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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S REVOLUTION IN URBAN ARCHITECTURE produced a radical re-imagining of the physical science of erecting buildings, along with a remarkable shift in what those buildings should look like. An extreme shift in outward design can be tracked from the ornate Greco-Roman and Gothic textures of the Woolworth Building at century’s start to the stark, spare rectilinear boxes of the ’40’s and 50’s, as we jetted from doric columns, oak clusters and gargoyles to the completely un-ornamented glass boxes that we associate with, say, the Pan Am or United Nations buildings at the other end. That changed the way we live, and likewise transformed the way we photo-document our cities.
And, whatever your opinion of what came to be called the “International Style”, the boxes today co-exist with their more decorous ancestors, a contrasting mix which creates amazing opportunities for abstraction. The collision of the two periods creates an endless shuffling of visual cues, with all that glass and terra cotta dueling for dominance in our compositions. And therein lies a tip: one tool which you may find of enduring value in shooting in these situations is a circular polarizing filter, which can help you create a wide variety of effects…quickly, and on the cheap.
People in sun-soaked sectors of the world mostly use the CPL to deepen the blue in overly-bright skies, but the filter’s ability to cut glare on reflective surfaces like water and glass can also be dramatic, and that’s how I use it in urban settings. I’ve come to love the idea of a sheer wall of glass in one building being stamped with all the details of the building directly across the street (over my shoulder). Twisting the upper ring of the CPL dials in the degree of glare you want in your image, allowing you to see none, some, or all of your neighboring structure in the glass in front of you. One caution: the filter also deepens color and can rob you of up to a stop of light, so you want to plan your exposures more carefully, something that’s done easier shooting on full manual.
The dominant idea of design in the International Style was to eschew detail and ornament to as great a degree as possible. That resulted in a lot of very boring exteriors as a vast crop of largely faceless boxes shot off the assembly line. However, using their sheer screens of glass as a vibrant kind of video display for the neighborhoods around them actually breathes a little life into them, and the circular polarizing filter gives you a remarkable amount of control over that process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS BENEFIT FROM SOCIOLOGICAL “PIVOT POINTS“, those unique junctures in time when tectonic plates between eras shift, grind and re-configure. Images, for better or worse, are the way we testify to big changes in our world. They are documents of where one age ends and a new one begins. They illustrate contrasts between then and now.
A change in society is an opportunity for pictures, photos which become obvious, even inevitable, in telling the story of how we evolve. And one of the biggest such changes over the last decade or so has been the re-birthing of the walking neighborhood. Urban cores long given up for dead are being re-vitalized by young people who want close, hands-on engagement with city life.
Whether this shift is a boomerang effect at the end of half a century of suburban flight, an economic remedy to rising housing prices (refurbishing is cheaper than new building), an ingenious way to re-purpose old resources for a greener planet (and get rid of cars), or just a generational restlessness, the old laboratory known as the urban neighborhood is back open for business, with darkened and deserted blocks sprouting new colors, shops, rhythms. Prime picking for photographers, who, first and foremost, go where the stories are.
For me, lateral, wide-angle portraits of businesses is great fun, as I try to channel the “neighborhood in miniature” panels made popular by painter Norman Rockwell during his magazine years. Watching foot traffic flow between laundries and liquor stores, with maybe a pizza joint in between, affords an instant variety of color, signage, reflections, and texture…in other words, lots to work with.
The street is dead. Long live the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO MEASURE MAN’S RELATIONSHIP to his physical environment, giving us the distance we need to see these arrangements from a more objective distance. People design places in which other people are to live and work, but once these plans get off the drawing board, it can become unclear what people’s place in the whole puzzle was intended to be.
More to the point, there is real picture-making potential in the occasional mis-match between what we design and how we fit into it. Some things that seem terrific to the people on the planning board seem cold or intimidating to regular users once they’re actually built. Seeing us try to find our place in things that are really inhospitable can be visually interesting because it makes us look and feel somewhat alien. We can become oddly placed props in our own projects, as the places made to house our dreams look more like warehouses for our nightmares.
Of course, one man’s horror is another man’s heaven, a rule that has certainly been constant over the history of innovation. That means, artistically, that we can wind up, inevitably, making images that start arguments, which is, I believe, the perfect function for art anyway. It’s one thing to smear a daub of paint on a canvas and lacerate someone’s vision with it. After all, you can abandon the painting, leave the gallery, etc. But if the building that was meant to be the gallery seems like a bad fit for you as a human being, that’s something else entirely.
The right compositions with the right lenses deliver stark visual messages about how we slot ourselves into the world we’ve created. Sometimes we make a statement for the ages. Sometimes we erect mouse mazes. Either way, there’s a picture in the process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST VALUED ARTIFACTS OF ANCIENT TIMES might not be considered so magnificent if they were not also so rare. The shards of pots found within the burial chambers of the Pharoahs seem remarkable because they are some of the only things that survive the age of their owners. However, were there hundreds, thousands of such sites around the world, these broken bits of pottery might be of less value than the discarded cigarette butts that litter the world’s highways.
Hey, isn’t this blog supposed to be about photography? Well, yeah, give me a little room here.
Photographs are thought to be documents, that is, a literal recording of reality. In fact, almost all of them are interpretations of reality, one person’s individual take on what’s “real”. In the beginning of the medium, pictures were more purely documentary, in that very few people took very few pictures of things unlikely to be photographed by anyone else before they vanished. It would be great to see dozens of different shooters’ interpretation of the battlefield of the Civil War, but, since the medium was not generally in use in the 1860’s, the work of Matthew Brady and his team of field photographers serves as our only record….in fact, as a document.
In the modern day, it is virtually impossible for your photograph of, say, the Empire State Building to be a “document”, since it will never, ever serve as the official or historical record of that structure. Once everyone’s picture is a document, then nobody’s is. You can interpret the building to endless variation, but you have to avoid thinking of the resulting images as “real”, since your own sense of that state defines how you make the picture. The edifice may be public property, but the vision is all yours.
Which brings us back to the Egyptians. Show a chamber filled with burial booty to a 21st-century archaeologist and he’ll exclaim, “let us carefully preserve this living record!”. Show the same room to the average Tut-era housewife and she might say, “get me a broom so I can clear all this junk out of here.” Photographs are your view of “reality”. Only when yours is the only eye on something vanished can it be documentary. Saying that a picture is great because it “looks realistic” is our way of admiring the photographer’s interpretation. That is, we agree with it. But images are more “istic” than they are “real”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS, A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE known as the “home field advantage”, wherein a team can turn a superior knowledge of its native turf against its visiting opponent. The accuracy of this belief has never been conclusively proven, but it’s interesting to think on whether it applies to photography as well. Do we, for the purposes of making pictures, know our own local bailiwicks better than visitors ever can? Or is it, as I suspect, the dead opposite?
Familiarity may not breed contempt, but, when it comes to our seeing everything in our native surroundings with an artistic eye, it can breed a kind of invisibility, a failing to see something that has long since receded into the back part of our attention, and thus stops registering as something to see anew, or with fresh interpretation. How many buildings on the street we take into the office are still standouts in our mind’s eye? How many objects would we be amazed to learn are actually part of our walk home, and yet “unseen” by us as we mentally drift along that drab journey?
It may be that there is actually a decided “out-of-towner” advantage in visiting a place where you have no pre-conceptions or habitual routes, in approaching things and places in cities as totally new, free of prior associations. I’ve often been asked of an image, “where did you take that?” only to inform the questioner that the building in the picture is a half block from their place of business. The above image was taken on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not more than a half block and across the street from the Chrysler building. It is a gorgeous treasure of design cues every bit as symbolic of the golden age of Art Deco as its aluminum clad neighbor, and yet I could hold a contest amongst many New Yorkers as to where or what it is and never have to award the prize money. The Chrysler’s very fame eclipses its neighbors, rendering them less visible.
Perception is at the heart of every visual art, and the most difficult things to re-imagine are the ones which have ceased to strike us as special. And since everyone lives in a city that is at least partly invisible to them, it stands to reason that an outside eye can make its own “something new” out of everyone else’s “something old”. Realize and celebrate your special power as a photographic outlier.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
URBAN PHOTOGRAPHERS ACT IN MUCH THE SAME WAY AS ARCHAEOLOGISTS in that they must try to supply context for objects, backstories that have been either altered or erased. Cities are collections of things created by humans for specific motives, be it profit, shelter, play, or worship. Often, the visual headstones of these dreams, that is, the buildings, survive beyond the people that called them into being. Photographers have to imply the part of the story that’s crumbled to dust. Like the archaeologist, we try to look at shards and imagine vases, or see an entire temple in a chunk of wall.
During the dreaded “urban renewal” period in the mid-twentieth century, my home town of Columbus, Ohio duplicated the destruction seen in cities across the country in the wanton devastation of neighborhoods, landmarks and linkages in the name of Progress. Today’s urban planners thumb sadly through vast volumes of ill-considered “improvements” wrought upon history from that period, with New York’s Penn Station, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and Columbus’ Union Station surviving today only as misty symbols of fashion gone amok.
In the case of Columbus’ grand old railroad station, there is at least a fragment of the original structure, its beaux-arts entry arch, left standing, serving as either stately souvenir or cautionary tale, depending on your viewpoint. The arch has been moved several times since the demolition of its matching complex, and presently graces the city’s humming new hockey and entertainment district, itself a wondrous blend of new and repurposed architecture. Better late than never.
Thus, the Union arch has, by default, become one of the most photographed objects in town, giving new generations of artists permission to widely interpret it, freed, as it is, of its original context. Amateur archaeologists all, they show it as not only what it is, but also what it was and might have been. It has become abstracted to the point where anyone can project anything onto it, adding their own spin to something whose original purpose has been obliterated by time.
I have taken a few runs at the subject myself over the years, and find that partial views work better than views of the entire arch, which is crowded in with plenty of apartment buildings, parklands and foot traffic, making a straight-on photo of the structure busy and mundane. For the above image, I imagined that I had recovered just an old image of the arch….on a piece of ancient parchment, a map, perhaps an original artist’s rendering. I shot straight up on a cloudy day, rendering the sky empty and white. Then I provided a faux texture to it by taking separate a sepia-toned photo of a crumpled piece of copier paper and fusing the two exposures (the HDR software Photomatix’ “exposure fusion” feature does this easily). Letting the detail of the arch image bleed randomly through the crumpled paper picture created a reasonable illusion of a lost document, and I could easily tweak the blend back and forth until I liked the overall effect.
Cities are treasure hunts for photographers, but not everything we find has to be photographed at, let’s say, face value. Reality, like fantasy, sometimes benefits from a little push.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT IT WAS, the final residential design completed by the late Frank Lloyd Wright, mysteriously unsung in every major study of his late work and absent from nearly every retrospective on the cantankerous colossus of twentieth-century architecture. The house, designed for his son David in the Arcadia neighborhood of central Phoenix, Arizona, rose from the desert in 1950 and almost immediately faded from popular view, staying under the radar less than a mile from Camelback Mountain, the sight of which dictated the site of the home, in one of Wright’s most dramatic examples of organic architecture.
And now, just a few years after since daughter-in-law Gladys Wright’s death at the age of 104 and a blink of time since an interim owner first threatened the place with demolition, it is, in 2016, about to sink back from view once more, as the benevolent millionaire who saved it confers with various local factions on the best route to its complete restoration. Tours, which, for the past year have allowed visitors from around the world to walk through what Wright called a solar hemicycle design, his recipe for “how to live in the southwest”, will be suspended. 3-D laser scans will be studied to see where the house’s sixty-five year old foundations need to be fortified and repaired. And, for a time, this remarkably unique dwelling will again be beyond the reach of the camera.
Since The Normal Eye began, we have occasionally mounted photo essay pages featuring singular places, sites too special to be addressed in one or two images. The most recent of these was a tour of author Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Massachusetts. And today, we’ve added a new tab at the top of the blog titled Wright Thinking, with select photos of the David Wright home and its detached guest house, in an attempt to remind people that this hidden treasure does, indeed, survive in the American West.
The essay format seem appropriate because the Wright home is difficult house to convey in just a single photograph, rising from the desert floor in a continuous circular ramp that climbs to the house proper, a 2000 square-foot crescent of rooms mounted on concrete piers and looking north to Camelback Mountain with a window array that presents a view arc of over 200 degrees. Within and without are Wright’s signature components: dramatic furniture design; innovative use of humble materials, from linoleum to concrete; a visionary use of solar energy; and the most Wright of Wright ideas, the organic credo that the site comes first, the house second, and never the other way around.
So thumb through our impromptu Wright family album and visit the house’s wonderful website at www.davidwrighthouse.org to keep apprised of the next sighting of one of the master’s final bows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO TRACK THE SUN AS IT TRAVELS EAST TO WEST over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon have made amazing images of the way light changes contours, shadows, even the sensation of depth and scale over the course of a single day. Such hour-by-hour portfolios present pictures which are less about the subject matter and more about how light shapes that subject. And the same tracking exercise is possible in canyons of another sort, the vertical jungles we call cities.
Buildings in urban settings reveal more in pictures than their own particular physical shapes and designs: they also have visual artifacts tattooed onto them from their neighbors, which block, warp and reflect light patterns in their direction. Thus the most architecturally drab tower can become hypnotic when bathed in patterns of shadows shaped by the tower next door. And that means that those seeking abstract images may find that ordinary parts of the city can be rendered extraordinary by light’s odd bounces. Additionally, the fact that many of these light effects are fleeting, visible, in some cases, only for minutes each day, presents both a challenge and an adventure for the photographer.
In the shot above, a gorgeous Art Deco building in downtown Phoenix, Arizona benefits from a light effect that has only been possible for the last forty years of its existence. Erected in the late 1930’s, the northern face of 15 East Monroe Street would not, at its opening, have been dappled with the shadow patterns seen here. No, it took a soul-less glass box from the ’70’s, located across the street, to bounce patterns of reflected light onto the building as you see it here, and only for about two hours a day between late morning and noon.
During that window, 15 East Monroe displays a wonderfully checkered mix of reflected illumination on its golden terra-cotta exterior. I first observed the patterns ten years ago, and have been going back for occasional looks ever since. The trick, in this image, was to keep the texture of the building from looking too sharp, since the effect itself is somewhat dreamy, and works better if the overall photo of the building is also a little soft. I used a selective focus lens (sharp at the middle, softer toward the edges) to give the overall building a gauzy look, and let the picture really be about the light effect, rather than any specific part of the building. Even at this point, I am imagining about a half-dozen other ways to accomplish this, but this image can at least serve as an initial study, a guideline for what may, eventually, be my final word on the subject.
Photography, clinically defined, is the art of writing with light. Sometimes, regardless of the object in our viewfinder, what light does to things is, by itself, enough for an interesting picture. It takes some restraint to let the light be the subject, and to let the picture, in its most basic form, breathe.