Amherst Magazine

Little Worlds

Photographs and text by Samuel Masinter '04

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is pre­occcupied,
looking for something, something, something.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Sandpiper”

Six years ago, as a student in a classroom one floor down from the steeple in Johnson Chapel, I became obsessed with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. She and I had the same preoccupation with the details of a world too large to take in as a whole—camera in hand, I was her sandpiper. The steeples of the college—Stearns (see “The Lonely Tower,” Winter 2009) and Johnson Chapel—were always the most tempting mysteries to me, with their ropes and bells and stairs much older than anything I had ever seen in Miami, my first home.

I knew that somewhere in the hidden spaces of the college—in the vastness of the locked amphitheaters, in the tunnels deep out of sight, in the towers with enough alarms to keep out even the most curious—there would be a carnival of smaller things I could collect with photography: tiny clock gears, names carved into wood before “World War” meant anything and, if I was lucky, a door nobody had opened in my lifetime. So, when I traded in my thesis for a college business card, I stumbled into a job that opened nearly any locked door. All of these hidden places could be cataloged and dissected with a flash and a wide angle lens over the course of a few afternoons.

If this photo essay works, I’ve failed miserably at that dissection of the whole and instead offered only passing glimpses of the parts. If you have never been inside the chapel tower, even after you see these photos, you’ll have no sense of how much larger it is on the inside than on the outside. You won’t know where any of the doors lead, what happens if you turn right at the top of the first staircase or the sense of opening the final latch and stepping out onto the roof of, at least for a moment, the world. I’ve tried my best to photograph the small without betraying the mystery of the large, to show the beauty of the little worlds within the still—I hope—unseen larger.

Online Extra: View every image from Masinter's photo shoot here.

Self-portrait by Samuel Masinter '04