BOOKENDING THE WONDER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN ASKED BY FANS, OVER HIS LONG CAREER, “HOW THINGS WERE GOING“, Paul Desmond, the wry saxophonist for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, would often reply, “we’re playing music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is…” Glib, sure, but, in a way, the most accurate thing that can be said of art in general, and photography in particular. We are always trying to arrest the flight of things that are going away. We make our feeble attempts to capture time inside a box, a task made perpetually urgent by the fact that everything in the world is eventually heading for the wastebasket.
In recently snapping some images of the demolition of a local mall that had finally passed its historical sell-by date, I recalled that, just a few years prior, it had, out of the need for rental revenue, gotten into the annual habit of hosting a small carnival in a section of its parking lot. I wondered if the carnival itself was gone now as well, or if it merely has continued to rotate through a vast gypsy circuit of bookings by other businesses that, for one reason or another, have a rendezvous with the executioner.
I love the bizarre, crowded texture and loud color, the visual vulgarity of carnivals, fairs, and circuses, and I seem to be more aware than I should be that all three institutions are going the way of the T-Rex in a world that no longer defines entertainment in terms of gaudy neon, strange aromas, and the din of barkers. And not only are these amusements in their own cultural niche, they occupy a strangely unique place in photography.
By that I mean that many of the normal canons of good picture-making are freely abandoned once the canvas and cotton candy come to town. Compositions cannot be too cluttered. Color cannot be too garish. Normal parameters for contrast and luminescence go out the window. Even focus itself can be sacrificed at the service of sensations of immediacy or speed. Shooting rides, food booths, banners and signs means the gloves come off on all restraint. Suddenly it’s all about sensation.
But these little worlds of wonder are being bookended by a world that’s changed its idea of a “good time”, along with its definition of the forbidden or the unsavory. Pointed at such strange subjects, the camera now acts as a time machine, with more of these experiences becoming extinct. So take pictures like it’s going out of style.
Because, believe me, it is.