I have a collection of postcards, a couple hundred.
Conceived of as postcards, I should say, because I’ve never used them for that. I keep them in a red plastic box, the kind used for 5×8 index cards, the kind students used to use, in the days before computers (and maybe even after) as note cards for recording quotations and sources for the research papers they used to write in typewriters, like the Sears manual portable that my mother bought for me when I was in high school. The typewriter I hauled through college and still have tucked under my desk in the bedroom upstairs.
But the cards.
They’re photographs. All but one or two depict people. Faces. Most of them famous. Artists. Writers. Actors. Singers. Jazz musicians. Philosophers and scientists. Dancers. Athletes too, a few. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but almost all the people in them are dead now. Past.
I started collecting them more than twenty years ago, and I don’t think I ever really knew why. I told myself it was because I love photography and images, which is true. I told myself it was because some of the images are of artists of one stripe or another that I admired, and that’s true too.
But that all feels too easy now. More accurate to say that I was looking for something in these postcards that I either found (so I kept collecting them) or I didn’t find (so I kept collecting them).
Sometimes I thought I was looking for the story within each image. Who were these people? Where had they come from? What had they been through? What was happening in their lives when the photo was taken? What were they living with, yearning for, gaining, losing, wrestling with?
Right now, as I write this, the couple hundred photo postcards are lying in a pile at my feet on the bedroom carpet. A pile of moments. A pile of frozen presence.
And I realize that I’ve acquired each of these images not, mainly, for what lies beyond them, not for the universe that surrounded the creation of each one.
They hold me because of the elements that met within the instant that the shutter snapped. They interest me as something complete sliced from the torrent of life. I don’t mean theoretically or historically or biographically or even artistically complete. I mean complete by virtue of their meeting in that moment. A moment bounded and contained by the frame.
The years have made me weary and wary of arguments and histories and narratives and theories. I understand their necessity; I recognize the perspective they give us, which can arm us, in their way, for what may come next. I don’t think them unimportant or useless.
I only mean that I need more of the small, instantaneous meeting of elements: light shadow color object face person scene expression tension motion stillness.
I mean that a kid knows how to perceive, even if not to understand or interpret always the complexity of the moment. And grown-ups know how to leap from inference to inference, how to categorize experiences before they even have them, how to know, how to make, how to own, how to build or break. But grown-ups forget how to perceive. How to experience–sometimes painfully, sometimes helplessly, sometimes gloriously and gratefully, sometimes in stupid awe, sometimes beyond any sense of what we might be feeling—a given moment.
And when I pick up a postcard, I begin to remember what it was like to be caught in a moment that feels as powerful as the big bang. That can give birth to a universe.
I keep the postcards because I want that feeling back. I want to look a moment in the face, and in the sensation, of whatever kind, that it arouses know that I exist. Because sometimes, I’m not sure.
Pick up the deck.
Throw them high.
Examine each mirror, one by one.