This is a “vintage” image from my archives…waaaay back before the digital age (circa early ’90’s), when I labored (happily) in a bona fide darkroom complete with all kinds of horrifying (to me now) chemicals. Working in black & white, I would take my photos (those oh so archaic silver-based fiber prints) and hand color them with Marshall oils and colored pencils. I even gained a modicum of recognition, with a number of images being published in magazines and even featured in a how-to book on hand-coloring photographs. I was “Miss Thing!”
Several years after I created “Cruel Shoes,” I wrote a short story about the making of this image…and I finally found it on my hard-drive recently… so here it is – Enjoy!
A South Texas Tale
The wedding gown lay crumpled at the bottom of my closet, a victim of neglect born of its singularity of purpose: a marriage ceremony that will forever remain a mystery to me. Several years earlier, I had paid five dollars for it at one of my favorite second-hand haunts – a dank, dark establishment with hidden jewels languishing amongst the junk. This dress was a fading beauty of the forties, in creamy satin with classic lines that bespoke a simple elegance. Shaking out the dust and wrinkles, I struggled into it, the thirty-plus button-and-loop closures down the back requiring a contortionist’s talents. Burning inside my photographer’s brain was an image, visited upon me by the Muses, of a bride, a suitcase and a roadside.
Hence, one slightly bedraggled wedding gown and a warm body to fill it. Add to the mix an old suitcase and a pair of pointy-toed pumps that made my sensible-shoe-loving feet shudder. I grabbed my camera and tripod, threw it all in the car and headed for Padre Island—its wide-open, uncluttered vistas promising the perfect backdrop for the roadside.
Once on the island, I found a suitable spot, parked on the side of the road and proceeded to set up the scene. Fortunately, the month was January, which meant a minimum of traffic to interfere with my mission. Winter days in South Texas can be downright bi-polar, with frigid gray skies one day and glorious warm sunshine the next. This particular one was on the upswing, with balmy temperatures and the wind just enough to lift the dress’s long elegant train and waltz with it. I parked myself on the suitcase at the roadside, my trusty Canon rigged with a long sync cord to trip the time-release shutter at just the decisive moment. My feet balked at my attempt to shove them into the cruel shoes (my sympathy for Cinderella’s sisters), so they were tossed aside onto the pavement.
Now, as any photographer knows, one must ideally shoot many frames to increase the odds of capturing that frozen moment when all the elements of a compelling composition are present. Consequently, I was there on the roadside for quite a while, absorbed in my craft, until the spectacle I must’ve presented to the few travelers on that desolate stretch began to complicate matters. It seems that the sight of a bride alone on the side of the road was too much for their tender hearts. Never mind that my car and the camera on the tripod were in full view; all these people could compute was a damsel in distress. Most were retirees, rumbling about in their big ol’ RVs, lurching to a halt alongside me, and inquiring earnestly if I was all right, and did I need a ride, honey? One exception was a small red sports car that passed by slowly and eventually returned from the opposite direction. This time it paused, the dark tinted window rolling down to reveal a handsome young man and his companion, a dog in the front seat beside him.
“Are you all right?” he queried.
By this time I was thoroughly embarrassed and could only bluster, “Go away. I’m working. I’m an artist.”
“This is the most bizarre sight I have ever seen,” he replied with such conviction that I assumed he led a rather boring life. I suggested that he might as well play a part in my tableau, so I directed him to pass by once more, the timed shutter release tripping just as he was driving off into the sunset, suggesting he was leaving his would-be bride stranded.
Or did our heroine choose to remain free and determine her own fate? For me, the success of “Cruel Shoes” lies in the differing way viewers react to it: some find it sad, some inspiring, but always a reaction. For its creator, it is a testament to the power of intent, and how “all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance” can fall into place serendipitously to manifest in a powerful image. And it all started with a five-dollar wedding gown, rescued from obscurity and given a chance to work its magic.
Footnote: the term “cruel shoes” was borrowed from the talented Mr. Steve Martin, from his short story of the same title. The quote from the last paragraph is from W.H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951.