In one of my recent classes for my creative writing program, we were told to choose a photo from some old postcards and describe it, using as many of our senses as possible.  Then we were told to choose a scrap of paper from an envelope and develop the description of the scene from the image in a way that communicated the feeling written on the paper.  (Remember that this is from a prompt, not a fully developed piece)

I’ve always loved old photographs, so while there were some abstract postcards available, I chose one of a woman standing alone on a street.  It was a useful exercise, and I definitely want to try it again at some point.  If anyone else enjoys using old photos for prompts, I’d recommend Googling “Vivian Maier photography” or click through ones on the official website for her work.

I couldn’t find the original image I used, but I’ve included one of Maier’s below.


She has been hurrying down the sidewalk for many blocks when the photographer stops her. Her hair is immaculately ironed, curled away from her face, and pinned back tightly under a small, sophisticated hat. Her suit too is pressed neatly, with a broach pinned to it. But at the edges of her curls her hair has become fluffy, and just under her arms her suit has become moist. The fabric chaffs the delicate skin there as she shifts her feet and changes her stance. The photographer tells her to look away, and he captures one side of her face before the sharp edges of sunlight force her eye shut. She squeezes her hand into a fist, feeling her finely manicured nails beginning to pierce her palm.

When the photographer releases her, she hurries on again, catching the wet scent of dirty streets recently washed of their garbage by a passing, heavy shower. She passes out of the sunlight and into the cold shade of one of numerous, nameless alleys, slowing her pace only as the needles of sunlight begin to cut her eyes again.

She pauses finally. There before her is the cove, empty as ever of ships. Not even one dingy is tied to the dock, no tug boat or row boat. She stands and watches the empty horizon. The waters rush towards the shore, bringing nothing but sand and debris up to the strand. She starts off again, but slower now. Her feet fall more heavily on the ground than before, dragging longer as she brings them up for the next step. At the entrance to an office building she holds the door for an elderly woman to hobble slowly through. Then she steps inside and hurries to the receptionist’s desk.

“Any notes? Any calls?” she exhales at the receptionist.

“Sorry, no, Sally,” she replies. “Still nothing.”

“Alright. I had to check.” She turns and climbs the stairs, up two floors, where she moves behind a desk. She nods as people come bustling in after her, handing some of them notes and left messages. At the first stop in the flow of people, she pulls a calendar towards herself. She turns back to January, counting in a whisper as she flips through the months. “…thirteen… fourteen… fifteen…”

Vivian Maier photo, NYC, undated