Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Moments Preserved

A still rowboat and its watery reflection, a man holding two oars in balance, and five yellow lines like a mysterious musical notation: the photograph drew me in as I looked over a table of holiday books. Browsing was my principle pleasure. Book titles and covers, even texts stacked by university course number, set off my imagination. Fifteen years old with little savings and income, I infrequently made a purchase. Browsing was enough. Not tethered to what lay between a book’s covers, my mind could travel where whim might take it. I paged through Irving Penn’s Moments Preserved. Thirty five dollars! An improbable luxury. Later I would return with earnings to make Moments Preserved mine.

I’d not seen Irving Penn’s work before discovering Moments Preserved on the holiday book table (Vogue did not enter our home). Penn’s importance was unknown to me; the formal qualities of his photographs, his references to the still lives of Spanish painters, the aura surrounding the sky lighted studio portraits—I would learn of these later.

In 1960, my sophomore high school year, I was captivated by the beauty of the photographs, entranced by the world they evoked. Penn made the life of the artist and intellectual feel within reach.

My father, the circulation manager of a New York publishing company, offered me an occasional trip to the city. As the train approached the tunnel under the Hudson River, and I saw the tops of midtown skyscrapers, a horizon of possibilities began to edge out my humdrum life. To those who come with fresh eyes to New York, the city is “an infinity romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself,” Joan Didion writes in “Goodbye to All That.” It was this dream that Penn’s book offered me, a jejune middle-class boy living in suburban tract housing.

Forty-six years later, when much seems irrevocable and out of reach, paging through Moments Preserved punctures a hole in the wall of habit, rekindles the imagination, and eases the way forward, if momentarily.

1 comment:

The English Teacher said...

Good heavens. What gorgeous, wistful writing. More!