Between May 31st and August 18th of 2019, a photograph hangs on the wall of The Morgan as part of an exhibit on crowds and groups and proximal strangers. Black and white, gelatin silver print, smaller and less boisterous than its companions. To its left is an Amy Arbus shot of The Clash, waiting outside a venue in all their ’80s coolness. To its right people point, chat, ooh and aah in Bob Adelman’s “People Wall, World’s Fair.” These prints occupy the same space only for this short time. Soon they will scatter, sold off or destroyed or tucked safely out of sight. Most will retreat once more into the safe, permanent realm of the internet, digital echoes available to visitors at any time of day or night.

Not so the image I have in mind, which exists now only as a silence.

When I saw the photograph I made a note of the title, hoping to return to it once I’d left New York, the heat hallucination summer, and the trouble that had brought me there. In my preoccupation, I neglected to record the photographer’s name. A small detail in small print, without which the title became useless: A practice, a canton, words repeated often enough to drown the image in static. So the photograph disappeared after I left and in all likelihood will never resurface, a fact which has become less and less tolerable with each passing year. Every so often I return to my search, scanning through the same Swiss German headlines as on my last excursion, squinting at page after page of thumbnails as if this time, impossibly, will be different.

Perhaps it’s the inaccessibility itself which serves as the root of my fixation. I dislike the idea that something, once lost, can never be recovered.

When I saw the picture, I was in midtown to visit my younger brother, who was also a photographer. I was at The Morgan without him because he had not yet agreed to see me. I’d arrived the night before, by train, two days after his roommate found him unresponsive on the bathroom floor and one day after the hospital discharged him.

Had he been in the room with me, silently sidestepping from one photograph to the next, bobbing around other patrons as if around a forcefield, I doubt we would have paused at the same prints. Out of sync by one or two, our eyes inexplicably different. He might have shrugged at the Arbus, brushed it off as “fake edgy” and moved on. He might have lingered on “Untitled (women in aprons pose among trees)”—the Lynchian strangeness of it catching his attention. He would have sought out the pieces which did not belong, the people who seemed to have been placed within the wrong frames.

At some point, however, some corner or dividing wall, we would have found ourselves before the same photograph, a momentary overlap in our ever-diverging sensibilities, connection becoming possible through a third party, a time-snagged moment preserving people as they were long ago. Perhaps that uniting photograph would have been the one I cannot now find.

* * *

My brother and I took photography lessons together when we were smaller. Maybe eleven and thirteen—before smartphones, at least. Between lessons we trekked through half-dead Rhode Island woods with our silver, two-megapixel Canon and no idea what it was we intended to capture. At the time, we expected the world to simply deliver to us what we needed—a blue jay on a twig or a trickling stream where the damaged pond near our house lost a little more of itself every day. The pond would dry up entirely before either of us were grown, but the idea that it could really change from pond to mire never entered our thoughts until the transformation was suddenly, shockingly complete.

The details of these walks elude me. The memory cards are long gone. As with the photograph at The Morgan, I did not record the correct information to keep them from slipping away. My grip then, as now, was too loose.

* * *

I met my brother after the museum, in the dorm room he would vacate by winter when he left New York for good. His roommate, he told me, was an asshole who couldn’t mind his own business, who had insisted on calling for help when he found what he could have only assumed was a dead or dying kid in the hallway bathroom. He should have known it was no big deal. But now he was making everything weird, my brother said, and the school was on his ass about the seriousness of their two-strikes drug policy.

We went for dinner near Union Square so as not to aggravate the limp my brother had earned from another incident a year prior. For months I had expected that limp to simply fade away. I waited for his gait to return to the one I knew, the one I thought belonged to him, as if erasing the injury could erase the cause. But all the wrong things, it seems, are permanent.

We spent an hour discussing nothing, our words orbiting but never colliding with either of us. TV shows we had seen as kids. Video games we had played as kids. The Patriots, which neither of us followed any longer but which had been a constant presence in our childhood home. A conversation stuck in a groove formed not when my brother left, but when I did. The same conversation we might have had years ago, when we didn’t need to question what it meant to be a brother because every day of our lives formed the answer.

When you share decades of your life with someone, it’s possible to believe yourselves to be more alike than you are. When your negatives are the same—when you come from the same parents, grow up in the same room, stare out at the same lonely forest—it’s difficult to conceive of how and when the differences enter the developing film. Often they enter invisibly, a smudge here, an overexposed patch there, unnoticeable until they are all you can see. Looking across the table at him that summer, dark-clad and bitter and gesturing too gracelessly to be sober, I found myself searching for that old connection with which I had been so careless because it felt like something I could not lose.

* * *

Our photography teacher had been a man perpetually down on his luck, sinking further and further into poverty and malaise over the two years we knew him. Our first lessons took place in an extravagantly decorated house which he shared with his wife. Shortly thereafter, he transitioned to a modest apartment where he lived without his wife, then finally a grim, ill-lit space on the edge of town where he sometimes slept away entire days, failing to answer the door when we arrived for our weekly sessions.

In spite of this, we trusted and respected him, treated him as an absolute authority on aesthetic. We were, I realize now, among his only students toward the end. He would chat with us for a long while after our lessons concluded and show us photos he was proud of or which he thought we might find amusing. He told us we both had “the eye” and simply needed instruction in how to use it. At the time I believed this was something special, because I did not yet know how easy it was to squander what you had.

* * *

I left New York the following morning unsure of why I had come at all. There had been no reckoning, no declaration that This Must End because we both knew this particular brand of trouble had not yet run its course, and perhaps never would. We didn’t say much to each other in the way of farewell, just as we hadn’t when I moved out of our parents’ house or when he moved out of the state. We just broke apart on the corner of 23rd and Park, he to the east and I to the west, back to lives which no longer intersect. It was humid and I had to walk a long way.

I didn’t think of the photograph on the train, or for a long time after. But when I did—when I happened across the note I’d taken and stretched out my hand for that image—I closed my fingers around empty air. A feeling like descending a staircase and missing the final step. A blank space you feel in your gut. The part of me which is still a child and wishes for everything to last forever cannot tolerate this absence. If I had only recorded the photographer’s name, I could have held onto it for the rest of my life. At any point in the next sixty or seventy years I could have reached out and retrieved this unlost thing and known with certainty that when I reached for it again it would be just where I left it. Photograph as grounding rod. Photograph as anchor. Photograph as iron, as fixed, as unchangeable. Instead, like everything relegated to memory, it has become softer and paler than clay.

I’ve always found it strange how things take on new importance once they’re gone. I learned admittedly little while taking those photography lessons, in part because I was a lazy student and in part because I had no real concept of what I was supposed to learn. But in their absence they have become essential, formative. I see the barn with an American flag painted on the roof, first obscured by garbage and then made perfect in Photoshop. I see the woman lying on a glass table, inverted, placed among clouds as if soaring.

And I see the photograph from The Morgan, rain falling across a crowd so dense and darkly clothed that out-of-focus faces blur into the raindrops, into each other, to form a single, inseparable whole.

© Shane Inman
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Shane’s interview]