THE NEIGHBORHOOD KID
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FORTUNATE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THERE AREN’T MORE THAN A FEW WRITERS IN THE WORLD who can render a sense of place, of emotional truth, or of vivid detail as effectively as did Pete Hamill, the peerless New York journalist who passed earlier this week in this, 2020, the year of the Great Hibernation. Indeed, if the world was more generally peopled with people of his skill and passion, there would be no need of cameras. None.
This little hometown newspaper has, over the years, offered up brief sketches of the great shooters, from Walker Evans and Ansel to Diane Arbus, as well as gifted amateurs like Lewis Carroll. But this week, in my grief over the passing of a man who was a stranger to me personally, but, just as personally, as important as a blood relative, I realize that he, too, must be enshrined in a gallery of people who mostly shone in purely visual terms. Because, for those who live in and love the greater New York area, William Peter Hamill, Jr. did everything a good photographer strives to do, creating many images on the page that rival anything that even the best shooter could create.
Pete’s career as a columnist, novelist, essayist and teacher is the stuff of solid legend, but others have a far greater handle on the details of that story than I, like the New York Times, whose obituary on him is offered here. What I am talking about, in this forum, is the way he rendered the streets of Manhattan and the outer boroughs for those who had never had the privilege to walk them in person. He knew those streets the way a mother of twelve knows her kids…their names, their birthdays, their talents, their torments. In a city that never stands still long enough to linger over memory, Pete could dig through the strata of centuries in any neighborhood on the island, drilling all the way down to the gray schist that the Dutch stepped onto at the beginning of the entire mad experiment. Peeling those layers apart, he could place the territories of any immigrant from any tribe; where they landed, where they wandered, where they built legends, where they perished. In Hamill’s hands, the word nostalgia did not merely mean a sentimental ache for things lost or demolished. Certainly he kept score on what the city had sacrificed in its everlasting dash toward The Next Big Thing, but it was the details beyond mere longing that made his stories sing. It was what made him an indispensable guide for Ric Burns’ epic New York PBS miniseries, and Downtown: My Manhattan as indispensable a tool for newcomers as the Fodor’s travel guides. And it was what made even his darkest accounts of things great and small elicit, in the reader, a wry smile of recognition. “The tragic sense” he observed with true Irish fatalism, “opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present.”
Like a photographer, Pete Hamill knew how to compose a frame to make your eye go directly to the most important thing. He knew where to lavish light and where to accent with darkness. He felt the value of negative space. He had a photo editor’s instinct for where to wield the cropping scissors. And he realized that the best human stories are simple, universal, direct things. Pete did with a Royal what the greatest photographers do with a Leica, but the result was the same. Immediacy. Truth. And the wisdom to ensure that his readers would always see The Big Picture.
The 35MM SHRINE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FRIEND PAUL IS GONE, but I am holding a small part of him in my hand.
He passed late last year, adroitly avoiding the current Great Hibernation and all its horrors. By that time, he had survived a hardscrabble farmer’s childhood, the armed forces, half a dozen skin cancer scares (the farm years’ legacy), several strokes, a fused spine, and nearly eighty years of other scrapes which he largely dismissed with a wide smile and a cackle of a laugh. Before the turn of this year, however, he finally met an enemy that was too big to side-step, and now he is gone.
I hold a part of him in my hand because his wife and friends recalled, in the grief-driven process of finding homes for his various possessions, that I liked to make pictures. And so Paul’s camera gear….including lenses, brackets, cases, bigger cases to hold the smaller cases, cleaners, filters and flash units…became mine. I wasn’t chosen for the higher purpose of carrying on his legacy, or even understanding what he did with all this stuff. But it’s mine now. Much of it, I can’t practically use, but absent even one photograph of us together after a seven-year friendship, these gizmos are, now, rather sacred to me.
Annie Liebovitz and other shooters have made entire sub-careers photographing the personal belongings of people, from Emerson to Eleanor Roosevelt, that are themselves beyond the reach of portraits in the classic sense,. The gloves Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre. Annie Oakley’s performance costume. Paul’s cameras are like that to me. They can’t resurrect him the way a picture would, but they are talismans that summon a part of his spirit nonetheless.
Paul was an exhaustive student of rock ‘n’ roll, taking his youthful love for that music to a scholarly extreme. He didn’t just worship Buddy Holly:he traveled to Texas and became personal friends with Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena, a relationship that moved her to give him several ultra-rare studio recordings that you’ll never find in any textbook or collection anywhere. He could rattle off the personal histories of every one-hit-wonder in Top 40 history, and, coming from my own background in pop radio, I knew he was dead-bang perfect on every detail. He was also a natural gift for any kind of technical analysis, having worked as a TV repairman in the 1950’s and for IBM back in the punch-card era, and so I can easily imagine him applying that same degree of precision to the making of pictures. The quality and condition of the gear also argues for his orderly mind, as in the case of this pristine Canon A-1, the company’s first-ever SLR with fully automatic exposure, a camera from the 1970’s that is still influencing every element of camera design in the twenty-first century. I may never be able to make pictures with it. But it makes memories for me, even as a 35mm shrine sitting on a shelf.
I often read the user’s manual, and wonder if Paul needed to. After all, he seemed to live his life as if he had already figured out the instructions all by himself. In the end, his brain did all the best kind of work that people usually credit a camera with. That means that even if I never snap a frame with Paul’s camera, he’s already taught me, through his friendship, a vision that transcends gear.
EXCISING THE BLINDFOLD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN DISCUSSING THE UNIQUE WAY PHOTOGRAPHERS “SEE” THE WORLD, we often describe the process rather like the development of a muscle: work it, flex it, watch it become tougher and more responsive with each “rep”: repeat as necessary.
But lately, in looking at the general viewpoint that informs my own work, as well as the singular visions that seem to define a “style” for many others, I think we may be looking at the whole phenomenon a little backwards.
Instead of moving progressively toward some eventual destination of “seeing”, as if it’s a mountain top we hope to scale and plant a flag on, maybe the idea of a “photographer’s eye” is more internal, more zen if you like.
Maybe all the formative forces of our lives, including our raw experiences, our philosophical stance, and other stampers of individual personality, have already decided what our “eye” or viewpoint is. Perhaps what keeps us from seeing effectively with that eye is all the noise, distraction, and input from outside sources. Perhaps we arrive at our first camera with a clear windshield, knowing, on some inner level, how we view the world. And perhaps that pristine glass is obscured by the litter and smears of everything outside ourselves that serves to block our view. Maybe, just maybe, every photographer already has an innate knowledge of how he/she regards the world, and what kind of images support that view….if we can just keep the outside world from cluttering and occluding it.
Another way to express this condition might be to imagine ourselves as wearing a tilted blindfold, which is too askew to completely block our vision, but seriously compromises the quality of what we see. Under this idea, any real restoration of our inner eye must include the complete excising of that blindfold. And we approach that result through photography.
Testing these ideas takes a little honest introspection. Look at your own work over a protracted stretch of time. Aren’t there certain consistencies that emerge in the pictures you regard as the truest? It might be something very elemental, such as a love of landscapes, that perpetually re-asserts itself, despite the fact that you “shoot everything.” It might be a mood or a belief that recurs in your visual stories. You might be given to commentary, or celebration, or abstraction. Whatever features your “eye” has, it may have always been so, as a measure of your essential self, with your pictures becoming more and more effective the more you get out of your own way. In my own case, for example, I tend to see beauty or poetry in man-made objects to the same degree that others see in the natural world. Certainly I would never turn down the chance to snap a stunning sunset, and yet, in architecture, in design, or merely in the random arrangements of light and shadow, I can more persuasively argue for beauty than if I were to shoot a thousand roses a day for a thousand years. Some would use the above image to argue that I value things over people, but, to me, things make the case for people, and vice versa.
I also have a hard time deliberately creating something ugly, even in the cause of journalism or documentation. At some level I simply refuse to believe that the world is a horrible place, although I must often depict the horrible things within it. And so it is for you: that is, photography is also a self-assertion of some kind…..not a viewpoint that you are trying to acquire, but one which you are constantly struggling to refine and purify. That is, you already have a photographer’s eye. Now, you need to spend the rest of your life keeping garbage from flying into it or otherwise clouding your very trustworthy and personal vision.
LAYING DOWN THE LAW ON STYLE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR JUST ONE DAY A YEAR, Los Angeles’ Southwestern Law School opens its doors to non-students from across the world, hundreds of whom stream through its halls with bulged eyes and gaping mouths. This reaction is not, as you rightly suspect, because the public, in general, is fascinated by endless banks of books on tort reform and intellectual property. It’s primarily due to the fact that the SLS conducts its day-to-day affairs in the shell of what once was, arguably, the most beautiful building in the City of Angels, the storied Bullocks Wilshire department store, opened to grand fanfare and a decidedly upscale clientele in 1927, the same year Warner Brothers brought Al Jolson’s voice to the world in The Jazz Singer.
In the age of Lindbergh, Bullocks’ mid-town location at mid-town 3050 Wilshire Boulevard was considered to be “out in the sticks”, a long trip from central L.A. and hence a substantial business risk (who’s ever gonna come out here?). Bullocks tried the pre-emptive move of capping the structure with an ornate, copper-tipped tower and designing the main entrance to its “cathedral of commerce” at the rear of the store, inviting motorists to enter its sumptuous porte-corchere (car port) for valet parking and a peek, across its ceiling, at Herman Sachs’ modern mural “The Age Of Transportation” featuring a winged Mercury surrounded by luxury liners, locomotives, biplanes, and the Graf Zeppelin. Having thus been so royally deposited on the store’s back porch, customers were ushered into the main showroom, its every case glistening with jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics for milady, its every wood-inlaid elevator door inviting the visitor to rise to floor after sumptuous floor of furnishings, fashions and refreshments.
The Bullocks store, with separate design/color schemes and innovative, elite shops on each of its five retail floors, truly revolutionized the relationship between retailer and customer, in a space where young lovelies modeled fashions in elegant salons for clients and where local polo players were serviced inside a custom saddlery shop. Concerned that your new riding breeches may pinch a bit when you start your next chucker? No worries: the store also featured its own full-sized horse mannequin so you could check your look in the saddle. The Bullocks local customer base typically included Hollywood stars, many of whom, like Mae West, might send their standing orders for lingerie or sports clothes to the store in the care of their… chauffeurs. Others looking to eventually climb the ladder of stardom themselves, such as a young Angela Lansbury, might be found working the Bullocks counters between studio gigs. Most importantly to generations of mothers, daughters, and granddaughters was the linen and white glove service at Bullocks’ fifth floor tea room, equipped with its own anteroom, the Cactus Lounge, where ladies could listen to live pianists as their lunch table was readied. Add to all these wonders the building’s predominantly Art deco appointments and you have, at least in my case, a photographer’s fever dream.
As to that….
Since this blog’s inception, the menu tabs at the top of the pages of The Normal Eye have been reserved for photographic essays too large to be contained within the scope of a single post, and, with the recent completion of my first-ever walk through the Bullocks building earlier this year, I thought it was time to paste together another little daisy chain of images to create a photo story on this most majestic of merchandisers. To view the results, just click the Bullish On Bullocks tab up top, just to the right of the “Blog” tab. Of course, if you haven’t already, feel free to also check out the neighboring tabs, including Small Slices From A Big Apple (street views of NYC), The Wonderful Woolworth (an interior tour of the old five-and-dime chain’s national headquarters), When Lights Are Low (adventures in under-exposure) and Wright Thinking (a visit to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final residential designs, created for his son David).
One more thing: the Southwestern Law School, whose exhaustive research and civic-minded sweat helped stabilize and restore the Bullocks Wilshire build to its 1920’s glory, hosts a special page on its site to highlight the beauty of the structure, including a seven-and-a-half minute campus video. Go here to check it out. It’s all hands on Deco (sorry).
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.
LOVE AT THE SPEED OF A SHUTTER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DICKENS‘ A CHRISTMAS CAROL IS OFTEN REGARDED as a ghost story, and a marvelous and chilling one it certainly is. But because its lessons are couched in the colors and echoes of the most wonderful time of the year, the tale of Scrooge’s regeneration also acts on the heart like a series of photographs. It freezes time and invites us to re-inhabit that which has so fleetingly danced by our life lenses. Instead of weeping for what we’ve lost, we smile over what we’ve lived.
There is a reason that Christmas and photography forged such a natural bond. Both deal in retrieval, the summoning of shadows for Just One More Look. Aided by images, we call dear ones back from the beyond for a final embrace, a warm wince of recognition. Remember how handsome he was? Do you recall the day when she got that dress? Oh, there’s the baby.
Time it was, and what a time it was………
No one had to teach the world the value of all those little tintype testimonies when it came to the holidays. Everyone instinctively got the connection between the inexorable march of years and the value of stealing back just a taste of them with the snap of a shutter. Scrooge had his spirits to remind him of the man he had been and the man he still might be. They were his snapshots. His renewed realization of what had been wonderful in his life was his photo album.
Today, still, when someone is privileged to head home for a few days, we wish them well in several ways. Have a safe trip, we say. Give everyone my love, we say.
And then the inevitable tag line.
Take lots of pictures.
FOR THOSE JUST JOINING US…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOW OFFICIALLY BEEN “A WHILE” since I last did a group thanks/welcome to the many of you who’ve joined The Normal Eye in recent months. I apologize for the lapse in manners, and assure you that, while I usually use the right spoon for soup and cross only at the light, I still haven’t gotten around to getting my 1987 Christmas cards sent out. It’s a process.
So, assuming that a particular post has recently motivated you to subscribe to this here small-town newspaper, thank you. And, as a way of demonstrating what to expect from us on a day-to-day basis, here’s a little backstory on TNE:
I wanted to create this forum because I feared, at the beginning of the digital age, that photography was becoming a reflexive act, a kind of knee-jerk spasm made ever more convenient but also more robotic due to amazing technical advancements that were almost literally taking the pictures for us. For sure, much of the muss and fuss of film was going away (a net gain), but the incredible foolproof–ness of even the most basic digital cameras was making speed and ease bigger considerations than the skills of seeing and planning, the most valuable traits of the slower, analog world…. a net loss, it seemed to me, for photography as an art.
Now to be clear, this platform is not, and has never claimed to be, a technical tutorial, and indeed the percentage of how-to advice we feature has always lagged way behind the why do it stuff. The Normal Eye is an examination of motivations, a way of restoring the human eye to its primary role in how pictures are made…..of normalizing it (hence the name). The eye outranks equipment, formats, subject matter, even formal training. With the eye, you can master your message with a cardboard box and a pinhole: without it, you won’t get your image made with an army of Leicas.
Happily, in the intervening years, the tide in all phases of photography has begun to turn back toward the instinctual, with amazing work by the world’s shooters that is once again placing technology in the service of the imagination. From the Lomography and Lensbaby revolutions to the resurgence of all-manual “art lenses” to a re-evaluation of (and partial return to) film, the art in photography is reasserting itself. Certainly no one answer works for everyone, but the questions are getting better.
So that’s what you signed up for: a conversation, a confrontation, a refusal to think of any single method or approach as “final” or “definitive”…..a promise to yourself to make pictures on purpose, with eyes wide open.
Thanks for joining the party.
CHECK THOSE ABS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT SEEMS ODD to hear someone refer to part of their photographic output as “abstract”…..as if the rest of their work somehow isn’t. I guess it depends on what you believe the word ” abstract” means, as well as what is meant by other words like, say, “reality”. For me , the whole discussion seems overthought. To my mind, all photography, all art is “abstract”.
To abstract something is to extract it from its original context, to re-frame it, take it from one form and paste it into another. And there is no way not to do that with a photograph. We don’t show reality. We show shards, fragments, selectively sliced slivers of time. Even if we take great care to take a no-frills, documentary approach to the recording of an image, once we click the shutter, we have abstracted that moment from reality, making an editorial choice to pluck away this instant versus all others.
One way to illustrate this process is to consider the image at the top of the page, which represents a virtually endless chain of abstraction. Thinking backwards from this photo of a museum exhibit:
In the beginning, God creates man, an abstraction of himself. Then Michelangelo creates an abstraction of God (and a lot of other Biblical superstars) by depicting Him in the act of creation, even as he (the painter) is also abstracting representations of the Creator’s creatures. Centuries later, art historians take selective pictures of Michelangelo’s massive abstractions on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, abstracting them further by using selected excerpts as book illustrations. Inspired by those books, curators in Manhattan create an exhibit honoring Michelangelo’s ceiling by reproducing it as a miniature, assembling a replica composed of dozens of backlit transparencies suspended over guests at the Metropolitan museum in an artificial abstraction of the original Sistine frescoes. Finally, using a selective-focus art lens in 2017, I abstract those same guests to blobby smears of color and make editorial choices about which single panel in the faux-ceiling exhibit to shoot in sharp focus, thus hinting that it’s somehow more important than all the others.
Photographs snatch away parts of the real. To use a camera is to abstract that reality. Every snap of the shutter is a calculation of choice. Therefore choose wisely.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS. Glibly speaking, ya can’t live without ’em.
Thing is, after a while they don’t come alone. More and more, they show up accompanied by echoes. Ghosts. Remains and remnants. And the guest lists of Things That Were that trundle alongside all those birthdays often focus on buildings, structures that are barometers of where we started out and where we wound up.
The image above was taken within days of this year’s natal anniversary, and put me in mind of one of the most eloquent musings ever on the subject of loss from singer–songwriter Judy Collins. Looking at this sad, sagging house, I could clearly hear her singing:
My grandmother’s house is still there, but it isn’t the same
A plain wooden cottage, a patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing and sighing in the Seattle rain
I drive by with strangers and wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds flying in sunlight
A forest of lilies, an orchard of apricot trees
Secret gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU GOTTA LOVE HUMANS.
No really, you need to. Not ’cause we deserve it, God knows (she does), but because, if you view us from the vantage point of an emotionally detached galactic being, we have some adorable habits. Our fashion decisions? Laughable enough to be endearing. Our life choices? Pathetically cute. And our compulsive habit of compiling “best of” lists of our work at the end of each year?
Well, okay, that is rather obnoxious.
But the lists persist, if, by the word “persists” you mean they are crammed into every molecule of available space in the final columns, blogs, newscasts, sermons and recipes of the entire last month of each and every calendar year. Reason tells us that there is someone, somewhere, whom, this very instant, is compiling a list of the year’s best ” best of” lists. You know that’s totally happening.
Of course, photographers are no less given to this vanity exercise than anyone else in public life, and I myself have certainly succumbed to the annual temptation to round up the usual suspects from the previous twelve months. What has changed over the years, however, is my belief that I am in any position to even know what my own best work is. What I think I do feel comfortable doing is to make, instead of a ” best of”, what I call a “most of” list…..collecting shots which yielded most of what I was seeking in a particular image, regardless of its precision or formal technique. Those choices are viewable by clicking the new “seventeen for 17” menu tab, found, starting today, at the top of this page.
This means that some of these very subjective “keepers” are by no means the most technically accomplished photos I made this year, nor are they always the images that were best received, or even understood. What they do represent are the areas in which I most wanted to dabble, whether that dabbling resulted in wins or losses. If you always try to produce prize winners, your work somehow starts starving for oxygen. And I’d rather suck than suffocate.
So thanks in advance for viewing my most-ofs. They might also be my bests…….but how would I know?
Humans. Go figure.
A FUNERAL AND A BIRTHDAY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY COMPLETE DISCUSSION OF THE LEGACY OF THE BEATLES‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, will include voluminous analyses of its ground-breaking production technique and breakthrough approach to musical composition, and rightfully so. But this most fundamental of pop culture events of the 1960’s must also be thought of in purely visual terms, since many of us first encountered it as an amazing, challenging image.
In truth, the collaboration between Pop Art designer Peter Blake and studio photographer Michael Cooper, with its ad-hoc gathering of cardboard celebrities grouped around a gravesite with the word BEATLES spelled out in blossoms, is the first act of a two-act play. The cover set the same audacious terms of engagement that the record inside the sleeve would abide by: Art and Music are what we say they are: We, the Beatles, are in complete charge of our music, our image, and our connection with the audience: we will not have “a” style, but will hybridize whatever schools of thought come to hand, from modes of composition to instruments to shifting patterns of Past, Present, and Future to coloring outside the lines of even our own culture. I read the news, today, oh, boy, and it said there are no more rules: there are no more walls. The stage can no longer hold us. Only the studio itself is vast enough to contain what we have to say.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper made a stunning break with the accepted practices used by record labels to market their goods. Quite simply, the suits in the front office were no longer in charge of the pictures. And what of that picture, or, more accurately, that picture of pictures? Is it a tribute? A put-on? A serving of notice that the Beatles are dead, long live the Beatles? Yes, yes, and hell, yes. Pepper made it plain, once and for all, that album covers, which had begun in the 1930’s as basic advertising sleeves for the goods within, could be venerated, influential, and, yeah, framed on some freak’s wall. Like, you know, man, art.
And, if Cooper and Blake were drawing a line between eras for the record world, they were doing so to an even greater degree for photography, which, in 1967, was still considered by some as more craft than art. Within a few years after A Day In The Life‘s long, ringing super-chord, museums were mounting shows by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, right alongside the painters, and directly adjacent to people like Warhol who constituted categories all their own.
Just as Alice In Wonderland is somehow legless without John Tenniel’s illustrations, Sgt. Pepper’s’ outside will always be wedded to its inside, and vice versa. As the most popular multimedia product in commercial history, it owes much of its titanic impact to the image of four oddly costumed men with four strangely new mustaches and one big message: there is more to us than meets the eye. Like the best of photography, the picture issues a challenge. Nothing is real.
And nothing to get hung about…….
EYES ON THE PRIZE FOR THE EYES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE INTERNET SCREECHED ITSELF HOARSE in 2016 when the Nobel Prize committee announced its intention to award one of its coveted awards for Literature to Bob Dylan, the first popular songwriter so honored. There were acrimonious screeds on both sides of the issue, as hands were wrung and garments were rent over whether Mr. D. was a poet or just a scribbler of post-beat pap. My initial reactions ranged from “really?” to, well, “really???“. But then I figured that, far from stretching the idea of “literature” too far, the Nobel gang hadn’t taken it far enough.
That is to say, it’s way past time for photographers to be invited onto the Nobel podium. As creators of visual literature.
Founded as an attempt by Alfred Nobel to expiate his guilt for having invented dynamite, the awards were designed to reward those whose work enriched or enlivened the human condition in the areas of chemistry, economics, physics, physiology/medicine, peace, and, yes, literature. As compared to the Pulitzer prize, which confers news value on both the printed word and photographic images, and is awarded for a singular piece of work within a single year, the Nobels are awarded for a body of work. With that standard in mind, it would actually be easier to judge the value of a photographer over a lifetime, versus the potential for a lucky or instinctual snap to be taken in the recording of a brief moment. But photography is a visual art, and a young one at that, and, even though no one still argues against its importance or impact, it is a sticky wicket to compel the powers that be to confer the “L-word” upon it.
Considering that the slight jump from literary poetry (Seamus Haney) to commercial song lyrics (Dylan) nearly caused Nobel critics to hemorrhage, proposing that photographs could also meet the definition of literature must sound, to some, like reciting dirty limericks during High Mass. Further, word “originalists” will point to the fact that literature is strictly defined as a written work of permanence. And yet it’s the permanence part that matters. Pictures have, in fact, changed arguments, minds and history, just as paintings have. And, if literature is that art which endures, something which defines the human experience, then a photograph is certainly as big an influence upon culture as a play or novel. A document is a document.
In accepting his Nobel prize, author John Steinbeck declared, “the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit..for gallantry in defeat…for courage, compassion, and love.” Now go from the general to the specific, considering Steinbeck’s amazing chronicle of the Oakie odyssey of the 1930’s, The Grapes Of Wrath. As a contrast, how does Dorathea Lange’s picture Migrant Mother, with its graphic depiction of the dust bowl era’s desperation and despair, have any less impact than Steinbeck’s glowing account of the Joad family’s trek to California? In my estimation, both works magnify and certify what it means to stand tall in the blowing gale of ill fortune. And that is a literary idea.
Migrant Mother, like Grapes, is no mere “one-off”, but a small part of an enormous oeuvre, a vast portfolio filled with eloquent testimonies that delineate humanity. The Nobel has slowly begun to mature with the awarding of Bob Dylan’s literature award. Now it’s time to regard the visual arts as part of that larger, and widening discussion.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, EVERYWHERE, TO INSTANTLY SHARE any part of his or her output with the world is both a blessing and curse. The “blessing” part’s easy to understand. Breaking down the barriers to publication of ideas that have separated us all from each other throughout time…well, that’s a very heady thing. Pictures can now transmit commentary at nearly the speed of thought, establishing linkages and narratives that have the potential to shape history.
Then there’s the “curse” part, in which this very same technology carries with it the potential for unlimited treachery and mischief. Who says what pictures can be seen…when, and by whom? Without supervisory curation or any kind of global uber-editor, photography can just be a visual torrent of garbage, or banality, or worse. Obviously, we have had to navigate some very tricky waters as both the blessing and curse elements of modern photography wrestle for supremacy.
What has happened for, good or ill, is that we are all, suddenly, tasked with being our own editors, asked to perform a skill that is very difficult to bring off with any honesty. You’d think that, after years of taking thousands of pictures, most of us would have a higher yield of excellence from all that work, but I have found that, at least for myself, the opposite is proving true. The more I shoot, the fewer of all those shots strike me as extraordinary. I thought that practice would indeed make perfect, or that, at least, I’d come closer to the mark more often, the more images I cranked off. But that hasn’t happened.
Your skills accelerate over time, certainly; but so do your standards. In fact, any really honest self-editing journey will mean you are less and less satisfied with the same pictures, today, that, just yesterday, you would have thought your best work. You start to refuse to cut certain marginal pictures a break; you stop grading yourself on the curve.
Most importantly, you have been doing this just long enough to realize how very long the journey to mastery will be. Not just control of the mechanics of a camera, although that certainly takes time. No, we’re talking about learning to tame the wild horse of one’s own undisciplined vision, something that, over a lifetime, is hardly begun. Our moon landings come to look to us like baby steps.
Becoming one’s own editor means that, through the years, you’re liable to view one of your “greatest hits” from yesteryear and be able, sadly, to see the huge gulf between what you were trying to do and what you actually accomplished. I was horrified, a few years ago, to learn that my father, at some point, had destroyed the paintings he had made when he was in college. I had grown up with those images and thought them powerful, but he only saw their shortcomings, and, at some time or other, it was just too much to bear. I often think of those paintings now, whenever I view an older picture that I once thought of as “my truth”. In some cases, I can’t see anything in them but the attempt. A few of them do survive the years with something genuine to say…but, ask me again tomorrow, and I may reluctantly transfer many of them over to the “nice try” pile. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s only one I trust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT IRONIES, YOU TRULY BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER the first time you consider chucking all your gear off a cliff and never taking a picture again. Just as you can’t understand faith until you nearly lose it, you can’t really become an excellent maker of pictures unless you’ve been paralyzed, even a little frightened, in considering the distance between what you know and what you need to know.
All visual arts, all arts in general, really, are pursuits. We are chasing something, either in our work or in ourselves. Maybe both. We don’t always know what it is, but we sure as hell know what it’s not. Calling forth an image from a mix of instinct, experience and light seems like an easy thing, since there are so many cameras that deliver acceptable pictures with a minimum of effort. Unlike the early days of the medium, it’s no longer an uphill struggle technically getting “a” picture.
Ah, but getting “the” picture…that’s the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes, that challenge seems glorious. A crusade. Other times, it’s a slog. And, occasionally, the wandering between what you see in your head and what you can deliver in a given picture is exhausting, and you will sometimes want to stop. For good. Many do, and many more ache to.
The technical part of photography can certainly be taught, just as there is not that much to the mere mechanics of hitting a baseball or driving a car. Getting to the excellence, however, is daunting. And if you’re hung up on destinations, on “getting there”, realizing that it’s actually about the journey can be heartbreaking. You want to arrive at perfection, and you realize that you never can.
You have to learn to live on little glimpses of the prize, those flickers of wow when an image starts to take on its own life. That’s the payoff. Not praise, or publication, or a million “likes” on Instagram. Because it really doesn’t matter a damn what others think of your work. If you don’t love it, all the applause in the world just becomes noise. The pictures have to be there. For you. The wandering has to amount to something.
Once you learn to find fault in even your favorite brainchildren, you can father better ones going forward. Even better, once you know what your work looks like when you’re lost, the closer you are to being found. Eventually, photography is like anything else you can care passionately about. The fire carries you through when the progress won’t.
So hang on. There’s light up ahead.
Go catch it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU REGULARLY POST IMAGES TO PHOTO SHARING SITES, you will no doubt have come upon groups or albums labeled S.O.O.C., or Straight Out Of The Camera, pictures that purport to have transitioned seamlessly from shutter click to social post without being further touched by human hands. The fact that such a designation even exists says something about how we see the creative process, or what we deem as “pure” about it.
The raw math of photography dictates that only a micro-percentage of your total work will actually come fully formed from your camera, emerging, as Athena did, intact from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, the majority of what we shoot is re-shot, re-thought, shaped, edited, and re-combined before we put a gold frame around it, which only makes sense. Photography is a process, not just a recording product. We grow into a better understanding of our best shots no less than our worst ones. That means that clinging to “straight out of the camera” as some kind of badge of excellence or ideal is counter-intuitive to the idea of photography as an organic art.
More simply, any so-called “perfect” pictures we create in the moment are a mixture of luck as well as talent, of chance as well as design. To slap a collective S.O.O.C. label on all such fortunate convergences of cosmic fortune is to think of that “flawlessness” as an end unto itself. Does the fact that you didn’t further mold an image after shooting it render it better, more authentic somehow, than one which was later manipulated or massaged? What gets the gold star, the best complete realization of a picture, regardless of the number of intermediate steps, or the bragging rights associated with blind luck? Case in point: in the above image, I did, indeed, get nearly everything I wanted out of the picture, but it was also the 15th frame I shot of the subject before I was even partly satisfied, so how “straight out” is that??
And what of the photographs that are less than “perfect” (according to whom?) from a technical standpoint? Can’t an underexposed or ill-focused shot contain real impact? Aren’t there a number of “balanced” exposures that are also as dull as dishwater? Moreover, can’t a shot be improved in its power after being re-interpreted in processing? The straight-out-of-the-camera designation is either meaningless, or sends completely the wrong message. Creativity seldom moves in a straight line, and almost never comes fully realized in its first form. Photography’s aim should never be to aim for an easy lay-up from mid-court, and labels that suggest that lucky is the same as eloquent do the art a disservice.
FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE WE WERE ABLE TO CAPTURE LIGHT IN A BOX, in the earliest days of photography, there seemed to be a worldwide obsession with recording things before they could vanish. Painters might linger in a wistful sunset over a craggy shoreline, and certainly that was part of the photographer’s prerogative as well, but, immediately following the introduction of the first semi-portable cameras, there was a concurrent surge in the recording of the ancient world…temples, churches, monuments, pyramids, waterfalls, Africa, Asia, empires new and old.
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of world tours available to at least the wealthy, as seen in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s chronicling of a global excursion of Americans to the venerable ports of the old world. Cartes-de-visites (later post cards), stereoscopic views and leather-bound books of armchair photo anthologies sold in the millions, and the first great urban photographers like Eugene Atget began to “preserve” the vanishing elements of their world, from Paris to Athens, for posterity and, quite often, for profit.
This first-generation fever among shooters carried forth through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and into the journalistic coverage of revolutions and disasters seen in the present day. The photographer is aware that this is all going away, and that bearing witness to its disappearance is important. We can’t help but realize that the commonplace is on its way to becoming the rare, and eventually the extinct. We can’t know what things we regard as banal will eventually assume the importance of the contents of the pharaoh’s tombs. Ramses’ everyday toilet items become our priceless treasures. Now, however, instead of sealing up pieces of the world in pyramids, we imprison the light patterns of it, with history alone to judge its value.
Making pictures is taking measure of our world. It is our voice preserved for another time. This is what we looked like. This is what we thought was important. This shows the distance of our journey. New worlds are always crowding out old ones. Photography slows that process so we can see where one curtain comes down and another rises.
COMPETING WITH WHOM?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IMAGE YOU SEE HERE IS NOT MINE, although I’d gladly claim it anyday. It was taken by a lady named Judith Shields, an enthusiastic amateur who recently entered it in a photographic contest and apparently earned some distinction with it. Where she finally placed in the winners’ circle is not as significant, however, as the fact that she was docked points by the judge of the competition because the center of the flower, being fairly open, did not conform to his concept of what constituted a “correct” depiction of the subject. Or something. Since the remark makes no sense whatsoever in terms of either art or photography, it understandably sparked an online thread about (1) why such a criterion should even be considered, and, as the conversation blossomed out, (2) what the value of photographic contests even is in the first place.
In the interest of transparency, let me state unequivocally, that the idea of pitting artists against each other and weighing their efforts as you might evaluate tomatoes at the state fair is anathema to me on its face. I realize that a select number of such contests actually result in increased prestige or opportunity for photographers, but that number is extremely small, and usually tied to specific professional organizations that are, in turn, linked to the print industry. Many more of these runoffs, though, are little more than vanity projects, and the value of both the judges and the judging varies wildly. To look at Ms. Shields’ picture and see anything else besides beauty and technical mastery is to pretty much miss the overall point of photography in particular, or art in general. Shooters take the world as they find it, and deciding not to make an image of a flower because it’s not at the right stage of “readiness” is beyond silly. And then there is the nagging question of who these judges are, and who, exactly, entrusted them with the safekeeping of All Photographic Truth.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the profit angle of photo contests, hundreds of which not only charge admission fees, but which also post arcane terms of agreement that, if carefully examined, preserve the creator’s “copyright” while allowing the hosts of the contest near- complete control of what happens to the artist’s pictures, issues ranging from where they can be published to how they can be cropped or contextualized. Ms. Shields’ flower could, under the terms of such rules, be used to promote fertilizer or cheeseburgers, should the contest gods be so inclined, and she might have no say whatever in the matter. Finally, the idea of competition among artists flies in the face of a photographer’s duty to himself or herself, which is to produce the work and live by the work, without needing to offer either explanation or alibi. The fact that this beautiful picture exists is enough to justify that existence, in that it was the creation of a person of sensitivity and vision. What crown or laurel, conferred on it by any outside jury, can add a scintilla of extra value beyond that?
Volumes could be written about judges and critics who initially disqualified what, in time, became the world’s photographic literature on the basis of this or that arbitrary rule or regulation. Pictures by Alfred Steiglitz, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others were once routinely dismissed based on arcane concepts of composition, light, focus or other arbitrary standards that have no place in art. Finally, either a work connects with people or it doesn’t, a truth that no panel of curators or judges can alter by sniffing around the edges looking for something to make themselves seem more important. At last, it’s the pictures that either speak or don’t.
This one does.
February 7, 2021 | Categories: Commentary, Conception, Essay | Tags: competition, opinion | Leave a comment