the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

SILENT NIGHT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD, homes were less frequently garnished on their outsides, with most of the houses in my neighborhood sporting little more in the yard than a few slim strings of lights or the occasional lawn Santa. Our current emphasis on LED-coated exteriors and rolling light shows lay far in the future in the Eisenhower era, leaving the family tree to perform most of the heavy lifting as the visual emblem for the holidays. Our own system was simple: string the lights and lay on the ornaments in a fully lit room, with the tree positioned before the house’s biggest window: then, after everyone had scampered out onto the front yard, deputize Dad to douse the house lights and plug in the tree, launching its social debut to street view. That collective moment of “aww” was, for me, worth the entire holiday. 

In photographing Christmas as a much older child, while I do admire all the pyrotechnics required to give every house the full Clark Griswold treatment, I tend to make pictures of trees as seen through front windows, framed by shadows, devoid of drama, as quiet as a silent movie, the one centerpiece delivering its visual message in a muted, almost personal tone. It’s the time of year when sentiment and habit are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable from each other, and thus there are so many things that we always do because we’ve always done them. One thing I seek in a picture is permanence, the impression that what’s right in that one image is in some way right for all time. That means that, at Christmas, I look for sights that could have sprung from any or all Christmases over the decades. It’s remarkably comforting in a world that has become so comfortable with tumult and noise to deliberately try to show stillness. 

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This particular window, in central Los Angeles, required a bit of patience. Between trying to nail the correct blend of twilight and dark in the surrounding sky and tracking the occupant’s nightly decision to either draw or open the drapes, I walked by the place for several consecutive nights before I saw what I was after. Upon clicking the shutter, I may or may not have completely reverted to boyhood and uttered an “Awww” aloud, but I certainly said it in my heart, as I tried to in this picture. 

Be safe. Be well. Be here next year. 

 

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