Durban, South Africa -1945
“How do you explain the unexplainable?” he answered.
I was exasperated, but, of course, didn’t let it show, and I had ought to have been used to it. Most art junkies shuttered their modus operandi from journalists like me. I wasn’t Esquire. I wasn’t Harper’s. I wasn’t Life. This was how he should answer my question.
I’d already written the ‘what he was when he shot the camera’ part of the article:
…an extension of his body, his arms, hands, fingers, eyes—nothing more to him at all, probably, but that he is one of the finest photographers around. That’s how an artist has to live when they’re going really well; they can say they do all sorts of things in life but really, all that’s ever on thir mind is to capture, create, enhance—with a compulsion of perfectionism patrolling. Never gliding.
“It is, though, no impossible to describe the unexplainable,” I said.
“You really want to know, for this article—for a magazine that a bunch of ex-flappers adorn their Sumatran imported coffee tables with, while also using them to springboarding gin and tonics? The photo speaks for itself, Saree.”
“We go in circles, Brighton. Just a description—you’re photo as if you’d painted it. That’s all I ‘m asking for–but so be it, if you’d rather have Tributaries only print your photography, it’s your choice…” (I lied, the interview was a must: already promised to the editor. Something you never do as a journalist unless you’ve got one up the sleeve—or you’re faithful as me and in my tenth season, still at Trib, faithfully lying about my progress).
“O.K., O.K.,” he said, “why not. ‘Why not,’ you say. Let me look at it.
He took the photograph from me.
“To ring a bell that I still can’t get out of my fucking head—a ringing, you know. Smoke? Drink?”
I handed him his back his photograph that he tired to give back to me.
“No,” I said. “I’d say ‘thank you’ but that would be insulting my own intelligence—on the danger tobacco smoke poses to the senses. And I’m pregnant, so no more cocktails, either.”
“You’re a, very interesting woman, Saree, an odd-duck—quirky, irrational. I like it. A bad time to reproduce, but don’t take that one personally.”
He swung open a Zippo lighter and chicked the flint—raising the flame to mummified tobacco shavings. The chosen end fit just so against his bottom lip—and as he drew: the faintest crackling. Then, clack, the Zippo was pocketed.
With worried eyes he investigated his own shot. I studied the creases on his brow, then overtop where
…tight oiled curls of hair hung tense, grey—opposite cigarette smoke-trails rising loose.
“Trinity, Trinity. Well, I know. I was nearly sent away. But this one, this one here … it was a pass.”
“Yeah, you know, as in: I had done some bartering with General Groves. Wait. That’s off the record. Off the fuck-staining record, hear me? Where do I start? Quietly. Yes—I’ll start here, in this unsuspecting corner.”
I looked where he was pointing.
“That’s fine Brigh. That’s perfect.”
“I heard them—the military officers and the beakerboys—talking about everything from the female interns’ bodies to barometric pressure. We were forty miles from Jornada del Muerto, the Route of the Dead Man. Imagine.”
He crossed himself quickly. A clump of ash lopped off his cigarette, and then he drank wine and wiped his mouth with a hairy forearm.
“After it happened—after such anticipation—it was as if it was nothing when it went. Look at this.” He gripped the corner of the photograph tightly and flipped it so I could see. “Does it look like anyone in this picture is actually worried about anything? Dead souls. I was lying prone on the top of an army truck, and used the roof rack to steady my grip on the camera. I should’ve used a tripod. I hate using artificial support, though. This could have been a clearer shot. I remember that I was trembling.”
I put my hand on his. “What was the color of the desert, Brigh?”
Sixty-four clicks from the Route of the Deadman — Correspondent Saree Brinks, Tributaries, Aug. 2 1945
Brighton Weils’ camera is an extension of his body: his arms, hands, fingers, eyes — nothing more to him. He’s an impromptu photographer — an unanticipated moment-catcher. That’s how an artist lives when they’re really good. Artists can say they do all sorts of things — but all that’s really tapping on their mind is capture, create, enhance — with a compulsion of perfectionism never gliding, but patrolling; patrolling for that next shot that ought not be seen by anyone but God.
Tight coiled strands of Weils’ gray hair hang tense — opposite a cigarette smoke-trail rising high. His eyes investigated the photo in front of him. The Trinity test he reabsorbs. Reliving it, he narrates:
“The color of the desert is the color of somber antiquity. It challenges modern vision. In the right of the image: a blemish — a speck. Funny I notice a speck next to a neck-jerking plume that rises higher than any firework — any you could ever imagine to see … on those colorful, sunny afternoons-cum-evenings in the southwest, with underpinned conversations of sexuality between adults, culminating in a celebration of destruction. A cottony taste in my tongue, the geyser of chemistry billowing up like a factory’s exhaust stack — or, as my nephew innocently calls them: cloud machines. That’s nice, you know, the innocent perception of an unassuming child. Making a good thing out of a bad thing without knowing — I couldn’t do that that day. I couldn’t imagine any humane human could do that that day; except the men getting paid really good to agree, which, later, I think most everyone was but me.”
Weils leans back in his un-upholstered couch. He says he likes his furniture un-upholstered so he doesn’t “lose practical items in the crevasses of luxury.”
“It’s an illusory vision,” he continues, looking at his iconic photographic on the clear glass table before him. “That’s why in the photo you can see all the men with their hands in their back pockets, front pockets, clutched behind their backs, folded arms. You don’t see anyone aghast. You don’t see any culminating fear. The heads of men so easily lead to water. They drink it. Their thirst engorged by the extraordinary, the radioactive draw of superiority; of ‘we did its’ — as if man had trumped God.”
Weils swallows hard, breathing without rhythm.
“Afterward, there were even a few exalted chuckles — and I tried to do that, too. Later, I tried to drink away that bell-ringer, and laugh; there was a reception that night — a party. A buffet and an open bar. But I couldn’t get out the sound, the taste. I knelt down with my back against the wall of the banquet room with my tenth Manhattan. I tried to keep up with the others. And then I swore. I swore: drunk and devastated. I exclaimed to the heavens in a kind of repose, whispering that I would never drink a Manhattan again.”