THE CURRENTS OF THESE STREETS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.
OPENING DAYS / CLOSING NIGHTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT HYPERBOLE TO SAY THAT THE GREAT HIBERNATION, our global banishment from our regular lives, feels a bit like living through a war. As in a traditional conflict, there are separations, sudden deaths, deprivations, and a feeling of “where have I been?” that accompanies our every venture outside our safe zones. So many of us have simply backed out of the flow of time that, as in times of war, we are startled by what has been altered or even vanished since the last time we cautiously emerged to explore the sites of our old existence. And that shock, in turn, informs all of our art, including, of course, photography.
The first thing that we notice is that so many things that were solid and substantial before we ducked under cover have been either greatly altered or completely vaporized. And the sensation is not limited to things that were already crumbling, but also includes things that were just becoming part of our world in the moments immediately before the lockdown. Places that just cut their ribbons of newness a heartbeat ago, but which already find themselves neutralized, obsolete. Of course, society is always closing chapters and tearing down buildings, in a cycle of goodbyes that seem almost normal, pandemic or no. But the toll created by our withdrawal from the daily parade also lists things that were just getting started, the space between their grand opening days and dark closing nights shrunk by circumstance . And our photographs of those things, taken either before or after these brief appearances, are poignant images of what might have been, a measure of the gap between our hopes and the ruthless randomness of this strange new world.
As one example, consider this image of Vessel, a bold (and controversial) open-air attraction that acts as a kind of visual rendezvous at the head of the massive new Hudson Yards district in Manhattan. Part sculpture, part observation deck, part tourist trap, the structure sits opposite the main entry to the Yards’ Public Square mall. Built at a cost of 200 million dollars, it rose to sixteen floors, honeycombed 154 flights of stairs, and became an instant hit with visitors, who were admitted via free but timed tickets. Vessel’s very bigness rendered its actual value as art moot; like the Eiffel Tower (to which it was compared) or Niagara Falls, it just was, and, in so being, became part of what you do when you “do” New York. It opened to the public in March of 2019.
You can guess a lot of what followed. As NYC locked down, retail took a major hit and retail on the massively ostentatious scale seen at Hudson Yards took an even bigger one. Leases were renegotiated, then abandoned outright. The project (still unfinished) that was designed to reconfigure an entire economic sector of the Apple was down on one knee. And something weirdly symptomatic of the times occurred with Vessel; people started to jump off of it to their deaths. Last month (January 2021), the structure was closed “indefinitely”, its term as a pet chunk of Americana capped at just under two years’ time.
I was lucky enough to photograph Vessel in person, creating day and night images that now seem as bizarre as launch-party pix of the Hindenburg or snapshots from Titanic. Photographers often catch a flavor of a time by accident, and many of our personal archives are populated by things we never thought of as perishable or mortal at the moment we shot them. Vessel is just one very public barometer of Dreams Gone Wrong, visions that deserve to be preserved inside our magic light boxes, either as tributes to our dreams or tombstones to our folly.
THE MAKING OF THE MOMENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
EASTMAN KODAK WAS THE FIRST COMPANY to truly democratize photography, taking it from a tinkerer’s hobby or the domain of the studio professional and placing it in the hands of the average consumer. A streamlined process for producing modestly-priced, easily operated cameras, as well as the introduction of roll film and standardized processing, made it possible for anyone to capture memories on a reasonable budget. To do this quickly, Kodak, well before 1900, also became one of the first and best early forces in the use of mass marketing. And one of the biggest pillars in the foundation of that effort was Christmas.
For the near decade that The Normal Eye has been in business, we have always dedicated one annual post to the nostalgia and pure brilliance of Kodak’s Christmas ad campaigns. Being a company that fostered the creation of indelible memories (the well-known “Kodak Moment”), the creators of the Brownie camera sold us not merely the means of making pictures, but the motivation for doing so, capitalizing on the special sentiment that permeates the holiday season. The question was not “should I buy a camera?” but “why aren’t you already taking pictures as fast as you can squeeze a shutter?”. The Eastman company achieved the ultimate goal for a manufacturer, that is, creating a market that had never existed before and inventing the means to fill said market. Using full color photographs in their magazine ads in the early 20th century, an era which was still typified by painted or drawn illustrations, the company showed people using their cameras to freeze-frame both special occasions and everyday events, all the while reinforcing the idea that going so was easy and fun.
And when it came to Christmas specifically, Kodak, well before 1920, developed two key ambassadors to drive home the message. First was the pre-cheesecake pin-up known only as The Kodak Girl, who was shown clicking off memories in a variety of settings, and featured on calendars, packaging, and roll-outs for new products. As a back-up, the company became one of the first to enlist Santa Claus himself as a pitchman, which even the wizards at Coca-Cola would not do until 1930. The combination was the stuff of dreams, as well as of profits. Kodak cameras were not merely another element of the Big Day; they were a guarantee that the Big Day would be a success. A great holiday was a nice thing, but a great holiday caught in pictures was on another level entirely.
Wish fulfillment, or the possibility thereof, is so woven into the appeal of photography, that, once cameras and film were standardized and simplified, the hobby really didn’t need a big nudge to become a worldwide habit, as it remains to this day. But, as they say in the ad biz, you must always be Asking For The Order, and lots of our hard-wired desire to Say It In Pictures was inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the medium, to the consumption of products. “Open Me First”, the tag on Kodak gifts asked in over a generation of seasonal ads, and we certainly did. The message was, and remains, you can’t call it a life event until you’ve started taking pictures of it. That is both photography’s curse, and its blessing.
ADVENTURES IN THE REEL WORLD
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available now from NormalEye Press)
IN 1939, THIS STRANGE CLAMSHELL-SHAPED OBJECT sneaked onto the photographic market as a souvenir of the New York World’s Fair, offering itself as a thoroughly modern version of the 19th-century stereopticon. Instead of a rectangular card, the gizmo contained a disc, inside of which were sandwiched seven matching pairs of color transparencies, one for each eye of a stereoscopically-abled human, and which, when held up to any light source, allowed the brain to blend the two slightly different versions of the subject into a convincing illusion of depth. Model “A” of the contraption, called a “View-Master” by its inventors, would, over the next eight year, allow armchair adventurers to travel the world without leaving their living rooms, seeing in each reel, as the advertisement went, “seven more wonders of the world.”
At this writing (December 2020), those ubiquitous little discs, about 1.5 billion of them so far, could easily circle said globe several dozen times, with the View-Master brand growing over the generations to include lighted viewers, talking viewers, models shaped like Mickey Mouse, Batman and Barbie, both two and three-dimensional projectors, study guides for surgical anatomy, sighting practice for WWII fighter pilots, and, by the second decade of the 21st century, even virtual reality headpieces linked to phone app content. The brainchild of postcard magnate Edwin Mayer and photographer William Gruber grew from primarily scenic travel titles sold in serious camera shops to one of the biggest purveyors of affordable kiddie entertainment, starting with View-Master’s first contract with Disney in the 1950’s and continuing with every major cartoon and movie tie-in since then, marketed mostly through major toy chains.
Over the years, the company passed through the hands of several corporations, from the original Sawyer’s optical company to GAF, then Mattel, Fisher-Price, and other firms major and minor. The venture into virtual reality of recent years, sadly, seems to have spelled the end for the product, which is, alas, finally too slow and low-tech for the world of 2020. As recently as last year, there was talk (and only talk) of a feature film based on VM, based on the proposition that, as with The Lego Movie, every classic toy has a big-screen blockbuster lurking inside it, if only you look hard enough. Turns out…no.
But I must shed at least a quiet tear at View-Master’s demise, given that it was the product’s seductively scenic “packets” that initially excited me about the idea of making my own pictures. Those cramped little squares taught me a lot about what to include or exclude in a composition for minimum clutter and maximum narrative impact. Decades later, I even managed to scavenge a View-Master stereo camera (yes, there were such things) and a Stereo-Matic 500 projector, allowing me to come full circle, both shooting and projecting my own reels in 3-D (thus pre-paying my Geek Insurance for the next foreseeable lifetime). More importantly, the dozens of VM shooters (most of them uncredited in their lifetimes) who covered everything from the Grand Canyon to the moon landing over 81 years informed the way I approach the very idea of photography. The lessons were simple; make something beautiful; tell a story; and keep looking around the next corner, for, who knows, seven more wonders of the world.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S ACCUMULATED ARCHIVE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is largely an inventory of the vanished. Some of these subjects have an abstract quality that allows them to survive specific eras, but many photos are, in fact, testimony to things that are, simply, no more. Some of these records are accidental, since we mostly turn our lenses on things and people that are active factors in our daily lives, giving little thought to how antique they will appear in just a few years’ time. Sometimes, we mark the departure of things on purpose, shooting the occasional deserted factory or abandoned church. We chronicle the end of our worlds wherever we detect it. We snap when things have stopped.
But there is another kind of stopping which defines much of our life at the close of 2020; the temporary kind, the suspension of normal rhythms, symbolized by empty schoolyards, locked buildings, places that will be, as the signs promise, re-opening soon. Our “closed for the duration” cities echo old newsreels from the Great Depression, which show boarded-up mills, vacant stores, and idled farms as symbols of failure, despair. Photographically speaking, there is something poignant about looking into spaces that were designed to hum and teem with life that are, for the moment, forced into silence. Teachers in recent interviews have pined for the noise and confusion of the classroom, while city dwellers who thought they’d never live long enough to “have a little peace around here” now walk deserted streets with unease. You, like myself, have probably had occasion to document the desolate places in your own neighborhoods, places not closed forever, but closed until whenever, which, in some ways is lonelier. In the above image, what could be more upside down than a greenhouse, a building literally created to nurture life, being placed in lockdown?
Life, like water, seeks its own level, and as the world collectively holds its breath, we find ourselves anticipating the next great sigh, that easing off of breath that means that window shades can be raised, lights can switch back on, and doors can swing open. We know that life after wartime is inevitable. Until then, we document the emptiness, because, in time, those pictures, too will impart their lessons.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU FIRST READ THIS POST, the events of The Horror Year 2020 may well already have sealed the fate of the establishment I write about today. The perishability of current events is one of the reasons that, over the last decade, I have almost completely kept “news” items out of the pages of The Normal Eye. Such stories age worse than limburger in the hot sun, and I have mostly chosen to address the eternal questions that affect photography, those universal struggles that occur in every age, regardless of what’s on the front page on any given day.
But part of photography is always about that very perishability, the race to document or capture things before they vanish beneath the tides of time. And so I find myself calling attention to what is, at this moment, a poignant by-product of the Horror Year. On the surface, it’s just about the potential closing of a bookstore, hardly worth a ripple in the tragic tsunami of business failures and bankruptcies that are the persistent drumbeat of our current time. On another level, it’s about one of the most familiar and venerable of bookstores anywhere in America, the Strand in New York City, an establishment whose very existence symbolizes survival. Once part of a glorious 44-store district in the city known as Book Row, The Strand, at age 93, is the last man standing, its 2.5 million volumes serving as not merely a commercial concern but a community center, a cultural touchstone in the life of Manhattanites. Under the care of Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of the founder, the Strand, in this Season of the Plague, has crawled through the first months of the pandemic with some federal help, but, at this writing, it faces nothing short of extinction, and just this week, in October of 2020, the store has posted appeals to current and former customers around the world…a desperate S.O.S. that simply says, if you love us, save us. Within twenty-four hours of the story going public, the store’s website was so flooded with responses that it crashed.
And there my crystal ball goes dark. At the time of this writing, I can’t predict whether you, the someday reader, are smiling because the Strand has been saved or shedding a quiet tear at its passing. The one reason I felt compelled to cite a fast- moving news story at all in this forum is that it reminds me why we make pictures of things in the first place. Because they close. They fade. They burn. They fall to enemy bombs. To floods. To negligence. To our own failed memories. Photographs are one of the only hedges against the dread onslaught of temporal decay. And they themselves are also subject to that rot, becoming lost, left behind, forgotten. Beyond mere “souvenirs” of lost times, they are soul-venirs, testaments of times ago. For this reason, I went rooting this week through my old images of the Strand from the last twenty years. None of them are masterpieces, but all of them are markers, headstones for a time, and a condition, and a way of life, not only for New York but for your town, my town. Time is fleeting. Therefore make pictures. Sometimes, as Yogi Berra famously said, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but even a smudged shadow of history may someday be all we’ve got. Better to grab a box and go shadow-catching.
HEADING DIRECTLY FOR OBSCURE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’RE OFTEN TOLD, WHEN PLANNING TO SHOOT A GIVEN SUBJECT, to “set an intention”, to draft some kind of approach to the task, both to save time and avoid disappointment. You’ve seen the mental checklist: what kind of lens, camera, angle, framing, etc. will yield the best results? So making up your mind is Job One in a lot of photo tutorials. Fine. However, it’s what you do once you change your mind, or, in effect, junk your original plan, that can present real opportunity.
In driving around a neighborhood I hadn’t visited for a while near a small municipal airport, I discovered that, since I’d last been there, they’d erected a multi-story memorial to all the pilots from various conflicts who had used this particular airfield for training purposes. Appropriately enough, they’d hung a beautifully restored example of one of the most popular trainers of the 30’s and ’40’s, a Boeing Stearman 75, the craft that taught hundreds of World War II-era air jockeys how to fly. Built near the twilight of the biplane area, these agile and cheap little crates, nicknamed “yellow perils”, were a vital part of the history of aviation, and the one seen here is a gorgeous specimen. I’d planned to make the standard museum-post-card view of it, using the buttery texture of a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens to add a slightly dreamy look. It wasn’t a hard shot to make and I made it.
It was later, however, during several walk-arounds, that I decided to try a non-objective, more abstract approach, not to merely document the plane, but in the spirit of history and myth, to suggest it, rather like a dream or a memory. The slight distortion and color shifts in a window reflection of the plane, combined with just a fragment of the actual craft, seemed to suggest speed, but to also render the plane in a kind of mystical way, as something shifting, vanishing, appearing and re-appearing. Hardly a postcard rendition, and yet I’m glad I gave it a try. The plane that’s physically here is glorious, to be sure, while the hallucination of the plane is transitory, like the era that produced it, like the names inscribed on the memorial’s explanatory plaque.
Planning your shots ahead of time is comforting, and truly helpful in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. But just because photographs can depict things in a fairly “real” fashion doesn’t mean you have to be anchored to that one way of seeing. Plan “B” can be as exciting as “Plan A” if you let your brain ( and, in turn, your camera) go with the flow.
REQUIEM FOR A DIVE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LENGTHY TIME-OUTS, whether imposed by illness, separation, or the combination of both that we find ourselves presently enduring, limit our ability to create new experiences, but they do provide ample space for deeply breathing in the vapors of old ones. If, like me, you’ve found yourself reviewing a lot of old images, either to burn time or enrich your memories, then you’re bound to stumble across pictures of more than a few things or people that make the photographs truly poignant, because the subjects they depict are simply….gone.
Not just gone from your reach or your convenience, gone as in destroyed, razed, demolished. Victims of “progress” or disaster. Casualties of time or carelessness. Locales that recall amazing days with friends, or lonely nights of longing. Places that are so gone that a photo is the only testimony to them ever having existed. I don’t know why so many of these places, for me, are joints; remote watering holes, out-of-the-way dives with no distinguishing charm or saving grace. The word bar is far too exalted for grungy little crevices such as those that I most dearly cherish. The decor ranges from random to desperate. The menus are the stuff of dyspeptic nightmares. The customers inhabit some purgatory between Damon Runyon’s subterranean sharpies in Guys ‘n’ Dolls to the sweat-soaked retreats of defeated fighters to the hidey-holes of lost souls. And I have done my best, in rotten light and good, with or without the management’s blessing, to do them justice with whatever camera I have had handy.
The place you see here used to grace a dusty stretch of rural biker retreats north of Scottdale, Arizona collectively known as Greasewood Flats, and, take it from me, both the food and drinks did the name proud. No pink cellophane toothpicks in your girly cocktails here, dearie. We came to drink until we need help sorting the denominations of the beer-soaked bills out of our wallet, till the door to the parking lot becomes a major navigational negotiation. Sadly, the Flats fell to the wrecking ball a few years ago, and I have yet to summon the courage to see what civilized nonsense occupies the land today. I only know that I can still smell the burgers (broiled outside over big pits, then walked inside), and I will never be able to hear Dwight Yoakam again without a distinct pang.
But I got the picture.
So here’s a toast to whatever divine dives or forgotten apartments or first girls your pictures bring back into your heart in these long, long days. They are good companions and good friends. And powerful. Because other than a great picture, only a good friend can really make you cry.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.)
SOMEWHAT BEYOND “WE’RE OPEN”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S RIFFED THROUGH EVEN A MODEST SAMPLING of my photography will soon deduce that I am a sucker for storefronts. If eyes are the window to the soul, the street-facing faces of businesses great and small are my favorite kind of mystery game. Who dwells within? What’s for sale? Why that name? Why this sign? And of course my insatiable curiosity about the lives of the people who bravely flip over the “open” sign every morning. Long before the customer steps inside to check out a merchant’s wares, he is “asked for the order”, so to speak, by the visual language of the storefront.
I once knew a gent whose urban shop had an enormous double showcase windows, a space far too big for the mounting of anything large or expensive. As the windows, which flanked his front entrance, both had shalow ledge shelves, he filled them with about a half dozen black rubber cat-toy rats. Nothing else. No signs, no specials, no mannequins. Just….rats. Guy was an exterminator, and he had been in his particular neighborhood for so long that he no longer needed to blow money on fancy advertisements or weekly specials. Maybe his name was on the building, but I’m not even sure of that. Got rats? I get rid of rats. End of story.
And there you have my quest in a nutshell. I love storefronts which boldly state that ground beef is going for $1.40 a pound or that “we repair any shoe”, but my absolute favorites are always the conundrums, the “exactly what is this place”-type businesses, where even a creatively decorated scheme is zero clue as to what is transpiring within….sort of like the shop seen here. And, yes, there are some tiny clues that Eyes On You is a place that sells glasses, as there are, indeed, a few of them just visible in a small niche in the right-hand windows. But what is all that other stuff? And what does it have to do with selling, well, anything? It doesn’t matter; half the fun, as the cruise lines used to say, is getting there, and decoding the marketing mysteries of small businesses is fun in the way that a brisk game of Twenty Questions can be. Photographs, as we often remind ourselves, both reveal and conceal….sometimes at the same time. Loving where and when that happens is the spice of the game.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD KID
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FORTUNATE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THERE AREN’T MORE THAN A FEW WRITERS IN THE WORLD who can render a sense of place, of emotional truth, or of vivid detail as effectively as did Pete Hamill, the peerless New York journalist who passed earlier this week in this, 2020, the year of the Great Hibernation. Indeed, if the world was more generally peopled with people of his skill and passion, there would be no need of cameras. None.
This little hometown newspaper has, over the years, offered up brief sketches of the great shooters, from Walker Evans and Ansel to Diane Arbus, as well as gifted amateurs like Lewis Carroll. But this week, in my grief over the passing of a man who was a stranger to me personally, but, just as personally, as important as a blood relative, I realize that he, too, must be enshrined in a gallery of people who mostly shone in purely visual terms. Because, for those who live in and love the greater New York area, William Peter Hamill, Jr. did everything a good photographer strives to do, creating many images on the page that rival anything that even the best shooter could create.
Pete’s career as a columnist, novelist, essayist and teacher is the stuff of solid legend, but others have a far greater handle on the details of that story than I, like the New York Times, whose obituary on him is offered here. What I am talking about, in this forum, is the way he rendered the streets of Manhattan and the outer boroughs for those who had never had the privilege to walk them in person. He knew those streets the way a mother of twelve knows her kids…their names, their birthdays, their talents, their torments. In a city that never stands still long enough to linger over memory, Pete could dig through the strata of centuries in any neighborhood on the island, drilling all the way down to the gray schist that the Dutch stepped onto at the beginning of the entire mad experiment. Peeling those layers apart, he could place the territories of any immigrant from any tribe; where they landed, where they wandered, where they built legends, where they perished. In Hamill’s hands, the word nostalgia did not merely mean a sentimental ache for things lost or demolished. Certainly he kept score on what the city had sacrificed in its everlasting dash toward The Next Big Thing, but it was the details beyond mere longing that made his stories sing. It was what made him an indispensable guide for Ric Burns’ epic New York PBS miniseries, and Downtown: My Manhattan as indispensable a tool for newcomers as the Fodor’s travel guides. And it was what made even his darkest accounts of things great and small elicit, in the reader, a wry smile of recognition. “The tragic sense” he observed with true Irish fatalism, “opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present.”
Like a photographer, Pete Hamill knew how to compose a frame to make your eye go directly to the most important thing. He knew where to lavish light and where to accent with darkness. He felt the value of negative space. He had a photo editor’s instinct for where to wield the cropping scissors. And he realized that the best human stories are simple, universal, direct things. Pete did with a Royal what the greatest photographers do with a Leica, but the result was the same. Immediacy. Truth. And the wisdom to ensure that his readers would always see The Big Picture.
SNAPS FROM THE STONE AGE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU GET NO ARGUMENT FROM ME if you make the claim that photographic portraits are lies. I can’t see how they could be anything else.
Well, maybe the word lie is too negatively loaded, so let’s use faulty. Faulty works because both subject and photographer are up to some little games, conscious or no, once the camera comes out. They pose. We enhance. They edit out unwanted emotions. We choose the “real” image from several “failed” frames. Most importantly, we influence the results with either an overabundance of knowledge, and bias, regarding the subject, or with the opposite….a completely raw ignorance of who, really, is in front of our lenses. This is the natural subjectivity that we bring to photographing anything, and it is by putting our individual interpretation on it that we get something we call “art”.
At this writing, a storm is raging over what constitutes an appropriate portrait subject in a medium that far predates the camera…stone. Statues are the snapshots of the ancients, and, because of the human factor involved in their sculpting, they are as biased and distorted as anything that comes through a modern lens. Either the sculptors were commissioned by people who had a point to make, or else they themselves decided to make said point. These honorific slabs are idealizations, no less than a heavily Photoshopped portrait of a cute infant. No one ever set out to create a statue that made the subject appear weak, or hateful, or anything less than glorious, and such a baseline bias means the results will be skewed, from the figure’s rippling muscles to his chiseled jaw to his resolute gaze to the way he sits a horse. For good or ill, a statue is an artistic attempt to create perfection out of a mix of fact, legend and marble.
Problem is, once the real person who inspires a sculpture vanishes from the earth, the statue becomes the only record of him, flawed or not. In the age of photography, we can do some comparison shopping when formulating our concept of, well anyone. Picture “A” makes him look happy, but he was drunk when we snapped Picture “B”, he was morose in Picture “C” and, hey, Picture ‘D” is really gorgeous isn’t it? We can, in the present day, get a visual average of what someone is like, even though all of the many pictures of them may also contain false information. But statues are different. Their single view of a person’s life encourages us to learn less, to accept the official version of that person, to see History’s rough edges rounded off. Statues outlast context and when new context is applied to them, we may find we don’t actually like them very much….or that they remind us of something in ourselves that we don’t like, or both.
The National Statuary Hall, seen here, is inside the U.S. Capitol building and contains two figures from each of the fifty states. Google a listing of the statues and ask yourself which ones you personally would nominate for demolition. Maybe they all pass muster throughout the shifting centuries. Maybe some will, or deserve to, fall. But what makes any portrait live or wither is context, and anyone deciding what art is “unacceptable” must also become a diligent student of that context. We constantly create untrustworthy images with our cameras, and we think we know how those faces will hold up before future audiences. But time has a way of making us all look foolish, perhaps rightly so. What’s required in all cases is distance, balance, and humility.
LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE SENSE, THE GLOBAL LOCKDOWN OF 2020 has created the biggest simultaneously experienced event outside of a world war. The advertising slogans are right: we really are in this altogether. On the other hand (thinking purely like a photographer), the way we all go through this is often solitary, hidden from mass view. Many of our struggles are not waged in the public eye, which is where so many amazing images are born. Instead, we are living with a mass event without the mass reactions.
And so, yes, I miss crowds. Audiences. Throngs. Multitudes cheering, crying, yearning, celebrating. Because photographs of those instantaneous, shared emotions are, in themselves, deeply affecting, sometimes more so than whatever the crowd is actually reacting to. A static picture of a guy cranking a bat around to send a homer over the back fence is one thing, while the backdrop of amazed thousands seeing him do so takes the photo to a completely different level. Certainly, we all crave solitude, as a measure of what is most personally affecting or shaping us, and photographs borne of those feelings are undeniably poignant. But in this time of general-suffering-individually-contained, we are robbed of the pictures that actually show us all being in it together. Consider the opening to the old 1950’s Superman series. It’s not that a guy is flying right over your head: it’s that you’re in a crowded street full of people all having your minds blown simultaneously. Look! Up in the sky……
The aftermath of a rainstorm over the Hollywood Hill, seen here, would have been gorgeous all by itself. But what makes me love this picture most is the fact that everyone gathered here (actually visitors to Griffith Observatory, which points the opposite direction, and packs its own killer view, of downtown L.A.) has been struck by the same wonder at the same time. We are all, for a few moments, one person. For just a few seconds, nothing is as important as what we’re seeing and feeling, together.
There will be a time, again, when images will be made of us all emerging from this shadow, all blinking our collective eyes at the strange sensation of walking back into the sunlight. And yes, there will, in the anxious interim, be news footage of us cramming like crazed ants into beach bars or partying heedlessly in crowded streets. But that brief surge of manic novelty won’t be the real picture. The real picture will occur when honest cameras register the genuine joy of not just getting back out but getting back to each other, and pointing skyward to ask, “is that a bird? A plane…?”
A MILITIA OF MILLIONS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WERE NO CAMERAS IN THE WORLD when America fought the first war on its soil, leaving mostly paintings of generals on horseback as a visual chronicle of the struggle. Now, in our latest war, also on our soil, there are millions of images created each day that strive to comprise a pictorial narrative of the unfolding tragedy. But more is not necessarily more: when the final battle has been fought, there will still be oceans of pictures missing from the saga, stories still left untold.
Perhaps it’s the nature of this very strange conflict, fought not against combatants with rifles but against Nature itself, which makes the pictures come so hard. Now, there is no visible demarcation between soldier and civilian: there is no designated field of combat, but thousands of little ones, many of the clashes and outcomes unseen, the casualties themselves vaporized in a fog of grief. And yet we struggle for any kind of visual measurement, some yardstick by which to measure our pain. The task may be beyond the power of any camera, at least any of which we’re aware.
I’ve been searching over the past few days through my own stacks for the above image, because, being of a revolutionary-era churchyard in Boston, the markers shown are literally those among the first to fall in that earliest of American wars. Given that the inscriptions on the tablets have been almost totally effaced by time and the elements, I consider these monuments symbolic of the strangely imposed information blackout we are all under regarding today’s citizen soldiers, many of whom vanish from our mist without formal lists, monuments, or in all too many cases, even a human goodbye. Like the data once stored on these blank slates, our true talIy of sorrow has been edited, censored by fate.
I feel that, in the year 2020, the meaning of Memorial Day has been unalterably changed for me, and for everyone in our dread new militia of millions. Many of the fallen were not drafted, nor did they volunteer, and yet they have been conscripted by destiny in a way that is fully consistent with those whom we normally honor on this day. Many may never be inscribed on a monument that our children may visit on a school field trip: their faces will, in many cases, escape our cameras. Many more will never be interred with a flourish of folded flags or the reassuring regimen of military pomp. Still, over the coming years, watching ourselves and other survivors remember the fallen may inspire us to create new kinds of images, scenes that we can scarecely dream of at present. As with those headstones from our first days of passage, we need to retain what symbols we can of what we have lost, seeking in time to fill in the rest, to develop the remainder of the picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.
We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.
What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?
I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.
THE “DELETEDS” CATALOG
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE 1985 DISCOVERY OF THE WRECK OF THE TITANIC by Robert Ballard tested the talents of experts from as wide a range of specialities as the objects found in the doomed ship’s debris field. Some of the things found on the floor of the Atlantic were readily identifiable to the casual observer: chandeliers: cases of wine bottles: chairs. Cataloging others required the trained eyes of cultural historians, people versed in the daily world of 1912. The everyday becomes the exotic in very short order in the modern world. And one of the tasks for photographers is having these quotidian objects sit for their portraits before they pass, swept along in an ever-accelerating tide of change.
You read about stunts in which common bits of household clutter from just a few decades ago are shown to millennials or teens, many of whom puzzle over what the object did, or was for. To be sure, going all the way back to, say, a rotary dial telephone could confound more than a few of us, but in these demonstrations, some young people have been stumped by iPods. Part of what brings a thing to the commercial market is the style it takes to catch the customer’s eye. If that typically fleeting style proves consistent with the object’s function, the thing may survive long enough to be a classic. Other such gizmos are transitional, the things given to us “on the way” to something more essential.
The recent Grand Hibernation we’re all under has made photographers reassess lots of things. What’s a fitting thing to make a picture of? What among our tools is still vital to our art, versus mere collected clutter? And, in the inevitable house-cleaning sparked by all this surplus time, what’s to be done with all the things we no longer use but for which we might harbor some residual affection? Should we mark their passing with a photograph? Should we create a “deleted” catalog of some kind? Is there anything to be gained or taught by doing so?
My favorite photographs often turn out to be the very ones I wondered the most about…that is, arguing with myself about whether they should be made at all. In the case of the Sony D-2 “Discman” you see here (circa 1988), I can’t say it was the first such device ever made for the purpose of making compact discs a portable and private habit, but it certainly influenced my own decision to turn away from vinyl (“heresy” I hear you hipsters hissing), and that, in turn, changed utterly the kind of music consumer I would become going forward. For some, the earlier, cassette-based “Walkman” was that moment. I just never embraced taped formats for a variety of reasons.
So this image represents a point at which I went from a rotary phone to a push-button? Craft your own analogy, and find the objects that, before they vanished, served as pivot points in your own life. Throw them out or tenderly tuck them back into storage for another day. But look at a few of them with a photographer’s eye. You may be far enough removed from them to see something new.
FROM ONE CHAMP TO ANOTHER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO GREATER THRILL IN PHOTOGRAPHY than when one scores what is often disparagingly called “a lucky shot”, a term that’s usually applied by other teeth-gnashers whose luck wasn’t running on that particular day. To be sure, there are times when fortune seems to play the decisive role in the success of a picture, but, in truth, just as there are no coincidences, there are also no pure accidents….that is, shots that were totally a matter of good luck. I don’t believe that skill, strategy or vision are ever completely absent from a good photograph. We always stamp something of our experience and technique onto the process to some degree.
Which brings us to a classic example of a great photograph that has long been saddled with the tired “lucky shot” label. The story carries a little extra cachet because of the players involved, to wit:
When Frank Sinatra managed to wangle ringside tickets for the hottest event on earth, the 1971 Frazier-Ali fight at Madison Square Garden, he was already calling in every chit he had for the privilege of merely being in the house. What’s more, he wasn’t seated with the “regular” high-rollers, the Diana Rosses and the Streisands, who had, let’s admit, pretty premium seats to “the fight of the century”. He was right at the canvas’ edge…..a sub-set of celeb juice beyond the reach of standard juice, prime real estate that was typically comprised of the press pool photographers. And Frankie had figured out how to crash that little party, baby.
There seems to be some disagreement, all these years later, as to exactly how Sinatra approached Ralph Graves, the managing ediitor of Life Magazine, about the possibility of sitting with the other shooters and cranking off shots with his own camera. After all, Graves had plenty of talent assigned to the fight, so why would he need more shots by an amateur? Amazingly, Graves actually seems to have taken a “what do we have to lose” attitude toward Sinatra’s snaps, saying later that, although he was ankle deep in Life images, “it’s nice to have a horseshoe inside your glove.” Whatever the precise terms, Frank was in.
Whether for publicity or artistic reasons, Life decided to use five Sinatra images instead of their own, featuring four in an inside article written by Norman Mailer and the coveted cover shot, with byline. A few carpers complained that if the same pictures were taken by Joe Schmoe no one would have given them a second look, which is where the dreaded “lucky shot” dig was first applied, as if a goat with the right camera could have taken as good a picture. No matter. History is written by the winners, and, while Frank Sinatra never saw a gallery exhibition dedicated to his photographic “body of work”, the pictures still stand on their own. And we all go on pretending that luck has no part in our own wondrous art, that there is some mystical power we possess that the unanointed do not.
Meanwhile, I wonder what kind of pictures Streisand might have captured?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOSE OF US WHO HAVE BEEN UNDER QUARANTINE FOR A VERY BRIEF TIME have learned how quickly our concept of “reality” becomes almost abstract. The immediate and local evidence of our senses, our measure of the smaller environments we currently inhabit, become the measure of all actuality, with everything else in the outside world growing less and less concrete. We imagine what the battlefields of the disease look like: we speculate about how much of the greater world has been warped or scarred beyond recognition. But our view of what lies beyond our own four walls can quickly become like a dream. Or a nightmare.
That’s why, even with a fairly regular resurfacing for errants or exercise, the photographer in me can look at things that were formerly almost invisible with new eyes. The formerly commonplace becomes the extraordinary. And because nothing is quite as it was, we are drawn to drastically update our approach to the everyday. In the case of this week’s trip to a local park, I was immediately struck by how normal everything, and everybody, looked. I almost expect the landscape beyond the house to resemble the bombed-out streets of London, during the blitz, and when it looks like, for example, just a park full of people walking, biking, or playing, it’s even more jarring than if the whole thing looked destroyed. I wanted to try to photographically render that feeling of unreality, of being in a dream state.
I decided to try to shoot these, for lack of a better word, “real” scenes in an unreal fashion, using a Lensbaby Single Glass Optic shot wide open at f/2. Now, with any lens, this huge aperture means a very shallow depth of field, but this particular piece of glass adds its own artifacts. It’s a bit of a time machine, a throwback to the way lenses used to operate for everyone. It’s uncoated, for one thing, meaning that the usual factory treatment that now helps lenses avoid color fringes and flaring are deliberately left off, allowing these “mistakes” to be captured rather than prevented. The lens’ incredible softness is actually a fairly focused image beneath a thick overlay of glow, or what we used to call the “Vaseline” effect. This gauzy look is most pronounced at the edges but adds a very warm look to the entire frame. The pictures made with such a lens are also very high in contrast, with everything registering as either a high or deep, deep color. Details are sacrificed in favor of a hallucinatory, painterly result. And then there’s exposure. Here in sun-abundant Arizona, I had to shoot very fast, almost 1/4000 sec.
Finally, there was a distinctly personal reason for making these pictures in this way, as there always is for any photographer. We try to craft the re-creation of a world we “see”, whether that world is a hopeful or horrible one. And so these pictures represent an article of faith. In the face of the millions of images we are currently seeing of loss, horror, and fear from all around the world, we must remind each other that sacrifice, honor, and, yes, an occasional moment of fun are also “part of the world.” Call it Reality 2.0.
The beta version.
WHEN ALFRED MET GEORGIA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH BEING ROMANTICALLY SMITTEN IS NOT A PREREQUISITE for being a great photographic portraitist, I firmly believe that the very best of them are, indeed, lovers…..or at least in love with a mysterious something that informs their work. From treasuring humanity so much that they breathe empathy into their candid street work, or loving an individual in a way that can only be satisfied by turning that someone into an ideal bit of moldable clay, portraitists are a bit possessed, fervently dedicated to showing something only their affection can let them see. It seems perfectly normal now for cameras to fall head over heels over faces. So inevitable, so logical. And yet the camera and the face had to have their own early days of courtship.
One of the earliest and most fascinating muses in photographic history was herself an artist, a soul so amazingly unchained and boundless that the natural, if perverse, reaction to it was to try to imprison it inside a box. The face of the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was not classically beautiful, but upon meeting her in 1916 at an exhibition, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a man whose enthusiasm helped to launch dozens of art careers beyond his own, was knocked cold. After years as the promoter of the Pictorialist movement and editor of the revolutionary art publication Camera Work, Stieglitz had, in his own estimation, become disconnected from his own photographic instincts. Stuck, if you will. O’Keefe, twenty-three years his junior, and as close to the embodiment of the phrase “free spirit” as you can imagine, unstuck him. Between 1917 and 1937, often as a sidebar to their famously torrid relationship, Alfred made over one hundred portraits of her, posing her in every setting, mood, and level of intimacy. Many of the images were nudes or partial nudes, but all of them were Stieglitz’ attempt to hone his own style to its purist form, to see O’Keefe as the ultimate object and subject. Writing to a friend, he described the opportunity and the challenge Georgia had brought to his work:
I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind.—No humbug.—No sentimentalism.—Not old nor new.—It is so sharp that you can see the pores in a face—& yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person—heads & ears—toes—hands—torsos—It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.
Stieglitz also promoted O’Keefe’s own art in shows at his legendary 291 gallery and in a mixed show of photographers and painters entitled Seven Americans. Some of his most intimate portraits of O’Keefe were exhibited at the time as well, often with no attribution as to the name of the subject. Over the years, Alfred and Georgia’s relationship was as uneven as it was ardent, with Stieglitz having an affair after they were married, only to later see O’Keefe have a dalliance with the very same person several years later. Eventually, the combined tensions of their competing careers, issues of fidelity, and their gravitation to very different geographic art destinations (O’Keefe’s New Mexican desert versus Alfred’s beloved Manhattan) spelled the end for the marriage. Eventually, in history’s typical pattern, it is the art, rather than the artist, that survives.
And what Stieglitz had shown, early on in the 20th century, was what photographs created by a person possessed might look like, what portraits that were ignited by the heart might aspire to. I relate to this idea strongly in the case of my own work, which has been informed and often expanded by having my wife for a muse. In learning all the facets of her face, I in turn learn more about the secrets behind all other faces. I understand the spark that snapped when Alfred met Georgia, and I look for those fabulous fireworks every time I myself snap a shutter.
FRESH OUT OF THE OVEN
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
COLLISIONS OF CONVENIENCE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.
That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.
Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.
And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.
October 18, 2020 | Categories: Americana, Composition, Conception | Tags: Commentary, Street Photography | Leave a comment