The Curio Photo
“Thank you for sitting down with me today,” I said, scooting into a sleek black velvet-lined Victorian chair my interviewee had provided. It’s not the type of chair I expected for such a bright and inviting gallery, yet somehow it fit.
“It’s no problem, Brady. I want my story to be told.”
She gave me a vibe of confidence that only came with years of experience. “Geez, anyone looking at your photos would be crazy to not want to know more about your life.”
“That’s sweet of you.”
Her smile is endearing and inviting. “Okay, I’ve got the recorder going. Please start whenever you’re ready.”
I poise my pencil above my notebook, ready to jot down the extra interesting bits about my subject’s life. It’s an honor for her to be featured in the National Geographic magazine, and I’m honored that she chose me to write the article. I’ve only been a journalist for the Chicago Tribune for a little over a year, but my interviewee said she likes the way I write. Who am I to question good fortune?
There’s a comfortable silence as she ponders where to begin. Her spiraled chocolate hair with hints of gray gives a lot of dimension to her petite face. She settles more comfortably into her chair, and I find I am eager to hear her first words.
“Anyone looking at my life would say it’s ordinary. I’m a talented artist. I have an eye for beautiful things, but I have a secret.”
I lean forward.
“Let me start with some basic information about myself, so you have the entire picture,” she says.
I slump just a little at the let down, but I should know better since I’m a writer. You don’t give away all the juicy bits at the beginning.
“My name is Meg. Technically, my name is Megara because my parents had a weird fascination with the Disney version of Hercules… so I just go by Meg.”
“Can’t say that I blame you.”
She gives me a little smile before continuing.
“I was born in the small waterfront town of Port Austin, MI. I’m hardened by frigid temperatures, sweltering summers, and scientific-minded parents, but I escaped all of it to be an adventurer, lover, and photographer. My life’s work has been landscape and wildlife photography. People might think my work only sounds mildly interesting, but from the outside, my life looks rather ordinary.”
“I think your pictures would say otherwise.”
Meg smiles at me again, but I can tell there is something hidden. I have to wonder what else there is to her life other than the gorgeous photos that document her life as effectively as any biography.
“I started my work as an undergrad student in Chicago at a fine art photography gallery, the same one I now own,” Meg said.
“The Curio Photo.”
Meg gives me a reminiscent kilowatt smile. It’s clear she loves her gallery as much as anything else in her life. We’re currently sitting in the middle of it since this was the location she elected to be interviewed. This little gallery has been here in the basement of an old brick apartment building hemmed in by streets lined with trees for over fifty years. I had to duck my head just a bit as I entered because the entrance accommodates the height of people in the early 20th century. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but anyone who stumbles across this place loves it. You walk in, and it feels like you’re stepping into a million stories at once. Unswept mountains glow with red-pink hues; balletic swans stay poised in motion as they take flight. The abandoned mine mutters to its years of use, fall trees swell with minutia of color, and the bear’s eye me with careful curiosity. I could stand here for hours, never growing bored and making up my own stories for each photo.
“Solomon Mooney was the first owner, and he hired me to work the counter at The Curio Photo because I was studying fine art photography at the University of Chicago–much to my parents’ disappointment. I always dreamed of working for National Geographic and taking photos that could inspire a thousand words.
“I first discovered Mr. Mooney’s work as a child while flipping through a National Geographic magazine, but I fell in love with it after he guest lectured at my school. It took some dedication, but I convinced Solomon to hire me part-time. Working for him was pretty normal. I sold the photos, and I helped him build an online presence. His photos had always enamored me, and I begged him for years to tell me the secret to his lifelike photography. No matter what settings I used with my DSLR and no matter how I edited them, they were never as vibrant or inviting as his. Solomon, though, never cracked. It wasn’t until he was close to death that he finally revealed his secret.”
I lean forward in my chair, anticipating the revelation. I wanted to be the one to give my readers the knowledge behind the extraordinary pictures of Meg Chancery.
“This gallery is anything but ordinary,” she continued, subduing my excitement. “The pictures are beautiful. Solomon received plenty of accolades in his day and sold plenty of pictures to live comfortably, but the real secret to this gallery is actually a curse.”
“A curse, as in magic?”
I frown. Did she mean magic as in magical or as in supernatural? If it is true, does she expect me to accept this information blindly? “How so?”
She gestures to the framed prints around her, each one safe from oily fingers behind a layer of glass. “When you walked in, you commented how lifelike the photos looked.”
I pause, not fully believing what I’m about to ask. “You’re saying the realness is because of magic?”
“Yes, the curse, and it started with Solomon.”
I don’t believe her, but I’m definitely curious. I show her I’m ready to write the important details as she tells me more.
“Solomon took pictures with an old film camera, the same one he passed down to me. He said the curse was from an old gypsy woman from when he first started. She caught him taking pictures of her people, and as she chased him off, cursed the camera to trap people inside so he could never use it on anyone else. He didn’t believe the curse was real, of course, until he took a photo of a friend. Solomon pulled his eye away from the viewfinder to see nothing but an empty field before him.
“After developing the film, there was his friend trapped within the paper in the same pose when he clicked the shutter button. That moment and discovery upset him so much he almost gave up photography altogether, but he set the camera aside and purchased a new one. With the new camera, Solomon did alright for himself, but there was always an itch in the back of his mind as to the possibilities of a cursed camera. What if he started taking photos of landscapes instead? Would the curse meant to trap people somehow make everything look vivid, as if you were standing in the very spot? Did it apply to animals? Years went by as he pondered this question. Finally, he took a chance. And that was the beginning of an illustrious career for Solomon, and now me.”
“Wow, Meg, that is quite the story. It’s a little difficult to believe,” I said.
“That is your choice to make, Mr. Whitten, but it is the truth,” she replied.
“Well, the evidence of something different is here in front of me, but this is going to be a national story, and my readers are going to have a hard time believing something so extraordinary if they cannot see it for themselves.”
“If someone is curious enough because of your article, I believe it will draw them to my gallery. My pictures are proof enough.”
“Maybe… would you be willing to show me the camera so I can take a photo of the device myself?”
Meg paused, then said, “It’s antique, delicate, and fragile. I keep it locked away for safety.”
There was something edgy in her words. A shift had just happened within her. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me about her response, but I still had time. Maybe I could wear her guard down by the end of the interview. “Okay, how about you tell me more about your years as a photographer for National Geographic?”
Meg gave me another luminate smile.
“Well, once Solomon passed, I knew I wanted to see the world, so I freelanced for National Geographic. I had to close the gallery intermittently to take assignments or chase after the feature photo. I’ll never regret the extra money it cost because it took me all over the world. Most people only read about the animals, landscapes, and cultures that I have seen myself. I may not have been a doctor, like my parents wanted, but I became a collector instead.”
Again there was a pause, as if she was editing her sentence and not telling me the full story. “Yes, of experiences and beautiful things.”
I smile, letting my eyes take another quick run around the room. That was an apt description for Meg Chancery–a collector. I supposed all photographers were collectors, but for myself, she surpassed them all.
“You’re still interested in my camera,” Meg said, interrupting my thoughts.
I give her a sheepish smile. Of course I was still interested! I wanted to see the device that almost literally brought the world to Chicago.
“It is to be expected,” Meg said, sighing at the inevitability.
“You asked me to come here,” I reminded.
“Yes, but I hoped to tell you more of my story before you see the camera. It’s the only thing people are ever interested in seeing, and it takes a photographer to make a camera work.”
She had a point, but could she really blame me? This was magic–a curse–that we were discussing, and asking me to waylay my excitement was too much to ask. The way she said it sent a thrill up my spine. There was something about Meg that gave me a sense of danger. But what? She looked harmless. She was kind enough to me, yet I felt a genuine fear now that she was about to show me the single most valuable thing she owned. Did she not trust me? I would not touch it, I just wanted to lay my eyes upon the camera that made her pictures so lifelike. If I was going to write her biography, I wanted all the information.
She slid out of the chair with ease, and her petite frame led me to the back of the gallery. We stepped through a door into her dark room. The single red light allowed me not to trip, but reaffirmed the ominous feeling that was bubbling in my stomach. Instincts of self-preservation were kicking in, and I slowed my steps as I continued to follow her through another door.
I felt better once the red light faded to a well-lit hallway. Meg used her body to shield my eyes from the security keypad. A positive beep sounded and she pushed open the door to reveal a pitched room with a singular light illuminating a glass case with the camera.
Like a moth, I took gliding but hesitant steps toward the cursed device. In the back of my mind, I knew this was too big of a room for something so small, but enthralled as I was, I ignored it. The leather strap swept around the camera in a graceful arc, but its cracked and peeling surface made me wonder how it hadn’t already crumbled into nothing. Impressions of oily fingers permanently stain the metal body. Other than the obvious sign of significant use, the camera looks like an ordinary film camera. Now that I’m here, I wish I could hold it.
I turn to ask Meg if I can, but she’s not there, and she’s shut the door. I’m standing isolated in the lone light of the room. My stomach drops. What have I walked into? “Meg?”
“Sorry, I have to close the door to help keep dust to a minimum. The camera is a classic and anything I can do to keep it clean, I will. Call me paranoid,” she says, stepping into the light.
I gave a nervous chuckle. “Makes sense.”
She puts on a set of black gloves and removes the camera from the glass case. “I thought you might like to see it without the glare.” She’s careful not to point the lens in my direction.
I nod, though I’m nervous about seeing the fabled camera up close. Will I ruin the shell if I even breathe on it? Is my life in danger? Seeing it outside the case, though, the camera doesn’t seem as menacing. It’s old, that’s obvious. I see the name Leica. “That isn’t a well-known brand.”
“It is in photography circles,” Meg corrects, “but most people may not know of a Leica.”
“Tell me more,” I say, holding the recorder out so it picks up her words clearly.
“This is a Leica M-6 from 1984. This was the first camera from the company that had a built-in exposure meter. It was a game changer. Solomon loved the Leica camera. It was the only brand he purchased as they came out with new models.”
“1984? I didn’t think gypsy camps were still around.”
“According to him, they lived in parts of remote France. He traveled for many years before settling in Chicago.”
“It’s hard to believe that something so small could be so…”
“Dangerous?” she asked.
“It often is the smallest things we underestimate, isn’t it?”
“How will my readers know that this is an authentic story? They could argue that you Photoshop your images,” I replied.
“I suppose you need a demonstration?” She frowned. “Would they take your eyewitness as fact?”
She sounded offended, but I couldn’t help asking. I’m a journalist. It’s my job to ask the questions I think my readers will want answered. I believed her, but most people are skeptical. I looked down to jot a note on my pad, waiting for her response.
Meg flipped on the room light. She blinked as the bright LED gallery lighting flooded the room. Hundreds of faces greeted her, frozen in various emotions from angry, surprised, wistful, and everything in between. Walking over to the largest of the prints, though it wasn’t much bigger than her torso, Meg ran a finger along the gilded frame. It was the only picture in the room she had taken extra care to emphasize. Her mentor deserved as much. “You would have liked him, Solomon.” Looking down at the picture, she added, “he was a nice kid.”
She sighed as she carefully centered the simple black framed photo next to the old gallery owner. On a small gold plaque screwed into the frame, she’d titled the picture Brady’s Last Note.