By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEYOND THE RAW TRAGEDY of this year’s Great Hibernation, our forced stay-cation away from each other, the biggest loss for artists is the loss of faces. Photography engages the purposes and layers of human features, and draws its energy and appeal from the interpretation of those elements. When the people, through death or isolation, go away in great numbers, the faces that fuel our art go away as well. For those who create images, it’s like losing half the colors in the Crayola box.
That hunger for faces isn’t even fully satisfied after we have begun to cautiously crawl out of our respective caves, either, because the faces that we do see are partially concealed. We see eyes where once we saw both eyes and smiles. We try to intuit from memory what kind of expression lies behind the cloth of containment. Maybe that’s why, at least for this photographer, I’ve turned to a source I only selectively visit during normal times….the faces of animals.
It makes a kind of baseline sense. One of the only public places I go, while all this horror is sorted, is the local zoo. And here’s where the purists amongst us will moan that such places are the worst way to discover animals for purposes of photography. Snotty image contests have even gone so far as to routinely exclude such images from competition over the years, keening about how “dishonest” it is to capture an animal’s image in captivity, blah, blah, blah. That view is, of course, idiotic. The photographer alone determines whether an animal shot in the wild or in an enclosure registers with viewers as “real”. Better to shoot a stunning picture through bars than to let it go unmade.
And so, absent the human faces that typically populate our photography, we go in search of emotion and feeling in the faces of cats, apes, birds, and why not? If our own features are supposed to be a visual seismograph of our inner struggles, how does that happen any less with an animal? We’re already accustomed to labeling the reactions of the animals closest to us as those of a “happy” dog or a “lonely” cat, so the idea that animal faces register emotions is far from alien to us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, as I await the full return of human faces in all their mystery and madness, I will practice portraiture of another kind with friends of a different stripe. We love to flatter ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs are the only ones worthy of mention in the world. It’s time to realize what a stupidly limited concept that has always been.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is available from NormalEye Books.)