By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO PERFECT THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, YOU MUST FIRST ENDEAVOR to perfect yourself. Cameras are merely recording devices, and rather dumb ones at that, without the guidance of the human eye. And keeping that eye, and the spirit that animates it, free of pollution or imperfection, is the work of a lifetime.
Seeing well often entails slowing down the very process of seeing, of letting time refine your way of taking in information. Call it contemplation, call it concentration, but know that making images is chiefly abetted by improving how you perceive the world. How can it be otherwise? At times like this, I head for the pages of Leaves Of Grass, Walt Whitman’s grand map for becoming a human, perhaps the greatest literature ever created in America. He rings inside my head every time I slow myself enough to perceive the world on its terms, rather than on my own. And when his astonishing language and the glory of the world converge, I feel like I have at least a fighting chance to make a picture that I may, in time, cherish.
To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.
Give me, odorous at sunrise, a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Re-examine all that you have been told; dismiss that which insults your soul.
Armed with such words, or words that likewise define truth for yourself, you find that the pictures come, first in a trickle, then in a floodtide. The world is filled with images that are virtually waiting to jump into your mind and your camera. Open the door and bid them welcome.
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
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE have already taken note of the fact that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the penning of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, a short bit of cozy verse which is either beloved sentiment or dreadful dreck, depending on which literary camp you pitch your tent in. I would have to confess that I find Kilmer’s ditty too cute by half, sort of the rhyming equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but, that said, faced with either the specious cause of “progress” or the faith it takes to plant trees, I side with the trees.
This particular better angel of my nature comes from observing
my father, to whom a connection between the soil and the soul is palpably real. If he were to assemble his version of The Avengers, he would sub out Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and St. Francis for Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Cap America. To watch him will twigs to vigorous life, or summon forth roses from wishes over the decades is to truly “get it”. He was Earth Day before Earth Day was cool. He was Rachel Carson in reverse drag.
So I have to pause for just a post’s-worth of mourning at the recent loss of two enormous palm trees from our place in Phoenix. These were not important trees in any grand sense; they afforded no shade, bore no fruit, marked no key battlefield. No children’s swings ever hung from their heights, and, as for sheltering purposes, they were little more than a beak sharpener for the neighborhood’s woodpecker.
The palms’ annual shower of spring litter had become a sore point between our team and the next neighbor over. What had, at lesser heights, been at least decorative additions to the yard had become, twenty years on, a pain in the astroturf. So down Thing One and Thing Two went, and, with them, one of my favorite visual elements in that part of the property. Going back through the foto files in the depths of the Perk Cave recently, I saw them taking a star turn, again and again, most notably as a skybound workout for our daring landscaper. He was part of the crew that eventually sliced, diced, and hauled them away, and with respect and admiration, his lofty Olympic feat is featured here.
So, even though I will never exactly be the Lorax, and even though I think Kilmer was a hack, I myself seldom see a “poem lovely as a tree”, and I still peer quizzically when its old hunk of skyspace seems deserted somehow.
I suddenly feel like planting something.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- “I think that I shall never see…”: Joyce Kilmer as War Poet (pietistschoolman.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE SPRING, JUST OUTSIDE OUR FRONT DOOR, THE MOST POIGNANT METAPHOR FOR MOTHERLY LOVE PLAYS OUT in the arms of our immense saguaro cactus. The trunk of this desert giant is regularly pockmarked by the peckings of improvised dwellings, which are temporary apartments for woodpeckers, thrashers and other breeds, and crude nests are typically crammed into the crevices between trunk and arm, so, whatever the season, we are well used to birdsong as the first sound of the morning.
But during late April and early May, an extra dimension of magic occurs when the typically blunt arms sprout hundreds of buds, and, in turn, bundles of gorgeous white cactus flowers. The blossoms are short-lived, opening and folding up dead within the space of a single day, but, for the earliest hours of their brief existence, they are life itself, not only to the regular bird crowd but also the seasonal surplus that flies in for breakfast. Between the blooms and the bugs which orbit them (also in search of nectar), it’s a smorgasbord.
That’s when I think of the sacrifice of mothers.
Birds, like most mothers you know, also spend every waking hour of their days foraging, building, sheltering, feeding, and fretting over the fates of their young. They tremble as their youngsters fledge; they learn to deal with the separation that must occur when their babies become adults in their own right; they deal with the sorrow over those who are destined never to fly. And they go on.
There is a kind of happy terror involved in being a mother, be you bird or biped, and the triumph of Mothers’ Day is that, somehow, that terror is faced, even embraced…..because the gold at the end of that particular rainbow is beyond price.
Hug a mother today, even if she’s not your own.
Especially if she’s not your own.
Connect, and say thank you.
After all, they taught us how to fly.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye
- Happy Mother’s Day!! (dannapycher.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMIDST THE CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE OF MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA’S CANNERY ROW, IT IS A DRAB, ORDINARY THING, and, if you are not paying close attention, Ed Rickett’s original biological lab, tucked next to the towering Monterey Bay Aquarium, looks as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball. In fact, it has escaped that fate several times over, much to the glory of this old industrial district, now scrubbed squeaky-clean to house Starbucks and other national chains within the substructures of what was once the beating heart of the California fishing industry. However, with a little closer look at the former headquarters of Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories, you realize that it carries more history within its humble walls than most of the theme park dreck in the area that attempts to recall that era.
If Cannery Row is a salute to history, the House That Ed Built is history, and has been, luckily, left alone to tell its amazing story.
Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, who found himself living and working in Pacific Grove, California in the early 1920’s after bouncing around the country as an Army medical corpsman, a dropout zoology student at the University of Chicago, and a travel writer, founded Pacific Biology Laboratories with a friend in 1922. The original lab was in Pacific Grove, a next-door neighborhood to Monterey, and was later relocated to Ocean View Boulevard in the heart of the bustling fisheries and processing plants of Cannery Row. Ricketts took consignment orders from researchers and museums for various life forms from the coastal tides in the region, commissions which made him a modest living and helped finance his own experiments. By 1930, with his reputation fairly established, he met an up-and-coming author from the area named John Steinbeck. The two became lifelong friends.
The PBL lab, with holding tanks around the bank for storing specimens (still viewable today), was nearly destroyed in 1936, when a fire consumed the neighboring Del Mar cannery (now the site of the world-class Monterey Bay aquarium). Steinbeck, stepping in to purchase a half-interest in Ed’s lab, financed its rebuilding (and helped keep a roof over his friend’s head).Saved from the flames was Rickett’s career-defining work, Between Pacific Tides, the manuscript for which had been sent ahead to his publisher before the blaze.
In 1940, following one of many messy breakups with the various women in his life, Ed decided to take a road trip to Mexico and pay for it by researching and writing a new book on marine life. Steinbeck, looking to escape some of the controversy that dogged him following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, decided to partner with Ricketts on the project.The result, Log From The Sea of Cortez, one of Steinbeck’s only works of non-fiction, became a solid reference work in the field of marine biology.
Writing his novel Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck modeled his marine biologist character “Doc” on Ricketts, fictionalizing the PBL as “Western Biological Laboratory” and keeping the spirit of Ed’s place as a gathering (and drinking) point for writers and artists. Following Rickett’s death in 1948 (he was hit by a train carrying Del Monte canned fish through the area!), friends bought the place, keeping it as a kind of clubhouse until 1983, when they sold it to the city of Monterey. The budding Cannery Row Foundation, then just getting underway with a renovation of the area, saw to the restoration of the building, which now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Specimens Ed gathered from the tidal pools have, for decades, graced collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, Lund University in Sweden, and dozens of other places the world over. Now the place his work began is itself a specimen.
Cheesy retail and chain restaurants have blotted out a lot of the physical history of Cannery Row, leaving Pacific Biological Laboratories as one of the only authentic visual legacies of one of America’s most storied industrial centers. As such, it’s always worth an extra (and loving) look.
(Here’s a great link from the Museum of Monterey with a wonderful overview of Ed’s life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz6BdAtgIk )