the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Americana

THAT’S ONE SMALL APERTURE FOR MAN……

Blue Moon, 2012

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS MONTH’S 50th ANNIVERSARY OBSERVANCE (in July of 2019) of the first lunar landing in 1969 is, first and foremost, a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, recalling an era in which mankind’s potential was limited only by the scope of its imagination. In addition, for photographers, it is also a story of technical ingenuity and king-hell problem-solving skills. We have lived for a half-century with the crisp, iconic images that were brought back from the surface of the moon, but the larger story of what it took to capture them remains largely untold.

A modified Hasselblad 500-C camera, similar to the ones taken to the moon during the Apollo missions.

And a great story it is.

NASA’s eventual selection of which camera would go to the moon was influenced in the early days of the space race by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, himself an amateur photographer. Given that the earliest cameras aboard space flights had proved a technical disappointment, Schirra suggested that a version of his f/2.8, 80mm Hasselblad 500C be modified to document future missions. The legendary Swiss optics company was brought in by NASA to consult on the complete re-engineering of its consumer camera, which, over time,  involved stripping off its cosmetic leatherette trim as well as removing the unit’s viewfinder, auxiliary shutter and reflex mirror. While most modifications were made to reduce the weight of the units or to improve their performance under extreme temperatures, others were made purely to ensure the simplest possible operation under once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunities. The first NASA-modified Hasselblads were used by Schirra himself during his Mercury 8 orbital mission, and in the capture of Ed White’s historic space walk aboard Gemini IV, with more sophisticated changes effectively turning one of the most sophisticated cameras on the planet into little more than a high-end point-and-shoot by the time the Apollo missions got underway in the late 1960’s.

 

A sample page from Hasselblad’s lunar user manual shows the right distance to allow between yourself and any spacemen in the vicinity for correct depth-of-field.

Shutter speed for the lunar Hasselblads was fixed, but a selrction of apertures could be chosen by the astronauts to ensure sharp depth-of-field in a variety of situations. Surface images were taken by what came to be called a Hasselblad Data Camera (a re-jiggered 500C), while a separate HEC, or Hasselblad Electric Camera, would be pointed at the surface from inside the lunar landing module. Like Hasselblad, Kodak was engaged by NASA to re-engineer its domestic product, chiefly its premium films for the missions, both by widening frame size from 35 to 70mm and reducing the thickness of the celluloid sheeting to allow 70 shots per camera roll instead of the earthbound 12. The problem of cranking the camera from frame to frame was obviated by specially mounted exterior cartridges that automatically advanced the film after each click. Kodak also formulated several different speeds of film in both monochrome and color. Finally, to make the whole process even more fool-proof, Hasselblad generated special visual operator manuals for the astronauts (shown at left), while the entire camera assembly was permanently attached to the center of an astronaut’s lunar suit (in the case of Apollo 11, “first man” Neil Armstrong) freeing up the spaceman’s hands for NASA’s immense grocery list of surface experiments.

Success in space travel is measured in inches, and also in ounces. And, being keenly aware of how much the mission’s newly collected specimens (such as space rocks) would add to Apollo’s total weight upon its return flight, the crews knew that a calculated swap-out was necessary, and so a total of twelve Hasselblad bodies were left on the moon, after their film packs were detached and loaded on the lunar module. The prospect of free (if pragmatically unattainable) cameras has never been so tantalizing. But as we say down here on earth, the picture, and not the gear, is what’s important, something you can see for yourself in any of the 8,400 Apollo-era images that have recently been uploaded to Flickr. Merry Christmas.

So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, then…..well, you do the math, with a calculator that, today, easily exceeds the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft. Technology is the end product of curiosity, and the nerdish odyssey of the Hassies of the moon serve as a good reminder that all the best photography is about exploration, of the vast space either inside or outside the shooter’s imagination.

 

 

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SIGNS OF WHAT TIMES?

Close, but no cigars: the historic Marquard’s Smoke Shop sign in San Francisco has outlasted the shop itself.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVEN IN A WORLD BENT UPON WORSHIP OF THE NEW, not all of the past is erased all at once. The destruction of the old may indeed seem inevitable, but sometimes it is gradual, even incomplete. And when the inexorable crush of progress is even partially slowed, photography gains entry to the process of change, and can bear witness.

Neighborhoods come and go: businesses close: eras end. Still, the architectural and aesthetic footprint of fashions and trends can linger long after their original animus has faded. What’s left in view are signs, buildings, old faces in new places, strange survivors left alone on blighted blocks. On this site will soon stand…..

The old ways are debated by civic groups and historical societies, with the value of what we were weighed against the forward surge of new needs. What deserves to be preserved? What should already have been dismantled? Opportunities for the photographer are obvious. We make a record. We give testimony. And when things must depart, we prevent their being forgotten, at least not for lack of evidence.

For nearly 100 years, San Franciscans in the heart of the Bay City’s business and tourist energy stopped at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell for their morning paper, a bottle of spirits, or a pack of smokes. The neon sign announcing these delights was erected sometime in the ’20’s and stayed until Danny Ortega, who first climbed a ladder behind the counter to wait on customers while in early grade school, finally threw in the towel in 2005. At that point, the demolition of the store’s wraparound entrance seemed like a foregone conclusion. But local preservationists, eager to preserve the look, if not the function, of the old neighborhood, managed to get landmark status for at least the sign. What would henceforth happen beneath it would be up to the new leaseholders….in this case, a hat store whose smaller “LIDS” announcement can be seen in the 2012 image seen here. Several more years later, the neon tubing visible in this shot was also removed, still leaving most of the gloriously garish Marquard’s overhang intact, including its very West Coast promotion of the New York Times. This kind of half-a-loaf solution is becoming far more common in American cities, many of which are laden with buildings that can continue to cosmetically charm or educate, even as their original functions are either obviated or re-tooled. Movie theatres become live performance venues. Department stores become law schools. And cigar stores become landmarks, reminders of who we were just a few scant minutes ago.

I always feel privileged to photograph places that have been even partially saved from the wrecking ball. First, because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to the original local energy that birthed them. But more importantly, because, without the testimony of photographs, yesterdays become obliterated at ever greater speeds. Certainly taking just a little more time to properly say our goodbyes takes work. But as with any bittersweet task, there’s a little smile accompanying the tears.


A BREAK IN THE CHAIN

Deli Sandwiches Subs, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

YOU RECOGNIZE THE ELEMENTS OF THEIR STRANGE VISUAL SIGNATURES AT ONCE: garish neon; outsized, surreal props: homemade window signs: and, always, for the storefronts of aging or vanishing businesses, the feeling that this is the creation of a single owner, not a faceless chain. It’s the Great American Mom ‘n’ Pop, and it is always flitting near the edge of extinction. And like all things endangered, it is fitting fodder for the photographer…for although these strange displays don’t include the standard features of the human face, yet still a human portrait of sorts can be made from their humble elements.

If you ever get the chance, thumb through an enormous volume called Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray (Gingko Press, 2008). Shot on simple 35mm film, this amazing collection offers both images and backstories from all five  boroughs in the greater NYT metro, organized by region. The caption data for the pictures is often the personal remembrances of the most recent operators of the various neighborhood’s delis, dry cleaners, beauty salons, supply houses and markets, most of them in continuous operation for most or all of the twentieth century, many closing up forever even as the book was going to press. The “front” is a kind of short story, a miniature play about who we were, what we sought, what we settled for. Often the buildings have risen or fallen with their respective neighborhoods, their entrances falling prey to crime, time, neglect. Several owners lament not being able to get the parts to keep their neon signs in repair. Others wish they could add a new awning, a fresh coat of paint. And always, as the fronts wink out, regentrification rears its trendy head. But it doesn’t bring new good times for the old place. Instead, it erases their stories…with apartment blocks, Pizza Huts, a Verizon store.

The image seen here, along Central Avenue is Phoenix, Arizona, boasts of (at least) a world of cheese, at a deli which is short on space but long on local flavor. In the American Southwest, as compared to other cities, neighborhoods don’t often get to live long enough to become “venerable” or “historic”, such is the short loop between grand openings and final swings of the wrecking ball. In more traditional urban spaces, everything old is occasionally new again. In Phoenix, it’s old, and then….just gone. The insanely disproportionate worship of the new and shiny in this part of the country can be exhilarating, but the real loss it engenders is sad and final in the way that doesn’t always happen back east. As a consequence, urban chroniclers in this neck o’ the desert must keep their cameras forever at the ready. You can never assume that you’ll get that picture the next time you swing through the neighborhood. Because the neighborhood itself may not be around.

For photographic purposes, I believe that storefronts are best shot straight-on (rather than at an angle) so that their left-to-right information reads like a well-dressed theatre stage. This also makes us look at them differently than we do as either pedestrians or drivers, where they tend to slide along the edge of our periphery largely unnoticed. Some of them benefit from being decorated by the figures of passersby: others appear more poignant standing alone. The main thing, if for no other reason except to create a break in the “chain migration”, is to maintain a record. There is a reason why so many “then and now” books of urban photographs are so jarring in their contrasting images. We live so quickly that we simply do not record our environment even through the daily process of using it. We need reminders for reference, even on the things that we should be eventually letting go of. And the camera puts down mileposts in a compelling way. It marks. It delineates, stating in concrete terms, we were that, and now we’re this. I believe in getting out that tape measure on occasion. I think it matters.


FINDERS (SOMETIMES) KEEPERS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE NEW YORK TIMES recently published a marvelous article on the 1963 demolition of Manhattan’s iconic Penn Station, and the lasting lesson of its loss for cities of every size everywhere. On one level, it’s the specific story of how an essential public space fell to a specious idea of “progress”. On another, it’s a meditation on what kinds of buildings make or break a city. And then there’s the mythic quality we bestow on everything that is gone, a romantic pang we attach to that which can never be recovered. All of these discussions are fueled by what photography does to the popular imagination.

Because it was built in the very first days of the motion picture camera, Penn Station was more exhaustively documented in its death throes than at its opening. But one of the mixed blessings of its passing is the sheer photographic evidence that such a grand thing was, a way of bearing witness to why and how it vanished. In those pre-internet, three-tv-network days, photographs helped the building’s demolition function as a kind of global re-set in the thinking of civic planners worldwide. The ill-advised practices of what used to be called “urban renewal” were forever changed after Penn. Its destruction was just too great a mistake to allow for a repetition, and serious discussions began about what constitutes a legacy, even the elusive idea of a city’s “soul”.

Union Station, Portland, Oregon, 2018. f/5.6, 1/30 sec., ISO 640, 24mm.

One of the things that proved fatal for Penn was a shift from a culture based on railroads to one based on the automobile…a simple matter of sustainable economics, or so it would seem. And yet, more than half a century later, many of the great railway stations are still with us, proving that the lives of buildings need not be tied to their original purpose. Rebirths of structures from the 20th century are the urban success stories of the 21st, due to a word which would have seemed alien to the America of the mid-60’s: re-purposing. Commuter travel is, certainly, a fraction of what it once was, but the beautiful palaces that once served as hubs for millions of day travelers have, in many cases, been allowed to serve new functions, many of them being converted into active museum or gallery space. Others, like Portland, Oregon’s Union Station (shown here), are still key connectors for pleasure travel, if not a nation of nine-to-fivers. All of these fresh starts are ripe for new photo-documentation, for telling the stories that, for now, are protected, but which remain terribly fragile.

In some ways, the nation has also grown up a bit. We had such a love affair for so long with All Things New that there seemed little need to preserve or protect anything into its old age. The frontier was limitless, resources were infinite, and anything edging toward decrepitude could merely be swept away for the newer and the better. Now, we seldom throw away entire neighborhoods just to provide a superhighway with a five-mile shortcut. We build in and much as we used to build out. And, with a cooperation between urban visionaries and those sentient eyes behind the viewfinder, there is a greater likelihood that at least some of the world we knew will be viewable, even viable, for those who come after us. The camera is a way of measuring us, as well as the things we create, a time machine with an infinite capacity for emotional as well as educational truth-telling, a way to assemble many small images to compose the Big Picture.


ADD, SUBTRACT, REPEAT

Manhattan’s Trinity Church, survivor of many a renovation and at least one fire.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO READ THIS ENTRY (since blog posts are archived) the heartbreaking fire at Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral is either a fresh wound or a remembered tragedy. The Normal Eye doesn’t often address current events, since they can lose their relevance too quickly compared to the essential motivations that consistently shape our photography. However, the partial loss of this priceless global treasure has created a ripple which will echo throughout the art world, the religious world, and, certainly, photography. Any discussion of how we create and venerate sacred space invites a second exchange on how we visually preserve it.

Like many of the world’s most venerated buildings, Notre Dame is not purely an original but an amalgam of the aims of many different eras. It is a physical testament to what humankind valued (or yearned for) across many centuries. The structure itself, like many others like it, is the product of many additions, subtractions, and revisions. Thus there are, according to when you plop down in the continuum of time, many Notre Dames, including the abstractions of it that we carry in our hearts and those that have been depicted or interpreted by countless artists and visitors. Like a photograph, the Notre Dames of the world are preserved moments, pieces of time that have been plucked out of sequence. And like a photograph, they can be endlessly re-envisioned, repurposed to tell the stories in our own fashion.

America has few structures with the prolonged life-line of Europe’s seemingly eternal sites, but, even within our several short centuries of activity, we have created buildings that are presently on their second or even third life of service, each “version” marked by repairs, renovations, the ravages of war, and the selective erasures of memory. Places like NYC’s Trinity Church, which had already once burned to the ground and been rebuilt by the time Alexander Hamilton was buried in its churchyard in 1804, or the Empire State Building, which suffered a wound in its side at the 78th floor after a fog-bound pilot crashed a B-25 into it in 1945. And then there’s the period between the death of the Twin Towers and the rebirth of the entire Ground Zero district, which spans barely fifteen years, or the fall-and-rise cycle of innumerable repurposed American buildings, like the soon-to-be-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, built around the bones of a May Company department store in midtown Los Angeles.

Certainly, compared to Europe, we have a more shallow history, but we have the very same save it / fix it / trash it arguments that spark discussion in France and countless other cities. In a way, architecture is like photography, in that it halts time in its course, making a document of where we were at a certain point in our evolution. Buildings act as snapshots in stone, or as one critic called an American skyscraper, “frozen music”. And, in the inevitable resurrection of Notre Dame, as with our most venerated places around the planet, the photograph is that most fortunate (and fairly recent) thing in our cultural bag of tricks: a physical record. With every thing we add or subtract or add back again to the places we have built, there is, now and forever, a way to mark our place, to create a comparison and reference, and to decide what in our world we will allow to pass away, or promote to immortality. Photography wears both its artist and historian hats for this important task, one which must now be brought to serve that house where dwell the better angels of our nature.

Vive la France.


LIGHT ‘EM UP

The Wave Swinger (Day), 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.

Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.

The Wave Swinger (Night), 2019

Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.


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.


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……