John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

The Thin Line

A number of years ago I purchased an anonymous snapshot, a small photograph that measured a mere two-and-a-half inches wide. What struck me about this tiny image was the freezing of a moment of compositional perfection. The black-and-white gelatin silver print of two young girls, who look to be Girl Scouts, was taken in the late 1940s or 1950s.

The girls couldn’t be more different—one caught in a state of undress, the other munching on a large slice of watermelon. The dichotomy was astonishing to me—their only commonality being that both were occupying that brief moment in life of prepubescence awkwardness. I always called the image “my little Sally Mann.” The star of the shot is obviously the young girl to the right, her shoulder blade and Venus de Milo posture revealing an unintended sensuality of the figure. Having followed Mann’s marvelous photographic career and recently having read her book, those who know her work will see the similarity. 

The photograph is now in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography, having been acquired in 2012, thanks to the perceptive eye of former chief curator Brian Wallis.

The image has long been a favorite of Robert Henningsen, a close friend and celebrated retired English teacher, poet, and photography enthusiast at John Burroughs School in St. Louis. I sent Robert an image of it several years ago, and he resurrected it last week, surprising me with this poem about the photograph. His lovely words speak much better than I might muster up, and in it he gets to the heart of this anonymous beauty.

What They Might Suggest

Arm akimbo, angled parallel to a sweep of hair
So flowing and full it should belong to a woman
Rather than a girl, she hurries to find the sleeve
Of her blouse before the shutter clicks to catch her
Forever in a moment of embarrassment. 
And her face, womanly too with the soft curve
Of her nose drawn upon the dark drop
Of rhododendron: does it wear a smile
Or merely the quest of an arm reaching
For the means to get decent, quickly?

Behind her, in the foreground of the picture,
A scout-mate wolfs a wide slice of melon.
And her face: is it too in the midst of a laugh
Or just caught in the act of a big bite taken?
The knowledge between them seems immense
To we who struggle to make sense of this strange
Performance. Though an explanation most likely
Is simple, the gestures of the girls and their
Mysterious meanings beg us to guess what they
Might suggest beyond their own ways of knowing.

—Robert L. Henningsen, 2015

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Arts + Culture, Photography

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