I was stranded on the moving sidewalk, shifting my weight impatiently behind a tour group who had bunched themselves up in the middle of the conveyor belt. I was somewhere between terminals at Washington-Dulles, either halfway gone or halfway home, depending on whether you gate-checked your optimism or not.
The walls were lined with shots of American Beauty or some other patriotically themed installation, photographs that are supposed to capture iconic scenes from sea to perfectly shining sea but instead look like the default screensavers that came with your last Dell.
The Capitol at sunset. A grain silo at sunset. George Washington’s granite face staring at a South Dakota landscape. At sunset.
The next to the last picture was just past the end of the moving sidewalk and, as the tour group shuffled past with their slices of Sbarros and stuffed neck pillows from Hudsons Booksellers, I realized that the frame that was supposed to backlight it had burned out.
I felt terrible for the photographer, who’d probably stood for hours—days—in a field waiting for all of the wheat (or whatever harvestable grass that was) to bend in that particular direction and for the sunset to catch it JUST LIKE THAT before capturing it on a memory card. Days or weeks or months later, he submitted that photo to the Dulles Airport Interior Decorating Committee and was delighted when it was accepted, knowing that hundreds of thousands of slightly annoyed air travelers would have the opportunity to see HIS OWN WHEAT PHOTOGRAPHY! Celebratory drinks were probably poured. A future of taking background shots for the Wheaties box was dreamed of. Maybe he stepped off that same moving sidewalk, lingering in front of that same picture to think about What It All Means, lost in the pixels until a red-faced man clipped his Achilles tendon with a rolling suitcase.
Or maybe they just ordered it from a stock photo company.
Either way, that one unlit, overlooked picture caught more of my attention than the two dozen landscapes and seascapes and other-scapes that were hanging to its right. There’s probably a metaphor there but I’m not going to look for it, not now. My Sbarros is getting cold.