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Paul Greenberg: Forgotten places


By Paul Greenberg, Tribune Media Services

How appropriate. The exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock is called Forgotten Places, and it's been mounted not in one of the main galleries but in a forgettable part of the museum. The exhibit consists largely of black-and-white photographs of old, abandoned houses out in the country. The kind of photographs developed in a darkroom, the almost forgotten way.

The pictures are scattered along an upstairs hallway, in nooks, on a landing at the top of stairs, out of the way, or maybe on the way to somewhere else. Perhaps to one of the spacious, brightly lit displays for children. You might pass the pictures right by, just as you would a dilapidated old house by the side of a country road.

Back in the woods, ivy covering a door, the roof caving in, walls buckling, the old house would be just this side of a memory. And you would drive right on past the past, focused on the empty present.

The pictures' location in the museum isn't a slight, it's the perfect setting. You ask directions at the front desk to get there. The way the photographer might have had to ask for directions when she set out to take the pictures. Once taken and revealed, the images are no longer the artist's alone. Each belongs to the passing viewer now, if only for a moment, as he falls under the peculiar spell only an abandoned past may cast.

One of the artists whose work is on display, Diana Michelle Hausam, speaks of "the beauty of neglect," of "found decay," and sums up the message of the exhibit in words that ring true: "the transience of life."

What was is no more. And, yet, thanks to her, it is. These images speak to us now in a way they never could when they weren't images but mundane reality, which is never mundane looking back.

There are no people in these pictures, yet they are everywhere. Looking at the photographs, we sense their lives, and feel wonder. These places are not forgotten. They remain at the core of what it means to be from Arkansas, or maybe any rural state with a storied past. She captured our soul in a lens. Seeing the exhibit is worth even getting out into the Arkansas heat this time to year.

"I believe the most important element of my work," the artist says on one of the wall placards, "is fear, fear of what I may find and fear for my life on these ventures of mine."

How strange. At least one viewer feels no fear reflected here, only peace. An awareness of the transience of life can do that. Nothing can be changed now. The past is done. No more need to struggle with it. Only to look back and be struck by the preciousness of it.

Black-and-white is the right medium for this look into the past, the rock from which we were carved. The couple of striking color photographs in the exhibit seem more decorative than instructive; they would make pretty greeting cards.

One of the gray pictures shows a few shoes, children's shoes, that have been left behind in a long-abandoned house. Why? Forgotten? Discarded? We'll never know. The children who wore them passed from this scene long ago. Whatever became of them is beyond our ken.

Fear would be the last emotion the sight of these shoes inspires, at least in this son of a shoemaker from the old country. I grew up with the smell of leather in my father's shop downstairs. Packets of strong new, flexible leather soles were stacked here and there, waiting to be stitched onto the workshoes of black sharecroppers come to town to do their shopping of a Saturday. Leather still smells like home to me. Comforting. Standing there, looking at the picture, I swear I can smell leather again. And I feel only gratitude.

Why? Then I realize I once saw another pair of shoes in a museum. Battered, dusty, crumpled little shoes displayed against the blank white walls. Memory is imperfect, so when I get back to the newspaper I go searching for the tiny shoes on the Internet. They belonged to a two-year-old named Doris Mathes. As I recall, someone -- her father? -- had written her name and birthdate on the soles, as if he knew just how valuable, even life-saving, a pair of shoes might be on a forced march, or even after the family had reached a concentration camp.

The little shoes did not avail. Doris Mathes, born June 14, 1942, would be gassed January 17, 1944, at Auschwitz.

I look at this black-and white photograph of children's shoes left behind somewhere in rural Arkansas, with its play of sun and shadow, and it seems filled with light. I feel only gratitude. And a surge of wild hope. America!

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.


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