Excavation #4: Pictures

In Egypt, Vermont on May 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of temple interior, Egypt.

Each morning, Dad drove me to the elementary school, where he taught sixth grade. I could have slept later—past 5:45 a.m.—but I liked to wake with him, eat Cheerios in the dark, and ride with him to work. Dad would set up his classroom, file paperwork, and raise the American flag in the schoolyard. Since I went to middle school in the shire town, I could pick up the bus at 7 a.m. The less time I spent on the bus, the better. This gave me more time spent alone with pictures. I would slip into the library and sit in a big easy chair. And as I waited for my bus, I opened copies of National Geographic.

The Cornwall Elementary School had an entire wall of National Geographic magazines, dating back to the 1920’s. The earliest volumes were scattered and incomplete, and the pages were so ratty that I avoided them. But each morning I would press my finger against the phalanx of spines and pick an issue at random. I’d flip through the pages, viewing picture after picture, headline after headline. I never read a full article. The photography was enough.

I saw gorillas resting on their knuckles. Men in dishdashas smoking water pipes. Women carrying babies in papooses and loaded baskets on their heads. Men in lederhosen danced in circles with their arms akimbo. Soldiers sat in chairs with machine-guns resting on their laps. I saw the graffiti-covered surface of the Berlin Wall. A clown entertaining children at a Midwestern fair. The flared head of a King Cobra, its forked tongue flickering.

The pictures were everything. There was something photography could communicate that words couldn’t. A plain, stark reality, but also tricks, illusions, mistakes, ironies. As I would one day learn from Susan Sontag, to collect these split-seconds was to collect the world.

And I wanted so badly to journey there. I was terrified and enthralled by these threats—the giant beetle that might land on my shoulder, or the deadly sharpness of a machete in the rainforest, or the thin air of a 12,000-foot mountain peak. One day I would leave the library, my head bursting with visions. I would put one foot in front of the other. I would walk and walk, and find something nobody had ever found, and never, ever stop.

  1. […] Isenberg posts an excerpt from Ruins, his (excellent) M.F.A. […]

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