REALM OF THE RETRO-REAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO REGARD MUSEUM SPACE MUCH THE SAME WAY I VIEW THEATRICAL SPACE, as a staging point for stories and dreams. The best of such institutions achieve nearly the same suspensions of disbelief and time as one experiences in a great play or opera. Curators can create their own version of reality, choreographing our interpretation of events in nearly infinite ways. And just as there is no set “correct” theatrical interpretation of an eternal work like Hamlet or Death Of A Salesman, museums can present their own “take” on history, while freeing us to do likewise.
This, as you might surmise, follows through to the pictures we make of the various exhibits and objects. Therefore, as photographers, we need not be anchored to the mere documentary recording of images of things on display. With a little experimentation in either equipment or approach, we can be as interpretive in how we perceive an artifact as the presenters were in how they choose to showcase it. There is no one “right” way to photograph rare or exotic exhibits.
Jazz giant Lionel Hampton’s 1935 Deagan “King George” Vibraphone, seen at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ.
Official photographs by the museums themselves tend to be straight “product” or “catalog” shots, and, from a purely marketing point of view, that’s probably as it should be. But in visiting the museum as artists, we are free of all such constraints. We are not on salary, and it’s not our job to reflect upon the intentions of the House. In that way, our views of the goods are completely liberated, and that is where the fun stuff happens.
Personally, I tend to render exhibits that interest me in a gauzy dream state. I find that framing them in a kind of retro-real fashion tears them loose from their original temporal moorings. They return to being just things, judged by their own contours and design, rather than as part of an official narrative. And once they are absolute objects, anything can be drawn from or projected onto them as I desire. And that is so much more interesting than just snapping them as a sort of souvenir of my visit.
Museums are not merely warehouses. They are places for dreams to converge and reveal themselves. And if we are lucky (and open), we can aid that process, and make everything in those hallowed halls ring with new song.