the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Exhibitions

HERE. NOT HERE. MAYBE HERE?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

1,000,000,000,000.

One trillion.

That’s the approximate number, in the digital era, of annual photo postings to the internet in a single year.

That’s a serious buncha digits. And a significant chunk of that staggering total comes from visitors to tourist sites and museums, many of whom, awestruck by the wonders in various collections, seek visual souvenirs of said wonders.

Except when they can’t.

Public attractions in the age of shared media are struggling to accommodate, regulate, or just plain rein in the photographic urge among their patrons. You can take pictures here, but not here. Here? Unsure, ask the guy in the uniform.

Flash? Selfie Sticks? Tripods? On the endangered species list. We have our reasons.

We don’t all have the same reasons, but still…

Which way to the “photos allowed” section?

Full disclosure: I am a docent at a museum. I fully understand the various problems that come with allowing photography in the halls. For example, the collection at my joint could actually be damaged by flash, so we allow clickers to go flashless. We also have found that the more hardware the hardcore photog packs in, the greatest hazard to our exhibits and our patrons, so no selfie sticks or tripods. Ours is what I would call a negotiated policy. Other shops, as you yourselves may have already painfully learned, are more draconian, from the places where no one is allowed to take any pictures anywhere to sites like the Natural History Museum of Rwanda, one of the institutions which actually charges a fee for the privilege of snapping. Between those two end zones is a lot of open field. A quick look at the challenges from both sides:

Even allowing for the fact that flashes can actually damage some types of artifacts, regulating the no-flash rule requires extra policing and essentially stands or falls on the honor of the individual photographer. Then there’s the issue of the particular kind of shooter I like to call The Selfish Jerk, who will camp out in front of a statue or a painting to the discomfort of other paying guests, because he’s just gotta get The Shot. Some of these same nitwits also employ improvised gymnastics that could get the institution sued and could (and do) get the photographer dead. Ask the undermanned park employees at the Grand Caaaaaaaanyon. Then let’s consider the “keepsake” motive that makes some people want to take a bit of their favorite art home with them. Cameras are getting better at making more perfect representations of paintings and statuary. At the same time, museum gift shops enjoy a sizable revenue stream from poster and postcard images of their own collections. If everyone can make their own, that revenue goes away, a purely and understandably fiscal reason for institutions to say “no mas”. The claim has also been made that art piracy could be exacerbated by the use of cameras, but that argument is anything but settled.

To further muddy the waters, museums and other public sites are fighting a losing technological battle, since, for every super-obvious Canon or Nikon there are legions of tinier and tinier snap machines that are damn near undetectable. Should the institutions forbid the higher-resolution DSLRs (art thieves!!) and allow the more humble iPhones (harmless amateur!)? And then there’s the problem of universal enforcement of camera bans, which is, let’s face it, impossible. What’s the answer? Some reasonableness all around: reasonable policies that do allow pictures, with limits: reasonable guests who can be asked to leave if they contravene stated policies or, well, decency: and a reasonable attitude toward the positive publicity that online sharing of images can produce for your exhibits and institutions. After all, it’s hard to buck a trillion photos a year, even if only a couple of hundred billion of them are headed in your particular direction. Policies, from free-for-all to pay-for-play, must be rooted in the real world, or they’re not worth the paper they’re (maybe not even) printed on.


THE TEMPORARY COLLECTION

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, MUSEUMS SHOULD NEVER BE A ONEWAY STREET. The popular conception of the role of our various Hallowed Halls of Important Stuff is that the artifacts do all the sensory sending and we, the visiting public, do all the receiving. The idea prevails that paintings and sculptures and installations impart their wisdom and we passively soak it up, like ambulatory blotters. Thus, this logic must follow, a photographic record of the museum experience should only pointed in one direction.

But of course this is nonsense.

Anywhere you have hundreds of humans assembling in a common area, you have created an active anthropological laboratory, and thus a rich harvesting ground for the camera. A myriad of motives and paths, from “something to do” to a personal thirst for experience to a place to duck in out of the rain, converge as a “temporary collection” mixing with the museum’s’ more permanent ones. All these arrivals, each with their own energy, curiosity, hostility, apathy, fatigue, and joy to deal with, create a kaleidoscopic pattern of intrapersonal intersections and collisions. The eager attendee and the unwilling hostage exist side by side. That creates the unpredictable, and that unpredictability, for the photographer, creates opportunity.

In the image shown here, the “official” delights of the museum in question have failed to amaze, at least for the group occupying the bench. As for the woman peering out the window, she has simply found something with bigger “wow” value than anything hanging on the walls. The sheer dimensions of the space threaten to dwarf the group, to make it seem small or insignificant, and yet their faces and bodies contain a strange mix between tension and ennui that is so wonderfully human that it invites the investigative eye of the shooter.

This shot came to me virtually ready-made, although a later conversion to monochrome eliminated the minor color distractions of various articles of clothing. When a picture is this simple, everything that tends to complicate it becomes expendable. The phrase keep it simple, stupid, may not have originated with photographers, but we ought really to have it tattooed on our foreheads.

I spent nearly two hours in the museum in question (name withheld) and, I assure you, this was one of the most interesting tableaux I observed in the entire joint. It’s not that I find no interest in the arts: quite the opposite. It’s just that, visually, people reacting to the world is more vital to me than just pictures of the world alone. The whole gig is a museum, really, and frequently,  the permanent collection of life is thus upstaged by the temporary one. Go figure.


MANY FACES, ONE FAMILY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

Edward Steichen looks over a scale model of the 1955 Family Of Man show, the most famous photographic exhibit of all time.

Edward Steichen looks over a scale model of the 1955 Family Of Man show, the most famous photographic exhibit of all time.

I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.

If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.

The Peruvian flute player whose portrait became the official visual logo of the Family Of Man project.

The Peruvian flute player whose portrait became the official visual logo of the Family Of Man project.

Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.

Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of  Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:

“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”