A Closer Look

Many years ago, in a visual design class at the University of Oregon, I was struck by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's philosophy of “the decisive moment,” which he described as the fraction of a second when a photographer perceives “the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms” that come together to “give that event its proper expression.” His photographs—an Indonesian woman surveying rice paddies, a mother and son reuniting in New York after the war, residents of Shanghai in a run on the bank—show his knack for beautifully documenting a precise moment in time that is significant to both the observer and the observed.

Over the years, I've come to think of the decisive moment as a way of looking closely at the world around me. As I get older and busier and wearier, it's harder to be entranced by simple beauties—the unfolding frond of a fern, the blur of faces on the MAX train as it whizzes along I-84, giddy children collapsing into a pile on the cool grass of a friend's backyard at dusk. It's easier to think that I've seen it all before: fern, faces, children. It's easier to believe that these images are repetitive and disposable, when, in fact, they are significant because of the unique combination of my perspective and a specific time, place, and subject: this fern, these faces, these children.

Looking, really looking, takes effort. It can be a conscious act and, as such, can yield rewards. Some of the stories in this issue describe what happens when we look—at something we shouldn't, for a place long forgotten, at the details of a basket in a museum, at a photograph accompanying a poem. Some explore why looks are or aren't important, and how appearance, beauty, and design affect our lives. Ultimately these stories are about looking as participation, whether as a spectator or a subject. At its best, looking is a kind of engagement with the world that is active and genuine.

I hope you've noticed that this issue of the magazine boasts a new look itself, one that's fresh and friendly. Thanks go to the design firm Pinch and the Oregon Humanities magazine editorial advisory board for their work on the redesign, which is one of the last projects in the branding effort we launched last fall. The editorial content has changed a bit as well, particularly the Field Work section, which now features shorter articles. We've also added a few new departments: Q&A;, What I Think, Bright Idea, and Read. Talk. Think. We'll continue devoting a good number of pages to exploring a theme, but we hope that these newer, shorter sections will give you a good sense of the wealth of humanities work happening around the state.

I hope you enjoy these changes. Have a look and see what you think.

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Also in this Issue

A Closer Look

Go Ahead and Look

Abnormal Beauties

Just Look and Read

Designing the Good Life

What Remains

Seen Though Not Heard