By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN EARLY THAT THE WORLD’S VAST ARRAY OF FACES comprises only part of the ongoing pageant of human behavior. Certainly our features afford the most obvious clues to our inner mind (or serve to artfully obscure it), but it’s only part of the story, a story we complete by constructing the work uniform of our daily costume.
Just as comic-book and sci-fi fans lovingly recreate the armor and cape details of their favorite comic-book heroes in “cosplay”, we too piece together a kind of costume in the assembly of our everyday apparel. We don’t just don shirts and trousers, hats and coats: we actually craft a total outward identity for ourselves, an outfit that we think correctly projects who we are. Some work uniforms are as plain as a nun’s habit, while others scream as loudly as a Catwoman leotard. We make dozens of decisions about dozens of details. This makes me look old. This makes me look too fat. This gives off an attitude. This is a good look for me. That’s the just the accent I needed. This will turn heads.
This will protect me from detection.
Our street garb is creative work for people who don’t especially see themselves as artists, even as they turn themselves into living, walking canvasses. And the combination of our faces, with their twin abilities to reveal or conceal, with the outer layers we’ve pieced together to advertise ourselves, is, artistically speaking, an original. The person who begins at the mirror each morning and ends in the street as a deliberate concoction is unique, in that all of the individual components involved in the assembly will not look exactly the same on any other person. Shakespeare’s maxim that “all the world’s a stage” and that all of us are “merely players” holds across the centuries. We are our own invention, clad in creations that are part armor, part stagecraft. What a harvest for the photographer, who, among other contrasts of light and shadow, is also measuring the contrast between what we hope to be and what we appear to be. Every day on the street is shopping day for a shooter. The game, the play, the masquerade is always afoot, and when we witness it all with a trained eye, we wind up enrolled in a master class on both drama and tragedy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT OFTEN EXPRESSED THE BELIEF THAT, in architecture, “form and function are one”, that, in the best designs, what a thing is used for will generally dictate its appearance. And while it does seem to hold true that sports stadiums do look like places where sports are played, or that churches look like places where people worship, I’m not always sure, as a photographer, that I agree with FLLW that the form/function rule applies in all structures. I have a lifelong love for images of personal dwellings, places that, all too often, look ill-suited to house humans at all, as if, indeed, there was no conscious link between form and function. In many cases, we live in basic containers that just are, with how we live in them dictating their form almost as an afterthought or improvisation, draped as they are with the stuff we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.
Indeed, it’s how the infinitely adaptable human retrofits his house from the inside out that makes it look like somebody actually lives there, rather like a window looks more window-ish once someone hangs drapes in it. Urban living is littered with enclosures that will, sadly, never look like anyone’s domicile, and it’s only the personal things that spill outward from within that give them any visual identity or distinction at all. Thus, when I’m walking through a neighborhood, I pay less attention to the well-tailored or manicured houses and more attention to the littered ones, the ones where things are randomly hung or hammered into place, the houses where makeshift repairs or ill-performed additions are in evidence. Houses that otherwise seem as if they were extruded from a Play-Doh Fun Factory can become personalized by what is strewn in front of them, left in the yard, tacked on as a footnote. It is that randomness, that refusal to conform, that makes houses human, and thus ripe for picture-making.
In the image you see here, the house speaks eloquently about the most important things in its owners’ lives. It’s an outward barometer of their hobbies, pastimes, daily chores. The structure itself might never have struck anyone, from the architect to the builder, as unique, but as its true identity has been assembled, layered over it, its messages are all clear and direct. Wright was correct that buildings should reflect the purpose for which they were built. However, when they fail that task, design-wise, the way they are actually used will explode out of them, in a million different cues and clues over a million billion neighborhoods, in a visual shorthand that photographers will forever delight in decoding.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT “WINDOW SHOPPING“, the strange practice of taking random photographs while being driven through urban neighborhoods, usually in the back seat of an Uber, usually to or from a hotel or an airport. For any shooter who likes to engineer as much control as possible in their image-making (as is my own bias), cranking off shots out the side window of the back seat of a ride-share is the closest thing to complete chaos, and yet surprisingly exhilarating. It’s also good exercise for those occasional planned shoots in which you will need to react quickly, and hopefully with effect, under rapidly changing conditions.
The whole thing began for me several years ago with one of many trips I’ve made to and from New York, a place that, for a photographer, embraces both formal technique and shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity. I’ve had to teach myself to be more comfortable with the latter than the former, and so I have to regularly place myself in situations in which I’m forced to mentally shoot with, if you like, one hand tied behind my back. I have to make myself shoot looser and with less of a fear of loss-of-control situations. At some point, a boring cab ride to JFK gave me the perfect jumping-off point for such a project.
Think for a moment about how little I have to say about the conditions of this kind of shoot. The driver is taking me through neighborhoods I often know little about, so I can’t anticipate or plan. The speed of the vehicle, the smoothness of the ride, whether the “good stuff” is to the left or right of the car, and, certainly, when I’m about to behold anything with any potential all guarantee a kind of randomness. There are no warnings, no forecasts. Add to this that I will probably be shooting at full manual, meaning that, in addition to reacting in the moment to my subject and shooting conditions, I’m also throwing hundreds of frame-to-frame calculations about how to capture anything of value into the equation.
Not surprisingly, my yield is often 90% garbage, something that is also great for maintaining a sense of humility. However, the images that do work would never have been made at all had I not placed my precious precision in jeopardy. Thinking back to when I started, I, like many young photographers, disliked most of my pictures because there was always something I hadn’t understood, hadn’t planned for, didn’t yet know how to do. The paradox of this kind of machine-based expression is that you have to learn all the rules and then decide which ones you have no interest in following going forward. I often suspect that many younger shooters actually begin their careers at the opposite end of that continuum, starting at “what the hell” and eventually growing into more formalized technique. Doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that both control and chaos can be useful, but they can both be imposters as well. A picture isn’t guaranteed to be wonderful because you cared and planned “enough”, and it certainly isn’t fated to be brilliant just because you cared so little. All roads don’t lead to Rome, but all roads also don’t lead away from it. From a window with shaky hands and a lousy Uber driver, or on solid, tripod-secure ground, you can be both the hero or the goat, given what’s happening between your ears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU RECOGNIZE THE ELEMENTS OF THEIR STRANGE VISUAL SIGNATURES AT ONCE: garish neon; outsized, surreal props: homemade window signs: and, always, for the storefronts of aging or vanishing businesses, the feeling that this is the creation of a single owner, not a faceless chain. It’s the Great American Mom ‘n’ Pop, and it is always flitting near the edge of extinction. And like all things endangered, it is fitting fodder for the photographer…for although these strange displays don’t include the standard features of the human face, yet still a human portrait of sorts can be made from their humble elements.
If you ever get the chance, thumb through an enormous volume called Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray (Gingko Press, 2008). Shot on simple 35mm film, this amazing collection offers both images and backstories from all five boroughs in the greater NYT metro, organized by region. The caption data for the pictures is often the personal remembrances of the most recent operators of the various neighborhood’s delis, dry cleaners, beauty salons, supply houses and markets, most of them in continuous operation for most or all of the twentieth century, many closing up forever even as the book was going to press. The “front” is a kind of short story, a miniature play about who we were, what we sought, what we settled for. Often the buildings have risen or fallen with their respective neighborhoods, their entrances falling prey to crime, time, neglect. Several owners lament not being able to get the parts to keep their neon signs in repair. Others wish they could add a new awning, a fresh coat of paint. And always, as the fronts wink out, regentrification rears its trendy head. But it doesn’t bring new good times for the old place. Instead, it erases their stories…with apartment blocks, Pizza Huts, a Verizon store.
The image seen here, along Central Avenue is Phoenix, Arizona, boasts of (at least) a world of cheese, at a deli which is short on space but long on local flavor. In the American Southwest, as compared to other cities, neighborhoods don’t often get to live long enough to become “venerable” or “historic”, such is the short loop between grand openings and final swings of the wrecking ball. In more traditional urban spaces, everything old is occasionally new again. In Phoenix, it’s old, and then….just gone. The insanely disproportionate worship of the new and shiny in this part of the country can be exhilarating, but the real loss it engenders is sad and final in the way that doesn’t always happen back east. As a consequence, urban chroniclers in this neck o’ the desert must keep their cameras forever at the ready. You can never assume that you’ll get that picture the next time you swing through the neighborhood. Because the neighborhood itself may not be around.
For photographic purposes, I believe that storefronts are best shot straight-on (rather than at an angle) so that their left-to-right information reads like a well-dressed theatre stage. This also makes us look at them differently than we do as either pedestrians or drivers, where they tend to slide along the edge of our periphery largely unnoticed. Some of them benefit from being decorated by the figures of passersby: others appear more poignant standing alone. The main thing, if for no other reason except to create a break in the “chain migration”, is to maintain a record. There is a reason why so many “then and now” books of urban photographs are so jarring in their contrasting images. We live so quickly that we simply do not record our environment even through the daily process of using it. We need reminders for reference, even on the things that we should be eventually letting go of. And the camera puts down mileposts in a compelling way. It marks. It delineates, stating in concrete terms, we were that, and now we’re this. I believe in getting out that tape measure on occasion. I think it matters.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NEW YORK TIMES recently published a marvelous article on the 1963 demolition of Manhattan’s iconic Penn Station, and the lasting lesson of its loss for cities of every size everywhere. On one level, it’s the specific story of how an essential public space fell to a specious idea of “progress”. On another, it’s a meditation on what kinds of buildings make or break a city. And then there’s the mythic quality we bestow on everything that is gone, a romantic pang we attach to that which can never be recovered. All of these discussions are fueled by what photography does to the popular imagination.
Because it was built in the very first days of the motion picture camera, Penn Station was more exhaustively documented in its death throes than at its opening. But one of the mixed blessings of its passing is the sheer photographic evidence that such a grand thing was, a way of bearing witness to why and how it vanished. In those pre-internet, three-tv-network days, photographs helped the building’s demolition function as a kind of global re-set in the thinking of civic planners worldwide. The ill-advised practices of what used to be called “urban renewal” were forever changed after Penn. Its destruction was just too great a mistake to allow for a repetition, and serious discussions began about what constitutes a legacy, even the elusive idea of a city’s “soul”.
One of the things that proved fatal for Penn was a shift from a culture based on railroads to one based on the automobile…a simple matter of sustainable economics, or so it would seem. And yet, more than half a century later, many of the great railway stations are still with us, proving that the lives of buildings need not be tied to their original purpose. Rebirths of structures from the 20th century are the urban success stories of the 21st, due to a word which would have seemed alien to the America of the mid-60’s: re-purposing. Commuter travel is, certainly, a fraction of what it once was, but the beautiful palaces that once served as hubs for millions of day travelers have, in many cases, been allowed to serve new functions, many of them being converted into active museum or gallery space. Others, like Portland, Oregon’s Union Station (shown here), are still key connectors for pleasure travel, if not a nation of nine-to-fivers. All of these fresh starts are ripe for new photo-documentation, for telling the stories that, for now, are protected, but which remain terribly fragile.
In some ways, the nation has also grown up a bit. We had such a love affair for so long with All Things New that there seemed little need to preserve or protect anything into its old age. The frontier was limitless, resources were infinite, and anything edging toward decrepitude could merely be swept away for the newer and the better. Now, we seldom throw away entire neighborhoods just to provide a superhighway with a five-mile shortcut. We build in and much as we used to build out. And, with a cooperation between urban visionaries and those sentient eyes behind the viewfinder, there is a greater likelihood that at least some of the world we knew will be viewable, even viable, for those who come after us. The camera is a way of measuring us, as well as the things we create, a time machine with an infinite capacity for emotional as well as educational truth-telling, a way to assemble many small images to compose the Big Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW WOULD DISPUTE THE IDEA that photography forever changed the way we see. However, I also believe it has altered the way we recall. The process of accessing our memories as a reference point for our thoughts and feelings was complex even before the invention of the camera. But add the seemingly “trustworthy” or “authentic” records of things interpreted by photography, though, and the sorting of memory becomes an even greater muddle. Do we remember, or do we recognize, through the inheritance of masses of images, how someone else remembered?
Through the camera, we can confuse our actual sensory experiences of things with the trove of pictures which formed our “versions” of them beyond what we ourselves have lived. Many more of us have viewed photos of the Eiffel Tower than have actually gazed upon it. When we do first encounter a “known” thing in person, one of our first reactions is often that it “isn’t how I pictured it”……that is, our collective photographic “memory” doesn’t match authentic experience.
As photographers, we are trying to see things originally even as we hack our way through the inherited gallery of images of those things that are an unavoidable element of our visual legacy from other photographers. It is damned difficult to develop our own eye, since the after-image of everyone else’s take is always present in our consciousness.
I shot the image shown here in 2011, during a typical package tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Part of the circuit was a brief shuttle ride to Ellis on a boat that afforded a long, wide view of lower Manhattan. I shot the picture quite unconsciously, which is to say, oh look at that cool view. Later, in combing through the day’s shoot, I saw something else in the scene, something that connected me to photographs taken generations before me: Alfred Stieglitz’ poignant scenes of newly-arrived immigrants in steerage: grainy silent newsreels of crowded ferries passing the Statue, their passengers’ faces etched with a mixture of terror, longing and joy. Suddenly my own picture was no longer about a pleasure cruise for tourists. It was my chance to take in the same view millions had seen before me: the first glimpse of The Promised Land. The New Start. The Second Chance. And for many, Life Itself.
I had already underexposed the shot somewhat to emphasize the skyline, but the picture still contained too many distracting features on the faces of the passengers. I adjusted the exposure even more and saturated the color to further create the look of a low-light, slow film stock. Their particulars muted, my tourists now replicated the “look” of all those earlier arrivals, the ones I had inherited from other people’s experiences. Had I reached a kind of communion with those millions? Could I be adding my own story to theirs?
Even though I was traveling in the same waters as the people in the archival pictures had traveled, I wasn’t them. As a native-born American, I didn’t face the terrifying pass/fail that they had as they approached our front porch. I wouldn’t come this close, see a life beckoning just beyond that window, and yet be sent back because my eye looked odd to the doctors or my papers were not in order. I found this picture again the other day. I think I have to live inside it for a while. I may not have shot it with the eye of someone new to this country, but the inherited images of lives past have asked me, in my own limited way, to bear witness to the fact that, at some time, we have, all of us, been The Other. I really don’t want to forget that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SEEMS TO ME that a municipality only qualifies as a “real” city when it becomes nearly impossible to visually identify its beginnings. Neighborhoods may begin as unified civic signatures with coherent visual styles, but let fire, war, hard times or earthquakes add their input, and those same streets start to look like jigsaws with the pieces chosen from different puzzles. It’s a nightmare for urban planners but a treasure trove for the camera.
As they age, cities become visual collision points between good intentions and unintended consequences, with parts of one era being grafted onto fragments from another. Absent a bomb or natural disaster, few streets are completely destroyed by time, just evolved into a crazy-quilt jumble of bygone trends, deaths, and rebirths.
This image shows a typical block in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, with residential, retail and undefined space co-existing in a single building, following the general rule for the neighborhood that everything should be re-purposed and then re-re-purposed pretty much forever. Things get old. Things break. Ownerships and administrations change. Priorities shift. Some parts of buildings disappear, others are re-imagined, still others are absorbed into other visions.
This urban recycling has real benefits. As an area with the densest population concentration in all of Los Angeles county, there is no space in Koreatown to waste, and thus many priceless remnants of the Art Deco movement which might have fallen to the wrecking ball in other sectors of L.A. were saved and re-used when the neighborhood transitioned from an entertainment district to a residential and commercial area in the 1960’s. Like most of the city at large, Koreatown’s streets are living exhibits, laboratories involving all of the different “Los Angeleses” that have existed throughout the last century. And as with “real” cities in general, part of the new way for the various Koreatown’s is always marbled with what Paul McCartney calls “my ever-present past”. creating unique photographic opportunities in the process. Essentially, cameras were born to bear witness to this amazing cross between architecture and archaeology, this irreconcilable argument between competing jigsaw puzzles. It’s part of the Big Picture we all seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT IRONIC CLICHE OF CITIES is how they smash millions of people together while also keeping them completely isolated from each other, forcing the seeming intersections of lives that, below the surface, are still tragically alienated. Photography, coming of age as it did at roughly the same time as the global rise of cities, became accustomed, early on, with showing both the mad crush and the killing melancholy of these strange streets. We take group shots within which, hidden in plain sight, linger poignant solo portraits. The thrill of learning to speak both messages with a camera in one instant is why we do this thing.
Gray days, especially the fat batch of them I recently harvested in Manhattan, do half of my street photographer’s job for me, deepening colors and shadows in what can quickly become an experiment in underexposure, a lab which, in turn, profoundly alters mood. Things that were somber to begin with become absolutely leaden, with feelings running to extremes on the merest of subjects and forcing every impression through a muted filter. It’s what makes it out the back end of that filter that determines what kind of picture I’ll get.
The two diners in this scene are an arbitrary interpretation…..a judgement call that, on a bright day, I might have made completely differently. They are in parallel arrangement, so they both are looking off to the right, never across at each other. Does this make them lonely, or merely alone? The fact that there is one man and one woman in the composition doesn’t necessarily denote desperate or disconnected lives, but isn’t there at least a slight temptation for the viewer to read the image that way? And then there is our habit of seeing this kind of color palette as moody, sad, contemplative. The limited amount of light in the frame, as much as any other element, “tells” us what to feel about the entire scene. Or does it?
Now, of course, if you were to pack a roomful of other photogs into the same room alongside me to shoot the same image under the exact same conditions, you would very likely get a wider variety of readings. One such reading might suggest that both of these people were thoroughly enjoying a pleasant, quiet lunch, part of a lifelong pattern of contented fulfillment. Or not.
Cities are composed of millions of eyes backed by many more millions of inherited viewpoints on what defines big words like lonely, isolated, sad, thoughtful, and so on. But all of us, regardless of approach, are taking the strange city yin/yang of get closer/go away and trying to extract our own meaning from it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DEMIMONDE. The night shift. The third trick. Up with the dawn. Done for the night.
At any given time, some of us are starting our days and heading to work while others are wrapping up their labors and stumbling into bed. Our nights are others’ days, our bustle others’ quiet time. We come at life on the planet from different directions, our suns and moons meeting at the time clock. Wait till coffee break, say some. That’s when things really get going. Hang around till after midnight, say the rest. That’s when this place really start to happen.
Time really comes unmoored in the cities, where our deliveries, destinies and dreams are on all kinds of stop/start cycles. The big town is as photographically alive for the night owls as for the morning glories. People whose days are other people’s nights are forever exotic and strange to each other, the images of their routines as mutually mysterious as the extremes of heat and cold. And always, the same underlying drum beat: got things to do. No day or night, pal: things get done when they get done.
The camera never sleeps because we never close. Open seven days a week, open all night. Last train at midnight, early bird special, full price after six, in by 9, out by 5. Rules of engagement for the breakfast surge, the lunch rush, the dinner crowd. Lives in motion. Pistons rising and falling. Disharmony and sweet accord.
The shutters keep blinking. The moments keep rolling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BUILDING YOU SEE HERE may not, on first glance, match your sensory memory of what a “public library” is supposed to look like. However, step into this amazing complex on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and you will certainly see, from every angle of its curvy vastness, the public….buzzing away at research, cozying next to comfy reads in cafes, tucked away in private warrens of study and solitude.
One of photography’s functions is to chronicle the public space that mankind creates, and how it occupies that space. And visually, there can be no greater illustration of the changes in how that space is defined than in the architectural evolution of public libraries. More than mere warehouses for books, libraries were the first common gathering places in our young republic, no less important than legislatures or marketplaces. Indeed, we built many libraries to be brick and mortar celebrations of learning, grand, soaring temples to thought, arrayed in oak clusters, dizzying vaults, sprawling staircases, and mottoes of the masters, wrought in alabaster and marble. To see these spaces today is to feel the aspiration, the ambitious reach inside every volume within the stacks of these palaces.
The library, in the twenty-first century, is an institution struggling to find its next best iteration, as books share the search for knowledge with a buffet of competing platforms. That evolution of purpose is now spelled out in new kinds of public space, and the photographer is charged with witnessing their birth, just as he witnessed the digging of the subways or the upward surge of the skyscraper. New paths to fortune are being erected within the provocative wings of our New Libraries. Their shapes may seem foreign, but their aim is familiar: to create a haven for the mind and a shelter for the heart.
There are legends to be written here, and some of them will be written with light…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
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.
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
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S REVOLUTION IN URBAN ARCHITECTURE produced a radical re-imagining of the physical science of erecting buildings, along with a remarkable shift in what those buildings should look like. An extreme shift in outward design can be tracked from the ornate Greco-Roman and Gothic textures of the Woolworth Building at century’s start to the stark, spare rectilinear boxes of the ’40’s and 50’s, as we jetted from doric columns, oak clusters and gargoyles to the completely un-ornamented glass boxes that we associate with, say, the Pan Am or United Nations buildings at the other end. That changed the way we live, and likewise transformed the way we photo-document our cities.
And, whatever your opinion of what came to be called the “International Style”, the boxes today co-exist with their more decorous ancestors, a contrasting mix which creates amazing opportunities for abstraction. The collision of the two periods creates an endless shuffling of visual cues, with all that glass and terra cotta dueling for dominance in our compositions. And therein lies a tip: one tool which you may find of enduring value in shooting in these situations is a circular polarizing filter, which can help you create a wide variety of effects…quickly, and on the cheap.
People in sun-soaked sectors of the world mostly use the CPL to deepen the blue in overly-bright skies, but the filter’s ability to cut glare on reflective surfaces like water and glass can also be dramatic, and that’s how I use it in urban settings. I’ve come to love the idea of a sheer wall of glass in one building being stamped with all the details of the building directly across the street (over my shoulder). Twisting the upper ring of the CPL dials in the degree of glare you want in your image, allowing you to see none, some, or all of your neighboring structure in the glass in front of you. One caution: the filter also deepens color and can rob you of up to a stop of light, so you want to plan your exposures more carefully, something that’s done easier shooting on full manual.
The dominant idea of design in the International Style was to eschew detail and ornament to as great a degree as possible. That resulted in a lot of very boring exteriors as a vast crop of largely faceless boxes shot off the assembly line. However, using their sheer screens of glass as a vibrant kind of video display for the neighborhoods around them actually breathes a little life into them, and the circular polarizing filter gives you a remarkable amount of control over that process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, ALMOST CERTAINLY, A STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPH BELOW. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is. And probably never will.
Images often state or at least imply a narrative, allowing the photographer to relate a dimensional story within the confines of a flat, static frame. It’s kind of a miracle when that happens, but there are also those pictures in which, although part of a story has been captured in mid-flight, the whole of the tale will never be revealed. Sometimes it’s because I flat-out don’t possess the skill to tell it properly. Sometimes it’s because, although I set out to tell something in a coherent fashion, I mucked it up in execution. And, in the most interesting/frustrating of cases, it’s because the photo simply contains too little content or context to make a story emerge.
Yet, these are the images that, perversely, I find myself returning to, as if staring at them multiple times will somehow solve the puzzle. It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay, since these “quandary” pictures also become some of my favorites. Maybe it’s because they’re orphans. Maybe I actually like that they defy explanation. It’s like reading Ulysses. I don’t get it, But then again, nobody else does, either.
This particular question mark of a picture was snapped in Boston on a day soaked in enough rain to chase my wife and myself off a local walking tour around the Commons, trading squishy sneakers for butt lumps on a bus that spent 10% of its voyage hipping us to the local scene and 90% gridlocked in Beantown traffic, which is about average, as I understand it. There was, as a consequence, plenty of time to snap things out of the windows, even though the rain played serious hell with both focus and resolution. After a while, however,even the doomed task of trying to shoot anything usable became a kind of pastime all its own, especially after the driver was forced to retrace the same circle of traffic hell for a second or third go-round.
The scene you see here is in front of a historic graveyard right in the heart of the commons, a “who’s who” of honored dead, where, so say the locals, you can sit in a bar drinking a cold Sam Adams, and gaze out the window at (say it with me) a cold Sam Adams. What inspired the ragtag orchestra you see marching in front of the illustrious headstones, sans any insignia, uniforms, or sense of self-preservation is, and will remain, beyond me. What they were marching for, who their intended audience or cause might be….all of it is forever a befuddled “huh?”. Bonus round: what with the light being so meager amidst the downpour, I had dialed down to a pretty slow shutter speed, so even basic sharpness was DOA for this particular frame.
Somehow, however, I love this picture, even more than if it made any actual sense. Unmoored from reality, I can make up a dozen might-be scenarios that explain it, and so it actually has more entertainment value than many of my so-called “successful” photographs. Or maybe I just like sitting in a pew at the Church of Weird every once in a while. And, on particularly dreamy days, I can stare at this band of gypsies and wish I could take up a tuba and head their direction for a bit.
After all, they know where they’re going…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CONTRAST IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT JUST ABOUT A COMPARISON BETWEEN DARK AND LIGHT VALUES. The word contrast also applies to things placed next to each other in a composition that fight for dominance. Happy faces next to sad. Images of wealth and opulence juxtaposed with poverty and misery. Some of it can be a kind of forced irony, and, as such, can produce pictures that get a little preachy, or appear deliberately staged.
I love urban architecture because many of its design elements are enough to create a compelling image all by themselves….that is, without the larger context of what’s around them. They don’t have to be about anything; they just are. Contrast isn’t needed in many cases, because I’m not trying to show mankind’s place versus the space of a building…..I’m just seeking absolute patterns. No comment, no message.
Occasionally, however, it’s great to invade all those clinical lines and angles with a bit of humanity, to break the geometry and inject something warm or whimsical. It doesn’t have to be deliberate and it doesn’t have to be amped up with busy staging. The best contrast shots between disparate elements are the ones that you simply witness.
In the above image, the boy on the scooter is neither a “bad” nor “good” subject, but he gains a little amplitude because of his odd placement amongst the more antiseptic surrounding textures. The shot also worked a little better in monochrome because, in the original shot, the boy’s shirt was so vivid that it drew too much attention to that part of the picture.
Photographers benefit from a million tiny collisions between seemingly opposed subjects every single day. Learning which ones to isolate and massage into pictures can be an enjoyable detective game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATE STUDS TERKEL’S BOOKS created almost a category of their own, collecting memoirs from across the length and breadth of American experience and class in essential essays like Working, The Good War, and Hard Times. Traveling the length and breadth of the nation for over forty years, Terkel interviewed the big and the small, the meek, the marginal and the mighty, as they recalled their individual experiences in the wake of massive historical events, from wars to depressions. For one of his final social montages, he spoke to people in their twilight years about their efforts to remain positive and engaged despite lives that had often proven challenging, even tragic.
Its title: Hope Dies Last.
Upon first seeing the book, I had to read it, partly because it was Studs, and partly because that title spoke to my own minor acts of faith in what I look for in photographs. Pictures are often testimony about people who cannot be seen, measured in the objects they care about, or in which they invest their hope. We have all seen the tenacity of wildflowers thrusting up between the fissures of cracked concrete, and appreciated, in the abstract, what that image says about the faith of the human animal. We capture pictures of places bombed to ruin, then testify with our cameras as they begin, once more, to lay a stone upon a stone. Building. Dreaming. Launching our boats against the current.
Hope dies last.
When I see a picture of something that, to me, symbolizes our collective refusal to knuckle under, I want to take it home with me. Because we need it. Now, yesterday, ever. We draw strength from that escapist wildflower, or a battered face upturned toward the light, or, as above, a potted plant defying the odds in a dark apartment air shaft. Someone decided to give that plant a chance…or, at least, to remind the grey walls and grimy brick that color and life are still around, still fighting for their shot.
Studs made his best case for the persistence of hope with the words of his interviewees. I find comfort in trying to find visual evidence of their actions. Either way, photographers can serve as conservators of hope.
If there’s a better gig to be had in this life, please let me know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS BENEFIT FROM SOCIOLOGICAL “PIVOT POINTS“, those unique junctures in time when tectonic plates between eras shift, grind and re-configure. Images, for better or worse, are the way we testify to big changes in our world. They are documents of where one age ends and a new one begins. They illustrate contrasts between then and now.
A change in society is an opportunity for pictures, photos which become obvious, even inevitable, in telling the story of how we evolve. And one of the biggest such changes over the last decade or so has been the re-birthing of the walking neighborhood. Urban cores long given up for dead are being re-vitalized by young people who want close, hands-on engagement with city life.
Whether this shift is a boomerang effect at the end of half a century of suburban flight, an economic remedy to rising housing prices (refurbishing is cheaper than new building), an ingenious way to re-purpose old resources for a greener planet (and get rid of cars), or just a generational restlessness, the old laboratory known as the urban neighborhood is back open for business, with darkened and deserted blocks sprouting new colors, shops, rhythms. Prime picking for photographers, who, first and foremost, go where the stories are.
For me, lateral, wide-angle portraits of businesses is great fun, as I try to channel the “neighborhood in miniature” panels made popular by painter Norman Rockwell during his magazine years. Watching foot traffic flow between laundries and liquor stores, with maybe a pizza joint in between, affords an instant variety of color, signage, reflections, and texture…in other words, lots to work with.
The street is dead. Long live the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY COULD POTENTIALLY STRIKE THE AVERAGE VIEWER as somewhat remote, even a bit cold. It flies in the face of some of the universally held “truths” about so-called street photography. Sometimes it doesn’t even have a face. Or faces.
If the best street shooters are thought to reveal truth in the features of the denizens of all those boulevards, then I might really be at a disadvantage, since many of my images are not about faces.
They are, however, about people.
I tend to use passersby, in city pictures, to several ends. beyond the regular kind of unposed portraiture that is standard “street” orthodoxy. One is scale, that is, how they dominate or are diminished by the sheer size or scope of their surroundings. Some cities seem to swallow people, reducing them to anti-sized props in an architect’s tabletop diorama. I try to show that effect, since, as a city dweller, it affects me visually. Other times, I show people completely silhouetted or swaddled in shadow. This is not because their faces aren’t important, but because I’m trying to accurately show their roles as components in an overall choreography of light, as I would a mailbox or a car. Again, the idea is not to avoid or conceal the stories that may reside in their faces, but to also accentuate their body language, how they occupy a space, and, yes, as abstract design elements in a large still life (okay, that sounds a bit clinical).
I certainly bow to the masters whose controlled ambushes of strangers have captured, in candid facial shots, harrowing, inspiring, or amusing emotions that deepen our understanding of each other. You could rattle off their names as easily as I. But using people in pictures isn’t only a miniature invasion into their features, and certainly isn’t the only way to depict their intentions or dreams.
And then there is the other problem for the street portraitist, in that some faces will remain ciphers, resisting the photographer’s probe, explaining or revealing nothing. In those cases, a face poses more questions than it answers. As usual, the argument is made by the individual picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL, then certain windows are an eye into contrasting worlds.
Photographers have devised a wide number of approaches when it comes to using windows as visual elements. Many choose to shoot through them with a minimum of glare, as if the glass were not there at all. Others use them as a kind of surreal jigsaw puzzle of reflected info-fragments.
To show these two approaches through the eyes of two great photographers, examine first Eugene Atget’s shots of 19th-century Paris storefronts, which mostly concentrated on shopkeeper’s wares and how they were arranged in display windows. Straightforward, simple. Then contrast Lee Friedlander’s 21st-century layered blendings of forward view and backward reflection (seen at left), which suspends the eye between two worlds, leaving the importance of all that mixed data to the viewer’s interpretation.
Much of my own window work falls into the latter category, as I enjoy seeing what’s inside, what’s outside, and what’s over my shoulder, all in the same shot. What’s happening behind the glass can be a bit voyeuristic, almost forbidden, as if we are not fully entitled to enter the reality on the other side of the window. But it’s interesting as well to use the glass surface as a mirror that places the shop in a full neighborhood context, that reminds you that life is flowing past that window, that the area is a living thing.
Thus, in an urban setting, every window is potentially two-way glass. Now, just because this technique serves some people as a narrative or commentary doesn’t make it a commandment. You have to use the language that speaks for you and to your viewer. Whatever kind of engagement serves that relationship best dictates how you should be shooting. I just personally find layered windows a fun sandbox to play in, as it takes the static quality away from a still photo to some degree, as if the image were imbued with at least the illusion of motion.
Sometimes it’s good to conceal more than reveal, and vice versa. The only “must”, for this or any other technique in photography, is to be totally mindful as you’re creating. Choose what you mean to do, and do it with your eyes fully open.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY REACTS TO SHIFTS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR, in that it both reports and creates the news. Let people surge or sparkle in any particular direction, and the camera will shift with them, for good or ill. Photographers are camp-followers by nature, and instinctively sniff out the Next Big Thing, the Next Medium Thing, even the next Is This A Thing? in search of subject matter.
There is, at this writing, a wealth of story-telling to be done in the rebirth of American urban centers, and it’s more than just stopping by the hottest new part of town. Suddenly, it’s about the complete reversal of the systemic desertion of cities that began right after World War II, with a new generation sizing up thousands of Spielbergian burbs and finding them wanting. Moreover, urban cores are being not just renovated but embraced, not merely as this year’s megatrend but as this age’s new answer. In city after city, we are coming home, transforming our idea of “a life” to define walkable neighborhoods, an explosion in the arts, dense diversity, and locally owned businesses. It’s a great time for cities, and a great time to be a photographer.
All of human activity, from ritual to celebration, social interaction to creativity, is being re-cast in urban terms, with block after block being claimed in the name of re-use and re-purpose. It’s greener, it’s groovier, and it is rich with visuals, as the barn dance becomes the street stomp and the dead warehouse becomes the very alive coffee-house. Most importantly, children are being born into places where they can walk to real shops versus driving to unreal chains. Something is up, and it’s not merely generational, and the camera has a role in all of this.
A role and a say.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO MEASURE MAN’S RELATIONSHIP to his physical environment, giving us the distance we need to see these arrangements from a more objective distance. People design places in which other people are to live and work, but once these plans get off the drawing board, it can become unclear what people’s place in the whole puzzle was intended to be.
More to the point, there is real picture-making potential in the occasional mis-match between what we design and how we fit into it. Some things that seem terrific to the people on the planning board seem cold or intimidating to regular users once they’re actually built. Seeing us try to find our place in things that are really inhospitable can be visually interesting because it makes us look and feel somewhat alien. We can become oddly placed props in our own projects, as the places made to house our dreams look more like warehouses for our nightmares.
Of course, one man’s horror is another man’s heaven, a rule that has certainly been constant over the history of innovation. That means, artistically, that we can wind up, inevitably, making images that start arguments, which is, I believe, the perfect function for art anyway. It’s one thing to smear a daub of paint on a canvas and lacerate someone’s vision with it. After all, you can abandon the painting, leave the gallery, etc. But if the building that was meant to be the gallery seems like a bad fit for you as a human being, that’s something else entirely.
The right compositions with the right lenses deliver stark visual messages about how we slot ourselves into the world we’ve created. Sometimes we make a statement for the ages. Sometimes we erect mouse mazes. Either way, there’s a picture in the process.