Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Still life with pears


The basket of pears caught my eye as I was turning off lights in the kitchen in preparation for going to bed.

I stopped to admire them. I liked the way Linda had arranged them: two pears positioned vertically so that their bottoms were pointing up and the other pear sideways, revealing its stem and a gentle curve that was not unlike a woman’s waist and hip. Nestled inside a small wicker basket, they almost seemed to be snuggling with each other.

My appreciation evolved into the feeling that I should photograph this still life of three pears on our kitchen countertop.

Almost as soon as that notion came to me I began to talk myself out of it. I was heading to bed, after all, and rationalized that I could just as easily make a point of photographing those pears the next day … a little earlier in the evening, when I had more energy and could give the personal assignment more time and attention.

And then I remembered a story my longtime friend and mentor, the photographer Walter Rosenblum, once told me about the last photograph made by his longtime friend and mentor, Paul Strand.

Strand’s black-and-white photograph — made in 1975 when he was 84 — depicts a small wooden bird perched on an iron crossbar in front of a dusty building window on New York City’s 55
th St. The bird is tipped forward, as if it’s ready to fly — except, being a wooden bird, it’s stuck in place, never to fly away.

Walter confessed to me that he didn’t understand why Strand was so eager to set up that picture. But he knew his friend needed his help, since Strand was undergoing radiation treatments and chemotherapy at that time for the bone cancer that would eventually kill him a year later. Walter helped his friend walk to the place where he wanted to take the picture. He secured Strand’s camera to a tripod, set the bird where he was told and then helped the older photographer place his camera in the right position. He remembered Strand shaking physically as he stood behind the camera and worried that his friend might not be able to complete his mission. Strand was notoriously slow in composing his images, but on that occasion he was decisive.

The next time Walter visited Strand and his wife, Hazel, at their New York City apartment, his friend was eager to show him the print, which he’d titled “Bird on the Edge of Space.”

“There’s a lesson in this picture,” Walter remembers Strand telling him.

Walter looked at the tiny bird on its perch, with the crossbars and a dirty window behind it, and wondered what was so special about it. He gently asked his friend about the image.

“Don’t you see the ‘death’s head’ looking at the bird from the other side of the window? A day later there was a fire in that building and that window fell apart in the intense heat. If we had waited another day, the image I wanted to capture would not have been possible. The death’s head is no longer there. The lesson, Walter, is that when you see something you want to photograph, don’t wait. If you wait, it might not be there for you when you come back.”

After Walter told me that story, I found the image in a book of Strand’s photographs that I own and took a closer look. Sure enough, the random patterns of grime on the window create an ominous-looking skull staring at the bird from the other side of the window. I intuitively knew why Strand made that picture: The tiny wooden bird that could not fly was a symbol for himself, fighting a cancer that would eventually kill him. What a perfect final image to make so knowingly!

And so, remembering that story, I realized that there would be no better time to photograph that basket of pears than that very night. Tired or not, I had to make the photograph. I got my camera, raised it to my eye, adjusted its settings and made several exposures of the still life with pears that Linda had created, probably without realizing it, for me to notice and admire.

The next morning, as I stood by that kitchen counter to prepare a bowl of cereal, I noticed that Linda had already removed one of the pears to add to her bowl of oatmeal.

It brought a smile to my face. With the removal of just one pear, the still life on our kitchen counter no longer captured my imagination. It was just a wicker basket with a couple of pears inside, nothing special ... or, at least, not so special as it was the night before.