There’s a shop in Paris where I like to go, whenever I am there. In a box you can rummage through a small pile of photographs, miscellaneous images, nothing overly special, but for a few Euros one of them can be yours. That shown below is the last one I bought.
The photograph is small; two and a half by three and a quarter inches. It’s damaged and indistinct; blurred in parts, but nonetheless one can see the interior of a church, within which a small group of women and girls stand facing towards the altar. The photograph was taken from above, perhaps from a gallery opposite the pulpit which one can see on the opposite wall. The pulpit’s draped in material, whether that’s normal or for a special occasion I cannot say. I cannot tell what is going in, but clearly something’s happening beyond the frame of the picture (the world is happening beyond the frame of the picture – as are we, the viewer). As for a date; given the hats, I would say it was taken sometime in the 1920s.
The photograph is fragile. It has the feel of an Autumn leaf, dried and picked from the ground the following Spring. When I hold it in both my hands, my thumbs discover very slight depressions where others have looked before me. The way the paper’s warped, the way that it bends, tells me it’s been looked at many times.
Where the picture contains the trace of someone who was loved, the paper carries the gesture of the lover.
Of course we cannot know this, not for certain. But history is an act of imagination.
Who is the object of his or her attention? My eyes move to the girl at the front, dressed in white or pale colours and wearing a matching hat. My left thumb, in its slight depression almost seems to touch her, mimicking the gesture of the one to whom it belonged. There’s something secret about the image, as if whoever took it shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have possessed her. It’s an image that’s meant to be kissed, secreted away in a wallet. Affection has caused the wear in the corner.
She knows she’s being photographed. She knows that someone loves her. She can see in her mind’s eye the gallery behind. She can sense the gaze of her admirer. But then the paper tells me she didn’t turn around, she never returned the gaze. Ever.