I heard this on NPR this morning as I drove into work, then saw it again on the front page of my Web browser when I logged on. This is a link to the Yahoo story, but you can find it almost anywhere.
It is a newly discovered picture of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, taken at the beach when Keller was eight. In it, as you can see, Sullivan stares intently at her puil, who seems totally at home and content, holding her tecaher’s hand and – most importantly – a doll, the first word she was taught.
I have always been especially moved by the story of Keller and Sullivan, and not just because Keller became one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century.
This photo makes a good argument for the inherent intelligence a person is born with, and the human need to communicate, even when – to the outside world at large – it seems as if there is no way to do so. Keller was born blind and deaf, and was seeimingly a lost cause because of a terrible temper and being prone to violence as a child.
Now, I would have been, too, if my perfectly functioning brain had no way to process or express information, yet there was an inherent understanding there. If ever there was an argument for Noam Chomsky’s theory of language as a priori, then Keller is it. All it took was a little patience from Sullivan to bring it out in the girl, and one of the great humans in history was allowed to flower. What a moving and interesting story it is, and made all the more remarkable for such a great photo.
As for the photo itself, taken casually in 1888, and stored in a family collection for almost a century, it is – almost – a masterul composition. The print is a bit faded, but the black and white are nicely contrasted, and the viewer is immediately drawn to the tenderness of Sullivan’s gaze and, subsequently, to the placidness of Keller’s. There is a great love and respect between the two, and it is only later – almost an afterthought – that we see the two holding hands just above the doll in Keller’s lap. It is not hands in the midst of communicating, just simply touching and communing. Any of us who have ever had our own children or grandchildren hold our hand in the same way know of the intimacy and familiarity of this lovely touch. Truly, it’s a beauty of pic, made more astonishing for its subjects. I do not even want to degrade it by speculating what it could bring at auction, as it probably will never come on the block and is priceless for what it conveys about two of history’s most remarkable women.
As an important peice of material culture and history, it is indeed a masterpiece and indeed without peer.
This is one of those unexpected, and moving stories that comes around out of the blue, and for which I am very grateful. Check it out.