By MICHAEL PERKINS
That’s the approximate number, in the digital era, of annual photo postings to the internet in a single year.
That’s a serious buncha digits. And a significant chunk of that staggering total comes from visitors to tourist sites and museums, many of whom, awestruck by the wonders in various collections, seek visual souvenirs of said wonders.
Except when they can’t.
Public attractions in the age of shared media are struggling to accommodate, regulate, or just plain rein in the photographic urge among their patrons. You can take pictures here, but not here. Here? Unsure, ask the guy in the uniform.
Flash? Selfie Sticks? Tripods? On the endangered species list. We have our reasons.
We don’t all have the same reasons, but still…
Full disclosure: I am a docent at a museum. I fully understand the various problems that come with allowing photography in the halls. For example, the collection at my joint could actually be damaged by flash, so we allow clickers to go flashless. We also have found that the more hardware the hardcore photog packs in, the greatest hazard to our exhibits and our patrons, so no selfie sticks or tripods. Ours is what I would call a negotiated policy. Other shops, as you yourselves may have already painfully learned, are more draconian, from the places where no one is allowed to take any pictures anywhere to sites like the Natural History Museum of Rwanda, one of the institutions which actually charges a fee for the privilege of snapping. Between those two end zones is a lot of open field. A quick look at the challenges from both sides:
Even allowing for the fact that flashes can actually damage some types of artifacts, regulating the no-flash rule requires extra policing and essentially stands or falls on the honor of the individual photographer. Then there’s the issue of the particular kind of shooter I like to call The Selfish Jerk, who will camp out in front of a statue or a painting to the discomfort of other paying guests, because he’s just gotta get The Shot. Some of these same nitwits also employ improvised gymnastics that could get the institution sued and could (and do) get the photographer dead. Ask the undermanned park employees at the Grand Caaaaaaaanyon. Then let’s consider the “keepsake” motive that makes some people want to take a bit of their favorite art home with them. Cameras are getting better at making more perfect representations of paintings and statuary. At the same time, museum gift shops enjoy a sizable revenue stream from poster and postcard images of their own collections. If everyone can make their own, that revenue goes away, a purely and understandably fiscal reason for institutions to say “no mas”. The claim has also been made that art piracy could be exacerbated by the use of cameras, but that argument is anything but settled.
To further muddy the waters, museums and other public sites are fighting a losing technological battle, since, for every super-obvious Canon or Nikon there are legions of tinier and tinier snap machines that are damn near undetectable. Should the institutions forbid the higher-resolution DSLRs (art thieves!!) and allow the more humble iPhones (harmless amateur!)? And then there’s the problem of universal enforcement of camera bans, which is, let’s face it, impossible. What’s the answer? Some reasonableness all around: reasonable policies that do allow pictures, with limits: reasonable guests who can be asked to leave if they contravene stated policies or, well, decency: and a reasonable attitude toward the positive publicity that online sharing of images can produce for your exhibits and institutions. After all, it’s hard to buck a trillion photos a year, even if only a couple of hundred billion of them are headed in your particular direction. Policies, from free-for-all to pay-for-play, must be rooted in the real world, or they’re not worth the paper they’re (maybe not even) printed on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT DO YOU DO when you’re a quirky bit of modern art and the museum that hosts you has been shuttered for missing the rent? Futher, let’s assume your creator’s homeland regards your “art” as political blasphemy and let’s also stipulate that you are, say, a fifteen-foot-high chromed head of Vladimir Lenin with a tiny baby balanced on its top.
In the words of Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”
Beginning in 2011, expatriot Chinese artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang found a home for their satirical sculpture, Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself At The Top Of Lenin’s Head, in front of Los Angeles’ ACE Museum at 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. Locals and tourists alike soon embraced the weird, much as motorists might grow fond of sites like The Giant Ball Of String or The World’s Crookedest House, worshiping the sheer asinine novelty of the thing over any aesthetic merit. The result? Art meant as provocation landed, instead, with the soft cushiony comfort of fun, an ironic landmark, as in, “to get to my house, take the first left after the Lenin head..”
But here’s the take-away for photographers. Part of our job is to freeze the human drama as it shifts and morphs. That means being particularly sensitive to the things in society that change the quickest, including the fashion waves of the art world. And if serious art falls out of favor quickly, art that is loaded with satire or irony really races to the front of the obsolescence checkout. Weird ain’t forever.
Lenin and Miss Mao found by 2017 that it’s hard to stay a head (sorry) when the ACE Museum was evicted, leaving the work essentially homeless. Zhen and Qiang tried in vain to land the Commie Chromedome a new roost in China, but the Big Red One basically told them to pound sushi (humorless bunch, those socialists). What’s a murderous goateed revolutionary to do?
At this writing (June 2018), the most recent citing of Vlad’s Big Head was at the site of a trucking company near Newberry Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert, property owned by artist Weiming Chen, a friend of the Gao brothers who operates the area as a kind of statuary boneyard for his own works and those of others. A snapshot taken of the head showed Lenin looking characteristically defiant, although absent the lovely Miss Mao. I like to think she’s found peace as the hood ornament for a 1966 Diamond Reo rig highballing down CA-10. Hey, I can dream.
So, I treasure my 2014 snap of the head in situ in L.A. (seen above), back when life was good and fate was kind. Photography is commentary, but often, the top comment that comes to mind is something like “okaaaaay, so that happened..” No matter: it’s always worth a grin, and usually worth a picture.
As with Miss Mao, it’s a balancing act.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CULTURAL ICONS, which burn very distinct patterns into our memory, can become the single most challenging subjects for photography. As templates for our key experiences, icons seem to insist upon being visualized in very narrow ways–the “official” or post card view, the version every shooter tries to emulate or mimic. By contrast, photography is all about rejecting the standard or the static. There must be, we insist, another way to try and see this thing beyond the obvious.
Upon its debut as the central symbol for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the stainless steel structure known as the Unisphere was presented as the emblem of the peaceful ideals put forth by the Exhibition’s creators. Under the theme “Peace Through Understanding”, the Uni, 120 feet across and 140 feet in height, was cordoned off from foot traffic and encircled by jetting fountains,which were designed to camouflage the globe’s immense pedestal, creating the illusion that this ideal planet was, in effect, floating in space. Anchoring the Fair site at its center, the Unisphere became the big show’s default souvenir trademark, immortalized in hundreds of licensed products, dozens of press releases and gazillions of candid photographs. The message was clear: To visually “do” the fair, you had to snap the sphere.
After the curtain was rung down on the event and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park began a slow, sad slide toward decay, the Unisphere, coated with grime and buckling under the twin tyrannies of weather and time, nearly became the world’s most famous chunk of scrap metal. By 1995, however, the tide had turned; the globe was protected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and its rehabilitation was accompanied by a restoration of its encircling fountains, which were put back in service in 2010. The fair park, itself staging a comeback, welcomed back its space-age jewel.
As for photography: over the decades, 99% of the amateur images of the Unisphere have conformed to the photographic norm for icons: a certain aloof distance, a careful respect. Many pictures show the sphere alone, not even framed by the park trees that flank it on all sides, while many others are composed so that not one of the many daily visitors to the park can be seen, robbing this giant of the impact imparted by a true sense of scale.
In shooting Uni myself for the first time, I found it impossible not only to include the people around it, but to marvel at how completely they now possess it. The decorum of the ’64 fair as Prestigious Event now long gone, the sphere has been claimed for the very masses for whom it was built: as recreation site, as family gathering place..and, yes, as the biggest wading pool in New York.
This repurposing, for me, freed the Unisphere from the gilded cage of iconography and allowed me to see it as something completely new, no longer an abstraction of the people’s hopes, but as a real measure of their daily lives. Photographs are about where you go and also where you hope to go. And sometimes the only thing your eye has to phere is sphere itself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES COMPRISE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING WORKOUT SPACES for photographers, but for none of the reasons you might suppose. On the most obvious level, certainly,they are repositories of human endeavor, acting basically as big warehouses for things we deem important. But, beyond that, they are also laboratories for every kind of lighting situation, a big ‘ol practice pad for the mastery of lenses and exposure strategies. Sometimes the arrangement of color and shadow in some art houses is so drastically different from room to room that, even if there is nothing of note hanging on the walls, the walls themselves can frame amazing compositional challenges.
There is also a secondary, and fairly endless, source of photographic sketch work to be had in the people who visit public art spaces. The body language of their contemplative study of the artwork is a kind of mute ballet all its own, and no two patterns are alike. Watching the people who watch the art thus becomes a spectator sport of sorts, one which works to the advantage of the candid shooter, since people are more immersed in the paintings and thus a little less aware of themselves as regards the photographer. That leads to what I call “bodily candor”, a more relaxed quality in how they occupy their personal space.
Sometimes, as seen in the images in this article, your subject’s physical footprint is enough to express a full sense of the person without a trace of facial detail. In fact, I actually prefer this “no-face” approach, since it forces the viewer to supply some information of his own, making the photographs more interactive.
Try some gallerylab shots the next time you are hostage to a museum tour that was someone else’s idea of a good time. The exhibits themselves may disappoint, but the museum space and the people in it offer pretty consistent material.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TYPICALLY SHY AWAY FROM USING OR CREATING PHOTOGRAPHS as illustrations of work in another medium. Writers don’t try to caption my images, and I don’t presume, for the most part, to imagine visuals for their works. As both photographer and writer, I am sympathetic to the needs and limits of both graphic and written mediums. And still, there are rare times when a combination of events seem to imply a collaboration of sorts between the two means of storytelling. I made such an attempt a while back in these pages, in the grip of nostalgia for railroads, and so here goes with another similar experiment.
Last week, during a blue mood, I sought out, as I often do, songs by Sinatra, since only Frank does lonely as if he invented the concept, conveying loss with an actor’s gift for universality. I stumbled across a particularly poignant track entitled A Cottage For Sale, which I sometimes can’t listen to, even when I need its quiet, desolate description of a dream gone wrong. So, that song was the first seed in my head.
Seed two came a few days later, when I was shortcutting through one of those strange Phoenix streets where suburban and rural neighborhoods collide with each other, blurring the track of time and making the everyday unreal. I saw the house you see here, a place so soaked in despair that it seemed to cry out for the lyrics of Frank’s song. Again, I’m not trying to provide the illustration for the song, just one man’s variation. So, for what it’s worth:
Is lonely and silent, the shades are all drawn,
And my heart is heavy as I gaze upon
A cottage for sale
Where you planted roses,the weeds seem to say,
“A cottage for sale”.
But when I reach a window, there’s empty space.
But no one is waiting for me any more,
The end of the story is told on the door.
A cottage for sale.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY USED TO LITERALLY BE A MATTER OF MATH. Formulating formulae for harnessing light, predicting the reactivity of chemicals, calculating the interval between wretched and wonderful processing. And all that math, measured in materials, apprenticeship, and learning curves, was expensive. Mistakes were expensive. The time you invested to learn, fail, re-learn, and re-fail was expensive. All of it was a sustained assault on your wallet. It cost you, really cost you, in terms a math whiz could relate to, to be a photographer.
Now, the immediacy of our raw readiness to make a picture is astounding. Well, let’s amend that. To anyone picking up their first camera in the last thirty years, it’s pretty astounding. For those who began shooting ten years ago, it’s kinda cool. And for those falling in love with photography now, today, it’s……normal. Let’s pull that last thought out in the sunshine where we can get a good look at it:
For those just beginning to dabble in photography, the instantaneous gratification of nearly any conceptual wish is normal. Expected. No big deal. And the price of failure? Nil. Non-existent. Was there ever a time when it was a pain, or an effort just to make a picture, you ask Today’s Youth? Answer: not to my knowledge. I think it and I do it. If I don’t like it, I do it again, and again, faster than you can bolt down a burger on a commuter train. It’s just there, like tap water. How can I not be, why should I not be, absolutely fearless?
To take it further, Today’s Youth can learn more in a few months of shooting than their forebears could glean in years. And at an immeasurably small percentage of the sweat, toil, tears and financial investment. They can take a learning curve of rejected photos and failed concepts that used to be a long and winding road for pa and grandpa and compress it into a short and straight walk to the mailbox. And they are not sentimental, since they will not be spending enough time with any technology of any kind long enough to develop a weepy attachment for it, or for “how things used to be”. DSLR? Four-Thirds? Point and Shoot? Hey, anything that lets them take a picture is a camera. Make it so they can flap their eyelash and capture an image, and they’re in.
For some of us, hemmed in by experience, the limits of our technical savvy, and yes, our emotions, photography can be a somewhat formal experience. But for the many coming behind us, it’s just a reflex. A wink of the eye. Any and everything is an extension of their visual brain. Any and everything leads to a picture.
These new shooters will stop at nothing, will quake at nothing, will be awed by nothing, except ideas. They will be bold, because there is no reason not to be. They will take chances, since that, from their vantage point, is the only logical course. Photography is dead, long live photography.
The great awakening is at hand.
By “available light”, I mean any $%#@ light that’s available. —-Joe McNally, world-renowned master photographer, author of The Moment It Clicks
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE EASIEST THINGS ABOUT ANALYZING THOSE OF OUR SHOTS THAT FAIL is that there is usually a single, crucial element that was missing in the final effort….one tiny little hobnail, without which the entire image simply couldn’t hold together. In a portrait, it could be a wayward turn of face or hint of a smile; in a landscape it could be one element too many, moving the picture from “charming” to “busy”. The secret to greater success, then, must lie in pre-visualizing a photograph to as great a degree as possible, in knowing in advance how many puzzle pieces must click into place to make the result work.
I recently attended an outdoor dance recital, during which I knew photography would be prohibited. I had just resigned myself to spend the night as a mere spectator, and was settling onto my lawn seat when some pre-show stretching exercises by the dancing company presented me with an opportunity. The available natural light in the sky had been wonderfully golden just minutes before, but, by the time the troupe took the stage and started into their poses and positions, it had grown pretty anemic. And then a stage hand gave me back that missing “puzzle piece”.
Climbing the gridwork at the right side of the stage, the techie was turning various lights on and off, trying them with gels, arcing them this way or that, devising various ways to illuminate the dancers as their director ran them through their paces. I decided to get off my blanket and hike down to the back edge of the stage, then wait for “my light” to come around in the rotation. Eventually, the stage hand turned on a combination that nearly replicated the golden light that I no longer was getting from the sky. It was single-point light, wrapping around the bodies of some dancers, making a few of them glow brilliantly, and leaving some other swaddled in shadow, reducing them to near-silhouettes.
For a moment, I had everything I needed, more than would be available for the entire rest of the evening. Now the physical elegance of the ballet cast was matched by the temporary drama of the faux-sunset coming from stage left. I moved in as closely as I could and started clicking away. I was shooting at something of an upward slant, so a little sky cropping was needed in the final shots, but, for about thirty seconds, someone else had given me the perfect key light, the missing puzzle piece. If I could find that stage hand, I’d buy her a few rounds. The win really couldn’t have happened without her.
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
IF YOU VISIT ENOUGH MUSEUMS IN YOUR LIFETIME, you may decide that at least half of them, seen as arranged space, are more interesting than their contents. It may be country-cousin to that time in your childhood when your parents gave you a big box with a riding toy inside it, and, after a few minutes of excitement, you began sitting in the box. The object inside was, after all, only a fire engine, but a box could be a mine shaft, a Fortress of Solitude, the dining car on the Orient Express, and so on.
And so with museums.
I truly do try to give lip service to the curated exhibits and loaned shows that cram the floors and line the walls of the various museums I visit. After all, I am, harumph and ahem, a Patron Of The Arts, especially if said museums are hosting cocktail parties and trays of giant prawns in their hallowed halls…I mean, what’s not to like? However, there are times when the endless variations on just a room, a hall, a mode of lighting, or the anticipatory feeling that something wonderful is right around the next corner is, well, a more powerful spell than the stuff they actually booked into the joint.
Spaces are landscapes. Spaces are still lifes. Spaces are color studies. Spaces are stages where people are dynamic props.
Recently spinning back through my travel images of the last few years, I was really surprised how many times I took shots inside museums that are nothing more than attempts to render the atmosphere of the museum, to capture the oxygen and light in the room, to dramatize the distances and spaces between things. It’s very slippery stuff. Great thing you find, also, is that the increased light sensitivity and white balance controls on present-day cameras allow for a really wide range of effects, allowing you to “interpret” the space in different ways, making this somewhat vaporous pursuit even more …vaporous-y.
In the end, you shoot what speaks to you, and these “art containers” sometimes are more eloquent by far than the treasures they present. That is not a dig on contemporary art (or any other kind). It means that an image is where you find it. Staying open to that simple idea provides surprise.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.