By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING MY CAREER IN RADIO, I lost count of how many times I heard people react to recordings of their voice with the remark, “that doesn’t even sound like me”. The statement is funny because it’s both true and false. As a series of stored electromagnetic signals that are a scientific record of sound, the tape certainly recreates the original noises we make: and yet our inner version of ourself seems distorted, as if we’re looking in a funhouse mirror. That can’t be us. Fact is, we’re often the world’s worst authority on what we are or are not, something that’s measured by the things we create.
Stay with me.
The current Great Hibernation that we’re all enduring is a great opportunity to clean house, to get to those dreaded “someday” lists that somehow always involve getting rid of things, of paring down. For photographers, this can involve finally curating old online images (not originals), a process which, like hearing our recorded voices, introduces us to versions of ourselves that we no longer recognize. Put enough distance between yourself and a picture you made a while ago and you can actually forget what it was about the thing that seemed a good idea at the time. And when you become estranged from an idea, it’s tough to love it enough to keep it around. Delete.
Of course, there are the other cases, in which you can clearly recall what you were after, and how, sadly, the result differs greatly from your “vision”. I don’t know which is worse, not recognizing your original intention or recognizing it all too well and wanting to distance yourself from it. Delete.
Some images are orphans. You posted them, you tagged them, you continued to love them, but no one else wanted to come to the party. “They” didn’t get it because….why? A million reasons. Whatever the missed connection was due to, these fatherless kiddos aren’t your best work. Delete.
There are also special circles of my own private hell for “lipstick on a pig” pictures. You know the ones. They’re inadequate or ill-conceived, but you are convinced that by torturing them into new versions of themselves with apps or software (see above, gulp), you can somehow make up for the fact that you blew the master image. That’s not just putting lipstick on a pig, that’s telling yourself that the pig is actually Sophia Loren. Delete.
There is actually an upside to this process. With all the chaff you will also review all the wheat, occasionally astonishing yourself at how lucky/persistent/prescient you were. This is truly an investment in hope, since, it stands to reason, if you could mine gold once, you might, just might be able to do it again. Taken in full, a healthy and brutal review of past sights and other blights is as valuable as going out today to shoot all new stuff. More valuable, actually, because everything you shoot today is a by-product of all the keepers and weepers that went before. Understanding who you were informs who you will be. And while it’s humbling to find that you’re not always perfect, it’s a genuine comfort to know that sometimes you ring the bell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOON WE WILL STOP REFERRING TO THE DAILY GLOBAL TOTAL OF SELF-PORTRAITS by any specific number, since the actual figure will be (a) impossible to ascertain and (b) so astronomical as to be meaningless. A quick shuffle through just our own collection of selfies for a given period gives us an idea what happens when technical ease meets runaway narcissism. Or to put it simpler, we take a $%#@-ton of pictures of us. We love us.
The current Great Hibernation (or Uber-Lockdown, or Mass-Incarceration or Panic-Room Marathon) is forcing us to spend even more time with our favorite person, and it stands to reason that the circumstances will change the way we decide to document what we are personally enduring. Here I am in the sixth week of my bad haircut. This is me in my formal sweatpants. I don’t know where I took this…or what time…or what day/week/month. Change the nature of a photographic subject and you’re bound to change how you’ll document that subject.
The whole social context has been warped out of shape, and so must our image of ourselves, which, after all, is shaped by how we interact, where we go, what constitutes a good or bad day. And so self-portraits are being forcibly filtered through a completely different set of criteria than they were just a heartbeat ago, when all we had to do to be somewhere else was, you know, go there. The way emotions play across our faces will be pretzeled into interesting new shapes as a consequence. As we age in this particular barrel, we will be changed. Some of us will emerge from it as palpably different from the animals that went in.
That creates challenge for photographers, especially when it’s us shooting us. How trustworthy are we as narrators? How aware of we of the subtle changes we undergo when the toilet paper runs low? The pictures will eventually provide the chronicle. But in the interim, we need to ask different questions, seek different angles, spot variances. Hey, we might as well be honest. The camera never lies, right?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT HIBERNATION OF 2020 has done, in the ages of fragmented audiences and unlimited media choices, what prehistoric TV networks used to do all the time…that is, knit the country together with universally shared experiences. Back in the days of three or four channels, we all went through the same big events generally at the same time. Bereft of the time-shifting and endless repeat patterns of our present video age, the narrow range of viewing choices in those days gave people of a certain age a common cultural baseline. We tended to experience one official version of large things, from coronations to assassinations to the first earth orbit to the last episode of The Fugitive (which was watched by 78,000,000 viewers). Now the events that we all experience in real time, together is limited to the Super Bowl and a few nervous election nights. Everything else we view, well, when we choose to view it, if it’s not on a platform that we ignore altogether.
The global virus tragedy has come closer to give us a shared, real-time experience than almost anything else in the lifetime of people under fifty. And yet, through the medium of art and the journeys of our own personal struggles, we are filtering it into our memory in very distinctive ways, taking this titanic problem from the general to the specific. We all begin at the same starting point as the emergency first breaks, and then, we customize the ways we internalize it, with every conceivable form of expression: diaries: drawings: essays: cartoons: memes: movies….
Alone at home, I must comment on the crisis in ways that sustain my own sense of hope. Also in ways that use distance to help me hold onto my reason. Some of that is just my circumstantial lot: I will never be, for example, a photojournalist on the front lines of this battle. I may never even walk the deserted streets that have become the haunting visual signature of the story. Within the confines of my reduced living space, I have little in the way of photographic tools besides my imagination or whatever humor I can muster in the moment. Sometimes, as you see above, I come down on the side of whimsy. Other times things get so heavy I don’t know if I’m capable of making an image that faithfully records that. I guess I’ll find out.
The Great Hibernation has snapped many people of my age back to the memory of other globally shared events from years ago…some tragic and some magic. We are certainly fragmented as compared to those days, but the amazing outpouring of heroism and sacrifice that have marked our reaction to this horror….well, that feels like a bond, anyway. And perhaps the art that we use to chronicle our feelings, even if they are very individual emotions, can occasionally strike a universal chord. It’s worth a try.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT THE PRINCIPLE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHY is twofold: firstly, to capture what is splendid in the world, celebrating the order of beauty, the majesty of nature, the grand talents of the enterprising soul: and, secondly, to point unflinchingly to what needs correction, to what challenges and threatens us. You can’t have life without both these drives, and you certainly can’t call photography an art if it doesn’t address them equally.
The world is at war at the moment. Our tragedies and losses in this conflict are not incurred by shells and bombs, but by the most primal forces in the natural world. For those who fall before this horror, the results are as final as if they had occurred during a bombardment or battle. The visual ways in which we measure our fear and dislocation are in some ways similar to those seen in regular wars. They are not symbolized by a single, terrible image, but by a million little pictures of very ordinary things, some of which we must put away for awhile as we arm our hearts for what is to come. In this very real way, every one of us that is armed with a camera becomes, in some sense, a war correspondent.
The image seen here is certainly not sinister in the true sense. It’s hard to summon a negative association with playground equipment. But that’s in peacetime.
During times of turmoil, the normal rhythms of life are not yanked away in one clean rip-of-the-bandaid jerk. Rather, they are eroded. Narrowed. You can only do your favorite thing on certain days, at certain hours, and under certain conditions, for the time being. Updates will be posted…
I sat before this scene for several moments before I could unpack why it upset me so. In personal terms, I had walked through the very same park several days prior. Nothing was different now, except…the tape. The word on the tape. And the implied message: this thing that typically gives you joy is now to be avoided. Normal is suspended.
In the short term, there will be many pictures that will break our hearts far more fundamentally than this one ever can. Images that will test our resolve. Touch off volatile emotions. This photo is nothing by comparison to what’s to come. And yet, it is part of the mosaic we are creating during this Great Hibernation (my gentle name for a horrific reality). Each tile in the mosaic is a story of some way that some part of the larger tragedy effected someone among us. I know that I, myself, will create other pictures that are far more jarring than this one. But, as always, it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact. Because when reality shifts, it happens one routine, or one playground, at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HISTORY DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHIN THE STORMY SURGE OF A CROWD, but with the quiet, agonized turning of individual hearts. One heart at a time, that’s how the world is turned…..or overturned.
Protests and demonstrations are a natural magnet for photographers. They appeal to the journalist in all of us, as street photography meets street theatre in a roiling mix that maybe, just, maybe will allow us to trap history inside our magical boxes. Thing is, certain surface elements of marches and public gatherings are dismayingly uniform: the sea of signs, the crush of bodies, the speaker’s rostrum….and masses of angry/jubilant faces. Photographers realize that world-changing events are really about faces, more than any other visual element. We look for features that record the raw essence of those events: pity, fear, exhilaration, relief, anger. Finding the right face within a mass gathering is the toughest assignment for anyone hoping to use a camera to record the over-large mash-up of sensations within a movement. A solid wall of people with signs isn’t the real story: what brought individuals to the site is the only message that can be trusted. You must fan past the mass of noise to find the quiet at the center.
You need not pick a side in a struggle to record what it costs people to invest their energy in having picked one themselves. The woman seen here, standing near an improvised speaker’s platform, may never have seen herself as a force to change the world. She is not triumphant: she is not a bomb-hurler: she doesn’t share in the giddy me-tooism of youth: she may actually wish she were somewhere else, even as something has told her she must be only here, right now. The parade/protest will rage on in big waves of zeal, but her emotion, at least in this moment, is not one of celebration. She is not having a good time. But written in her apprehension is something universal, eternal.
The human race seems, age after age, to be in search of the same basic things. The drama in our lives is defined by the path we choose to reach those things. And all of our quests force their way up into our features. Our faces betray what path we’re on, and why. There is no wisdom in the mob, unless it is in the wisdom of one face after another, all of whom, on the same day, strangely found themselves standing in the same spot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“DO YOU KNOW THAT PERSON?”
If you’ve ever even dipped your little toe into street photography, chances are that you have fielded that question from somebody, right after they encounter an unfamiliar face among your pictures. Further, should you answer in the negative, you’re liable to be met with a quizzical look, as if the person were asking, “then why in the world would you take their picture?” Strangely, the answer isn’t that complicated: it’s because that face is at least as interesting, as full of mystery and misery and joy, as the face of any of my “tribe”: a face, in short, worth a picture.
Of course, the majority of faces we record with cameras are those that we know and cherish. But every face on the planet has the same potential to be treasured as every other face, since all record the same conflicts and aspirations. The features found in our own social circle are not exclusively magical: they don’t portray dramas or dreams that are peculiar to us alone. The “others” are just “us” with some of the information missing. The information that begins being amplified the moment the shutter clicks.
Street photography is a second cousin to journalism in one very key respect, in that both kinds of images endeavor to take us from the particular to the general, showing us faces that react the way we might react to a given stimulus, be it a celebration, a war, a comedy, or a tragedy. We are led by the best of these images from the very specific reaction of one person we don’t know to a general shared human feeling we all recognize. Magazines, televised news reports, documentaries all remind us of the feelings we all hold in common. And yet, when an unknown face invades a batch of pictures that we regard as “relevant” someone is bound to sneer that the photographer ” always takes pictures of complete strangers”, as if there could be such a thing. In the case of the woman seen above, with whom I had the great accidental luck to share a bench in a museum, I see a symphony of short stories, mixed and remixed every time I come back to the image. I will never be her intimate friend in the standard sense of the word, but, in another sense, we are communicating with each other on a very special level.
At minimum, once a photograph is made of a face, the person to whom it belongs can never again be a “complete stranger”. At most, he or she could be an “incomplete” stranger, with the strangeness of a good candid portrait ebbing away with each additional viewing. Like the reporter or journalist, the street photographer is finding the unguarded moment, the unanticipated event, the unforeseen result. And that humanness is universal, immediate in its cognitive effect. We know these people.
We are these people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE DOCUMENTS THAT ARE SHAPED BY PERFORMANCES. That sentence, at this point in history, seems so obvious that it seems superfluous to even state. But it wasn’t always seen that way.
The camera, at its creation, was feared and reviled as the very opposite of an art instrument, characterized as a soulless machine that recorded without seeing, without interpreting. Whereas the painter filtered the world through the experiences and emotions coursing through his heart and mind, the photographer just held a box, and the box merely measured light. The box was seen as a cold, lifeless thing could never render a breathing, living world. Could it?
But the box, it turned out, was never merely held, never just pointed, and its eye never merely etched data on a plate. How it was held, what it was pointed at made a crucial, measurable difference. What it framed and what it excluded made other differences. And then there was the eye of the thing. Turned out, even that glassy orb could, in time, be adjusted, made more sensitive, more attentive. In fact, photography was becoming, after the science was scoped out, a performer’s medium, no less than a person holding an instrument called a paintbrush, or striking an instrument called a piano. There was an expectation, an anxiety involved in the act, a desire to get it right. Each single photograph was subtlely different from all others, and the difference was in the nature of the performance.
I go through this meditation (or one like it) whenever I am on the eve of tackling a photographic subject that has eluded me for a long period of time. As you read this, I’m only days away from making a pilgrimage of sorts to such a subject, something that will be hard to re-visit in the future, and for which a lot of very fast, do-or-die decisions will be made in the moment. Well, do-or-die is a little dramatic: there is, after all, nothing really important on the line here. The subject matter doesn’t involve a breaking news event, nor will my success or failure in bringing back the pictures I want have any impact on life as we know it.
I just want to get it right.
The image seen here is of an access gate that is as close as I have ever gotten to my subject in the past. It is also the least beautiful feature of said subject, hence my annoying case of nerves.
My anxiety, though truly laughable/pathetic, accompanies things that I care about, and maybe that’s a good definition of art….an attempt to make sense of the things we care about. Just pointing a box cannot produce that feeling. But photography has never really been about the box, has it?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A Failed Harvest.
The Fish That Got Away.
I Had It, But I Lost It.
Mistakes Were Made.
However you term episodes of photographic failure…..I mean, complete, utter freaking camera-borne defeat, two things are true.
It does happen.
And it will happen to you.
Not that many of us want to admit it, mind you. In an age in which, on any given photo day, we almost always bring back some kind of technically complete image, it’s easy to confuse any product with a successful one. Yeah, it’s a picture. But that doesn’t make it a good picture.
In the old days, there were was a more dramatic line between success and failure, since failure usually meant no picture at all. Underexposed, unrecognizable blobs. Masses of color that, coherence-wise, added up to nothing. Not so in our current era, in which it’s much more likely that the resulting image is, for lack of a better term, usable. Factor in increasingly facile repair tools and editing processes, and that number of “acceptables” climbs even further.
But you know when a picture has what it takes, and to what extent you’ve bent the rules of editorial judegment with one, even going so far as to talking yourself into thinking it’s better than it really is. That’s the seductive power of digital, in that it brings even our worst work close to the passable mark, making it harder to disown our “kids” than it was in the day when a lousy picture was more irretrievably bad, that is, beyond intervention. But it’s our very ability to intervene that can convince us that the shot was worth intervening over, and that’s frequently just not true.
And so there will be bupkis days. We walk out boldly. We are equipped. We are artistically hungry. We are experienced and trained. We know what we want.
And yet we bring back nothing.
Never forget that the ability to know that you missed the mark (even mightily) is the most valuable skill you will ever develop as a photographer. The strength to say “no” to yourself evolves slowly. In some of us, it never evolves at all. But we should thank Camera God for it, and, by extension, thank the same God for the demonstrably bad photos we are likely to make from time to time. Because if we can’t tell excellent from excrement in our own work, the game really is up. That’s why I am always banging on about loving your mistakes, because finally, they are your best teachers. It ain’t fun to be around them, but, then again, as you recall your most astute mentors, how many of them were a groove to hang with? Whatever. For photography’s sake, we all need to become comfortable with dumping the occasional day’s work in the garbage. Because nothing converts garbage into gorgeous other than hard, unsentimental work. There never has been any other shortcut and there never will be. Or to frame it in food terms (and eventually I always do), consider software and such as sauce. It’s tasty, but it ain’t no substitute for steak.
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
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.
It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.
The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.
Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CONCEPT OF “STREET” PHOTOGRAPHY, assuming it interests you at all, is shaped by a variety of influences, including your idea of appropriate subject matter, biases in style or equipment, even your technical limits. But from my own particular perch, I think that the era into which I was born may be one of the strongest determinants of my preferences in street work, at least when it comes to the choice between black and white and color. To me, this kind of reportorial photography is vastly different either side of a key time line, with one side, say the world up to about 1955, weighted toward monochrome, and the other, the years that follow that mark and track forward up to the present day, being the more “color” era.
Before the mid-50’s, nearly all “important” photography was still being rendered in monochrome, much of it of a journalistic or editorial nature. From the crash of the Hindenburg to the New Deal’s chronicling of the impact of the Great Depression through endless newsreel and magazine essays, the pictures of record, of the stuff that mattered, was black and white. Consumer photography generally followed suit. Early color films were available from the 1930’s on, but the overarching curve of Everyman hobbyist work did not immediately flip to general use. Color was largely for commercial work, for selling things in a hyper-saturated advertising spread or brochure. Seminal black and white essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment seemed to reinforce the idea of monochrome as the messenger of realism, authenticity, grit. Ugly, sad, tragic, important things happened in black and white. Color was for kids’ parties.
By the 1960’s, faster consumer color films changed candid photography virtually overnight as amateurs opted for more “lifelike” images. Color print, slide and movie film sales soared, and, while magazine and newspaper “documentarians” continued to emphasize mono as the “official” tonal language of street work, younger photographers began to reframe the argument as to what constituted a fit format for commentary. In the present day, both approaches live comfortably side by side, and many shooters are not exclusively in the ‘either” or “or” camp, deciding one frame at a time whether a narrow or wide palette is right for a given image. Even the shooters who embraced color as young photographers may, today, toggle back to monochrome for a singular impact or even a nostalgic evocation of the past. Fashion historians can easily lose count: we’ve zoomed past ironic, post-ironic, post-post-ironic, and back to innocence again, spinning through both unconscious and super-self-conscious styles like the blades of a pinwheel. Beneficiaries of technologies that abett and invite multiple ways to rendering the same subject, we shoot in all eras and influences at once. Everything about photography is a la carte.
For me, black and white isn’t a signature, but then again, neither is color. I find them both adequate for the candid work that encompasses “street”, and I reserve the right to make the choice between the two at a moment’s notice. Tonal properties, after all, should be as improvisational as the decision to make a given picture. We are freer than ever to worry less about the how of a photograph, and focus on the why.
I OFTEN FEEL THAT HABIT IS THE GREATEST POTENTIAL THREAT to the creative process. Once an artist approaches a new project through the comfort of his accumulated routines, he’s well on the road to mediocrity. If you find yourself saying things like “I always do” or “I typically use”…. you’re saying, in effect, that you’ve learned everything you need to learn in terms of your art. You already have all the ingredients for success. The ideal exposure. The perfect lens. The optimum technique. The Lost Ark…
And, if a kind of self-satisfied inertia is death-on-toast for artistic growth, then the most valuable tool in a photographer’s goodie bag is the ability to archive and curate his own work…..to keep a solid, traceable time line that clearly shows the evolution of his approach…..including the degree to which that approach has either moved along or stood still. That means not only hanging on to many of your worst pictures but also re-evaluating your best ones…..since your first judgement calls on both kinds of images will often be subject to change. Certainly there are photographs that are so clearly wonderful or wretched that your opinion of them won’t change over time. But they constitute the minority of your work. Everything in that vast middle ground between agony and ecstasy is a rich source of self-re-evaluation.
Revisiting old shoots doesn’t always yield hidden treasures. Sometimes the shot you thought was best from a certain day was best. But there may be only a hair’s-breadth of difference between the winners and the also-rans, and, at least in my own experience, the also-rans are where all the education is. For example, in the image seen here of my wife taken almost ten years ago and re-examined recently, I know two new things: first, I now know precisely why, at the time, I thought it was the worst of a ten-frame burst. Second, at this stage, I realize that it’s actually a lot closer to what I currently find essential about Marian’s face than the shot I formerly regarded as the “keeper”. I’m just that different in under a decade.
As you grow as a photographer, you will revise nearly every “must” or “never” in your belief system, from composition to focus and beyond. As life molds you, it will likewise mold the ways you see and comment on that life. An archive of your work, warts and all, is the most valuable resource you can consult to trace that journey, and it will nourish and inform every picture you make from here on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STOP BEING “REALITY” mere seconds after their creation, in that the truths they record have, in every sense, moved on, on their way to becoming a million other versions of themselves. We treasure our fragile little time thefts, those frozen testimonies to what some thing in the world looked like at some time. In this way, every photograph is a souvenir, an after-image of something lost.
It’s small wonder that photographers often experience a sense of fearful urgency, a hurry-up-and-preserve-it fever bent on chronicling a world that is borning and dying at the same time. It’s hard sometimes not to think of everything as precious or picture-worthy. The beginnings of things are essential, because they cannot last. Vanishings are important because they are so final. Even an image of a person who is still living bears a poignancy…..because it was taken Before The War, When Mamma Was Alive, When We Still Lived Across Town.
And when it comes to the natural world, photographers and non-photographers alike are ever more aware that they may be capturing, for whatever reason, the lasts of things. Species. Coastlines. Remnants of a world whose regular timeline of goodbyes has been accelerated. Photographers always have a mission to immortalize the comings and goings most central to their own lives, and that’s understandably their primary emphasis. But the natural world will also press us to be reporters in a more general sense. As one reality passes away and others begin, our sense of what is real may come down to the images we make as life careens ever on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS THE GREATEST SINGLE MOTIVATOR, FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, is the eternal attempt to narrow the gap between what is seen and what can be shown, a permanent sense of one’s pictures coming up short, doomed to mere actuality versus the grand visions dancing in our heads. We shoot, we lament having “missed it”, and we shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’ve written before, here, on the most frustrating, if tantalizing, subjects within that overall challenge….scenes or objects that we are free to repeatedly, endlessly re-shoot in hopes of “getting it right”, chasing the same things year after year, camera after camera, lens after lens, like Ahab chasing the White Whale round the world’s oceans.
These inexhaustible things are usually a staple of our immediate environment, part of our daily drives or walks, our standard routines. The maddening thing is that such hyper-familiar things should, eventually, submit to our art, should finally be captured in some final, completed fashion. But, in many cases, they remain studies, rehearsals, sketches. Unfinished business.
The tree you see here is one of my personal White Whales. I must drive past it at least five times a week, mostly in a quick glimpse out the window of my car. I have seen it in every season, every type of light, every mood filter within my own head. I have thrilled as it billowed to its fullest flower and mourned when groundskeepers judged it too wild and rangy, pruning it in ways that threaten, for a time, to obliterate the tree’s identity. I have parked and stepped over to pay it closer tribute with this lens or that, shooting full-on, in macro mode along trunk grain or branch lines, in fisheye, sharp detail, selective focus, monochrome and color. Each rendition gives me something; no one image delivers all.
Your particular tree (or house, or face, or river, or..) can both energize and enervate your photography. Even your failures can be seen as a prelude to inevitable success, as rehearsals toward a final, finessed performance. That feeling of being on a conveyor belt to Paradise is the essence of art, with the journey teasing us that there is, actually, a destination. If you have no White Whale of your own, I recommend heading out to sea, and scanning the horizon until you see one spout. Then grab a camera and try to tell someone about it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY PUBLIC, WONDERFULLY ELEGANT expressions of holiday spirit we all share in common, dripping in lights and bursting with sentiment, are measures of how we might observe an “ideal” season, perfect in execution, it’s every detail wonderfully balanced between love, memory and mystery. But the Christmases that we craft with what’s on hand, either emotionally or financially……well, that’s another thing entirely.
The holidays we piece together one lonely candle, one sad string of lights at a time, are worth seeking with your camera, no less than the forty-story firs in the public square. Stationed wherever we happen to wind up, cadging together makeshift moments from inside a barracks, in the last dark apartment down the hall, we “make do”, but we also re-make ourselves. We drill down to what’s essential. And pictures of those tiny acts of enchantment are worth discovering.
One of the most poignant moments, among many, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol describes the humble holiday preparations of the family of Scrooge’s impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, modest rituals that, over time, have rung truer than all the grand and glorious galas trotted out each season by the more fortunate. Bob’s wife is described as “dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned (re-re-hemmed) gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence…”, This sentence has remained burned into my brain since I first read it more than half a century ago. Brave in ribbons. The quiet, persistent dignity of that woman has, for me, symbolized the season more than all the lights and garlands on the earth.
In the years since that first reading, I have tried to train my photographer’s eye to look beyond the big and loud of Christmas to find the small and soft iterations of the holiday, those places where its spirit must inch its way skyward like a wildflower struggling through a crack in the sidewalk. I see some amazing testaments to human survival in the modest windows and tiny yards where many a loving remembrance resides.
Some, as in the case of the picture seen here, are observed at the backsides of alleys, eight stories up in a parking garage, overlooked, unsung. But sing them we should, and picture them we must. Oversized dreams in department store windows are seductive, to be sure, a visual ode to If Only. But down here on the ground, where most Christmases are crafted, a lot more must be supplied by dint of imagination and dreams. Here, closer to the human heart, we learn to ignore our tattered hems, and to be brave in ribbons.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN THEATRICAL NEWSREELS GASPED THEIR LAST in the late 1960’s, they took with them a set of global habits for receiving visual information that had been in place since World War One, including the regular ritual of filing into theatres twice a week to see fast-moving digests of wars bulletins, scientific advancements, sports highlights, and current fads and foibles. Daily news, prior to the arrival of television, was dominated by newspapers and radio, with newsreels providing a secondary, visual record of world events. Then, nearly seven decades into the tradition, they vanished, and with them, something of the world that produced them.
Several newspaper chains produced newsreel versions of their most photogenic stories, and major film studios, including Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers, all of which had divisions devoted exclusively to the making of so-called “short subjects”, likewise had newsreel crews within those departments. Better yet, all the studios owned and operated their own chains of theatres, guaranteeing a regular flow of distribution for their products. The public came to expect newsreels as a part of a larger theatrical program which included cartoons, two-reel comedies (hello, Three Stooges) and two full feature films……all for less than a dollar.
Even though the newsreels, unlike the video newscasts that succeeded them, had only one or two “deadlines” per week, they still had to create a slickly coordinated system for getting stories to the local Bijou before the items got too stale. A network of local photographers was paired with a shipping regimen designed to send raw footage to centralized hub studios, where it could be processed, edited, scored, and in selected cases, dubbed for foreign release. The instructions on the shipping case seen here clearly spell out the urgency of time (valueless if delayed!). This particular box belonged to the Hearst chain’s News Of The Day, which competed for eyeballs in a crowded field that included The March Of Time, Universal Newsreel, Fox Movietone News, and the British Gaumont Graphic, among others.
Hearst and Universal amazingly produced newsreels until 1967, the same year that the Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper. By that time, the news had become a daily appointment telecast at home instead of a bi-weekly trot to the cinema. But even in their death throes the newsreels gave the world one more great story, with many libraries inheriting the complete archives of the once-vital features, now used as a twenty-first century research resource for every major event of the twentieth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENVY, WHILE A COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE HUMAN EMOTION, has only occasionally helped me advance as a photographer. Eating one’s heart out over someone else’s talent is, at best, a kind of sweet misery, but there are a few instances in which it’s almost a pleasure to look upon another person’s work and know that you’ll never approach that level of mastery.
For me, that juicy jealousy has always been reserved for the legendary output of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal program charged with chronicling the nationwide impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the idea being that you couldn’t marshall public action against a problem people couldn’t see. The titanic FSA archive, containing more than 175,000 negatives, capitalized on the emerging 35mm film format and the country’s then-ubiquitous photo news magazines to produce images which were both objective reportage and so-called “street” photography. There is simply no comparable project in the history of the medium.
So, again, my own work, as previously confessed, is a admixture of envy and admiration. I can never take a crack at creating a narrative for the Dust Bowl or the great Oakie migration, but I can create an “homage” to those who did. You know how this works. When you get caught aping someone else’s technique, that’s “theft”. When you out yourself for doing the very same thing, it’s an “homage”. Soooooo…
The master shot of the above image was taken out the window of an Amtrak train winding its way between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, about ten days ago. I was struck by the visual isolation of the farm structures and the profound emptiness of the surrounding fields. The antique feel and texture of the finished product was supplied by the Hipstamatic app, the whole deal created completely in-camera on an iPhone, which is, to our era, what the Leica was to the FSA’s journeyman shooters….that is, the tool at hand. I can’t honestly chronicle the events of that time…..but I can render an echo of their feeling.
Some seventy-five years have passed since the Roosevelt administration sent a small army of shutterbugs across the country to live among those whose lives had been shattered by the Crash, to record what they were trying to do to restore equilibrium to a world that had run into a ditch. I will never be able to do that exact work. Still, I hope I can bring rigor to the challenges that my own time have placed before me. Sometimes, the two eras seem uncomfortably close, as if some very old dust were blowing up into a new storm…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SAXOPHONIST PAUL DESMOND, asked the “how’s it going?” question during his many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, frequently answered, “we’re making music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is.” A glib answer, certainly, but no less accurate for being so. Everything, everywhere, is, indeed, always going out of style. Photographers feel the rhythm of a clock that is synched to all of existence. We raise constantly against that unheard tick, extracting and freezing moments to testify that, yes, the world was this way.
But the clock is now ticking off not only the passing of things within the world, but, plausibly, the very world itself. The planet is straining at its physical limits, veering toward the voiding of The Big Warranty. And while can all rattle our gums about where all this change will eventually lead, photographers have an obligation to record where it has already made itself known. In shrinking ice shelves. Rising seas. Searing summers. Vanishing species. Storms without mercy and without end.
From my viewpoint, in the American southwest, the seasons pass into years and the years pass into decades with record-setting drought as the only constant. Reservoirs become ditches. Temperatures start to resemble good IQ scores. And in the above image, shot about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, the bed of the San Pedro River is a cracked plain, a parched memory, a ghost.
In marking these monumental shifts, photography is both eloquent and neutral. The camera doesn’t care how we got to this place, nor does it assign a name to the blame. That kind of storytelling falls to wiser minds. But in a visual medium like ours, a tale can be told just by declaring “this is.This happened.” Politics and science can arm-wrestle about the details and the destiny. Pictures go beyond that noise. They are eloquent beyond words.
One thing is certain. Whether we are reporting the latest chapters of the human story or the final ones, photography is testimony. And we are all witnesses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME IMAGES REQUIRE NO WORDS. At least that’s the standard we aim for.
Many others may or may not benefit from what I call accompaniment. Sometimes a few words act as a sort of period at the end of a photographic “sentence”. Other times, a pre-existing sentiment….literary, musical, poetic…. seems somehow to have been just waiting for a picture with which to pair up.
I shot this picture of two longtime pals in just a second, but for two weeks after that, my mind kept looping back to 1968, and the words of a then-young songsmith who found it a real mind stretch to picture himself at the opposite end of his life. And, most likely, many other baby-boomers who read those lyrics, from the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album of fifty years ago, tried to make the same mental leap. In 2018, those of us lucky enough to have made that journey to “the other side”, living out those dreams of dotage, may be, even now, able to recall that young writer’s words at will:
Old Friends / old friends / sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes/ of the high shoes
Of the old friends
Old friends / winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats / waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders
Of the old friends
Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy……
(c) 1968 Paul Simon
Here’s to songs that are worth a thousand pictures, and to pictures that try to return the favor….