By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM IN PHOENIX, ARIZONA is possibly the largest collection of musical artifacts in the world, a stunning array of everyday instruments from nearly every people nation on the planet. Opened in 2000, MIM is not merely a house of refined and rare instruments: it boasts as many humble skin drums and clay flutes as it does Steinways and Strads. Its simple mission is to show the linkage, the commonality between how all races express themselves through music, and to promote understanding by showing how those expressions have spilled over cultural lines, physical borders, and tribal traditions. The museum shows that everyone who picks, strums, blows or strikes to weave sound into soulfulness is really in the same big band, an idea which is a gold mine for photographers.
One of the museum’s greatest strengths is in showcasing not only the instruments themselves but the context of their use, from native costumes and ritual regalia to the cases and support equipment used to house or protect everything from horns to harmonicas. Indeed, a very large part of MIM’s collection is actually composed of cases, boxes, and stage gear, since they, too, are part of the instruments’ journeys. One very twentieth-century element of this, as regards the museum’s astonishing collection of guitars, can be seen in the first generation of devices created to amplify sound following the birth of electric instruments. In both traveling and permanent exhibits, the Musical Instrument Museum affords equal status to both the killer axes of rock and jazz legend and the amps and cases that accompanied them on their storied gigs. In essence, the first amplifiers were instruments in their own right, since they not only made things louder but shaped and sculpted the performances that flowed through them.
Leather and chrome, speaker cones and vacuum tubes, arcane logos and legendary trademarks….the “support” elements of electric music are often as familiar as the guitars with which they shared stages. All that texture. All those scars, bumps, and tears, with stories to accompany each ding and dent. Instruments in the 20th and now 21st century are so transitory in design that one era’s state-of-the-art quickly becomes the next era’s isn’t-that-quaint, models rocketing from cutting edge to old-guard within a generation. That spells obsolescence, which in turn calls for a photographic record of things which are fading out of fashion with greater and greater speed. In essence, museums dealing in fairly recent artifacts can be completists, since they can showcase both objects and the cultural trappings that accompanied them. By contrast, in studying relics from the ancient world, parts of the story are lost: we may have the flutes that were buried with Tut, but no way of knowing how their scales or melodies were constituted.
In another 4,000 years, who knows? All of the Les Paul Gibsons in the world may have become extinct, with only an occasional case to mark their passing. Funny to think of someone looking into the empty box and musing, “I wonder how they played this thing…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PASS A VERY IMPORTANT MILEPOST when they first learn that pictures can be both reliable and unreliable narrators. As neophytes, we assume that the camera doesn’t lie, that it is a trustworthy tool for capturing the truth, a kind of optically-based lie detector. Later, we learn that, in certain hands, the camera can also distort, mislead, and, certainly, lie. It’s a heartbreaking moment for some, while it’s almost freeing for others.
Bearing witness with a camera is a noble calling, but, even among the most ethical or clear-minded image-makers, there are visual stories that can’t be plainly told, tableaux in which the scene itself is a reluctant witness. Call them pictures without ample evidence.
Shooters can certainly use their interpretive skills to play connect-the-dots in many a photo, but what can be done when there aren’t enough dots to connect? In such cases, merely starting a conversation is the best one can hope for.
I simply had to record the scene you find here. I was walking with some friends toward an urban sewer tunnel from which thousands of bats were guaranteed to emerge at sundown, when, with one of our party nearing the rendezvous, I spotted the abandoned wheelchair you see at left. Clearly this was a case in which no photograph could be expected to “explain” anything, but which was visually irresistible nonetheless. The mixture of object and place equals…what? Why would someone bring a wheelchair to a semi-remote location, and then just leave it? Did someone experience a miracle cure that obviated any further use for the device? If so, why go to the trouble of dumping it out in the sticks? How does one dispose of an unwanted wheelchair? Had someone upgraded to a better model, and thus turned their previous unit into roadside litter? Was some semi-ambulatory adventurer off on a brief stroll in the area, eventually returning to the chair to rest in before heading home? Would someone seeing a picture of my friend walking away from the chair assume he had been its occupant? If so, what would they assume happened? And, of course, was I being dishonest for even including him and the chair in the same frame?
You can see where this is all going. The frame is hardly a “gag” or “gimmick” shot, and it’s not unique among photographs (mine or others) in posing more questions than it can possibly answer. Moreover, I certainly don’t have any explanation for the chair’s appearance that makes any sense, at least to me. And yet, I wouldn’t dream of not shooting the picture, as it’s too much of an “A” example of what happens when the photo itself is a reluctant, even hostile, witness.
Seeing may indeed be believing, even if you can’t actually decide what it is you’re being asked to believe.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MONTH’S 50th ANNIVERSARY OBSERVANCE (in July of 2019) of the first lunar landing in 1969 is, first and foremost, a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, recalling an era in which mankind’s potential was limited only by the scope of its imagination. In addition, for photographers, it is also a story of technical ingenuity and king-hell problem-solving skills. We have lived for a half-century with the crisp, iconic images that were brought back from the surface of the moon, but the larger story of what it took to capture them remains largely untold.
And a great story it is.
NASA’s eventual selection of which camera would go to the moon was influenced in the early days of the space race by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, himself an amateur photographer. Given that the earliest cameras aboard space flights had proved a technical disappointment, Schirra suggested that a version of his f/2.8, 80mm Hasselblad 500C be modified to document future missions. The legendary Swiss optics company was brought in by NASA to consult on the complete re-engineering of its consumer camera, which, over time, involved stripping off its cosmetic leatherette trim as well as removing the unit’s viewfinder, auxiliary shutter and reflex mirror. While most modifications were made to reduce the weight of the units or to improve their performance under extreme temperatures, others were made purely to ensure the simplest possible operation under once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunities. The first NASA-modified Hasselblads were used by Schirra himself during his Mercury 8 orbital mission, and in the capture of Ed White’s historic space walk aboard Gemini IV, with more sophisticated changes effectively turning one of the most sophisticated cameras on the planet into little more than a high-end point-and-shoot by the time the Apollo missions got underway in the late 1960’s.
Shutter speed for the lunar Hasselblads was fixed, but a selrction of apertures could be chosen by the astronauts to ensure sharp depth-of-field in a variety of situations. Surface images were taken by what came to be called a Hasselblad Data Camera (a re-jiggered 500C), while a separate HEC, or Hasselblad Electric Camera, would be pointed at the surface from inside the lunar landing module. Like Hasselblad, Kodak was engaged by NASA to re-engineer its domestic product, chiefly its premium films for the missions, both by widening frame size from 35 to 70mm and reducing the thickness of the celluloid sheeting to allow 70 shots per camera roll instead of the earthbound 12. The problem of cranking the camera from frame to frame was obviated by specially mounted exterior cartridges that automatically advanced the film after each click. Kodak also formulated several different speeds of film in both monochrome and color. Finally, to make the whole process even more fool-proof, Hasselblad generated special visual operator manuals for the astronauts (shown at left), while the entire camera assembly was permanently attached to the center of an astronaut’s lunar suit (in the case of Apollo 11, “first man” Neil Armstrong) freeing up the spaceman’s hands for NASA’s immense grocery list of surface experiments.
Success in space travel is measured in inches, and also in ounces. And, being keenly aware of how much the mission’s newly collected specimens (such as space rocks) would add to Apollo’s total weight upon its return flight, the crews knew that a calculated swap-out was necessary, and so a total of twelve Hasselblad bodies were left on the moon, after their film packs were detached and loaded on the lunar module. The prospect of free (if pragmatically unattainable) cameras has never been so tantalizing. But as we say down here on earth, the picture, and not the gear, is what’s important, something you can see for yourself in any of the 8,400 Apollo-era images that have recently been uploaded to Flickr. Merry Christmas.
So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, then…..well, you do the math, with a calculator that, today, easily exceeds the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft. Technology is the end product of curiosity, and the nerdish odyssey of the Hassies of the moon serve as a good reminder that all the best photography is about exploration, of the vast space either inside or outside the shooter’s imagination.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FATHER, SENSING THAT, AS A CHILD, I WAS ANXIOUS about turning out the lights at bedtime, explained calmly to me that there wasn’t anything in my darkened room that wasn’t there in the daytime as well.
It was a reasonable enough argument that I stopped thinking of my bed as a backstage repository for monsters. Still not sure about the inside of the closet, though.
Later, however, I was to realize that, in a sense, Dad was dead wrong in photographic terms, since all we really have to paint scenes with is light, a commodity which is drastically different before and after sundown.
One of the reasons I still take out the old tripod to bother with long night-time exposures is that the color relationships, and thus how we interpret the arrangement of light, are so very different than those seen in the day. We’re not just talking about the difference between lots of light and not much light. The way the colors fit with each other is vastly different when comparing night versus day. Imagine lighting your very favorite food until it takes on a hue so unnatural that you can no longer eat it. Consider pink peas, green steak, brown water….you get the idea. Now compare the daytime value of a color under natural light to its night-time equivalent, lit by either dying daylight or artificial illumination or some strange combination of both. I think the value of making comparative photos of objects over a variety of hours will stun you if you make the time for the exercise. It will also give you an amazing number of alternative choices for how you wish to render color, and under what circumstances.
We’ve all see those essays in which a photographer stays in one position along the rim of the Grand Canyon for many consecutive hours, interpreting the color and light shifts in the gorge over the course of a single day. But you don’t have schedule a vacation in Arizona to make your own demonstration of this idea. Anything that you think you know about, or know the “best” way to photograph, will make a good test subject. As a matter of fact, the more ordinary the scene, the better, since your evaluation of the results will force you to concentrate on just the light values alone, without excess distraction. For an example, the image seen here is of a desert botanical garden in the American southwest an hour after sunset. The sky as seen here is not brilliantly blue, but neither is it absolutely black. The concrete wall in front, beige during the day, is feeding off the sodium lights from the gift shoppe at right and registers as orange. The greens in the agaves and succulents are not the same tepid hue that they’d “read” in the afternoon, becoming something a bit more emerald-ish, while the shrubs are a more pronounced gold than they’d register at noon. More interestingly, all of the colors, transformed from the familiar, are now in a different dialogue with each other. Their relationships seem off, lending a slight surreality to the scene. I only wish I had thought ahead to take several more images spaced over an entire day to better demonstrate my point, although I know, from having done so in the past, that the contrasts can be quite dramatic.
Of course, the picture is not, in and of itself, anything to boast about, but it gives me a test pattern for similar shots in the future, shots for which I will really want to achieve a particular look. This also fits into my overall view of photography, which is that every shot is, in a sense, a rehearsal for another shot. So it sometimes seems that we take a lot of pictures that believe “don’t matter” to get the ones that do, only, paradoxically, if one photograph is a sketch for a later one, then indeed they all matter anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT “WINDOW SHOPPING“, the strange practice of taking random photographs while being driven through urban neighborhoods, usually in the back seat of an Uber, usually to or from a hotel or an airport. For any shooter who likes to engineer as much control as possible in their image-making (as is my own bias), cranking off shots out the side window of the back seat of a ride-share is the closest thing to complete chaos, and yet surprisingly exhilarating. It’s also good exercise for those occasional planned shoots in which you will need to react quickly, and hopefully with effect, under rapidly changing conditions.
The whole thing began for me several years ago with one of many trips I’ve made to and from New York, a place that, for a photographer, embraces both formal technique and shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity. I’ve had to teach myself to be more comfortable with the latter than the former, and so I have to regularly place myself in situations in which I’m forced to mentally shoot with, if you like, one hand tied behind my back. I have to make myself shoot looser and with less of a fear of loss-of-control situations. At some point, a boring cab ride to JFK gave me the perfect jumping-off point for such a project.
Think for a moment about how little I have to say about the conditions of this kind of shoot. The driver is taking me through neighborhoods I often know little about, so I can’t anticipate or plan. The speed of the vehicle, the smoothness of the ride, whether the “good stuff” is to the left or right of the car, and, certainly, when I’m about to behold anything with any potential all guarantee a kind of randomness. There are no warnings, no forecasts. Add to this that I will probably be shooting at full manual, meaning that, in addition to reacting in the moment to my subject and shooting conditions, I’m also throwing hundreds of frame-to-frame calculations about how to capture anything of value into the equation.
Not surprisingly, my yield is often 90% garbage, something that is also great for maintaining a sense of humility. However, the images that do work would never have been made at all had I not placed my precious precision in jeopardy. Thinking back to when I started, I, like many young photographers, disliked most of my pictures because there was always something I hadn’t understood, hadn’t planned for, didn’t yet know how to do. The paradox of this kind of machine-based expression is that you have to learn all the rules and then decide which ones you have no interest in following going forward. I often suspect that many younger shooters actually begin their careers at the opposite end of that continuum, starting at “what the hell” and eventually growing into more formalized technique. Doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that both control and chaos can be useful, but they can both be imposters as well. A picture isn’t guaranteed to be wonderful because you cared and planned “enough”, and it certainly isn’t fated to be brilliant just because you cared so little. All roads don’t lead to Rome, but all roads also don’t lead away from it. From a window with shaky hands and a lousy Uber driver, or on solid, tripod-secure ground, you can be both the hero or the goat, given what’s happening between your ears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT RESURGENCE OF INSTANT CAMERAS AND FILM IS NOT A REVOLUTION: it’s more like a symptom. I mean, eventually everything in the history of photography is a symptom of something larger in human development, innit? One year it’s a certain hot piece of gear, another it’s a trend in technique. The medium is a barometer of sorts on who we are and what we value. And now, for a while (again), it’s the stage for a kind of return to an imagined wonderful yesteryear.
It’s not hard to see how the youngest generation of shooters (the biggest demographic chunk of new instant pix users) has embraced a revisitation of the golden age of Polaroid. Making generally flawless images by the zillions in the digital age has, for some, sparked the question is any of this stuff designed to last? Are any of the thousands of pictures you squeezed off with your phone “keepers” as to memory, emotional resonance, uniqueness? And can an analog picture designed to be an unrepeatable original, tangibly printed out in the hand, promote the production of photos that are more special, more warmly personal? In short, is Polaroid Originals film (or Fuji/Instax film, for that matter) the next vinyl LP?
Scan through the most ecstatic raves about the instant photography experience and you’ll see lots of references to emotion, shared fun, even a kind of nostalgic pang for pictures that are, well, as crappy as most Polaroids were before the original company shuttered (sorry) in 2001. In fact, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of instanting readily admit to the technical clunkiness of their favorite cameras and the so-lousy-it’s-cool aesthetic of the prints, as if making technically inferior pictures is some badge of either spontaneity or authenticity. It should be noted that both the revival of plastic, Soviet-era toy cameras by the Lomography crowd a few years back and the re-emergence of Polaroid were spearheaded by European art school hipsters, both espousing how “real” random or uneven results are, as opposed to the bloodless precision of digital imaging. Here, however, as I see it, are the real constants of both the revived Polaroid brand and its (slightly) superior cousins at Fuji /Instax:
Most everybody’s instant film renders colors horribly.
Films formats like Instax mini (waay smaller than Polaroid) are virtually useless for complex compositions: the images are just too teeny.
All instant film is too damned expensive, making some prints cost out at $1.00 or more apiece.
Polaroid Originals (the new guardians of Polaroid’s old intellectual properties) brought back the emotional sensation of instant pix, but all of its problems as well…including crummy resolution, low contrast, and meh optics.
And, most importantly, there are, at this writing, almost no mid-line price instant cameras that afford a broad array of hands-on settings. This means almost no control at the low end (less than $75) and exorbitant prices on the high-end (over $700 in many cases). It also means you can either take cheap/bad pictures with no creative override whatsoever or sink a fortune into a camera with a huge learning curve that still may pump out technically inferior pictures. That cost a lot.
Certainly the “cool” value of instants is an emotional by-product of the digital age. Unlike the thousands of images residing on your phone, many of which may never be seen or shared even hours after they’re created, you can physically hold and pass around a Polaroid-esque print. And there may even be an ancillary benefit for serious photographers as well: since your resources are limited and expensive, you will likely spend more time planning shots, editing on the fly, even rejecting bad ideas before they’re even committed to film. Or, you could be chosen the winner on The Bachelor, in which the sky’s the limit. In a way, instants impose the same restraint on a shooter that all film does, the same thing that happens to digital shooters that are ten shots away from battery death, or stuck shooting everything with one mediocre lens on a given day. When you’re forced to slow down and plan, different pictures happen.
So…. Instant Photography, Part II, The Sequel presents a real challenge for its current avatars. Several standout models aside, Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid, did not bring great cameras to the masses, nor did he ever create a world-beating film or amazing optics. He did give a world bent on instant gratification a fun toy to serve that sensation up on demand (and at a premium price). But while his heirs may eventually succeed where he failed, generating both the tools and the medium for great photographic work, right now, instant photography feels like the first three Star Wars prequels. And if you think that’s a compliment, then I have a Jar-Jar Binks tee-shirt I’d like to sell you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOONER OR LATER, EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, sifting through subject matter that is largely invisible to passersby, will elicit the question, “what are you looking at?” I seldom have a good answer for such queries, which usually come when I’m crawling on the ground, squinting at the sky, or otherwise peering at, well, you name it. The reason I tend to reply “oh, nothing” is that the answer won’t make sense to anyone else anyway. I mean, why am I staring at random pile of roadside rocks? Why do I find a rusty gate hinge fascinating at the moment? It’s actually easier to be assumed by people in the area to be the town idiot, because, the faster people write me off as mad, the sooner I can get back to what I’m doing, which is trying to make a picture. The process is seldom logical and always appears odd from the outside.
Hell, it appears odd from the inside. Like, of my head.
In one such instance, people see me staring at leaves. Dead or dying leaves. Wet ones. Half rotted ones. Leaves that are placed first on this side, then on that one, then directly in light, then cloaked in shadow. My interest in them isn’t botanical, since I often know next to nothing of the objects I’m photographing (not scientifically, anyway), and so I can’t even invent some great story about why I have chosen one over the other. They are just abstract texture to me, texture that almost always varies wildly from leaf to leaf. If I see anything symbolic at all in them, I probably see the human hand, specifically the aging human hand. In recent years I’ve taken a number of images of my ninety-year-old father’s hands, which are, at this point in his life, almost as telling about his history as the lines on his face. In turn, I began to study my own hands, which are twenty-three years behind his, but well on the path toward “wizened” status. It was at some point that leaves, which sport their own age spots, wrinkles, scars and discolorations, starting to talk a bit louder to me.
Over the past several years, my Phytomorphology series (which merely takes its name from the term for the study of plants’ external structures) has sported no other captions instead of randomly assigned numbers, a signal that, even though the collected pictures might look like part of a larger study, they are no such thing. And while I could have called them “big leaf”, “green leaf” or “dead leaf”, the arcane fakery of pretending I’m on some kind of academic mission amuses me, so….Phytomorphology 23, Phytomorphology 67, and so forth. So now we return to the sight of me randomly scanning the ground (with no particular purpose in mind), an activity that makes outsiders ask what I’m looking at. Now, I could improvise a great little comment about the veinous textures or the play of light on irregular surfaces or any other number of statements that would make me sound more like a “real” photographer, but, in truth, the leaves are merely a whim, perhaps more so than any other subject I’ve ever shot. I keep coming back to a quote from comedian Lenny Bruce, who was asked by a reporter why he chose this phrase or that structure for a given monologue. His answer: I just do it, that’s all.
In photography, as in any other form of personal expression, sometimes a thing just is, and there’s no point in being fussy about the why of it. I’m not clever enough to have a formalized reason for everything I shoot. Sometimes you just know, and you go. One more anecdote to close out: a farmer is working with his herd of cattle near the edge of a country road. Some city slicker who’s fascinated by this slows his car, asking, “excuse me, are those Guernseys or Herefords?”. “Heck”, says the farmer, “I just call ’em moo-cows.”
Maybe that’s my answer, the next time someone catches me in a meadow looking at leaves. “Gee, I guess I got some wrong information. They told me there were moo-cows around here…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN IN A WORLD BENT UPON WORSHIP OF THE NEW, not all of the past is erased all at once. The destruction of the old may indeed seem inevitable, but sometimes it is gradual, even incomplete. And when the inexorable crush of progress is even partially slowed, photography gains entry to the process of change, and can bear witness.
Neighborhoods come and go: businesses close: eras end. Still, the architectural and aesthetic footprint of fashions and trends can linger long after their original animus has faded. What’s left in view are signs, buildings, old faces in new places, strange survivors left alone on blighted blocks. On this site will soon stand…..
The old ways are debated by civic groups and historical societies, with the value of what we were weighed against the forward surge of new needs. What deserves to be preserved? What should already have been dismantled? Opportunities for the photographer are obvious. We make a record. We give testimony. And when things must depart, we prevent their being forgotten, at least not for lack of evidence.
For nearly 100 years, San Franciscans in the heart of the Bay City’s business and tourist energy stopped at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell for their morning paper, a bottle of spirits, or a pack of smokes. The neon sign announcing these delights was erected sometime in the ’20’s and stayed until Danny Ortega, who first climbed a ladder behind the counter to wait on customers while in early grade school, finally threw in the towel in 2005. At that point, the demolition of the store’s wraparound entrance seemed like a foregone conclusion. But local preservationists, eager to preserve the look, if not the function, of the old neighborhood, managed to get landmark status for at least the sign. What would henceforth happen beneath it would be up to the new leaseholders….in this case, a hat store whose smaller “LIDS” announcement can be seen in the 2012 image seen here. Several more years later, the neon tubing visible in this shot was also removed, still leaving most of the gloriously garish Marquard’s overhang intact, including its very West Coast promotion of the New York Times. This kind of half-a-loaf solution is becoming far more common in American cities, many of which are laden with buildings that can continue to cosmetically charm or educate, even as their original functions are either obviated or re-tooled. Movie theatres become live performance venues. Department stores become law schools. And cigar stores become landmarks, reminders of who we were just a few scant minutes ago.
I always feel privileged to photograph places that have been even partially saved from the wrecking ball. First, because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to the original local energy that birthed them. But more importantly, because, without the testimony of photographs, yesterdays become obliterated at ever greater speeds. Certainly taking just a little more time to properly say our goodbyes takes work. But as with any bittersweet task, there’s a little smile accompanying the tears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I COULD HAVE RETIRED VERY COMFORTABLY ON THE SUM CREATED BY EARNING A NICKEL for every time I’ve brought the wrong lens to an event. Few photographers want to spend a day sauntering around with every single hunk of glass they own strapped to their back, and so, in anticipation of a given happening, many of us choose one lens which probably will address most of our needs. You really feel like the Wizard Of Cameras when you guess right. And you “make do” when you guess wrong (and you will).
A recent political rally in Phoenix, Arizona for senatorial candidate Mark Kelly is an example of me bringing a knife to a gun fight. The venue was the large suburban campus of an area church, a place where I’d previously attended various get-out-the-vote events in the recent past and which I assumed I knew pretty well. I decided to use a 24mm wide-angle prime to get the attending crowd for the former astronaut into the shots, emphasizing the turnout, a strategy what would have worked in the smaller multi-function rooms where past meetings had taken place. Upon arriving, however, I realized that, since attendance was anticipated to be very high, the Kelly rally would instead take place in the church’s main tabernacle, a space roughly three times the size of the space I was accustomed to. Having no control over where I’d be seated, I found myself in a pretty cavernous room, quite a distance from the stage. The wide-angle was now going to emphasize my separation from the front, and, without the option for zooming, make facial work pretty nigh impossible. Bright idea, wrong tool.
I decided to snap away nonetheless, since, after all, Kelly was accompanied by his heroic wife, former Representative Gabby Giffords, who is still recovering from the attempt on her life during just such a gathering in Tucson in 2001. Her survival was largely a matter of luck and inches, along with the miraculous efforts of the attending surgeons, but, years after the gunshots have subsided, she is still adjusting to her new normal, which includes partial impairment of her speech and the effective loss of use in her right arm. The astounding grit that it takes to accompany Mark on the road in the selfsame gatherings that nearly cost her her life is enough to make God himself humble. I certainly couldn’t show the mental component of that struggle in what amounted to a few casual and technically limited snapshots, but, in reviewing the images later, I saw something that almost measured a bit of its surface effect.
In the shot you see here, Gabby has almost been introduced by the lady at the left and is preparing to come to the podium for a very brief exhortation to the crowd. She is seen setting her water bottle (a constant must in Arizona from March to October, even indoors) onto a table with her left hand. A perfectly ordinary gesture, until you realize that she’s doing so to free up the one good hand she has left, a hand that has, of necessity, become her go-to for writing, pressing the flesh with amazed crowds, and…. holding a microphone. Seconds after this was snapped, she walked up and made one of the characteristically short introductions that she has delivered for speakers across the nation since she was attacked, partnering in various life-affirming enterprises that have increased exponentially even as she has been forced to work from within a greatly reduced physical envelope. After Mark’s stump speech, the pair spent close to an hour posing for pictures and shaking hands with strangers. The vulnerability of the two in that setting was both inspiring and terrifying.
And so, even on a day when I made mostly bad photographic choices, I am grateful for this unremarkable picture of a remarkable team. I think I need to keep it close at hand the next time I am tempted to bellyache about….well, anything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ARE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TIME AND OPPORTUNITY MEET. The more one has the chance to see, coupled with the leisure to explore or appreciate the value of what one sees, the more a photograph has the freedom to breathe, to percolate, or indeed to happen at all. And perceiving when all these conditions are in play can lead to images that often were not on your original agenda, but revealed themselves while you were preparing to do “something else”. Let’s think of it as being divided into journey pictures and destination pictures.
The destination picture is, of course, the one we came to shoot, the task or target of the day. The journey picture makes itself manifest as we are on the way to the destination….walking, waiting, enduring detours or delays. Picture the destination as a mountain top and the journey as the steps up that mountain. We can visualize how great the view from the summit will be, but we can also learn to see opportunities at every stage of our upward trek. Eventually some of our favorite pictures are those we shoot of something else on the way. They may in fact be better than the destination shot we had in mind.
Walks along paths, views from connecting trains or buses, even, as seen in the above image, transitions between floors in stairwells may not be “about” something as much as our main photographic quarry. However, it’s short-sighted to think of only point “A” or point “B” as worthy of our attention, when things at point “A-plus-1/4” or point “B-minus-1/2” might also be viable. Remember what we said at the beginning about the meeting of time and opportunity. Consider the technique that accompanies our formal plan. We’d be likely to take all the time and shots we felt necessary once we’d ascended our imaginary mountain. We’d resist being rushed. We’d be eager to explore every angle, exposure and compositional choice. However, we can get into such a rush trying to get topside that we ignore any or all of the fruits available on our ascent, or we might be in some kind of self-imposed hurry that would prevent our slowing down along the way to seize many other chances. Certainly, it’s human to prioritize things, and so we arrive at many photographic sites with a list of things we must do, a list-making exercise that can shut down our full creativity, narrowing the flow of “acceptable” subject matter, turning an open mind into a kinked garden hose.
The shot you see here was actually a very instantaneous one, the keeper among three or four frames, and, unless you love stairs, the picture is not “about” anything per se: the subject matter, the story, is light. But look at the light there was to work with! It has gradations from yellow to gold to red to green: it reveals and conceals at the same time: and it’s such a great “explainer” of the marble texture that nothing else needs to be going on in the shot….it just is. Now, everyone is different. I myself could easily have missed this shot, fixated as I was on where I was heading and worrying about having enough time once I got there. But trying for this image only cost me seconds, yet it was time enough to pair with opportunity and give me…options. Learning to see is not only about having things register on the optic nerve: it’s also about learning to think editorially, discriminately. To being open. Looking back over the camera roll this came from, the thing I was scrambling up the stairs to shoot was actually a bit of a disappointment. The thing on the way was, in reality, a better way to spend my time, and exercise my eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL ENTER THE WORLD FREE OF ENTANGLEMENTS, but even the simplest lives end in piles of….leftovers.
Detritus. Collections. Memorabilia.
The Romans might have had the right idea about a lot of things). Their word for “luggage” was impedimenta. Things that get in your way.
The recent death of a very old, sick man near my neighborhood has had, for some reason, a uniquely personal impact on my heart. Perhaps because his passing was so slow, so silent, more like a long fade-out than a sudden curtain. Perhaps because people in the area had known so little about him until a large storage bin was parked in front of his house to haul out the accumulated props of his lifetime. Most of the objects were emotionally sterile, like the rolls of peeled-up carpet or the shell of an old bathtub, items with no plain backstory in evidence.
And maybe that was what was oddly riveting about watching each succeeding batch of rubbish being carted out. The sadness of seeing that an entire life might, finally, amount to just so much broken garbage, so many banal, unknowable things. Things that would reveal little or nothing about the man around whom they briefly orbited. Items that could be anybody’s….or nobody’s.
So I did what I always do. I made a picture of the storage bucket. And then the bucket was gone. The noise of things being removed became the drone and drill of an empty house being remodeled for someone else to use. To fill with his own junk.
Then, two days later, the organ appeared.
A Lowry Pageant electronic organ, complete with coffeecup-ringed stool, apparently considered too good for the trash heap. Perhaps a poll was taken by the workers:
Do you want it?
Not me, I don’t play.
Nah, I got no room.
Perhaps someone actually said, well, we can’t just throw it out...
This called for another kind of picture. A picture of an instrument that, at one time, would have set you back the price of a small car. One of the first home keyboard instruments made before synthesizers that came with its own custom rhythm beats. Make you a one-man band, it would. What was on the program? Great Hits From Broadway? The Old Rugged Cross and Other Beloved Hymns? The Carpenters’ Songbook? I realized that, photographically, I was in different territory now. After all, a couch is just furniture, but a musical instrument is personal. Turns out a straightforward 50mm lens was fine for the trash bin shot, but I wanted to find some way to make the Lowrey, camped on the curb in front of the old man’s house, appear more…important than the free-to-good-home takeaway that it was. I finally decided that, while my 24mm prime would exaggerate the organ’s angles with a little more drama, my Lensbaby fisheye would bump up the distortion even more, allowing his house to also make it into the frame. One thing was certain: time was of the essence. Free things, especially free working things, go quickly in this neighborhood.
Sure enough, four hours after I made the picture, the Lowrey, as well as the last vapor of memory of the old man’s life, was gone. I’d like to think that some relative, somewhere, has a snap of him at the keyboard in better days. Some way to tie the man to the remnant. That’s what photographs do: they start the gears of speculation. What else happened? What else is true?
All teased by images, but never really delivered. Photographs are proof to some, unreliable testimony to others.
In the end, I got my picture, and, for a little while, my sadness at the old man’s leave-taking was salved.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR PERSONAL APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHY MAY BE MORE ABOUT how to creatively break rules rather than faithfully follow them.
Your work may have become so instinctual or well-practiced that it might well feel as if there are no “rules”, since you so seldom get burned on the same things that others do. Or maybe you are so genuinely innovative that rules are more or less irrelevant to your style. Again, fair enough.
Bearing this in mind, we here at The Normal Eye seldom traffic in “ye musts” or “ye dare nots” because someone, somewhere will always make a sucker out of us by ignoring said commandments and suffering no heartache whatever.
That said, I have taken notice lately of an old recommendation that, whether you factor it into your photography or not, is worth a bit of discussion.
It’s the so-called Reciprocal Rule, although it’s at best a…recommendation. It largely applies to people who are using powerful zooms who are also looking to reduce image blur, and, boy howdy is it elementary. Basically the RR states that your shutter speed should always be at inverse proportion to your focal length. Shooting at 50mm? Use an exposure at least as quick as 1/50. Zooming all the way out to 300mm? Same system: start with a shutter speed of 1/300 as the slowest exposure benchmark. That’s it. Easy, peasy Aunt Loweezy.
Only nothing is ever that simple in real life, is it, kids?
The only reason the Reciprocal bears mentioning at all is because of the convergence of two main factors: the increasingly affordable crop of new, more powerful zooms, placing them in more and more hands: and the commensurate de-emphasis of tripods as a greater percentage of all images are shot handheld. In short, more of us are shooting at longer focal lengths than ever before, and fewer us are using pods as stabilizers. Thus, if you follow my decidedly fragile logic, there is a good chance that more of our telephoto images will contain some element of camera shake. Brighter minds than mine have done the math to illustrate just how much even minor movement is magnified as focal lengths increase. The Reciprocal Rule is supposed to address this, and it often does, although the shot at left is an example where it was utilized to the letter and still shows a little softness in the back half of the image. But even leaving my own iffy execution off to the side, there are other mitigating factors than can affect the relevance or effectiveness of the RR.
For one, you can adjust ISO so that your sensor gathers more light at quicker shutter speeds, in which case, even handheld, you could shoot fast enough to virtually eliminate shake. Then there’s the whole pick-your-position game involved in developing your own stance and grip. From sound geometric weight distribution to holding your breath, there’s a lot you can do to facilitate slower shutter speeds if you feel you need them. The option is far more trial-and-error, but if you’re the patient type, have at it. Finally, there is the luxury (still fairly recent) of owning lenses with built-in image stabilization, with which you can move the Reciprocal to the same musty corner of your mind occupied by the dates of your kids’ birthdays.
All of which goes to say that technology and technique can sometimes trump the need to adhere to photographic practices that were once sacrosanct, to turn yesterday’s “rules” into tomorrow’s “friendly suggestions”. Which, in turn, means making more pictures instead of making more mistakes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR AN ART DEDICATED TO SHOWING THINGS, photography certainly involves itself with concealment.
It wasn’t always that way.
Its original, nineteenth-century mission, which coincided with the reshaping of the world by the Industrial Revolution, seemed to be all about showing everything…the ancient and modern wonders of the world, vanishing peoples, emerging cities, the geological mapping of the globe. Optical technology was bent upon making lenses more sensitive, more accurate. Likewise, recording media, from glass to metal to celluloid sought the same goal: verisimilitude. Then, as twentieth-century art movements became more introspective and less documentary, photography itself became more interpretive and less like….a camera? Abstraction spread into the snapping of pictures as it had in painting. And, eventually, like painters, shooters learned not only the art of revealing but the art of saying more by saying less. That which was once revealed became creatively hidden or underplayed, with the viewer entering into a kind of contest/game with the photographer. What does this look like to you?
I call this process additive subtraction, the means by which the storytelling potential of an image is actually enhanced by taking visual information away. This can be done by underexposing, cropping, the manipulation of depth-of-field, you name it. The point is that something is deliberately done in the composition of a picture which keeps us from seeing “everything”, from merely recording the scene. What is left can transform or mutate the original subject…make it tease, haunt, even lie. Interpretative photography is about imposing some part of one’s self onto the image, a nudge that asks the viewer to go on a hunt with us. Who’s there? What is that? Why is that? And, most importantly, who’s to say?
In recent years, I have been working with selective focus as a means of sculpting my storytelling. Setting depth-of-field usually is a front-to-back process, deciding whether sharpness will occur near or away from the lens. Selective focus works a little differently with different objects that are often in the same focal plane exhibiting different degrees of sharpness, forcing the viewer to head over to the precise compositional territory we wish to emphasize. This nudging of the audience’s attention can be done subtly or with the force of a baseball bat, and it takes a great deal of patience to master the lenses (most of them fully manual) that deliver the effect. In crowd shots, I find that a uniformly sharp image might make all faces appear equal, when, in fact, some carry their “messages” better than others. So why not control which faces are important, which stories matter more, and which ones just happened to be in the neighborhood when the picture was snapped? In the image seen here, the women at the center of the shot seemed to be having a conversation, while everyone else around the desk seems involved with solo tasks. Selective focus allowed me to turn the surplus people into props. They’re indistinct because, to me, the story works that way. Seconds later, of course, the human “center” of the image might shift in another direction completely. It’s purely subjective.
Photographs are always assumed to be letting us in on a secret, when, in fact, they may be hiding one (or several) from us….for good or ill, depending on your view. But that’s the thing: it’s your view, your method of talespinning. You set the terms. That’s another way of coming back to the subtitle of this blog….the difference between taking and making a picture.
THE SPIRITUALIST POET WILLIAM BLAKE FAMOUSLY EXPRESSED HIS DESIRE to explore life in its smallest detail, to, as he put it in his poem Auguries of Innocence, “see the world in a grand of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me believe he might have made a great photographer.
It’s unlikely that Blake, who was also a wonderfully gifted graphic artist and who died in 1827, ever held a camera in his hand, but from the first generation of photographers there was a decidedly Blakeian urge to explore the world at the most intimate levels, engineering lenses that allowed maximum magnification and resolution of the vast stories lingering right under our noses. Today, as never before, macro photography is finally within the technical and financial reach of the many, allowing spaces that barely comprise inches to reveal the complexities that we stroll past without regard on a daily basis. And just as all of photography is about extracting pieces of reality from the larger flow of time, so macro is about drawing things out of their original settings, to dramatize the elegance of design and pattern, to create a separate stillness. That certainly is what appeals to me about shooting in the small world….the ability to take things so far out of their regular context that we are forced to consider them as if we were encountering them for the first time.
To be sure, close-up work comes with its own set of unique technical challenges, but what makes it worthwhile is its ability to deliver the shock of the new, to depict the eternities residing within Blake’s grain of sand. For many of us, this process of discovery reaches its fullest expression in floral or botanical subjects, since magnifying their contours is almost like a crash course in geometry or architecture. Petals, seeds, pistils, stamens, leaves…..all are rotating in their own incredible orbits as if they were bit players in Fantasia, fantastic ballets in which size (or rather the transformation of scales and sizes) really does matter. In terms of technique, even a practiced photographer can be frustrated by the special demands raised by magnification. Certainly light and focal relationships work differently, as well as stabilization of the image. Predictably, every error of movement or lens flaw is utterly exposed once everything is increased in size, resulting in a higher percentage of failed shots and near misses. Still, one’s first plunge into macro is like Alice’s initial entry into a realm where everyday objects magically shrink and expand without warning.
Blake, like all artists, understood that art transforms and re-translates all experience, re-defines how we view everything, allows us to show all ranges of life from dark to light, remarking in Auguries that “man was made for Joy & Woe / and when this we rightly know / thro the World we safely go” Photography gets the big things right…. by paying attention to the worlds within worlds. It really is a game of inches, sometimes atoms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
That’s the approximate number, in the digital era, of annual photo postings to the internet in a single year.
That’s a serious buncha digits. And a significant chunk of that staggering total comes from visitors to tourist sites and museums, many of whom, awestruck by the wonders in various collections, seek visual souvenirs of said wonders.
Except when they can’t.
Public attractions in the age of shared media are struggling to accommodate, regulate, or just plain rein in the photographic urge among their patrons. You can take pictures here, but not here. Here? Unsure, ask the guy in the uniform.
Flash? Selfie Sticks? Tripods? On the endangered species list. We have our reasons.
We don’t all have the same reasons, but still…
Full disclosure: I am a docent at a museum. I fully understand the various problems that come with allowing photography in the halls. For example, the collection at my joint could actually be damaged by flash, so we allow clickers to go flashless. We also have found that the more hardware the hardcore photog packs in, the greatest hazard to our exhibits and our patrons, so no selfie sticks or tripods. Ours is what I would call a negotiated policy. Other shops, as you yourselves may have already painfully learned, are more draconian, from the places where no one is allowed to take any pictures anywhere to sites like the Natural History Museum of Rwanda, one of the institutions which actually charges a fee for the privilege of snapping. Between those two end zones is a lot of open field. A quick look at the challenges from both sides:
Even allowing for the fact that flashes can actually damage some types of artifacts, regulating the no-flash rule requires extra policing and essentially stands or falls on the honor of the individual photographer. Then there’s the issue of the particular kind of shooter I like to call The Selfish Jerk, who will camp out in front of a statue or a painting to the discomfort of other paying guests, because he’s just gotta get The Shot. Some of these same nitwits also employ improvised gymnastics that could get the institution sued and could (and do) get the photographer dead. Ask the undermanned park employees at the Grand Caaaaaaaanyon. Then let’s consider the “keepsake” motive that makes some people want to take a bit of their favorite art home with them. Cameras are getting better at making more perfect representations of paintings and statuary. At the same time, museum gift shops enjoy a sizable revenue stream from poster and postcard images of their own collections. If everyone can make their own, that revenue goes away, a purely and understandably fiscal reason for institutions to say “no mas”. The claim has also been made that art piracy could be exacerbated by the use of cameras, but that argument is anything but settled.
To further muddy the waters, museums and other public sites are fighting a losing technological battle, since, for every super-obvious Canon or Nikon there are legions of tinier and tinier snap machines that are damn near undetectable. Should the institutions forbid the higher-resolution DSLRs (art thieves!!) and allow the more humble iPhones (harmless amateur!)? And then there’s the problem of universal enforcement of camera bans, which is, let’s face it, impossible. What’s the answer? Some reasonableness all around: reasonable policies that do allow pictures, with limits: reasonable guests who can be asked to leave if they contravene stated policies or, well, decency: and a reasonable attitude toward the positive publicity that online sharing of images can produce for your exhibits and institutions. After all, it’s hard to buck a trillion photos a year, even if only a couple of hundred billion of them are headed in your particular direction. Policies, from free-for-all to pay-for-play, must be rooted in the real world, or they’re not worth the paper they’re (maybe not even) printed on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABSTRACTION, our subjective representation of what we think things “really look like”…..operative word being “we”. But it’s also a process of extraction, of pulling a moment out of time’s flowing sequence and trapping it in amber. If life is a continuously unfurling roll of movie film, photographers specialize in stealing single frames of that reality, hoping we can make the argument that our frozen sample symbolically stands for the organic whole. If we make that argument successfully, we’re great photographers. I emphasize this obvious concept because we need to remain mindful of what’s going on every time we frame a shot. Occasionally we have minutes to make the decisions on what that frame will be. More typically, it’s seconds. And occasionally, it’s pieces of seconds.
Shooters already have to grapple with the fact that we are usually making static shots of constantly moving things. That’s one kind of motion. Then there is the secondary stress created by the fact that we ourselves are also moving. We snap from car windows, from escalators, from trains and subways, even while physically chasing our quarry in papparazi “run-and-gun” mode. Thus what is already a difficult sorting and choosing process is made even quicker and more crucial. The extractions in our pictures are based on a furiously fast analysis of what’s important, as well as what’s dispensable, within the frame. It’s also about a virtually instantaneous formula for what’s technically required to get the picture made. These decisions become a little easier with practice, but any comfort we’ve built up over the years can be quickly shattered when a different kind of photo opp presents itself, one which upends our usual or comfortable approaches. Then everything’s a race.
Urban images are especially challenging. Cities themselves are convulsing with steadily increasing change, altering the nature or terms of a potential picture in days or hours. Like old-time news shutterbugs, the urban photographer is truly on deadline. With that in mind, I take a shoot-it-or-lose-it stance when moving past anything I regard in a city as temporary, figuring that it is even more fleeting for me than it may be for other people. In any event, I always harvest everything I can physically shoot, and sort out the weeds later. The makeshift subway stop viewing window of construction along the 7 train line between Queens and Manhattan that you see here is gone by now, but the picture stays. Perfection? Hardly. But photography is also a game of percentages, and I am at least 100% happier for having made the attempt as not.
Nothing is revealed.—-Bob Dylan
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE YOUNG MAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH IS A DANDY. A FOP. A DUDE. A slave to fashion. A symbol of the impossibly proper British spirit. A remnant of the Edwardian age, teetering on the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a decade that will later seem uniquely American. But he is not an American. Not yet.
But he has dreams.
It is around 1920.
And he is my grandfather.
The photograph is formal, a studio portrait with someone else’s furniture and carpet suppled as homey props. His gaze is intense…too serious for a young man, some might think. And yet, of course, he will need all the determination that gaze implies to book passage, very soon, on the ship Mauritania (the Lusitania’s sister ship) and enter New York City through the thresher of Ellis Island, taking a train into the great midwest, to Lorraine, Ohio, where an uncle has vouched for his industry and loyalty. He will stay in his new country for the rest of his natural life.
The picture has come to me unexpectedly, just as you see it here, from a lost trove of family lore that my sister has kept for years, finally deciding that, with my archivist’s inclinations, I “might want to do something with it.” I have never seen this image over the course of my 67 years. And, yet, seeing it, I am struck by the strange double impact of photographs, these windows into “was” that reveal and conceal equally. It is, certainly, a treat to see my grandfather as this determined young man, to place him in the context of everything else that his life would hold afterwards. But the image is also absent nearly any context of its own. The back shows it to have been printed by a British postcard company, but the message portion of the card is gone, leaving several mysteries. Who was the intended recipient? If family, was the card to serve as a forever reminder of the boy who was just about to cross the Atlantic, never to return? And, if friend, what story is left untold between he and whoever? The card is inscribed with the word “effectionately” and his full name, not merely “Leonard”. Why the formality? Is it a clue to the relationship, or just the starchy propriety which we would later know to be his hallmark?
And then there is the outfit. “Fancy” is the word that comes to mind, with its formal bowler and short leather gloves. But therein lies a case of coloring the past with the sense of the present: in the age of torn cutoffs, flip-flops and selfies, we have lost all sense of what it was, around 1920, to “have one’s portrait made”. Certainly it was a rarer thing, an occasion. Even at the dawn of the Kodak-inspired age of candid photography, many millions of people around the world were still going to their mortal reward with their faces recorded but a few scant times by a camera, and many not at all. And now, to see this picture rise out of the mist, to show Grandfather as a real person with no connection (by that time) to anyone or anything else I have inherited as family legend, is to be teased by the fact that photographic interpretation does not cease with the shooter’s intention, of the way he chooses to show a thing. It continues infinitely through the eyes of other interpreters, who take the photographer’s “reality” and subject it to a scrutiny all their own. Revelation. Concealment. Discovery. Mystery.
He seems to be trying to appear older, just, as later, he would use clothing (always the top-drawer stuff) to appear military, dignified, taller, and, always, serious. I realize now that I never saw a truly candid photo of him, regardless of the occasion or setting. Every photo was a performance, a record, a testament. Leonard George Tate Perkins is a force to be reckoned with. I am nobody’s fool. Respect must be paid.
I am now paying that respect in a new way, forty years past his death, by looking into the face of that stern young dandy, and into the open secret that all photographs hold.
Think you see the truth?
Not so fast.