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Hope Dunne made her way through the silently falling snow on Prince Street in SoHo in New York. It was seven o'clock, the shops had just closed, and the usual bustle of commerce was shutting down for the night. She had lived there for two years and she liked it. It was the trendy part of New York, and she found it friendlier than living uptown. SoHo was full of young people, there was always something to see, someone to talk to, a bustle of activity whenever she left her loft, which was her refuge. There were bright lights in all the shops.
It was her least favorite time of year, December, the week before Christmas. As she had for the past several years, she ignored it, and waited for it to pass. For the past two Christmases, she had worked at a homeless shelter. The year before that she had been in India, where the holiday didn't matter. It had been a hard jolt coming back to the States after her time there. Everything seemed so commercial and superficial in comparison.
The time she had spent in India had changed her life, and probably saved it. She had left on the spur of the moment, and been gone for over six months. Reentry into American life had been incredibly hard. Everything she owned was in storage and she had moved from Boston to New York. It didn't really matter to her where she lived, she was a photographer and took her work with her. The photographs she had taken in India and Tibet were currently being shown in a prestigious gallery uptown. Some of her other work was in museums. People compared her work to that of Diane Arbus. She had a fascination with the destitute and devastated. The agony in the eyes of some of her subjects ripped out your soul, just as it had affected hers when she photographed them. Hope's work was greatly respected, but to look at her, nothing about her demeanor suggested that she was famous or important.
Hope had spent her entire life as an observer, a chronicler of the human condition. And in order to do that, she had always said, one had to be able to disappear, to become invisible, so as not to interfere with the mood of the subject. The studies she had done in India and Tibet for the magical time she was there had confirmed it. In many ways, Hope Dunne was an almost invisible person, in other ways, she was enormous, with an inner light and strength that seemed to fill a room.
She smiled at a woman passing by, as she walked through the snow on Prince Street. She was tempted to go for a long walk in the snow, and promised herself she might do that later that evening. She lived on no particular schedule, answered to no one. One of the blessings of her solitary life was that she was entirely at liberty to do whatever she wished. She was the consummate independent woman, she was enormously disciplined about her work, and in dealing with her subjects. Sometimes she got on the subway, and rode uptown to Harlem, wandering through the streets in T-shirt and jeans, taking photographs of children. She had spent time in South America, photographing children and old people there too. She went wherever the spirit moved her, and did very little commercial work now. She still did the occasional fashion shoot for Vogue if the layout was unusual. But most of the magazine work she did was portraits of important people who she thought were worthwhile and interesting. She had published a remarkable book of portraits, another of children, and was going to publish a book of her photographs from India soon.
She was fortunate to be able to do whatever she wanted. She could pick and choose among the many requests she got. Although she loved doing them, she only did formal portraits now once or twice a year. More often now, she concentrated on the photographs she took in the course of her travels or on the street.
Hope was a tiny woman with porcelain white skin, and jet-black hair. Her mother had teased her when she was a child and said she looked like Snow White, which in a way, she did. And there was a fairy-tale feeling about her too. She was almost elfin in size, and unusually lithe; she was able to fit herself into the smallest, most invisible spaces and go unnoticed. The only startling thing about her was her deep violet eyes. They were a deep, deep blue, with the slightly purple color of very fine sapphires from Burma or Ceylon, and were filled with compassion that had seen the sorrows of the world. Those who had seen eyes like hers before understood instantly that she was a woman who had suffered, but wore it well, with dignity and grace. Rather than dragging her down into depression, her pain had lifted her into a peaceful place. She was not a Buddhist, but shared philosophies with them, in that she didn't fight what happened to her, but instead drifted with it, allowing life to carry her from one experience to the next. It was that depth and wisdom that shone through her work. An acceptance of life as it really was, rather than trying to force it to be what one wanted, and it never could be. She was willing to let go of what she loved, which was the hardest task of all. And the more she lived and learned and studied, the humbler she was. A monk she had met in Tibet called her a holy woman, which in fact she was, although she had no particular affinity for any formal church. If she believed in anything, she believed in life, and embraced it with a gentle touch. She was a strong reed bending in the wind, beautiful and resilient.
It was snowing harder by the time she got to the front door of her building. She was carrying a camera case over her shoulder, and her keys and wallet were in it. She carried nothing else, and she wore no makeup, except very occasionally bright red lipstick when she went out, which made her look more than ever like Snow White. And she wore her almost blue-black hair pulled straight back, either in a ponytail, a braid, or a chignon, and when she loosened it, it hung to her waist. Her graceful movements made her look like a young girl, and she had almost no lines on her face. Her biography as a photographer said that she was forty-four years old, but it was difficult to assess her age and it would have been easy to believe she was far younger. Like the photographs she took, and her subjects, she was timeless. Looking at her, one wanted to stop and watch her for a long time. She rarely wore color, and dressed almost always in black, so as not to distract her subjects, or in white in hot climates.
Once she unlocked the front door to her building, she bounded up to the third floor with a quick step. She was cold, and happy to walk into her apartment, which was considerably warmer than it had been outdoors, although the ceilings were high and sometimes the wind crept through the tall windows.
She turned on the lights, and took pleasure, as she always did, in the spartan decor. The cement floor was painted black, the white couches and inviting chairs were a soft ivory wool, and nothing about the decor was intrusive. It was so simple it was almost Zen. And the walls were covered with enormous framed black and white photographs that were her favorites among her work. The longest wall was covered with a spectacular series of a young ballerina in motion. The girl in the photographs was exceptionally beautiful, a graceful young blond dancer in her teens. It was a remarkable series, and part of Hope's personal collection. On the other walls were many photographs of children, several of monks in India at the ashram where she had lived, and two enormous ones of heads of state.
Her loft was like a gallery of her work, and on one long white lacquer table, set on sponge-covered trays, all of her cameras were lined up in almost surgical order. She hired freelance assistants when she did assignments, but most of the time she preferred to do all her own work. She found assistants helpful, but too distracting. Her favorite camera was an old Leica she had had for years. She used a Hasselblad and Mamiya in the studio as well, but she still loved her oldest camera best. She had started taking photographs when she was nine. She had attended a specially designed photography program at Brown at seventeen, and graduated at twenty-one with honors, after doing a spectacular senior project in the Middle East. She had worked for a year as a commercial photographer after she graduated, and then retired for a dozen years, with only the occasional very rare assignment, when she married shortly after graduating from Brown. She had been back at work for the last ten years, and it was in the past decade that she had made her mark in the world and become increasingly well known. She had been famous by the time she was thirty-eight, when MOMA in New York showed an exhibit of her work. It had been one of the high points of her life.
Hope lit candles around the room and left the lights in the loft dim. Coming home to this room always soothed her. She slept on a little platform, up a ladder, on a spare narrow bed, and loved looking down at the room and the feeling of flying as she fell asleep. The loft was completely different from anywhere she had ever lived, and she loved that about it too. Because she had always feared it so much, this time she had embraced change. There was something powerful about accepting what frightened her most. Her private nemeses were loss and change, and rather than running from them, she had learned to face them with dignity and strength.
There was a small black granite kitchen at the back of the loft. She knew she had to eat, so eventually she wound up there, and heated up a can of soup. Most of the time, she was too lazy to make much of a meal. She lived on soups and salads and eggs. On the rare occasions when she wanted a real meal, she went to some simple restaurant alone and ate quickly, to get it over with. She had never been much of a cook, and made no pretense of it. It had always seemed like a waste of time to her, there were so many other things that interested her more—previously, her family, and now, her work. In the past three years, her work had become her life. She put her whole soul into it and it showed.
Hope was eating her soup, watching the snow fall outside, when her cell phone rang, and she set the soup down, and dug the phone out of her camera bag. She wasn't expecting any calls, and smiled when she heard the familiar voice of her agent, Mark Webber. She hadn't heard from him in a while.
"Okay, so where are you now? And what time zone are you in? Am I waking you up?" She laughed in response, and sat back against the couch with a smile. He had represented her for the last ten years, when she went back to work. He usually tried to push her to do commercial jobs, but he also had a deep respect for her more serious artistic endeavors. He always said that one day she would be one of the most important American photographers of her generation, and in many ways she already was, and was deeply respected by both curators and her peers.
"I'm in New York," she said, smiling. "And you're not waking me up."
"I'm disappointed. I figured you were in Nepal, or Vietnam, or someplace scary and disgusting. I'm surprised you're here." He knew how much she hated holidays, and all the reasons why. She had good reason. But she was a remarkable woman—a survivor—and a dear friend. He liked and admired her enormously.
"I figured I'd stick around for a while. I was sitting here watching the snow. It's pretty. I might go out and shoot for a bit later. Some nice old-fashioned stuff."
"It's freezing out," he warned her. "Don't catch cold." He was one of the few people who worried about her, and she was touched by his concern. She had moved around too much in recent years to stay in contact with her old friends. She had lived in Boston since college, but when she got back from India, she decided to move to New York. Hope had always been a solitary person, and was even more so now. It concerned him, but she seemed content with her life as it was.
"I just got in," she reassured him, "and I was having some chicken soup."
"My grandmother would approve," he said, smiling again. "So what do you have planned at the moment?" He knew she hadn't taken any assignments, since nothing had come through him.
"Nothing much. I was thinking about going up to the house in Cape Cod over the holiday. It's pretty there this time of year."
"How cheerful. Only you would think it's pretty. Everyone else would get suicidal there this time of year. I have a better idea." He had on his "have I got a deal for you" voice, and she laughed. She knew him well and liked him too.
"Like what? What crazy assignment are you going to try and talk me into now, Mark? Las Vegas on Christmas Eve?" They both laughed at the prospect of it. Occasionally he came up with some wild ideas, which she almost always turned down. But at least he had to try. He always promised the potential clients he would.
"No, although Vegas for the holidays sounds like fun to me." They both knew he loved to gamble and took occasional trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. "This is actually respectable and quite dignified. We got a call from a major publishing house today. Their star author wants a portrait sitting for his latest book cover. He hasn't delivered the book yet, but he will any minute, and the publisher needs the shot done now for their catalog and layouts for advance publicity in the trade. It's all very proper and on the up and up. The only problem is that they have a tight deadline. They should have thought of it before."
"How tight?" Hope asked, sounding noncommittal, and stretching out on the white wool couch as she listened.
"They need to do the shoot by next week, for their production schedule. That means you'd be shooting around Christmas, but he requested you, and said he won't do it with anyone else. At least the guy's got good taste. And the fee is pretty hefty. He's a big deal."
"Who's the author?" That would have an impact on her decision, and her agent hesitated before he said the name. He was an important author, had won the National Book Award, and was always at the top of the best-seller lists, but he was a bit of a wild card, and had appeared in the press frequently with assorted women. Mark didn't know how Hope would feel about shooting him, particularly if he misbehaved, and he could. There were no guarantees that he wouldn't. She usually preferred to work with serious subjects.
"Finn O'Neill," he said, without further comment, waiting to see what she'd say. He didn't want to influence her or discourage her. It was entirely up to her, and it would be perfectly reasonable if they declined since it was on short notice, and Christmas week.
From the Hardcover edition.