By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT HYPERBOLE TO SAY THAT THE GREAT HIBERNATION, our global banishment from our regular lives, feels a bit like living through a war. As in a traditional conflict, there are separations, sudden deaths, deprivations, and a feeling of “where have I been?” that accompanies our every venture outside our safe zones. So many of us have simply backed out of the flow of time that, as in times of war, we are startled by what has been altered or even vanished since the last time we cautiously emerged to explore the sites of our old existence. And that shock, in turn, informs all of our art, including, of course, photography.
The first thing that we notice is that so many things that were solid and substantial before we ducked under cover have been either greatly altered or completely vaporized. And the sensation is not limited to things that were already crumbling, but also includes things that were just becoming part of our world in the moments immediately before the lockdown. Places that just cut their ribbons of newness a heartbeat ago, but which already find themselves neutralized, obsolete. Of course, society is always closing chapters and tearing down buildings, in a cycle of goodbyes that seem almost normal, pandemic or no. But the toll created by our withdrawal from the daily parade also lists things that were just getting started, the space between their grand opening days and dark closing nights shrunk by circumstance . And our photographs of those things, taken either before or after these brief appearances, are poignant images of what might have been, a measure of the gap between our hopes and the ruthless randomness of this strange new world.
As one example, consider this image of Vessel, a bold (and controversial) open-air attraction that acts as a kind of visual rendezvous at the head of the massive new Hudson Yards district in Manhattan. Part sculpture, part observation deck, part tourist trap, the structure sits opposite the main entry to the Yards’ Public Square mall. Built at a cost of 200 million dollars, it rose to sixteen floors, honeycombed 154 flights of stairs, and became an instant hit with visitors, who were admitted via free but timed tickets. Vessel’s very bigness rendered its actual value as art moot; like the Eiffel Tower (to which it was compared) or Niagara Falls, it just was, and, in so being, became part of what you do when you “do” New York. It opened to the public in March of 2019.
You can guess a lot of what followed. As NYC locked down, retail took a major hit and retail on the massively ostentatious scale seen at Hudson Yards took an even bigger one. Leases were renegotiated, then abandoned outright. The project (still unfinished) that was designed to reconfigure an entire economic sector of the Apple was down on one knee. And something weirdly symptomatic of the times occurred with Vessel; people started to jump off of it to their deaths. Last month (January 2021), the structure was closed “indefinitely”, its term as a pet chunk of Americana capped at just under two years’ time.
I was lucky enough to photograph Vessel in person, creating day and night images that now seem as bizarre as launch-party pix of the Hindenburg or snapshots from Titanic. Photographers often catch a flavor of a time by accident, and many of our personal archives are populated by things we never thought of as perishable or mortal at the moment we shot them. Vessel is just one very public barometer of Dreams Gone Wrong, visions that deserve to be preserved inside our magic light boxes, either as tributes to our dreams or tombstones to our folly.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” –Susan Sontag, On Photography
IS AN OBJECT, A PLACE, A PERSON only worth noticing if we’ve officially “noticed” it with a camera? By constantly being in “capture mode”, i.e., looking for something to “take a picture of”, do we substantially shortchange ourselves of the memory of recording an experience rather than savoring the memory of having lived the experience itself? If we were to come back from a trip having taken no photographs at all, would we consider ourselves the poorer for it?
Perhaps the answer lies in some blend of direct and indirect experience. That is, maybe we should sometimes limit our photography to things that already have some meaning or connection to us, only using images to create a reminder of that which we have true memory of. In the case of the building you see here, that was certainly the case.
Several years ago, when the fate of the last residential design by Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix, Arizona was decidedly uncertain, I had the chance to work briefly as a tour guide on the grounds of a dwelling that some regard as a dress rehearsal for the Old Man’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The David and Gladys Wright House had passed, over the years, to parties that intended to raze the structure for “development”, at which time a local millionaire purchased the house just to protect it. Preservation and restoration being extremely expensive (if needful), he explored plans to convert the house into a learning center/museum, trying to partner with Arizona State University and others to get the project off the ground. Locals from the neighborhood, fearing that their property values would be undone by artsy invaders, freaked. Somewhere in that mad timeline of contention, the house was opened to the public in an effort to sway opinion. Not in my backyard, saith the locals.
As of this month, then, the property was resold, this time to a team of people who had actually worked at the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture, also headquartered in Phoenix. Again, the motive was to keep the house out of the clutches of apartment builders and others who would bulldoze it into dust. And here’s where the value of photographs comes in, at least for me; the same wheel of chance that allowed me to explore a place that otherwise would be completely off-limits to me has now spun ’round to close that door again, making the images of my time there doubly precious. At least for this particular photographic subject, the door has closed, and is likely to remain so. I certainly have my direct experience of the time to comfort me, but it was the indirect experience, the making of images after I had thoroughly taken in the scene with my raw senses, that imparts extra value to the pictures that remain. So, in the strictest sense, I didn’t just randomly wander onto the place and start clicking. That’s the stuff of snapshots. All of the house’s history was of value to me long before I ever aimed a camera at it. My pictures weren’t taken to make it important, or make it mine, like a trophy. They are now keepsakes of the most valuable kind.
(For the curious: the tabs at the top of this page are links to various personal photo essays, including Wright Thinking, a selection of views of the house taken during its days as a public attraction. Cheers.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE FROZEN IN PLACE BY 2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION, I’ve found myself riffing through my video collection in search of long-form diversion. In recent weeks, as New York struggled to emerge from the first massive crush of horror borne by the virus tragedy, I was seeking a kind of Manhattan-flavored comfort food, and unearthed my old copy of Ric (brother of Ken) Burns’ epic documentary on the history of the island from the time of the Dutch settlers to the final days of 1999. After 9/11, feeling that something incredibly important had been left unsaid, Ric went back into production on an eighth and final chapter,The Center Of The World, which told the detailed history of the specific lower Manhattan neighborhoods of “Ground Zero” as they existed before the attack, and concluding with a post-script on what was, at the time, the first stirrings of rebirth at the site. Re-watching this for the first time in years sent me into an archive of another kind: my own still images from roughly the same time frame.
Marian and I made our first pilgrimage to the site in 2011, right after access was opened to the memorial pools that were fashioned from the remains of the foundations of the twin towers of the original World Trade Center. The first replacement structure was not completely clad in glass at that time (see left), and entry to the area was by means of a ton of secured cyclone fencing and very long lines. Signs promised a yet-to-be-built memorial. Almost everything else in the rebirthing of the site was likewise still on the drawing board. The empty space across the street from the old 90 Church Street post office (which is the beige building in the middle of the lower image) would eventually become the great winged Oculus, the new entry point for the rebuilt PATH terminal and underground connector to various new business and retail complexes, themselves also under construction at the time. Barely ten years after a searing scar had been burned into the Manhattan streets and hearts, resurrection was already well under way. That’s New York, a city which would have been well served to steal its motto from the book title by Jesse Ventura, I Ain’t Got Time To Bleed.
The idea of rebirth is with me a lot these days, informing either the personal, immediate pictures I make in quarantine or the visual stories I’m hungry to find whenever it’s safe to venture out. I’m not an official chronicler of this mess, but I know we’ll create a vast and very human archive from all this misery. Like all things in life, it will pass, and we will creatively struggle with ways to mark the passage. To take measure of our own scar tissue, and the corrective surgery we will undergo to make the scars less obvious. In the meantime, even the pictures we make while isolated are important ones. See how long my hair got? Oh, sure, that was the home office we improvised. Yeah, this was my favorite window to look out: it kept me anchored.
Photographs are as remote or as personal as we determine them to be, but, even at their most introspective, they will say something about the human condition in general. This is how I got through. And maybe it’s similar to how you did it. There will be remembrance, but there will be no lingering over smoking ruins. We ain’t got time to bleed. Woodrow Wilson once compared the relatively new art of motion pictures to “teaching history by lightning”. That’s the pace now. We move rapidly from the role of mourners to the role of builders. And we will etch the resulting lightning inside our cameras, to simply state, we passed this way.
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
HOW MANY SECONDS DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO IDENTIFY THE EDIFICE seen in the above image? I’m guessing that your response time was predictably brief. That’s the power of a photographic icon, a power which redounds to the benefit of all interpretive photographers. At the time of this post’s publication, it is exactly sixty years since the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In those six decades, the “Gugg” has more than delivered on its promise to provide a unique setting for the most adventurous art of the age. But in the process, it has also become a piece of art, a statement no less resonant than the thousands of paintings and sculptures it has housed.
We’ve often written here, as many have, of the challenge of photographing things that, over time, nearly the entire world seems to have snapped. Make your own list: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Empire State, Big Ben, all names linked with objects or sites which fully meet any criteria for an icon. These things are so very familiar that, some billions of images into the game, they can become static as subject matter, resistant to revealing anything new about themselves. We admire the postcard view of a place and work to replicate it endlessly, almost making it meaningless. And yet, with the right approach, even a weathered subject can be reborn inside your camera.
In the case of the Guggenheim, a place which stores art is itself an art masterpiece, almost to the point of eclipsing the works that are showcased within it. Its outward form is one of a handful of things that is so recognizable that it resists stasis. It can, visually, be almost endlessly reinterpreted, if we look for the correct idea. It can be simplified to a collection of light and dark planes: it can be negativized, filtered, cropped almost to abstraction (as we have here), reimagined from any angle, and serve as an unmistakable cue to our collective brains. Certainly a simple photographic recording of the building in its natural state (the post card shot), as seen in the small inset image, is effective, because the structure itself is so objectively powerful. However, that same view can be sliced almost to the dimensions of a view through a mail slot and it will still communicate what it is, still generate strength. That’s what an icon can do for photography: become the gift that keeps on giving.
The Guggenheim was created specifically as a home for various mid-century art movements that had no official home within the conventional museum community of the Eisenhower era. Its design passed through many hands before completion, which happened after the deaths of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Solomon Guggenheim. Even after substantial revision and interference from people who frankly should never have been allowed admission to the place, the “Gugg” emerged with its essential elements intact, so far advanced as a public space that even now, sixty years on, it seems as if it’s just arriving for the first time. Some icons not only indelibly define themselves but also the times that created them, with a permanence that continues to feed the imaginations of other artists looking to craft their own visions. One critic once described the museum as a birthday cake. Perhaps that’s its magic: an occasion of joy, alight with illumination, imbued with the power to grant your every wish.
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
URBAN ARCHITECTURE IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY convulsed our sense of what a “proper” building should be, with a seismic shift in aesthetics from the staid and respectable design of the Victorian age. It’s no coincidence that this revolution occurred at the very same time that the age of mass media washed over the world, as the dictates of print advertising were supplemented with the promotional energies of movies, radio, and, eventually, television. Cities whose businesses were born in this loud, aggressive crucible of modern advertising would drastically change the way those businesses competed for our attention. Structures from the 19th century sometimes bore advertisements on their exteriors, from signs to posters. Structures in the emerging 20th century were advertisements….their design screaming out their intentions with neon, explosions of color and extremes of design. In a real way, whatever show was inside the stores truly began at the sidewalk.
Photographers are still scrambling to chronicle the vanishing echoes of this design surge, which was most vividly expressed in the streamline, moderne, and Art Deco movements. Function dictated form: a boutique selling hats might actually look like a hat: a photo shop might design its storefront to resemble an enormous camera. Even banks went from the quietly dignified Doric columns and Romanesque scrolls of the Gilded Age to the bizarre Aztec-meets-Moorish-meets-Hollywood mishmashes of the the Jazz Age, with every place of business screaming for your eye. All of this proves catnip to photographers, who now experience pangs of nostalgia for the bold and brassy looks that predate their own lifetimes. Give me a blinking, blaring mass of zigzags and chevrons and I am in some kind of Busby Berkeley fever dream. Especially with theatres.
Many of the world’s old neighborhood bijous have gone down to dust, others converted to street corner churches, antique shops or themed cafes. And of those that do survive, some still actively celebrate their original functions, and thus are among my favorite things to shoot. The image seen here is of downtown Ventura, California’s Century theatre. The structure is particularly delightful, its soft pastels dreamily gleaming in the warm light of this charming seaside town. California as a whole, perhaps because of its direct connection to the film industry, has seemed to have salvaged a greater number of these little jewel boxes than is typical for other parts of the USA, although they, too, have seen many such houses crushed under the heel of what passes for progress. In any event, I can be counted upon to stop, stare, drool and shoot when encountering one of these picture palaces. Because the old theatre program billings, in which features were preceded by cartoons, newsreels, shorts or travelogues, left out an important first step….that “show” that starts at the curb.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABSTRACTION, our subjective representation of what we think things “really look like”…..operative word being “we”. But it’s also a process of extraction, of pulling a moment out of time’s flowing sequence and trapping it in amber. If life is a continuously unfurling roll of movie film, photographers specialize in stealing single frames of that reality, hoping we can make the argument that our frozen sample symbolically stands for the organic whole. If we make that argument successfully, we’re great photographers. I emphasize this obvious concept because we need to remain mindful of what’s going on every time we frame a shot. Occasionally we have minutes to make the decisions on what that frame will be. More typically, it’s seconds. And occasionally, it’s pieces of seconds.
Shooters already have to grapple with the fact that we are usually making static shots of constantly moving things. That’s one kind of motion. Then there is the secondary stress created by the fact that we ourselves are also moving. We snap from car windows, from escalators, from trains and subways, even while physically chasing our quarry in papparazi “run-and-gun” mode. Thus what is already a difficult sorting and choosing process is made even quicker and more crucial. The extractions in our pictures are based on a furiously fast analysis of what’s important, as well as what’s dispensable, within the frame. It’s also about a virtually instantaneous formula for what’s technically required to get the picture made. These decisions become a little easier with practice, but any comfort we’ve built up over the years can be quickly shattered when a different kind of photo opp presents itself, one which upends our usual or comfortable approaches. Then everything’s a race.
Urban images are especially challenging. Cities themselves are convulsing with steadily increasing change, altering the nature or terms of a potential picture in days or hours. Like old-time news shutterbugs, the urban photographer is truly on deadline. With that in mind, I take a shoot-it-or-lose-it stance when moving past anything I regard in a city as temporary, figuring that it is even more fleeting for me than it may be for other people. In any event, I always harvest everything I can physically shoot, and sort out the weeds later. The makeshift subway stop viewing window of construction along the 7 train line between Queens and Manhattan that you see here is gone by now, but the picture stays. Perfection? Hardly. But photography is also a game of percentages, and I am at least 100% happier for having made the attempt as not.
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”.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SEEMS TO ME that a municipality only qualifies as a “real” city when it becomes nearly impossible to visually identify its beginnings. Neighborhoods may begin as unified civic signatures with coherent visual styles, but let fire, war, hard times or earthquakes add their input, and those same streets start to look like jigsaws with the pieces chosen from different puzzles. It’s a nightmare for urban planners but a treasure trove for the camera.
As they age, cities become visual collision points between good intentions and unintended consequences, with parts of one era being grafted onto fragments from another. Absent a bomb or natural disaster, few streets are completely destroyed by time, just evolved into a crazy-quilt jumble of bygone trends, deaths, and rebirths.
This image shows a typical block in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, with residential, retail and undefined space co-existing in a single building, following the general rule for the neighborhood that everything should be re-purposed and then re-re-purposed pretty much forever. Things get old. Things break. Ownerships and administrations change. Priorities shift. Some parts of buildings disappear, others are re-imagined, still others are absorbed into other visions.
This urban recycling has real benefits. As an area with the densest population concentration in all of Los Angeles county, there is no space in Koreatown to waste, and thus many priceless remnants of the Art Deco movement which might have fallen to the wrecking ball in other sectors of L.A. were saved and re-used when the neighborhood transitioned from an entertainment district to a residential and commercial area in the 1960’s. Like most of the city at large, Koreatown’s streets are living exhibits, laboratories involving all of the different “Los Angeleses” that have existed throughout the last century. And as with “real” cities in general, part of the new way for the various Koreatown’s is always marbled with what Paul McCartney calls “my ever-present past”. creating unique photographic opportunities in the process. Essentially, cameras were born to bear witness to this amazing cross between architecture and archaeology, this irreconcilable argument between competing jigsaw puzzles. It’s part of the Big Picture we all seek.
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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.
Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.
Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.
Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.
As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT JOB ONE, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, is maximizing his ability to see, it’s worth considering how we unconsciously condition our eyes not to see….to, in a way, confer a sort of invisibility on whole big chunks of the viewable world. It’s not that those chunks can spontaneously vanish on their own: it’s that we, in the act of managing the everyday flood of sensory information, prioritize some data above others. The lowest priority data effectively becomes invisible.
Cities provide an interesting example of this phenomenon, which I term the Invisible Middle. The upper stories of the buildings in a metropolitan are clearly noticed as “treetops”, clusters of skyscrapers easily apprehended from a distance. Equally visible are the bottom, or street-level layers of cities, the door-to-door sequences of businesses that parallel our daily journeys, the very stuff of habit. By contrast, the details of urban life from just above our line of sight all the way up to the spires and crowns of the skyline can become phantom acreage, something our schedule doesn’t demand that we notice.
As one example, the building shown here, 452 Fifth Avenue in New York City, presents a magnificent face to anyone lucky enough to be in a position to crane their neck just a few extra floors above street level. Built in 1902, when a ten-story building was still a big deal in Manhattan, the Knox Building, named for Edmund Knox and the hat factory that made him a millionaire, was an anomaly from the start. Knox decided not to engage just any architect, but to hire John Hemenway Duncan, the man who had designed both the memorial arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Grant’s Tomb, an act slightly akin to hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to build you a 7-11. Decades later, however, having survived years of attempts to raze it, the Knox landed on the National Registry, and in the 1980’s, got a new glass tower wrapped around it to make it the crown jewel of a major midtown banking complex. If one of Mr. Knox’ hats were still available, giving it a tip would be an apt gesture of respect.
This particular view was chiefly available to me because I was seven floors up in the building on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Vantage point gave me access to this part of the city’s Invisible Middle, but, more importantly, it left my eye hungry for more, and just a little more trained as to the complete range of places to cast my gaze. Because of this lucky accident, I may, in future, also do other good things….on purpose.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST THEATRES ARE LIKE THE GREATEST PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIOS, in that they are, occasionally, both the physical place where great things are staged and great things in and of themselves. They are distinctive in that, years after they house miracles, some of the magic seems to linger in the air, as if it’s imbedded in the very bricks. To see the room where Richard Avedon created key touchstones of twentieth-century culture is, for some, to see more than the room itself. And to see a grand painted lady of the theatrical world is, likewise, to breathe in a rich perfume of opening nights and ovations. And to be allowed to use one medium’s eye to capture another medium’s mystery is a gift, a privilege.
New York’s Schubert Theatre qualifies, to my eye, as sacred space, the imperial nexus between ambition and triumph that has witnessed plenty of both since opening its doors with a production of Hamlet on October 2, 1913. The Schubert, like many of the theatre district’s most venerable venues, is rich in architectural grandeur but modest of scale, seating only 1,460. However, within that compact space, a century’s worth of peerless talent has rolled up the grandest roster of winners in all of Broadway history, still boasting the all-time record run with 6,137 performances of A Chorus Line, which graced the Schubert’s stage for an astonishing fifteen years. Hits not only come first to the Schubert: they come to stay, with multiple-year champs like Crazy For You, Chicago, and Spamalot carrying on the tradition of The Philadelphia Story, Pal Joey, Kiss Me, Kate, Bye–Bye, Birdie, Oliver!, and the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!, which set the all-time box office record for the place.
So, how to photograph the theatre of theatres? For my first attempt, a dark exposure to deepen the classic red of the main curtain, paired with a soft-focus foray into the molded plaster figures and light fixtures flanking the side boxes….a dreamy look designed to summon forth blythe spirits. Because, while you can put up four pieces of sheet rock and call the results a theatre, some studios, some stages ring with their own life, long after the last hurrah has faded, and trying to capture that echo in a box can be the greatest show in town.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BUILDING YOU SEE HERE may not, on first glance, match your sensory memory of what a “public library” is supposed to look like. However, step into this amazing complex on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and you will certainly see, from every angle of its curvy vastness, the public….buzzing away at research, cozying next to comfy reads in cafes, tucked away in private warrens of study and solitude.
One of photography’s functions is to chronicle the public space that mankind creates, and how it occupies that space. And visually, there can be no greater illustration of the changes in how that space is defined than in the architectural evolution of public libraries. More than mere warehouses for books, libraries were the first common gathering places in our young republic, no less important than legislatures or marketplaces. Indeed, we built many libraries to be brick and mortar celebrations of learning, grand, soaring temples to thought, arrayed in oak clusters, dizzying vaults, sprawling staircases, and mottoes of the masters, wrought in alabaster and marble. To see these spaces today is to feel the aspiration, the ambitious reach inside every volume within the stacks of these palaces.
The library, in the twenty-first century, is an institution struggling to find its next best iteration, as books share the search for knowledge with a buffet of competing platforms. That evolution of purpose is now spelled out in new kinds of public space, and the photographer is charged with witnessing their birth, just as he witnessed the digging of the subways or the upward surge of the skyscraper. New paths to fortune are being erected within the provocative wings of our New Libraries. Their shapes may seem foreign, but their aim is familiar: to create a haven for the mind and a shelter for the heart.
There are legends to be written here, and some of them will be written with light…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.