Marion Post Wolcott is a great photographer who mysteriously put down her camera 46 years ago and stopped being an artist. One day last year, a despairing writer showed up on her doorstep wanting to understand the reasons for her decision. He hoped that by overlaying her experiences on his, a clearer image of his own life might form. It did

THE MORNING CALIFORNIA SUN IS STREAMING IN OVER HER LEFT SHOULDER, making her thin gray hair shine a little, gleam, like old pewter newly polished. "Look here," she says, bringing out some drugstore-developed 3-by-5 color snapshots. They're a little out of focus and perfectly ordinary in composition, the kind you might shoot on a picnic with the family Instamatic. But she seems so secretly proud anyway. "I just took these things through the windshield when we were coming back from Albuquerque a few weeks ago. Lee was driving. I guess I was wondering if I could still click the shutter, if I could still see light anymore. I mean, all these years I've seen things and not really photographed them. Or didn't bother to. Or didn't want to. Oh, maybe my cameras were in the back of a closet, or I didn't know where they were at all, or didn't have any film just then, or had told myself that the film in the camera was too old, just like you are, Marion, forget it, it's too late. But anyway, on this recent trip, just the two of us coming back through the desert, with Lee driving and me pointing the camera out the window, I decided to try. And what do you know, I found out I could still click the shutter at nearly the right moment."

Marion Post Wolcott is smiling, beaming in fact, but almost inwardly, as if no one else were in the room. There doesn't seem such a shimmer of weariness about her suddenly. "I discovered I could still see light through a lens. And it was wonderful." A Mystery in Four Frames

F R A M E O N E

HIS IS A STORY ABOUT AN ARTIST WHO STOPPED, WHO LET GO OF that gifted magical thing inside her until it was too late and the gift was lost. The letting go happened out of a swirl of reasons, not the least of which was the burden of being human, of being fearful. I would like to tell you about the life of Marion Post Wolcott, and of the extraordinary body of work she did accomplish, in just three years, a body of work that I believe will outlast this century and probably the next one, too. But before I can do that I need to relate a briefer story about myself. For a long while in trying to come to terms with the story of Marion Post Wolcott, which essentially is about the choices that get made in our lives wittingly and half-wittingly and sometimes with almost no wit at all, I had resisted involving myself. But I see now that's not really possible.

Almost exactly one year ago, I started slipping beyond anything I had ever known or could seem to prevent into a pool of despair. I am not sure I was in actual danger of doing something physically harmful to myself, but I do know that I was desperate enough to be fantasizing such thoughts, letting them coolly wash over me, like warm surf, and this is a terrible thing to say for a man who is much in love with his wife and baby son. But it's true. My despair had arisen over my inability to move forward as much as one micro-inch (or so it seemed to me) on a big-money and high-visibility book project that I had been working on, with everything I had in me, for six days a week for more than two years. By the winter of 1987, I felt myself out of time and imagination and will and money. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt so finished and frightened had I the least something to show for my efforts. I had nothing, or practically nothing. I began to feel myself light-headed, I began to feel myself paranoid, I began to feel myself strangely returned to the point where I had started out two years before. The project had become a hateful house of mirrors for me, and I had no idea how to escape it. I felt, in fact, that I could work for the rest of my life and still not succeed on the project. I remember reciting endlessly to myself Hemingway's macho line: "If we win here, we win everywhere, and if we lose here, we lose everywhere." I was losing horribly. I also found myself beginning to do curious, almost somnambulistic things -- such as the morning when instead of working I tape-recorded, and then played over and over, a portion of a book review from The New York Times. I recorded it onto a cassette on my writing table. It was a review of the collected letters of Joseph Conrad, and this was the part I seemed so interested in, reading it aloud into the machine in a grave speaking voice:

Every writer knows that melodramatic expressions of despair about the progress of composition can become a kind of fetish, relied on to ward off the onset of a genuinely catastrophic blockage. But in Conrad's case, despair seems to have been the condition for writing anything at all -- a state of affairs he did his best to exacerbate by making it a practice to borrow money from publishers against books he had not yet written. "I sit down for eight hours every day -- and the sitting down is all," he complains in an utterly characteristic letter to the critic Edward Garnett. "In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair . . . I assure you -- speaking soberly and on my word of honor -- that sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self control to refrain from butting my head against the wall . . . I would be thankful to be able to write anything, anything, any trash, any rotten thing -- something to earn dishonestly and by false pretenses the payment promised by a fool.

I think I played that passage about 20 times before I had all the commas memorized. If Conrad could feel despair like that, I thought, why not someone as puny as me? My wife brought lunch down to my writing room that day, and I slapped off the machine when I heard her coming. "How's it going?" she said. "Fine," I said. She knew about my turmoil, of course, but I don't think she knew the goiterlike proportions to which it had grown. When she went back upstairs to take care of our squalling healthy son, I put the tape on again, wondering if I was smiling weirdly, like Jack Nicholson in the movie version of "The Shining."

One cruddy late January afternoon in the middle of this, I let go of any pretense I had of trying to accomplish something, any piece of trash for payment, and instead walked over to the Library of Congress, where I thought I might read a magazine, or stare at one of the useless stacks of research notes I had accumulated, or maybe just kill the rest of the day by taking the visitors' tour of the library's main reading room. (I had only been in the Library of Congress about 200 times in the previous year and had a stack pass and study shelf to boot.) I didn't do any of those things but began walking around in the gift shop on the ground floor of the main building. Before long I was looking at some black-and-white picture post cards as well as some reproduction prints and photo-text books by some of the old Farm Security Administration documentary photographers, whose work, during the middle and late years of the Depression, I have known about and loved and been comforted by for almost all of my adult life. These old FSA pictures of ordinary, enduring Americans have always seemed most meaningful to me in times of my own stress. Indeed, they have always seemed to epitomize for me the truth of what the great latter-day American photographer Robert Frank called "the humanity of the moment." When I look at the struggle coming up out of these photographs, I feel somehow as if I'm combing through my own and the country's ancestral attic with Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck and maybe the Andrews Sisters and the Great Gildersleeve, too, all of us lingering here and there to laugh but more often cry.

So I began gazing that day at several of Walker Evans' sharecropper portraits from the summer of 1936 in Hale County, Alabama, when he and the writer James Agee were working on what would eventually turn out to be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I looked again at Dorothea Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" picture from Nipomo, California; at her moving "Woman of the High Plains," in which that bony, stricken and nameless Panhandle woman has one hand clutched at her throat and the other at her forehead, as if feeling for a fever, as she tells the photographer: "If you die, you're dead -- that's all."

And then a little later that day I saw a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

Marion Post Wolcott? Why don't I know this name? I thought I had heard of all of the FSA photographers. I felt I vaguely knew of the picture in my hand, however. It was titled "Snowy Night, Woodstock, Vermont," and I think it must have been reaching out that afternoon, through those several dozen other FSA post cards and photo-text books and suitable-for-framing 8-by-10 reproduction prints and all those other quite familiar and less familiar FSA names in the Library of Congress archives -- Evans, Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Ed Rosskam, Carl Mydans, Jack Delano -- to speak just to me, perhaps a little in the way that the angel Clarence suddenly reached out and plucked the desperate Jimmy Stewart, a k a George Bailey, from the icy deep in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." Perhaps that sounds highfalutin, melodramatic, Conradian, aggrandizing. Perhaps it sounds like a small contrivance, the writer's neat hook for his story. It's also exactly what I continue to feel: saved, or something close to it.

Drift your eye across this page. "Snowy Night, Woodstock, Vermont" is a picture of a sleeping clapboard town piled deep and white. The street lamp in the foreground has a kind of extraterrestrial glow about it, as if visions are momentarily to appear. The snowbanks along the sidewalks seem like bulky human forms covered with blankets. There is something almost transcendently peaceful about the photograph, and I stared at it for a long time that afternoon before I went on to another picture by Marion Post Wolcott. It was titled "Man Reading Life Magazine Behind His Car in Trailer Park, Sarasota, Florida." A contented seventyish figure with silvery hair and a pipe and argyle socks and a pair of flimsy wire-rim reading glasses is sitting in a striped canvas lawn chair paging through Henry Luce's famous photo magazine. The light in the picture is stunning; you want to reach out and riffle the old guy's hair. But more than the beauty of the light, the man in the picture reminded me instantly of my own "Pop," which is what we used to call my maternal grandfather, Bernie Kyne, who also used to winter with "Nonna" in or near Sarasota trailer parks in the '40s, driving down from Greene County, Ohio, once the year's farming was done. I'd bet anything my Pop also sat of a balmy Gulf Coast evening beside his Chevy in argyle socks and a wooden lawn chair reading Life magazine, and that he also would have been glad to let an attractive, young female photographer working for FDR's New Deal snap his picture: You betcha, honey, go ahead and set it on up, pretty big camera you got yourself there, you say you load it with that sheet film, my God that camera's big as a bowling ball, hope I don't crack the thing in two on you.

My Pop has been dead a long time but for a moment I had him back.

I came on another Wolcott picture that day. The caption said: "Migrant Family From Missouri, Belle Glade, Florida, 1939." There are three women in the photograph -- a mother and two daughters. There is a man in the foreground, possibly the husband, but he is squatting on his haunches, with his head hung down toward the dirt, as if he doesn't wish the photographer, and the world, to see his face. And you can't. But it is the woman in the picture I could almost not take my eyes off that afternoon. She is wearing a denim apron over a faded dress and she is standing with her angular back against a Florida palm. Her gaze, right into the camera, is flat and unbroken; her hand is set defiantly against her hip; her straight dark hair is falling straight down on either side of her hard generational face. The woman looks so sad, angry, beat-up and undefeated all at once. How old was she when the picture was taken, I wondered: 30, 35? What was her name? How long did she live? She couldn't be alive now, could she? Was she a worker in the citrus packing houses, and was the work filthy? Were her children defecating into lard cans, were they sleeping in lean-tos rigged from burlap and corrugated tin? Was the family insulating itself from the January Florida frosts with the rotogravure sections of the Palm Beach Daily News? I kept staring at the picture as emotion kept climbing in my throat. The picture had a second caption, too. It said, and I was certain it must be a quote from the mother, "We ain't never lived like hogs before, but we sure does now."

What sort of gift, not just for photography but for life, would you have to have to get pictures like these, I wondered. "Why haven't I seen these pictures before?" I kept saying to myself. "And who the hell is Marion Post Wolcott?"

Later that same afternoon, I talked to a reference assistant in the prints and photographs division of the library, where the several hundred thousand extant FSA pictures and original negatives and copy negatives -- the greatest photographic document ever assembled in the history of this nation, probably any nation -- are all housed. The prints, mounted on their pieces of gray cardboard, are there in row after row of red metal filing cabinets.

"I would like to see anything at all you have that's written down about the life of Marion Post Wolcott," I said.

"Well, we have very little," the reference assistant said. "She's mentioned here and there in books about the Depression, in some of the basic bibliographies and photo encyclopedias and histories, but, you see, people don't nearly know her in the way they know some of the other FSAers."

"Why not?" I said. "Her work is incredible."

"Well, for one thing she came into the project late, about 1938, and only worked a couple of years. And then she stopped. As far as I know, she never took any more pictures the rest of her life. Maybe she did, but I never saw any. The world forgets about you, doesn't it? The magic isn't used, the magic goes. A lot of the others went on to have later careers as photographers or artists. Seems as if your Marion Wolcott went into hiding or something. She's something, though, isn't she?"

"But I don't understand how she could have just stopped like that," I said.

"Beats me, Jack," he said. "She stopped. I guess you'd have to ask her. I think she's still alive. Somewhere out in California. You could probably find her. Very old now. Not too well, I've heard. Been sick a long time, I think. Most of all the others are long gone or pretty recently gone. Wolcott's the last great one who's left, I suppose. I think she got married and moved overseas or something. Had kids. Lived on a farm somewhere in Virginia for a long while or something. Maybe it was her husband. I think maybe I've heard that, come to think of it. Married women, never mind married women with children, just didn't run around the country being artists back then, did they? It was the culture, wasn't it? It was the thing between men and women back then, wasn't it? Anyway, the point is she stopped. The point is she disappeared. Vanished, you could say."

"The hell with the culture," I said a little too loudly. "What would she have done with all her . . . her compulsion to shoot a picture? How do you cut that off?"

The reference assistant shrugged, growing bored with this conversation. Every day of the year quacks and crackpots and kooks come into the Library of Congress with their urgent questions.

For the rest of that day and on into the night I had a strange, tingling feeling in me. It wasn't a feeling of uplift or of any ease of my pain exactly. And yet there was an odd leavening in me all the same. It had to do with a question I had never before even considered, amid all my other troubles: Was it possible that 30 or 40 years hence -- no matter how many distant rungs I still happened to be on a ladder of creativity below a Marion Post Wolcott, and no matter what else of importance I might have attempted with my life in the meantime -- that the pain I was going to feel, the awful pain of regret and guilt and self-recrimination for having quit early on a hugely promising book project, was it possible that the pain of that could be worse, far worse, than any tears of near-suicidal frustration I was currently shedding?

My God, it was an amazing and terrifying thought. Though I knew for certain that day I would never be a creative person even remotely in the company of a Marion Post Wolcott, at the same time I think I already felt bonded to her, a kind of sympathetic response. It was as if I had hold of a truth that involved my whole being.

And I hadn't even met her yet. I hadn't even learned any of the complicated facts of her life, some of which were lying in wait to explode in my face. F R A M E T W O

Jesus Christ, what a country this is -- not a startling observation, but I continue to be startled & shocked & amazed, no matter what I've expected. -- from the FSA correspondence of Marion Post Wolcott, January 1939 ANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA. A Sunday morning in July, 1987. A thin, weary woman in her late seventies, suffering from neuropathy and asthma and allergies and insomnia and respiratory diseases and various other specified and unspecified ills, gets up from one end of the sofa and goes slowly over to where her 81-year-old husband is sitting. She motions for his glasses in the way a mother might motion for something from a recalcitrant child. "How can you see through these things, Lee?" she says in that strained and almost singsongy voice I have come to be oddly charmed by these last three days. There is a kind of disgust in her tone but unmistakable affection, too. She exhales on the lenses, polishes them with the tail of her blouse (she has pulled her shirt from her trousers for the chore), hands the glasses back, then returns to where she was sitting a moment ago when she had interrupted herself.

"Thanks, babe," Lee Wolcott says, smiling back at her.

And I write down in my notebook, trying to make it seem as if I'm really recording something else: See, of course they love each other, you idiot. It's got to be more complicated than what you came out here believing, that he just crushed her, that he just made her give it up back then, one way or another, subtly or with no subtlety at all, broke her creative spirit because he was too threatened by it. No, no, her choices must have been at work in this all along, too.

And as I am writing, Marion Post Wolcott says to me, returning to something I had asked her at least five minutes ago: "Yes, I worry about them terribly. I sweat about them. I have nightmares about all of them, in fact."

She means her children. Altogether, there are four children of Lee and Marion Wolcott, all grown, the eldest nearing 50. There have been eight marriages and six divorces among these four -- two of whom are Marion's natural children with Lee, and two of whom are Lee's from his first, brief marriage -- and these statistics seem something for me to think about, even if I discount the marital chaos of modern times.

But I don't say that to her, not exactly. "You have nightmares about them?" I say casually, trying to get her to go on.

"Well, yes, sometimes," she says, letting it go.

And I write this down: See, it was her maternal instinct, how much she loved her family. Follow that.

She is no sooner in her seat than she rises again, with obvious difficulty, and goes a bit stiff-leggedly across the living room to retrieve a greeting card from a bookshelf. It's from one of her granddaughters. "Here," she says, bringing the card over. "It's from my granddaughter Robin in San Diego. I'd rather get something like this any day from one of my children or grandchildren than be able to take 100 good photographs, I don't care how wonderful they might be or how important somebody in the art world might think they are or what that would prove about me." It is said a little defensively but with force and conviction, too.

This is the message on the inside of the card: "Dear Grandmommy: A somewhat sad thing happened to me the other day, but I want to share it with you anyway. I watched a movie that forced me to think about the day when my grandparents were no longer around. I was devastated for the rest of the night, crying myself to sleep. I know it's a long way away from now (yes, it is) but I really came to know how much you mean to me. I want you two to live forever! I want you to be my grandkids' grandparents! I love you so much, Grandmommy. I hope you understand how much. I hope this year leaves you with some wonderful memories. I hope I can be there to share some of them."

She has a straight, plain, semi-narrow face. Her feet are propped on a low coffee table, ankles crossed. She's in flat sandals and cream-colored trousers and brown hose, which I think are support hose. Her necklace is made of turquoise. On Friday, when I got here, she had on a cranberry-colored string of beads lying against the loveliest turquoise-colored blouse. I've come to understand that there's something loose, flinty, leggy, profane, cussed, witty, flirty, gutsy and thoroughly modern about this woman, the hell with all her wrinkles, the hell with all her age, the hell with how fragile and uncertain and most of all weary she seems.

But what is this weariness? I can't figure it out. A kind of cover for some deep-down unbelievable and never-quite-expressed rage? Well, maybe. And maybe not. And at whom would such a rage be directed primarily, if not her husband?

And maybe it isn't rage at all I am sensing. Maybe her weariness is . . . weariness. Maybe I am reading in.

A little while ago, when I was looking at a book from her shelves (it was a biography of the great photographer Diane Arbus, who had a gritty life and ended up committing suicide), Marion had said, going into the other room, letting the words trail over her shoulder, "I almost wanted to join her." She hadn't said anything more, and the remark seemed to lie there between us. I had put the book carefully back on the shelf and taken down another: Documentary Expression and Thirties America. It is considered a classic work on the Depression. Marion Post Wolcott has two citations in the book, both of a passing nature. "That bothered me, I admit," she had said.

Earlier this morning, I learned (it was Marion who told me, not her husband) that just going near any of the chemicals that are used to develop and print photographs will knock her nearly to the floor. She's become wildly allergic even to handling certain kinds of prints now. So is this "psychosomatic"? And what would be the deeper meaning of that?

And again I wonder if I am reading in.

Her beauty breaks me from these thoughts. She reminds me in some ways of Katharine Hepburn, although the two don't really look alike. On her right cheek is an inch-long bone-white scar; it's quite fetching, actually. I think I've developed a monster crush on her. Maybe I had it before I got here. Maybe I got it earlier in the summer, back when I was reading her hilarious and ribald FSA correspondence on microfilm in the Library of Congress. She's 77 and I'm 43 and she's been married to the man on the other end of the sofa for 46 years and besides that she's a great-grandmother. Not exactly what I would have in mind were I planning to wreck my own marriage.

Her old bones seem to have pushed themselves inward now, so that she looks almost concave, and I don't just mean her body. Every once in a while, talking or reading something to me aloud, her jaw will go up and her lip will stretch high above her teeth, as if she were trying to squint with her mouth. It's very funny. Probably not even in her prime was she "ravishing," but I can still imagine half the world's promising young men of 50 years ago willing to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel for her. The fur of sexual passion that must have flown between 30-year-old Marion Post and 35-year-old Lee Wolcott in the early spring of 1941, when the itinerant government lady photog and the handsome, muscular, recently widowed, high-ranking Department of Agriculture bureaucrat first met and fell instantly in love, well, that must have been something to see. They slept together on that first night, they were married less than three months later, the photog was pregnant by fall. A few months later, in early 1942, Marion resigned her job with a one-sentence letter to her superiors. It would not altogether be an exaggeration to say the world never heard from her again. In the subsequent histories that came to be written about the FSA or the Depression or American photography in general, there was usually a line or two such as this about the mysterious and gifted and vanished Marion Post Wolcott: "During the war her husband's travels took her away from her photographic practice."

And this is what a gifted and mysterious and soon-to-vanish artist had written down for herself back then, just before she had written that one-sentence resignation letter, just before she changed her life: "One has the feeling of not belonging anywhere, of having no roots or base. It is a kind of numbness. One never really participates in anything. At times nothing seems real, to you, or part of your life. Nothing affects your own life. One has a feeling of being suspended, of never being relaxed, or at home, or accepted for who or what one really is, or has been, and what one believes. One never has the same feeling of belonging as one does when with former acquaintances and friends. It is a need to be with familiar people, to walk known streets, and recognize familiar places. It is not good to feel always that one must go on, leaving everything unfinished and incomplete -- both work and human relationships."

That was then. This is now. A minute flicks by. Half a century flicks by. An old and unwell but somehow oddly vital woman in a Santa Barbara condo is tapping one of her prints against her temple. There is a kind of deep staring-off quality about her, yet she seems to be missing very little. It's as if her skin has a lightbox under it this morning; there's such a fine, white, soft, almost parchment quality to it. She seems haloed with -- what? Well, indefinable sadnesses, confusion, as if she doesn't quite understand what happened to a part of her life that she now recognizes as crucial, as integral. Or am I reading in? And does she now see it as crucial because people such as myself are coming to her door, rediscovering her, telling her -- in her husband's presence -- how incredibly powerful her work is? For the past three days, Marion Wolcott and her husband and I have been circling the same awkward questions, the same painful issues, never quite coming to rest with any of them, each of us, I think, being a little dishonest with our feelings, a little afraid of coming out and saying bluntly the real thing: Why did you stop, Marion? How could you have stopped, Marion? What happened here, in this life, in this family, was there a huge injustice done? None of us has been able to come out and say that, but these issues are before us now; we are talking of them, or around them. It's as if something spiritlike has passed into the room.

And Marion says: "I suppose we were living out on the Lovettsville farm then. We had three farms altogether, you know, at various periods in that first decade of our marriage, before we gave up farming entirely and moved down to the Southwest, to New Mexico, and did something else with our lives. There's always been an odd itinerancy about us, but that's another story. Anyway we were out in Virginia then, on the farm, and I may have been pregnant with Linda, I don't remember. I don't remember if Lee had retired from the government yet to go to work full time on the farm, but anyway here comes this letter to me from Nancy Newhall, the wife of Beaumont Newhall, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maybe it was late 1942 or 1943 or later. I don't remember. And she says something like, 'Marion, is it true you've given up your important work for a life out among the chickens, and if so, I hope you know it'll be a great loss and we'll all be disappointed.' Well, do you know I never answered it. I just let that letter sit around on a dresser for the longest time."

"Why didn't you, sweetheart?" Lee Wolcott says, turning to look at me.

"Well, I think I wasn't sure I'd given it up completely, or partially, or didn't know what I felt about it just then," she says, speaking slowly and facing me, but I think really talking to herself. There is almost a dream quality in her voice. "I guess I felt I might go back. I didn't . . . well, I just let it go, I didn't answer it, that's what I'm saying."

She seems finished. No. "You see, I didn't want to give up my work. Not really. I loved learning how people lived. I was learning about the world. I was learning about social issues in the real world. I guess I thought of myself as being able to use photography as a tool for social reform. I guess I thought of myself as something of an artist, yes. I mean, I had already had a certain life in the art world, in New York, before I joined up with FSA in 1938. And, look, I was pretty good at photography. I was exhilarated by it. It was a kind of living on the edge for me. Oh, I was exhausted, yes. Oh, I was sick of it in a certain sense. And, yes, I had fallen pretty passionately in love with a passionate man. Let's face it, Lee and I really didn't know each other when we got married. I thought I was going to be a Washington bureaucrat's wife. Ha. And by the way, I did work for several months after we got married, you know. It's not as if I got married one day and resigned my job the next. I even took a big western trip in the late summer of '41. Lee met me on that trip out West. That's when I got pregnant. As I said at the time to certain artistic friends of mine in New York, and they were friends I had known long before I ever joined FSA, 'The way Lee has gotten me to stop working is the usual way -- he's gotten me pregnant.' "

This is what Lee Wolcott had written to his new wife in the fall of 1941, several months after he had married her, while she was finishing her last extended tour on the road: "It's very difficult to realize that you will be home in a week. You are so far away, have so much to do that it doesn't seem that a week will, can, bring you to me. Please don't see too much to photograph. Go to movies in the afternoon and drive here in the evenings, as you suggest. So you won't see too much." This letter is on file in the Library of Congress, and of course there would be a way to read it that's terribly damning.

The man on the sofa is now saying: "I just don't think when she left FSA, Marion had any idea of the greatness -- of either FSA or of her own work. That's something for you to remember. It all happened afterward. She knew she was good, sure. But did she think she was 'great'? I don't think so. If she had known that at the time, that might have changed a lot . . ."

Marion, interrupting him: "You see, I guess I believed back then, or was supposed to believe, that my place was in the home, that I couldn't do both, you know, be a photographer, a would-be artist, and try to raise children. It just wasn't as easy in those days. You almost had to go away, go on the road, get an assignment. You couldn't get any kind of domestic help. The war was on. And anyway, I loved my children. It was important to me to try to raise them in the best possible way I could. I sort of liked my life in the country. Oh, it was very hard, yes. It was very isolated. The isolation of the farm. My God."

Lee Wolcott: "And, babe, tell him how you never really stopped taking pictures. I mean, after the marriage. Isn't it true you always had a camera around your neck out on the farm, that you were always taking pictures of the kids and stuff, just because you had an itchy trigger finger? I mean, you took pictures of all the neighbors' kids, remember? This is one of the misconceptions about you, that you never shot another picture again. It's a lie." These last three words have a hardness in them.

Marion: "Yes, this is true. I took pictures. It relieved some of the pressures, you know, some of the tedium out there." There seems the slightest flash of something: "But it's also true that whenever we did go somewhere in the car on a trip, you never wanted to stop, did you?"

And I say here, feeling awkward and invasive, keeping his eyes fixed on Marion: "Are you saying there wasn't a lot of encouragement, and, well, it just wasn't the same anyway, because you had changed your life, because things were different now, you were a mother, you were a wife, you weren't free in the ways you were before, you had made choices, your intensity for it was gone, the rage to do it, and, well, maybe it was . . . too risky?"

But before she can answer (perhaps on some level I don't wish to hear the answer), I ask: "When was the last time you tried to take a serious photograph, Marion, you know, something you felt compelled to shoot, something you knew had magic in it, that you were dying for the world to see?"

She doesn't answer, just shrugs; Lee answers for her. "You shot some pretty things on that drive up the coast a while back, didn't you, sweetheart?"

"Oh, I was just sort of imitating other people for the hell of it," she says. "They were terrible and you know it."

But now returning to an earlier thread, and with more softness, she says: "And probably underneath all of this, I think both of us believed that if we were away from each other and if we had extracurricular affairs -- let's put it that way -- that the family would break up. And I think we had an agreement about it. I don't know that we ever spelled it out as such, but we did have a sort of pact between us. I'd seen so many of my friends who had poor or weak marriages. And I'd come from so much of that myself, with my own parents and all. I vowed if I ever got married, I'd never get divorced."

Marion Post Wolcott comes from a broken home. Her father was a prominent small-town New Jersey doctor. And an adulterer. He was rigid, he was strong-willed, he was even tyrannical on occasion with his wife and children. The separation between the parents occurred when Marion was 11. In a small Jersey town of the '20s, that was something. Word of her mother's adultery got around; in fact, there was adultery on both sides, but this didn't actually come out at the divorce procedure, and it is one of the things Marion is still bitter about: Her mother was made to seem the wanton woman. Marion, the younger of two sisters, used to run home after school to avoid having to face her peers. That pain is part of what turned her into an artist. Her sister, Helen Post, eventually became an artist as well, another shooter, in fact. It isn't Marion's father, however, but rather her mother who seems clearly the great influence and role model for her life. After her divorce, Mrs. Wolcott moved to Greenwich Village and eventually worked for Margaret Sanger and the fledgling American birth control movement. She traveled the country by herself trying to establish clinics even as her second

When I first got here on Friday, Lee seemed to be trying to control everything, monitor every word out of his wife's mouth. Indeed, long before I got here, he seemed to be trying to control everything. Every time I had called in the past few weeks, trying to arrange a time to fly out and see his wife, Lee had always come on the phone. Usually he had picked it up first, and if not, he had gotten on the extension. Let me pass on the message, no need for me to get Marion, always seemed to be his message within the message when just the two of us were talking. "Why don't you let her speak for herself?" I wanted to blurt, but of course didn't. It is true that he had always summoned her, once I specifically asked. Had he just been trying to preserve his wife's strength?

I had arrived much later than I had intended (freak thunderstorm in Minneapolis that canceled my flight), and when I called from Los Angeles to say that I had rented a car and would be driving straight up to Santa Barbara, Lee had said, right over the top of Marion, "Well, I suppose you might as well come on, as long as you're here." As long as I'm here? I thought.

And yet . . . when we went out to lunch at a restaurant on Saturday, I couldn't help noticing how Marion was nagging Lee a little on his driving, on his momentary loss of direction. And he had taken it, or most of it. She had on an old floppy linen hat and she walked behind him with a cane when we got out of the car, but she was nagging, all right. It didn't quite fit with my picture of the kept-down wife, the crushed spirit.

Later in the afternoon, when Marion and I were looking at some of the lovely detail in one of her old FSA photographs, she said, pointing to an antique piece of office equipment, "I wonder what in the hell that thing is." Lee heard this, came over, peered at the picture and then said, "It's a checkwriter, Babe. Don't you remember those?" She had nearly dug me in the ribs. "I told you he'd know," she whispered, almost exultantly.

And at another point, when Marion was describing to the two of us how she used to pull into all those endless five-dollar steam-clanky tourist courts and ratty roadside motels of the '30s ("They always had some goddam name like the Boll Weevil or the Wigwam," she said, making me laugh out loud), and how she'd then have to eat supper alone in some greasy blue-plate diner, and then go back to her room to file her mileage and expense reports, or maybe get a wire off to Washington, or, finally, before falling into bed, wash out her undies and nylons in the bathroom sink, draping them around the chipped porcelain rim of the bowl or on the bedposts of those awful, lumpy beds, Lee chimed in with: "And, say, as regards this thing about having to wash out her socks every night, I mean, okay, she's lonely enough out there, she's tired as hell, she's living totally on her own resources, and yet she still has to do this wash so she can look presentable in the morning, I mean, it's a small thing, but this was way before synthetics, you know." He said it as if he wanted me to be sure and make a note of that small fact, get it into the story.

And yet . . . a little earlier this morning, when Marion and I were sitting side by side at the table in the dining room and going through some more of her pictures, she leaned in close to me and put her right hand on my left wrist, kept it there for what seemed like nearly a minute. Her touch felt almost sensual to me. We had been looking at her photograph titled, "Negro Entering Movie Theater by Outside Entrance to Upstairs Colored Section, Belzoni, Mississippi, 1939," which is one of my very favorite Marion Post Wolcott pictures. It has hung in important museums and galleries in this country and has been published in The New York Times and probably half a dozen books. And as we sat studying the photograph, I suddenly said that I might just get on a plane and fly down to Mississippi and see that town. "I wonder if the movie theater could still be there, Marion," I said. And as I said it, she moved her hand over to the top of mine, held it there, and smiled through that comical turned-up mouth-squint of hers and said, "Listen, Paul, if you do decide to go back, you've got to promise to take me with you, okay?"

Late yesterday, Saturday, having talked to both of them for long sessions over two days, I had gone back to my hotel room feeling thoroughly confused. The telephone rang. It was Marion. She said Lee was out for a walk, and she wanted to elaborate on some things. It felt funny to me somehow. She told me about her life in Europe in the early '30s, when she first began to discover photography, and how she fell in love back then with a much older man, how he taught her so much about love. "He took me falt-boating on the Danube, he took me walking in the forests around Vienna," she said. "What I'm trying to say is that by the time I met Lee I had already had some rich experiences about love, I didn't really need a lot of time to fall in love with a man. It just happened. There were so many things about our personalities we never really faced. I'm not saying in the least Lee didn't sweep me off my feet. He did."

"You wouldn't have been able to stay with a man who was overtly repressing you, would you?" I said.

"Of course not."

(space here)

Their daughter, Linda, is coming down the walk with her boyfriend. The parents get up to embrace her hugely. Linda, who is in her forties, the mother of Robin (who had sent the birthday card to Marion), is a successful Santa Barbara lawyer. She is thin and raven-haired and striking. I had been trying to imagine Marion Post's looks of five decades ago, and suddenly I am getting a focused picture. At length I manage to bring up the subject that Linda's mother and father and I have been circling for two days. She seems nervous. She knows what this is about.

"Daddy wasn't pushing her out the door, that's for sure. There was some resistance there, I could sense it, yes, I suppose it would have been a little threatening to his ego," she says.

She hesitates. "I knew she was a photographer. An artist. I didn't know her reputation was going to evolve as it has. I always felt she had a . . . a kind of a compulsion to do this." She turns to her mother. She is talking quietly. "You know, Mommy, I have really all my life felt a great deal of comfort, of empathy, with your pictures. Not just daughter to mother, but woman to woman. I mean, watching you always with a camera around your neck when we were growing up. I can remember you saying so many times to daddy, 'Pull over, pull over, I see something.' "

After Linda is gone, and when Marion is in another part of the house, Lee Wolcott says to me, his eye contact very steady: "What was lost, Paul?" He is back on the sofa again, stretched out, a lawyer taking up for himself, but in another sense just asking the question, like Aristotle.

"Well, I've heard it said that maybe Marion would eventually have left documentary work and gone into landscape photography, so in that sense maybe another Ansel Adams or Edward Weston was lost -- but then we have an Adams and a Weston, don't we, Lee?"

I say this all in one breath, nervously.

"Yes, we have Adams. We have Weston."

"We'll never know, will we?" I say.

"We'll never know," he says. Frame Three

It seems likely that the change that occurred in photography around 1930 was fundamentally a matter of formal evolution . . . It was at this moment that sophisticated photographers discovered the poetic uses of bare facts, facts presented with such fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject. The new style came to be called documentary. -- John Szarkowski, "Looking at Photographs" FROM NEARLY THE BEGINNING, FROM almost that first redemptive moment in the Library of Congress basement on that cruddy and seemingly hopeless winter afternoon a year ago, I had a nearly overwhelming desire to try and walk back in -- almost literally. I wanted to try and find any bare poetic facts that might relate somehow to those long-ago instants when a particular gifted American documentary artist freeze-framed within the geometry of her clunky black photographic box a lyric Kentucky creek bank, or a dreamy New England hayfield, or a blistered North Carolina signboard.

And of course those faces: Whatever happened to all those faces in Marion Post Wolcott's photographs? If I could just find one of those people. Is every one of them gone now? Somebody in America must know. And if I couldn't find one of those old faces, then what of some of those towns she went to -- all those Brattleboros and Bardstowns and Bessemers? What would they be like now? I wanted to stand in some of the exact spots she had stood in when she framed her pictures; I wanted to sleep in some of the same places where she had put down her head.

But what was I going to discover in doing this that might relate in any critical way to the mysteries I was trying to plumb, the mysteries of why and how an awesomely gifted artist had stopped? I didn't know. Could there be any relationship at all between something frozen in time on a sheet of photographic paper and a life that has stretched itself over almost eight decades and now seems to be getting close to its end? If I just had luck enough and time, I kept telling myself. And the more I told myself that, the more the idea seemed hazy and even a little foolish to me, romantic. And my gut kept saying: Go anyway. There will be things waiting for you, small hidden poetic facts, inside the documentary histories of these old gelatin silver-prints. Things to help you know your way, understand not just about the life of this woman, but maybe even things about yourself.

It was a pretty hazy and cockamamie idea, all right.

And I listened to my gut anyway. One Friday night last August, I kissed my wife and baby son, boarded a flight at National Airport, changed planes at Nashville, flew over to Jackson, Mississippi, rented a car, drove out of the gas-vapored lights of the metro area, drove northward on a dark interstate for a nodding-off hour, curved leftward, got on a two-lane, kept going until I could barely talk aloud to myself, found the outskirts of the fast-asleep place I wanted, found a $25 room with algae growing on the walls of the shower stall, turned the air conditioner all the way up, skinned the bed back to the sheets, slept the sleep of the angels, awoke, got dressed, stepped outside, and discovered myself smack in the middle of a swamp-hot Mississippi Delta Saturday morning. The sun hadn't drilled itself halfway to noon yet and the thermometer already read 95. Perfect. I had this idea, you see, that just the early-August Faulknerian heat alone would help me in what I had come for. The title of Faulkner's great novel "Light in August" doesn't refer to sunlight; it refers to a piece of southern folklore: Pregnant women need to be "light" by August. Because the heat in Mississippi then is too intense for anything, especially carrying children.

All the way down on the plane I kept reading and yukking at some of Marion's old FSA letters. She wrote them by the hundreds, usually late at night, from all those low-wattage rooms, and to my mind they could easily be published now as their own kind of vivid document of the 1930s. "Jesus Christ, these social workers are fierce, inhuman, stupid prigs. I can't call them enough names!" she once wrote from Tennessee. "Jesus Christ and my God and all the Saints! MORE RAIN!" she wrote one steamy night from New Orleans. OBLIGING JUICY BLIZZARD. STAYING BRATTLEBORO TONIGHT. FARTHER NORTH TOMORROW, she wired one winter from Massachusetts. A couple of weeks later, still frozen in, cranky, she had gotten off this note to headquarters: "This last week was so cold I practically took to sleeping in my clothes. Had on so many different layers I couldn't be bothered to try to get down to skin again. And no Miss Fancypants underwear either. Woolly & ugly."

In January 1939 she wrote: "Much of the hunting was just time wasted -- miles up awful little roads that must have been for lumbering -- no houses, nothing, or a place that wasn't significant, or someone who chased me off . . . They just get in their huts or shacks & build a little fire, & close the wooden window & door & hug their arms close to them, waiting till it gets warm again. And they won't let a stranger inside. Often they wouldn't even let me photograph the outside of the house. I tried every different line I could think of. And carried small bribes & food along with me."

Once, in Georgia, she ran over an ugly old hog and nearly busted the axle on her car. ("I'm afraid there's one hog less in that state," she wrote.) Once, from Louisiana, she wrote: "Several times when I've had the car parked alongside the road and taken pix nearby, a cop or state trooper has come up, watched me, examined the camera and searched through the car, and questioned and looked at all my identification, etc. The bastards can take their own sweet time about it and ask many irrelevant and sometimes personal and slightly impertinent questions . . . Just chewing the fat with you, making you drink a Coca-Cola, showing you everything in the place. They haven't anything else to do and they don't feel like working anyway -- it's too hot, and they think you're crazy anyhow."

On July 5, 1939, after she had been out on her first extended tour for nearly seven straight months and almost without a single break, she had written back to Washington: "In general, I'm most tired of the strain of continually adjusting to new people, making conversation, getting acquainted, being polite and diplomatic when necessary. In particular I'm sick of people telling me that the cabin or room costs the same for one as it does for two, of listening to people, or the 'call' girl, make love in the adjoining room. Or of hearing everyone's bathroom habits, hangovers, & fights through the ventilator. And even the sight of hotel bedroom furniture, the feel of clean sheets, the nuisance of digging into the bottom of a suitcase, of choosing a restaurant & food to eat."

When I had first gone to see Marion in Santa Barbara, I had asked her if she had ever thought in recent years about why she had written so much from the road. "It all just came out. You see, I always needed love, I always needed to be able to try and touch someone," she said.

The town I had awakened near on a Saturday morning last August (the night clerk had said sourly that the room cost the same for one as it did for two, so it didn't matter if I had anybody hiding in the car), was Belzoni, Mississippi, pop. 2,982. Cotton isn't king in Humphreys County, Mississippi, anymore; catfish farming is. The big rectangular ditches where the "cats" are cultivated, farm fresh to your table, can be seen from most any roadside. On Saturday, October 7, 1939, a 29-year-old government photographer with hazel eyes and thick dark hair falling to her shoulders had driven into this Delta county in a top-down Plymouth Six. (It isn't known if the top was down, though the weather was good that day.) Auto tags for the upcoming year had gone on sale that week. The school cafeteria menus had been published, as they always had, on the front page of the weekly Banner. ("Mon: vegetable soup, choice of 2 salads.") The public library had just gotten in "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The World Goes Smash." Turner's Drug, over on Hayden, was selling bus tickets to Vicksburg for a buck apiece. Bryan Motor Company was extending invitations to the citizenry to walk in and inspect the new Ford V-8, with its 22 important improvements.

It was market day in town, as any Saturday in the Delta always was and is, and so the shooter, who got on top of buildings and squatted into the middle of the main street crowds and leaned out a window of the Walthall Hotel, had plenty to frame. She probably took five or six dozen photographs with her Speed Graphic and Rolleiflex and Leica. Twenty-five pictures, most of them fairly routine, now exist in the Library of Congress archives as a record of Marion Post Wolcott's work for the Farm Security Administration that day. Of those 25, photograph No. 18 in the series, in Film Lot 1639, is titled "Negro Entering Movie Theater by Outside Entrance to Upstairs Colored Section, Belzoni, Mississippi." It was just a second in eternity, a silhouetted black man in a fedora and blousey coat entering his town's movie house so that he might relieve his spirit and probably his arches while Bob Steele flicked off Winchester fire in a two-reeler called "Feud of the Range." The shooter just saw the photograph, framed it in her sensibility, just whirled and clicked -- or that is how I like to imagine it anyway. You can't make out the moviegoer's face, but he seems to be turning toward the photographer, as if to inquire of her: Why, ma'am, would you want to take a picture of something as ordinary as this, as ordinary as me? To me, at least, this isolated figure on a staircase, bathed in luminous shadow, is as haunting a figure as the blank-faced people you see staring out at you from Edward Hopper diner paintings. Only this man is real, or was.

The name of the theater was and still is the Crescent. It's in the old Alexander Building. The Bob Steele oater was running continuously that day from 1 o'clock until 9:45. Chapter 13 of a Johnny Mack Brown serial was also on the bill, but "Feud of the Range" got the promo in the poster box on the outside of the building, below the big Dr. Pepper ad, which had been painted right over top of the brick: "When You Drink a Dr. Pepper, You Drink a Bite to Eat. Good for Life."

I think what Marion Post Wolcott must have seen in an instant of her art that afternoon -- and probably she saw it as much in her subconscious as in her conscious imagination -- were three great swaths of our cultural history: cowboy dreams, racial injustice, the pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow.

The first person I had an extended conversation with in Belzoni on my own Saturday there 48 years later was Edna Earl Wooten. She is middle-aged and works in the library and is friendly as pie and would probably talk your peg leg off if you had one. Has lived in town practically all her life. Can remember as a little kid taking her "nigger shooter" (piece of rubber inner tube and an old tree branch with a fork in it) and trying to shoot out the glass in the poster box at the picture show. Edna Earl stared with much curiosity at the photograph I had brought along. She had never seen it before, had never heard of the photographer. "Well, I'll be," she said finally. "Now see there? That poster box is covered with chicken coop wire. That's because we were always shooting the glass out, and finally they gave up and started using chicken wire to cover it. Didn't matter, we still used to reach our fingers in and tear off little souvenir pieces before that mean old manager used to come out and try and shoo us away."

She looked at the picture again. "You want to know something funny? You see that old Dr. Pepper ad over top his head? Now, when you walk over to the Crescent after a bit, you aren't going to see it. Heck, I'll bet they've painted that darn sign over at least a dozen times. I think the side of the building is beige now, nothing on it, just a big brick wall. But practically every time after we've had a hard rain, that old Dr. Pepper ad, you know, well, it starts to come back through, just a little, underneath all that paint. Yessir, just when the paint begins to dim, it comes right back through."

Pentimento. The thing that was will somehow come back, maybe to haunt you.

I walked over to the Crescent. The outside stairway was still there, but it didn't lead anywhere. The "Colored Adm. 10 " sign wasn't there, nor was a silhouetted man in a fedora and a blousey coat going upward to a relieving celluloid dream.

Willard Kaminer, who owns the movie theater now, was repairing a Coke machine when I walked into the lobby, that and swearing softly to himself. He was banging at the machine with some tool or other. "Got to mash it," he said without looking at me. He had a ball cap mashed on his head and a cigar mashed in his mouth. I took out Marion Post Wolcott's photograph and showed it to him.

"Well, I'll be," he said, echoing Edna Earl and my own Pop, suspending the mashing, removing the cigar, peering in. "That is my place, damned if it isn't. Course, I didn't have it then." Then he said, "So who'd you say took it?"

"Her name is Marion Post Wolcott. She was a photographer working in the last years of the Depression. It was a government project, and the assignment was to go around America recording the country just as it was. Somehow it all turned into art. She did this amazing work for a little over three years and then she just kind of dropped from sight. She's being rediscovered now by scholars and people like myself."

"Well, I'll be," he said. "She still around?"

"California," I said.

"Probably very old now," he said.

"Pretty old," I said.

"You been to see her?" he said.

"Yep."

"So why'd she stop?" he said.

"It's complicated," I said. "I don't quite have it yet. Maybe I never will. Partially it was the times, partially it was the man she married, partially it was herself. Too much time went by and then she was afraid, I think. Anyway, it got away."

I went over to Turner's Drug. I stood in the shade and surveyed the sun-dusty streets. The heat was like a hammer. I missed my wife, I missed my son. What was I doing here? When Marion Post Wolcott took a picture of Turner's Drug nearly 50 years ago, the place had a striped canvas awning out front. Now there was an aluminum awning shading the building. I read some headlines through the glass in a newspaper vending box. I climbed on a scale. It said: "Weight 1 . Horoscope and Weight 5 ." I put a nickel in. The dial on the machine sang around three times and stopped at my fortune. It read: "You are inclined to be jealous and sarcastic, the kind of person who, once crossed, might spend years seeking revenge. Be careful." I didn't like that, so I jumped with both feet on the machine, mashed at it, and, sure enough, it sang around to something else: "You have a tendency which leads you right to the core of things before you have the basic facts. Watch your step."

The next morning I went to Clarksdale, "Golden Buckle on the Mississippi Cotton Belt." I was trying to discover anything I could about a razor-nosed man in a tight three-piece suit named Erwin C. Mooney. Ever since I had seen Marion's photograph of him six or seven months earlier at the Library of Congress, I had felt a peculiar fascination for Mr. Mooney. He looked almost like a character out of Dickens with that nose and pointy face of his. Of course, I didn't have his name in the beginning. All I had was Marion's caption: "Sharecopper Negotiating Price of his Cotton with Cotton Broker, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1939." The photograph seemed to be telling me the most obvious of southern stories: whitey beating up again on his poor black brother. The black brother in the picture has a bashed felt hat and is leaning in with what seems like plaintive though not prostrating body language. I felt a lot of irony in Marion's use of the word "negotiating" for her caption.

Who was Erwin C. Mooney? And could there be some hidden other truths here that might somehow relate to the person who had taken his picture so long ago?

There were, and the truths came mainly down to this: Things aren't necessarily as they seem. Erwin C. Mooney, who died in 1972 at the age of 77, was an alcoholic. You wouldn't ever suspect that from the picture, of course. Nor that he would die of a ravaging cancer. Nor that he actually was known to be far more decent to Coahoma County blacks than some of his fellow Clarksdale brokers. My first hint that things do not always have to be what they appear to be in a photograph -- as in a photographer's life -- came when I had spoken on the telephone, Washington to Clarksdale, to Nancy Easley, Mooney's daughter. She is upper-aged herself now and has the same lean body and prominent nose as her father had. She has lived in Clarksdale her whole life; she lives, in fact, in her daddy's house at 1406 Cheyenne Street, which is still in one of the best neighborhoods in town. On the phone, trying awkwardly to describe what I was doing, I had said somethilng to the effect of, "Well, you must have been awfully proud of your father in his lifetime."

"Well, yes, sometimes," she had said, letting it go.

And on that Sunday morning a few weeks later, when I took out Marion Post Wolcott's photograph of Nancy Easley's father, Nancy Easley took one look at it, almost a sniff, and said, "Well, that is old daddy, sure enough. I wonder if he was sober that day." The sentence stunned me.

She told me many other things that morning, how alcoholism seems to have a way of running down through families, and how she has come to see the world, and her father, a little more complexly now. She said her father, who had been born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was a fervent Catholic -- and that in itself is almost an anomaly for any Deep South white man of the '30s. "Even when he was loaded, he could get up and go to Mass," she said. "And as far as the blacks went, I know he was fair. Oh, heck, he used to carry on and get mad at them, as all of them do, and you know, call them 'nigger' and whatnot, but the fact is, I think they took advantage of him." She said her father had pretty much quit drinking when she was in high school, then sort of came back on, then stopped again, and then licked it almost completely before he died. The two of us sat around awhile longer that day in her pleasant living room at 1406 Cheyenne, where there are fine old wooden ceiling beams and curved hallways and big trees out in the yard to keep the heat down. I told her I wasn't really sure what I had come for, but in a way I might already have found it. Frame Four

SO ARTIE SHAW QUIT BLOWING THE horn; said he had blown enough. So Van Gogh produced 200 works in two years, an almost hysterical output; then he died. So Sandy Koufax, another kind of artist, walked off the mound when the heater was still a thing of wonder; there are old Dodger fans weeping on that one yet. So Bobby Fischer, no matter what else he was, was an international grandmaster at 15, a world champion at 29 -- and then never played another tournament game of chess. And Rimbaud, the boy poet who only changed the face of French literature? Well, he started at 15 and he was through at 20. Some say he went off to Ethiopia and ran rum and traded slaves. In a famous letter, that little genius said that the only real subject for poetry is self-exploration through "a systematic derangement of all the senses."

The creative compulsion remains among the most mysterious compulsions in the dark folds of the human psyche. If we are lucky, no science will ever get to the bottom of it. Sometimes the gift explodes and sometimes it seems to dry up in the sun. All kinds of known and unknown conflicts can interrupt an artist from work -- and where the creative act comes from in the first place is anybody's great riddle. There probably can never be any single answer in any single case as to why a creative compulsion, an artistic gift, seems to cease, and why, when this does happen, it's as if something fundamental in the universe has been lost. But perhaps, with the telescope turned around, one can work hard at trying to be grateful for what is, instead of lamenting on what isn't, on what might have been. What is, insofar as Marion Post Wolcott is concerned, are some pictures to last a lifetime, and then some.

Santa Barbara. December 1987. I have come back here, after an absence of almost five months and after some not-quite-aimless travel, thinking that I can never repay a 77-year old woman in kind, but only somewhere else in life. I have come back not with any sense of romantic doom -- not Marion Post Wolcott's, or even my own concerning a book I could not write, at least not when I most wanted to write it. I feel, in spite of everything, an odd buoyance. I think I am viewing things a trifle more complexly now. I had once come out here thinking the only real art was what Marion Post Wolcott had finished, what she had left behind, at the beginning of 1942. I don't especially see it that way any longer. For one thing, she has endured, and there is a kind of art in that. For another she has an extended family -- yes, much-married and much-divorced -- but all of whom love her deeply and whom she loves deeply in return. And that is another kind of art and not in the least a selfish one.

To hell with Ernest Hemingway and his pat sentiment that if we win here, we win everywhere, and if we lose here, we lose everywhere. What is far more relevant to me now is a line from an old French movie, "A Man and a Woman." I remember a question being posed in that beautiful film, as two lovers walked hand in hand on the French coast: If your house were on fire and if you had the chance to rush in and save either the one true piece of lasting artwork you own, or your dog, which would you choose? And the answer, of course, is your dog. Because between art and life, what is finally far better is life.

Before coming back this time, I spoke by phone with John Wolcott, the second child. John Wolcott is an astrophysicist in New Mexico. He is also the stepson who never knew, as he grew up, that Marion Wolcott wasn't his real mother. His real mother, Lee's first wife, had died early, of cancer, when her two children by Lee were still babies. Here is what John Wolcott told me:

"Marion never let on the whole time that I wasn't her real child. She and my father had two more children together, you know, but my older sister Gail and I, who are not her real children, never knew the real story. What I'm saying is that she was determined to be our real mother to the best of her ability. I think that says a lot about what you're searching for. I can hardly imagine a better mother. My perception of their lives together is that she was desperately in love with my father. That's from everything I know, and I have no reason to lie. And something else: My father has had to try to grow in all this. It cannot be easy. He's a terribly strong man, a terribly proud man. I think for him to be able to step back now and let his wife be in the front row, get attention, after all those years on the farm and everywhere else, the foreign service and their other travels, when he was so dominant, when he was so totally in charge of everything -- well, I think for him to be able to attempt to do that, at least a little now, shows a real growth, real strength. And I assure you, he is very proud of her work."

On the way out, on the plane, I wrote this in my notebook: The light failed. But maybe the life won. And yet I wonder what goes through her mind when she's in a bookstore and comes on a book of Ansel Adams' or maybe Henri Cartier-Bresson's. The hurt must be awesome. I don't know, maybe she wasn't ruthless enough as an artist. Maybe she was too unselfish -- and is this to be despised? She chose not to put her work above everything else -- or at least I think a part of her chose to do that. Of course her husband played a huge part, too, in the way things eventually worked out. Sure, she has some deep regrets now. That's what being alive means. You can't have it every way. When you add up all the reasons, there's still her sadness, the loss. But would loss of family have been even greater? I think so. Maybe her fears, her insecurities, were just too paramount, so that once she stopped, it was nearly impossible to start again. In a way, Lee was just as scared as she was, maybe more so. But it's okay now, no, it's a lot more than okay, because it's who she is, it's her humanity, it's both their humanities, and there is a hard-won beauty in it, all right.

"He's always bragging on me," an old shooter is saying in the old weary sing-songy voice on a sun-gorgeous noonday. The Pacific looks blue as Appalachian crockery. In Washington, it's 40 degrees and raining. I have stopped at a store on the way over to buy her a single long-stemmed rose. She has gotten up to get the vase, and has filled the vase with water, but has sort of gotten lost in the rest of it.

Lee is in the other room loading the dishwasher. A little bit ago, he made the lunch. He did the grocery shopping early today. He has just turned 82.

On the white table between us is a half-filled bowl full of floating pink blossoms.

She is finishing a story. "We went to a camera store the other day. I was getting him a camera for Christmas. The guy said he needed some identification. And I said, 'My husband has a driver's license and can it serve for both of us?' And Lee piped up and said, 'Identification? Why, she's Marion Post Wolcott, she's an important American photographer.' And, you know, I just got so furious at him."

Lee comes in. I clear my throat. "Lee, if Marion had come to you back then and said directly that she had to leave you and the family to pursue her work, that it meant her survival in some sense, would you have said no?"

"I was so deeply in love with her, Paul, that I can't imagine my saying no," he says.

"He would not have forbid it, no . . . ," Marion says.

" . . . I don't think I would have liked it," he says.

"You're damn right you wouldn't have liked it. And you would have been very persuasive," she says.

"But how could you have liked it, you weren't an '80s man back then, Lee?" I say.

"Oh, in some ways I was an '80s man in the 1940s," he says, laughing.

"You were no '80s man," she says quickly, "and I was no '80s woman, either." She is looking directly at him. "You would not have handled your children in the way you did then. Your whole willful, forceful personality."

"If you would not have forbid it, Lee," I say, and here I am scared, "do you regret that you could not encourage her more?"

"No," he says flatly. "And I want Marion to hear this. Babe? The answer is no. That just wouldn't have been me. And I say that loving you with everything that's in me."

"Marion," I say, again feeling invasive, feeling awkward, wishing suddenly I had stayed home this time, "what about your choices? What if Lee had been an entirely different Lee? What I mean is, are you angry at yourself? I didn't have the courage, exactly, to ask you this last time."

She answers slowly. "I admit to that. By the time I would have thought it was okay to go out, I guess I didn't have the confidence. I was afraid. I didn't know I could do as good a job as I once had. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to carry off an assignment. I mean, all of us who were in FSA had standing offers at Look or Life. I think I was deeply afraid. I think I was afraid I couldn't really be free of my family. You know, once you have children, I wonder if you can ever really be free again. Maybe some people can. And yet I wanted to try to go out. I wanted to be an artist again. It's a fact, you know, this one time in the early '50s, I tried to get back in. I went to Roy Stryker, who had run FSA, and who now was directing a project at Standard Oil. I said, 'Roy, I just want back in. It's not the money. I just want something to do. I want to shoot.' And he didn't hire me. I think he sensed my conflicts. Now whether or not I actually would have gone out, had somebody come along and offered me a job, I just don't know. I guess I needed a lot of encouragement. I needed somebody to push me. I was always insecure. I'm sorry, I was . . . I was just afraid."

Her old voice, probably like her fine old bones, has cracked on this, though just a little, and the recovery is swift.

Later in the day we are looking through some of her pictures again. She takes out one I have never seen before. It is a fairly recent photograph, in black and white and blown up large, and with very little magic in it. I think she knows it. And can't admit it. She says, "This picture is so special to me. Lee and I were on a trip. We parked our VW camper up there on that little hill and made love outdoors."

Still later, Lee leaves the house for a meeting. He is on the board at their compound of condominiums, where his presence is always forcefully felt among his neighbors.

"You know, at one time I thought you didn't love him," I say.

"I love him very much," she says quietly.

She mentions a letter I had written to her a month or so earlier. We have exchanged half a dozen letters in these past few months. In one of them she had written, "Let's see -- 1st I would like to have been a good musician, 2nd a painter, 3rd a film maker, maybe a dancer, and a writer somewhere along the line -- but a creative writer, probably not a learned, profound, disciplined scholarly scientist or economist -- Never." Now she says, "You put at the end of your last letter, 'Please stay alive, Marion.' Well, that came to me at just the right time. I was struggling with the death of a neighbor. She had a terrible struggle. She lived right over there. She died of cancer, and just before she died I had a dream about her. She was reaching out her hand and saying, 'Marion, I'm leaving. Come with me.' And I hesitated in the dream and said, 'No, not yet, I can't.' And then, right after that, after my neighbor was dead, I got your letter. And you said, 'Please stay alive, Marion.' Because, you see, Paul, I don't know whether I want to stay alive, whether I should stay alive."

"But you've got to stay alive, Marion. For Lee. For your children. For your grandchildren. No, no, for yourself, that's what I really mean."

"Well, I don't know. I think sometimes he'd be better off without me. I hold him back. And . . . and he can forget better."

But this seems to trip something in her. "What is it about an orange? Oh, yes, I know. He told me something last night I had never heard before? Last night Lee and I were peeling an orange and he said, 'You know, Babe, when I was a kid, the only time all year we ever got an orange was at Christmas in our stocking. That would just be something magical.' I mean, right there, that tells you something about what kind of hard life he came from, doesn't it?"

At the door I ask her once again to stay alive, not to give up. "You know, in a funny way, you saved my life, Marion. I had such a narrow view of things."

"Okay," she says in that funny mouth-squint of hers. "I'll try to stay alive if you will."

And we shake on it. And then we hug on it. ::

On the way out, on the plane, I wrote this in my notebook: The light failed. But maybe the life won. And yet I wonder what goes through her mind when she's in a bookstore and comes on a book of Ansel Adams' or maybe Henri Cartier-Bresson's. The hurt must be awesome. I don't know, maybe she wasn't ruthless enough as an artist. Maybe she was too unselfish -- and is this to be despised? She chose not to put her work above everything else -- or at least I think a part of her chose to do that. Of course her husband played a huge part, too, in the way things eventually worked out. Sure, she has some deep regrets now. That's what being alive means. You can't have it every way. When you add up all the reasons, there's still her sadness, the loss. But would loss of family have been even greater? I think so. Maybe her fears, her insecurities, were just too paramount, so that once she stopped, it was nearly impossible to start again. In a way, Lee was just as scared as she was, maybe more so. But it's okay now, no, it's a lot more than okay, because it's who she is, it's her humanity, it's both their humanities, and there is a hard-won beauty in it, all right.

"He's always bragging on me," an old shooter is saying in the old weary sing-songy voice on a sun-gorgeous noonday. The Pacific looks blue as Appalachian crockery. In Washington, it's 40 degrees and raining. I have stopped at a store on the way over to buy her a single long-stemmed rose. She has gotten up to get the vase, and has filled the vase with water, but has sort of gotten lost in the rest of it.

Lee is in the other room loading the dishwasher. A little bit ago, he made the lunch. He did the grocery shopping early today. He has just turned 82.

On the white table between us is a half-filled bowl full of floating pink blossoms.

She is finishing a story. "We went to a camera store the other day. I was getting him a camera for Christmas. The guy said he needed some identification. And I said, 'My husband has a driver's license and can it serve for both of us?' And Lee piped up and said, 'Identification? Why, she's Marion Post Wolcott, she's an important American photographer.' And, you know, I just got so furious at him."

Lee comes in. I clear my throat. "Lee, if Marion had come to you back then and said directly that she had to leave you and the family to pursue her work, that it meant her survival in some sense, would you have said no?"

"I was so deeply in love with her, Paul, that I can't imagine my saying no," he says.

"He would not have forbidden it, no . . . ," Marion says.

". . . I don't think I would have liked it," he says.

"You're damn right you wouldn't have liked it. And you would have been very persuasive," she says.

"But how could you have liked it, you weren't an '80s man back then, Lee?" I say.

"Oh, in some ways I was an '80s man in the 1940s," he says, laughing.

"You were no '80s man," she says quickly, "and I was no '80s woman, either." She is looking directly at him. "You would not have handled your children in the way you did then. Your whole willful, forceful personality."

"If you would not have forbid it, Lee," I say, and here I am scared, "do you regret that you could not encourage her more?"

"No," he says flatly. "And I want Marion to hear this. Babe? The answer is no. That just wouldn't have been me. And I say that loving you with everything that's in me."

"Marion," I say, again feeling invasive, feeling awkward, wishing suddenly I had stayed home this time, "what about your choices? What if Lee had been an entirely different Lee? What I mean is, are you angry at yourself? I didn't have the courage, exactly, to ask you this last time."

She answers slowly. "I admit to that. By the time I would have thought it was okay to go out, I guess I didn't have the confidence. I was afraid. I didn't know I could do as good a job as I once had. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to carry off an assignment. I mean, all of us who were in FSA had standing offers at Look or Life. I think I was deeply afraid. I think I was afraid I couldn't really be free of my family. You know, once you have children, I wonder if you can ever really be free again. Maybe some people can. And yet I wanted to try to go out. I wanted to be an artist again. It's a fact, you know, this one time in the early '50s, I tried to get back in. I went to Roy Stryker, who had run FSA, and who now was directing a project at Standard Oil. I said, 'Roy, I just want back in. It's not the money. I just want something to do. I want to shoot.' And he didn't hire me. I think he sensed my conflicts. Now whether or not I actually would have gone out, had somebody come along and offered me a job, I just don't know. I guess I needed a lot of encouragement. I needed somebody to push me. I was always insecure. I'm sorry, I was . . . I was just afraid."

Her old voice, probably like her fine old bones, has cracked on this, though just a little, and the recovery is swift.

Later in the day we are looking through some of her pictures again. She takes out one I have never seen before. It is a fairly recent photograph, in black and white and blown up large, and with very little magic in it. I think she knows it. And can't admit it. She says, "This picture is so special to me. Lee and I were on a trip. We parked our VW camper up there on that little hill and made love outdoors."

Still later, Lee leaves the house for a meeting. He is on the board at their complex of condominiums, where his presence is always forcefully felt among his neighbors.

"You know, at one time I thought you didn't love him," I say.

"I love him very much," she says quietly.

She mentions a letter I had written to her a month or so earlier. We have exchanged half a dozen letters in these past few months. In one of them she had written, "Let's see -- 1st I would like to have been a good musician, 2nd a painter, 3rd a film maker, maybe a dancer, and a writer somewhere along the line -- but a creative writer, probably not a learned, profound, disciplined scholarly scientist or economist -- Never." Now she says, "You put at the end of your last letter, 'Please stay alive, Marion.' Well, that came to me at just the right time. I was struggling with the death of a neighbor. She had a terrible struggle. She lived right over there. She died of cancer, and just before she died I had a dream about her. She was reaching out her hand and saying, 'Marion, I'm leaving. Come with me.' And I hesitated in the dream and said, 'No, not yet, I can't.' And then, right after that, after my neighbor was dead, I got your letter. And you said, 'Please stay alive, Marion.' Because, you see, Paul, I don't know whether I want to stay alive, whether I should stay alive."

"But you've got to stay alive, Marion. For Lee. For your children. For your grandchildren. No, no, for yourself, that's what I really mean."

"Well, I don't know. I think sometimes he'd be better off without me. I hold him back. And . . . and he can forget better."

But this seems to trip something in her. "What is it about an orange? Oh, yes, I know. He told me something last night I had never heard before. Last night Lee and I were peeling an orange and he said, 'You know, babe, when I was a kid, the only time all year we ever got an orange was at Christmas in our stocking. That would just be something magical.' I mean, right there, that tells you something about what kind of hard life he came from, doesn't it?"

At the door I ask her once again to stay alive, not to give up. "You know, in a funny way, you saved my life, Marion. I had such a narrow view of things."

"Okay," she says in that funny mouth-squint of hers. "I'll try to stay alive if you will."

And we shake on it. And then we hug on it. ::