Frames of Reference
Heather Grennan Gary

Early in November I was walking south across the Wabash Avenue Bridge in Chicago when I passed two young women who were trying to take a selfie. It was one of those spectacular fall days—the sky a brilliant blue, bright sunlight glinting on the Chicago River and bouncing off the buildings rising up along the riverbanks. As the two leaned back, one stretched her arm out in front of her as far as possible, her fingers straining to angle her phone and snap the photo. I stopped and asked if I could take the picture for them. They both looked at me with vaguely perplexed stares, as if I had offered them a potato or a pine cone.

“I thought you might want…” I stammered, gesturing to the sky and the river and Lake Michigan in the distance—things they clearly couldn’t capture from one arm’s length. One of the women shook her head just a bit, declining my offer. “Oh,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “OK, then.” I continued across the bridge, surprisingly disheartened by the exchange.

As I walked, I thought back to places I’ve traveled where I had to ask a stranger to stop for a moment to snap a photo of me, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends or family. I remembered times and places where people asked me to take a photo of them, handing me their camera or phone, sometimes pointing out something in the background they wanted to be sure to include. These requests required mere seconds and little real effort. But in every instance I could remember, the act of enlisting a stranger to perform this small favor—or the experience of being enlisted myself—made me feel more connected to a place and to people I encountered there. Maybe someone at some point had brushed past, ignoring my request (or maybe I had done the brushing past), but I couldn’t think of a time that had happened. I was glad about that. I was a little
sad for the young women on the bridge, though. I wondered if they would someday study that photo and wish they had captured more than what appeared in that tight frame.

This is probably why I have so enjoyed “A Closer Look,” the photo essay that begins on page 12. These photos are decidedly not selfies; each portrait of a veteran is an obvious collaboration between the subject and the photographer. The photographers—all students in the Introduction to Digital Photography class at Valparaiso University—have attended carefully to their subjects, choosing a frame and a setting that communicates important truths about the individuals they are portraying. While selfies fill up space on our phones and social media feeds, these portraits open up space, allowing us to gaze and contemplate and appreciate.

The photo essay by Valpo students is just one treasure in a trove of artwork in this issue. On page 4, David Zersen highlights the work of artist extraordinaire P. Solomon Raj and considers some of the questions Raj’s art raises, especially in the season of Advent. And on page 30, John Ruff reviews the recent “Nebraska” multimedia exhibit at the Chapel of the Resurrection.

In the hustle and bustle of this busy season, it may be hard to find the time or space to contemplate art. But art can open up time and space in a way that revives and re-centers us. Spend a few moments with Raj’s Women on the Via Dolorosa (page 9) or Lee K. Johnson’s Loretto (page 33). Maybe—just maybe—these creations can do us the favor of connecting us with something outside of ourselves. Perhaps they can help attune us to the brilliance all around.                          —HGG

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