Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Nearly 100 years ago, a farm boy stole a nude picture from this issue of International Studio Magazine in the public library of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

He left only the foot behind.

Council Bluffs was a small, old fashioned town where farmers stored grain on its way to market. They observed strict social and religious rules. The librarian must have hoped that a subscription to International Studio would add some much needed culture.

There weren't many places in town where a young man could see what a naked lady looked like. Some farm boys would soon march off to die in World War I without ever experiencing the sight or touch of a female body.

I had to smile when I discovered the missing picture. The boy's heart must have pounded as he tore it out and smuggled it past the stern librarian. When he got home to his tiny unheated bedroom in a sparse Iowa farmhouse, the secret picture must have given him precious clues to a whole new world.

I love the smell of old magazines. New magazines are the braying of capitalism-- the latest fashions and trends scream for reader attention in order to sell merchandise. But once the pageant of capitalism has moved on -- once a periodical has outlived its period-- it takes on an entirely different tone. Outdated advertisements and faded styles seem humbled and mortal. Even the silliest magazine becomes worthy of profound reflection after 20 years.

Most of all, the aroma of old magazines reminds me that regardless of the timeless truths that might be printed on them, magazine pages are inescapably returning to wood pulp on the forest floor. The farm boy who was so consumed by nature's heat that he risked everything to steal that picture is surely wood pulp too, or well on his way to becoming so.

Pictures enlighten us in many different ways. It's easy to revere large gilded paintings on ornate Renaissance altars, but the revelations that come from baser forms of art are sometimes harder to recognize.

The cold farmhouse bed where that boy speculated about the mysteries of nature is an altar no less sacred and no more profane than the gilded church altar. In fact, if you measure art by its impact on life, there's a good argument that the crumpled picture torn from the magazine had the greater impact.