The Baby-picture Contest

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About the time we started putting this issue together, Vanessa Weiman, the most recent addition to our editorial staff, came up with an idea: Why not ask everyone on the magazine to bring in a snapshot of him- or herself as a child between the ages of one and three. The pictures would be displayed unidentified and we’d all try to guess which was who.

This got under way in a spirit of casual amusement—“A chance to see your colleagues in the nude!” said Peter Morance, the art director, on his poster announcing the contest—but once the thirty pictures were up they had the most profound and mysterious effect on us all. From time to time during the day a dozen staff members would be drawn to them as the moon draws the tides; and the mood they exerted on us would shift subtly with each viewing. Sometimes it was hilarious, sometimes oddly intimate, sometimes tremendously sad—a Housman poem illustrated by our own lives.

Identifying the subjects proved more difficult than any of us would have guessed at the outset. Some were instantly evident—“Why bother to grow up?” said Katie Calhoun of the unchanged Skye Wilson—others remained inscrutable even after we learned who they were. I, who spent as much time as anyone poring over the pictures, got just half of them right.

It was especially interesting to go through this exercise while we were assembling this particular issue, because it imparted such a personal sense of the power of photography. Our lives are so littered with photos—John Gotti on his way to jail, Aunt Ruth on the deck, broken buildings in Sarajevo, your college roommate changing a tire—that it is easy sometimes to forget what extraordinary and precise documents they really are: a fraction of a second of daylight snatched from obliterating eternity, fixed, and saved forever.

The newly discovered photographs gathered here take us to many different times and places, but always to the moment itself: a beautiful young woman glancing into a Manhattan shop window one sunny day in the early 1930s; a Plains Indian toward the end of his long, losing war; the high gentry summering on the lake above Johnstown with the most appalling tragedy waiting there under the flash of their paddles.

These subjects of course share little enough with the snapshots that so transfixed our office. But if you pause and spend time in any of the pictures in this issue, you’re bound to feel something of the same thrall. For these photographs— all photographs—remind us of what passes and what remains, and of the endless colloquy between past and present that informs every moment of our waking lives.

Richard F. Snow