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Life. Lighthouses. Storms. Peril. Carpe diem. Etc.

A friend is liquidating her art gallery and today, for a pittance, I bought a poster with this image. In the dim warehouse where the sale was held and with the soft quality of the paper, I thought the poster was a reproduction of a painting, not a photo. How could it possibly be a photo? Look at it larger: here or here (click on the image to enlarge).

How could a man be standing there so calmly, hands in pockets, when he’s about to die? Yet photo it is. In fact, it’s part of a series of photos by lighthouse photographer (who knew there was such a thing as a lighthouse photographer?) Jean Guichard. All are of the same wave, same lighthouse, same surreally serene figure. Some are even more dramatic than this one.

(Here is an an animation of all seven photos.)

The good news: The man in the photo — one of the lighthouse keepers — didn’t die.

Turns out this is one of the most famous lighthouse photos ever (and who knew there were such things as famous lighthouse photos? Although if there are, I’d say these three must be close rivals).

I thought the poster would be too disturbing to hang on my wall. I bought it because it was so intriguing, such a bargain, and such a powerful reminder that life is short — yet we infinitesimal human beings can do such extraordinary things.

I pinned it up tonight over my desk. Knowing the lighthouse keeper survived makes all the difference. Instead of finding the image depressing as I expected, it fills me with a sense of something good that I can’t quite define. Wonderment. Courage. A reminder that some moments just have to be seized, some diems carpéd. A reminder that, even on a really, really bad work day, somebody else has a tougher job than I do. A reminder that, no matter how irresistible a force seems, sometimes we really do overcome. A sense of amazement at what man achieves despite his limitations. Maybe even (does this sound too sappy to say?) … hope.

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BTW, a couple of the above links go to AllPosters.com, a company that has not only a dazzling selection of posters and art prints, but is impressively honorable and very friendly to deal with. No financial interest here. But I’ve bought from them a couple of times can recommend them without reservation to anybody who likes posters, giclee prints, printed tapestries, and other not-too-horrifically-budget-breaking wall beautifiers.

8 Comments

  1. naturegirl
    naturegirl December 10, 2010 9:16 pm

    The great thing about art is that it hits people in different and personal ways……I look at the lighthouse photo and see a strong person, calm within the turmoil around him; with a respect of the fury of the sea and a love that if it takes him he wouldn’t have death in any other way…..As for the waves, no one is more powerful than Mother Nature, not even man – and nature is amazing…..

    And, that would be an awesome image to attempt to paint….

    But most disturbing, is your friend liquidating her art gallery – was the reason this economy? The things most people consider “not important” enough to buy during a downturn is the very thing that needs to be preserved: art and the joy of seeing something actually made by hands/eyes/brains…..

  2. Kevin Wilmeth
    Kevin Wilmeth December 11, 2010 12:24 am

    Too sappy? No.

    This is one of the reasons your work is important, Claire. You bring everyday humanity back into the discussion, even as the nitwits of the world press ever harder to purge same of anything resembling an actual love of their fellow man. That will get to you, after a while, and breaths of fresh air are always welcome. 🙂

  3. CS
    CS December 11, 2010 12:40 am

    I always enjoyed that image and I’m happy to have finally learned the story behind it.

    In line with your comments, I’ve prized this quote from the moment I read it:

    For one, the worst event of this day, though it may deject, shall not break or subdue me. The call upon us is authoritative. Let who will shrink back, I shall be found at my post. — Edmund Burke, speech at Parliament, 1785

  4. Samuel Adams
    Samuel Adams December 11, 2010 6:43 am

    Ah, but the important question is, which lighthouse is it?

    Of course the keeper stands there calmly until the last minute, then withdraws into his tower. He knows when the last minute, the last second, is. He’s done this before and knows exactly what he’s doing. Like a stunt man, he does something that is dangerous, but with some planning and familiarity with the subject can bring the risk down to the acceptable.

    He’s done this before. Look at the rail: battered, and the verdigris of brass that’s been immersed in sea water.

    Any deep water sailor knows exactly what he’s doing and why.

  5. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty December 11, 2010 7:05 am

    Beautiful and powerful pictures and story. I’m glad the man lived, but would not be depressed if he had died. He chose to be there, and chose his actions at the time. I celebrate his freedom to choose. 🙂

  6. Dan Perkins
    Dan Perkins December 11, 2010 7:16 am

    Actually, Samuel Adams, he was not intentionally toying with fate, here. I’ve always been fascinated by this image and recently took the time to dig up the back story. Like Claire, I assumed that the photo captured the last moments of a mans life and wanted to find out more about him and his fate.
    Apparently, he was drawn to open the door by curiosity after hearing the helicopter the photographer was in. As he stood there, the wave hit the other side of the lighthouse and hearing this, he slammed the door closed at the last second.
    Like Claire, this changed my whole perception of the photo. No longer mournful, it invoked joy, good luck and awe. It was still spine-tingling as hell, also.
    There may be some parable here about curiosity and life moments (I think the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle could be invoked as well), but I’ll leave that to others and just say,”Wow! What a shot!”

  7. Joel
    Joel December 11, 2010 8:57 am

    Huh. Before hearing the backstory, I saw a guy who was serenely – and correctly – confident that he was NOT going to die. He knew the power of the waves and of the tower, and he knew how long he could stand there in (relatively) perfect safety.

    His preps in place, he could dare the storm. We’re not that small, Claire. From the evidence, we’re at least metaphorically the biggest things on the planet.

  8. ansonmacdonald
    ansonmacdonald December 12, 2010 8:57 am

    Claire,

    When our children were still at home, years ago, we rented a house on the beach in Sea Isle City, New Jersey every summer for a two week stay. Same house, it was perfect. Older, affordable, beach front AND it had that lighthouse photo hanging in the hallway. When I first walked through the house and looked at it from peripheral vision I thought it was a submarine with a lookout standing at con. As the years passed I grew to love that picture, it was as perfect as the house.

    The kids are grown and we take vacations solo now and out west (which is also perfect). I learned several years ago that while the house was being worked on a plumber left something connected that should not have been and the entire duplex burned down (thankfully during a winter month with no one inside). Presumeably the photo (I too, thought is was a portrait replication; thanks Claire) went with it.

    It left us saddened but at least I can now print out a passable copy, thanks so much for posting your story!

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