By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CURRENT CONTROVERSIES OVER WHO SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT BE HONORED in public art will continue to be a key point of emotional engagement, whatever one’s traditions, beliefs, or politics. This is not the forum for discussing any of the motives or agendas behind these debates. Still, as photographers, the rise or fall of certain monuments is an alert for all parts of the process to be documented. We shoot wars, uprisings, rituals, and customs of every kind, and we need to chronicle these shifts in culture when they occur, regardless of how it affects us personally.
I am always pushing the idea that photography must serve as a document for every age, and our present contention over memorials and statues is merely more proof of the need for that service. I come from a town named after Christopher Columbus, and so the present-day reevaluation of his historical role has already had consequences in that town’s civic rhythm, notably the removal of a huge statue of the explorer from the town’s City Hall complex, a site it’s occupied since 1955. As of this writing, the fate of two more somewhat less imposing sculptures remains in limbo, including the one shown here, which is located on the grounds of the State House in the heart of downtown. Photographing these things need not be a commentary. It can be important merely in terms of time measurement, of the “before” and “after” status of a place or people.
“Heroes” are often as much crafted and created as they are naturally forged, and many a minor figure in history has outlasted his/her actual impact after being immortalized in marble by someone else who needs him/her as a symbol, for any variety of reasons. Making a picture of these memorials, especially when they may be on the way out, is no more a “statement” than shooting a frame of an historic hotel just before the swing of the wrecking ball. Good, bad, or indifferent, these things in our public squares are reference points for our daily existence, and images of them are an effective way of visually contextualizing them in time.
My favorite image of the Statue of Liberty is one taken of just the lady’s head and shoulders, which stood at the 1878 Paris International Exposition before the entire work was crated up and shipped to New York. In a very real sense, it was part of France’s daily walkabout life long before it was a feature in ours. Until it wasn’t.
Heroes will be crowned and decommissioned for as long as mankind persists. The things that either certify or disqualify them across the generations is one kind of memory. Photographs bear neutral witness to the changes in what we hold important, and, for that reason alone, pictures need to be made.