Mr. Rochester, the head of the new Museum of Modern Art, located on the upper east side of town, knew nothing about art.
“I know nothing about art,” he said to Jake Wesley who’d dropped by with a cinnamon roll because it was Mr. Rochester’s birthday. “But the beauty of it is, I don’t have to. No one has to. With modern stuff, you just slap a card under it that says it’s art, and, presto, everyone thinks it is art.”
“What sort of displays are you going to have?” Jake asked, flipping through the stacks of paperwork on his friend’s desk.
“Everything. Paintings, sculpture, collage, photography, you name it. I know one gal who’s making quite a stir with poking porcupine quills in things. I’ve got a ton of stuff lined up, and most of them paying to have their own display. These people are coming to us, bringing their work, begging us to use it. We act all condescending of course, like we have more than enough of the greats to choose from, but in the end we reluctantly accept. Of course we’re paying to display a few of the big names, so people will see we’re on the level.”
“I see,” Jake said. “I never knew a lot about art myself. My question is, will people come and pay to see it?”
“You bet they will. Modern art is all the thing. The youth are nuts about it. The adults are nuts about it. Only the elderly prefer old school, and they don’t go around to museums much anyway. The city is helping with funding because the people want it. These days half the guys you meet on the streets are artists, and they want an outlet.”
“If you say so. Anyway, I’d better be going. I’ve got an interview in an hour.” Jake stood up and put on his jacket.
“That’s right; you’re out of a job. Well maybe you can do me a favor; make a few bucks on the side.”
“I have every department coming along beautiful, except for one. I can’t get photographers to part with their stuff so easily, I’m not sure why, maybe because it shows some reality. Anyhow, you used to mess around with a camera, how about doing some shooting for me?”
“That was when I was a kid. I haven’t taken a picture in ten years.”
“They don’t have to be good. I’d do it myself except I haven’t time, and everyone would see my name on it and know I wasn’t a real photographer. Go on, just bring me whatever and I’ll give you ten dollars a picture, and you’ll be doing me a bigger birthday favor than this pastry.”
“Well, I might give it a try. See you, Chris.”
Jake Wesley had been fired from his job selling health insurance because he hadn’t sold a single policy in two months. The problem was he didn’t care about it anymore. If people wanted insurance, they would buy it. He didn’t want to be the one to convince someone to buy something that they didn’t want. And as for advertising his particular company, he knew it wasn’t any better than the competitors. He didn’t want to lie and say it was. So he was out of a job, and so tired of office work he almost didn’t want to be hired at any of his interviews, and his prospective employers could feel it.
So that afternoon, after his interview, which ended like the others, cold and polite, he went back to his apartment, and dug in his closet for his camera. He pulled it out, black and dusty, an ancient model with the flash bulb attached on top that only took black and white. He thought perhaps he ought to borrow a different camera, but then decided the old look might add to the ‘art’ of it.
He got in his car and drove around, looking for something that might make art. He photographed a tree with a single leaf left on the top; he photographed a graveyard in the rain. He photographed a white umbrella. Then he went to the library and got out several books on photography. His camera used film, so he went all over the city before he finally found a place that still developed film. He ordered the originals plus enlargements, and went home to read.
Over the next two weeks Jake took over five hundred pictures. He got another camera. He experimented with focus points, angles, shutter speeds, exposure, tripods, natural light and artificial light. He was asked to be an amateur, but he set out to be a professional. He tried different sizes. He worked primarily in black and white, and sometimes he would colorize sections. At the end of three weeks of hard work, work he enjoyed, loved even, he brought a selection of twenty photographs to Mr. Rochester.
“These are great, Jake. I didn’t know you had this stuff in you. They don’t look very modern though.” He looked through the pictures; a park bench, the tree with the leaf, all in black and white except the leaf, which was colored a bright, promising yellow. There was one of the river outside the city with an old man fishing. There was a storm flashing through black clouds. There was a sunrise with a single golden band running through it.
“I thought people might find them modern because of the old look, if you know what I mean. I suppose they aren’t, really, but probably no will care. I don’t expect people will notice them.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Jake. These are great, though my word doesn’t mean much. Are they all you have?”
“Oh no, I have more. These are just my best.”
“Well I’ll want about fifty in all. My designer wants a wall of solid photos. I’ll go ahead and write you a check for five hundred now.”
Jake took another two hundred photos and chose thirty more out of his collection for the museum. But he didn’t go back to interviews after he was done. He kept walking around in the city, in the country, in the basement of his apartment building, in greenhouses and bakeries taking pictures. Pictures, pictures, pictures. The more he took, the more he saw things. He saw a piece of bark curling back from a tree in a perfect ‘s.’ He saw interesting formations in a sand bucket of cigarette stubs. He saw the way the light played through leaves. He saw a blue bottle on a white table. He saw the lines on an old woman’s hand like a map. He saw stone stairs and puddles under swing sets where feet had scraped mud hollows. The world, which Jake, with his insurance against disasters, had always thought was such a big place, was suddenly full of small things. A million little moments that he saw, even if he didn’t try to take a picture.
A month after the museum opened in April, Jake got a call from Mr. Rochester.
“Hey, Jake buddy. I’d like for you to drop by. We need to talk about your photos.”
Jake walked through the museum before heading back to Mr. Rochester’s office. He’d been in when it first opened of course, but even in a month, everything had changed around, as if modern art is only modern for about an hour, and then it’s old fashioned and needs replacing with something more modern. He saw a painting of several big red dots. He saw a collage of dyed toilet paper, pulped onto the canvas in little heaps and mounds. He saw a statue that said on the card it was a deer being hunted, but it looked more like a cow kneeling on a log. He saw a girl weeping as she examined a cardboard box painted green with angular shapes cut out of the sides. Then he saw his own photo wall. He saw his tree, which was clearly a tree, and his bench, which was obviously a bench, and the river, which was definitely a river, and he was pretty sure he knew what Mr. Rochester wanted to talk about.
“Jake! Great to see you pal.” Mr. Rochester shook his hand violently and put him in a chair.
“Listen, buddy, I hate to break this to you, but your photo display’s not working.” He paced up and down. “People walk up to it and drift away a minute later. They don’t seem to get it. Or maybe they get it too much. They want something to think about. The box now. Have you seen the box? People look at that thing for hours.”
“I saw the box.”
“Anyway, you get what I’m saying? My girl in guest observation says people just brush by, and that we need something else in the photo department.”
“Take a look at these; came in this morning from a guy in Nova Scotia, we contacted him ‘cause my information says he’s hot up there.”
Mr. Rochester took several large glossy prints from his desk. They were enlarged to twelve by sixteen, and like Jake’s, they were mostly black and white. Jake took them and flipped through. There was one of what looked like the toenail of a big toe. There was one of a night club, everything blurry, with numbers scratched across the stage. There was one of a paper ‘A’ standing above all the other letters scattered on a black surface. There was one that appeared to be a close up of a toilet plunger handle. There were more that Jake couldn’t tell what they were, and several solid color prints, blue and green and orange with faint shadows to give some idea of depth.
“These are the rage in galleries across this country and Canada, and we were lucky to get our hands on them.”
“Yes, I guess you were. It’s fine, Chris. You’re telling me you’re taking down my display, right?”
“I’m sorry, Jake.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was your idea in the first place. I know you paid me for the pictures, but if you aren’t going to do anything with them, could I have them back? Some of the prints I touched up came out better than the originals.”
“Sure, sure, of course. Anything I can do. And I’ll recommend you to some magazines I know of. You should do your own show. Rent a place, and I’ll put the word out to some of the more traditional art lovers. They don’t come here, but I know where a few are.”
“Thanks, I’ll let you know if I ever do anything like that.” They shook hands, and Jake walked back through the Museum of Modern Art. He walked past the box and some paper cutouts of hunched figures hiding their faces, perhaps crying. He came to his wall and stood looking at it. All his moments; real moments he had seen and felt and captured, hung here to share, so people could see what he’d seen. But they wanted to see something he hadn’t seen. They wanted to use other people’s moments to find their own; they didn’t care to share his. He turned to leave and saw a woman studying the wall. She was looking at his picture of the tree with the single yellow leaf. She looked at it a long time. Finally he said, “What do you think it means?”
“Means?” She said, “Does it have to mean something besides a leaf on a tree?”
“No,” Jake said, “no it doesn’t.”