By MICHAEL PERKINS
“A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE“, wrote Gertrude Stein, asserting that a thing is merely itself, and nothing else. It’s a classic quote, but a sentiment which is belied by any kind of interpretative art. For the painter, the poet, the photographer, or the sculpturer, the physical limits of an object are merely the jumping-off point to one’s personal way of depicting or describing. Certainly, in one sense, a rose is “merely” a rose. However, in the hands of an artist, it is always, potentially, on its way to being everything else.
Photographers instinctively know that they are not mere recorders of “reality”, that, in their hands, subjects are exaggerated, emphasized, abstracted. We make images of roses, certainly, but also the rose-pluses, the rose-minuses, the rose absurd, the rose imagined. This ability to tailor the showing of things to our ever-evolving sense of their meaning to us allows us to approach even the most over-documented things with fresh eyes.
It may be that nearly everyone with a camera who’s walked the streets of Paris has, somewhere in their portfolio, a shot of the Eiffel tower. In some ways, the challenge of trying to say anything new about what we might consider an “exhausted” subject is irresistible: we sort of dare ourselves to do a fresh take on it. The thing is, our depiction of these celebrated places, once we have trained our eyes, is actually unbound, or inexhaustible. It is only how well we have developed the muscles of our imagination that determines how many gazillions of personal Eiffels can exist.
The image here of a small selected vista from within the sixteen-story layout (2500 steps, 154 flights of stairs, 80 separate landings) of New York City’s Vessel shows, if nothing else, that there can never truly be a “typical” view of the structure. The visual story changes every few feet or so, depending on where you are standing, and even multiple frames taken from the same vantage point just minutes apart from each other will yield vastly different results, since light, color and the arrangement of visitors is not static. This is great news for anyone who might doubt that they could make a personal picture of something so overwhelmingly public or famous. My point is that you can’t not produce something personal of it, because, for photographic purposes, not only this object, but nearly everything, is inexhaustible.
It’s not that the many millions of images taken of a famous place over time may not seem remarkably consistent, in that they almost replicate each other. It’s that such a result is not predestined, any more than any other photograph we attempt is. Change something in the eye of the beholder, and you may discover that even the eternal rose is, well, something other than a rose. Sometimes.