A few months ago I visited the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I breezed through exhibits of modern sculpture and walked around pleasing open rooms that held wall-sized splashes of color from abstract paintings. Much of the art I didn’t understand, but I enjoyed it, at least tried to appreciate it, and kept moving through the museum. Then I rounded a corner and the gallery lighting dimmed. The walls were painted in dark shades and covered with black and white photographs, each one carefully and individually illuminated. My hasty intake of modern art drastically slowed. I stepped closer to the images. This was the photography of Louis Stettner. What I was about to experience was a presentation of opposites at harmony with each other, pairings that would lead me to consider beauty in direct proximity to those things that oppose it—be it evil, anger, ugliness, loneliness, darkness, hatred, violence. Let me try to describe what I saw:
The first photograph I approached showed two men, shirtless, pulling up a huge fish. The photograph is angled so that the head of the fish is central. But my eye moved naturally toward the bodies of the men working. Their muscular arms contract as they pull the creature out of the water. You can see the salt crystallized on their skin, and the background is completely white washed, making me believe the sun was intense that day. The only parts of their faces that can be seen in the photograph are the deep lines in their necks and foreheads—I imagine tough skin exposed to countless hours of sun.
I pulled my gaze on to the next photograph—an African American woman in a print shop organizing large sheets of printed Bingo cards. Surely she had the monotonous task of cutting out each card. Then: a man with a large hat and gloves carrying heavy tools, his face glinting with grime. And then: an older woman, framed by spools of thread, who, despite hidden hands, is clearly concentrating hard by her furrowed brow and downcast eyes. The photographs of people at work continue, each highlighting their investment in their task by some telling mark: a facial expression or the untidiness of their clothes. Stettner makes it clear that they are laboring.
So, there I stood captivated by this collection of images—a series of hard workers, dirty and tired. What kept me absorbed in Stettner’s photos is that he is not just saying, “Look at how hard this person’s life is working to exhaustion.” He also says, “Look at how beautiful this person is amid the steam and grime of a factory.” Stettner presents us with dualities as they coexist. His images capture both elements of suffering (sweaty work, laborious long shifts, lonely hours) and at the same time they are breathtakingly beautiful. What a gift Stettner possessed, to be able to see suffering and also unearth beauty within it. This is an ability of perspective that is invaluable when the darkness seems to swallow whatever good is before us.
What a gift Stettner possessed, to be able to see suffering and also unearth beauty within it.
Here is another story:
Nearly a decade ago, after just finishing my second year at university, I traveled with a group of students to India for six weeks. I signed up for the trip with hopes of experiencing all of the vibrancy of Indian culture for the first time—aromatic curries, bold jewel-toned saris wrapped around hennaed limbs, raucous markets swarming with lives dramatically different from my own. It sounded exotic and wildly adventurous. I did experience these things. And they were stunning and magnetically exhilarating.
In the third week we visited Home of Hope: a place where the homeless, rescued from the streets, could die with dignity. It was little more than a partitioned cement bunker and a dusty playground. The nearness of death was palpable, like a fog bank looming just off shore that would inevitably sweep through the grounds. I smelled the wasting away of human bodies mixed with the sweetness of curry soup prepared for each meal. I saw what were once colorful saris torn at the hem, draped around bodies like a funerary shroud. Henna swirled around wrists and ankles so thin and brittle I wondered if the inked patterns might be all that held these dying women together. The helplessness I felt was paralyzing. How could this be the Home of Hope?
Then a little girl—ten years old but the size of a child four years younger—approached me with a bottle of pink nail polish. I knelt down next to her (I’d soon learn her name: Blessy) and she placed the bottle in my hand. I sat in the dirt and she plopped herself in my lap while I painted her nails—tiny beds hardly big enough to hold a drop of polish. When I finished she grabbed my hand and, with an unexpectedly steady grip, painted mine. When our manicures were complete I followed Blessy’s lead. We held our hands out in front of us, fingers spread wide, and examined our work: beautiful.
Before I left India Blessy’s mom passed away. Blessy would grow up in Home of Hope raised by the strong women who worked there and the strong women who came to die there. I picture the moment where we held our hands to the sun as a freeze-frame, one of Louis Stettner’s photographs—an instant of realization where suffering and thriving were illuminated at the same time. It did not lessen the despair I felt at the thought of the unknowns Blessy would fight in her future. But it did allow me to see a clear picture of reality: there exists a beautiful and strong spirit in Blessy in spite of and concurrent with the suffering around her.
I smelled the wasting away of human bodies mixed with the sweetness of curry soup prepared for each meal.
The juxtaposition of beauty with its opposites is a step toward reconciliation. Louis Stettner’s photographs and Blessy’s life show this. Our reality is filled with evil; hatred and violence and the ugliness of the human soul can darken our world. In times of insurmountable pain we need, like Stettner, to fix a moment in time, make it a static freeze-frame, so that we can see there is also a little girl—healthy, beaming, full of possibilities as she admires her nails—coexisting with the hungry and the dying. And then we can go further; once we see the light presiding with the dark we can harness such goodness to prevail over its opposites, allow it to fortify our bones to make us stand tall when faced with the next brutal blow. Blessy is making her way.
The capacity to mine for beauty in moments of despair transcends a sentimental, optimistic perspective; it is a kind of realism that acknowledges both sides of this dualism and proclaims the side that is beautiful. Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote, “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
The juxtaposition of beauty with its opposites is a step toward reconciliation.
Finally, a third story—this time not my own.
There is a short story written by James Baldwin called “Sonny’s Blues.” In one sense it is a story of great suffering—the narrator loses his young daughter to sickness; his brother, the title character, is battling addictions; their uncle was brutally murdered by a truck of racist white men while their father watched. In another sense “Sonny’s Blues” is a story of reconciliation as the narrator attempts to understand Sonny and the cruel, unforgiving world that keeps dealing them blows. In the final scene the narrator attends one of Sonny’s shows. He watches as a large man named Creole leads the band:
“Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
Again and again I return to these lines from Baldwin’s story. In better words than any others I have found they tell of our continued struggle with suffering on this earth. Yet, these words also speak of the beauty found in the same sphere—in this case it is in the form of music. Our ability to look—I mean really look—allows us to persevere. When we can see and apprehend beauty, it carries us forward, allowing us to face suffering again and again until one day all anguish is vanquished from the earth.
And though it can feel heavy, or near impossible to do this, we must remember where our capacity to find beauty comes from; it comes from a God who, at the beginning of time, looked at the dark and from it separated light; in the dark God saw that light was good and brought it forth with a proclamation, “Let there be light.” This is the God in whose image we were created. The same God who redeems and has promised to bring about the redemption of all things—an act which requires unearthing the good and beautiful from the broken and suffering.
From the beginning of time we have seen beauty battle with evil. So we must respond as our Creator does and as the blues musicians do when they improvise in “Sonny’s Blues”: with affirmation of the beauty that exists all the while. Let us constantly seek new ways to manifest beauty and then proclaim it from the mountaintops.