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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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
THE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM IN PHOENIX, ARIZONA is possibly the largest collection of musical artifacts in the world, a stunning array of everyday instruments from nearly every people nation on the planet. Opened in 2000, MIM is not merely a house of refined and rare instruments: it boasts as many humble skin drums and clay flutes as it does Steinways and Strads. Its simple mission is to show the linkage, the commonality between how all races express themselves through music, and to promote understanding by showing how those expressions have spilled over cultural lines, physical borders, and tribal traditions. The museum shows that everyone who picks, strums, blows or strikes to weave sound into soulfulness is really in the same big band, an idea which is a gold mine for photographers.
One of the museum’s greatest strengths is in showcasing not only the instruments themselves but the context of their use, from native costumes and ritual regalia to the cases and support equipment used to house or protect everything from horns to harmonicas. Indeed, a very large part of MIM’s collection is actually composed of cases, boxes, and stage gear, since they, too, are part of the instruments’ journeys. One very twentieth-century element of this, as regards the museum’s astonishing collection of guitars, can be seen in the first generation of devices created to amplify sound following the birth of electric instruments. In both traveling and permanent exhibits, the Musical Instrument Museum affords equal status to both the killer axes of rock and jazz legend and the amps and cases that accompanied them on their storied gigs. In essence, the first amplifiers were instruments in their own right, since they not only made things louder but shaped and sculpted the performances that flowed through them.
Leather and chrome, speaker cones and vacuum tubes, arcane logos and legendary trademarks….the “support” elements of electric music are often as familiar as the guitars with which they shared stages. All that texture. All those scars, bumps, and tears, with stories to accompany each ding and dent. Instruments in the 20th and now 21st century are so transitory in design that one era’s state-of-the-art quickly becomes the next era’s isn’t-that-quaint, models rocketing from cutting edge to old-guard within a generation. That spells obsolescence, which in turn calls for a photographic record of things which are fading out of fashion with greater and greater speed. In essence, museums dealing in fairly recent artifacts can be completists, since they can showcase both objects and the cultural trappings that accompanied them. By contrast, in studying relics from the ancient world, parts of the story are lost: we may have the flutes that were buried with Tut, but no way of knowing how their scales or melodies were constituted.
In another 4,000 years, who knows? All of the Les Paul Gibsons in the world may have become extinct, with only an occasional case to mark their passing. Funny to think of someone looking into the empty box and musing, “I wonder how they played this thing…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN IN A WORLD BENT UPON WORSHIP OF THE NEW, not all of the past is erased all at once. The destruction of the old may indeed seem inevitable, but sometimes it is gradual, even incomplete. And when the inexorable crush of progress is even partially slowed, photography gains entry to the process of change, and can bear witness.
Neighborhoods come and go: businesses close: eras end. Still, the architectural and aesthetic footprint of fashions and trends can linger long after their original animus has faded. What’s left in view are signs, buildings, old faces in new places, strange survivors left alone on blighted blocks. On this site will soon stand…..
The old ways are debated by civic groups and historical societies, with the value of what we were weighed against the forward surge of new needs. What deserves to be preserved? What should already have been dismantled? Opportunities for the photographer are obvious. We make a record. We give testimony. And when things must depart, we prevent their being forgotten, at least not for lack of evidence.
For nearly 100 years, San Franciscans in the heart of the Bay City’s business and tourist energy stopped at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell for their morning paper, a bottle of spirits, or a pack of smokes. The neon sign announcing these delights was erected sometime in the ’20’s and stayed until Danny Ortega, who first climbed a ladder behind the counter to wait on customers while in early grade school, finally threw in the towel in 2005. At that point, the demolition of the store’s wraparound entrance seemed like a foregone conclusion. But local preservationists, eager to preserve the look, if not the function, of the old neighborhood, managed to get landmark status for at least the sign. What would henceforth happen beneath it would be up to the new leaseholders….in this case, a hat store whose smaller “LIDS” announcement can be seen in the 2012 image seen here. Several more years later, the neon tubing visible in this shot was also removed, still leaving most of the gloriously garish Marquard’s overhang intact, including its very West Coast promotion of the New York Times. This kind of half-a-loaf solution is becoming far more common in American cities, many of which are laden with buildings that can continue to cosmetically charm or educate, even as their original functions are either obviated or re-tooled. Movie theatres become live performance venues. Department stores become law schools. And cigar stores become landmarks, reminders of who we were just a few scant minutes ago.
I always feel privileged to photograph places that have been even partially saved from the wrecking ball. First, because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to the original local energy that birthed them. But more importantly, because, without the testimony of photographs, yesterdays become obliterated at ever greater speeds. Certainly taking just a little more time to properly say our goodbyes takes work. But as with any bittersweet task, there’s a little smile accompanying the tears.
Nothing is revealed.—-Bob Dylan
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE YOUNG MAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH IS A DANDY. A FOP. A DUDE. A slave to fashion. A symbol of the impossibly proper British spirit. A remnant of the Edwardian age, teetering on the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a decade that will later seem uniquely American. But he is not an American. Not yet.
But he has dreams.
It is around 1920.
And he is my grandfather.
The photograph is formal, a studio portrait with someone else’s furniture and carpet suppled as homey props. His gaze is intense…too serious for a young man, some might think. And yet, of course, he will need all the determination that gaze implies to book passage, very soon, on the ship Mauritania (the Lusitania’s sister ship) and enter New York City through the thresher of Ellis Island, taking a train into the great midwest, to Lorraine, Ohio, where an uncle has vouched for his industry and loyalty. He will stay in his new country for the rest of his natural life.
The picture has come to me unexpectedly, just as you see it here, from a lost trove of family lore that my sister has kept for years, finally deciding that, with my archivist’s inclinations, I “might want to do something with it.” I have never seen this image over the course of my 67 years. And, yet, seeing it, I am struck by the strange double impact of photographs, these windows into “was” that reveal and conceal equally. It is, certainly, a treat to see my grandfather as this determined young man, to place him in the context of everything else that his life would hold afterwards. But the image is also absent nearly any context of its own. The back shows it to have been printed by a British postcard company, but the message portion of the card is gone, leaving several mysteries. Who was the intended recipient? If family, was the card to serve as a forever reminder of the boy who was just about to cross the Atlantic, never to return? And, if friend, what story is left untold between he and whoever? The card is inscribed with the word “effectionately” and his full name, not merely “Leonard”. Why the formality? Is it a clue to the relationship, or just the starchy propriety which we would later know to be his hallmark?
And then there is the outfit. “Fancy” is the word that comes to mind, with its formal bowler and short leather gloves. But therein lies a case of coloring the past with the sense of the present: in the age of torn cutoffs, flip-flops and selfies, we have lost all sense of what it was, around 1920, to “have one’s portrait made”. Certainly it was a rarer thing, an occasion. Even at the dawn of the Kodak-inspired age of candid photography, many millions of people around the world were still going to their mortal reward with their faces recorded but a few scant times by a camera, and many not at all. And now, to see this picture rise out of the mist, to show Grandfather as a real person with no connection (by that time) to anyone or anything else I have inherited as family legend, is to be teased by the fact that photographic interpretation does not cease with the shooter’s intention, of the way he chooses to show a thing. It continues infinitely through the eyes of other interpreters, who take the photographer’s “reality” and subject it to a scrutiny all their own. Revelation. Concealment. Discovery. Mystery.
He seems to be trying to appear older, just, as later, he would use clothing (always the top-drawer stuff) to appear military, dignified, taller, and, always, serious. I realize now that I never saw a truly candid photo of him, regardless of the occasion or setting. Every photo was a performance, a record, a testament. Leonard George Tate Perkins is a force to be reckoned with. I am nobody’s fool. Respect must be paid.
I am now paying that respect in a new way, forty years past his death, by looking into the face of that stern young dandy, and into the open secret that all photographs hold.
Think you see the truth?
Not so fast.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU RECOGNIZE THE ELEMENTS OF THEIR STRANGE VISUAL SIGNATURES AT ONCE: garish neon; outsized, surreal props: homemade window signs: and, always, for the storefronts of aging or vanishing businesses, the feeling that this is the creation of a single owner, not a faceless chain. It’s the Great American Mom ‘n’ Pop, and it is always flitting near the edge of extinction. And like all things endangered, it is fitting fodder for the photographer…for although these strange displays don’t include the standard features of the human face, yet still a human portrait of sorts can be made from their humble elements.
If you ever get the chance, thumb through an enormous volume called Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray (Gingko Press, 2008). Shot on simple 35mm film, this amazing collection offers both images and backstories from all five boroughs in the greater NYT metro, organized by region. The caption data for the pictures is often the personal remembrances of the most recent operators of the various neighborhood’s delis, dry cleaners, beauty salons, supply houses and markets, most of them in continuous operation for most or all of the twentieth century, many closing up forever even as the book was going to press. The “front” is a kind of short story, a miniature play about who we were, what we sought, what we settled for. Often the buildings have risen or fallen with their respective neighborhoods, their entrances falling prey to crime, time, neglect. Several owners lament not being able to get the parts to keep their neon signs in repair. Others wish they could add a new awning, a fresh coat of paint. And always, as the fronts wink out, regentrification rears its trendy head. But it doesn’t bring new good times for the old place. Instead, it erases their stories…with apartment blocks, Pizza Huts, a Verizon store.
The image seen here, along Central Avenue is Phoenix, Arizona, boasts of (at least) a world of cheese, at a deli which is short on space but long on local flavor. In the American Southwest, as compared to other cities, neighborhoods don’t often get to live long enough to become “venerable” or “historic”, such is the short loop between grand openings and final swings of the wrecking ball. In more traditional urban spaces, everything old is occasionally new again. In Phoenix, it’s old, and then….just gone. The insanely disproportionate worship of the new and shiny in this part of the country can be exhilarating, but the real loss it engenders is sad and final in the way that doesn’t always happen back east. As a consequence, urban chroniclers in this neck o’ the desert must keep their cameras forever at the ready. You can never assume that you’ll get that picture the next time you swing through the neighborhood. Because the neighborhood itself may not be around.
For photographic purposes, I believe that storefronts are best shot straight-on (rather than at an angle) so that their left-to-right information reads like a well-dressed theatre stage. This also makes us look at them differently than we do as either pedestrians or drivers, where they tend to slide along the edge of our periphery largely unnoticed. Some of them benefit from being decorated by the figures of passersby: others appear more poignant standing alone. The main thing, if for no other reason except to create a break in the “chain migration”, is to maintain a record. There is a reason why so many “then and now” books of urban photographs are so jarring in their contrasting images. We live so quickly that we simply do not record our environment even through the daily process of using it. We need reminders for reference, even on the things that we should be eventually letting go of. And the camera puts down mileposts in a compelling way. It marks. It delineates, stating in concrete terms, we were that, and now we’re this. I believe in getting out that tape measure on occasion. I think it matters.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOW SOMEWHAT LIKE THE OLD GOD JANUS, whose two faces looked into the past and the future at the same time. No longer just an emerging art, the practice of making images with light now packs enough historical baggage that, even as we anticipate and adapt to the newest technology, we turn backward toward the comfort of technologies past. We love what’s coming but we can’t quite let go of what’s been.
That’s how you get somewhat ironic observances like this month’s Worldwide Pinhole Day, a celebration of the experience of making a photograph with the most minimal technology available…..that is, an actual bored hole in the front of a light-tight box, the aim being to take a picture without a lens. WPD is marked globally by field trips, competitions, workshops, and a bit of a cottage industry for the special pinhole gear, all of it aimed at delivering the same experience that the first snappers had when photography was the exclusive domain of tinkerers. Certainly the principle works: the pinholes are so incredibly small (often requiring very long exposures) that they actually register distant objects in fairly sharp focus, although sharpness isn’t really the goal. The idea, in the main, seems to be to conduct a successful science experiment that results in a picture, although high-end pictorial quality isn’t really the goal, either. If you’re only casually interested, various ready-made pinhole attachments are sold so you can adapt digital-era cameras to this nineteenth-century method. However, even greater authenticity and enjoyment is said to be had by shooting on 35mm roll film or 5×7 sheet film, or even making the camera itself from scratch, using cardboard boxes, coffee cans, or, as I recently saw, the inside of a plastic Star Wars tie fighter toy.
The entire thought process behind such time-travel faddism is fascinating. Unlike the first photographers, who constantly worked to expand and improve the leading tech of their time, we have reached a stage where making a picture is so mechanically simple that we find it fun to needlessly complicate, or even degrade the process again. In my own view, the more advanced cameras have become over the years, the less I’ve had to futz with the problem of how to take the photo, shifting the emphasis onto the why of it all, which is where I want it. Every scientific advance has been designed to make cameras more intuitive, imaging media more responsive, and everything generally more fool-proof. Now, however, we are far enough away from those balky first iterations of photography to develop a nostalgic fondness for them. Such is human nature.
I’m sure that, somewhere, there are festivals where the idea is to shoe your own horse, learn to darn your own socks, or field-dress the deer you just personally brought down with bow and arrow. Thing is, though, for most of us, modern life no longer requires so much effort from us merely to stay alive, which allows us to focus on the finer points of the experience. But, from our more advanced standpoint, we strangely think it’s quaint to add more accident, more randomness, more error and more uncertainty into the making of what turn out to be essentially inferior photographs, even though it has never been easier to make good ones. This is where we start to leave the realm of Art and enter the world of The Science Fair.
At one point in my son’s youth, I wrapped copper wire around an oatmeal box and scratched a hunk of germanium crystal to show him how to produce a primitive radio signal. It worked well enough to snag him a merit badge, but on the way home, he was right back to listening to his Sony Walkman. Because it sounded a helluva lot better than a wired-up Quaker Oats cannister. And while I acknowledge that artistically elegant images can be made with very rudimentary tools (of course, any image of my wife will automatically be a better picture, as seen above), pinhole images are hard to compose, expose or control in any proactive way, and thus predisposed to a high failure rate. If you’re personally wired to accept whatever the universe hands you, then the pictures that accidentally come out of your coffee can will no doubt be something of a scientific marvel, ablaze with the spark of discovery. As for me, I find that my own lack of vision or talent already interferes with my pictures far more than it should. I don’t need to further compromise my work with disobedient gear. It may be amazing, but it ain’t satisfying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO READ THIS ENTRY (since blog posts are archived) the heartbreaking fire at Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral is either a fresh wound or a remembered tragedy. The Normal Eye doesn’t often address current events, since they can lose their relevance too quickly compared to the essential motivations that consistently shape our photography. However, the partial loss of this priceless global treasure has created a ripple which will echo throughout the art world, the religious world, and, certainly, photography. Any discussion of how we create and venerate sacred space invites a second exchange on how we visually preserve it.
Like many of the world’s most venerated buildings, Notre Dame is not purely an original but an amalgam of the aims of many different eras. It is a physical testament to what humankind valued (or yearned for) across many centuries. The structure itself, like many others like it, is the product of many additions, subtractions, and revisions. Thus there are, according to when you plop down in the continuum of time, many Notre Dames, including the abstractions of it that we carry in our hearts and those that have been depicted or interpreted by countless artists and visitors. Like a photograph, the Notre Dames of the world are preserved moments, pieces of time that have been plucked out of sequence. And like a photograph, they can be endlessly re-envisioned, repurposed to tell the stories in our own fashion.
America has few structures with the prolonged life-line of Europe’s seemingly eternal sites, but, even within our several short centuries of activity, we have created buildings that are presently on their second or even third life of service, each “version” marked by repairs, renovations, the ravages of war, and the selective erasures of memory. Places like NYC’s Trinity Church, which had already once burned to the ground and been rebuilt by the time Alexander Hamilton was buried in its churchyard in 1804, or the Empire State Building, which suffered a wound in its side at the 78th floor after a fog-bound pilot crashed a B-25 into it in 1945. And then there’s the period between the death of the Twin Towers and the rebirth of the entire Ground Zero district, which spans barely fifteen years, or the fall-and-rise cycle of innumerable repurposed American buildings, like the soon-to-be-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, built around the bones of a May Company department store in midtown Los Angeles.
Certainly, compared to Europe, we have a more shallow history, but we have the very same save it / fix it / trash it arguments that spark discussion in France and countless other cities. In a way, architecture is like photography, in that it halts time in its course, making a document of where we were at a certain point in our evolution. Buildings act as snapshots in stone, or as one critic called an American skyscraper, “frozen music”. And, in the inevitable resurrection of Notre Dame, as with our most venerated places around the planet, the photograph is that most fortunate (and fairly recent) thing in our cultural bag of tricks: a physical record. With every thing we add or subtract or add back again to the places we have built, there is, now and forever, a way to mark our place, to create a comparison and reference, and to decide what in our world we will allow to pass away, or promote to immortality. Photography wears both its artist and historian hats for this important task, one which must now be brought to serve that house where dwell the better angels of our nature.
Vive la France.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.
HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.
In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:
For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.
Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.
We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.
Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY URBAN BUILDINGS FROM THE EARLY 20th CENTURY CAN BE OPEN SECRETS, objects that we walk or drive past with such frequency (and speed) that their most telling elements are often underseen. Certainly, we visually record their larger contours…the block or the spear or the obelisk or the faux cathedral or the Romanesque monument, those general features that figure prominently in long-distance skylines and postcard views. But what remains virtually invisible are what musicians might call the grace notes, the smaller accents and textures that, upon closer inspection, reveal as much, or even more, about the intentions of their makers. And seeking close encounters with these elements can yield great subjects for photography.
More so than with the taciturn minimalism of the post-WWII years, buildings from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s were often personal headstones for men who piled up great fortunes, captains of industry who wanted to invest every inch of their towers and spires with references to their beliefs as well as their bank accounts. Lintels, door frames, spandrels, arches, vestibules and cornerstones all bore testimony to company mottoes, symbols of both the modern and ancient worlds, and the idealization of public service. Some lobby mailboxes were invested with more design than a forest-ful of the icy glass boxes of the International period that followed. Often, the founders of a building had a small army of independent artists, from muralists to sculptors, working various sections of the the interiors and exteriors, each with their own unique contribution. Thus, a quick drive-by of a tower in one’s city “that’s been there forever” may not reveal the myriad messages imbedded in areas no bigger than a few square inches, while a dedicated trip for slow-walking and scout work may reward the photographer with a generous dose of time travel. Wonderfully, this can happen in layers, with repeated trips to a building that you thought you’d already “done” yielding additional treasures.
The relief you see in the image at top is repeated over every minor first-floor frame and street entrance of Columbus’ Ohio’s Leveque Tower, which, upon its completion in 1927, briefly enjoyed the distinction of being the fifth tallest building in the world. The property has been generally “preserved” in the current era, but that doesn’t mean it’s come into its second century unscathed, many important exterior and interior features having been removed or lost by owners with a somewhat less than curatorial bent. Ironically, it is the smaller touches on the tower which have remained most intact over the years, including this window frame and its depiction of various virtues of the ideal citizen, including, left to right, healing, the arts, storytelling, and industry. My point is that 99% of every photograph taken of this icon of midwestern design are shot from hundreds, even thousands of feet away, while a stroll past the entrance conjures something far deeper for even the most casual shooter.
Photographing great places is an enormous delight, but also a tremendous responsibility, since our recent history have shown us that nothing made by man will stand forever. That puts us back in the role of chroniclers and archivists, and if we make our pictures carefully, at least the essence of the stories we once told a brick at a time may outlast the dust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
195 BROADWAY IN LOWER MANHATTAN is one of hundreds of buildings that might escape your notice upon your first walk through the city’s financial district. Less garish than its gothic neighbor, the Woolworth Building and a lot shorter than its big-shouldered brethren, the 29-floor landmark doesn’t shout for attention. Its true beauty emerges when you walk inside the somewhat restricted lobby, take the measure of the “bones” of its regal inner structure, and breathe in its storied history. Completed in 1916 after AT&T moved its American headquarters from Boston to New York, 195 was the strong, silent type of skyscraper….functional, neo-classic, but restrained, understated. As a largely urban photographer, I try to keep track of structures that have outlasted several uses and landlords, carrying their essence forward through decades of shifting styles and fashions. It’s the totality of what has made them last that makes them interesting to me, more than any single fillip or ornament.
But ornament, as a visual metaphor for the new (20th) century of American technological dominance, was built into 195 Broadway from the start, both inside and out. Paul Manship, the sculptor whose public works, like the golden Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Plaza, still dot the Manhattan map, created one of his first major works, The Four Elements, as bronze relief’s on 195’s lower facades, his love of Greek and Roman mythology weaving itself into the Moderne movement (later re-dubbed as Art Deco). Architect William Bosworth took the Doric columns which usually adorned the outside approaches of other buildings and brought them into 195’s lobby, all 43 of them, their wondrous marble reflecting a variety of colors from the teeming parade of streetside traffic. And sculptor Chester Beach used the same lobby to commemorate the building’s role as one half of the first transcontinental phone line in 1915 with Service To The Nation In Peace And War, a bronze relief of a headphone-wearing hero standing under a marble globe of the Earth, bookended by classic figures and flanked by lightning bolts.
195’s long run includes the titles like the Telephone Building, the Telegraph Building, the Western Union Building, as well as appearances in popular culture, like its portrayal of Charlie Sheen’s office building in Wall Street. Sadly, a few of its most salient features have moved on, like the gilded 24-foot tall winged male figure originally known as Genius Of Telegraphy, which topped the pyramidal roof of the tower on the west side of the building until 1980, when it followed AT&T’s relocation to Dallas, Texas. However, the remaining treasures of 195 Broadway are still a delight for both human and camera eyes. Good buildings often present their quietest faces to the street. But look beyond the skin of the survivors, and marvel at the solid bones beneath.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IDEA OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the once-revolutionary notion that anyone could own a camera and produce good results with it, came about at the exact point in history as the birth of mass-market advertising. Inventors made it possible for the average man to operate the magic machine; marketing made him want to own one, and, by owning, adopt a lifetime habit of documenting more and more moments of his life with it. Some companies in the early days of photography excelled in the technical innovations that ushered in the amateur era. Some others specialized in engineering desire for the amazing new toy. But no company on earth combined both these arts as effectively as the Eastman Kodak Company.
Every December since 2014, The Normal Eye has resurrected advertisements from Kodak’s legendary seasonal campaigns, promotional efforts that portrayed their cameras and films as essential to a happy Christmas. From the beginning of the 20th century, the company’s print ads used key words like “capture”, “keep”, “treasure”, “preserve”, and, most importantly, “remember”, teaching generations that memories were somehow insufficient for recalling good times, less “real” without photographs to document them. The ads didn’t just depict ideal seasonal tableaux: they made sure the scene included someone recording it all with a Kodak. Technically, as is the case with today’s cel phones, the company’s aim was to make it progressively easier to take pictures; unlike today, the long-term goal was to make the lifelong purchasing of film irresistible.
Kodak’s greatest pitch for traveling the world (and clicking off tons of film while doing so) came from 1950 to 1990, with the creation of its massive Colorama transparencies, the biggest and most technically advanced enlargements of their time. Imagine a backlit 18 foot high, 60 foot wide color slide mounted along the east balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Talk about “exposure”(sorry).
Coloramas, sporting the earliest and often best color work by Ansel Adams and other world-class pros, were hardly “candids”: they were, in fact, masterfully staged idealizations of the lives of the new, post-war American middle class. The giant images showed groups of friends, young couples and family members trekking through (and photographing) dream destinations from the American West to snow-sculpted ski resorts in Vermont, creating perfectly exposed panoramas of boat rides, county fairs, beach parties, and, without fail, Christmas traditions that were so rich in wholesome warmth that they made Hallmark seem jaded and cynical. It was a kind of emotional propaganda, a suggestion that, if you only took more pictures, you’d have memories like these, too.
Half a century on, consumers no longer need to be nudged to make them crank out endless snaps of every life event. But when photography was a novelty, they did indeed need to be taught the habit, and advertisers where happy to create one dreamy demonstration after another on how we were to capture, preserve, and remember. The company that put a Brownie in everyone’s hand has largely passed from the world stage, but the concept of that elusive, perfect photo, once coined “the Kodak Moment”, yet persists.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SEEMS TO ME that a municipality only qualifies as a “real” city when it becomes nearly impossible to visually identify its beginnings. Neighborhoods may begin as unified civic signatures with coherent visual styles, but let fire, war, hard times or earthquakes add their input, and those same streets start to look like jigsaws with the pieces chosen from different puzzles. It’s a nightmare for urban planners but a treasure trove for the camera.
As they age, cities become visual collision points between good intentions and unintended consequences, with parts of one era being grafted onto fragments from another. Absent a bomb or natural disaster, few streets are completely destroyed by time, just evolved into a crazy-quilt jumble of bygone trends, deaths, and rebirths.
This image shows a typical block in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, with residential, retail and undefined space co-existing in a single building, following the general rule for the neighborhood that everything should be re-purposed and then re-re-purposed pretty much forever. Things get old. Things break. Ownerships and administrations change. Priorities shift. Some parts of buildings disappear, others are re-imagined, still others are absorbed into other visions.
This urban recycling has real benefits. As an area with the densest population concentration in all of Los Angeles county, there is no space in Koreatown to waste, and thus many priceless remnants of the Art Deco movement which might have fallen to the wrecking ball in other sectors of L.A. were saved and re-used when the neighborhood transitioned from an entertainment district to a residential and commercial area in the 1960’s. Like most of the city at large, Koreatown’s streets are living exhibits, laboratories involving all of the different “Los Angeleses” that have existed throughout the last century. And as with “real” cities in general, part of the new way for the various Koreatown’s is always marbled with what Paul McCartney calls “my ever-present past”. creating unique photographic opportunities in the process. Essentially, cameras were born to bear witness to this amazing cross between architecture and archaeology, this irreconcilable argument between competing jigsaw puzzles. It’s part of the Big Picture we all seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING, November 2018, the world is pausing, all too briefly, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice between Germany and the Allied powers, the first halting step toward ending what our forebears called The Great War. Such was the scope and scale of butchery in that conflict that more than a few prophets of the time predicted that no such savagery could ever be repeated. So much for mankind’s ability to forecast, or even to learn from, its own folly.
The war was the first armed conflict to be photographed exhaustively both in still and moving images, producing a ponderous archive that, even with the losses of a full century, provides a common legacy of memory that is beyond price. Another such photographic archive is more emotionally immediate, in the snapshots, taken in the field and sent home to mothers and sweethearts, snapped at reunions, shared at funerals. And the third legacy, for photographers, is chronicling the various public works created to honor the fallen. Memorials. Mausoleums. Arches. Dedications. Grave sites. Statues. Every remembrance becomes a kind of history in its own right, with its own origin stories, artists, controversies, legends. We make images of war, create photos of those swept up in them, and take pictorial memorials of….other memorials.
Some of the tributes for one war become casualties of another: others may last long enough to be re-thought or re-purposes. Even more find their story blurred or obliterated, with plaques marking battles that have fallen out of popular memory. One of the things obliterated by all the bombs is context.
Perhaps Lincoln was right: we may not be able to hallow the ground that heroes trod, for all our noble intentions and grand words. It is only in our corrective action that we guarantee that the sacrifices of the few become, please God, the wisdom of the many.