Inherent Space In Small Places

LET'S see what we can do with an egg,'' John said as we looked around my house for things to photograph. John and I were both 15, both budding artists.

I was the photographer, a hobby-turned-obsession during my first year of high school. In that year, and without any formal training, I had learned the ins and outs of my 35mm camera and the darkroom at school.

While others spent their afternoons on the school playing fields, I could usually be found burrowed in a room in the school basement. There, bathed in red light, I developed film, printed negatives, and gave the prints the chemical baths that turned what I had framed through my camera into the finished image (often quite transformed).

John was not a photographer; he painted. But he was intrigued by my work (unlike him, I had shown no talent in the arts during our shared childhood) and he offered, one day, to make a picture with me.

We took an egg and set it on a piece of black cloth. John moved a flashlight behind the egg to make it cast a shadow on the cloth. I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and at one point said, ``Stop,'' clicked the shutter a few times, and that was that.

We developed the black-and-white film in my darkroom at home and made some prints.

John was amazed. His movement of the flashlight had transformed the light, egg, and cloth into something else. We weren't quite sure what it was, but to us it was beautiful: a large black space traversed by a ring of light created by the shadow, and that ring consummated in a bright white oval (the egg).

We had made a discovery of some formal possibilities in the use of light and shadow in photography. I decided to send a print of the picture to the director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from the director thanking me for the print, telling me (to my amazement) that the print would be added to the museum's permanent collection, and asking me what it was.

That it had been accepted even before he knew what it was confirmed the hunch I had. What it was (just an egg on a cloth) didn't matter. What mattered was that the light had made an egg on cloth into an image of both perpetual motion (the ring of light) and rest (the white oval egg) in one space.

It was all there, inherent in the pile of bits on the table when we began. It just took some moving around.

Last week, I came home to my little house, a cottage built for seasonal residence in Florida but now occupied by me all year. The house was furnished when I moved in. I changed some pictures, made a back room into a playroom for my children, and got a big chair and ottoman for the bedroom. Otherwise, it was fine, except I couldn't seem to get things right in the living room.

It's a small room with a tiny sofa and three chairs surrounding an area rug and some desks against the walls.

The straight upright backs of the chairs seemed forbidding. I thought about finding a thrift shop (a way of life in Florida, where retired people come and go and leave their belongings to charity) with a pair of chairs, hopefully brown and soft.

I thought of friends sinking into my used but serviceable chairs. I thought about how much they would cost and where I might look.

I went home and surveyed my little living room. It looked smaller than ever.

Then I did something unplanned. I moved one of the chairs against a far wall. The room wasn't small anymore. A whole feeling of space opened up just by moving one chair. That spaciousness was inherent in the room.

I stopped thinking about buying new chairs and instead was reminded of what matters to me, not only about rooms but also about myself. Space is there already. It is not the product of rulers or yardsticks or even radio telescopes.

By moving one thing - at home, at work, with people, in a picture, and within my own thoughts - everything moves, until the space I need emerges.

Like Robinson Crusoe, but in a suit and Chevrolet, I have my little quest among all that is ordinary - but inherently remarkable and spacious.

The chair is still against the wall. I realize that I had enough all along. I think with pleasure about what that means and how grateful I am for receiving another clue to this truth - one that cost me nothing but my attention and some slight gesture for change.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.