By MICHAEL PERKINS
“Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” –Susan Sontag, On Photography
IS AN OBJECT, A PLACE, A PERSON only worth noticing if we’ve officially “noticed” it with a camera? By constantly being in “capture mode”, i.e., looking for something to “take a picture of”, do we substantially shortchange ourselves of the memory of recording an experience rather than savoring the memory of having lived the experience itself? If we were to come back from a trip having taken no photographs at all, would we consider ourselves the poorer for it?
Perhaps the answer lies in some blend of direct and indirect experience. That is, maybe we should sometimes limit our photography to things that already have some meaning or connection to us, only using images to create a reminder of that which we have true memory of. In the case of the building you see here, that was certainly the case.
Several years ago, when the fate of the last residential design by Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix, Arizona was decidedly uncertain, I had the chance to work briefly as a tour guide on the grounds of a dwelling that some regard as a dress rehearsal for the Old Man’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The David and Gladys Wright House had passed, over the years, to parties that intended to raze the structure for “development”, at which time a local millionaire purchased the house just to protect it. Preservation and restoration being extremely expensive (if needful), he explored plans to convert the house into a learning center/museum, trying to partner with Arizona State University and others to get the project off the ground. Locals from the neighborhood, fearing that their property values would be undone by artsy invaders, freaked. Somewhere in that mad timeline of contention, the house was opened to the public in an effort to sway opinion. Not in my backyard, saith the locals.
As of this month, then, the property was resold, this time to a team of people who had actually worked at the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture, also headquartered in Phoenix. Again, the motive was to keep the house out of the clutches of apartment builders and others who would bulldoze it into dust. And here’s where the value of photographs comes in, at least for me; the same wheel of chance that allowed me to explore a place that otherwise would be completely off-limits to me has now spun ’round to close that door again, making the images of my time there doubly precious. At least for this particular photographic subject, the door has closed, and is likely to remain so. I certainly have my direct experience of the time to comfort me, but it was the indirect experience, the making of images after I had thoroughly taken in the scene with my raw senses, that imparts extra value to the pictures that remain. So, in the strictest sense, I didn’t just randomly wander onto the place and start clicking. That’s the stuff of snapshots. All of the house’s history was of value to me long before I ever aimed a camera at it. My pictures weren’t taken to make it important, or make it mine, like a trophy. They are now keepsakes of the most valuable kind.
(For the curious: the tabs at the top of this page are links to various personal photo essays, including Wright Thinking, a selection of views of the house taken during its days as a public attraction. Cheers.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT HAS BEEN CALLED “THE EIFFEL TOWER OF AMERICA”, a “stairway to nowhere”, a “bold addition to the city’s landscape” and “an eyesore”,…….in other words, a new structure in New York City. Whatever its eventual place in the hearts of Manhattanites, architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a hollow, honeycombed tower of open staircases, viewing landings and dizzying geometry, all sixteen stories of it, has become the visual exclamation point for the continuing explosion of shops and businesses known as Hudson Yards, a project so huge it may not max out for another decade. At this writing, it’s late 2019, and the tower’s creators, who claim the name “vessel” is just a transitional one, have already weathered a short tsunami of plaudits and protests since the beehive’s opening earlier in the spring. And in a city defined by bold visual signatures, the structure seems destined to become a darling for photographers, especially at its current newborn phase, in which there is, as yet, no “official” way of viewing it, no established postcard depiction to inhibit or limit individual visions. It’s at this first phase in a landmark’s life that all captures are equal: it’s the photographic equivalent of the Wild West.
Vessel sits near the periphery of the High Line, the internationally praised West Side reclamation of the New York Central Railway’s old raised infrastructure, which now welcomes millions of strolling visitors and locals each year along its 1.45 miles of twisty, landscaped boardwalks, and has acted as the launch pad for recovery of the entire area, including Hudson Yards’ forest of skyscrapers and high-end shops. The first phase of the Yards is crowned by a glistening five-story mall whose massive glass facing wall is directly opposite Vessel. On the day when I visited, the free timed daily tickets to the inside of the honeycomb were all gone, so viewing it in the regular fashion was off the table. However, every floor of the mall has a spectacular view of the structure and its surrounding plaza, which actually appealed to me almost as much as a trip inside. The combination of reflection, refraction, and the golden glow of the approaching sunset made for a slightly kaleidoscopic effect, and so I decided to re-configure my plans. As mentioned before, the utter newness of the tower plays superbly well into photographic experimentation, as its design seems to present a completely different experience to the viewer every few feet, a very democratic sensation that rewards every visitor in a distinctly personal way. Besides, part of the fun of seeing new things in New York is weighing the hoorays and howls against each other and then making up your own mind.
In a city that has seen both P.T. Barnum’s dime museum and Penn Station fade from the scene over the centuries, it’s useless to guess whether Vessel is eventually regarded as a must-see or a fizzle. But it doesn’t matter much either way. Right now, it is neither building nor dwelling. Like Eiffel, it just is, and maybe that’ll be enough. In the meantime, photographers are using the opportunity of its present existence to celebrate the uncertainty that informs the making of the best pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOW MANY SECONDS DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO IDENTIFY THE EDIFICE seen in the above image? I’m guessing that your response time was predictably brief. That’s the power of a photographic icon, a power which redounds to the benefit of all interpretive photographers. At the time of this post’s publication, it is exactly sixty years since the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In those six decades, the “Gugg” has more than delivered on its promise to provide a unique setting for the most adventurous art of the age. But in the process, it has also become a piece of art, a statement no less resonant than the thousands of paintings and sculptures it has housed.
We’ve often written here, as many have, of the challenge of photographing things that, over time, nearly the entire world seems to have snapped. Make your own list: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Empire State, Big Ben, all names linked with objects or sites which fully meet any criteria for an icon. These things are so very familiar that, some billions of images into the game, they can become static as subject matter, resistant to revealing anything new about themselves. We admire the postcard view of a place and work to replicate it endlessly, almost making it meaningless. And yet, with the right approach, even a weathered subject can be reborn inside your camera.
In the case of the Guggenheim, a place which stores art is itself an art masterpiece, almost to the point of eclipsing the works that are showcased within it. Its outward form is one of a handful of things that is so recognizable that it resists stasis. It can, visually, be almost endlessly reinterpreted, if we look for the correct idea. It can be simplified to a collection of light and dark planes: it can be negativized, filtered, cropped almost to abstraction (as we have here), reimagined from any angle, and serve as an unmistakable cue to our collective brains. Certainly a simple photographic recording of the building in its natural state (the post card shot), as seen in the small inset image, is effective, because the structure itself is so objectively powerful. However, that same view can be sliced almost to the dimensions of a view through a mail slot and it will still communicate what it is, still generate strength. That’s what an icon can do for photography: become the gift that keeps on giving.
The Guggenheim was created specifically as a home for various mid-century art movements that had no official home within the conventional museum community of the Eisenhower era. Its design passed through many hands before completion, which happened after the deaths of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Solomon Guggenheim. Even after substantial revision and interference from people who frankly should never have been allowed admission to the place, the “Gugg” emerged with its essential elements intact, so far advanced as a public space that even now, sixty years on, it seems as if it’s just arriving for the first time. Some icons not only indelibly define themselves but also the times that created them, with a permanence that continues to feed the imaginations of other artists looking to craft their own visions. One critic once described the museum as a birthday cake. Perhaps that’s its magic: an occasion of joy, alight with illumination, imbued with the power to grant your every wish.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
195 BROADWAY IN LOWER MANHATTAN is one of hundreds of buildings that might escape your notice upon your first walk through the city’s financial district. Less garish than its gothic neighbor, the Woolworth Building and a lot shorter than its big-shouldered brethren, the 29-floor landmark doesn’t shout for attention. Its true beauty emerges when you walk inside the somewhat restricted lobby, take the measure of the “bones” of its regal inner structure, and breathe in its storied history. Completed in 1916 after AT&T moved its American headquarters from Boston to New York, 195 was the strong, silent type of skyscraper….functional, neo-classic, but restrained, understated. As a largely urban photographer, I try to keep track of structures that have outlasted several uses and landlords, carrying their essence forward through decades of shifting styles and fashions. It’s the totality of what has made them last that makes them interesting to me, more than any single fillip or ornament.
But ornament, as a visual metaphor for the new (20th) century of American technological dominance, was built into 195 Broadway from the start, both inside and out. Paul Manship, the sculptor whose public works, like the golden Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Plaza, still dot the Manhattan map, created one of his first major works, The Four Elements, as bronze relief’s on 195’s lower facades, his love of Greek and Roman mythology weaving itself into the Moderne movement (later re-dubbed as Art Deco). Architect William Bosworth took the Doric columns which usually adorned the outside approaches of other buildings and brought them into 195’s lobby, all 43 of them, their wondrous marble reflecting a variety of colors from the teeming parade of streetside traffic. And sculptor Chester Beach used the same lobby to commemorate the building’s role as one half of the first transcontinental phone line in 1915 with Service To The Nation In Peace And War, a bronze relief of a headphone-wearing hero standing under a marble globe of the Earth, bookended by classic figures and flanked by lightning bolts.
195’s long run includes the titles like the Telephone Building, the Telegraph Building, the Western Union Building, as well as appearances in popular culture, like its portrayal of Charlie Sheen’s office building in Wall Street. Sadly, a few of its most salient features have moved on, like the gilded 24-foot tall winged male figure originally known as Genius Of Telegraphy, which topped the pyramidal roof of the tower on the west side of the building until 1980, when it followed AT&T’s relocation to Dallas, Texas. However, the remaining treasures of 195 Broadway are still a delight for both human and camera eyes. Good buildings often present their quietest faces to the street. But look beyond the skin of the survivors, and marvel at the solid bones beneath.
SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.
Or a tool.
Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.
But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.
With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.
I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PRACTITIONERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY EMBRACE WHAT THEY CALL REALITY, while other factions run as far away as they can from the strictures of the “actual” world. There will always be shooters who see their main role as that of a chronicler or witness, recording “Joe Friday” pictures, i.e., just the facts, ma’am. Others see the real universe as nothing more than a point of departure. Their images could easily be labeled “based on a true story.”
Neither viewpoint can go it alone. Without reality as a reference point, flights of fancy float off into chaos. Conversely, without a sense of whimsy, the gravity of the world can make a photograph leaden and moribund. Let’s face it: dreamers and didacts need each other, and complement each other within a single picture the way fat flavors lean meat. Moreover, trying to attenuate a customized mix of these two disciplines is the real fun in photography.
I’ve been fascinated of late by the new surge of interest in manual typewriters. It’s the same longing for recently-departed technology that’s fired a revival in film and the rebirth of vinyl lps. We are moving so quickly forward in some ways that we are understandably reluctant to regard every part of our past as dispensible ballast to be jettisoned on the way to some perfect Futureworld. And so we linger a while. We prolong our goodbyes a bit.
Some writers have recently renewed their love affair with the clack and clatter of the mechanical keyboard, marrying its noise, heft, and bulk to a kind of seriousness, as if a story or essay were somehow more authentic if pounded out on an old Royal or Smith-Corona. The recent documentary California Typewriter takes its title from a scrappy repair shop that survives to the present day by restoring old beaters for a new crop of trendy customers who either admire the sheer engineering wonder or the mystical oomph it confers on their scribblings. High-profile adherents like Tom Hanks, John Meyer and David McCullough rhapsodize about the contours, keyboard height, and return bell of their respective treasures. It’s great fun.
Photographically, I started to explore just how far the idea of the typewriter-as-magical-device could be stretched. Would it endow the user with the ability to solve knotty equations? Conjure ingenious recipes? What if the typewriter had unilateral power to enhance the creation of anything, even melody? What kind of typewriter might help Mozart crank out a concerto? Would his greatest works go mid-performed for centuries just because he transposed certain keys? And what would that process look like?
I decided to use a selective focus lens (the Lensbaby Composer with Sweet 35 optic) to de-emphasize the process of typing (the softly rendered keys) and call attention to the magical product (the sheet music being generated, focused more sharply) coming out of an imagined Corona wielded by an inspired Amadeus. The concept is so ridiculous that it’s compelling, producing a photograph which can’t be true but which ought to be true, rather like Dumbo using his ears to fly despite the fact that he weighs half a ton. I love these kinds of exercises because I embrace the fact that photographs can tell enchanting lies. And as Paul McCartney sings, “what’s wrong with that?”
NOTHING IS SO TIMELESS as something whose time has come and gone.
Once a thing… a style, a design element, a fashion, an idea…has outlasted its original context, becoming truly out of sync with the world, it can become visually fascinating to the photographer. Instead of forward-looking, it’s dubbed “retro”. Rather than radical, it becomes something no one can ever remember having been excited about, like looking at Carol Brady’s shag haircut 25 years on.m
The information booth in the frame shown here is one such anomaly, so odd a fit in the building that it’s part of (the California state capitol annex) that it wrenched my attention away from a pretty good tour. The wing the booth is part of, built from 1949 to 1952, is, generously speaking, as dull as dishwater, indistinguishable from most generic government buildings, a box of sugar cubes.
But the booths are something else again.
Far from the typical marble-block, cage-and-window, bank teller enclosure many public servants call home, the booth is curved wood and glass, sounding a faint echo of Art Deco which extends even to the aluminum letters that spell out INFORMATION. And yet, at present, the modernity of the original design is now itself antique, its lonely occupant looking as if he were banished to his post rather than assigned.
The lighting within the booth is so minimal that the poor man’s features are nearly swallowed in deepening shadow: he looks like a recreation in some museum diorama about What Offices Will Look Like In The Future!!!, as strange to view as “modern” renderings of someday space rockets as seen from 1950. And then there’s the insect-repellant visor green on half of the glass, which is there, I assume, to protect Mr. Info from harsh gamma rays(??). The entire effect is one of loneliness, of, again, the evidence of a time (or a man) whose time has come and gone. And that calls, in my world, for a picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“REALITY”, THOUGHT TO BE the normal end product of the process of pointing a camera at something, is actually rather limiting. Sure, our little boxes were originally created as an accurate, even scientific means for recording our world.. a method more reliable, somehow, than the imprecision of the painter. Soon afterward, however, the camera longed for a soul of its own, or at least the painter’s freedom to make a subjective choice as to what “real” should look like.
Bottom line: for photographers, mere reality turned out to be, well, kind of a yawner.
To go even further, it seems to me that certain subjects actually call for a kind of unworldly, almost hallucinatory quality, an attempt to make things look not like what they are but how they feel. Of course, we can’t actually show emotions or states of mind, but various photographic techniques can, and should suggest them.
In visualizing ritual, ceremony, sacrament, or tradition, for example, you’re not merely chronicling activity. You’re also photographing mystery, or an extra dimension of consciousness. The above image, in terms of mere reality, is of a class for museum visitors curious to learn bout the Brazilian ritual of capoeira, a traditional fake-fighting martial arts performance that is performed during carnival and other national festivals. Now, you can shoot such a subject “realistically” (evenly lit, uniform focus, sharp detail), or aesthetically (dark, selectively blurred, even a little confusing), depending on what kind of feel you’re going for. This goes to the heart of interpretation. You’re not merely presenting reality: you are representing it.
Photographs originate in the mind, not in the camera, and so it must follow that there are as many “realities” as there are photographers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN EYE HAS A SOFT SPOT FOR SYMMETRY, for countervailing energies that face off against each other in a composition. Design elements that pit left against right, top against bottom, even corner vs. corner appeal to a certain Math-Bach sense of balance in the universe. And, as does every other kind of visual art, photography builds strong images by “book-ending” elements in opposition, eye cues both tug toward the center and pull toward the edges.
Pictures benefit from this tension, this dynamic argument over what’s more dominant, or, more correctly, what’s dominant in this moment. Book-ending between extremes or contrasting forces is a visual kind of debate, a photographic arm-wrestling match. Sometimes shapes or things occupy opposing spaces in the frame are not, literally, fighting with each other, as in the two overlapping taxicabs seen above. Even so, the two yellow wedges at bottom left and top right in the frame are in a kind of balancing act with each other: call it a conversation.
In your own work, you’ve no doubt observed this visual tension occurring organically or even deliberately built it into a composition. An old building next to a new one: a tragic mask alongside a comic one: a kumquat facing off against a tomato. It doesn’t have to be dramatic to be effective. The bookends can be ornate Greek warriors or abstract slabs: it’s the opposition in the frame that starts the process of yin/yang, and lends a photograph extra heft.
SIGNS ARE PRIMARILY SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND IDENTIFICATION, a utilitarian way of learning who’s who and what’s where. In photography, their primary use can move beyond those roles to become commentary, context, atmosphere, even pure abstract subject matter. As shooters, we all use signs in ways that are not strictly literal but are 100% visual. They are powerful tools.
This is a circular way of saying that, in an image, a sign is never just a sign, but a way of indicating and qualifying place, time, mood. Be it a hand-scrawled “keep out” warning outside a busted farmhouse or a day-glo neon “open” greeting outside a pawn shop, a sign is valuable narrative shorthand. Of course, just like human storytellers, some signs are untrustworthy narrators, undermining what they seem to “say” with the things they imply within an image. Managing their messaging then becomes the responsibility of the photographer, who can use their content to reveal, conceal, or comment as needed.
The sign seen here, announcing the Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria,Queens, has its letters mounted on a mirror-like surface, allowing the viewer to see evolving street life over his shoulder as he “reads” the characters. It’s both advertisement and illustration, a low-tech demo of the museum’s intent. Like all signs, it’s a prop, a piece of stage dressing, interpreted as narrowly or broadly as you need it to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITOR ATTRACTIONS CREATE THEIR OWN KIND OF PECULIAR GRAVITY, in that many of them develop an “official” way to take in their delights, pulling you toward what they believe to be the center of things. From the creation of tourist maps to the arrangement of signs on paths, many famous “places to see” evolve systems for how to “do” parks, recreation areas, even ancient ruins. Some hot spots have even been so obvious as to mount signage right next to the “Kodak moment” view that, of course, you will want to to snap, since everybody does. And from here, folks, you can clearly see the royal castle, the original temple, the stunning mountain vista, etc., etc.
But predictability, or an approved way of seeing a particular thing, is the death of spontaneity, and certainly a danger signal for any kind of creativity. Photography is the visual measure of our subjective experience. It’s supposed to be biased toward our individual way of taking a thing in. Grading our reactions to visual stimuli on the curve, taking us all down the same path of recommended enjoyment, actually obviates the need for a camera. Just freeze the “correct” view on the gift store’s postcard assortment, and, presto, we can all have the same level of enjoyment. Or the same low point of banality.
Recently I visited the amazing Butchart Gardens, a botanical bonanza on the island of Victoria in British Columbia. If ever there was a place where you’d be tempted to tick off “the sights” on a mental checklist, this cornucopia of topiary choreography is it, and you will find it truly tempting not to attempt your “take” on its most photographed features. But an experience is not a triptych, and I found my favorite moments were near the fringes or niches of the property, many of which are as stunning as the most traveled wonders along the approved paths.
To my great surprise, my favorite shot from the tour wasn’t one of the major sites or even a color image, but a quick glimpse of a young girl hesitating in the narrow, arched portal that separated one side of an enormous hedge from the other. She only hesitated for a few seconds before walking into the more traveled courtyard just adjacent, which is, itself, recorded thousands of times a day. But that brief pause was enough. She had become, to me, Alice, dawdling on the edge of a new Wonderland. The arch became all mystery to me, but the picture needed to be simplified to amplify that feeling, relegating the bright hues to secondary status. And while it indeed seems counterintuitive to take a black and white image in the midst of one of the world’s great explosions of color, I gladly chose the mono version once I had the chance to compare it to the original. Some things just work.
One thing that never works is trying to make your personal photographs conform with what the designer of a public place has recommended as the essential features of that place. Your camera is just that….your camera. Shoot with someone else’s eye, and you might as well just frame the brochure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPHIC LENS EVER MADE CREATES ARTIFACTS, distinct biases in the ways it renders the world it sees. When you shoot with a particular piece of glass, you’re also inviting in whatever flaws or limits are baked into that optic’s design and science. If you are the kind of shooter that constantly switches out lenses, this present less of a problem, since you’re used to snapping on the exact glass you need for every kind of shooting situation.
If, however, you try, like myself, to go nearly a day at a space with a minimum of gear, then you start to look for lenses that do most of what you want in most settings. Occasionally, this means compromising on, or even missing, a shot; but, by and large, it makes you more mindful of the image-making process from minute to minute. You plan better and react faster.
In the case of one of photography’s most popular categories, that of landscape work, there seem to be two main types of lenses that do most of the heavy lifting: the ultra-wide angle, which convey “openness” and scope, and zooms, which help isolate specific parts of vast vistas. There are certainly situations in which both are ideal, but, on average, were I to be traveling very light for the day, I would probably take most of the day’s images with the ultra-wide, even if there was a particular area inside a larger scene that was more “important” than its surroundings, a situation in which most of us might utilize the zoom.
This goes to my belief that the composing process almost never stops with the click of the shutter. Rather, the click is just phase one, and a master shot that allows for many post-shot “re-thinks” is the best one to have. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the center of an immense mountain range is where the light or the subject story is strongest in a given image. If my master shot is a taken with a zoom, I’ve lost the ability to later discover additional approaches that remain possible if I have a wider shot’s worth of information from which to select. Starting with the larger shot, I can shift the cropping to any aspect ratio I want, change the balance of the composition, re-orient the linearity (to create a faux panorama, as in the top shot here) or even realize that there was an even stronger story to be told outside of the frame I originally envisioned with the zoomed master shot. Here’s the core point: it’s easier to have more picture than you need and pare some stuff away than to narrow your options beforehand and trust that you’ve nailed it, meanwhile ruling out any potential re-takes or second thoughts.
I do, of course use zooms at times, but, like my external flashes and tripods, I find fewer uses for them with each passing year. It’s odd how you can come to feel greater freedom with fewer tools. But sometimes it’s like the time Itzhak Perlman busted a string just before a concert, then performed the program on just three strings, to the utter amazement of the critical world. Photography proves time and again that there are times when the image’s “melody” magically comes forward. In spite of.
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
SOME VISUAL SUBJECTS ARE SO RICH IN POTENTIAL that they evolve from a few essential shots to what, for lack of a better term, passes for a photo “essay”. Such extended coverage of buildings, countries and people used to be common in the heyday of the picture magazine, with up to a dozen pages of images strung together with narrative links in the pages of Life, Look and their many imitators. It’s a great format to work in once you discover a worthy candidate. But, in practical terms, it can be a little like working a checklist.
I document a lot of Art Deco architecture, since it embodies history, abstraction, illustration, design, and fantasy, all in one big fat buffet. That means I spend a lot of time dodging passersby on sidewalks and lingering in lobbies long enough to make the security personnel twitchy. Deco is all about the splendor of detail, some of which can only be revealed by patiently moving from door to grille, elevator to stairway, entrance to entrance, and looking for light that will bring that detail into bold relief.
I used the word checklist a while back because you are often working one in your mind, ticking off the various items as you wander around the site. Gotta do the mezzanine. Need a shot of the ceiling. Did I catch those wall sconces? Thing is, we tend to think of those little check marks as meaning, I’m done here. Moving on….when, in terms of what changing light does to these buildings within a short span of time, we should be actually be thinking, okay, I’ve done the preliminary work. Should go back and check this again in a while. Deco, especially, is rife with reliefs and murals made from a wide variety of materials, many of which will register color and shadows very differently at different times of day. You have to think in terms of “Take One, Take Two”, rather than in the snapshot mentality of “nailed it.”
The images you see here, of the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent Marine Building (read all about it here) were shot just twenty minutes apart. The top shot shows light landing on the door and its surrounding niche fairly flatly, almost sideways. However, within minutes, as seen in the second shot, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to blast away at the center of the space, throwing the overhang of the arch into deep shadow. This change intensifies the contrast between raised and flat surfaces and makes the exterior terra-cotta (a material in which the colors are baked right in) more vivid. It also is projecting shadows like crazy. Which version is better? Not the point. It’s about editing choices and being reluctant to think that there is one “official” way to shoot something.
I could show similar changes to the lobby, with light softly entering the stained glass over the door, then crashing through it like a golden ray just minutes later. The point is, exposure is time plus light, and, when tackling a large essay-type project, it’s important to do more than one visualization on key elements. It’s the difference between grabbing a souvenir and creating a keepsake.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CAN YOU TRAIN YOUR EYE TO SEE FASTER? Now, by “seeing”, I mean a process which effectively goes beyond the mere reception of light or visual information, something unique to the process of photography. I’m asking if you can, in effect, train the eye to, if not actually see faster, to more efficiently communicate with the brain and the hand in selecting what is important, so more rapidly apprehend the fleeting moment when a picture must be made.
I’m talking about the gradually learned trick of deciding quicker what you want and when it might be near at hand.
Much has been written about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of “the decisive moment”, the golden instant in which viewpoint, conditions, and subject converge to be especially eloquent….to be, in effect, the only true artistic moment at which a photograph can be taken. Many reject this idea out of hand, saying that there are many potential great opportunities in the space of even a few seconds, and that the lucky among us grab at least one now and then. For those people, it’s not so much “the” moment as “a” moment.
Whatever the nature of the near-perfect shot is, sensing when one is imminent isn’t magic, and it isn’t accidental. It’s also not guaranteed by talent or luck. It has to be the result of experience, more specifically, lots of unsatisfying experience. Because I feel that the pictures you didn’t get are far more instructive than the ones you did, simply because you burn more brain cells on the mysteries of what went wrong than you do on the miracle of getting things right.
This image is neither the result of great advance planning nor of great fortune: it’s somewhere in the middle, but it does record an instant when everything that can work is working. The light, the contrasting tones of white and gray, the framing, the incidental element of the passing tourist….they were all registering in my mind at the precise instant before I snapped the frame.
This does not mean I was totally in charge of the process: far from it. But I knew that something was arriving, something that would be gone in less than a second. Also, the elements that were converging to make the image were also in flux, and, having moved on, would result in something very different if I were to take a second or third crack at the same material.
For a photographer, it’s a little like surfing. You take lots of waves, with the idea that any of them can deliver the ride of your life. But, on any given day, all of them could be duds. However (and this is the part about a trained eye), you can learn to spot the best waves faster and faster, converting more of them to great rides. And making pictures is much the same process. You can’t absolutely analyze what will make a picture work, but you can learn to spot potential quicker, on some level between intentional and accidental.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SAY THE WORD “MINIMALISM” TO SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS, and you conjure visions of stark and spare compositions: random arrangements of light blobs, stray streaks of shadow, or scattered slivers of light, each conveying mood more than content. For some, these images are a kind of “pure” photography, while, for others, they are, to use a nice word, incoherent. Part of us always wants a picture to be, in some way, about something, and the word minimalism is charged, positively or negatively, depending on whether that “narrative thing” happens.
I actually associate minimalism with the formal storytelling process, but doing so with the fewest elements possible. It seems like a natural evolution to me, as I age, to make pictures talk louder with fewer parts. Simple cropping shows you how much more you can bring to an image by taking more of it away, and, with closeups and macro work, the message seems even clearer. Why show an entire machine when a cog carries the same impact? Why show everything when suggesting things, even leaving them out entirely, actually amps up the narrative power of a photograph?
Of course there are times when mere shape and shadow can be beautiful in themselves, and it doesn’t require a lot of windy theorizing to justify or rationalize that. Some things just are visually strong, even if they are non-objective. But minimalism based on our impressions or memory of very real objects, from a pocket watch to a piece of fruit, can allow us to tell a story with suggestions or highlights alone. If something is understood well enough, just showing a selectively framed slice of it, rather than the thing in its entirety, can be subtly effective and is worth exploring.
In the above image, you certainly understand the concept of a tape recorder well enough for me to excise the device’s chassis, controls, even half of its reel mechanism and still leave it “readable” as a tape recorder. You may find, upon looking at the picture, that I could have gone even farther in simplifying the story, and in your own work, you can almost certainly suggest vast ideas while using very small bits of visual information. Knowing the cultural cues and clues that we bring with us to the viewing process tells you how far you can stretch the concept.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT IT WAS, the final residential design completed by the late Frank Lloyd Wright, mysteriously unsung in every major study of his late work and absent from nearly every retrospective on the cantankerous colossus of twentieth-century architecture. The house, designed for his son David in the Arcadia neighborhood of central Phoenix, Arizona, rose from the desert in 1950 and almost immediately faded from popular view, staying under the radar less than a mile from Camelback Mountain, the sight of which dictated the site of the home, in one of Wright’s most dramatic examples of organic architecture.
And now, just a few years after since daughter-in-law Gladys Wright’s death at the age of 104 and a blink of time since an interim owner first threatened the place with demolition, it is, in 2016, about to sink back from view once more, as the benevolent millionaire who saved it confers with various local factions on the best route to its complete restoration. Tours, which, for the past year have allowed visitors from around the world to walk through what Wright called a solar hemicycle design, his recipe for “how to live in the southwest”, will be suspended. 3-D laser scans will be studied to see where the house’s sixty-five year old foundations need to be fortified and repaired. And, for a time, this remarkably unique dwelling will again be beyond the reach of the camera.
Since The Normal Eye began, we have occasionally mounted photo essay pages featuring singular places, sites too special to be addressed in one or two images. The most recent of these was a tour of author Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Massachusetts. And today, we’ve added a new tab at the top of the blog titled Wright Thinking, with select photos of the David Wright home and its detached guest house, in an attempt to remind people that this hidden treasure does, indeed, survive in the American West.
The essay format seem appropriate because the Wright home is difficult house to convey in just a single photograph, rising from the desert floor in a continuous circular ramp that climbs to the house proper, a 2000 square-foot crescent of rooms mounted on concrete piers and looking north to Camelback Mountain with a window array that presents a view arc of over 200 degrees. Within and without are Wright’s signature components: dramatic furniture design; innovative use of humble materials, from linoleum to concrete; a visionary use of solar energy; and the most Wright of Wright ideas, the organic credo that the site comes first, the house second, and never the other way around.
So thumb through our impromptu Wright family album and visit the house’s wonderful website at www.davidwrighthouse.org to keep apprised of the next sighting of one of the master’s final bows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY is that you always, always, have a backup plan. What you don’t frame correctly in the actual shooting of an image can be corrected in post-editing cropping, the use of “framing” within the composition itself, or even how you finally matte the picture before hanging it on the wall. This is as it should be since many pictures are not so much born as re-imagined.
Once you frame a photo, you’re giving the viewer the first visual cue as to what to regard as important. If I included it, you should notice it. If I excluded it, it’s either to set loose your imagination on why I defined this world within these parameters, or because I, as the narrator, am telling you it just don’t matter. You can even further enhance the effectiveness of the frame by its shape. A rectangle might enforce the reading of information left-to-right, for example, while a square might force the eye toward dead center. The original framing is your own best call to action in a photograph.
And even after you’ve defined the frame, you can still add a second directive within it to hyper-focus attention in a very specific space. The use of arches, building overhangs, edges of windows, cliffs, shadows or other secondary “frames” provides even greater cues to the eye, and also adds an illusion of dimension and depth.
In the above shot, the old stone basilica is obviously the main feature of the image, and so was cropped from a wider original to eliminate distracting foreground shrubbery on the right. However, the arch through which the building is viewed was retained, to act as a “secondary frame” and as a way to illustrate scale. The first frame says what information is important, while the second frame makes sure we get to the heart of the image more efficiently.
Using all framing devices available in an image is like using caps, lower case and italicised letters in the same sentence. Composition is about yelling to get people over to your picture, then whispering, as you gently guide them toward its heart.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
Entering a Frank Lloyd Wright home is like unwrapping a birthday present. The concrete walk ends in a circular ramp that rises to the left and around the David Wright house to create this wonderful open space.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A HOME CAN BE SAID TO BE AN EVENT, then a door is the engraved invitation that bids you to witness that event. When you think about it, a door is the most crucial part of a house’s design, certainly its most deliberately provocative. It advertises and defines what lies within. It’s a grand tease to a mystery, the last barrier before you invade someone’s most personal space. It’s no wonder that entrances to places are among the most photographed objects on the planet. The subject is as inexhaustibly varied as the people who construct these lovely masks.
Frank Lloyd Wright did more than create drama as you entered one of his houses; he actually enlisted you in generating your own wonder. Often the great man made you a little squirmy as you prepared to come inside, compressing door heights and widths to slightly uncomfortable dimensions. Pausing for a moment, you could almost feel like Alice after she ate the wrong cake, as if you might never be able to wriggle through the door frame.
Shortly after this ordeal, however, Wright would let the full dimensions of the inner house open suddenly and dramatically, as he does in the image above, taken at the home that he designed for his son David in Phoenix, Arizona. After ducking your head, you step into a court that has…no ceiling…since it ends in a ramp that both climbs around and supports a house that encircles you, creating an intimate courtyard that is both confined and limitless.
Doors make statements, almost boasts, about the wonder that lies just inches beyond them, and, like all generators of mystery, they are often most interesting when the question is never answered. Doors we never see beyond are often the most intriguing, like a woman behind a veil. When I invade a new neighborhood, my camera’s eye goes to doors before anything else. Sometimes the spaces they conceal don’t live up to the hype, but doors, these stage productions at the front of grand and humble abodes alike, offer something tantalizing to the eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SKYLINE OF NEW YORK CITY, if you think about it a bit, is almost like a bar graph in steel and stone.
Just as higher and lower bars on a business graph chart the successes and failures of a company or stock, so do the vertical surgings above Manhattan island track the ebb and flow of energy, of the life flow of the most amazing metropolis on earth. And for photographers, the Apple’s skyline is always news. Someone is moving up. Someone else is moving down, or over. There’s always a new kid on the block, and that means that the photographic story of New York must be re-imagined yet again.
New York buildings create context for themselves and for the city at large, as the fresh arrivals jostle in and try to mingle with their more historically landed neighbors. That process is always exciting, but the rebirth of the part of lower Manhattan scarred and scorched by the hateful events of 9/11/01 brings more than just a new crop of jutting profiles. It brings one of the most powerful symbols of resurrection in the modern age. To paraphrase the song lyric, America proved, on that most battered of battlegrounds, that, if we could make it there, we could make it anywhere, and the nation at large stood a little taller with the arrival of the new World Trade Center.
Cameras now idealize that which is already miraculous, and WTC One, visible from anywhere in the city, will create its own photographic history, or, rather, make it irresistible for photographers to try to write it themselves. Postcard views, neighborhood contrasts, abstractions, souvenir snaps…all will be the story and none will be the story, at least not the whole story. New York is always ready for her close-up, but the challenge is always, are you good enough to shoot her best side?
Photographers visit New York to size themselves up in their own bar graph of pass/fail/maybe. Like everyone who ever stepped off a Port Authority bus fresh off the farm, they ask themselves: am I good? According to whom? Compared to what? Can I make something last as I create images of a city that not only never sleeps, but never even slows down?
“Autumn in New York. It’s good to live it again….”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO HAS EITHER STUDIED OR DABBLED IN CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY has heard Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s term “the decisive moment”, which refers to that heat-lightning instant when the best possible photograph of a situation or sensation can be made. Of course, you don’t have to really believe that there is a single such moment, and many do not. There may be any one of thirty possible frames to be extracted from even the simplest human subjects, but we seem to always be looking for that salient, isolated image that defines it for all time.
Cartier-Bresson’s pursuit of the decisive moment is usually thought of with regard to photographing human activity, but there is also a mindset about photographing places that there can be a “superior” or “best” angle to view them from. That is why landmarks and monuments yield so many pictures that are so much the same. We all shoot the Eiffel Tower the way that everyone else before us has shot it…..because? Well, there’s a great question.
Do we think of earlier images of the tower as a standard of some kind that we only certify by imitation? Is our mind eager to catalogue things in their “proper” orientation? Are we only interesting in what things are “supposed” to look like? Ideally, we should be making pictures to authenticate our own visions, not to rubber-stamp those generated before us. And yet, with famous places, it’s often a case of human see, human ape.
We have to teach ourselves to photograph places as if we were the first to ever point a camera at them. It’s not that hard a habit to cultivate, really. Crank yourself around 180 degrees and take the reverse angle. Move six inches to the left and frame the most obvious part of the cathedral, ruins, or palace out of your composition. It might yield nothing, and then again, it might add enough freshness to the image to overcome what I refer to as “tourist fatigue”.
The above image from the sculpture plaza at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a near reverse of the more conventional view in the smaller color shot at left, which I first featured in the post Put Yourself Out There a while back. In one shot, the Diana statue is center stage. In the other, she is relegated to the edge of the frame, acting as a pointer toward the rest of the photograph’s information. Extra cost in terms of time to get this very different composition? Ten seconds.
It’s not that re-imagining a subject is that hard. It’s that we so seldom question our first imagining of things, often settling for the first, technically successful image we get. And that first image, as we often learn, might only be a dress rehearsal for the real show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE SPEED, ECONOMY AND EASE IT HAS BROUGHT TO NEARLY EVERYONE, has allowed an incredible acceleration of the learning curve for shooters, a temporal shortcut that has effectively enabled people to master in years what used to take a lifetime (not to say a personal fortune). Without the lag time and cost baked into the film medium, photographers can shoot a lot. Like, a lot.
Problem is, this skyrocketing learning curve for shooting skill has not been accompanied by an accompanying curve in editing skill. As a matter of fact, the two skills are going in opposite directions. And that is a bad, bad thing.
In the film era, there was limited admission to the “photographer’s club” at the pro level, and all pros had some way of winnowing out their weaker work. They had editors, publishers, or some kind of independent eye to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only the best work was printed or displayed. Not everyone made the cut. Some of us had to admit that we didn’t have “it”. There was more to photography than the mere flick of our shutter fingers.
Now enter the digital age, and, with it, the ersatz democracy of the internet age. Suddenly, all of everyone’s photos are equal, or so we have come to think. All images go to the infinite shoebox of the web: the good stuff, the not-so-good stuff, the what-the-hell stuff, all of it. Accounts on Flickr and Instagram allow posters a massive amount of upload space, and there are few, if any strictures on content or quality. But here’s the ugly truth: if all of our photos are special, then none of them are.
You can take most of the formalized schools on photography and sink them in the nearest bog with no damage to any of us, with one singular exception: those tutorials which teach us how to objectively evaluate our own work. Knowing how to wield the scissors on one’s own “babies” is the most important skill in all of photography, because, without that judgement, no amount of technical acumen matters.
If you don’t learn what is good and how close or far you, yourself have come to that mark, then how can anything become exceptional, or excellent? If your work has never had to face real critical heat, there is no incentive for you to change or evolve. This is increasingly important for the millions of self-publishing shooters and scribblers like me who presume to pronounce on what photography is. Just cause we’re in print don’t mean we’re right, or even honest.
Art cannot grow in a vacuum, and so, I say again, if we can’t self-edit, we can’t claim to be photographers, not in any real way. The curve of honest self-evaluation must soar alongside the curve of technical acuity, or the whole thing’s a joke.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORIANS WILL PROBABLY CRINGE AT MY OVER-SIMPLIFICATION, but I tend to believe that still-life compositions were originally popular to shooters because they solved a technical problem. At the dawn of the imaging art, recording media, from salted paper to glass plates, were so abysmally slow that exposure times stretched, in some cases, to nearly an hour. This meant that subject matter with any kinetic quality, from evolving landscapes to a baby’s face, were rendered poorly compared to inanimate objects. Still lifes were not so much about the beauty and color of fruit and cheese on a plate as they were about practicing…learning how to harness light and deliver a desired effect.
As film and lenses both sped up, a still life could be chosen purely on its aesthetic appeal, but the emphasis was still on generating a “realistic” image…an imitation of life. The 20th century cured both photography and painting of that narrow view, and now a still life, at least to me, offers the chance to transform mundane material, to force the viewer to re-imagine it. You can do this with various processes and approaches, but the main appeal to me is the chance to toss the object out of its native context and allow it to be anything…or nothing.
In the image at left, the home-grown vegetables, seen in their most natural state, actually have become alien to our pre-packaged notions of nutrition. They don’t even look like what arrives at many “organic” markets, much less the estranged end-product from Green Giant or Freshlike. And so we are nearly able to see these vegetables as something else. Weeds? Flowers? Decay? Design? Photographing them in our own way, we are free to assign nearly any quality to them. They might, for example, be suggestive of a floral bouquet, a far cry from the edibles we think we know. Still life compositions can startle when they are less “still” and more “life”, but we have to get away from our subjects and approach them around their blind side.
As always, it’s not what we see, but how.