LOOKS LIKE IT WORKS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN RE-DEFINES OUR PERCEPTION OF THE FAMILIAR, re-contextualizing everyday objects in ways that force us to see them differently. Nowhere is this more effective than in close-up and macro photography, where we deliberately isolate or magnify details of things so that they lose their typical associations. Indeed, using the camera to cast subjects in unfamiliar ways is one of the most delightful challenges of the art.
Product developers are comfortable with the idea that “form follows function”, that how we use a thing will usually dictate how it must be designed. The shapes and contours of the objects in our world are arrived at only as we tailor the look of a thing to what it does. That’s why we don’t have square wheels. The problem with familiar objects is that, as long as they do what they were designed to do, we think less and less about the elegance of their physical design. Photographers can take things out of this chain of the mundane, and, in showcasing them, force us to see them in purely visual terms. They stop playing the piano, and instead look under the lid at the elegant machine within. They strip off the service panel of the printer and show us the ballet of circuitry underneath.
It’s even easier to do this, and yields more dramatic results, as we begin to re-investigate those things that have almost completely passed from daily use. To our 21st-century eyes, a 1910 stock ticker might as well be an alien spaceship, so far removed is it from typical experience. I recently viewed a permanent wave machine from a beauty parlor of the 1930’s, sitting on a forgotten table at a flea market. It took me two full minutes to figure out what I was even looking at. Did I snap it? You betcha.
The study of bygone function is also a magical mystery tour of design innovation. You start to suss out why the Edisons of the world needed this shape, these materials, arranged in precisely this way, to make these things work. Zooming in for a tighter look, as in the case of the typewriter in the above image, forces a certain viewpoint, creating compositions of absolute shapes, free to be whatever we need them to be. Form becomes our function.
The same transformation can happen when you have seemingly exhausted a familiar subject, or shot away at it until your brain freezes and no new truth seems to be coming forth. Walking away from the project for a while, even a few hours, often reboots your attitude towards it, and the image begins to emerge. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching.