PLAN B, C, D…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME ICONIC SUBJECTS ACTUALLY SUBVERT CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY, since they fire a normal human urge to record “your take” of an image that literally millions have taken before. There is a strong temptation to merely simulate or re-create the ideal depictions of such objects, be they skyscrapers or mountains, cathedrals or canyons. There is an inherent trap in this process, of course. Why strive to merely match what others have done, to ape or emulate the “ideal” shot? Why settle for the chance to render a Xerox of someone else’s vision?
However, just because I can recognize this trap doesn’t mean I haven’t fallen into it. Indeed, as recently as last week, I found myself despondent because I was being denied the “perfect” shot of San Francisco’s #1 visual trademark…the Golden Gate Bridge. I was visiting the marvelous new Walt Disney Family Museum, housed inside re-purposed buildings in the Presidio, whose severe, spartan brick buildings are an inspiring reminder of their original role as a line of national defense for this vital port. However, for me in 2012, they were attractive chiefly because they were the last layer of urban development before the bridge. I drooled over the images on the museum’s website. It’s right in their backyard! Moreover, the only place in the Disney museum where photography is allowed is along a glass walled gallery specifically designed to serve up the perfect shot of Big Red. Perfect, right?
Except that, on the day I visited the museum, a stubborn canopy of fog had refused to clear the bridge towers, even in the clear light of late afternoon sun. There goes plan A. I left the building convinced that I could shoehorn a telephoto shot in between Presidio buildings and still get my “optimum” shot. I soon realized, however, that plan B was also unworkable. The fog stubbornly persisted in eclipsing the top of the south tower, while the property fence in my immediate view was chopping into a clear shot of its foundations. What remained looked cluttered, wrong, unconventional. Then plan C came into focus. Shoot something. Try to save this. Can I make a composition out of these stark brick blocks of space, with a glimpse of the tower in between? I was on total instinct by this time. My wife was waiting in the car, we were both tired after a day of flying, and it was just a whole helluva lot easier to just walk away. Enter the rationale: The bridge isn’t going anywhere. There have to be a million places to stand and get the “right” shot I want. Run away and live to fight another day.
There was just a twinkling of an idea….not really a fully formed concept, just a seed pod. The bridge is, given the local weather, always in the process of being concealed and revealed. Photographers have made great images of the bridge not only when it can be seen but when it coyly hides, like Salome, beneath the veils of weather. In fact, many of the best pictures of the bridge have been made under adverse conditions. Artistically, I was in good company. The bridge is always teasing, always taunting: come and find me. Try to define me. I dare you to capture me. I am not easy.
I am not obvious.
To hell with it.
I decided to wedge the partially visible tower between two dead blocks of brick, and make the picture. Like an immigrant who has to look through a dirty window to see a fast, smeared glimpse of Lady Liberty as he enters New York harbor, I knew I was stealing a view, snatching a fragment, a bit of hope, a shard of truth. I had to settle. I had moved plan C up to A position and was determined to live with the choice. Strangely, I will, upon future visits to San Francisco, feel a little cheap taking the “perfect” shot, if it ever presents itself.
I am no longer so certain of the best way to approach this subject. Whether I really got something or whether I am merely rationalizing my long shot in a lousy situation, I can no longer determine. But I am happy with what happened. And that’s supposed to be what this is all about.
- In The Presidio: Hard To Imagine, But There Wasn’t Always A Bridge Across The Golden Gate (sf.curbed.com)
- Plans Set, Drivers Brace For Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary (sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com)