A seance of the sea air

by DRM

Black-footed albatross with egg, Midway Island, circa 1961-1973.

A photograph can make something mundane appear unique and distinctive. The rendered image metastasizes into something altogether different.

One of my favorite examples is street photography. A talented photographer can take a candid photo of two women at a street corner, staring jauntily at the camera. If we encountered these women in everyday life we wouldn’t give them a second glance. But frozen in the frame, they imprint something of their energy on us.

The photograph above, by an anonymous photographer for the Smithsonian, accomplishes something even more profound.

To understand the context of the photo, think for a moment of Midway Island. It harbors one of the world’s largest populations of albatrosses. The birds mass together and are nearly indistinguishable. They are loud, crass, stubborn.

In this portrait, the photographer has captured a transcendent and universal image, delicately described in muted tones, an iconic portrait of motherhood. The composition is reminiscent of a section of a Renaissance painting, but the lines swoop like a study by Brecht.

I find my eye drawn again and again to the photo. I feel somehow reverent. I try to imagine what the arc of the day was like, how many rolls the photographer shot. I wonder whether he had been looking for this shot, a bird in its nest, or if this was serendipitous, a quick snap that turned out right. I imagine how flat and harsh the light was.

All of my speculation is an attempt to protract the singular emotion the photo elicits: a calm confidence that everything will work out for the little bird growing in that egg, that its mother is there, watching out, indefatigable and stalwart.