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February 24, 1991|R.D.

We've been thinking about what our life would look like if it were captured in a photograph.

It could be a city street, with the people in our life arrayed against a backdrop of storefronts, among them a candy store, bakery, grocery, diner and funeral parlor. In place of signs, neon and otherwise, and on billboards would be the words Son, Husband, Lover, Brother, Friend, Generous, Foolish, Sensitive, Callous , Hopeless . . . and on and on.

A plane, skywriting, would leave this message: "He tried."

And a newspaper, strewn along the pavement, would have this headline: "Good Heart, No Brains."

Quite a cluttered landscape.

No, instead we see a picture of a village blacksmith shop. Something about hard work and struggle. Unbending metal made to bend. And outside, in old-fashioned, small-town letters, would be the words Honest, Coarse, Strong and Simple, dotting the building like advertisements for soft-drinks, haberdashers and assorted notions.

Endless possibilities. Better, maybe, to put it all aside and go see the work of more than 25 European and American photographers who have used the written word to provide information and serve as a prominent part of the visual image.

Titled "Neither Speech Nor Language: Photography and the Written Word," the exhibit at the Getty Museum will feature Man Ray, Arthur Rothstein, William H. Fox Talbot, Timothy O' Sullivan, Charles Marville, Aaron Siskind and others. It opens Thursday and runs through May 12. The museum, located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, but advance parking reservations are required. For information call (213) 458-2003.

Perhaps our life-photograph should take into account that our story continues. Picture a simple, two-lane road running straight toward the horizon and disappearing into some distant mountains. In the foreground, by the roadside, would be a sign neither telling of available gas nor miles to go. Instead, it would have these words by T. S. Eliot:

And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time

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