I first encountered Raphael as I was biking down rue Clark in Montreal on a summer afternoon. He was carrying an aluminum ladder along the side of his home. I hit the brakes and offered some help. Raphael scoffed, backhanded the air and resumed his glacial pace. The second time I spotted Raphael on Clark, on the front terrace of a building, was from about a hundred feet away. He was poking his venerable mug through what looked to be some sort of laundry line orchestrated on his front terrace. I swerved my bike across the street and into the shade where I adjusted my camera’s aperture for a high-noon shot. In order to take full advantage of the photographic opportunity, it was evident that I would have to go in full-possum, which entails putting oneself in a face-to-face position with your subject.
There was a row of parked cars lined up on the street between me and Raphael. With a fifty-millimetre lens I would have to get in close, dilly-dally with the possum routine and hope for the best, or just shoot him like Robert Frank did all those Americans on a trolley in New Orleans, the direct approach. I decided to go in New Orleans-style, straight up dirty.
Without a beverage or cigarette to occupy, Raphael looked watchful, taking it all in. I pedalled toward my mark and braked between two car bumpers, face-to-face with my subject. In a fluid motion I removed the lens cap and held the camera two-handed in front of my chest. Raphael showed no expression, didn’t bat an eye. I raised the camera. Raphael appeared in focus. I pulled the trigger just as he began to yell, “Ayyyy!” I apologized immediately on hearing his lengthy chain of Quebecois curse words and tried to explain that I thought we had an artist/muse connection in that moment, but the apologies were met with a squint of discerning eyes. So I wiggled my way backward between the parked cars and moved on.
A week or so passed before I developed the film and was instantly drawn to the shot of Raphael. I had biked past his terrace a few times since our encounter, but hadn’t seen him about. I was able to gather that what I initially thought was laundry hanging on a line stretched between the columns of his terrace was actually an awning made from rugs, blankets, a broom handle and a light rope. The humid summers in Montreal can be dangerous for the elderly without air conditioning. Someone had done a pretty good job tying the fabrics together for a makeshift barrier to the sun’s rays. I wondered if it was Raphael who had strung together the mosaic awning, with his silver ladder.
I did end up running into him a short while later, around the corner from his house. He was all smiles on that afternoon so I asked him if he recalled our previous meeting. He said that he did, still smiling. Raphael explained that he had been hearing complaints from neighbours who had different ideas as to how an awning should look or be constructed. He said he thought I was taking a picture of his awning to send to the city council or something like that. I told Raphael that the photograph had turned out well and he was excited about seeing it. He extended his hand and said “Je m’appelle Raphael.” I told him that I would drop off a print in his mailbox when I got around to it, but he didn’t want to risk his portrait being stolen and gave me his phone number so I could call him when it was ready.