By MICHAEL PERKINS
SAXOPHONIST PAUL DESMOND, asked the “how’s it going?” question during his many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, frequently answered, “we’re making music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is.” A glib answer, certainly, but no less accurate for being so. Everything, everywhere, is, indeed, always going out of style. Photographers feel the rhythm of a clock that is synched to all of existence. We raise constantly against that unheard tick, extracting and freezing moments to testify that, yes, the world was this way.
But the clock is now ticking off not only the passing of things within the world, but, plausibly, the very world itself. The planet is straining at its physical limits, veering toward the voiding of The Big Warranty. And while can all rattle our gums about where all this change will eventually lead, photographers have an obligation to record where it has already made itself known. In shrinking ice shelves. Rising seas. Searing summers. Vanishing species. Storms without mercy and without end.
From my viewpoint, in the American southwest, the seasons pass into years and the years pass into decades with record-setting drought as the only constant. Reservoirs become ditches. Temperatures start to resemble good IQ scores. And in the above image, shot about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, the bed of the San Pedro River is a cracked plain, a parched memory, a ghost.
In marking these monumental shifts, photography is both eloquent and neutral. The camera doesn’t care how we got to this place, nor does it assign a name to the blame. That kind of storytelling falls to wiser minds. But in a visual medium like ours, a tale can be told just by declaring “this is.This happened.” Politics and science can arm-wrestle about the details and the destiny. Pictures go beyond that noise. They are eloquent beyond words.
One thing is certain. Whether we are reporting the latest chapters of the human story or the final ones, photography is testimony. And we are all witnesses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE HAVE DEFINITELY BEEN TIMES IN MY LIFE when I have actually craved the special kind of loneliness that Arizona has in abundance. This is a place where brain-boggling chasms of space can exist between society and desolation, between boom and bust. The contrast is stark with a capital, well, stark. If you want to get lost, I mean good and lost, like vanished-off-the-freaking-map lost, Arizona’s vast, starched plains and heat-blasted mesquite are your solution. Other times there is such a sharp edge between lots of something and all kinds of nothing that you can almost feel despair chewing around the edges of your contentment like a termite on a bender.
Photographically, you can either celebrate Arizona’s chest-thumping pride in the survival of the individual or lament the sense of isolation underscored by its lunar landscapes….or both. An image that thrills one person with a sensation of unfettered freedom can make another individual feel like the state has abandoned him or her by the side of a dusty road to no place.
In the case of the above image, it could go either way. The buildings here do not constitute the entire business district of downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, but they’re damned close. One thing that’s absolutely true is that there isn’t much on either side of the town’s main stem that feels…town–like. Yes, the municipality has a few small supporting streets, peppered with a smattering of residences and small shops, but Cottonwood is essentially a brief, linear dash in the middle of an endless paragraph about emptiness. To some shooters, (sometimes me) this is an enlistment poster for personal liberty, with the land always having the last say in any discussion. For others (again, sometimes me), it’s a reminder that, in a face-off between man and the West, the West has a decided, even unfair edge. Showing both of these stories within a single picture, however, isn’t necessarily a conflict in terms.
Photography addresses extremes, and often in a frustratingly ambiguous fashion. But show me an art where that doesn’t happen.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY TOWNS in the American southwest, Superior, Arizona sprung up in the nineteenth century primarily to get people close to something promising that Nature had already parked in the local dirt. So long as that something gushed up, flashed in a prospector’s pan or helped light or heat something, the towns flourished….. boomed, as the term goes.
Until they didn’t.
In the case of Superior (2010 census population 2,837), the silver that anchored the locals to the grim crags of the Superstitions mountain range tumbled in value when the metal lost its status as the backing for the American dollar in 1893. Fortunately, Superior had a second act, rebounding with the discovery of copper in the same area where silver had been mined. And then, of course, Hollywood came calling, seeking a visual taste of the Real Old West. Superior rose yet again, standing in for yesteryear in the films How The West Was Won, Blind Justice, and The Gauntlet, among many others. And the beat goes on; as recently as the 1990’s, yet another copper mining company hooked Superior up to yet one more source of life support. And how’s your hometown?
Even so, a photographer looking to take Superior’s pulse in the twenty-teens is well advised to look a little deeper than the shopworn storefronts of the main street, heavy with thrift shops and antique stores but also alive with hot pastels and the twang of Saturday afternoon dance music, complete with Stetsons and cold longnecks. The town is rusty and dusty down to its toenails, pressed up against gritty stone peaks, but it is still brave at the corners of its mouth. As a place that is “a fur piece” from Phoenix and a hoot and a holler from Globe, Superior is more mile marker than actual destination, but it is still standing, still smiling for the camera.
And, who knows, things could change.
They always have before….
Entering a Frank Lloyd Wright home is like unwrapping a birthday present. The concrete walk ends in a circular ramp that rises to the left and around the David Wright house to create this wonderful open space.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A HOME CAN BE SAID TO BE AN EVENT, then a door is the engraved invitation that bids you to witness that event. When you think about it, a door is the most crucial part of a house’s design, certainly its most deliberately provocative. It advertises and defines what lies within. It’s a grand tease to a mystery, the last barrier before you invade someone’s most personal space. It’s no wonder that entrances to places are among the most photographed objects on the planet. The subject is as inexhaustibly varied as the people who construct these lovely masks.
Frank Lloyd Wright did more than create drama as you entered one of his houses; he actually enlisted you in generating your own wonder. Often the great man made you a little squirmy as you prepared to come inside, compressing door heights and widths to slightly uncomfortable dimensions. Pausing for a moment, you could almost feel like Alice after she ate the wrong cake, as if you might never be able to wriggle through the door frame.
Shortly after this ordeal, however, Wright would let the full dimensions of the inner house open suddenly and dramatically, as he does in the image above, taken at the home that he designed for his son David in Phoenix, Arizona. After ducking your head, you step into a court that has…no ceiling…since it ends in a ramp that both climbs around and supports a house that encircles you, creating an intimate courtyard that is both confined and limitless.
Doors make statements, almost boasts, about the wonder that lies just inches beyond them, and, like all generators of mystery, they are often most interesting when the question is never answered. Doors we never see beyond are often the most intriguing, like a woman behind a veil. When I invade a new neighborhood, my camera’s eye goes to doors before anything else. Sometimes the spaces they conceal don’t live up to the hype, but doors, these stage productions at the front of grand and humble abodes alike, offer something tantalizing to the eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
—-That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.—–Ray Bradbury
AUTUMN IS SNEAKY IN THE SOUTHWEST. Much of the low desert regions may never betray the transformation that is rotating the color wheel in most of the rest of the world, and then, suddenly, there is the shock of red, the blaze of orange, the yellow of golden apples. Many of our trees do not shed, and there are parts of Arizona, California and New Mexico where you could snap a landscape and challenge anyone to guess in which month it was taken. But, as I say, there are surprises.
There are fruits that fall and go back to the earth. There are strange and alien breeds of gourd popping up as invaders at farmers’ markets. And with these visitations come remembrance, and the chance for the camera to recall all the unrealized dreams, misty dawns, evening cold snaps and afternoons of quiet contemplation that accompanies fall so hypnotically in the rest of the country. We here in the southwest have our autumn reverie doled out in small spoonfuls, but it penetrates just the same. The shadows grow longer. The memory uncorks its vintages. The world turns, and there is that slow rhythm of life winding down.
I only long for my midwestern roots but briefly each year. I can still feel the earth turning when some inner clock tells me it’s time. Sometimes I can’t look out my window and find evidence of what my atoms know to be true. And sometimes I get a moment to steal.
That’s what cameras are for. To remind us how to be, at least in glimpses, autumn people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HAVING LIVED IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST FOR OVER FIFTEEN YEARS, I HAVE NEGOTIATED MY OWN TERMS WITH THE BLAZING OVERKILL OF MIDDAY SUNLIGHT, and its resulting impact on photography. If you move to Arizona or New Mexico from calmer climates, you will find yourself quickly constricting into a severe squint from late breakfast to early evening, with your camera likewise shrinking from the sheer overabundance of harsh, white light. If you’re determined to shoot in midday, you will adjust your approach to just about everything in your exposure regimen.
Good news, however: if you prefer to shoot in the so-called “golden hour” just ahead of sunset, you will be rewarded with some of the most picturesque tones you’ve ever had the good luck to work with. As has been exhaustively explained by better minds than mine, sunlight lingers longer in the atmosphere during the pre-sunset period, which, in the southwest, can really last closer to two hours or more. Hues are saturated, warm: shadows are powerful and sharp. And, if that dramatic contrast works to your advantage in color, it really packs a punch in monochrome.
This time of day is what I call “the envelope”, which is to say that objects look completely different in this special light from how they register in any other part of the day, if you can make up your mind as to what to do in a hurry. Changes from minute to minute are fast and stark in their variance. Miss your moment, and you must wait another 24 hours for a re-do.
The long shadow of an unseen sign visible in the above frame lasted about fifteen minutes on the day of the shoot. The sign itself is a metal cutout of a cowboy astride a bucking bronco, the symbol of Scottsdale, Arizona, “the most western town in the USA”. The shadow started as a short patch of black directly in front of the rusted bit of machine gear in the foreground, then elongated to an exaggerated duplicate of the sign, extending halfway down the block and becoming a sharper and more detailed silhouette.
A few minutes later, it grew softer and eventually dissolved as the sun crept closer to the western horizon. There would still be blazing illumination and harsh shadows for some objects, if you went about two stories high or higher, but, generally, sunset was well under way. Caught in time, the shadow became an active design element in the shot, an element strong enough to come through even in black and white.
If you are ever on holiday in the southwest, peek inside “the envelope”. There’s good stuff inside.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF SUBURBAN SPRAWL, beyond the obscene commercial eye pollution, the devastation of open space, and the friendless isolation, is the absolute soulless-ness of the places we inhabit. The nowheres that we live in are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are. Move three miles and the cycle has repeated. Same Shell stations, same Wal-Marts, same banal patterns.
The title of a classic book on the passing of the star era of Hollywood could also be the story of the end of the great American house: They Had Faces Then.
I believe that the best old houses possess no less a living spirit than the people who live inside them. As a photographer, I seek out mish-mosh neighborhoods, residential blocks that organically grew over decades without a “master plan” or overseeing developer. Phoenix, Arizona is singular because, within its limits, there are, God knows, endless acres of some of the most self-effacing herdblocks created by the errant hand of man, but also some of the best pre-WWII neighborhoods, divine zones where houses were allowed to sprout, erupt, and just happen regardless of architectural period, style, or standard. It is the wild west realized in stucco.
When I find these clutches of houses, I don’t just shoot them, I idealize them, bathing the skies above them in azure Kodachrome warmth, amping up the earth tones of their exteriors, emphasizing their charming symmetries. Out here in the Easy-Bake oven of the desert, that usually means a little post-production tweaking with contrasts and colors, but I work to keep the homes looking as little like fantasies and as much like objects of desire as I can.
One great tool I have found for this is Photmatix, the HDR software program. However, instead of taking multiple exposures and blending them into an HDR, I take one fairly balanced exposure, dupe it, darken one frame, lighten the other, and process the final in the Tone Compression program. It gives you an image that is somewhat better than reality, but without the Game of Thrones fantasy overkill of HDR.
Photography is partly about finding something to shoot, and partly about finding the best way to render what you saw (or what you visualized). And sometimes it’s all about revealing faces.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN THE RAW VISUAL FLOOD OF INTENSE COLOR IS THE MOST INTOXICATING DRUG ON THE PLANET, at least for photographers. Sometimes you are so overcome with what’s possible from a loud riot of hues that you just assume you are going to be able to extract a coherent image from it. It happens the most, I find, with large, sprawling events: festivals, open restaurants, street fairs, carnivals, anywhere your eyeballs just go into overload. Of course there must be a great picture in all this, you promise yourself.
And there may be. But some days you just can’t find it in the sheer “Where’s Waldo”-ness of the moment. Instead, you often wind up with a grand collection of clutter and no obvious clues as to where your viewer should direct his gaze. The technical term for this is “a mess”.
I stepped in a great one the other day. It’s a local college-crowd bar in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 99% of the customers sit outside on makeshift benches, shielded from the desert sun by garish Corona umbrellas, warmed by patio heaters, and flanked by loud pennants, strings of aerial lightbulbs and neon booze ads. The place radiates fun, and, even during the daylight hours before it opens, it just screams party. The pictures should take themselves, right?
Well, maybe it would have been better if they had. As in, “leave me out of it”. As in, “someone get me a machete so I can hack away half of this junk and maybe find an image.” Try as I might, I just could not frame a simple shot: there was just too much stuff to give me a clean win in any frame. In desperation, I shot through a window to make a large cooling fan a foreground feature against some bright pennants, and accidentally did what I should have done first. I set the shot so quickly that the autofocus locked on the fan, blurring everything else in the background into abstract color. It worked. The idea of a party place had survived, but in destroying my original plan as to how to shoot it, I had saved it, sorta.
I have since gone back to the conventional shots I was trying to make, and they are still a vibrant, colorful mess. There are big opportunities in big, colorful scenes where showing “everything in sight” actually works. When it doesn’t, you gotta be satisfied with the little stories. We’re supposed to be interpreters, so let’s interpret already.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
IN 1956, ARCHITECT PAOLO SOLERI BEGAN THE FIRST MINIATURE DEMONSTRATION OF WHAT WOULD BECOME HIS LIFE’S WORK, an experimental, self-contained, sustainable community he called Cosanti. Erecting a humble home just miles from his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, in what was then the wide-open desert town of Paradise Valley, Arizona, he started sand-casting enormous concrete domes to serve as the initial building blocks of a new kind of ecological architecture. And, over the next half-century, even as Soleri would call Paradise Valley his home, he would construct bigger versions of his dream city, now renamed Arcosanti, on a vast patch of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
The project, which at his death in 2013 was still unrealized, was funded over the years by the sales of Soleri’s custom fired bronze and clay wind bells, which became prized by Arizona visitors from all over the world. At present, his early dwellings still stand, as do the twisting, psychedelic paths and concrete arches that house his smelting forges, his kilns, the Cosanti visitor center, and a strange spirit of both wonder and dashed dreams. It is a magnificent ruin, a mad and irresistible mixture of textures for photographers.
Name the kind of light…….brilliant sun, partial shade, catacomb-like shadows, and you’ve got it. Name the material, from wood to stone to concrete to stained glass, and it’s there. The terrain of the place, even though it’s now surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions, still bears the lunar look of a far-flung outpost. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright in The Shire. It’s Fred Flintstone meets Dune. It continues to be a bell factory, and a working architectural foundation. And it’s one of my favorite playgrounds for testing lenses, flexing my muscles, trying stuff. It always acts as a reboot on my frozen brain muscles, a place to un-stall myself.
Here’s to mad dreamers, and the contagion of their dreams.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA’S SOUTHWESTERN STATES COME EQUIPPED WITH SOME OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY TO BE HAD ANYWHERE ON EARTH; jutting crags, yawning canyons, vast valleys, and more sky than you’ve ever seen anywhere. Photographically, the mountains, mesas and arroyos deliver on drama pretty much year-round, while the sky can be an endless expanse of, well, not much, really. Compositionally, this means rolling the horizon line in your framing pretty far toward the top, crowding out a fairly unbroken and featureless ocean of blue….except for more humid summer months, when cloud formations truly steal the scene.
It’s true: as the storm season (sometimes called the “monsoon”, for reasons that escape me) accompanies the year’s highest temperatures in desert regions, rolling, boiling billows of clouds add texture, drama, even a sense of scale to skies in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California. It’s like getting free props for whatever photographic theatre you care to stage, and it often makes sense to rotate your horizon line back toward the bottom of the frame to give the sky show top billing.
Early photographers often augmented the skies in their seascapes and mountain views by layering multiple glass negatives, one containing ground features, the other crammed with “decorator” clouds. The same effect was later achieved in the darkroom during the film era. Hey, any way you get to the finish line. Suffice it to say that the harvest of mile-high cloud banks is particularly high in the desert states’ summer seasons, and can fill the frame with enough impact to render everything else as filler.
I still marvel at the monochrome masterpiece by Life magazine’s Andreas Feininger, Texaco Station, Route 66, Seligman, Arizona, 1947, which allows the sky overhead to dwarf the photo’s actual subject, creating a marvelous feeling of both space and scale. I first saw this photo as a boy, and am not surprised to see it re-printed over the decades in every major anthology of Life’s all-time greatest images. It’s a one-image classroom, as all the best pictures always are. For more on Feininger’s singular gift for composition, click the “related articles” link below.
Big Sky country yields drama all along the America southwest. And all you really have to do is point.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photography Monograph (conordoylephoto.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.
We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.
As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.
It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.
McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.
Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.
What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.
Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.
Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS, ON ONE LEVEL, A COMPLETE WASTE OF GASOLINE: a half-hour’s drive to a dusty cluster of tables scattered across a vacant lot in Carefree, Arizona; a gathering of junk gypsies, hunkering for shade under their teepee nation of display tents, their sprawls of pre-owned debris bunched onto card tables filled with the remains of people’s lives. It was going to take exactly five minutes to make one sad pass around this serpentine mound of resale refuse. No treasures today. Maybe we have time to catch lunch before we drive back to town.
These strange mash-ups of godforsaken bric-a-brac are common in many of the small towns of the southwest. Sometimes they are found shoehorned into sagging old adobe buildings on their umpteenth re-use. Other times they are charitably called “swap meets” or “vintage sales” and litter the parking lots of down-and-out drive-in theatres like the aftermath of an air crash. The visual impact is always the same, that of an attic that has been dynamited to bits, then shoveled into milk cartons and slapped with improvised glo-orange price tags. Coffee cans filled with unrelated fragments of trinkets; cardboard cartons overflowing with random chunks of household backfill. Two mysteries pervade: where has all of this come from….and where can it possibly be heading?
I was about one minute away from the end of my doleful tour when I spotted this box, which someone had filled with mis-matched bits of small dolls. One of such souvenirs on a big table makes no visual impression whatever, but a mass of them together is some kind of little minor-key symphony of dreams gone down to dust. Loved objects that were once transformed into the stuff of fancy, now just shards of lives dumped into a cigar box. I risked one picture. For some reason it haunts me.
But see what you think.
It isn’t about what we look at but what we see.
We leave such a colossal wake of trash behind us as our lives thunder and crash through the world. How to sort out all the stories inside?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE’S A REASON BATMAN DOESN’T SWING THROUGH THE SKY AT HIGH NOON. Or that Shakespeare didn’t have his witches crowded around a cauldron during the mid-morning coffee break. And, of course, there are no love ballads bearing the title By The Light Of The Silvery…Sun. Mood is everything in photography and many subjects just don’t convey mystery or romance when brightly lit. This is no truer anywhere else than in the American southwest.
In Arizona, New Mexico, and California, there are plenty of places where the sun blazes away like a Hollywood klieg light during most of the day. The light is harsh, white, glaring. By mid-morning across the summer months most of the richer colors are blasted right out of the sky, and the only way to capture beauty is to wait for the hours warmed by low light.
Or no light.
I’ve always been a big believer in the transformation of familiar materials once night falls, and, going back to my old baby box camera days, I have always marveled at the simple miracle of holding a shutter open long enough to wring a few extra drops of light—just enough–from the deepening dark. I call it waiting for the reveal, and it never fails to serve up surprises.
One night last week, I was waiting on the sunset to fully finish behind a destination restaurant in Paradise Valley, Arizona (that’s really the name of the town…kind of like naming your city “Wonderfulville”). The front entrances and patios were gorgeous, of course, but after about a half hour I found myself getting restless with the utter postcardiness of it all. I was looking for something off the grid, forbidden even.
I found this door around the side of the resort, hidden by an overgrown, narrow walkway and illuminated by a single bleak bulb. As a location, especially in the daytime, this is no one’s idea of a choice spot. Except at this precise moment. It actually works better because of how much you can’t see, and I can’t justify shooting it at all, except that the reveal was working for me. And, while I liked the more conventional Chamber of Commerce shots I had taken earlier, there is something iffy and offbeat about this frame that I keep coming back to.
Sometimes the underdog is the best dog in the fight.