09 October 2009

Epiphany on a rainy day

There's nothing quite like discovering anew something small but well known.

Today I had a meeting in a café near St Stephens. That was a pleasure in itself, since I always enjoy discovering new cafés and have somehow missed this one, but since I arrived too early I slipped into the nearby library for a while.

Once in there I drifted to the photography section, pulled out a book of photographs at random without looking at titles, and sat down in a chair.

The book turned out to be a volume of portraits by Bruce Davidson. I know Davidson's work reasonably well, but not this ten year old volume – like the café, a new thing hidden in plain sight.

The portraits span four decades, from the early 1960s to the late 1990s. The subjects are all well known – the cover image shows Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and others, messing around during the making of The misfits, and turning the pages we see Samuel Beckett, Robert Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg... but a viewer from another time or place who knew nothing of their celebrity would enjoy them just as much, because what holds the eye and heart is not identity but insight and sheer visual quality.

Looking at this gallery of rich, sensuous images, the recognition was not “this is so and so” or “that's such and such” but “this man looks fragile” or “she looks formidable” – and, at the same time, “I want to reach my hands into the deep glowing light of this pool and lift out that beautiful form”.

I only had fifteen minutes. Then it was time to slide the book back into its place on the shelf, cross the road in the rain, and enter the café. But I had the same feeling of renewal as I get from a day's solitary hiking in empty country. The rain glowed with the same light and depth as Davidson's photographs. The reward that can be derived from an investment of fifteen minutes is often too little appreciated.

  • Bruce Davidson, Bruce Davidson : portraits. New York, 1999: Aperture. 0893818518 or 9780893818517

No comments: