A SHADE-Y BUSINESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NO SOONER OUT OF THE CRADLE than it was being aggressively tweaked and twiddled with, in a thousand myriad experiments aimed at improving it both technically and aesthetically. Seldom has the birth of an art form been accompanied by a surge of re-inventive energy equal to or greater than its release of creative energy. Photographs were both art and science, a strange hybrid of human expression and mechanical reproduction. One of the earliest and most consistent treasure hunts in the young craft was the quest for color, simulated and daubed on at first, then integrated into the actual making of the picture in-camera. In this age, which could be labeled Photography Century III, we use color mostly without thinking, even though it is one of the most crucial elements in how we tell stories in pictures.
Although the first practical color films date back to the early 1930’s, mostly by way of Kodachrome and its later imitators, the majority of important photographs for the first half of the twentieth century were taken and published in monochrome. In the minds of the pros like Ansel Adams, early printing processes for color were unsteady or “untrue”, with only mass-circulation magazines using them with any regularity (with a ton of touch-up) until well after World War II. After all the G.I. Joes and Janes came home, the tidal wave of leisure culture that accompanied them also brought a new explosion in amateur color photography, although it was not until the 1970’s that the economy of global film sales truly tipped in favor of the rainbow. Today, for many, monochrome is now a nostalgic effect, a quaint way of recalling the “look” of earlier photographic eras.
In 2021, our attitude about hue is all over the road. Some still obsessively pursue the most accurate depiction of “natural” colors as is technically possible, while, for many others, color is negotiable, malleable. We acknowledge its power as an expressive tool, but we tinker with it for interpretative purposes more than ever before. We even seek out software designed to re-produce the color errors or biases of bygone brands of film stock, seeking a color that is technically “wrong” in order to get the right “feel”. We shoot with color as we use any other modern means of expression, which is to say, with an overlay of irony.
In making an image like the one seen here, the very nature of the subject is a kind of unreality, since the desert blooms and bushes used in this art installation have been dyed before the work was assembled, in an array of colors that is nothing like the limited palette they would display in their natural state. The resulting work is thus a kind of psychedelic fever dream of a desert scene. Do I record this as I find it? Do I remix the colors even further to interweave my own mood into it? Just trying to render an accurate record of this object with the color films of long ago would have been enough to send the most battle-hardened photo editor into choleric fits, and yet today, we accept that color is, as with any other element in a photograph, precisely what we say it is, and nothing more. In a way, we’ve come full circle to photography’s earliest days, before the development of actual color film, when painters touched up black-and-white images with whatever arbitrary color choices they thought “completed” the picture. Is it art? Is it not? The answer is, it is ours, a response which silences all other questions.
THE MAKING OF THE MOMENT
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
EASTMAN KODAK WAS THE FIRST COMPANY to truly democratize photography, taking it from a tinkerer’s hobby or the domain of the studio professional and placing it in the hands of the average consumer. A streamlined process for producing modestly-priced, easily operated cameras, as well as the introduction of roll film and standardized processing, made it possible for anyone to capture memories on a reasonable budget. To do this quickly, Kodak, well before 1900, also became one of the first and best early forces in the use of mass marketing. And one of the biggest pillars in the foundation of that effort was Christmas.
For the near decade that The Normal Eye has been in business, we have always dedicated one annual post to the nostalgia and pure brilliance of Kodak’s Christmas ad campaigns. Being a company that fostered the creation of indelible memories (the well-known “Kodak Moment”), the creators of the Brownie camera sold us not merely the means of making pictures, but the motivation for doing so, capitalizing on the special sentiment that permeates the holiday season. The question was not “should I buy a camera?” but “why aren’t you already taking pictures as fast as you can squeeze a shutter?”. The Eastman company achieved the ultimate goal for a manufacturer, that is, creating a market that had never existed before and inventing the means to fill said market. Using full color photographs in their magazine ads in the early 20th century, an era which was still typified by painted or drawn illustrations, the company showed people using their cameras to freeze-frame both special occasions and everyday events, all the while reinforcing the idea that going so was easy and fun.
And when it came to Christmas specifically, Kodak, well before 1920, developed two key ambassadors to drive home the message. First was the pre-cheesecake pin-up known only as The Kodak Girl, who was shown clicking off memories in a variety of settings, and featured on calendars, packaging, and roll-outs for new products. As a back-up, the company became one of the first to enlist Santa Claus himself as a pitchman, which even the wizards at Coca-Cola would not do until 1930. The combination was the stuff of dreams, as well as of profits. Kodak cameras were not merely another element of the Big Day; they were a guarantee that the Big Day would be a success. A great holiday was a nice thing, but a great holiday caught in pictures was on another level entirely.
Wish fulfillment, or the possibility thereof, is so woven into the appeal of photography, that, once cameras and film were standardized and simplified, the hobby really didn’t need a big nudge to become a worldwide habit, as it remains to this day. But, as they say in the ad biz, you must always be Asking For The Order, and lots of our hard-wired desire to Say It In Pictures was inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the medium, to the consumption of products. “Open Me First”, the tag on Kodak gifts asked in over a generation of seasonal ads, and we certainly did. The message was, and remains, you can’t call it a life event until you’ve started taking pictures of it. That is both photography’s curse, and its blessing.
THE CANUTE CONUNDRUM
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE BELIEVE WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY IN ITS ESSENCE because some version of it has been handed down to us across the ages, but, as we grow wiser, we know that there are many versions of What Really Happened, each filtered through the agenda/biases of the storyteller. Many of us have at least heard, for example, of the 12th-century King Canute, and may dimly recall a story about his going down to the seashore and foolishly ordering the waves to stop to demonstrate his imperial power. In examining the legend further, however, it seems that he may have gone through the exercise just to illustrate for his subjectsthe limits of his powers. Both versions make great stories. Both drive home the concept of the futility of our struggle against nature, and time.
As I write this, I have received word that the old building where I began my professional career is about to be torn down. Aside from being the physical site of events that pertained to me particularly, the joint has no real reason to be preserved, or saved. It’s architecturally insignificant and aesthetically bland, not to mention its physical decay after lying empty for many years. The project which will stand in its place is likewise lackluster in the extreme, but it will at least be useful and profitable in a way that the old hulk can never be again. And so it goes.
It’s been so long since I walked the halls of 22 South Young Street, Columbus, Ohio (which still bears a few stamps of the call letters for WCOL radio, my alma mater) that taking a tour of it now would only rupture the delicate membrane in which my memories are preserved. I have few photographic records of the time I spent there, as can happen when you’re busier living your life than documenting it. The only images of any recent vintage I have were taken about four years ago and are limited to a few exterior shots, which do what photographs do…document that, like Canute, we are powerless to hold back the sea, and more foolish than powerless in even making the attempt. Sometimes I think that the ultimate “memory” shot for all occasions, designed as a kind of universal symbol, would merely be an image of sand sifting through fingers. Plus or minus a few personal particulars, photographs of things that were are mostly illustrative within the mind. The camera, a dumb box essentially, can only see things as they are, not as they were or might have been.
Still, we cling to these pallid echoes and paltry souvenirs of our lives, gleaning at least minor comfort from them. Some days that’s enough. Other days, the magic fails us. As old King Canute, I often fantasize that he might actually have gone down to the shore more than once, always thinking, en route, “maybe this time it will work.” All too sad, yes, but also, all too human.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU FIRST READ THIS POST, the events of The Horror Year 2020 may well already have sealed the fate of the establishment I write about today. The perishability of current events is one of the reasons that, over the last decade, I have almost completely kept “news” items out of the pages of The Normal Eye. Such stories age worse than limburger in the hot sun, and I have mostly chosen to address the eternal questions that affect photography, those universal struggles that occur in every age, regardless of what’s on the front page on any given day.
But part of photography is always about that very perishability, the race to document or capture things before they vanish beneath the tides of time. And so I find myself calling attention to what is, at this moment, a poignant by-product of the Horror Year. On the surface, it’s just about the potential closing of a bookstore, hardly worth a ripple in the tragic tsunami of business failures and bankruptcies that are the persistent drumbeat of our current time. On another level, it’s about one of the most familiar and venerable of bookstores anywhere in America, the Strand in New York City, an establishment whose very existence symbolizes survival. Once part of a glorious 44-store district in the city known as Book Row, The Strand, at age 93, is the last man standing, its 2.5 million volumes serving as not merely a commercial concern but a community center, a cultural touchstone in the life of Manhattanites. Under the care of Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of the founder, the Strand, in this Season of the Plague, has crawled through the first months of the pandemic with some federal help, but, at this writing, it faces nothing short of extinction, and just this week, in October of 2020, the store has posted appeals to current and former customers around the world…a desperate S.O.S. that simply says, if you love us, save us. Within twenty-four hours of the story going public, the store’s website was so flooded with responses that it crashed.
And there my crystal ball goes dark. At the time of this writing, I can’t predict whether you, the someday reader, are smiling because the Strand has been saved or shedding a quiet tear at its passing. The one reason I felt compelled to cite a fast- moving news story at all in this forum is that it reminds me why we make pictures of things in the first place. Because they close. They fade. They burn. They fall to enemy bombs. To floods. To negligence. To our own failed memories. Photographs are one of the only hedges against the dread onslaught of temporal decay. And they themselves are also subject to that rot, becoming lost, left behind, forgotten. Beyond mere “souvenirs” of lost times, they are soul-venirs, testaments of times ago. For this reason, I went rooting this week through my old images of the Strand from the last twenty years. None of them are masterpieces, but all of them are markers, headstones for a time, and a condition, and a way of life, not only for New York but for your town, my town. Time is fleeting. Therefore make pictures. Sometimes, as Yogi Berra famously said, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but even a smudged shadow of history may someday be all we’ve got. Better to grab a box and go shadow-catching.
POWER ON THE PLATE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON JANUARY 13, 2009, BARACK OBAMA, a man of many firsts both personal and political, created a benchmark in the history of photography as well, becoming the first President of the United States to have his official portrait created with a digital camera. Data nerds will note that the exposure was made with Pete Souza’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera without flash and settings of 1/125 sec., f/10, ISO 100, and 105mm. In the interval between that time and this, the break with analog film-based photography seems both natural and inevitable, and so the shot has one key thing in common with the very first presidential portrait, in that it was taken using the most advanced technology of its time, changing forever the way we thought of “official” records of the Chief Executive.
One hundred and sixty-six years prior, in 1843, John Quincy Adams, some fifteen years after the end of his presidency, sat for what, today, is the oldest surviving original photographic portrait of an American president. The term original, when speaking of early photographs, must be given a bit of additional context. The process known as daguerreotype was, at the time of Adams’ sitting at Philip Haas’ Washington studio, only four years old. Each photograph was printed directly on glass plates, and were therefore one-of-a-kind images in the truest sense, as no means for printing copies of photos would exist until the creation of negative film by George Eastman nearly half a century later. The fragility of daguerrotypes added to the special quality afforded them as keepsakes in the nineteenth century, as they were quite literally irreplaceable. And then there was the arduous process of getting a usable exposure made in the first place. In President Adams’ diary of the day, he remarked that, upon arriving for his appointment, he found
“...Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”
Full disclosure: In fact, the very first presidential portrait was taken of the spectacularly unlucky William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office just one month after taking the oath, likely due to complications of pneumonia brought on by failing to dress warmly enough during inclement Inauguration Day ceremonies. Indeed, a photographic portrait was made of Harrison on March 4, 1841, mere days before he fell ill. However, the original of the image is said to be lost, surviving only in copies, while the Adams image, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is the very same glass-plate photo taken two years later by Haas. Adams probably deserves the distinction of hanging in the NPG for an additional reason, in that he was one of the primary forces behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Portrait Galley is a subsidiary.
Like Barack Obama, Adams had additional historical mileposts attached to his fame as a photographic subject. Serving in the House of Representatives for many years following his presidency, he was the last living tie to the Founding Fathers, one of the men who, as they sing in Hamilton, was “in the room where it happened”. Photography was lauded, at its birth, as one of the proudest achievements of the Industrial Revolution, but many feared that it might be a merely mechanical medium, devoid of the soul of painted portraiture. And yet, since its very beginnings, it has not only performed a purely reportorial function, but has also anchored us to all ages in a most un-machinelike fashion, preserving the essences of our humanity and allowing us to sing Hail to many a Chief.
HEADING DIRECTLY FOR OBSCURE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’RE OFTEN TOLD, WHEN PLANNING TO SHOOT A GIVEN SUBJECT, to “set an intention”, to draft some kind of approach to the task, both to save time and avoid disappointment. You’ve seen the mental checklist: what kind of lens, camera, angle, framing, etc. will yield the best results? So making up your mind is Job One in a lot of photo tutorials. Fine. However, it’s what you do once you change your mind, or, in effect, junk your original plan, that can present real opportunity.
In driving around a neighborhood I hadn’t visited for a while near a small municipal airport, I discovered that, since I’d last been there, they’d erected a multi-story memorial to all the pilots from various conflicts who had used this particular airfield for training purposes. Appropriately enough, they’d hung a beautifully restored example of one of the most popular trainers of the 30’s and ’40’s, a Boeing Stearman 75, the craft that taught hundreds of World War II-era air jockeys how to fly. Built near the twilight of the biplane area, these agile and cheap little crates, nicknamed “yellow perils”, were a vital part of the history of aviation, and the one seen here is a gorgeous specimen. I’d planned to make the standard museum-post-card view of it, using the buttery texture of a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens to add a slightly dreamy look. It wasn’t a hard shot to make and I made it.
It was later, however, during several walk-arounds, that I decided to try a non-objective, more abstract approach, not to merely document the plane, but in the spirit of history and myth, to suggest it, rather like a dream or a memory. The slight distortion and color shifts in a window reflection of the plane, combined with just a fragment of the actual craft, seemed to suggest speed, but to also render the plane in a kind of mystical way, as something shifting, vanishing, appearing and re-appearing. Hardly a postcard rendition, and yet I’m glad I gave it a try. The plane that’s physically here is glorious, to be sure, while the hallucination of the plane is transitory, like the era that produced it, like the names inscribed on the memorial’s explanatory plaque.
Planning your shots ahead of time is comforting, and truly helpful in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. But just because photographs can depict things in a fairly “real” fashion doesn’t mean you have to be anchored to that one way of seeing. Plan “B” can be as exciting as “Plan A” if you let your brain ( and, in turn, your camera) go with the flow.
MORE/LESS THAN ITSELF
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.)
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.
HISTORY TAUGHT BY LIGHTNING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE FROZEN IN PLACE BY 2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION, I’ve found myself riffing through my video collection in search of long-form diversion. In recent weeks, as New York struggled to emerge from the first massive crush of horror borne by the virus tragedy, I was seeking a kind of Manhattan-flavored comfort food, and unearthed my old copy of Ric (brother of Ken) Burns’ epic documentary on the history of the island from the time of the Dutch settlers to the final days of 1999. After 9/11, feeling that something incredibly important had been left unsaid, Ric went back into production on an eighth and final chapter,The Center Of The World, which told the detailed history of the specific lower Manhattan neighborhoods of “Ground Zero” as they existed before the attack, and concluding with a post-script on what was, at the time, the first stirrings of rebirth at the site. Re-watching this for the first time in years sent me into an archive of another kind: my own still images from roughly the same time frame.
Marian and I made our first pilgrimage to the site in 2011, right after access was opened to the memorial pools that were fashioned from the remains of the foundations of the twin towers of the original World Trade Center. The first replacement structure was not completely clad in glass at that time (see left), and entry to the area was by means of a ton of secured cyclone fencing and very long lines. Signs promised a yet-to-be-built memorial. Almost everything else in the rebirthing of the site was likewise still on the drawing board. The empty space across the street from the old 90 Church Street post office (which is the beige building in the middle of the lower image) would eventually become the great winged Oculus, the new entry point for the rebuilt PATH terminal and underground connector to various new business and retail complexes, themselves also under construction at the time. Barely ten years after a searing scar had been burned into the Manhattan streets and hearts, resurrection was already well under way. That’s New York, a city which would have been well served to steal its motto from the book title by Jesse Ventura, I Ain’t Got Time To Bleed.
The idea of rebirth is with me a lot these days, informing either the personal, immediate pictures I make in quarantine or the visual stories I’m hungry to find whenever it’s safe to venture out. I’m not an official chronicler of this mess, but I know we’ll create a vast and very human archive from all this misery. Like all things in life, it will pass, and we will creatively struggle with ways to mark the passage. To take measure of our own scar tissue, and the corrective surgery we will undergo to make the scars less obvious. In the meantime, even the pictures we make while isolated are important ones. See how long my hair got? Oh, sure, that was the home office we improvised. Yeah, this was my favorite window to look out: it kept me anchored.
Photographs are as remote or as personal as we determine them to be, but, even at their most introspective, they will say something about the human condition in general. This is how I got through. And maybe it’s similar to how you did it. There will be remembrance, but there will be no lingering over smoking ruins. We ain’t got time to bleed. Woodrow Wilson once compared the relatively new art of motion pictures to “teaching history by lightning”. That’s the pace now. We move rapidly from the role of mourners to the role of builders. And we will etch the resulting lightning inside our cameras, to simply state, we passed this way.
A NEW KIND OF INTIMACY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULYSSES S. GRANT HAS BEEN REMEMBERED AS A MAN OF SEVERAL “FIRSTS”. He has been called the first practitioner of “modern” warfare, utilizing methods that rendered the courtly style of his Confederate foes obsolete. He also was the first American president to pen a purely military autobiography. History students can probably agree on other career distinctions. But in watching the recent excellent History Channel miniseries on his life (based on the book by Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton), it becomes clear that the eighteenth president was also the first to have nearly his entire adult life documented in photographs. In a print world still dominated by illustrations and engravings, Grant was captured on glass plates over three hundred times in the space of about twenty years, twice as often as such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In point of fact, Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the world over the span of the entire nineteenth century.
At a time when most people lived out their lives without posing for even a single portrait, Grant endured dozens of formal “sittings”, caught as well in photojournalist snaps by Matthew Brady’s roving band of Civil War photographers, who pictured him poring over maps, sitting in tent-side conferences with other officers, conferring with his president in both the field and the capitol, attending that same president’s funeral, welcoming visitors to his own White House, resting with family on his front porch. Consider: being photographed in the 1800’s was, for a time, an occasion, a privilege, maybe even an accident. Certainly, Grant was not the first president to have his picture “made”, but the sheer volume of views of him across his public life was a quantum leap from our visual sense of any public figure up to that time. Chernow’s book (and the miniseries) both reckon with the incredible explosion in notoriety wrought by Grant’s roles as both the general who won the war and the president who tried to preside over the peace. And while some of the incredible trove of photo images of Grant can be accounted for by breakthroughs in the technical growth and expansion of photography during his lifetime, the astonishing bulk of it can only be attributed to the fact that Grant was an international celebrity, one of the first in the Industrial Age.
WIthout his realizing it, Ulysses Grant had come along in one of those transformational transition periods in history in which our established way of viewing things is undergoing a convulsion toward something completely different. Photography, in his time, was slowly re-negotiating our relationship to our leaders. They ceased to operate at a distance or as abstractions. They now had features, dimensions, traits brought to us in a new kind of intimacy that only the camera could create. And as films and lenses improved, the stiff formality of a sitting portrait gave way to images of a much more spontaneous, candid nature. The image seen here (which I love) is itself a transitional one. Grant had to remain still long enough for the still-slow exposure times of the Brady corps’ devices, but already he has to remain at attention for a much shorter span that he might have in a studio just a few years prior. The most important element of the pose, however, is a kind of tell about Grant’s priorities. His face seems to say, take the picture already…I’ve got more important things to do.
First paparazzi prez? Hardly. But over the term of his public life, Ulysses Grant may be the first president to be, almost, our public property, a “person of interest” in purely visual terms. As now, sitting (or standing, or running) for a portrait is no guarantee that the truth will make it through the lens. But there are certain times in the history of photography where a pivot point is glowingly obvious, and the weary resignation in Grant’s face is a kind of seismograph of what was to come, for good or ill, for all of us.
BIRDS, DOGS AND A HEALTHY CRUNCH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN OF PHOTOGRAPHY, there has been one format or another for the creation of three-dimensional views. The first, and by far the most successful of the “armchair traveler” systems was the elegant stereopticon, the gadget through which paired, cardboard-mounted images transported the Victorian explorer to the wonders of the world, at precisely the same moment that many of those sites/sights were being photographically documented for the very first time. The Keystone View Company and its several imitators littered the planet with travelogues and celebrity portraits for nearly seventy years, and even served as many a hobbyist’s first introduction to color pictures (albeit hand-tinted ones) created years ahead of any practical chromatic film.
Keystone’s expansive packets on various subjects included lavish text on the card’s backs, and were marketed to adults with an emphasis on erudition. Over the next hundred years, dozens of 3-d formats would be launched, many of them supplying at least a smidge of context on their subjects, lots of them riding the line between serious devices and toys. The world’s most successful stereo product by far, View-Master, began with scenic titles in 1939, and has survived to the present day by licensing the use of Disney characters, TV and movie scenes, and in the 21st century, even an attempt at a virtual reality re-boot.
Leaning heavily on the kid’s plaything side of the ledger, a folding plastic card viewer from the late ’50’s called VistaScreen issued series on birds, animals and other subjects accompanied by neat little explanatory paragraphs. View sets were sold at the tourist attractions that they depicted as well as by mail order. The company’s brief tenure was boosted a bit in the early ’60’s when it entered into a promotion with the United Kingdom’s most successful cold breakfast cereal, Weetabix (think shredded wheat without the thrills). Kids in Australia, England, and New Zealand mailed away for the viewer (emblazoned with the product’s name on the back) and then collected one new stereo card per “packet” of cereal. There were 6 different sets of 25 cards with series names like Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals, and Our Pets. The cereal cards were disdained by stereo purists for being substantially inferior in quality to VistaScreen’s mail order sets, but the promotion actually kept the company alive for most of its five-year span, while also making a childhood 3-d fan of many a youngster, including Brian May, destined to become a stereoscopic collector, astrophysicist, and, not incidentally, the co-founder of Queen.
As a childhood View-Master geek, I was delighted to discover the VistaScreen system a few years back, since it was actually the stereo formats, and not standard “flat” photography, that first taught me composition and the importance of telling a clear visual story within a strict format. It’s ironic that I don’t typically shoot a lot of scenic titles these days, and yet have a lifelong affection for the travel images of my first photographic “toys”, the bait that got me to first pick up a camera and ask myself, “will this be a picture?”
And I didn’t have to eat Weetabix.
A MILITIA OF MILLIONS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WERE NO CAMERAS IN THE WORLD when America fought the first war on its soil, leaving mostly paintings of generals on horseback as a visual chronicle of the struggle. Now, in our latest war, also on our soil, there are millions of images created each day that strive to comprise a pictorial narrative of the unfolding tragedy. But more is not necessarily more: when the final battle has been fought, there will still be oceans of pictures missing from the saga, stories still left untold.
Perhaps it’s the nature of this very strange conflict, fought not against combatants with rifles but against Nature itself, which makes the pictures come so hard. Now, there is no visible demarcation between soldier and civilian: there is no designated field of combat, but thousands of little ones, many of the clashes and outcomes unseen, the casualties themselves vaporized in a fog of grief. And yet we struggle for any kind of visual measurement, some yardstick by which to measure our pain. The task may be beyond the power of any camera, at least any of which we’re aware.
I’ve been searching over the past few days through my own stacks for the above image, because, being of a revolutionary-era churchyard in Boston, the markers shown are literally those among the first to fall in that earliest of American wars. Given that the inscriptions on the tablets have been almost totally effaced by time and the elements, I consider these monuments symbolic of the strangely imposed information blackout we are all under regarding today’s citizen soldiers, many of whom vanish from our mist without formal lists, monuments, or in all too many cases, even a human goodbye. Like the data once stored on these blank slates, our true talIy of sorrow has been edited, censored by fate.
I feel that, in the year 2020, the meaning of Memorial Day has been unalterably changed for me, and for everyone in our dread new militia of millions. Many of the fallen were not drafted, nor did they volunteer, and yet they have been conscripted by destiny in a way that is fully consistent with those whom we normally honor on this day. Many may never be inscribed on a monument that our children may visit on a school field trip: their faces will, in many cases, escape our cameras. Many more will never be interred with a flourish of folded flags or the reassuring regimen of military pomp. Still, over the coming years, watching ourselves and other survivors remember the fallen may inspire us to create new kinds of images, scenes that we can scarecely dream of at present. As with those headstones from our first days of passage, we need to retain what symbols we can of what we have lost, seeking in time to fill in the rest, to develop the remainder of the picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.
We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.
What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?
I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.
THE “DELETEDS” CATALOG
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE 1985 DISCOVERY OF THE WRECK OF THE TITANIC by Robert Ballard tested the talents of experts from as wide a range of specialities as the objects found in the doomed ship’s debris field. Some of the things found on the floor of the Atlantic were readily identifiable to the casual observer: chandeliers: cases of wine bottles: chairs. Cataloging others required the trained eyes of cultural historians, people versed in the daily world of 1912. The everyday becomes the exotic in very short order in the modern world. And one of the tasks for photographers is having these quotidian objects sit for their portraits before they pass, swept along in an ever-accelerating tide of change.
You read about stunts in which common bits of household clutter from just a few decades ago are shown to millennials or teens, many of whom puzzle over what the object did, or was for. To be sure, going all the way back to, say, a rotary dial telephone could confound more than a few of us, but in these demonstrations, some young people have been stumped by iPods. Part of what brings a thing to the commercial market is the style it takes to catch the customer’s eye. If that typically fleeting style proves consistent with the object’s function, the thing may survive long enough to be a classic. Other such gizmos are transitional, the things given to us “on the way” to something more essential.
The recent Grand Hibernation we’re all under has made photographers reassess lots of things. What’s a fitting thing to make a picture of? What among our tools is still vital to our art, versus mere collected clutter? And, in the inevitable house-cleaning sparked by all this surplus time, what’s to be done with all the things we no longer use but for which we might harbor some residual affection? Should we mark their passing with a photograph? Should we create a “deleted” catalog of some kind? Is there anything to be gained or taught by doing so?
My favorite photographs often turn out to be the very ones I wondered the most about…that is, arguing with myself about whether they should be made at all. In the case of the Sony D-2 “Discman” you see here (circa 1988), I can’t say it was the first such device ever made for the purpose of making compact discs a portable and private habit, but it certainly influenced my own decision to turn away from vinyl (“heresy” I hear you hipsters hissing), and that, in turn, changed utterly the kind of music consumer I would become going forward. For some, the earlier, cassette-based “Walkman” was that moment. I just never embraced taped formats for a variety of reasons.
So this image represents a point at which I went from a rotary phone to a push-button? Craft your own analogy, and find the objects that, before they vanished, served as pivot points in your own life. Throw them out or tenderly tuck them back into storage for another day. But look at a few of them with a photographer’s eye. You may be far enough removed from them to see something new.
FROM ONE CHAMP TO ANOTHER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO GREATER THRILL IN PHOTOGRAPHY than when one scores what is often disparagingly called “a lucky shot”, a term that’s usually applied by other teeth-gnashers whose luck wasn’t running on that particular day. To be sure, there are times when fortune seems to play the decisive role in the success of a picture, but, in truth, just as there are no coincidences, there are also no pure accidents….that is, shots that were totally a matter of good luck. I don’t believe that skill, strategy or vision are ever completely absent from a good photograph. We always stamp something of our experience and technique onto the process to some degree.
Which brings us to a classic example of a great photograph that has long been saddled with the tired “lucky shot” label. The story carries a little extra cachet because of the players involved, to wit:
When Frank Sinatra managed to wangle ringside tickets for the hottest event on earth, the 1971 Frazier-Ali fight at Madison Square Garden, he was already calling in every chit he had for the privilege of merely being in the house. What’s more, he wasn’t seated with the “regular” high-rollers, the Diana Rosses and the Streisands, who had, let’s admit, pretty premium seats to “the fight of the century”. He was right at the canvas’ edge…..a sub-set of celeb juice beyond the reach of standard juice, prime real estate that was typically comprised of the press pool photographers. And Frankie had figured out how to crash that little party, baby.
There seems to be some disagreement, all these years later, as to exactly how Sinatra approached Ralph Graves, the managing ediitor of Life Magazine, about the possibility of sitting with the other shooters and cranking off shots with his own camera. After all, Graves had plenty of talent assigned to the fight, so why would he need more shots by an amateur? Amazingly, Graves actually seems to have taken a “what do we have to lose” attitude toward Sinatra’s snaps, saying later that, although he was ankle deep in Life images, “it’s nice to have a horseshoe inside your glove.” Whatever the precise terms, Frank was in.
Whether for publicity or artistic reasons, Life decided to use five Sinatra images instead of their own, featuring four in an inside article written by Norman Mailer and the coveted cover shot, with byline. A few carpers complained that if the same pictures were taken by Joe Schmoe no one would have given them a second look, which is where the dreaded “lucky shot” dig was first applied, as if a goat with the right camera could have taken as good a picture. No matter. History is written by the winners, and, while Frank Sinatra never saw a gallery exhibition dedicated to his photographic “body of work”, the pictures still stand on their own. And we all go on pretending that luck has no part in our own wondrous art, that there is some mystical power we possess that the unanointed do not.
Meanwhile, I wonder what kind of pictures Streisand might have captured?
WHEN ALFRED MET GEORGIA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH BEING ROMANTICALLY SMITTEN IS NOT A PREREQUISITE for being a great photographic portraitist, I firmly believe that the very best of them are, indeed, lovers…..or at least in love with a mysterious something that informs their work. From treasuring humanity so much that they breathe empathy into their candid street work, or loving an individual in a way that can only be satisfied by turning that someone into an ideal bit of moldable clay, portraitists are a bit possessed, fervently dedicated to showing something only their affection can let them see. It seems perfectly normal now for cameras to fall head over heels over faces. So inevitable, so logical. And yet the camera and the face had to have their own early days of courtship.
One of the earliest and most fascinating muses in photographic history was herself an artist, a soul so amazingly unchained and boundless that the natural, if perverse, reaction to it was to try to imprison it inside a box. The face of the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was not classically beautiful, but upon meeting her in 1916 at an exhibition, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a man whose enthusiasm helped to launch dozens of art careers beyond his own, was knocked cold. After years as the promoter of the Pictorialist movement and editor of the revolutionary art publication Camera Work, Stieglitz had, in his own estimation, become disconnected from his own photographic instincts. Stuck, if you will. O’Keefe, twenty-three years his junior, and as close to the embodiment of the phrase “free spirit” as you can imagine, unstuck him. Between 1917 and 1937, often as a sidebar to their famously torrid relationship, Alfred made over one hundred portraits of her, posing her in every setting, mood, and level of intimacy. Many of the images were nudes or partial nudes, but all of them were Stieglitz’ attempt to hone his own style to its purist form, to see O’Keefe as the ultimate object and subject. Writing to a friend, he described the opportunity and the challenge Georgia had brought to his work:
I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind.—No humbug.—No sentimentalism.—Not old nor new.—It is so sharp that you can see the pores in a face—& yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person—heads & ears—toes—hands—torsos—It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.
Stieglitz also promoted O’Keefe’s own art in shows at his legendary 291 gallery and in a mixed show of photographers and painters entitled Seven Americans. Some of his most intimate portraits of O’Keefe were exhibited at the time as well, often with no attribution as to the name of the subject. Over the years, Alfred and Georgia’s relationship was as uneven as it was ardent, with Stieglitz having an affair after they were married, only to later see O’Keefe have a dalliance with the very same person several years later. Eventually, the combined tensions of their competing careers, issues of fidelity, and their gravitation to very different geographic art destinations (O’Keefe’s New Mexican desert versus Alfred’s beloved Manhattan) spelled the end for the marriage. Eventually, in history’s typical pattern, it is the art, rather than the artist, that survives.
And what Stieglitz had shown, early on in the 20th century, was what photographs created by a person possessed might look like, what portraits that were ignited by the heart might aspire to. I relate to this idea strongly in the case of my own work, which has been informed and often expanded by having my wife for a muse. In learning all the facets of her face, I in turn learn more about the secrets behind all other faces. I understand the spark that snapped when Alfred met Georgia, and I look for those fabulous fireworks every time I myself snap a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASTRONAUT KEN MATTINGLY, ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF AMERICANS IN 1970, never caught the measles. But on April 8th of that year, doctors at NASA were convinced that he might, and that educated guess was all it took to scrub him from the Apollo 13 mission, a mere three days from launch. But, even in the exacting skill universe of space flight, “not this time” doesn’t always mean “never”.
Fans of Ron Howard’s cinematic re-telling of 13’s ill-fated trip to the moon have long since learned of Ken’s essential role in helping to bring the crew and their mangled craft home safely back to Earth. But his story didn’t merely end with that amazing save. Just two years later, Mattingly would notch his own slot in NASA history, piloting the lunar orbiter module for Apollo 16, the program’s second-to-last moon expedition, maintaining his unique observational perch for a record-breaking 64 lunar orbits, a trek comprising over 81 hours of solo spaceflight.
Photographs are largely taken by direct witnesses to events, with space exploration being a notable exception. All of the images we have digested of various extra-terrestrial explorations over the last seventy years are, at most, second-hand visual experiences for most of us. We weren’t, in the popular phrase from Hamilton, In The Room (or module) Where It Happened, nor did we walk On The Surface Where It Happened. The pictures we know of these epic journeys were created and curated by a select minority, inviting us to share their experience even as the images designed to assist us actually serve to prevent our doing that. It is only now, as the various gear and apparel of these modern odysseys are consigned to museums and archives, that we can even take direct pictures of the objects that once made history. And while that can never be quite connective enough, it is at least a chance for us, as photographers, to interpret, to do our take on things we only know through various historical filters.
For Ken Mattingly, now a retired Navy rear admiral, the journey from witness to participant went from abstract to concrete. For photographers, the same transition is sometimes possible. Often, however, it is the souvenirs of history, rather than history itself, that we are able to examine, making us archaeologists even in our own time. We often must be satisfied at flying standby on the big rides.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.
The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.
The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.
It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.
Or the click of a shutter.
NASTY AND NICE THINGS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I’M NOT A GREAT ONE FOR CHATTING PEOPLE UP, because it’s phony”, legendary photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones told an interviewer toward the end of his life. Answering standard questions about his approach to creating some of the most memorable portraits of both the haves and have-nots during the second half of the twentieth century, he added, “I don’t want people to feel at ease. You want a bit of edge. There are quite long, agonized silences. I love it. Something strange might happen. I mean, taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do. It’s very cruel….”
Such a remark was de rigeur for Armstrong-Jones, who worked hard over a lifetime to create the impression that he didn’t really work that hard at all, that his photographs were, in his words, “run of the mill”, although anyone looking over the body of work published under his British title, Lord Snowdon, would roundly disagree. His clients ranged from the royal family, including his first wife, Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth), as well as the family’s next generation of nobles, highlighted by his celebrated portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also scores of portraits of a vast range of other subjects from ditch-diggers to dowagers, a list that boasted Princess Grace of Monaco, David Bowie, Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other times his lens would be trained on documentary subjects like natural disasters or the plight of mental patients. In Snowdon’s personally curated origin story, he seems to have backed into photography after flunking out of Cambridge, where he had originally studied to be an architect. Even the acquisition of his first camera, a gift from his sister to help pass the time during his recovery from a bout of polio, seems to have been an afterthought. Beginning as an assistant for the reigning British court photographer, he first distinguished himself with images of the brighter lights of the British stage, truly launching his career with an official 1957 tour portrait of Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Three years later, he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that made history on two fronts, being the first such ritual to be televised as well as the first union between a royal and a commoner (from which union came Armstrong-Jones’ induction into the House of Lords). The marriage was most graciously described as “tempestuous”, and ground to a halt eighteen years later, hobbled by Margaret’s legendary partying and Snowdon’s equally celebrated eye for the ladies.
Perversely, Snowdon often disdained the very photographs that earned him his living, saying they were “all right for pinning up” but not worthy of being framed or treasured. Once, when asked if he had a favorite image, he quipped “yes….I haven’t taken it yet.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Snowdon ever gave any public clues as to how such a masterpiece might evolve, since he was remarkably closed-mouthed about technique, whenever he wasn’t actively denying that he had any. Proud of the fact that he didn’t prep or engage his subjects in conversation to relax them, he claimed he never even asked them to smile, since that was “a false facial expression”.
His professional credits ran the gamut from the London Sunday Times magazine (where he worked as photo editor) to commissions for Vanity Fair, The Daily Telegraph, and over thirty years with Vogue, with a notable retrospective of his work being mounted at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Interestingly, his favorite projects were not photographs at all, but the architectural designs he created for the London Zoo and various mechanical inventions, including a type of electric wheelchair which he patented. He consistently deflected probing questions about the style and philosophy behind his pictures, cutting off interviews with glib gibes that made it seem as if the images just jumped out of the camera by their own power. Perhaps, he seemed to be proposing, it had all been a happy accident.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the pictures are best suited to speak for themselves. Perhaps trying to explain how the magic works makes the magic sort of…not work. “I’m very much against photographs being treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art”, he once told a writer. “They should be seen in a magazine or book and then be used to wrap up fish and chucked away.”
ANSEL’S ANGST (AND OURS)
THERE IS SO MUCH HUMANITY TO LOVE IN ANSEL ADAMS: his spectacular inventiveness: his infinite patience: his unquenchable curiosity….the sum total of traits that produced one of the most amazing bodies of work in the history of any creative medium. But being fully human, or, more accurately, fully a human artist, consists not merely in one’s strengths, not even for the man who, for most people, defines the very idea of photography. It also lies in the very human emotion of doubt….something Ansel knew about, and thought about, over the wide expanse of his astonishing career.
Adams filled a good-sized library shelf with scholarly works on how he did what he did, much of it as scientifically exquisite as anything from the pen of a Newton or a DaVinci. He knew more about the physics of picture-making than nearly any man alive. But he also wrote and taught about the things he didn’t know, the things that danced teasingly just beyond the edge of his skills. In journals, letters to friends, and interviews over decades, Ansel Adams returned to the subject he saw as his own Achilles heel, a mystery that haunted him until his dying day…the challenge of color photography.
“My own reaction to color photography is a mixed one”, Adams wrote in a 1957 article for Image magazine. “I accept its importance as a medium of communication and information. (But) I have yet to see….much less produce…a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art. It never seems to achieve that happy blend of perception and realization which we observe in the greatest black-and-white photography…”
Of course, Ansel certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge of color work, having made over 3,500 such images in addition to his prodigious output in monochrome. But while he knew the values and tonal gradations of black and white like he knew his ABCs, it was color that seemed to him somehow less “real”, or, to look at it another way, presented more of a challenge in getting the reality right. “Black and white is accepted as a stylized medium”, he wrote in an article on the emergence of Polaroid color film in 1962. “Values are intentionally accented or subdued….there is little or no “reality” in either the informational or expressive black-and-white image, and yet we have learned to interpret these values as meaningful and “real“.
Strangely, as his own career began to run in parallel with the emergence of the great national magazines of the mid-twentieth century, it was his color work which was in increasing demand, paying the bills and funding the projects in which he was more personally invested. More and more, Adams’s commissions for Eastman Kodak, the Land Corporation and other manufacturers was to act as a strong second stream of income, helping to bolster his reputation in the mass market even as he believed that color was distracting him from his serious work. Part of his ongoing disappointment was not so much in his own execution of color but in the loss of accuracy that seemed inevitable once he handed his images off to the decidedly limited printing technology of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Angry at the final results on the printed page, Ansel kept most of his color images out of circulation during his lifetime, always referring to them with a mixture of frustration and regret, or seeing them as mere economic means to an end. But that, too, is a very human thing for an artist to do, as is the doubt that drives those feelings.
Doubt is a test of faith, a challenge to lazy or easy habit. Feeling that even your best efforts have come up short is the petrol that fuels a creative mind, at least until you plunge into depression a la Van Gogh and start hacking your ears off. I never trust a creative person who hasn’t been tempted, at least once, to take his entire life’s work and toss it in the garbage. The fact that he doesn’t is where the genius part comes in, and Ansel Adams never was derailed by the fact that his reach was always going to exceed his grasp. And that is not only instructive but inspirational, more inspiring, even, than his photographs themselves. Because this thing we do is a journey and not a destination. If we’re hungry, if we’re honest, we have to realize that we’ll never get where we’re going. Ansel Adams, the photographer that made more people want to become photographers than perhaps any other person in history, wrote, near the end of his life that, although he had hidden most of his color images away, “I feel the urge now, and only wish I were sixty years younger!” Indeed, for any of us who’ve ever clicked a shutter, the doubts persist. But the spirit does, as well.