INVISIBLE BUT NOT UNSEEN
Carousels are wonderful, but can fall, pictorially, into the “done to death” category
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CENTURIES AGO, WHEN THE ROMAN WRITER PUBLILIUS COINED THE PHRASE “Familiarity breeds contempt” he was speaking about how human relations go sour based on an overdose of closeness or a lack of variety. But he also unwittingly described the challenge of photographing an exhaustively recognizable subject. The more a thing has been shot, the more we feel challenged to say something fresh about it, and the more we grow disgusted with how utterly, ugh, familiar it is.
I have been shooting carousels my entire life, with a wiiiiiiide variance in result. Most of my attempts just fall into the technically-challenged category: blurs, underexposures, tilted horizons, lousy compositions, etc. Others are okay, specs-wise, but ho-hum in effect. I keep trying to make pictures that export the grand visual ballet of romance that I carry in my brain, a rich, gauzy collective memory dipped in gaudy colour and memory. The problem, of course, is that what comes out of the camera is…just another picture of a carousel.
The housings and surrounds for classic carousels add context and a little more mystery.
Recently I realized that the carousel itself is part of the problem, since it contains too much information that, through millions of attempts, we all have taken for granted. Nothing new can be suggested by just continuing to click away at the thing, while, if one backs off a bit, nearly backing the thing out of the frame entirely to show more of its surrounding context, something fresher may actually emerge.
As seen above, the carousel inside the 1916 Looff Hippodrome building on the Santa Monica pier in California, the very rig that Paul Newman’s character in The Sting used to entertain his bevy of, ahem, tarts, is beautiful not only in its own right, but for the immense octagonal wooden barn that houses it…so much so that shooting an image that primarily highlights the structure with just a hint of racing horses (seen directly above) at least lets a little fresh air into the process. The barn’s high arched windows look directly out to the Pacific and bathe the interior with warm, comforting light, which also softens the deeper hues of the ride itself. I shot about a dozen conventional lights-and-horses frames, but once I got home I found I liked this better. Sometimes when something has been talked to death in pictures, it’s at least a relief to change the conversation a bit, if only by pivoting ninety degrees.