quite good looking? – I keep plying her with movies and records, and so we spend lots of time together. In a short while we’re a couple. Gladly, for me, the other guys are no longer a threat. 

And so, one day during that fall term, I put a fresh roll of film in my camera and spent the day taking pictures only of Sylvia, nothing else. When I go home at the December break, I take that roll of film with me. You see, my father has a darkroom in the basement, and so one day I develop it. When the prints are done and dry, I bring them upstairs to show my parents. After leafing through them all, my mother says: “Your girlfriend is very pretty.” Which is nice, as I expected. She then hands them to my father, and after doing the same he says, “You must really like this new girlfriend. You used up an entire roll of film on her.” Which is par for the course for my father. 

But, also, he saves himself, when he adds: “The vignetted picture is very nice.” That comment makes me think it was worth the extra effort in the darkroom. 

This is undeniably reinforced when I return to the university and show the pictures to my subject. After looking through them, Sylvia takes aside the vignette portrait as worthy of extra gazing. Yes, she too likes it. What more can I ask of this image? What more could this picture bequeath to me? 

* * *

The reporter from the daily city paper says the obituary picture caught her attention. The face jumped off the page of the newspaper, and so she read the obituary. From the image to the life: the reporter wants to know more about Sylvia. I send by email more pictures and some relevant notes and documents. 

Then I go back and look at the obituary in my copy of the Obituary section of the newspaper that I have saved. I leaf through it as if I were scanning across the pages for the first time. When I turn a page, the white glow of the vignetted image shines like a bright hole in a page of otherwise just different shades of grey. And within that hole is Sylvia’s face. I immediately realize that it’s not her pretty face alone that grabs one’s attention. Of course, I’m sure it helps.

Soon, the reporter contacts me over the phone, the only safe way to do so, due to the COVID epidemic. She says she’s fascinated by Sylvia’s story and would like to write an article on her for the paper. After a lengthy interview, she does just that. 

The article on Sylvia appears a few weeks later in the weekend edition in the Obituary section of the newspaper. The entire first page, with pictures and text, is only on Sylvia. The resulting accolades for her make me exceedingly pleased that I made that extra effort in the darkroom 55 years ago.

Oh, might I add this?  That was the last roll of film I ever developed myself. More importantly, three years later – the year that my father’s photographic paper expired – we were married. Did I mention this?

3 thoughts on “The Vignette

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