Guillermo C. Hernandez
Above this, a much larger sign advertised:
GERSHEL H. & BROTHER
“The divil’s a mantilla?” I wondered aloud. Willie shrugged and tapped the little window display, where a row of wooden busts bore ornate lace shawls draped over their heads and shoulders. There were no sample daguerreotypes from the photography studio anywhere to be seen. “To think, this studio is right around the corner and I never even noticed it before. This Hernandez fellow any good? What's he, Spanish?"
“Guillermo is Cuban. And his work ain't like nothing you’ve ever seen."
We entered through a narrow door beside the grander entrance to the mantilla shop. It led into a dim staircase which we followed up to the third floor, and from there down a bleak hallway smelling rather pleasantly of cinnamon and cigar smoke. We passed a series unpainted, unadorned doorways and stopped at the end of the hall before a pair of large, black double doors with a mirrored classical design painted on them in gold. I stood mesmerized, staring at the brass sphinxes at the center of the doors. Each appeared to have three female breasts dangling from the underside of its otherwise lion-like torso.
“Dada, what them things is?” Willie Junior asked, pointing to the sphinx tits as if he’d read my mind.
“Yes, Daddy, what are those things?” I echoed.
“Well, bouchal, they’re something your Cousin Danny here ain’t never seen in person, at least not since he was a babe.”
“'Tis true,” said I. “I never seen tits on a sphinx.”
“You watch your language in front of the children!"
"Since when is 'tits' a naughty word?"
“Alright, gentlemen, that’s quite enough,” said Julie, which was more than she’d said all evening. I’d nearly forgot she was even there, and felt suddenly ashamed.
“Since when are you sorry?” she fired back with a bemused smirk.
I shrugged. Willie knocked on the door by swinging the hefty brass ring hanging out of a brass sphinx's mouth. The creature's right eye opened rather abruptly, revealing a rolling human eyeball.
"Dada, look!" giggled Junior, still perched upon his father's shoulders.
"What is your business?" asked a sullen voice behind the door.
"Willie Gordon and family," said Willie. "Here to have our portraits taken."
"Very well." The doors swung open and a rather trim looking Latin fellow escorted us to a finely decorated parlor with leather upholstered furniture, a modest shop counter, and a tall wooden display board covered with daguerreotype photographs. "Please, make yourselves at home," said the man. "Señor Hernandez is currently with a customer. I shall check in with him and be right back. Oh...here are some toys for the children to occupy themselves with." He heaved a wicker basket brimming with dolls, wooden trains, lead soldiers, and various other amusements and slid it across the counter.
While the little ones went wild tearing through the basket's contents, Willie and I surveyed the display board. The photographer's talents were indeed striking. The daguerreotypes were exquisitely lit and perfectly focused, the figures subtly posed in manners and angles that seemed to highlight each person's personality. Many of them were hand-colored, the coloring ranging from subtle hints and hues to shockingly realistic full color to bright, over-saturated tones that gave them an electrically surreal feeling. The subjects appeared to run the full spectrum of race, age, ethnicity, and social standing. There were aristocratic ladies and gentlemen in their finest, tradesmen posed in their work clothes holding the tools of their trades, costumed actors and actresses I recognized from the stage, and others who stood in tattered rags and unkempt, tussled hair. There was even a fugitive slave displaying his bare, lash-scarred back.
"See what I mean?" said Willie.
"I...it's..." I struggled for the right words. "It's like a profile of the whole city on a single display. I feel as though—as though he must know each and every one of these people intimately somehow. But...surely he doesn't."
“What does that mean?” a deep, lightly accented voice uttered from behind me. I turned to find a dashing man with thick but well-manicured moustache standing in the doorway flanked by the young man who had seen us in.
“What…what does what mean, sir?”
“What does it mean to know someone intimately?”
“Um…I suppose it’s a matter of spending time with them. Learning their personality, their mannerisms, their quirks. You know, and a person’s tastes and all that.”
“And yet, you find something intimate about these portraits, do you not?”
“Well then, I ask you—what is a photographic portrait? What is a single image when our lives are but ceaseless arrays of images? Every second—no, every fraction of a second—is a unique image followed immediately by another, and another, and so on and so forth. Imagine all the images of a person you have to see to truly know them intimately. And seeing them in succession, you learn about movement, but there is no movement in a photograph just as there is no sound.” As the man spoke, he gestured with broad, graceful sweeps of his hands, as though he were conducting an invisible, mute orchestra.
“Looking at these images, sir, I do get a sense of movement. Even…voice?”
“Ah ha! It is magic, is it not?”
“It certainly is wondrous.”
“Just think—the art of photography allows us to steal an image from the hands of that tyrant, Time. It is but a single image which we can seize at any given moment. Through my cameras and my chemicals I can pluck this image from the air and pin it down to a silver-faced plate of copper for eternity. It is magnificent, no? But I must get it right. We must get it right. Yes? If you want some stiff likeness that only shows what your face looks like, come back here when you are dead. Well, actually, I do post-mortems quite well...but that is neither here nor there. When you are alive, I can capture you. Your personality, your movement, your voice. Your soul. All in one image.”
“I also have accessories. Ignacio, show them the accessories!”
The man who'd seen us in hopped behind the counter and began to haul a series of chests and crates out onto the floor before us.
“Guillermo,” said Willie, chuckling, as he shook the hand of the mustachioed stranger and patted him on the shoulder. “Might I introduce you to me nephew, Danny?”
“A clever young fellow, isn’t he?” said Guillermo, staring into my eyes almost intrusively as he shook my hand. “And who, might I ask, are those two lovebirds?”
We turned to see Smitty and Julia giggling and chatting away, apparently so engaged in each other’s presence that they hadn’t even noticed Guillermo enter. I, on the other hand, had been so engrossed by the display and by Guillermo’s entrance that I didn’t even realize the two had been getting acquainted. When Smitty realized we were all gazing in his direction, he stood abruptly, blushing ever so slightly.
“I…it’s…we were—” he looked at me like I’d caught him in the midst of something shameful. Truth be told, I was elated to find them getting on so well.
“It’s alright, friend,” said I, grinning.
“Guillermo C. Hernandez, daguerreotypist,” said Guillermo, striding up to Smitty and shaking his hand.
“And conjurer,” added Willie.
“And you must be Julia.”
Julia stood and curtsied as Guillermo took her hand and kissed it. He then patted the little ones’ heads and hopped over to the containers of accessories, flipping open the chests with the toe of his shoe.
“Ignacio, escort these fine folks to the studio while I select some potential accessories.”
“You cheeky bastard,” said Willie. “You mean to say we don’t get to pick out our own accessories?”
“I say what I mean, Señor Gordon, and I mean exactly that. I will bring my selections along and you may possibly have a say in narrowing them down, but the decision, in the end, belongs to the artist.”
“This is the quarest photography studio—”
“And how many studios have you visited?”
“None, beside this one today.”
“Well, then. Oh, I almost forgot—please allow the children to each bring one toy of their choosing. There is, I suppose, an exception to my rule.”
“With all due respects, Mister Hernandez,” said Smitty. “But please don’t worry about accessories for me. I’m only here to accompany my friends. I haven’t the money—”
“Don’t worry, Smitty, it’s all taken care of,” said Willie. “Send your mother a picture of her soldier boy, will ya? Or whoever ya might wanna leave a memento with.”
“I insist, alright? Now hold your gob and let’s do this.”
Ignatio led us to a backroom and up a narrow spiral staircase through a hatch in the ceiling. Guillermo’s studio, as it turned out, was a remarkably voluminous shed upon the roof of his building. The light came in primarily through a large, raised skylight in the ceiling, which was slanted in a southerly direction. There were also several smaller windows in the walls for additional lighting. The room contained many mirrors of myriad shapes and sizes, as wall as a variety of different colored canvas tarps, a pile of throw rugs, various pieces of furniture, a stack of wooden boxes and, of course, a camera set upon a tripod. There were a couple strange devices with clamps and other appendages affixed to them, which I reasoned were a kind of braces to hold the subject in place from behind during the exposure process. A small, shut door presumably led to the darkroom where the photographs were to be developed.
“Did you find it at all odd,” I whispered to Smitty, “that Guillermo was supposedly with a customer when we arrived, and yet, there was no customer to be seen leaving the place?”
“There are few things about today that I haven’t found odd. Maybe when Guillermo takes your portrait he traps your soul inside his camera ‘til Judgment Day.”
“Say, Willie,” I said, still laughing at Smitty’s joke, “how do you know this fellow anyhow? And what do you mean by ‘it’s taken care of?’ I haven’t seen you give him a cent.”
“We’re old friends, alright? He owes me a favor. Forget about it."
Guillermo emerged through the floor with a sack in his hand as smoothly as if he were floating to us upon a cloud. He nodded, then turned to help up a dark-skinned woman clad in colors so bright they seemed to radiate their own light. There was just enough room in the hatch to squeeze the hoop of her skirt through on the diagonal.
“This, ladies and gentlemen,” said Guillermo, “is my lovely wife Antonia. She hails from the hills of Salerno, Italia, and she possesses the most beautiful singing voice in all of New York.”
He didn’t specify whether he meant the city or the state, but I didn’t pry either.
“Antonia does all of the portrait coloring by hand. She decides how much to use and where, but it is essentially she views the subject in life, you see? Now, where shall we begin?”
The first portrait, we all agreed, should be Willie with his two little ones. He sat down in a chair with both of them in his lap. Junior was restless, however, and began to shout and flail his arms. Guillermo, who was still at this point adjusting various mirrors for the ideal lighting conditions, looked over at his wife and nodded. Antonia immediately dropped to her knees before little Junior and began to sing him some sort of Italian ballad. It worked like magic; he calmed down almost instantly and stared at Antonia, transfixed. Guillermo ran over to his camera.
“Senor Gordon, should you perhaps wear your cap? It would give you a more military look.”
“I’m doing this for me wife, so the less military me appearance be, the better.”
“Alright. As soon as I remove this lens cap, I will need you all to be as still as possible for the next twenty to thirty seconds, yes?”
When the exposure had been taken, Guillermo removed a small, thin box from the camera and brought it to the darkroom. “My assistant, George,” he explained as he returned, “does our development work. He is masterful. Might I make a request for the next likeness? I want a portrait of Danny, alone.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” said I, “but I was hoping for a picture with my sister, Julia. It’s for our mam, you see.”
“Then we shall do that as well. But first, I insist upon a portrait of you and you alone. Perhaps there is a lady you can give it to. If not, I will gladly keep it for myself.”
I nodded, thinking of Bella, the gal I’d met at Pete Williams'. Since that night I’d rarely slept without the image of her eyes haunting the ethereal thresholds between the waking world and the land of Nod.
“There is, then?” said Willie, his eyes widening.
I shrugged. “She and I hardly know one another. But I wish it wasn’t so.”
“Well, fire away, then, Guillermo!”
Guillermo sat me down in the chair and began to manipulate my shoulders, arms, and head like I was some big, clumsy puppet. “No, no, no, no!” he kept saying, seemingly to himself more than I.
“It’s the jacket.” He finally concluded. “Too large, it does you no favors. Take it off. And the cap. You look like a child.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, remove the cap and jacket. I shall photograph you in your shirtsleeves.”
I did as I was told and stripped down to my boring, beige, Federal-issue flannel shirt with its single button at the collar and another at the cuff of each sleeve. It was likewise a tad too large.
“What, might I ask, is that?” asked Guillermo, pointing to the old Sheffield knife sheathed in my belt.
“It’s my knife.”
“Fabulous. An accessory of your own. Unsheath it. Hold it in your hand. And this.” He rifled through his sack and came up with a Remington revolver, which he tossed to me. I tried to catch it with my free hand but missed. It struck me rather painfully on the kneecap and fell to the floor.
“Goddammit,” said I.
“Good, good, use that pain. Leave the pistol on the floor. Hmm.” He hopped up to me, unbuttoned my collar, and pulled my shirt as far open as it would go, exposing my collar bones and a great deal of my flat, hairless chest.
“Well, there’s a manly image if e'er I seen it,” said Willie, chuckling. Even Kate and Willie Junior laughed at me.
“Silence,” said Guillermo. “Antonia, Verdi, ‘Ah! fors'è lui!’” Antonia began to sing an opera song as her husband tussled my hair about. I was beginning to lose my patience. Perhaps it showed in my face. Guillermo stepped back, looked me over, and called to his wife once more. “Antonia, picchiare!” Antonia stepped up to me, still singing, and slapped me across the face, back-handed.
“What in the name of Jaysus—” said I, rising from my chair.
“Sit! Sit! I beg of you, embrace the pain, embrace the annoyance, the confusion, let it shine through you, please! It is all part of the process!”
“Yeah, Danny, it’s part of the process,” said Willie, still laughing.
“You didn’t beat Willie as part of the process!” I protested.
“Look at Willie! The man has already been beaten!” I laughed at that, thinking of Aunt Mary and the fork. “I mean it. The trials of life blossom upon his face like roses, but you! You are about to go war, do you even know what that means?”
I sat back down. “Of course.”
“What, no—” Another slap. “Quit using your wife to strike me, goddammit!”
“You do not know what you are in for, I see that in your eyes!”
“Okay, fine, who gives a damn?”
“Antonia, picchiare! There are children here, cease your cursing, boy!”
“No picchiare, dammit, no picchiare!” She slapped me again. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to sit still and listen to my wife’s song. I mean listen, really listen. Have you ever been to the opera?”
“I’ve seen a some plays down in the Bowery.”
“Stop! No, I haven’t been to the opera, alright? Would you just take the picture already?”
“Antonia, mi amor, take it from the beginning again, please. Now listen to the song, Daniel, and stare into my wife’s eyes, por favor.” He clamped a brace behind my head to keep it still and stepped back. As the song commenced once more, I found myself clutching the knife over my heart reflexively. Guillermo removed the lens cap.
I listened. Though I couldn’t understand a word she sung, I could sure as hell feel Antonia’s emotions, or at least those of the character she was portraying. Through each high, trembling note, I felt a passionate romance dashed upon the rocks, I felt heartache, I felt anguish, and yet through that misery, Antonia remained unvanquished. In fact, it only seemed to make her stronger as the song progressed, as though somehow, her pain was actually feeding her resolve, emboldening her will to move forward. Though my anger lingered, it soon began to mingle with awe.
“Maravilloso! Maravilloso!” Guillermo cried, though I knew not whether he was addressing Antonia or me. He removed the plate in its container and brought it to the darkroom, dancing all the while. In the hour or so that followed, Antonia retired downstairs to begin painting and framing the images as Ignacio passed them down to her from the darkroom when they were ready. Guillermo took a portrait of Julia and me as promised, clutching a bouquet of wilted roses between us, as well as a solo portrait of Smitty holding the pistol I had dropped. He also captured Smitty, Willie, and me in our jackets and caps. Smitty and I sat side-by-side, our hands clasped together, while in our free hands we grasped our respective weapons. Willie stood beside us unarmed, a hand on each of our shoulders. Lastly, Guillermo took an image of just the kids—Julia, Kate, and Willie Junior. We left with a tall stack of framed daguerreotypes to divvy up, Guillermo trailing behind us gushing over my solo portrait as his “crowning achievement.”
“Ciao, ciao, come back to me in ’63!” he shouted as we rounded the corner onto West 26th.