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Hold That Pose

Pictures in my hand, pictures in my head

by Stephanie Piper

We went. We saw. We have pictures to prove it.

I am proud to report that we took a working camera on our recent trip to Italy. This is noteworthy only because a working camera is an item we've lacked at every major photo op since 1967.

We've had cameras, all right—used Canons, battered Polaroids, worn Instamatics. We've had bright yellow packages of film and neat little rows of flash cubes. But invariably, when the moment came to focus and click, the equipment failed. Buttons jammed. Red lights came on and never went out. And I ended up frantically working the crowd, begging strangers to snap a picture of the third boy from the left, the one getting his Webelos badge.

This time, things were different. Seized with a sudden passion to record, we borrowed a foolproof, auto-focus, auto-zoom number and clicked our way through ancient cities and hill towns. My travel companion wandered the winding streets at dawn and dusk, searching for the right angle, the perfect light. When we relied on the kindness of strangers, it was only to snap us together by a medieval fountain or posed in a gondola.

Now a leather-bound album on the coffee table bulges with images of Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside. St. Mark's glows in Byzantine splendor; the domes of the Salute rise from the water like a clutch of bright bubbles. There are della Robbia medallions set in the walls of 14th century campos and sweeping views of olive groves and red-roofed villas. It's a collection we display with pride, a testament to the power of reliable equipment in steady hands. These pictures were taken by grown-ups, people who planned ahead and took their time and finally got it right.

The companion album will never appear on any coffee table. It's the invisible archive I've kept in my head for thirty-plus years, insurance against faulty flashes and overexposed film. Here I preserve odd scraps and random moments, mental snapshots that can summon the first day of nursery school or a Cape Cod beach in 1976 or an April afternoon in Venice.

We have no picture of Lupo, the wine merchant's dog who ran along the canal near San Trovaso, yet I can still see his gray muzzle, his halting gait. He looked like his owner, framed in the shop doorway—world-weary, but content.

We didn't photograph the rosemary bushes, shoulder-high, that edged the hotel terrace in Cortona, or the cuckoo who sang every morning in the tree outside our window. It was enough to breathe the scented air, to crush a sprig of purple flowers between my fingers. No cameras were allowed in the crypt of St. Francis in Assisi, but his worn, brown robe, patched with careful stitches, is as clear in my mind as any digital photo.

I flouted the camera ban in the Convent San Marco by memorizing my favorite frescos: the Angel Gabriel's peacock feather wings, the coral-colored dress of Mary Magdalene. I catalogued the sound of water in the Piazza Santa Annunciata and the taste of hazelnut gelato from a market stall. I filed away a whole gallery of Madonnas: thin-fingered, dark-eyed icons, blonde teenagers, robust country women.

The camera worked. The trip is history, tucked into plastic-covered pages. In the unseen archive the pictures shift and slide into focus. Lupo runs toward me along the canal; the cuckoo calls from a poplar; angels spread their iridescent wings. I sort my treasures, visible and invisible. I count myself lucky to see them all.

June 14, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 24
© 2001 Metro Pulse