the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

California

UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT

Over And Under, Ventura Beach, California, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHS IS NOT MERELY A MATTER of getting everything you want into the frame, whether your subject is crowded or stark. It’s about both the arrangement of objects or patterns in a given space and the relationships those things have with each other. It’s a process which often makes photography as frustrating as it is thrilling. Or maybe a more precise way to say it is, composition is the frustration you endure to get to the thrill.

Yeah, I like that a little better.

Part of the method of composition, in what is essentially a flat plane, is the arrangement of your subject in such a manner that it creates the illusion of depth, a kind of invitation to the eye to look further “in”. There have been entire libraries filled with references to these so-called “leading lines” such as the trail-off on the pier you see in this ocean view. Everyone mentions it because, well, goldarn it, for a cheap little trick, it works pretty well. This particular image is about as rudimentary an example of faux depth as you can find, but nailing it involves a lot of little things that are quite variable from one situation to another.

Ansel Adams once half-jokingly said photography was largely about knowing where to stand, and it’s still the best compositional advice I’ve ever heard. Certainly in the case of this photo, where I chose to stand (a decision I changed and re-changed across the space of several minutes) made a huge difference in how the depth effect displayed the picture’s information. I was originally walking toward the pier at beach level, at which angle the front-to-back view of the pier tended to emphasize the information most near at hand, with the rest of the pier dramatically foreshortened or “squished”, like the contracted bellows of an accordion, and objects at the far end of the pier greatly reduced in detail or prominence. Standing beside the pier rendered it as a long left-to-right line reminiscent of a snake or a train. Lots of detail but not much drama, and no practical way to show the entire structure.

Walking to the second-floor landing of a beach restaurant at the head of the pier, however, gave me a sensation of distance that appeared natural and yet was a little more dramatic, the lines of the pier converging as they reached the horizon, just like your ninth-grade mechanical drawing teacher taught you to do. But that’s the process of composition in a nutshell: a combined approach consisting of what to include and how to include it, or like Ansel says, knowing where to stand.


ONE OF US

The final approach to Coit Tower is shielded by a dense shroud of trees.

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 mural-embellished lobby of San Francisco’s iconic Coit Tower. Note the touch-up artist behind the daily visitors.

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.


CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE “U.S.A.” OF THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY was, in every way, a collection of separate and unconnected “Americas”. Cities were fewer in number, and the ones that did exist were hermetically sealed off from each other, each in their own orbits in a way that would end when telegraph wires and railroad tracks annihilated distance on the continent forever. At one end of the 1800’s, each town and village was its own distinct universe; at the other end, it was only one of many dots on a line chain-linking the nation as one entity.

In the 21st century, there is only spotty evidence of the days when your town was, in a very real way, the predominant version of “the world” to you. The terms of survival were so very different. “In town” and “out of town” were measured in blocks, not miles. There was a pronounced sense of “how we do things around here”. Local accents were a clearer stamp of identity. News from outer regions arrived slowly. People’s lives impacted each other directly. And the towns first canvassed by photographers reflected the isolation of one city from another, for good or ill.

My parents met each other in a town that started small and stayed that way. It’s contracted now,  the way a grape shrinks to a raisin; there is still enough of its old essence to identify what it was, but no hope for a future that resembles the past in any remote manner. I love making photographs of places in America where the feeling of apartness is still palpable. It is harder to be hidden away now. We are all one coast-to-coast nervous system, with impulses crossing the void in nanoseconds. The places which still say “our town” are often baffled off from other towns by raw geography….the mountains someone forgot to cross, the rivers no one wanted to ford. And, in the towns walled off by those last remaining barriers, as in this view of Truckee, California in the Sierras, there are still stories to be told, and images to be captured.

I was struck in this picture by how close the residential and business parts of town were to each other, long before we all started spreading out and, well, getting away from each other. It creates a longing in me for something I can’t fully experience, and a desire to use my camera to come as close as I can.


THE MIDDLE OF WHATWHERE

Rush Hour (2017). I don’t need to tell you what town this is. You already kind of know.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

EVEN THOSE AREAS OF THE WORLD WE ‘VE NEVER SET FOOT IN have, at least in our mind’s eye, a sense of place. Hearing about far-flung cities and towns in remembrances, histories, or novels, we tend to assign some kind of visual structure to their streets and sites. Our brains choreograph where the town hall is, what the schoolhouse looks like, maybe even the look of the setting sun on the sides of buildings. We see the unseen with very clear eyes.

For that reason, I love making images of towns that offer no clear clue as to their location or even era. I feel that the images made by a camera pair up, somehow, with the millions of mentally constructed towns we’ve held inside our minds, those many places to which we never journey but yet know by heart.

Train travel offers a great chance to deal with these places that have no context, sometimes no name. The view from a train window is ever-shifting, strangely framed. You have visual information it gives you and nothing else. Things swing into and out of view in an instant. You are always going somewhere and always leaving somewhere behind. Focusing and composing with a camera is largely a nightmare, and sharp results are rare. It’s a great way to view reality, and also a terrible arena for photographing it.

Occasionally, a slow crawl through a town or a scheduled stop offers enough stability to make a usable photo, and, when that happens, the sensation is still one of dislocation, since you often are seeing only pieces of cities, the outskirts of districts, or the all-too-real “wrong side of the tracks”. Recently traveling from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada through the Sierras, my train slowed almost to stopping as it made its way past a small town’s crossing gate. The city was both everywhere and nowhere. The activity in the intersection could be taking place in a thousand places, each of them interchangeable with the others. I left my seat and walked from the second level of the car halfway down to the lower, where a larger window was mounted, placing me as close to the street as if I were crossing it on foot. The train slowed long enough for me to snap off three stable frames, one of which you see here. For a moment, I’m in the town, nearly of it. I don’t know where I am. Still, I feel right at home.

Years from now, as I turn the pages of a magazine or listen to someone’s dreamy tales, this place might act as a visual stand-in for the dimensions and details of things I can’t directly view. I don’t know why or how the mind makes that work. Maybe, in a way, we’re always making pictures, with or without a camera.


SILHOUETTE SHORTHAND

1/250 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 300mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS AN OBSESSIVE CHILD, I became crazed with the drawing of short animations on pads of paper known as “flip books.” You know the drill. Draw a picture on the top sheet, turn the page, draw another picture with a small change in position, and repeat several dozen times until you produce a brief cartoon by flipping the entire pad from the front to the back. I actually got pretty good at it, if, by “good” you mean manically addicted to perfection and insanely fixated on detail. I could make three seconds of cinematic grandeur. I just couldn’t do it fast.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the playroom, my sister and her partner, my cousin Mark, had so such problem. While I would spend the better part of a week sweating over the laws of locomotion for such classics as The Mummy Goes Mad or SpiderMan vs The Vulture, Liz and Mark cranked out ten titles a day, crude stick-figure blackouts created in ten-minute surges of creative hysteria, all ending with the unfortunate (and unnamed) hero exploding, then emitting a dialogue balloon with the single, sad existential word “WHY??” While I was doing DeMille parting the Red Sea, they were doing Mack Sennett one-reel wonders, heavy on the pie fights. Fact is, I found their stuff gut-achingly hilarious. There was no disputing which of the two “studios” better understood the entertainment biz.

Lizzie and Mark’s stick figures moved every bit as well as my fully-rendered players, but their impact was more immediate. Their drawings didn’t have even a single line that wasn’t absolutely essential to their narratives. I thought of all this recently when working with some distant crowds which were reduced to mere silhouettes in a deep telephoto of the coastline at California’s Morro Bay. As components in a larger composition, they were just markers, measures of linear space. Shooting even closer might have revealed their hair color, lines on their faces or the shine of water on their wet suits, but to what benefit for the overall effectiveness of the picture?

There are many forms of visual shorthand in the making of a photograph, and they can be effective in speeding the journey from the viewer’s eye to his heart. We might think of photography as the complete recording of detail, a piece-for-piece re-play of reality, just as I thought I had to draw every single web line on Spider-Man’s head. However, the most eloquent images often speak louder by using fewer words.

Sometimes, a stick figure is exactly what you need, and no more.

 

 


THE PLACES THEY LIVED

"I want to marry a lighthouse keeper..."

“I want to marry a lighthouse keeper…”  1/125 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 24mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS INSTINCTIVELY SEEK OUT VARIATION. We spend so much time looking at so much of the world that a lot of it starts to sort itself into file folders of things, patterns, or places, pre-sorting our pictures into this or that category. Sunsets: see Nature. Famous Buildings: a sub-set of Travel. And so on, until we are fairly starved for some visual novelty to shock us out of our slumber and spur us on to new ways of seeing.

One of the things that settles most readily into sameness is the human dwelling. Most of us live in some kind of basic four-walls, bedroom-kitchen-bath sequence, making our living spaces fairly predictable as subject matter. By way of awe and admiration, the real geniuses of, magazine illustration, to me, have always been the “house beautiful” photographers, since they must spend year after year making Mr.& Mrs. J.D. Gotmore’s McMansions seem unique and bold. That said, there is something about nearly everyone’s castle that might be distinctive, even revelatory, about the people who live within. It’s all in your approach.

I love to explore the places where people are forced to improvise living spaces either near or as part of their work, places that usually exist in stark isolation as compared to the crush of crowded urban centers. In the above image, I was allowed to climb to a small viewing angle of the beacon room atop a coastal lighthouse in San Diego, and, perhaps because I was limited to a shooting stance below the surface of the room’s floor, the resulting photo further exaggerated the confined, angular working space, which sits above living areas further down the house’s twisty central staircase.

These areas pose more questions than they answer. What is it like to have this building be your entire world for long stretches of time? What kind of person can do this work? What is the center of this unusual story? The blurring of boundaries between working and living areas is among the most novel material a photographer can tackle, since it contains one of the things he craves most….mystery.


25, 50, T, B

The remaining facade from Los Angeles' historic Darkroom camera shop at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard.

The remaining facade from Los Angeles’ historic Darkroom camera shop at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.

The Darkroom in its Kodachrome days.

The Darkroom in its Kodachrome days.

A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.

Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.

The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.

True to the ethos of  L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.

Hooray for Hollywood.


EATS

You want fries with that? Blythe, California's Courtesy Coffee Shop. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

You want fries with that? Blythe, California’s Courtesy Coffee Shop. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation.  Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.

1/40 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200, 35mm.

Counter Culture: 1/40 sec., f/4.5, ISO 200, 35mm.

However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.

One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.

The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear.  Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.

Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a  Denver omelet for you?


TRY A DIFFERENT DOOR

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PUBLIC PLACES, ESPECIALLY RECREATION SPACES, ARE A REAL STUDY IN IMAGE CONTROL. The world’s playgrounds and theme parks are, of course, in the business of razzle-dazzle, and their marquees, grand courts and official entrances are carefully crafted facades designed to delight. For photographers, that usually means we all take the same pictures of the same Magic Gate or Super Coaster or whatever. Great for convenience: not so great for photography.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to improvise a different way to frame something new in shooting something overly familiar. But I am saying that sneaking around to the service entrance can have its points, too, offering a flavor of things that are a little funkier, a little less polished, a little less ready for prime time. I recall my dad, who, years ago, dreamed of taking the ultimate “real” shots of the circus, trolling around near some of the lesser-traveled entrances and halls, trying to catch the clowns and acrobats either just before or just after their time in the ring. I still pursue that strategy sometimes.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

Pacific Park, the amusement center along the boardwalk at the Santa Monica pier, is a predictably colorful, semi-cheesy mix of carny sights and smells. The main foot traffic is straight down the pier to the fishing lookout, but there are alternate ways to get there along the back of the ride and games section. This shot is rather gauzy, as it’s taken through some sun-flecked netting, softening the color (and the appearance of reality) for some gaming areas. I took a lot of standard stuff on this day, but I keep coming back to this frame. It’s not a work of art, by any means, but I like the feeling that I’m not supposed to be there.

Of course, where I’m not supposed to be is, photographically, exactly where I want to be.

You never know when you might spy a clown without his rubber nose.

 


ALIENATIONS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE STRANGEST VISUAL EVIDENCE OF MAN’S PRESENCE ON THE PLANET IS HIS ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE HIS THINKING, the ability to say, of his living patterns, “over here, cool. Over there, six inches away, ick. You see these kind of yes/no, binary choices everywhere. The glittering, gated community flanked by feral urban decay. The open pasture land that abuts a zoo. And the natural world, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of its near neighbors from our co-called “civilization”.

As seen from Griffith Observatory: park running paths and a smog-shrouded L.A.: 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

As seen from Griffith Observatory: park running paths and a smog-shrouded L.A. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

I recently re-evaluated this image of the running paths at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and the nearby uber-grid of the central city. The colors are a bit muted since it was taken on a day of pretty constant rolling overcast, and it really is not a definitive portrait of either the city or the nearby greenspace, but there is a little story to be told in the ability of the two worlds to co-exist.

L.A’s lore is rife with stories of destroyed environments, twisted eco-structure, bulldozed neighborhoods and political hackery advanced at great cost to the poor and the powerless. In the face of that history, the survival of Griffith, a 4,310-acre layout of parks, museums, kiddie zoos, sports courts, and concert venues on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, is something of a miracle. It’s the lion lying down with the lamb, big-time, a strange and lucky juxtaposition that affords some of the most interesting fodder for photographers anywhere in California. Photogs observe natural pairings in the world, but they also chronicle alienations, urban brothers from different mothers, tales of visual conflicts that, while they can’t be reconciled, are worth noting.

 


LOOK THIRTY FEET FURTHER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.

Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment.  You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.

Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile. 

So go ahead and shoot the obvious thing. Just try to find another way to see it.

So go ahead and shoot the obvious thing. Just try to find another way to see it.

I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.

I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.

Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.

Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…

There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.

Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.

Pictures are where you find them, often tucked away behind so-called "attractions".

Pictures are where you find them, often tucked away behind so-called “attractions”. 1/100 sec., f/6.3, ISO 100, 18mm.

While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was  only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.

Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?

Now, where did my mommy go?


LOOK THROUGH ANY WINDOW, PART TWO

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I WILL DO ANYTHING TO PHOTOGRAPH BOOKSTORES. Not the generic Costco and Wal-Mart bargain slabs laden with discounted bestsellers. Not the starched and sterile faux-library air of Barnes & Noble. I’m talking musty, dusty, crammed, chaotic collections of mismatched, timeless tomes…. “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” as Poe labeled them. I’m looking for places run by dotty old men with their glasses high on their forehead, cultural salvage yards layered in multiple stories of seemingly unrelated offerings in random stacks and precarious piles. Something doomed by progress, and beautiful in its fragility.

I almost missed this one.

Through the window, and into a forgotten world. A fake two-shot HDR from a single exposure at 1/80 sec., f/5, ISO 400, 18mm.

In my last post, I commented  that, even when your photography is rules-based….i.e., always do this, never do that, there are times when you have to shoot on impulse alone and get what you can get. It sometimes begins when you’re presented with something you’re not, but should be, looking for. A few weeks ago, I was spending the afternoon at one of Monterey, California‘s most time-honored weekly rituals..the marvelous, multi-block farmers’ market along Alvarado Street. The sheer number of vendors dictates that some of the booths spill over onto the side streets, and that’s where I found The Book Haven. The interior of the store afforded an all-in-one view of its entire sprawling inventory, but the crush of tourists bustling in and out of its teeny front door meant that any image was going to look like the casting call for The Ten Commandments.

I had to come back, when both the store and I were alone.

With the limited amount of time I had in town, that meant that I would have to stroll by just hours ahead of my plane for home. Heading out at 8:30 in the morning, I had obviously solved the problem of “too many people in the picture”, but I had traded that hassle for a new one: the store would not be open for another three hours.

For the second time in a week (see “Look Through Any Window, Part One”) I was forced to shoot through a window, but at least there was enough light inside to illuminate nearly all of the store’s interior. To avoid a reflection, I would have to cram my lens right up against the glass. Once my autofocus stopped fidgeting, I could only obtain the framing I wanted by shooting through a narrow open place on the center of the front door, standing on tiptoe to hold the composition. I also had to keep the ISO dialed low enough to not create extra noise, but high enough so I could take a fairly fast handheld exposure and get as much detail from the dark corners as possible. Balancing act.

Let’s see what happens. 

In viewing the image later, I saw that there wasn’t enough detail to suit me, either in the individual books or the darker spaces around the store, so I pulled a small cheat. Making a copy of the shot, I pulled down the contrast, boosted the exposure, and sucked out some shadow, then loaded both shots into Photomatix, fooling the HDR program into thinking they were two separate exposures. Photomatix is also a detail enhancer program, so I could add sharper textures to the books and a richer range of tones than were seen in the original through-the-window shot.

Hey, you can’t have it all, but, by at least trying, you get more than nothing.

And sometimes that’s everything.

Nice bookstore.


LOOK THROUGH ANY WINDOW, PART ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE COMMON THREAD ACROSS ALL THE PHOTO HOW-TO BOOKS EVER WRITTEN IS A WARNING: don’t let all the rules we are discussing here keep you from making a picture. Standardized techniques for exposure, composition, angle, and processing are road maps, not the Ten Commandments. It will become obvious pretty quickly to anyone who makes even a limited study of photography that some of the greatest pictures ever taken color outside the classical lines of “good picture making.” The war photo that captures the moment of death in a blur. The candid that cuts off half the subject’s face. The sunset with blown-out skies or lens flares. Many images outside the realm of “perfection” deliver something immediate and legitimate that goes beyond mere precision. Call it a fist to the gut.

The dawn creeps slowly in on the downtown streets of Monterey, California. A go-for-broke window shot taken under decidedly compromised conditions. 1/15 sec., f/3.5, ISO 640, 18mm.

Conversely, many technically pristine images are absolutely devoid of emotional impact, perfect executions that arrive at the finish line minus a soul. Finally, being happy with our results, despite how far they are from flawless is the animating spirit of art, and feeling. This all starts out with a boost of science, but it ain’t really science at all, is it? If it were, we could just send the camera out by itself, a heart-dead recording instrument like the Mars lander, and remove ourself from the equation entirely.

Thus the common entreaty in every instruction book: shoot it anyway. The only picture that is sure not to “come out” is the one you don’t shoot.

The image at left, of a business building in downtown Monterey, California was almost not taken. If I had been governed only by general how-to rules, I would have simply decided that it was impossible. Lots of reasons “not to”; shooting from a high hotel window at an angle that was nearly guaranteed to pick up a reflection, even taken in a dark room at pre-dawn; the need to be too close to the window to mount a tripod, therefore nixing the chance at a time exposure; and  the likelihood that, for a hand-held shot, I would have to jack the camera’s ISO so high that some of the darker parts of the building would be the smudgy consistency of wet ashes.

Still, I couldn’t walk away from it. Mood, energy, atmosphere, something told me to just shoot it anyway.

I didn’t get “perfection”. That particular ideal had been yanked out of my reach, like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown’s football. But I am glad I tried.  (Click on the image to see a more detailed version of the result)

In the next post, a look at another window that threatened to hold a shot hostage, and a solution that rescued it.


WHEN THE NOISE DIES

In the day, this place is a madness of color and noise. At night, you have its wonders all to yourself. Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California. 25 second exposure at f/10, ISO 100, 24mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AMERICA IS A LOUD PLACE. IF WE DON’T HEAR NOISE WHEREVER WE GO, WE CREATE OUR OWN. It is a country whose every street rings with a cascade of counterpointed voices, transactions, signals, warnings, all of it borne on the madly flapping wings of sound. There are the obvious things, like car horns, screeching tires, soaring planes, thundering rails, somebody else’s music. And then there are the almost invisible hives of interconnecting lives that tamp vibration and confusion into our ears like a trash compactor.

We no longer even notice the noise of life.

In fact, we are vaguely thrown off-balance when it subsides. We need practice in remembering how to get more out of less.

That’s why I love long night exposures. It allows you to survey a scene after the madding crowd has left. Leaving for their dates, their destinies, their homes, they desert the fuller arenas of day and leave it to breathe, and vibrate, at a more intimate rhythm. Colors are muted. Shadows are lengthened. The sky itself becomes a deep velvet envelope instead of a sun-flooded backdrop.

The noise dies, and the quiet momentarily holds the field.

The above image is of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the key tourist destinations in California, a state with an embarrassment of visual riches. During the day, it is a mash of voices, birdcalls, the deep croak of harbor seals, and the boardwalk come-ons of pitchmen hawking samples of chowder along the wharf’s clustered row of seafood joints. It is a colorful cacophony, but the serenity that descends just after dark on cold or inclement nights is worth seeking out as well.

Setting up a tripod and trying to capture the light patterns on the marina, I was stacking up a bunch of near misses. I had to turn my autofocus off, since dark subjects send it weaving all over the road, desperately searching for something to lock onto. I am also convinced that the vibration reduction should be off during night shots as well, since….and this is counter-intuitive….it creates the look of camera shake when it can’t naturally find it. Ow, my brain hurts.

The biggest problem I had was that, for exposures nearing thirty seconds in length, the gentle roll of the water, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, was consistently blurring many of the boats in the frame, since I was actually capturing half a minute of their movement at a time. I couldn’t get an evenly sharp frame, and the cold was starting to make me wish I’d packed in a jacket.  Then, out of desperation, I rotated the tripod about 180 degrees, and reframed to include the main cluster of shops along the raised dock near the marina. Suddenly, I had a composition, its lines drawing the eye from the front to the back of the shot.

More importantly, I got a record of the wharf’s nerve center in a rare moment of calm. People had taken their noise home, and what was left was allowed to be charming.

And I was there, for both my ear and my eye to “hear” it.

Thoughts?


GOING POSTAL (CARD)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Looking south down Oceanview Boulevard to Monterey from Pacific Grove’s “Lover’s Point” Park. A three-exposure HDR with an average shutter speed of 1/250, f/11, ISO 100, 45mm.

“Ooh, nice. Looks just like a post card!”—98% of everyone who looks at your pictures

MUCH AS I WOULD LOVE TO BE SEEN AS A “SERIOUS” PHOTOGRAPHER (whatever that means), I am, basically, always seeking beauty and some way to freeze it in time.

Come to think of it, that seems pretty “serious” too, although there are schools of thought that seem to profess that making pretty pictures is somehow as insubstantial as crocheting tea cozies or writing haikus about clouds.

Whatever.

My visual sense actually developed along two fairly exclusive tracks. There was the reportorial photography of Life, which reliably came to our house each week chock full of amazing portraiture, riveting war coverage and contentious social issues. That’s the “serious” track. And then there was my early and abiding love for the travel destinations in the illuminated Kodachrome of my View-Master reels, stunning forays into color crafted mostly by unknown shooters working for scale, many of whom sold the company’s “scenic” packets to photo dealers for their real paychecks. These eye-popping tours of France, The Grand Canyon, New York City, and the Holy Land held me spellbound in a way none of VM’s kiddie titles could. Their beauty was their justification. They deserved to be, just because they were a celebration of symmetry, shape, scale, mystery, history.

Canopy and Carpet: Eerily majestic cypresses and manzanita ground cover, just inland of the coastline at Pacific Grove, California. Two-exposure HDR shot at f/11, ISO 100, 45mm.

Since my childhood I have seemed to toggle between taking pictures that “matter” (another meaningless distinction) and images that merely delight me because I was able to grab a sliver of something larger than myself, a souvenir that I myself helped create. And, much as I hate the generic and dismissive “looks like a post card” remark I often get on some kinds of photos, it is the iconic view of the iconic object that I consciously go for, attempting to put my own stamp on something even as I realize that creating the image is way above my pay grade or skill set.

Still.

There are times to be a reporter, and there are times to gawk and gape in awe. Anytime I have any chance to be anywhere near the Monterey Peninsula, I vault onto the plane like a ’49-er who heard they just found gold at Sutter’s Mill. The stunning mix of coastal terrain, local botany and color that floods the eye at every turn in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel blows me right out of “documentary” mode and makes my romantic heart beat faster.

Patron Santa Rosaria watches over the”Fisherman’s Wharf” district of Monterey Bay. A three-shot HDR at f/9, ISO 100, 18mm.

I am going postal, as in postal card. I want the ooh-ahh moment. Later on, I’ll get back to shooting urban decay and despair. Right now, we’re making the ultimate View-Master reel.

“Seven More Wonders Of The World!” So ran the wording on the paper envelopes that held those little 3-d wheels.

Seven more wonders.

That’s all I need.

“Serious”-ly.

 


THE HOUSE THAT ED BUILT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AMIDST THE CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE OF MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA’S CANNERY ROW, IT IS A DRAB, ORDINARY THING, and, if you are not paying close attention, Ed Rickett’s original biological lab, tucked next to the towering Monterey Bay Aquarium, looks as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball. In fact, it has escaped that fate several times over, much to the glory of this old industrial district, now scrubbed squeaky-clean to house Starbucks and other national chains within the substructures of what was once the beating heart of the California fishing industry. However, with a little closer look at the former headquarters of Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories, you realize that it carries more history within its humble walls than most of the theme park dreck in the area that attempts to recall that era.

If Cannery Row is a salute to history, the House That Ed Built is history, and has been, luckily, left alone to tell its amazing story.

Authenticity is a hard item to come by in Monterey’s Cannery Row, which depicts a grand old factory district as a kind of Fish Disneyland.

Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, who found himself living and working in Pacific Grove, California in the early 1920’s after bouncing around the country as an Army medical corpsman, a dropout zoology student at the University of Chicago, and a travel writer, founded Pacific Biology Laboratories with a friend in 1922. The original lab was in Pacific Grove, a next-door neighborhood to Monterey, and was later relocated to Ocean View Boulevard in the heart of the bustling fisheries and processing plants of Cannery Row. Ricketts took consignment orders from researchers and museums for various life forms from the coastal tides in the region, commissions which made him a modest living and helped finance his own experiments. By 1930, with his reputation fairly established, he met an up-and-coming author from the area named John Steinbeck. The two became lifelong friends.

The PBL lab, with holding tanks around the bank for storing specimens (still viewable today), was nearly destroyed in 1936, when a fire consumed the neighboring Del Mar cannery (now the site of the world-class Monterey Bay aquarium). Steinbeck, stepping in to purchase a half-interest in Ed’s lab, financed its rebuilding (and helped keep a roof over his friend’s head).Saved from the flames was Rickett’s career-defining work, Between Pacific Tides, the manuscript for which had been sent ahead to his publisher before the blaze.

 The Monterey Bay headquarters of Pacific Biological Laboratories, whose proprietor, Ed Ricketts, became the inspiration for the character “Doc” in his pal John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row. 1600 sec., f/7.1, ISO 200, 35mm.

In 1940, following one of many messy breakups with the various women in his life, Ed decided to take a road trip to Mexico and pay for it by researching and writing a new book on marine life. Steinbeck, looking to escape some of the controversy that dogged him following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, decided to partner with Ricketts on the project.The result, Log From The Sea of Cortez, one of Steinbeck’s only works of non-fiction, became a solid reference work in the field of marine biology.

Writing his novel Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck modeled his marine biologist character “Doc” on Ricketts, fictionalizing the PBL as “Western Biological Laboratory” and keeping the spirit of Ed’s place as a gathering (and drinking) point for writers and artists. Following Rickett’s death in 1948 (he was hit by a train carrying Del Monte canned fish through the area!), friends bought the place, keeping it as a kind of clubhouse until 1983, when they sold it to the city of Monterey. The budding Cannery Row Foundation, then just getting underway with a renovation of the area, saw to the restoration of the building, which now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Specimens Ed gathered from the tidal pools have, for decades, graced collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, Lund University in Sweden, and dozens of other places the world over. Now the place his work began is itself a specimen.

Cheesy retail and chain restaurants have blotted out a lot of the physical history of  Cannery Row, leaving Pacific Biological Laboratories as one of the only authentic visual legacies of one of America’s most storied industrial centers. As such, it’s always worth an extra (and loving) look.

(Here’s a great link from the Museum of Monterey with a wonderful overview of Ed’s life:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz6BdAtgIk )


A BLOCK OF THE MILE

The building that originally housed Desmond’s department store, and one of the mostly intact survivors of a golden age of Art Deco along Los Angeles’ historic “Miracle Mile”.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard,  remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).

 

The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.

The period-perfect marquee for the legendary El Rey Theatre, formerly a movie house and now a live-performance venue.

It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.

But that’s only the beginning.

On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.

The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.

The Wilshire Boulevard entrance to Desmond’s, with its period friezes, ornate grillwork and curved showcases intact.

Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.

The wonderfully patterned lobby floor and streamlined ticket booth of the El Rey.

Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.

Suggested video link:  Desmond’s Department Store    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA