14 BREAKING DOWN THE SHOW

Gallery row is quiet at eight a.m. on a Monday. "Closed" signs won't be flipped to "Come on in" before tomorrow at ten. The other gallery owners must, too, be engaged in some stage of breaking down outgoing shows to make way for the new. The cycle of art, the circle of life.

Morose much, Mufasa?

As my Volvo's rear-end nears the loading dock behind Etcetera, I can't help but reflect on my "before picture." A month ago, I lined up right here to deliver my painstakingly printed, meticulously cropped photos like a new father dropping his children at daycare for the first time—praying he was doing the right thing by exposing his babies to the harsh world outside of their safe nest.

All the trepidation that plagued me those first few days comes rushing back. Does my work belong on the walls of a legitimate art gallery? How will the public receive my work? How will the critics respond? What will my family and friends think of my work? Will Charlie and Renee finally get it? Will any of my models have regrets? Will I? Will my work change course?

I was as anxious as any of my clients flipping through the photo album in my anteroom—and rightfully so. The one prediction that came to pass: nothing would be the same again.

I indulge my meditative mood with a good, long stare at the banner still hanging in the gallery's front window: EMPOWERED BY THE LENS. Beneath the bold, red block lettering is one of the few photos of myself I actually like, a partial headshot of me behind my 35mm lens. The memory of Bella sneaking this picture on her iPhone while I was focused on shooting a particularly challenging sunflower never fails to bring a smile to my face, most likely because of what followed the click of Bella's shutter: her giddy laughter when I discovered her secret; the triumphant expression on her face at having caught the ever-observant photographer off-guard; and the sheer joy of watching the fruit of her labor develop into a picture so good, we knew right away it would become one of our favorites.

"I'd be delighted to speak with the artist about a reprint for you." Victoria's voice draws my gaze to the door she's holding open for me.

"Heh! Good luck getting her to return a phone call."

The smirk on Victoria's face flattens. "Have I done something to upset Bella?"

"What? No!" Ugh, good job compartmentalizing. "It's not you, Victoria. It's just that Bella's schedule is nuts right now."

"Ah." She watches me more carefully than I'd like. "I've got a pot of coffee inside."

"Sounds great."

Victoria leads me toward her office, barely slowing down as we pass the wall where my exhibit hung for the last four weeks. Only the hardware remains.

"Wow! That was quick. I thought I was here to help you take down the show."

"I find it's easier for me to handle that part by myself."

"You mean it's easier on the artist," I say. Her sly smile tells me I've read her correctly. Victoria has proven her expertise at every turn, but her sensitivity continues to impress me.

"How do you take your coffee?" she asks.

"Got an IV drip?"

The only thing stopping Victoria from studying me again is the hot coffee demanding her concentration. She sets the mug down on the "visitor side" of her desk, and I accept the drink along with her unspoken invitation to sit. "How about we start with this and see how it goes."

"Thank you."

"I take it your plate is very full," she says, refilling her mug before relaxing into her desk chair.

"You could say that."

"Oh, Edward. Please don't tell me you're surprised that people are knocking down your door."

I might have predicted the influx of new business, but the volume and variety have blown me away. Eating disorders, war-ravaged bodies, individuals in the throes of gender transition, couples seeking boudoir photos . . . the list of potential clients expands almost daily. If I'm realistic, none of that will end with the show coming down.

"The range is a bit overwhelming, to be honest."

"Ahh, new opportunities to expand your repertoire."

Good thing I've just swallowed, or my huff would have been an ugly spray of coffee. "You are ever the optimist."

Victoria's mug isn't wide enough to hide her grin. "Have I mentioned you were brilliant to include those photos of Bella? If I'd have had any idea what you were hiding behind closed doors, I would have suggested it myself."

"She is pretty spectacular."

"Obviously . . . but you know that's not what I mean."

I do. I meet her gaze, but I can't hold it.

I still can't hear the face-to-face compliments without blushing, but if I'm honest, the written reviews have become my new guilty pleasure. Jonathan Darby's was the first of many glowing critiques, not just from followers of photography but more significantly, from human interest writers. The film-as-empowerment concept isn't uniquely mine, one well-followed blogger pointed out, but my photos "not only stand on their own as stirring truth but reveal a deep empathy that sublimates the artist to his subjects and their journeys." I could have died and gone to photographer heaven right then and there.

I acknowledge her praise with a compliment of my own. "I think we can both agree this show was well curated."

My obvious deflection makes Victoria smile in earnest. "Are you surviving your newfound popularity, or should I be worried about you?"

"I'll be fine. I'm sure this burst of new interest will calm down once the initial wave works its way through."

"You don't really believe that?" She regards me as if trying to decide whether I'm naïve or lying.

I'm not sure which conclusion would be less damning. I seem to collect no-bullshit women in my life, and Victoria has proven once again that she won't hold back.

"I guess I'll figure it out as I go along."

"I have no doubt." Victoria sets down her mug and clasps her hands on the desk between us. "You must be pleased with the exhibit from a purely business perspective."

"I really don't think I'm in the best position to judge that."

"What makes you say that?"

"I have zero background in business."

"You don't need a business degree to understand exactly what business you're in. You make value-based decisions every day: how to spend your time, what kind of inventory to produce, who your ultimate customer is, what kind of profit margin you want. If that's not knowing your business, I don't know what is."

"I don't know anything about comps."

"Of course you do! You told me yourself that nobody else is doing empowerment photography the way you are. You know how much other photographers are making. You know your competition, and you know your niche. You know when and how to make concessions without compromising your values. Next?"

"Share prices are a complete mystery to me," I say, almost cocky about my complete ignorance.

Victoria cracks a smile. "Unless you're planning to go public in the near future, I don't see mastery of the stock market as a necessity."

I've exhausted my arguments, but why let that stop me? "I don't even know what I don't know."

"Ya got me there," Victoria says, anything but convinced. "So, where did all this crapola about comps and stock prices come from all of a sudden?" Yep, that's Victoria.

The weary sigh that escapes me has been brewing for a while, but I only now realize how much Bella's doubts have rubbed off on me. "Bella's project partner has a way of making the rest of us feel inadequate."

"Edward, I can assure you, there is nothing inadequate about you."

That rush returns, a mix of professional and personal flattery that's all the harder to hear because I know she means every word. "Thanks, but—"

"But nothing. You were quite firm with me when I tried to persuade you away from your primary mission."

"Is that your very tactful way of telling me I was a pain in the ass?"

She chuckles. "I'm rarely accused of being tactful."

"I appreciate your directness, and while we're on the subject, I appreciate all your support despite my conditions."

"Your conditions were fine with me, Edward. Successful business people know what they want."

"Okay, okay, I'm a businessman. I give up."

"That's more like it," she says, grinning with her victory. "And now, on a complete different topic—"

"Please!"

"Have you thought about what you're going to do with the framed photos?"

"I'm guessing you have a suggestion?"

"Only for the two of mine. I'd like to buy them from you—for my own personal use, nothing commercial."

"They're yours. They were already yours."

"But the framed image—"

"—Is my gift to you for everything you've done for me and the other models."

I was right about the ripples extending beyond my reach—not that the waves are negative, but they are most definitely out of my control. The kinship that developed among the models is one of those happy, unanticipated consequences, largely the fruit of Victoria's loving labors. It lightens my heart to think about the online "empowerment discussion forum" to be moderated by Bree, especially when I remember the scared, beaten-down woman I met in our initial session. The diversity of personalities and life experiences among the original six models creates a rich, dynamic tapestry, and the plan is to expand the group to include more of my clients. The initial invitation will come from me in complete confidentiality; after that, I am hands off.

I could not be more thrilled that Bella has been welcomed into this sisterhood with loving, open arms though I understand she has done little more than create a profile at this point. Perhaps this is the most striking element of my "after picture" thus far, the sweetest reward for integrating Bella into my professional life: that Bella would find her place among this supportive network of amazing, empowered women.

Victoria dips her head in acknowledgment. "I accept your generous gift. Thank you very much."

"My pleasure." I sip the last of my coffee while it's still warm. "So tell me, Victoria, was the show a success from your vantage point?"

"There was never a question in my mind about that."

"Even though you didn't make a dime in commissions?"

"Well," Victoria said with a grin, "that's not entirely accurate. I may not have sold any of your work, but look at the foot traffic your exhibit brought in."

"Oh yeah?" I made a point of dropping into the gallery twice a week, but my visits never lasted very long. Watching strangers view my work will never be easy for me.

"Sure. And new customers aren't the only bonus. I must've had a dozen photographers contact me in the last few weeks, asking if I'd represent them."

"Wow, that's great."

"Yes, all of that is lovely, for sure. But the best part for me is knowing we did what we set out to do, expand your reach. I mean, who knows, right?"

I shake my head, repeating her line with all the gravity and pregnant possibility of an unforeseeable future. "Who knows?"

She levels me with one of her fidget-inducing stares. "Edward, I'd like to say something that's probably going to embarrass the hell out of you. May I?"

Without conscious thought, my arms fold across my chest—my body's comically ineffective survival instinct hard at work. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to Victoria's brash style, but there's no way I can walk away now without hearing whatever she feels the need to share.

"And just when I'd put the last apple back in my cart . . ." I sigh theatrically. "Okay, shoot, as we photographers like to say."

Victoria chuckles at my lame humor, yet another example of her generosity. "Over the years, I have come to understand myself as a professional voyeur"—my sharp inhale makes her shake her head—"of a very specific type."

"I wasn't aware there were subcategories." A cold sweat threatens to break free. My fight-or-flight is getting a solid workout this morning.

"Each of us will have our own visceral response to any given work of art, and that's valid and important in its own right."

"Yes, of course. Eye of the beholder and all."

"Exactly, but . . . if that's all we see, we're missing out on what the artist is showing us."

The warm, fuzzy sensation of being understood floods my system. Yes. This.

"What I ask of myself as curator," Victoria says, "is to try to see each work through the eyes of its creator and translate that beauty to the beholders as well. Hence, the context, the framing, bringing the artist into the conversation through wall text and live appearances."

"Clearly, you do that very well."

"I'm not fishing for compliments, but thank you. I have to tell you, Edward, I believe your work, in particular, needed this kind of exposure—or rather, we needed to see at least a small corner of the world through your eyes."

Here comes the embarrassing as hell part, the rush of heat to my cheeks informs me.

"By showing these works to the public, you've empowered an audience well beyond any past or future subjects of your photos, or even any person who might imagine him- or herself on the opposite side of your lens."

I scoot my prickly self as far back as my chair allows. Victoria smiles gently before uncorking the grand finale.

"Your work is an eloquent invitation to view the world with a generosity we all possess but access all too infrequently: to see courage where there are scars on the surface; to see strength in vulnerability; to see the beautiful soul that inhabits every physical form. You've shared your lens and retrained the viewer's eye—whether for the few moments they're standing in front of your photos or hopefully, for a lifetime—to a new definition of beauty. If a single visitor walked away unchanged, I would be astounded."

I swallow hard over the gigantic lump that just sprang up in my throat. Her words are the headiest compliments yet.

"You're right," I say, chuckling when her eyebrows pop up and disappear beneath her bangs. "You've embarrassed the hell out of me."

We share a cathartic laugh, and I feel my whole body unwind with the release of tension. I might just miss this wild ride named Victoria.

She reaches across her desk and covers my hand with hers. "Thank you for letting me upset your apple cart, Edward. I want you to know I will always be extremely proud to have supported you."

"I can't say how much your confidence in my work means to me. Thank you, Victoria, for everything."

She dips her chin, a bow of sorts. "To be continued."


Author's Note: Been an interesting week of reviews! Love your thoughtful comments and insights and your willingness to engage with the characters and their story, even when they're not behaving as you would behave or like them to behave or predict they might behave! I especially appreciated the side conversations many of you initiated with your questions/concerns/rage *grins* Not gonna lie, got a bit mushy more than once at the many kindnesses shown along the way. You know who you are, and so do I.

A note about reviews: I'll admit, this chapter threw me a bit with the fast and furious response. I ended up taking a bit of a random path this time through your reviews, but I did aim to answer every one, even (especially?) the tough ones. Hit me with a PM if I missed yours.

FYI: To retain what remains of my sanity, I only read guest reviews if they're signed. The rest I delete immediately from my notifications and ignore when they come through a few days later to up my review count ;)

Hugs and kisses to my valiant pre-reader Pa Trizia, who often disagrees with my choices (and Bella's), always tells me her truth, and for some reason sticks with me anyway. ILY and thank you! Ever and always, gratitude to my sweet Chayasara, who adds her heart and eagle eye to every line. Love you girls hard.

See you next time?
XXX ~BOH