the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Americana

ONE OF US

The final approach to Coit Tower is shielded by a dense shroud of trees.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OF THOSE WHO REGULARLY BRAVE THE KNEE-CRUNCHING, 275-FOOT TREK up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, a promontory in a city that is, itself, a sea of promontories, many make the pilgrimage for the privilege of filing into a circular tub of a mausoleum that houses the central core of Coit Tower. Since 1933, this white, streamlined concrete shaft, looking over the bay from atop the archly hip North Beach neighborhood, has been visible from anywhere in the greater SF area, now resembling a lighthouse, now looking more like the topper on some important tomb. Built in honor of a local character named Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who chased fire engines to local blazes and used her inherited wealth to fund a memorial to what we now call first responders, the 210-foot tower is, on the outside, the curiosity of but a few minutes. But inside, it’s a great place to watch people. People watching other people. People from every craft and trade on the earth, their vanished world enshrined in the brightly-hued murals that decorate the entire interior of the tower’s base. People who provide a visual encyclopedia of who we are, captured in the “whos” of what we were.

The mural-embellished lobby of San Francisco’s iconic Coit Tower. Note the touch-up artist behind the daily visitors.

The America of the 1930’s was indeed a very different place, one groaning under the near-25% unemployment rate of the Great Depression. Solutions both good and bad abounded in the desperate atmosphere of the day, one such solution involving the idea of regarding the country’s artists as no less important than its workmen…that is, creating government programs to put them back to work. Sculpting. Painting. Writing plays, songs, novels, guidebooks. Recording photographic archives by which we better understand the bitter struggle of those years. A variety of “alphabet soup” acronyms like the WPA (Works Progress Administration) chose the projects and fronted the cash to make them happen.

Think that over. We paid people to make art. In post offices. In libraries. In meeting houses and union halls and railroad terminals and theatres and auditoriums. Frescoes. Reliefs. Statues. Works with which our government announced, in a very loud voice, that Art Is Important. And that steps were going to be taken to keep it alive.

Coit tower’s lobby is only one of dozens of places in San Francisco where public art was used for not only beauty but commentary. The people on the walls are not generals, nor political leaders, nor gods, but ordinary working people, shown in every trade from farming to construction. Fruit pickers. Meat packers. Librarians. Cowboys. Their majesty is in the very un-exalted way they are depicted. Generations later, they are still recognizable. As us. From us. One of us. Watching the daily crowds queue up for a ticket to the tower’s one slow Otis elevator is a little like watching a mirror. The types, from large to small, skinny to stout, match up. The faces of fresco and flesh melt together. The past and the present blend, as in the above image, where people visiting the monument for the first time pass unwittingly by a seated worker, tasked with repairing the wear and tear of salt air and time. Wheels turn.The work goes on. One day it’s mining. Next day, it’s coding. All work.

From the top of Coit, visitors enter a time machine of a different kind, as San Francisco’s mad mix of Victorian elegance, Bohemian beat, and psychedelic scrawl unfold in a 360-degree panorama. But it’s the technicolor testimony at ground level that makes the building great, its factory workers, miners and coal miners anchoring the place in human effort. A good general source for learning about the Coit’s panels (which include work by many of Diego Rivera’s students), as well as the other projects that survive in the area is Depression-Era Murals of the Bay Area (Veronico, Morello< Casadonte, Collins, 2014), although a general study of New Deal-sponsored art programs will also delight even the casual student.

So come for the climb. Or the tower. But stay for the stories, all the while taking pictures of people looking at people. And seeing something they recognize.

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GONE GATEWAYS

Ticket Kiosk (Ohio Theatre, Columbus, Ohio, opened 1926)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.

It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.

The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.

Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.


ONE BRICK AT A TIME

The devil…. or the delight…is in the details in urban architecture.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MANY URBAN BUILDINGS FROM THE EARLY 20th CENTURY CAN BE OPEN SECRETS, objects that we walk or drive past with such frequency (and speed) that their most telling elements are often underseen. Certainly, we visually record their larger contours…the block or the spear or the obelisk or the faux cathedral or the Romanesque monument, those general features that figure prominently in long-distance skylines and postcard views. But what remains virtually invisible are what musicians might call the grace notes, the smaller accents and textures that, upon closer inspection, reveal as much, or even more, about the intentions of their makers. And seeking close encounters with these elements can yield great subjects for photography.

More so than with the taciturn minimalism of the post-WWII years, buildings from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s were often personal headstones for men who piled up great fortunes, captains of industry who wanted to invest every inch of their towers and spires with references to their beliefs as well as their bank accounts. Lintels, door frames, spandrels, arches, vestibules and cornerstones all bore testimony to company mottoes, symbols of both the modern and ancient worlds, and the idealization of public service. Some lobby mailboxes were invested with more design than a forest-ful of the icy glass boxes of the International period that followed. Often, the founders of a building had a small army of independent artists, from muralists to sculptors, working various sections of the the interiors and exteriors, each with their own unique contribution. Thus, a quick drive-by of a tower in one’s city “that’s been there forever” may not reveal the myriad messages imbedded in areas no bigger than a few square inches, while a dedicated trip for slow-walking and scout work may reward the photographer with a generous dose of time travel. Wonderfully, this can happen in layers, with repeated trips to a building that you thought you’d already “done” yielding additional treasures.

The relief you see in the image at top is repeated over every minor first-floor frame and street entrance of Columbus’ Ohio’s Leveque Tower, which, upon its completion in 1927, briefly enjoyed the distinction of being the fifth tallest building in the world. The property has been generally “preserved” in the current era, but that doesn’t mean it’s come into its second century unscathed, many important exterior and interior features having been removed or lost by owners with a somewhat less than curatorial bent. Ironically, it is the smaller touches on the tower which have remained most intact over the years, including this window frame and its depiction of various virtues of the ideal citizen, including, left to right, healing, the arts, storytelling, and industry. My point is that 99% of every photograph taken of this icon of midwestern design are shot from hundreds, even thousands of feet away, while a stroll past the entrance conjures something far deeper for even the most casual shooter.

Photographing great places is an enormous delight, but also a tremendous responsibility, since our recent history have shown us that nothing made by man will stand forever. That puts us back in the role of chroniclers and archivists, and if we make our pictures carefully, at least the essence of the stories we once told a brick at a time may outlast the dust.


ALL THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE(?)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOUR CONCEPT OF “STREET” PHOTOGRAPHY, assuming it interests you at all,  is shaped by a variety of influences, including your idea of appropriate subject matter, biases in style or equipment, even your technical limits. But from my own particular perch, I think that the era into which I was born may be one of the strongest determinants of my preferences in street work, at least when it comes to the choice between black and white and color. To me, this kind of reportorial photography is vastly different either side of a key time line, with one side, say the world up to about 1955, weighted toward monochrome, and the other, the years that follow that mark and track forward up to the present day, being the more “color” era.

Before the mid-50’s, nearly all “important” photography was still being rendered in monochrome, much of it of a journalistic or editorial nature. From the crash of the Hindenburg to the New Deal’s chronicling of the impact of the Great Depression through endless newsreel and magazine essays, the pictures of record, of the stuff that mattered, was black and white. Consumer photography generally followed suit. Early color films were available from the 1930’s on, but the overarching curve of Everyman hobbyist work did not immediately flip to general use. Color was largely for commercial work, for selling things in a hyper-saturated advertising spread or brochure. Seminal black and white essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment seemed to reinforce the idea of monochrome as the messenger of realism, authenticity, grit. Ugly, sad, tragic, important things happened in black and white. Color was for kids’ parties.

What “color” is your reality?

 

By the 1960’s, faster consumer color films changed candid photography virtually overnight as amateurs opted for more “lifelike” images. Color print, slide and movie film sales soared, and, while magazine and newspaper “documentarians” continued to emphasize mono as the “official” tonal language of street work, younger photographers began to reframe the argument as to what constituted a fit format for commentary. In the present day, both approaches live comfortably side by side, and many shooters are not exclusively in the ‘either” or “or” camp, deciding one frame at a time whether a narrow or wide palette is right for a given image. Even the shooters who embraced color as young photographers may, today, toggle back to monochrome for a singular impact or even a nostalgic evocation of the past. Fashion historians can easily lose count: we’ve zoomed past ironic, post-ironic, post-post-ironic, and back to innocence again, spinning through both unconscious and super-self-conscious styles like the blades of a pinwheel. Beneficiaries of technologies that abett and invite multiple ways to rendering the same subject, we shoot in all eras and influences at once. Everything about photography is a la carte.

For me, black and white isn’t a signature, but then again, neither is color. I find them both adequate for the candid work that encompasses “street”, and I reserve the right to make the choice between the two at a moment’s notice. Tonal properties, after all, should be as improvisational as the decision to make a given picture. We are freer than ever to worry less about the how of a photograph, and focus on the why.

 


FRAMING MEMORY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE IDEA OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the once-revolutionary notion that anyone could own a camera and produce good results with it, came about at the exact point in history as the birth of mass-market advertising. Inventors made it possible for the average man to operate the magic machine; marketing made him want to own one, and, by owning, adopt a lifetime habit of documenting more and more moments of his life with it. Some companies in the early days of photography excelled in the technical innovations that ushered in the amateur era. Some others specialized in engineering desire for the amazing new toy. But no company on earth combined both these arts as effectively as the Eastman Kodak Company.

Every December since 2014, The Normal Eye has resurrected advertisements from Kodak’s legendary seasonal campaigns, promotional efforts that portrayed their cameras and films as essential to a happy Christmas. From the beginning of the 20th century, the company’s print ads used key words like “capture”, “keep”, “treasure”, “preserve”, and, most importantly, “remember”, teaching generations that memories were somehow insufficient for recalling good times, less “real” without photographs to document them. The ads didn’t just depict ideal seasonal tableaux: they made sure the scene included someone recording it all with a Kodak. Technically, as is the case with today’s cel phones, the company’s aim was to make it progressively easier to take pictures; unlike today, the long-term goal was to make the lifelong purchasing of film irresistible.

“Christmas Carolers”, a 1961 Kodak Colorama mural by Neil Montanus.

Kodak’s greatest pitch for traveling the world (and clicking off tons of film while doing so) came from 1950 to 1990, with the creation of its massive Colorama transparencies, the biggest and most technically advanced enlargements of their time. Imagine a backlit 18 foot high, 60 foot wide color slide mounted along the east balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Talk about “exposure”(sorry).

Coloramas, sporting the earliest and often best color work by Ansel Adams and other world-class pros, were hardly “candids”: they were, in fact, masterfully staged idealizations of the lives of the new, post-war American middle class. The giant images showed groups of friends, young couples and family members trekking through (and photographing) dream destinations from the American West to snow-sculpted ski resorts in Vermont, creating perfectly exposed panoramas of boat rides, county fairs, beach parties, and, without fail, Christmas traditions that were so rich in wholesome warmth that they made Hallmark seem jaded and cynical. It was a kind of emotional propaganda, a suggestion that, if you only took more pictures, you’d have memories like these, too.

Half a century on, consumers no longer need to be nudged to make them crank out endless snaps of every life event. But when photography was a novelty, they did indeed need to be taught the habit, and advertisers where happy to create one dreamy demonstration after another on how we were to capture, preserve, and remember. The company that put a Brownie in everyone’s hand has largely passed from the world stage, but the concept of that elusive, perfect photo, once coined “the Kodak Moment”, yet persists.


MEMORIALS OF MEMORIALS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING, November 2018, the world is pausing, all too briefly, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice between Germany and the Allied powers, the first halting step toward ending what our forebears called The Great War. Such was the scope and scale of butchery in that conflict that more than a few prophets of the time predicted that no such savagery could ever be repeated. So much for mankind’s ability to forecast, or even to learn from, its own folly.

The war was the first armed conflict to be photographed exhaustively both in still and moving images, producing a ponderous archive that, even with the losses of a full century, provides a common legacy of memory that is beyond price. Another such photographic archive is more emotionally immediate, in the snapshots, taken in the field and sent home to mothers and sweethearts, snapped at reunions, shared at funerals. And the third legacy, for photographers, is chronicling the various public works created to honor the fallen. Memorials. Mausoleums. Arches. Dedications. Grave sites. Statues. Every remembrance becomes a kind of history in its own right, with its own origin stories, artists, controversies, legends. We make images of war, create photos of those swept up in them, and take pictorial memorials of….other memorials.

Some of the tributes for one war become casualties of another: others may last long enough to be re-thought or re-purposes. Even more find their story blurred or obliterated, with plaques marking battles that have fallen out of popular memory. One of the things obliterated by all the bombs is context.

Perhaps Lincoln was right: we may not be able to hallow the ground that heroes trod, for all our noble intentions and grand words. It is only in our corrective action that we guarantee that the sacrifices of the few become, please God, the wisdom of the many.


EXTRA, EXTRA

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN THEATRICAL NEWSREELS GASPED THEIR LAST in the late 1960’s, they took with them a set of global habits for receiving visual information that had been in place since World War One, including the regular ritual of filing into theatres twice a week to see fast-moving digests of wars bulletins, scientific advancements, sports highlights, and current fads and foibles. Daily news, prior to the arrival of television, was dominated by newspapers and radio, with newsreels providing a secondary, visual record of world events. Then, nearly seven decades into the tradition, they vanished, and with them, something of the world that produced them.

Several newspaper chains produced newsreel versions of their most photogenic stories, and major film studios, including Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers, all of which had divisions devoted exclusively to the making of so-called “short subjects”, likewise had newsreel crews within those departments. Better yet, all the studios owned and operated their own chains of theatres, guaranteeing a regular flow of distribution for their products. The public came to expect newsreels as a part of a larger theatrical program which included cartoons, two-reel comedies (hello, Three Stooges) and two full feature films……all for less than a dollar.

Even though the newsreels, unlike the video newscasts that succeeded them, had only one or two “deadlines” per week, they still had to create a slickly coordinated system for getting stories to the local Bijou before the items got too stale. A network of local photographers was paired with a shipping regimen designed to send raw footage to centralized hub studios, where it could be processed, edited, scored, and in selected cases, dubbed for foreign release. The instructions on the shipping case seen here clearly spell out the urgency of time (valueless if delayed!). This particular box belonged to the Hearst chain’s News Of The Day, which competed for eyeballs  in a crowded field that included The March Of Time, Universal Newsreel, Fox Movietone News, and the British Gaumont Graphic, among others.

Hearst and Universal amazingly produced newsreels until 1967, the same year that the Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper. By that time, the news had become a daily appointment telecast at home instead of a bi-weekly trot to the cinema. But even in their death throes the newsreels gave the world one more great story, with many libraries inheriting the complete archives of the once-vital features, now used as a twenty-first century research resource for every major event of the twentieth.


OH, THAT TOWERING FEELING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE AMERICAN SKYSCRAPERS OF THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY are the closet modern equivalent to the pyramids of ancient Egypt, in intention if not in design. Both types of structures are bids for immortality by powerful individuals looking to make a permanent record of their temporary successes, to proclaim I was here in bold characters and broad gestures.

Frank W. Woolworth, whose “five-and-dime” stores defined discount retail for generations, decided, in 1910, to essentially generate his own ludicrously overwrought headstone, which sprung, two years later, to the then-insane height of 792 feet, at 195 Broadway in lower Manhattan, catty-corner from the New York City Hall. Architect Cass Gilbert, whose beaux-arts styling suggested a transplantation of the values of old-world Rome and Greece to the USA, was contracted by Woolworth for the creation of his redolent redoubt, a project that effectively kick-started the first golden age of the American skyscraper and reigned as tallest building in the world for nearly seventeen years. Gilbert’s ongoing homage to classical architecture, seen in such landmarks as the U.S. Supreme Court building, resulted in a structure that resembled a gothic cathedral, minus the pesky God parts.

A cartoonish Frank Woolworth counts nickels and dimes, perched atop a pillar flanking his namesake building’s elevator lobby.


Indeed, the only “deity” enshrined in the Woolworth was Frank W., himself, his surname initial crowning dozens of doors and panels and his visage captured in the image you see here, a sculpted caricature of the magnate counting…what else?….coins (Illustrator Thomas Johnson also inspired similar carved likenesses of architect Gilbert and other key players in the tower project).

Open once more to guided tours in recent years (following a post 9/11 security lockdown), the Woolworth’s riot of rich woods, veined marble, stained glass and whimsical ornamentation are a treasure trove for photographers. To encourage your own visit, I’ve created a small gallery from my own, viewable by clicking the page tab marked The Wonderful Woolworth, seen at the top of this page.

In terms of technical specs, all images were shot handheld in existing light (flash would be worthless there, even were it permitted) with a manual 24mm Nikkor wide-angle shooting at apertures of either f/4 or f/2.8, shutter speeds from 1/13 to 1/60 of a second, and ISOs ranging from 1250 to 1600. But in terms of just being able to walk inside Cass Gilbert’s politely profane Edwardian birthday cake, you won’t need a camera to come away with some astounding memories.


TABLE FOR ONE

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE GREAT IRONIC CLICHE OF CITIES is how they smash millions of people together while also keeping them completely isolated from each other, forcing the seeming intersections of lives that, below the surface, are still tragically alienated. Photography, coming of age as it did at roughly the same time as the global rise of cities, became accustomed, early on, with showing both the mad crush and the killing melancholy of these strange streets. We take group shots within which, hidden in plain sight, linger poignant solo portraits. The thrill of learning to speak both messages with a camera in one instant is why we do this thing.

Gray days, especially the fat batch of them I recently harvested in Manhattan, do half of my street photographer’s job for me, deepening colors and shadows in what can quickly become an experiment in underexposure, a lab which, in turn, profoundly alters mood. Things that were somber to begin with become absolutely leaden, with feelings running to extremes on the merest of subjects and forcing every impression through a muted filter. It’s what makes it out the back end of that filter that determines what kind of picture I’ll get.

The two diners in this scene are an arbitrary interpretation…..a judgement call that, on a bright day, I might have made completely differently. They are in parallel arrangement, so they both are looking off to the right, never across at each other. Does this make them lonely, or merely alone? The fact that there is one man and one woman in the composition doesn’t necessarily denote desperate or disconnected lives, but isn’t there at least a slight temptation for the viewer to read the image that way? And then there is our habit of seeing this kind of color palette as moody, sad, contemplative. The limited amount of light in the frame, as much as any other element, “tells” us what to feel about the entire scene. Or does it?

Now, of course, if you were to pack a roomful of other photogs into the same room alongside me to shoot the same image under the exact same conditions, you would very likely get a wider variety of readings. One such reading might suggest that both of these people were thoroughly enjoying a pleasant, quiet lunch, part of a lifelong pattern of contented fulfillment. Or not.

Cities are composed of millions of eyes backed by many more millions of inherited viewpoints on what defines big words like lonely, isolated, sad, thoughtful, and so on. But all of us, regardless of approach, are taking the strange city yin/yang of get closer/go away and trying to extract our own meaning from it.

 


CONFER GRACE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NO ONE EVER INTENTIONALLY DESIGNS SOMETHING TO BE UGLY. There has never been an artist’s or architect’s rendering that shows a project, from a city park to a shopping mall, as anything but ideal. Drawings created to excite investors and planners are consistently festooned with bright, broad sidewalks, strolling families (with their dogs), and bowers of flowers. When you see a sign saying, “coming soon on this site”, it’s always a sunny day.

Of course, once the dedication ribbon is cut, reality intervenes. Neighborhoods rise and fall. Things wear out. The cool things that were to be built during “phase two” get un-funded. The dream of the possible becomes the dreariness of the actual. And photographers are there to measure the distance between those extremes.

Sadly, merely making images of what has gone wrong in modern life is almost a default for many shooters, and their predictably bleak work reflects that. Creating pictures of decay or failure is certainly easy, almost a cynical cop-out, as if seeing the ugliness in things is somehow more honest, more “authentic”. I can understand taking that bait. I have taken that bait. But I think photographers need to struggle to confer grace on things as well, to try to show how things might have worked out. Yes, there’s a lot of drama to be had in documenting what went wrong. But, at one point in the process, before the beginnings of things, people invested faith in what they were creating, a faith that said that things would be generally better Once This Thing Is Completed. Pictorially, trying to portray potential, especially wasted potential, is far tricker.

As to the image shown here, I’d like to say it was the result of some marvelous act of planning, but the fact is, the entire scene, bathed in the deep golds of dusk, was seen and seized in an instant. I remember being struck by the feeling that this kind of light was so miraculous that it could confer nobility on even a car wash in a shopworn neighborhood, and that a momentary break in the clouds had given the reds and yellows the hyper-saturated look of an old, slow film stock like Kodachrome. Again, all these impressions registered inside a few seconds, and I went for it. The result reminded me that, once, someone thought this car wash would at least be neat, or efficient, or attractive. Sometimes that dream is totally submerged in the crust of What Happened Later. But I feel compelled to search for it anyway, to confer grace on what the dreamers saw. After all, under the skin, we’re all in the same game.


THAT’S THE WAY WE DO IT AROUND HERE

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

“STRANGE” IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, and anytime you and your camera are, in terms of travel, the new kids in town, your time as a street shooter is better spent finding the “weird” things that the locals find….normal. Now, let’s be clear: many times towns will capitalize on their World’s Biggest Ball Of Twine or haunted house tours or such, but that’s just naked capitalism, and everyone deserves to make a fast buck wherever they can. No, the local weirdness you want is something that’s been odd for so long that it’s not only normal to the locals….it’s damn near invisible.

Of course, I concede that one photographer’s instance of Undiscovered Ironic Hipness is another’s Tourist Sucker Bait. This can be an additionally tough call in a town like Portland, Oregon, a town practically marinating in ironic hipness, so the things about the city that recently tickled my fancy may, to real Portlanders, be beneath both notice and contempt. To be sure I was on the right track, I would have to actually be cool, and, sadly, that ship has not only sailed, but it’s struck an iceberg.

So, in truth, I have no idea if the stag seen here crowning the vestibule of a small area boutique is really freaky or merely play-to-the-visitors freaky. Or both. Hey, this is the city that painted the plea Keep Portland Weird on the whole side of a building (and then turned that phrase into just another way to sell tee shirts). It’s also the city whose  visual trademark is a sign featuring a giant leaping neon deer. Soon…as Tower of Power famously sang, “What Is Hip?”

And, again, I repeat, how the hell should I know? My only point is that, when I’m trolling new streets with a camera, I’d rather bypass the sites that the local chamber of commerce is telling me are “points of interest” and try instead to find where the quirkiness truly meets the road…in local shops, bars, neighborhood celebrations, or improvised “traditions” that make a city unforgettable.

Or at least weird.


DUST IN THE WIND

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ENVY, WHILE A COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE HUMAN EMOTION, has only occasionally helped me advance as a photographer. Eating one’s heart out over someone else’s talent is, at best, a kind of sweet misery, but there are a few instances in which it’s almost a pleasure to look upon another person’s work and know that you’ll never approach that level of mastery.

For me, that juicy jealousy has always been reserved for the legendary output of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal program charged with chronicling the nationwide impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the idea being that you couldn’t marshall public action against a problem people couldn’t see. The titanic FSA archive, containing more than 175,000 negatives, capitalized on the emerging 35mm film format and the country’s then-ubiquitous photo news magazines to produce images which were both objective reportage and so-called “street” photography. There is simply no comparable project in the history of the medium.

So, again, my own work, as previously confessed, is a admixture of envy and admiration. I can never take a crack at creating a narrative for the Dust Bowl or the great Oakie migration, but I can create an “homage” to those who did. You know how this works. When you get caught aping someone else’s technique, that’s “theft”. When you out yourself for doing the very same thing,  it’s an “homage”. Soooooo…

The master shot of the above image was taken out the window of an Amtrak train winding its way between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, about ten days ago. I was struck by the visual isolation of the farm structures and the profound emptiness of the surrounding fields. The antique feel and texture of the finished product was supplied by the Hipstamatic app, the whole deal created completely in-camera on an iPhone, which is, to our era, what the Leica was to the FSA’s journeyman shooters….that is, the tool at hand. I can’t honestly chronicle the events of that time…..but I can render an echo of their feeling.

Some seventy-five years have passed since the Roosevelt administration sent a small army of shutterbugs across the country to live among those whose lives had been shattered by the Crash, to record what they were trying to do to restore equilibrium to a world that had run into a ditch. I will never be able to do that exact work. Still, I hope I can bring rigor to the challenges that my own time have placed before me. Sometimes, the two eras seem uncomfortably close, as if some very old dust were blowing up into a new storm…..

 


BIG STORIES, LITTLE STORIES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT ISN’T THE EASIEST THING, upstaging one of the world’s key postcard views. And yet, in final analysis, people should rank higher, in the photographer’s eye, than the things people build for their use. So it should come as no surprise that, to the patient eye, human-sized scene stealers abound everywhere, big setting or small.

This view of the southern side of the Brooklyn Bridge certainly needs no additional context, and yet, the nearby Pier 17 promenade, repaired and re-imagined as all-new public space near the Fulton Street market region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (and shown here), provides a daily flood of people-watching opportunity. Indeed, almost any other framing along the deck at the moment this shot was taken would show just how much company the ladies seen here actually had on this particular Saturday evening. The word throng definitely applied, with just about any other composition revealing hundreds of singles, couples, and families crowding the Pier’s restaurants, bars, kiosks, tour boats and viewing rails……however, we have decided, for the moment, to concentrate on these two ladies, and the bond of friendship that is more than enough story to power a photograph.

What you can’t hear, and they clearly could, is the incredible music beat being pumped throughout the pier. What you can certainly see is that you don’t have to be standing, or even using your entire body, to dance…to feel….to be one with that beat. In truth, given that the woman at left is sporting a pair of crutches, “dancing” becomes the living embodiment of the motto work what you got, with mere hand claps getting the job done. As for the lady in purple, a single, upraised hand and a bowed head testify, yes, I’m feelinit. They are both sitting, but they are in no way sedentary. It’s on.

And while all this is going on, just like that, the Great Bridge has dropped to second billing. A backdrop. Atmosphere. Which is something that can happen anywhere, but especially here. For as they know all too well on Broadway, on any given night, the understudy can take stage instead of the star.

And steal the show.


AS THE WORLD TURNS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE GREATEST TEACHING MUSEUMS are not “museums” at all, but those sites where a present, living enterprise is ongoing, activities that also preserve and demonstrate the original purpose of the spaces. Walking through a building whose continuing existence illustrates what made it great in the first place outranks any mere remembrance staged in some sterile exhibit space. It also allows photographers to re-invent the visual records of such sites for their generation.

In the case of one venerable building in New York City, I have lately felt a poignancy in how photography itself has figured in the creation of the American Century.

As this little scribble goes to press, the latest owner for the long-embattled New York Daily News has decided to lay off nearly fifty per cent of that scrappy newspaper’s editorial staff, including virtually all its photographers. Born in 1919, the News was, from the beginning, an upstart, a locally focused, close-to-the-ground, bare-knuckled chronicle of Gotham’s daily doings, delivered with a huge dollop of attitude. Promoting itself as “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, the NYDN brought photography to the fore as a dominant storytelling component, in a way no other American newspaper ever had. While the New York Times‘ polite and prim broadsheet spoke in its inside voice, the News, its smaller tabloid format an easier fit for one-handed commuters, screamed “EXTRA!!”. You might not like the message, but by God, you couldn’t look away.

Inside the lobby of the News‘ building at 220 East 42nd Street, the message was a little more mellow, with its enormous illuminated world globe emitting a vibe of stability, science, order, reliability. Today, with the paper long since having emigrated to 4 New York Plaza, the globe, now protected (as is its host building) by city landmark status, still revolves, quietly glowing like the ember of a world that once burned as bright as a comet.

And that world moves on, of course. Markets decide what kinds of newspapers they want, and careers will always wax and wane. But, for photographers, places like the News building, places that defined the American Century, still speak more eloquently than any tepid re-creations in formal museums, and chronicling them with cameras qualifies as vital work.

Finally, there is no substitute for the real thing, something director Richard Donner affirmed in 1978. Building sets for Superman: The Movie, Donner decided that he could save a tidy sum in the creation of the atmosphere for Clark Kent’s day job at the Daily Planet. The solution? Just send the camera crew and cast down to the News building……


DOUBLE REVERSE CHAOS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.

A case study……

There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.

Street Rebus (2018)

This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.

In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.

This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.

 

 

 

 


OSCAR’S CRADLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HOLLYWOOD IS ONE OF THE SELECT LOCALITIES in the world’s largest democracy where royalty is not only tolerated but slavishly sought after. The crown (or crowns, plural) transfer from the recently fallen to the newly anointed with predictable regularity, but the ritual is always the same: we love the common people (they’re just like us!) until they are lucky enough to escape our ranks, after which we, in turn, adore them, despise them (who do they think they are?), forgive them, and adore them anew.

In terms of photography, the camera seeks out ever new lovers, nearly all of them human, and therefore fleeting. A careful study of Tinseltown, however reveals that the true royalty, the royalty that endures, is the real estate. And even in a town where “reality” is defined by whether you shoot on location or on the back lot, Hollywood harbors plenty of actual places where actual events actually occurred. Some are on the bus tours (Marilyn Monroe slept here), while others require a bit more digging. One of the industry’s most prestigious addresses is smack dab in a section so spectacularly tacky that, by virtue of merely being merely ostentatious, it seems positively muted.

The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named in memory of Teddy, not Franklin) survives in legend not because it served as a studio or corporate cradle for the film industry, but because it was the first time the town turned out to honor….itself. Then make an annual habit of it. Hey, if you want modesty, live in Des Moine, okay?

The Roosevelt earned its filmic pedigree from the get-go, financed in 1926 by a group that included MGM chief Louis B.Mayer and screen idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (two-fourths of the founding quartet behind United Artists Pictures, along with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith). Two years later, the hotel hosted a modest little dinner for 270 guests to fete honorees of the newly organized Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, some three months after the actual awards had been handed out, and minus the nickname “Oscars”, which would come about four years later.

Over the decades the Roosevelt and its across-the-street neighbor the Chinese Theatre (which opened within months of the “R”‘s premiere) saw a fairly staid business district transformed into “Hollywood & Highland” (trade mark)…. Sucker Bait Central, a day-glo drag whose countless souvenir stops, IMAX pleasure palaces, low-rent novelties and neon knock-offs raised tackiness to the status of a religious movement. Meanwhile, the hotel’s crazy-quilt architectural style (‘Spanish Colonial Revival’…and, yes, there will be a test later), with its coffered ceilings, mid-century pool cabanas and wrought-iron chandeliers, was just fake-elegant enough to pass for average in a town renowned for its, er, flexible relationship with “class”. Rolling through the years with an occasional ownership transfer and the odd walk-on in movies like Beverly Hills Cop II and Catch Me If You Can, the Roosevelt has recently offered lodging as a contest prize on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and landed landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #545.

The Roosevelt’s photographic riches lie chiefly in its extremely dark main and elevator lobbies, its still-regal pool area and the legendary Cinegrill Lounge. The lobbies, at least for handheld shots, require high ISOs, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. Flash may not be verboten but you won’t like the result, trust me. Indeed, the soft gold afforded by natural light washing into the murk from outside brings out the warmth of the Spanish textures, and adds a little tonal nostalgia to the scene. All things together, the Roosevelt stands as a monument to real occurrences, some of them fairly historically significant, in The Town That Invented Phony. And that’s the main challenge in Hollywood: if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.

 

 


BECAUSE WEIRD ISN’T FOREVER

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHAT DO YOU DO when you’re a quirky bit of modern art and the museum that hosts you has been shuttered for missing the rent? Futher, let’s assume your creator’s homeland regards your “art” as political blasphemy and let’s also stipulate that you are, say, a fifteen-foot-high chromed head of Vladimir Lenin with a tiny baby balanced on its top.

In the words of Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”

Beginning in 2011, expatriot Chinese artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang found a home for their satirical sculpture, Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself At The Top Of Lenin’s Head, in front of Los Angeles’ ACE Museum  at 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. Locals and tourists alike soon embraced the weird, much as motorists might grow fond of sites like The Giant Ball Of String or The World’s Crookedest House, worshiping the sheer asinine novelty of the thing over any aesthetic merit. The result? Art meant as provocation landed, instead, with the soft cushiony comfort of fun, an ironic landmark, as in, “to get to my house, take the first left after the Lenin head..”

I Caught Lenin when he did L.A.

But here’s the take-away for photographers. Part of our job is to freeze the human drama as it shifts and morphs. That means being particularly sensitive to the things in society that change the quickest, including the fashion waves of the art world. And if serious art falls out of favor quickly, art that is loaded with satire or irony really races to the front of the obsolescence checkout. Weird ain’t forever.

Lenin and Miss Mao found by 2017 that it’s hard to stay a head (sorry) when the ACE Museum was evicted, leaving the work essentially homeless. Zhen and Qiang tried in vain to land the Commie Chromedome a new roost in China, but the Big Red One basically told them to pound sushi (humorless bunch, those socialists). What’s a murderous goateed revolutionary to do?

Well.

At this writing (June 2018), the most recent citing of Vlad’s Big Head was at the site of a trucking company near Newberry Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert, property owned by artist Weiming Chen, a friend of the Gao brothers who operates the area as a kind of statuary boneyard for his own works and those of others. A snapshot taken of the head showed Lenin looking characteristically defiant, although absent the lovely Miss Mao. I like to think she’s found peace as the hood ornament for a 1966 Diamond Reo rig highballing down CA-10. Hey, I can dream.

So, I treasure my 2014 snap of the head in situ in L.A. (seen above), back when life was good and fate was kind. Photography is commentary, but often, the top comment that comes to mind is something like “okaaaaay, so that happened..” No matter: it’s always worth a grin, and usually worth a picture.

As with Miss Mao, it’s a balancing act.


WE NEVER CLOSE

 

11:30pm, Queens, New York.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DEMIMONDE. The night shift. The third trick. Up with the dawn. Done for the night.

At any given time, some of us are starting our days and heading to work while others are wrapping up their labors and stumbling into bed. Our nights are others’ days, our bustle others’ quiet time. We come at life on the planet from different directions, our suns and moons meeting at the time clock. Wait till coffee break, say some. That’s when things really get going. Hang around till after midnight, say the rest. That’s when this place really start to happen.

Time really comes unmoored in the cities, where our deliveries, destinies and dreams are on all kinds of stop/start cycles. The big town is as photographically alive for the night owls as for the morning glories. People whose days are other people’s nights are forever exotic and strange to each other, the images of their routines as mutually mysterious as the extremes of heat and cold. And always, the same underlying drum beat: got things to do. No day or night, pal: things get done when they get done.

The camera never sleeps because we never close. Open seven days a week, open all night. Last train at midnight, early bird special, full price after six, in by 9, out by 5. Rules of engagement for the breakfast surge, the lunch rush, the dinner crowd. Lives in motion. Pistons rising and falling. Disharmony and sweet accord.

The shutters keep blinking. The moments keep rolling.

24/7.

 


BEARING WITNESS

Orpheum Lofts, Phoenix, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.

The Loftstenant entrance.

Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.

Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.

Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.

As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.


“LIKE”-MINDEDNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS about reading photographer’s discussions of their most celebrated work is that, frequently, they can only guess at what accounts for the success of one of their images over another. Even more fascinating is when they express their dismay that some of their personal favorites actually fail to connect with the public. I take heart at such accounts, because I, like many of you, have no idea what makes a photograph “work” for anyone else…not, at least, beyond what I hope for.

This, to me, rates a “hilarious” on the irony meter, since the present age values “likes”, “faves”, and “LOVEs” above all other laurels in photography in a way that has made us slaves to popular approval even as we remain completely clueless as to how it’s earned. No cute tricks succeed. We can’t just replicate what people liked about our past stuff. We can’t cynically analyze what vaulted others’ images into the like-o-sphere. We can’t even play to what we believe others’ biases to be. And, for the sake of our photographs, we’re foolish to even try.

As a personal illustration of my point, I have absolutely no idea why this image has, at this writing, racked up over 4,000 views in the space of three days. This is not me boasting. To boast, I’d have to be taking credit for something I understood or had something to do with. No, this is me being dumbfounded. The picture represents, for me, the most transitory of whims, a final frame clicked off in impulse on the way back to my car after I thought I’d done the “important” work of the day. I thought there was something mildly (underlined) interesting about seeing this public pool “at rest”, if you will, just a week ahead of the end of the school year. No kids. No noise. Not a ripple or a wave to be had. A picture of something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s it. It was truly a case of “let’s shoot this and see what (excuse me) develops”.

And so the views and likes pile up for this one, and knowing that fact is no help at all. I want to take the brief flashlight being shown on my least favorite child and shine it on my pet instead, but it don’t work that way. Humans are perverse. We desperately seek to make a connection, then kvetch about whether it was done with AC or DC current. We want you to like us, but we want you to like the same thing about us that we like about us.

This gap between what photographers hope is important and what strikes everyone else as noteworthy reminds me of the actress Nastassia Kinski, who once came onto the Letterman show with her hair pasted into a straight vertical spike two feet high. Dave decided to act as if this were as normal as having a nose between your eyes and proceeded through the the interview without a remark. As the segment drew to a close, a slightly desperate Kinski purred, ” you haven’t asked me about my hair..”, to which Letterman replied, “Oh, you want it to look like that…”