Just for me

I am not an accomplished photographer. I have a camera, to be sure, and a journalist's love of getting things on the record. And now and then I get swept up into a surge of visual impulse, boring my family with endless pictures on some theme (sand, maybe, or sunsets over Boston) that has caught my fancy. But I am usually where my camera is not, having forgotten to bring it on just those sorts of outings which, the ads tell you, cry out for pictures. I look on photography, in fact, as I do on making walnut furniture or sightreading Beethoven or baking the perfect whole wheat loaf: something to learn someday, when settled leisure has opened opportunities for new challenges.

So I was without my camera the other day when my dog and I went walking by the sea. It was late in the afternoon, and we had, I suppose, the entire sanctuary to ourselves. And what an afternoon it was. To the west, the sun drifted behind a pale gray wash of clouds. They hung almost to the horizon, and beneath them floated fine pink ribbons, glowing like hot iron ready for the anvil. To the south, a purple mass of storm cloud lifted its paws gingerly above the trees - and, farther east, abandoned its fastidiousness altogether and squatted right down into the Atlantic. To the north, salmon gave way to orange and gray, like something done forcefully with a palette knife and still not dry. And overhead, limpid blue set about with fast-drifting puffs of white.

I saw the western horizon first, and stood transfixed. What marvelous colors , I thought, wishing I had my camera. But the more I wished that, the more I began to look around at what else the sky was doing. Everywhere, it seemed, it was performing its evening prelude. The more I turned, and the more I stared, the more uncertain I was about where I should have pointed a camera. Had I had it with me, I suspect I would simply have stumbled into the ditch of convention and aimed it at the sunset itself.

The thought troubled me: for the redness, isolated from the context of the sky by the artificial boundaries of a picture's edges, would have lost the resonance into which it beat. It would have lost not only the rest of the sky, but the wind and the salt air and the sense of isolation. I knew of no lens wide enough to capture the whole.

And so we walked on. And the more we walked, the more troubled I became. Why, I asked myself, had I wanted to photograph the afternoon in the first place? Why did I feel that urge to capture what was out there - to somehow wrestle it to the ground, bind it into a two-dimensional cage, and cart it off in triumph to the menagerie of my recorded recollections? Didn't I trust myself to remember the event? Was I incapable of experiencing in full what the day was pouring down around me? Was I afraid that I would only be able to appreciate it later, under the wistful haze of the wish-I-were-there longings that hover inside photo albums everywhere?

By now the dog was nowhere in sight. I realized, as I walked, that my feeling was not unusual. I've known people - have been one myself, at times - whose response to every overgrown field they see is a desire to buy it, to capture it and make it their own. I've known journalists - been one of them, too - so worried they'll miss some gem-cut phrase in a news briefing that they fuss with tape recorders all through it. They get good tapes, all right. The only thing they miss is hearing the actual words and watching how they work in context.

Yet who, after all, could object? Are not those land-buyers and journalists the ones who forge the permanent out of the passing, who give substance and relevance to the otherwise evanescent? Who else will rescue the field before it slinks back into woodland, rebuilding the stone walls and scything down the milkweed? Who else will tell the world what the ambassador said?

And it was with this thought, I guess, that I stopped walking again. I had turned a corner; the sun was behind me, and the trunks of the maples and pines in the fields ahead shone with an uncommon russet. Looking back, I saw that the sun, in full red, was hanging halfway below the cloud, just above the horizon. It was casting onto the scene its own shades. Like the journalist, I thought - striving for objectivity but inevitably coloring his world. And always leaving something beyond the frame. But why not? Someone has to take in a view and retransmit it to the world.

If, that is, there is a world that has to be told. And that, I saw, was what troubled me. For so much of what we experience is really meant not for the whole world. It is for ourselves alone. Even for those whose business it is to communicate, there are things that must remain private. Was my longing to photograph that sky, then, any more than a failure to recognize the value of that privacy? I resisted that notion at first. Surely, I countered, my motive was one of sharing, a generous willingness to include another in what was happening, to show someone else a photograph.

Well, maybe so. But maybe it was an unwillingness to admit that the experience was so quietly personal, so fleeting, and so moving that it could bear no recording. To try to communicate it would be to limit it to a palest shadow of its full glory. It didn't need to be captured. It never got loose. Its very occurrence had already changed me in some small way forever.

The dog came back about then, and turned and headed for home. And then the final irony struck, and I stopped again. Here was I, lover of words, arguing against the very things with which I shaped my thoughts. If I hadn't had the words with which to communicate - even with myself - would I have even been able to think of these things? If I hadn't known about cameras, would I have bothered to think about that sky? And there it was: the necessity for private experience, brought into focus because of a habit of making things public.

Moral? Journalists should have cameras, which they leave at home, and dogs, who force them into long walks.

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