By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH BEING ROMANTICALLY SMITTEN IS NOT A PREREQUISITE for being a great photographic portraitist, I firmly believe that the very best of them are, indeed, lovers…..or at least in love with a mysterious something that informs their work. From treasuring humanity so much that they breathe empathy into their candid street work, or loving an individual in a way that can only be satisfied by turning that someone into an ideal bit of moldable clay, portraitists are a bit possessed, fervently dedicated to showing something only their affection can let them see. It seems perfectly normal now for cameras to fall head over heels over faces. So inevitable, so logical. And yet the camera and the face had to have their own early days of courtship.
One of the earliest and most fascinating muses in photographic history was herself an artist, a soul so amazingly unchained and boundless that the natural, if perverse, reaction to it was to try to imprison it inside a box. The face of the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was not classically beautiful, but upon meeting her in 1916 at an exhibition, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a man whose enthusiasm helped to launch dozens of art careers beyond his own, was knocked cold. After years as the promoter of the Pictorialist movement and editor of the revolutionary art publication Camera Work, Stieglitz had, in his own estimation, become disconnected from his own photographic instincts. Stuck, if you will. O’Keefe, twenty-three years his junior, and as close to the embodiment of the phrase “free spirit” as you can imagine, unstuck him. Between 1917 and 1937, often as a sidebar to their famously torrid relationship, Alfred made over one hundred portraits of her, posing her in every setting, mood, and level of intimacy. Many of the images were nudes or partial nudes, but all of them were Stieglitz’ attempt to hone his own style to its purist form, to see O’Keefe as the ultimate object and subject. Writing to a friend, he described the opportunity and the challenge Georgia had brought to his work:
I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind.—No humbug.—No sentimentalism.—Not old nor new.—It is so sharp that you can see the pores in a face—& yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person—heads & ears—toes—hands—torsos—It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.
Stieglitz also promoted O’Keefe’s own art in shows at his legendary 291 gallery and in a mixed show of photographers and painters entitled Seven Americans. Some of his most intimate portraits of O’Keefe were exhibited at the time as well, often with no attribution as to the name of the subject. Over the years, Alfred and Georgia’s relationship was as uneven as it was ardent, with Stieglitz having an affair after they were married, only to later see O’Keefe have a dalliance with the very same person several years later. Eventually, the combined tensions of their competing careers, issues of fidelity, and their gravitation to very different geographic art destinations (O’Keefe’s New Mexican desert versus Alfred’s beloved Manhattan) spelled the end for the marriage. Eventually, in history’s typical pattern, it is the art, rather than the artist, that survives.
And what Stieglitz had shown, early on in the 20th century, was what photographs created by a person possessed might look like, what portraits that were ignited by the heart might aspire to. I relate to this idea strongly in the case of my own work, which has been informed and often expanded by having my wife for a muse. In learning all the facets of her face, I in turn learn more about the secrets behind all other faces. I understand the spark that snapped when Alfred met Georgia, and I look for those fabulous fireworks every time I myself snap a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASTRONAUT KEN MATTINGLY, ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF AMERICANS IN 1970, never caught the measles. But on April 8th of that year, doctors at NASA were convinced that he might, and that educated guess was all it took to scrub him from the Apollo 13 mission, a mere three days from launch. But, even in the exacting skill universe of space flight, “not this time” doesn’t always mean “never”.
Fans of Ron Howard’s cinematic re-telling of 13’s ill-fated trip to the moon have long since learned of Ken’s essential role in helping to bring the crew and their mangled craft home safely back to Earth. But his story didn’t merely end with that amazing save. Just two years later, Mattingly would notch his own slot in NASA history, piloting the lunar orbiter module for Apollo 16, the program’s second-to-last moon expedition, maintaining his unique observational perch for a record-breaking 64 lunar orbits, a trek comprising over 81 hours of solo spaceflight.
Photographs are largely taken by direct witnesses to events, with space exploration being a notable exception. All of the images we have digested of various extra-terrestrial explorations over the last seventy years are, at most, second-hand visual experiences for most of us. We weren’t, in the popular phrase from Hamilton, In The Room (or module) Where It Happened, nor did we walk On The Surface Where It Happened. The pictures we know of these epic journeys were created and curated by a select minority, inviting us to share their experience even as the images designed to assist us actually serve to prevent our doing that. It is only now, as the various gear and apparel of these modern odysseys are consigned to museums and archives, that we can even take direct pictures of the objects that once made history. And while that can never be quite connective enough, it is at least a chance for us, as photographers, to interpret, to do our take on things we only know through various historical filters.
For Ken Mattingly, now a retired Navy rear admiral, the journey from witness to participant went from abstract to concrete. For photographers, the same transition is sometimes possible. Often, however, it is the souvenirs of history, rather than history itself, that we are able to examine, making us archaeologists even in our own time. We often must be satisfied at flying standby on the big rides.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGE RITUAL BY WHICH WE HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED to political candidates has been forged alongside our inherited habits of chronicling life with cameras. The select corps of reporters that is technically tasked with capturing the “official” look and feel of a campaign actually accomplishes no such thing. In the era of ubiquitous personal recording devices, the impressions that can be conveyed of a politician’s viability are finally as varied as the number of people in their desired audiences. All impressions matter, and at the same time, none of them matter. We are all in charge of our own lenses, and our own truth.
Wherever you rate a candidate on a scale of uncool to cool (and how you, in turn, envision his or her “electability” with your camera) is naturally linked to everything you subjectively experience when in contact with that person (or his entourage). Was the hall air-conditioned? Was the free food any good? Was there easy parking at the rally? Did you stand next to someone obnoxious during the speech. And, as to the speech, was it erudite or homespun? Concise or long-winded? Was the sound system working? Had you already heard that same stump speech too many other times? Did he/she look older/thinner/taller than on tv? And then there are the exact same in-the-moment technical challenges of a “live shoot” that the professional network crews are contending with, from lighting to composition to that idiot in front of you who blocked your million-dollar shot with his campaign sign. The whole situation is, in its own way, as dynamic, moment to moment, as covering a sports competition. That is to say, not easy.
Ironically, the thing about shooting political events that is most problematic is the shooter himself, since we, as either passive or active voters, have already brought our biases and hopes to the rallies, linking them in series with our lenses and optics just as surely as if they were color filters. We begin our “coverage” from an established viewpoint, completely obviating the idea of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: to be able to take a shot you are also able to control a shot, and if you can’t bring your own take to something as personal as a political contest, then it’s not worth even lifting your camera to your eye.
Since photography is all about selection, i.e., the extraction and suspension of specific particles of time, it stands to reason that an image which makes a politician look godlike in one moment can make him look like a drooling idiot the next. We are all subject to the shaping of reality achieved by skillful use of the camera. Once we experience it in our own work, that knowledge may help us be better consumers of the images made from outside our own viewpoints, and calculated to persuade, reveal, or conceal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN EARLY THAT THE WORLD’S VAST ARRAY OF FACES comprises only part of the ongoing pageant of human behavior. Certainly our features afford the most obvious clues to our inner mind (or serve to artfully obscure it), but it’s only part of the story, a story we complete by constructing the work uniform of our daily costume.
Just as comic-book and sci-fi fans lovingly recreate the armor and cape details of their favorite comic-book heroes in “cosplay”, we too piece together a kind of costume in the assembly of our everyday apparel. We don’t just don shirts and trousers, hats and coats: we actually craft a total outward identity for ourselves, an outfit that we think correctly projects who we are. Some work uniforms are as plain as a nun’s habit, while others scream as loudly as a Catwoman leotard. We make dozens of decisions about dozens of details. This makes me look old. This makes me look too fat. This gives off an attitude. This is a good look for me. That’s the just the accent I needed. This will turn heads.
This will protect me from detection.
Our street garb is creative work for people who don’t especially see themselves as artists, even as they turn themselves into living, walking canvasses. And the combination of our faces, with their twin abilities to reveal or conceal, with the outer layers we’ve pieced together to advertise ourselves, is, artistically speaking, an original. The person who begins at the mirror each morning and ends in the street as a deliberate concoction is unique, in that all of the individual components involved in the assembly will not look exactly the same on any other person. Shakespeare’s maxim that “all the world’s a stage” and that all of us are “merely players” holds across the centuries. We are our own invention, clad in creations that are part armor, part stagecraft. What a harvest for the photographer, who, among other contrasts of light and shadow, is also measuring the contrast between what we hope to be and what we appear to be. Every day on the street is shopping day for a shooter. The game, the play, the masquerade is always afoot, and when we witness it all with a trained eye, we wind up enrolled in a master class on both drama and tragedy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER WHAT A MAD MIX OF SKILL AND DUMB LUCK IT TOOK ME to score any usable concert images in the glory days of film photography, which has been one reason why, for both economic and mental health reasons, I tended not to attempt them too often. I have known several people over the decades who simply kill at such work, and their abilities leave me as stunned as a caveman who has just discovered fire. Such people are masters of light, wizards of journalism, and maybe, just maybe, unofficial auxiliary members of the bands they cover. They’re that linked in.
Many years and many technological advances later, one of the barriers to my becoming a great concert shooter has vanished, in that, in the digital era, I can at least afford to try a lot of things without putting my wallet on the endangered species list. And perhaps that fact has, in turn, also safeguarded my mental health as well. ‘Cuz, since I can now shoot, and shoot, and shoot, I can flail away until I actually produce something worth the effort, improving my overall demeanor and putting me once again in harmony with cute puppies, adorable babies, and unicorns. Of course, I have expanded my play area in recent years to include more offstage/backstage images, not only because they are technically easier to control, but because they contain something that stage performances may not: that is, unguarded, candid moments, or the exact opposite energy seen during a concert.
As a case in point: many current artists are making a bigger percentage of their touring “take” from on-site music sales than in earlier eras, and so the good old autograph table experience frequently offers the occasional relaxed moment. It doesn’t have the same drama as a classic shot of a guitar god shredding his way to immortality, but it almost counts as street photography, depending on what kind of energy you’re trying to capture. I myself enjoy the greater freedom to grab more of the miracle moments in a show, but I also find it liberating to work both ends of the gig.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE STILL PLACES ACROSS AMERICA where all the needs of life seem to be concentrated into very compact spaces. Small towns where the eating places, the living places, working places, worshiping places and dying places are all within a few blocks of each other, all of them viewable, knowable to everyone, all the time. The unchecked sprawl of modern life has left such villages behind, so isolated that they may as well be contained within a snow globe, their functions blended together like a box of inter-melted crayons. In such towns, photographs of a very different nature can be made.
The idea of a local main street moving seamlessly from the business section to residential houses to graveyards to a children’s playground now runs counter to the way we plan things. In little cities all functions orbit each other tightly, like animals sharing the same watering hole. Maybe some of these burgs were, originally, just that….replenishment stops, a place to change horses, grab a meal before heading back onto the trail, a collection point for outlying farms or ranches. In terms of the images that can be created in these out-of-the-way places, they are chronicles of a different kind of rhythm. They simply have to result in different kinds of pictures.
In traveling through such towns, I invariably stop at local churchyards. In a strange way, by containing the remains of our all too temporary shells, the yards themselves achieve a kind of permanence. Things go there and stay there. No one digs up a cemetery to build a supermarket. Its space remains apart, freed even more of the constraints of time than the towns which they occupy. And here, in the aftermath of the greatest interruptions we can ever face, there is order. A grave is just one more thing that falls to the human need to organize. To make sense of it all. We lay out parcels with a certain arbitrary logic. Grandpa is in section 3-A, while the mayor and his family are in 4-D, and so forth. Churches in such towns taper off into the sky with stiff steeples, and brick and marble perpetuate the illusion that everything in the area, in some way, lasts. In terms of technique for these oddly reassuring patches of quiet, I often will play around with selective focus, since that dreamy half-state seems to align with my interior dialogue. Our pasts are as strange in their own way as our presents, and the standard rules for picture-making are vaporous, like ghosts.
Small towns are often liberally dotted with antique stores, as if objects themselves have need of a graveyard, a place to be collected beyond anyone’s needs or desires. The way we say farewell to things is often impossible to measure visually, but we carry cameras along wherever we go, because, well, you never know. When life’s various elements slip away there is often nothing to mark their passage. And yet sometimes there is just a little. And sometimes we can see it. And steal it. And hoard it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.
The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.
The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.
It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.
Or the click of a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ——William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And though she feels as if she’s in a play….she is, anyway…. ——Lennon & McCartney, Penny Lane
THE NATURE OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE AWARENESS THAT WE ARE ALL PERFORMERS, that, from sunrise to sunset we are carrying out roles, parts played to move society along or smooth our own way within it. The most obvious symbols of performance….masks, costumes, a proscenium…these are all artifacts of the stage, and are but a small part of the dramas and comedies awaiting the attentive eye of the photographer, most of them outside the physical limits of the theatre.
We assume parts that convey ritual, occupations, celebration, even our rank within our communities. We divide our years into seasons and our seasons into roles, marks on the calendar that also define how we will dress ourselves, the codes of behavior we will observe, and the slogans and symbols we use to commune with all the other players. Thus, in street photography, we train our eyes to spot the beginnings, middles and endings of these “scenes”, to see performances in nearly every aspect of life. Some of us are destined to go for the laugh, while others seemed fated for tragedy. We invent insignia, uniforms, jargon, procedures for playing our parts, like the policemen seen here standing on alert at what will be the beginning of a parade. Over time, we develop, as an actor does, “bits of business”, ways of doing things, each with their own key visual signatures. But street work happens in the unranked and the unorganized as well…..indeed, there are actors and actresses everywhere we look. When we first begin to take notice, we may find it hard to see their stories; after a while, we can more easily trace where they’ve come from, where they’re headed, and what constitutes a climax or a turning point in their lives.
Some people choose to see street photography as eavesdropping, as an invasion of privacy. I reject this idea, because my personal intention is not to degrade but to cherish, to attempt pictures that celebrate the universal struggles of the human animal. The thing that makes our part-playing truly lonely is not the sensation that someone is watching, but the fear that no one is. Just as literature, poetry, painting and song all tie the travails of the individual to the traits of the general, so to, then, does the best photography. For if we are all “merely players”, may we not all long for the occasional chance to take a bow?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT HAS BEEN CALLED “THE EIFFEL TOWER OF AMERICA”, a “stairway to nowhere”, a “bold addition to the city’s landscape” and “an eyesore”,…….in other words, a new structure in New York City. Whatever its eventual place in the hearts of Manhattanites, architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a hollow, honeycombed tower of open staircases, viewing landings and dizzying geometry, all sixteen stories of it, has become the visual exclamation point for the continuing explosion of shops and businesses known as Hudson Yards, a project so huge it may not max out for another decade. At this writing, it’s late 2019, and the tower’s creators, who claim the name “vessel” is just a transitional one, have already weathered a short tsunami of plaudits and protests since the beehive’s opening earlier in the spring. And in a city defined by bold visual signatures, the structure seems destined to become a darling for photographers, especially at its current newborn phase, in which there is, as yet, no “official” way of viewing it, no established postcard depiction to inhibit or limit individual visions. It’s at this first phase in a landmark’s life that all captures are equal: it’s the photographic equivalent of the Wild West.
Vessel sits near the periphery of the High Line, the internationally praised West Side reclamation of the New York Central Railway’s old raised infrastructure, which now welcomes millions of strolling visitors and locals each year along its 1.45 miles of twisty, landscaped boardwalks, and has acted as the launch pad for recovery of the entire area, including Hudson Yards’ forest of skyscrapers and high-end shops. The first phase of the Yards is crowned by a glistening five-story mall whose massive glass facing wall is directly opposite Vessel. On the day when I visited, the free timed daily tickets to the inside of the honeycomb were all gone, so viewing it in the regular fashion was off the table. However, every floor of the mall has a spectacular view of the structure and its surrounding plaza, which actually appealed to me almost as much as a trip inside. The combination of reflection, refraction, and the golden glow of the approaching sunset made for a slightly kaleidoscopic effect, and so I decided to re-configure my plans. As mentioned before, the utter newness of the tower plays superbly well into photographic experimentation, as its design seems to present a completely different experience to the viewer every few feet, a very democratic sensation that rewards every visitor in a distinctly personal way. Besides, part of the fun of seeing new things in New York is weighing the hoorays and howls against each other and then making up your own mind.
In a city that has seen both P.T. Barnum’s dime museum and Penn Station fade from the scene over the centuries, it’s useless to guess whether Vessel is eventually regarded as a must-see or a fizzle. But it doesn’t matter much either way. Right now, it is neither building nor dwelling. Like Eiffel, it just is, and maybe that’ll be enough. In the meantime, photographers are using the opportunity of its present existence to celebrate the uncertainty that informs the making of the best pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY STRUGGLED with processes and tools that seemed to stack the deck against the chances that anyone would ever, ever create even a single photograph. Those first exposures, made with slow media and balky, uncertain lenses were not only works of art, but they were truly just plain, flat out work. I recently viewed a video demonstrating the bygone method known as photogravure, the means by which any “serious” photographic artist would render his work for critical approval in the late 19th-century. I was so utterly crushed by the sheer unforgiving precision needed to complete the process that I dropped to my needs and thanked the photo gods for giving me the luxury to merely….shoot. I felt at once lazy and liberated.
One thing these old exposure and processing systems did, however, is fix their visual aspects in time, so that, in our mental sorting process, we easily differentiate between the look of an 1850 wet-plate image and a 1950 Polaroid Land camera snapshot. Various periods in the methodological development of the art have their own distinct signatures. The strange thing is how, in the present era, we use apps and editing suites to summon those old ghost looks back into the present, mixing periods together like a cook throwing all his available ingredients into a garbage salad. We no longer give any thought to making something look old, or retro-old, or ironically old-ish. All times periods can exist in the same image, and whether they have any natural relation to each other is a moot point, if a point at all. We just do it because we can just do it.
In the above picture, for example, I’m merely playing, without any real object in mind. The master photograph on which this remix is based was taken two months ago (Summer 2019) at the main greenhouse building at Minneapolis’ Como Park. The structure’s classic design, complete with rounded cupolas and gently curving rooflines, reminded me of the immense halls that were erected in the 1800’s to house international expositions, industrial shows and world’s fairs, and so I took a fairly straightforward shot from a cell phone and cranked it through an app to evoke an echo of that time, a visual masquerade that mimics the tintype process, right down to its selective pinpoint focus and plate grain. Admittedly, the illusion is spoiled a bit, since the people in the picture are wearing shorts and t-shirts rather than bustles and straw boaters, but that’s not the point. I wasn’t trying, like some master art forger, to make you think this was a newly discovered artifact of the Victorian age. And while I might have been trying to comment on “how we used to think of the purpose of grand public spaces”, or how that contrasts with the public spaces we value now…..I wasn’t. I was just goofing off, using quick and amazing tools the way a child might take Mr. Potato Head’s nose and put it where his ear should be.
What is singular, however, is knowing that any part of photography can be harnessed or combined with every other part of photography at any time. That’s not a hot bulletin, but it is worth pointing out from time to time that, after centuries of innovation, our art is now, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, truly unstuck in time. Backwards, forwards, or right in the middle, what we shoot and where we stand are completely under our control.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT OFTEN EXPRESSED THE BELIEF THAT, in architecture, “form and function are one”, that, in the best designs, what a thing is used for will generally dictate its appearance. And while it does seem to hold true that sports stadiums do look like places where sports are played, or that churches look like places where people worship, I’m not always sure, as a photographer, that I agree with FLLW that the form/function rule applies in all structures. I have a lifelong love for images of personal dwellings, places that, all too often, look ill-suited to house humans at all, as if, indeed, there was no conscious link between form and function. In many cases, we live in basic containers that just are, with how we live in them dictating their form almost as an afterthought or improvisation, draped as they are with the stuff we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.
Indeed, it’s how the infinitely adaptable human retrofits his house from the inside out that makes it look like somebody actually lives there, rather like a window looks more window-ish once someone hangs drapes in it. Urban living is littered with enclosures that will, sadly, never look like anyone’s domicile, and it’s only the personal things that spill outward from within that give them any visual identity or distinction at all. Thus, when I’m walking through a neighborhood, I pay less attention to the well-tailored or manicured houses and more attention to the littered ones, the ones where things are randomly hung or hammered into place, the houses where makeshift repairs or ill-performed additions are in evidence. Houses that otherwise seem as if they were extruded from a Play-Doh Fun Factory can become personalized by what is strewn in front of them, left in the yard, tacked on as a footnote. It is that randomness, that refusal to conform, that makes houses human, and thus ripe for picture-making.
In the image you see here, the house speaks eloquently about the most important things in its owners’ lives. It’s an outward barometer of their hobbies, pastimes, daily chores. The structure itself might never have struck anyone, from the architect to the builder, as unique, but as its true identity has been assembled, layered over it, its messages are all clear and direct. Wright was correct that buildings should reflect the purpose for which they were built. However, when they fail that task, design-wise, the way they are actually used will explode out of them, in a million different cues and clues over a million billion neighborhoods, in a visual shorthand that photographers will forever delight in decoding.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS KNOW THAT THE NIGHT HOLDS A SPECIAL POTENTIAL FOR ACTION, a condition mysteriously distinct from that of daytime. Yes, we all know that there is, technically, nothing in our after-dark scenes that wasn’t there in the light (isn’t that what we tell anxious kids as we tuck them in?), but all the same, the shadows seem to, in a sense, withhold information, or at least re-shape it somehow. A conversation from the day becomes, in the night, slightly conspiratorial. Colors that register as merely garish in the day can become threatening in the shadows of evening. And photographers aren’t the only artists who sense this transformation. Poets, painters, songwriters….all take careful measure of the two worlds defined by the day/night demarcation, all taking note that light, or its absence, is more than mere atmosphere, but also mood, even intention.
In recent days, as I tumble all this over in my mind, I’ve been reviewing a whole series of night shots that I believe have a particular flavor that they may not have had, were they shot during the day. I’ve also been running a musical playlist of songs that seek to capture this same strange phenomenon. Rock ‘n’ roll, with its special emphasis on the restless and rambling impulses of youth, is strongest when it comes to characterizing that urge to move, to discover, to dare or rebel. You will no doubt have songs that you believe best frame these feelings. Some are simple, others more ornate, but, for my money, none come close to the compact, precise, and emotionally direct language of Van Morrison’s Wild Night. Regard for a moment, if you will, the random carnival shot above, and sink yourself into Morrison’s unique invitation to join the ranks of a special kind of shadowy wanderer:
As you brush your shoes, stand before the mirror
And you comb your hair, grab your coat and hat
And you walk, wet streets tryin’ to remember
All the wild night breezes in your mem’ry ever
And ev’rything looks so complete when you’re walkin’ out on the street
And the wind catches your feet, sends you flyin’, cryin’
Wild night is calling
Wild night is calling
And all the girls walk by, dressed up for each other
And the boys do the boogie-woogie on the corner of the street
And the people, passin’ by stare in wild wonder
And the inside juke-box roars out just like thunder
And ev’rything looks so complete when you’re walkin’ out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
And sends you flyin’, cryin’
Wild night is calling
Wild night is calling, alright
The wild night is calling
The wild night is calling
Come on out and dance
Whoa, come on out and make romance
c) 1971 WB Music. Corp / Caledonia Soul Music (ASCAP). All rights reserved.
Anticipation. Experimentation. Potential. Mystery.
The wild night is calling, and sending images racing into hearts.
Come on out and make romance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS OFTEN FIND THAT SOME SUBJECTS HAVE A DISTINCT VISUAL SIGNATURE. That is to say, they instantly convey precisely what they are. The word iconic means something that stands as the defining symbol for its class and and category, signaling us in a moment exactly what we’re looking at. In architecture, some structures are, in a way, self-explanatory, and cannot be confused with anything else. Thus churches tend to look like churches, palaces kinda always look like palaces, and, for purveyors of twentieth-century pop culture, diners look, unmistakably, like diners. They bespeak informality, convenience, comfort, and, if luck holds, good eats. They also communicate immediate context and poignant memory for the camera.
Diners first appeared on the national scene in the 1920’s as horse-drawn wagons with food, then stretched out to resemble railroad dining cars clad in gleaming Art Deco chrome, all rounded corners, streamlined stainless steel, and mirrors. Lots of mirrors, like the ones in the ceilings, which allowed counter waitresses to quickly ascertain which booth needed a coffee refill. The eateries peaked just after World War II, when casual dining had become a national habit, the joints were finally attracting as many women as male laborers, and diner ownership served, for a time, as an affordable first business move for returning vets.
While most eating establishments are built like any other other structure, that is, on-site, working from a framework which is then layered over with different levels of support or decor, the classic American diner of the 20’s through the 50’s was produced modularly, much like an automobile. Indeed, the closest relative to the diner might be the Airsteam trailer, an edifice built as a single unit in a factory and shipped to its final destination. Over the half-century or so that diners dotted the national map, companies like Silk City, Kullman and Fodero manufactured compact, curvilinear eateries that were trucked, fully equipped inside and out, to their initial locations ready for business. Such was the origin of the diner you see in the above image (a Fordero diner…shout-out to New Jersey), which began its life near the Gibsonia exit of the Pittsburgh portion of the Pennsylvania turnpike. As the place was situated only seven miles from the neoghboring town of Mars, Pa., the diner’s owners decided to maintain the planetary theme, naming their joint the Venus.
Half a century later, another alignment of cosmic forces began to ready the Venus for a second life. Just as it was pouring its last cups o’ joe, the owners of a tony Minneapolis decor boutique called Modern Forage Workshop were getting pretty tired of the wretched view out their store window, which looked across the street to a dilapidated Taco Bell fronted by a seedy vacant lot. Mike Smith and James Brown almost simultaneously hit on the idea of obtaining a classic diner for the spot, but where to get one? Diner manufacturers were a speciality even back in the day, making their restoration even more of a niche skill in the twenty-first century. Smith and Brown sniffed about and unearthed Steve Harwin, a Cleveland tinkerer who had begun his career refurbishing high-end sports cars, then switched specialities when his European pals told him that diners were “the coolest things in America”.
Shipped to Harwin via flatbed truck and police escort (wiiiiiide load), the Venus was cleaned, sanded and primped for a second cross-country trek to the Twin Cities. As in the past, the local landscape determined the place’s new monicker, which celebrated the regentrification of both the HIawatha and LOngfellow neighborhoods to be christened the Hi-Lo, opening to rave reviews in 2016 and even opening a kitschy tiki patio around the side in 2018. Recently, my wife Marian and I caught a glimpse of the old girl out the car window en route to St. Paul and decided to circle back for a better look. One very intense plate of corned beef hash later, I betook myself to the opposite side of the street for the same vantage point that Smith and Brown once disdained, later celebrated. It goes without saying that the view is a helluva lot better these days.
And the coffee ain’t bad either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL ENDURED ONE: a brave gig by a solitary volunteer musician, solemnly squeezing out a song set on a threadbare recreation-department stage, providing aural filler near the picnic tables at an art festival/neighborhood fair/neighborhood rally. Crowds are sparse to the point of threadbare: enthusiasm is restricted to a few anemic claps between tunes: stage announcements mostly involve updates on the change in location for the caramel corn tent. For the artist, the whole performance is the musical equivalent of a game of solitaire.
But, hey, my son has copies of my CD at the table over there.
Now that’s optimism.
On the day this image of a doggedly dedicated young pitchman was taken, his mother was smiling and slogging her way through a hot Labor Day afternoon on a nearby platform while he ran the store. The budding entrepreneur was referenced on mic several times, responding to the plug by pivoting, pirouetting, and punching the air with a $5 disc held aloft. His energy waxed and waned, now calming to a mild wave, now heating up to a wild flailing of arms, spinning on the ground, and, at the moment I snapped him, conducting from the height of a folding chair. As he spots me, his gaze is a mixture of caution, determination, and businesslike focus, as he tries to assess whether I am a fan, or a threat, or even his shot at the fame for which he is so earnestly striving. The sum of all these feelings is a perfect storm of childhood, and I scoop it up gratefully.
His dedication also earns a small cash dividend, as he manages to actually sell a few pieces, mostly to women who are hosting the art tents near him. Hey, I have a son of my own. Good boy.
Good indeed. He has given me a gift as well. Time to knock off, as I’m not going to find this kind of luck for the rest of the day. Now, where were they selling those corn dogs?
THERE IS SO MUCH HUMANITY TO LOVE IN ANSEL ADAMS: his spectacular inventiveness: his infinite patience: his unquenchable curiosity….the sum total of traits that produced one of the most amazing bodies of work in the history of any creative medium. But being fully human, or, more accurately, fully a human artist, consists not merely in one’s strengths, not even for the man who, for most people, defines the very idea of photography. It also lies in the very human emotion of doubt….something Ansel knew about, and thought about, over the wide expanse of his astonishing career.
Adams filled a good-sized library shelf with scholarly works on how he did what he did, much of it as scientifically exquisite as anything from the pen of a Newton or a DaVinci. He knew more about the physics of picture-making than nearly any man alive. But he also wrote and taught about the things he didn’t know, the things that danced teasingly just beyond the edge of his skills. In journals, letters to friends, and interviews over decades, Ansel Adams returned to the subject he saw as his own Achilles heel, a mystery that haunted him until his dying day…the challenge of color photography.
“My own reaction to color photography is a mixed one”, Adams wrote in a 1957 article for Image magazine. “I accept its importance as a medium of communication and information. (But) I have yet to see….much less produce…a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art. It never seems to achieve that happy blend of perception and realization which we observe in the greatest black-and-white photography…”
Of course, Ansel certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge of color work, having made over 3,500 such images in addition to his prodigious output in monochrome. But while he knew the values and tonal gradations of black and white like he knew his ABCs, it was color that seemed to him somehow less “real”, or, to look at it another way, presented more of a challenge in getting the reality right. “Black and white is accepted as a stylized medium”, he wrote in an article on the emergence of Polaroid color film in 1962. “Values are intentionally accented or subdued….there is little or no “reality” in either the informational or expressive black-and-white image, and yet we have learned to interpret these values as meaningful and “real“.
Strangely, as his own career began to run in parallel with the emergence of the great national magazines of the mid-twentieth century, it was his color work which was in increasing demand, paying the bills and funding the projects in which he was more personally invested. More and more, Adams’s commissions for Eastman Kodak, the Land Corporation and other manufacturers was to act as a strong second stream of income, helping to bolster his reputation in the mass market even as he believed that color was distracting him from his serious work. Part of his ongoing disappointment was not so much in his own execution of color but in the loss of accuracy that seemed inevitable once he handed his images off to the decidedly limited printing technology of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Angry at the final results on the printed page, Ansel kept most of his color images out of circulation during his lifetime, always referring to them with a mixture of frustration and regret, or seeing them as mere economic means to an end. But that, too, is a very human thing for an artist to do, as is the doubt that drives those feelings.
Doubt is a test of faith, a challenge to lazy or easy habit. Feeling that even your best efforts have come up short is the petrol that fuels a creative mind, at least until you plunge into depression a la Van Gogh and start hacking your ears off. I never trust a creative person who hasn’t been tempted, at least once, to take his entire life’s work and toss it in the garbage. The fact that he doesn’t is where the genius part comes in, and Ansel Adams never was derailed by the fact that his reach was always going to exceed his grasp. And that is not only instructive but inspirational, more inspiring, even, than his photographs themselves. Because this thing we do is a journey and not a destination. If we’re hungry, if we’re honest, we have to realize that we’ll never get where we’re going. Ansel Adams, the photographer that made more people want to become photographers than perhaps any other person in history, wrote, near the end of his life that, although he had hidden most of his color images away, “I feel the urge now, and only wish I were sixty years younger!” Indeed, for any of us who’ve ever clicked a shutter, the doubts persist. But the spirit does, as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you wish to depict humanity as your mind would arrange and design it, then a formal sitting or a studio setting would seem to be the place where you could exercise the most creative control. If, on the other hand, you wish to capture humanity in the act of just, well, being, then street work is probably better. This means taking what you get from people, behavior-wise, and noticing how those behaviors shift and evolve.
Street work is truly a barometer on what’s important to people, from the fashions they wear to the conveyances that take them around to what they prize most about daily life. And, in this part of the twenty-first century, that means how they interact with cellular phones.
The ubiquity and non-stop use of these devices is now simply a part of the visual vocabulary of street photography. It has become, in a very short space of time, nearly impossible to take a candid scene without recording someone on their phone….consulting it, catching up with it, charging it, using it for social connectivity. This has become a real challenge for me, since I believe that the best social pictures come from evidence of inter-action between people in real time, in real physical places. What I have to work with, instead, is a crop of one-sided interactions. There may be some human drama in such images (imagine outrage, surprise, delight playing out on phoners’ faces), but I frequently just chuck many of these frames from a street batch because I, personally, can’t extract any kind of story from them.
Of course, isolation as an urban condition is not new, nor is it even novel in the street shooter’s experience. Seventy-year old photos of commuters crammed on the subway, each mesmerized by his or her own personal newspaper, reflects just as much loneliness as a present-day scene of crowds all separately entranced by their mobiles. And yet the cellphone has produced a new kind of lonely, with greater numbers of us showing a more complete pulling away from each other. I find this sad, and, while that feeling, by itself, can also produce a good picture, I still, typically, put such images in my “pass” pile.
This one registered a little differently with me.
I really had no interest in the two people in the frame other than their ability to take up compositional space and account for a wide range of light contrast, something I always like to practice with. So I must be honest and report that, in the actual taking of the picture, their “story” was not on my radar. Moreover, given how many hundreds of other “phoners” I’ve accidentally recorded, usually concluding that there was “no picture there”, I think I can be forgiven a certain dismissiveness in snapping the photo. It was only later that the completeness of their isolation struck me. Not only are they facing away from the somewhat scenic, bright view out the window, but they are completely isolated from each other. As it happens, they are in a Manhattan museum which, even if you were to completely eschew the contents of the exhibits, offers any number of stunning skyline scenes out the windows, including several high-rise walk-out platforms. But none of that matters to this pair, any more than they matter to each other, or whether a live, nude performance of King Lear would matter, were it just inches away from them. Their place in the present world does not matter…..only their proximity to a wall outlet. This, to me, is beyond isolation. This is self-banishment, and, in this case, the image I accidentally snapped of the condition shows, at least in miniature, the crux of the dilemma: the fact that we have become one international village of strangers.
But if we completely ignore this phenomenon, of what are we to craft street images that are accurate testimony of our age? Are there deeper stories behind this tsunami of blank faces, stories that are worth pursuing? Or do we, as photographers, just turn away from those who have turned away?
I really wish I knew.