Today we're sharing a short story by Rob Tiemstra.
"It’s a little abstract, but it’s very personal to my life as an artist, as a photographer, and as a person. It’s the most introspective thing I’ve ever written, even though it is a complete fiction. It’s both a literal exploration of the theme (i.e. exposure necessary for photography) and a thematic one, referencing how my life has an artist (and a not particularly social one at that) has often left me feeling isolated in this weirdly cold melancholy." -RT
No one likes the color gray. It is a half color, neither black nor white. Writers use it to symbolize boredom, loneliness, and despair. It is the color of uncertainty, of loss, of purgatory. Its sole merit is as a symbol of complex and inscrutable characters. But then an author released a trashy erotic novel with “gray” in the title, and that was the end of that. Perhaps gray was the title, I do not remember. I've lost so many memories to the fog.
Have you heard of a town called Elview? I would be surprised if you had. Its reputation diminished ever since it got lost in the fog. But you may have a parent, or a grandparent, who visited us during our glory days. I probably met them. I met most people coming through Elview by train or car. No one went straight through the station or the town square, they always stopped. We were always worth a stop, no matter how long the trip.
Elview was a golden town. That's what we were known for. Nestled in the St. Mortimer Valley, the sun always struck a sweet yellow hue over our rooftops when it rose. I have never seen a village as alive as Elview when the sun first appeared – the streets buzzing like a beehive full of honey. Not everyone had a camera back then, but they might as well have. I reckon it was the most painted and photographed township in the country. But maybe that's just nostalgia talking.
Every morning, artists and photographers would get off the train, and one by one they'd stop dead in their tracks. The newcomers were always dumbfounded by how beautiful the light was, and the repeat visitors always stopped to watch their companions gape in awe. It would rain occasionally in our little town, but scattered showers only made the buildings and streets more radiant than before, glittering like gold before our gobsmacked guests. Artists would come for weeks at a time, searching all over the surrounding hills for the perfect angle to paint our little golden town. Photographers would camp out overnight on the hillsides to capture the exact moment when the sun came over the nearest crest.
As a youth, I worked as an assistant editor for the local art gallery. My job was to compile pieces for the magazine we'd send out to our neighboring towns. So me and my fellow assistant editors were tasked with reviewing every single painting and photograph sent to us. Sometimes even the most stunning art becomes dull when you see nothing else. But one day a year, I was relieved of the tedium. It was a special holiday that I had entirely to myself. And no, I'm not talking about my birthday (I wonder what my birthday was...)
The tourism board never talked about it to outsiders – they never mentioned the gray days.
Once a year, a mist would roll in overnight, and we'd awaken to see our entire town cloaked in an oppressive blanket of fog. On this day, the streets were silent. People moved up and down the sidewalks as fast as possible, retreating to their homes like cockroaches before a lamp. Dim yellow light glowed from all the windows, as if our renowned sunlight had also retreated inside to escape the fog. Men and women would get off the train as usual, and would halt in confusion.
“Did we get off one stop early?” I would hear them say to each other.
“No, this happens every once in a while,” their companions said, “No place is perfect, after all. It'll be golden again tomorrow.”
And then they'd hurry their way to the Inn as quickly as they could, intent on using the rest of the day to build anticipation for the comping sunrise.
The gray days were the only days I took any pictures.
I would get up bright and early like a child on Christmas morning, and I would roam the streets in the few hours I had to myself before work. I had my own camera, and plenty of film. I would go wandering from the post office to the train station, capturing objects, people, streets, and images suspended in the fog. I loved imagining that no world existed past my line of sight.
I developed these photographs alone. I didn't want the others to judge them – I'd had my taste of their judgment when I submitted my first batch to my own magazine, anonymously of course. I saw my colleagues flip through the submissions as usual, flipping over one golden sun-soaked landscape after another until they got to mine. They casually tossed my entire portfolio onto the reject pile. This stung most of all – if they took the time to laugh at it, like they did some other submissions, it would have at least validated it as some form of art! The casual dismissal cut deeper than any criticism.
I once asked my boss why we accept so many of the same picture. He said “What do you mean, lad? We get thousands of different photographs every year! Paintings too!”
I mentioned that so many are the same kind of photograph – sunset, sunrise, golden hour – and that many even looked like they had been adjusted to appear more vivid than the town actually is.
“What's the point of photography,” I said, “If you're just going to alter the image to look more like a painting in the end anyways?”
He laughed again, this time with the fondly condescending tone of an adult who thinks their student is missing a fairly obvious point.
“Son,” he said, “This is the image of our town. The color is what strikes people's imaginations! Why do you think no one shoots this place in black & white?”
I never talked to him about his taste in art after that. The conversation did little to sway my opinion – though I did immediately buy some black & white film afterwards. Whenever a submission came in that he particularly liked, and he showed it to me and my fellow assistant editor Claire, I would nod my head, pretending to be impressed. Claire was the only one I trusted to show my gray day photographs. I don't know whether she was being honest, or just found my innocence cute, but she said she liked them.
“Anyone can make a sunset look good,” she said, “An artist can find beauty in any weather.”
We got 2 gray days in a row the year my boss died. He died at 2:21 in the morning between them. I wonder if his last thought was how he'd miss the sunrise. When the sun came up the next day, we all missed it too. The fog had refused to leave. I saw the usual suspects get off the train in confusion, but they were joined by the locals this time. No one knew what to make of it. It was like snow in southern California.
I was just as unprepared for the second gray day as everyone else. I had used up most of my annual supply of film the day before, but I still got some shots. I had taken to mailing my developed photographs out of state, under a pen name. Is “pen name” still an accurate term when it isn't a writer using it? It doesn't matter. I've lost both my pen name and my given name since. I don't remember where I left them...
At any rate, my pictures were met with a similar reception abroad. I got so many rejection letters, I stopped reading them, merely held up the envelopes to the light to see if they had some form of payment enclosed. My ego tells me I've probably thrown away dozens of certificates for achievement in fine art photography, but I'd be lucky if I threw away one. I could never make a living off my photos, but since I inherited the magazine, and the gallery along with it, I had a fine source of income. Occasionally I slipped one of my photos into the magazine to see if anyone noticed. I've gotten a few complaints.
Each year, we saw an increase of gray days. It started with a week, then a month, and soon the golden days were the minority on our humble calendar. I remember walking by the head of the tourism committee passed out drunk on the sidewalk. The constable would never arrest him for public intoxication, because everyone felt bad for him. It wasn't his fault his job was handicapped by the blasted fog. I believe the poor man hanged himself a year later.
Claire and I were lovers for a while. She even modeled a few shots for me – I always photographed her at a distance, partly obscured by fog. I called these shots “dreams of love”, and never sent them to anyone. I have the negatives somewhere, but cannot bring myself to look at them or destroy them. She left early one morning - got lost in the fog and never came back. I suspect she realized I could never love someone as much as I loved my gray pictures. Funny how so many artists are woefully inadequate as people.
The last golden day was 10 years ago. I've seen and captured every inch of this town, and if you look at my portfolio you can see the streets getting grayer and grayer, like we're slowly fading away into the mist. I can no longer tell the difference between the photographs I shoot in color or black & white. I barely see my fellow townsfolk anymore – they are either always inside, or have moved on, to get lost in the fog like everyone else. Elview is completely silent, save for once a day when the train comes roaring through the station. It doesn't stop anymore. And if I'm being honest, I haven't actually seen the station in years, the fog is so thick. The postman visited regularly for a while, delivering my rejection letters, and I'd give him some new pieces in return. He got lost in the fog too. I haven't seen him in quite some time.
I still send out my photographs. I drop them in the mailbox on the corner, and they are gone the next day. Someone must be picking them up. I don't think anyone recognizes the return address anymore, because I no longer get any mail back from the galleries. Or they just don't bother sending rejection letters anymore.
If you're reading this letter, you probably think I am an old man wiling away his latter years in the mist. But it is not so. I am young yet – I can't be older than my early 40s, though I have lost count. I am the robust shadow of a healthy man. I often wonder whether I should just abandon this gallery, this magazine, and this town. I want to venture out into the fog, but now I fear it. The fog has grown so dense I fear that if I step into it I may drop off the edge of the world into an endless gray void. And I know for certain that if I leave, I'll never see my beloved Elview again.
But a muscle inside me has been aching, aching so hard I can no longer sleep at night. It's a muscle so atrophied and disused that I barely know what to call it. It is the one part of me that yearns for human connection. For warmth, for love. I love my gray town, I love the fog, in spite of everything it has taken from me. But their love for me is all used up. Burned into strips of celluloid.
This morning I packed up my camera, my pictures, and a set of clothes. If you are reading this letter, some evidence of my existence has reached the outer world. For that I am happy. I must warn you, reader: Do not try and find Elview. You will get swallowed by the fog if you try to trace this letter's origin to my once golden hometown. Just remember my story. I hope that you cherish whatever colors strike your eye - be they blue, red, green, gold, or even gray.
I've enclosed a photograph of myself to prove my story is true.
The last artist from Elview.
Attached to the letter is a single frame of 35mm film. It is completely faded.
You can check out Rob's photo series, An Empty Wheelchair, right here on Late Homework, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @the_timestar!