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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANSEL ADAMS BEGAN as an awestruck kid with a Brownie No.1 box camera. He finished up as an uber-brand, the global icon for photography itself. Regardless of how individuals may regard his work, labeling it by turns honest, interpretive, natural, or sentimental, his image as a creative ideal is beyond debate. To be an “Ansel” is to be hungry, tireless in pursuit of excellence.
The ultimate maestro of the darkroom, Adams believed that only the first half of a photograph’s making, the equivalent in his mind of a musical “score”, could occur in the camera. The other half, what he termed “the performance”, was unabashedly a product of talent and judgement in the lab. The stunning achievement of his final frames was not only in not calling attention to his interventions but to create the wondrous illusion that there had been none.
That may be why Ansel is, today, often held up as the patron saint of film-based technique, as if, had he lived to fully experience the digital revolution, he would have taken a pass on it. A look at his history indicates otherwise. His published work shows an artist in constant anticipation of the next stage, the latest tool, the freshest way of seeing. Even his celebrated slow embrace of color was about the contemporary limits of printing technology rather an assertion that monochrome was in any way superior.
“I eagerly await new concepts and processes” he wrote in 1981, just three years before his death and nearly a decade ahead of the digital revolution. “I believe that the electronic image (viewed on an electronic screen) will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent characteristics, and the artist will again strive to comprehend and control them.” Not exactly the sentiments of a Luddite.
Those who choose to force their own photography through a kind of W.W.A.D.? (What Would Ansel Do?) filter miss the true and obvious answer: he would do whatever it takes. Perhaps his art belongs in a museum, but the best of what he was is still very much out in the field. Out where the wonder is.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN THEATRICAL NEWSREELS GASPED THEIR LAST in the late 1960’s, they took with them a set of global habits for receiving visual information that had been in place since World War One, including the regular ritual of filing into theatres twice a week to see fast-moving digests of wars bulletins, scientific advancements, sports highlights, and current fads and foibles. Daily news, prior to the arrival of television, was dominated by newspapers and radio, with newsreels providing a secondary, visual record of world events. Then, nearly seven decades into the tradition, they vanished, and with them, something of the world that produced them.
Several newspaper chains produced newsreel versions of their most photogenic stories, and major film studios, including Fox, MGM, and Warner Brothers, all of which had divisions devoted exclusively to the making of so-called “short subjects”, likewise had newsreel crews within those departments. Better yet, all the studios owned and operated their own chains of theatres, guaranteeing a regular flow of distribution for their products. The public came to expect newsreels as a part of a larger theatrical program which included cartoons, two-reel comedies (hello, Three Stooges) and two full feature films……all for less than a dollar.
Even though the newsreels, unlike the video newscasts that succeeded them, had only one or two “deadlines” per week, they still had to create a slickly coordinated system for getting stories to the local Bijou before the items got too stale. A network of local photographers was paired with a shipping regimen designed to send raw footage to centralized hub studios, where it could be processed, edited, scored, and in selected cases, dubbed for foreign release. The instructions on the shipping case seen here clearly spell out the urgency of time (valueless if delayed!). This particular box belonged to the Hearst chain’s News Of The Day, which competed for eyeballs in a crowded field that included The March Of Time, Universal Newsreel, Fox Movietone News, and the British Gaumont Graphic, among others.
Hearst and Universal amazingly produced newsreels until 1967, the same year that the Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper. By that time, the news had become a daily appointment telecast at home instead of a bi-weekly trot to the cinema. But even in their death throes the newsreels gave the world one more great story, with many libraries inheriting the complete archives of the once-vital features, now used as a twenty-first century research resource for every major event of the twentieth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST TEACHING MUSEUMS are not “museums” at all, but those sites where a present, living enterprise is ongoing, activities that also preserve and demonstrate the original purpose of the spaces. Walking through a building whose continuing existence illustrates what made it great in the first place outranks any mere remembrance staged in some sterile exhibit space. It also allows photographers to re-invent the visual records of such sites for their generation.
In the case of one venerable building in New York City, I have lately felt a poignancy in how photography itself has figured in the creation of the American Century.
As this little scribble goes to press, the latest owner for the long-embattled New York Daily News has decided to lay off nearly fifty per cent of that scrappy newspaper’s editorial staff, including virtually all its photographers. Born in 1919, the News was, from the beginning, an upstart, a locally focused, close-to-the-ground, bare-knuckled chronicle of Gotham’s daily doings, delivered with a huge dollop of attitude. Promoting itself as “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, the NYDN brought photography to the fore as a dominant storytelling component, in a way no other American newspaper ever had. While the New York Times‘ polite and prim broadsheet spoke in its inside voice, the News, its smaller tabloid format an easier fit for one-handed commuters, screamed “EXTRA!!”. You might not like the message, but by God, you couldn’t look away.
Inside the lobby of the News‘ building at 220 East 42nd Street, the message was a little more mellow, with its enormous illuminated world globe emitting a vibe of stability, science, order, reliability. Today, with the paper long since having emigrated to 4 New York Plaza, the globe, now protected (as is its host building) by city landmark status, still revolves, quietly glowing like the ember of a world that once burned as bright as a comet.
And that world moves on, of course. Markets decide what kinds of newspapers they want, and careers will always wax and wane. But, for photographers, places like the News building, places that defined the American Century, still speak more eloquently than any tepid re-creations in formal museums, and chronicling them with cameras qualifies as vital work.
Finally, there is no substitute for the real thing, something director Richard Donner affirmed in 1978. Building sets for Superman: The Movie, Donner decided that he could save a tidy sum in the creation of the atmosphere for Clark Kent’s day job at the Daily Planet. The solution? Just send the camera crew and cast down to the News building……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EDWIN M. STANTON, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, is, regarding photography, in the unique position of having acted both wisely and foolishly following the death of his Commander-in-Chief. Foolishly, because, at the request of the president’s bereaved widow, he reportedly ordered the destruction of the only glass plate negative showing the fallen president lying in state…..and wisely, because he apparently kept a personal print of the image amongst his personal papers, lost to history until a teenage Lincoln afficionado accidentally stumbled upon it in 1952. Stanton’s actions, along with those of the First Lady, betray a very human ambivalence to the camera’s ability to either annihilate or preserve memory, based on one’s viewpoint.
With its power to extract discrete slices of time, the photograph does provide a permanent record for the mournful….but is that comforting, or rather a clinical way of obviating the more personal, if less precise preservation afforded by memory? Did the camera enable us to re-conjure our loved ones at will, or did it deny us the right to keep them in the very private part of our hearts that exists beyond vision?
Essayist and librarian Jean-Noel Jeanneney, writing of the first days of photography, remarked that “the people who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth are the first in the long history of humanity to be able to see accurate and faithful portraits of their predecessors…..their ancestors are no longer the imagines carried at funeral ceremonies, no longer the painted mementoes devised as aides–memories. Instead, they appear to us as all too horribly true to life: perhaps that is why, today, a greater pathos is attached to our relationship to the departed…..”
The photographer is never merely a chronicler, and so images of the most important people of our experience can never really be mere snapshots. We frame faces in the shadow of our own influence, and time itself re-touches the images years after they are captured. Hence portraiture is never a purely casual act. Mr. Stanton and Mrs. Lincoln were both right, in their own ways. One could not bear the lingering memory of her husband. The other could not endure the idea of a world without his President.
Our last memory of a person may not literally be a shot of them in the coffin, but the impact, many ages on, of even their smallest interactions with this life makes images of them among the most remarkable of human documents. That confers a unique honor, as well as a profound responsibility, upon the photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOLLYWOOD IS ONE OF THE SELECT LOCALITIES in the world’s largest democracy where royalty is not only tolerated but slavishly sought after. The crown (or crowns, plural) transfer from the recently fallen to the newly anointed with predictable regularity, but the ritual is always the same: we love the common people (they’re just like us!) until they are lucky enough to escape our ranks, after which we, in turn, adore them, despise them (who do they think they are?), forgive them, and adore them anew.
In terms of photography, the camera seeks out ever new lovers, nearly all of them human, and therefore fleeting. A careful study of Tinseltown, however reveals that the true royalty, the royalty that endures, is the real estate. And even in a town where “reality” is defined by whether you shoot on location or on the back lot, Hollywood harbors plenty of actual places where actual events actually occurred. Some are on the bus tours (Marilyn Monroe slept here), while others require a bit more digging. One of the industry’s most prestigious addresses is smack dab in a section so spectacularly tacky that, by virtue of merely being merely ostentatious, it seems positively muted.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named in memory of Teddy, not Franklin) survives in legend not because it served as a studio or corporate cradle for the film industry, but because it was the first time the town turned out to honor….itself. Then make an annual habit of it. Hey, if you want modesty, live in Des Moine, okay?
The Roosevelt earned its filmic pedigree from the get-go, financed in 1926 by a group that included MGM chief Louis B.Mayer and screen idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (two-fourths of the founding quartet behind United Artists Pictures, along with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith). Two years later, the hotel hosted a modest little dinner for 270 guests to fete honorees of the newly organized Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, some three months after the actual awards had been handed out, and minus the nickname “Oscars”, which would come about four years later.
Over the decades the Roosevelt and its across-the-street neighbor the Chinese Theatre (which opened within months of the “R”‘s premiere) saw a fairly staid business district transformed into “Hollywood & Highland” (trade mark)…. Sucker Bait Central, a day-glo drag whose countless souvenir stops, IMAX pleasure palaces, low-rent novelties and neon knock-offs raised tackiness to the status of a religious movement. Meanwhile, the hotel’s crazy-quilt architectural style (‘Spanish Colonial Revival’…and, yes, there will be a test later), with its coffered ceilings, mid-century pool cabanas and wrought-iron chandeliers, was just fake-elegant enough to pass for average in a town renowned for its, er, flexible relationship with “class”. Rolling through the years with an occasional ownership transfer and the odd walk-on in movies like Beverly Hills Cop II and Catch Me If You Can, the Roosevelt has recently offered lodging as a contest prize on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and landed landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #545.
The Roosevelt’s photographic riches lie chiefly in its extremely dark main and elevator lobbies, its still-regal pool area and the legendary Cinegrill Lounge. The lobbies, at least for handheld shots, require high ISOs, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. Flash may not be verboten but you won’t like the result, trust me. Indeed, the soft gold afforded by natural light washing into the murk from outside brings out the warmth of the Spanish textures, and adds a little tonal nostalgia to the scene. All things together, the Roosevelt stands as a monument to real occurrences, some of them fairly historically significant, in The Town That Invented Phony. And that’s the main challenge in Hollywood: if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO SOONER HAD THE INFANT ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY asked the world of the 1800’s to trust it as the ultimate in visual verity (the camera doesn’t lie!) than it also began to turn itself into the most unreliable of narrators. Truth-telling and bald-face lying grew up side-by-side in the picture-making world, and they have been conjoined twins ever since. If P.T. Barnum was right that “there’s a sucker born every minute”, then certainly every one of those chumps has had his very own faked photograph.
Some of the fraud has been benign, as when Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her friends to portray the great authors and heroes of history, or when landscape artists combined seashores from one negative with clouds from another for a pleasing montage. Other fakes were more sinister, with nations manufacturing claims of war crimes against their foes or tabloids “proving” conspiracy theories with massaged “evidence”. And somewhere in the middle has always been the “that’s not real, is it?” photo, something which we can’t allow ourselves to either believe or resist, the charming charlatan, the obvious put-on.
Barnum and his bunch were fairly coy about their fakery, filling the first era of mass-produced press photography with doctored images that were literally too good to be true and challenging all comers to verify their veracity. Today, fakes are more ironic than compelling, since the tools to concoct them are so universally available as to make them commonplace. The object isn’t so much to actually fool anyone, but to comment on how easy it is to make the camera lie.
Years after Barnum’s death, the circus that later bore his name actually made a half-hearted attempt to concoct its own “unicorn” for its shows, something even the great humbug himself never did. Using a phone app, indifferent lighting and focus, and the freakishly arranged shape of an old bagpipe on display at Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, I worked up a reasonable fake tintype of a unicorn’s mummified head, the like of which might have graced the master showman’s old dime museum. It took me about five minutes.
The main difference between the fakery of the Victorian age and the variety we practice today is that, in the 21st century, the fakers, myself included, confess right away. We want to get the points for being oh, so clever. And since you know we have the means to show you anything, we already know you believe almost nothing, so it’s no longer about convincing you a unicorn exists. It’s about the ride.
Photography didn’t just arrive at the place where truth is negotiable, anymore than fiction just recently became about “making stuff up”. We pitcher folk have always been, to a degree, untrustworthy. But as Barnum said, “the bigger the humbug, the better people will like it”. Hurry, hurry, hurry…… step right up….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GEORGE EASTMAN’S INTRODUCTION OF ROLL FILM onto the world camera market in 1884 became the biggest single factor in the mass popularization of photography. But it was not the first process to make pictures fast, easy, portable, or affordable. That honor must go to the humble tintype.
All of photography’s earliest processes were slow, inefficient in their use of light, and extremely perishable. Daguerreotypes, which recorded pictures as a positive developed on a chemically treated glass slide, created crisp, almost three-dimensional images, but they produced no negatives and were fragile, expensive one-of-a-kinds.Their long exposure times kept photography a prisoner of the studio, as well as pricing it out of the average person’s technical and financial reach.
The 1850’s saw the first appearance of the tintype, a process which recorded pictures on treated steel (no tin was ever used, ironically). This was something else again: itinerant shutterbugs at fairs and festivals could be trained to make them with a minimum of technical skill, and at a fraction of the time per exposure, with a finished portrait delivered to the customer within minutes. Better still for the tintype was its durability and portability. Thousands of servicemen posed for them before enlisting for the Civil War, and thousands more carried “counterfeits” of their sweethearts into battle. Tintypes became the everyman’s first personal photographic keepsake. They were Polaroids before Polaroid.
Like the daguerreotype, the tintype was irreplaceable, since it also produced no negative. Each image was also marked by its own visual tattoos, as uneven application of emulsion on the metal or surface irregularities in the plates”baking” errors into the pictures. Like diamonds, tintypes were beautiful partly because of their flaws: their imperfections lent them an unworldly quality, an unspoken time machine cue to the brain, an airy something that purely digital emulations have now brought back, as they have many other classic looks.
Hipstamatic, the most widespread lens and film simulator of the cell phone age, sells its own dedicated Tintype app, a cute faker that generates artificial plate grain, the random edges that occur with well-worn souvenirs, the random sharpness, even the option of decorating the conversion of your full-color original photo with the appearance of the hand-tinting of the early 1900’s. A useless toy? Perhaps, if all you do with it is to make a snap of your lunch look “retro”. But this is the world we live in: that which was once the leading edge of an art has become our plaything. Or, more precisely, tintype technique can only become either toy or tool, goldmine or gimmick, depending on whoever’s at the helm.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE LOW–HANGING–FRUIT–EASY–LAY–UP STORIES in 2017 pop culture circles was the report that, after years of manufacturing its own version of the defunct Polaroid Corporation’s instant camera film, an appropriately named company known as the Impossible Project had acquired all of Polaroid’s remaining intellectual property. As a result, the IP, now re-born as Polaroid Originals, could now begin making it own brand-new Polaroid cameras.
The story had great appeal for the analog-was-better crowd, the LP-hugging CD haters who pegged the decline of civilization to the day mankind first embraced zeroes and ones. Writer after writer wiped aside a misty tear to rhapsodize about the OneStep2, the first new “Polaroid” camera in more than a decade, and to recount their own fond memories of the “unique” quality of each unreproducable shot, as well as the wonderfully unpredictable randomness of wondering if your next shot, or indeed the entire rest of the film pack, would yield anything in the way of an image that was worth wiping your nose on.
Which brings us to the Brutal Main Truth of the matter: Polaroids were never really good cameras. They were engineered to fulfill a need for uncomplicated and quick gratification, marketed to an audience of snapshooters and selfiemongers. Inventor Edward Land placed all of his emphasis on perfecting the spontaneous function of his film, and to simplifying the taking of pictures to the point that your goldfish could pretty much operate the cameras. That said, Polaroid film was unstable, balky, moody, mushy, and generally useless as an archival medium. Of course, the company tried to shape an alternate narrative: certain high-end, professional grade iterations of the camera appeared at the margins of the photo market, with Polaroid hiring Ansel Adams as a “consultant” on color (which is a little like hiring a childless person to head up a daycare), and the brand got a pass from culture vultures like Andy Warhol, who tried to legitimize the cool, what-the-hell factor of the cameras for a generation hooked on immediacy. But in the end, Polaroid photography delivered mere convenience and fun, seldom art.
In terms of its legacy, there are no classic Polaroid lenses, nor any other evidence that the company ever trusted its customers with taking pictures like grown-ups. Model after model refused to allow users to take even basic manual control of the process of photography, offering instead frozen focal lengths, a stingy array of shutter speeds, and cave-man-level focusing options. Finally, by the dawn of the digital age, Polaroid whimpered out as it had roared in, making the process ever easier, the gear ever cheaper, and the results ever worse.
Polaroid Originals is now poised to do something its namesake never did: make a real good camera for people who also like the tactile, hold-it-in-your-hand sensation of instant photography. But they’re off to a lame start, if the brainless, artless OneStep2 is any indication. Not only is this gob of plastic optically stunted, the film made by Polaroid Originals, who had to figure out the process without any blueprint or guidance from Polaroid, looks even worse than actual Polaroid film, which is a little like finding out that your mud pies don’t look as elegant as everyone else’s. And did we mention the cost, which works out to nearly two dollars per print?
And so, for analog hogs, everything old is really just old again. As we speak, Kodak is preparing to produce an all new Super-8 movie camera… for around $2,400. Surely we can’t be two far from a loving re-launch of the Ford Edsel. I hear they gots a cigarette lighter right in the dashboard…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY SHOULD ALWAYS OPERATE, at least to some extent, as a cultural mile marker, a chronicle of what time has taken away, a scrapbook of vanishings and extinctions. We make records. We bear witness. We take pictures of the comings and the goings.
One of the things that has been going, since the coming of the permanent, Disneyeque theme parks, those sanitized domains of well-regulated recreation, is the great American carnival, in all its gaudy and ever so slightly dodgy glory. Loud, crude and exotically disreputable, these neon and canvas gypsy camps of guilty pleasure once sprang up in fields and vacant lots across the nation, laden with the delicious allure of original sin, that is, if the first apple of Eden had been dipped in shiny red candy. We came, we saw, whe rode, we ate, we clicked off millions of snapshots on our Kodak Brownies.
The thing that made it all so magical was geography. Unlike Seven Flags or Cedar Point, the carnival came to us. Like the circus, the carnival was coming to your town, just down your block. That meant that your drab streets were transformed into wonderlands in the few hours it took for the roustabouts to assemble their gigantic erector sets into rickety Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. And then there was the faint whiff of danger, with rides that made dads ask “is this thing safe?” and crews that made moms repeat horrific tales of what happens to Little Children Who Talk To Strangers.
It was heaven.
The images seen here are a partial return to that sketchy paradise, with the arrival in my neighborhood, this week of a carnival in an area that hasn’t hosted one in well over a decade. It’s almost as if Professor Marvel just ballooned in from Oz, or Doc and Marty had suddenly materialized in the DeLorean. It’s that weird. Four days in, and I’m there with a different lens each time, sopping up as much trashy delight as I can before the entire mirage folds and all our lives return to, God help us, normal. Photographs are never a substitute for reality, any more than a hoof print is a horse. But when dreams re-appear, however fleetingly, well past their historical sell-by date, well, I’ll settle for a few swiftly stolen souvenirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BUILDING YOU SEE HERE may not, on first glance, match your sensory memory of what a “public library” is supposed to look like. However, step into this amazing complex on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and you will certainly see, from every angle of its curvy vastness, the public….buzzing away at research, cozying next to comfy reads in cafes, tucked away in private warrens of study and solitude.
One of photography’s functions is to chronicle the public space that mankind creates, and how it occupies that space. And visually, there can be no greater illustration of the changes in how that space is defined than in the architectural evolution of public libraries. More than mere warehouses for books, libraries were the first common gathering places in our young republic, no less important than legislatures or marketplaces. Indeed, we built many libraries to be brick and mortar celebrations of learning, grand, soaring temples to thought, arrayed in oak clusters, dizzying vaults, sprawling staircases, and mottoes of the masters, wrought in alabaster and marble. To see these spaces today is to feel the aspiration, the ambitious reach inside every volume within the stacks of these palaces.
The library, in the twenty-first century, is an institution struggling to find its next best iteration, as books share the search for knowledge with a buffet of competing platforms. That evolution of purpose is now spelled out in new kinds of public space, and the photographer is charged with witnessing their birth, just as he witnessed the digging of the subways or the upward surge of the skyscraper. New paths to fortune are being erected within the provocative wings of our New Libraries. Their shapes may seem foreign, but their aim is familiar: to create a haven for the mind and a shelter for the heart.
There are legends to be written here, and some of them will be written with light…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I no longer believe that there is such a thing as objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. Some people call it style. But what we’re really talking about is the guts of a photograph. When you trust your point of view, that’s when you start taking pictures.
NONE OF MY FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHERS are primarily technicians. Certainly I value the basic mastery required to extract the best mechanical performance out of one’s camera, but I don’t think that a lack of such knowledge necessarily dooms a picture. I do, however, believe that no lens on earth can compensate for a deficiency of mindfulness in the photographer. I cite Annie Leibovitz here because I believe she deftly walks the creative tightrope between an essential understanding of how photography works and a poetic gift for finding how it works for her. She knows her gear as much as is necessary: she knows her heart as much as is possible.
On a shoot, once I’ve established that the camera is on and the lens cap is off, I endeavor to disconnect with the gear and re-connect with the twelve-year-old who first gasped as he gazed through a viewfinder. That kid knew that everything was possible. More precisely, he didn’t know enough to realize what wasn’t possible, and so blithely proceeded to try it all. His older brother (me) wants to point out that the light is wrong, that he packed the wrong lens, and that, maybe, he just doesn’t actually know how to make the picture. Worse yet, he might know just enough to worry that his work won’t register with others. The twelve-year-old doesn’t care.
My photo gods are all people who know all the things that can go wrong with a shot and take the shot anyway. They are not waiting for their moment. They are jumping out of the plane and trusting the chute to open. More to the point, they are trusting themselves.
“I still have a very limited knowledge of the technical side of photography”, Linda McCartney wrote in 1992, looking back upon her amazing body of documentary work in the rock demimonde of the ’60’s. “I prefer to work by trial and error because some of my best pictures have come precisely because I didn’t know enough. By having the “wrong” setting, I’ve actually come up with something good….”
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FREQUENTLY ASKED to define a “bad” picture, or, more specifically, the worst picture they themselves ever shot. The question is a bit of a logic trap, though, since it typically tricks us into naming something that failed because the subject was moribund, or because we mis-read the light, the aperture, the composition. The trap further reasons that, if you have checked off all those boxes, you should end up with a great picture.
But all of that is bug wash. What makes a picture bad is when you were not ready to take it….. but you took it anyway.
Sometimes the problem is ignorance: you simply aren’t old or wise enough to know what to do with the subject. Other times, you have substantial barriers between you and an effective story, but you try to drill past what you can’t fix. And, you can no doubt add your own list of things that, ahead of the shutter click, should scream, “not now”. Try to make the picture before either the conditions or you (usually you) are right, and you lose. Just as I lost, in great big neon letters, with the mess you at above left.
In 2016, I visited the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, a venerable colonial-era home which sits right next to the small footbridge that served as the site of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. What excited me most, however, was that it had served as a temporary home for the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he had written Nature, the first of his great works, while living there. And to really put the cherry on the sundae, the house still contains the small writing desk he used to do it.
The house is lit only with indirect window light during the day, but with a fast prime lens and a decent eye, there’s more than enough soft illumination to work with to produce decent results (see left). In fact, just before my tour was to head into the room containing the desk, I had already harvested quite a few usable shots…so many, in fact, that I was getting teased by the others in the group…the usual “oh, another picture?” stuff. Uncharacteristically, I began to worry about whether I was holding everyone else up, and thus started to hurry myself, to shoot not as I intended, but in deference to what I thought others would like. By the time I got to Emerson’s chair, the light, my lens, even my own experience were all useless to me….because I wasn’t ready to shoot….but did anyway.
And so you behold the unholy mess that resulted: lousy contrast, uneven exposure, muddy texture (is the chair made out of wood or Play-Doh?), tons of noise, indifferent angle, and, oh yeah, garbage focus. Worse yet, the psyche I’d put upon myself was so severe that I didn’t slow down for a more considered re-do. No, I rejoined the group like a polite little camper, and left without what I had come for.
And that is all on me, and thus an important entry in The Normal Eye, an ongoing chronicle which is designed to emphasize personal choice and responsibility in photography, versus just hoping well-designed machines will compensate for our lack of concept or intention. This is not easy. This is ha It’s no fun realizing that what went wrong with an image was us.
But it’s a valuable thing to own. And to act upon.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE PAST FEW DECEMBERS, The Normal Eye has marked the holidays by recalling classic Christmas advertisements from the Eastman Kodak Company, the first corporation to merge consumers’ seasonal sentiment with the promotion of camera sales. We’ve had fun revisiting examples of the firm’s amazingly successful “Open Me First” campaign, which cheerfully asserted that, basically, it ain’t Christmas until someone puts a Kodak under the tree.
This year, however, seems to argue for a new wrinkle in our tradition, with the long-anticipated resurrection of the Polaroid corporation, or at least its Christmas ghost. The strange saga began in 2008 when Polaroid decided to discontinue the production of its iconic instant film, leaving a half-century’s worth of global users stranded. Enter the entrepreneurial trio of Florian Kaps, Andre Bosman, and Marwan Saba, who bought as much of the company’s factory hardware and film-making process that still remained after Polaroid had begun scrapping parts and burning files. Sadly, most of the sacred secret film recipe had already been destroyed, meaning that the team’s new company, dubbed The Impossible Project, had to painstakingly reverse-engineer the production process, eventually creating an instant film that was much closer to the quirky, low-fi look of Lomography cameras than the precise instruments Polaroid produced in its heyday.
For the next seven years, Impossible Project instant film shot off the shelves to feed the world’s aged inventory of SX-70’s and One-Steps, drawing praise for preserving the feel of film and drawing fire for what was actually pretty crappy color rendition and slooooow development time. Finally, in 2017, Impossible purchased the last remnants of Polaroid’s intellectual property, allowing it to begin manufacturing brand-new cameras for the first time in years and rebranding the company as Polaroid Originals. Christmas 2017 would herald the arrival of the Polaroid OneStep 2, a point-and-shoot quickie designed to compete with other mostly-toy cameras cashing in on the instant film fever. The Ghost Of Shaken Snaps Past walks amongst us once again.
And so, Polaroid is dead and long live Polaroid. The above 1967 Christmas pitch for the original company’s full product line (read the fine print) gives testimony to the incredible instruments that once bore the Polaroid name. You can’t go home again, truly. Not to live, anyway. However, an occasional 60-second visit can be fun.
Strange colors and all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS SOMETHING TRAGIC, AND CONFOUNDING, in America’s longstanding reluctance to re-use and re-purpose its historic infrastructure. This ever-young nation seems to have an allergic reaction to preservation, as if the physical artifacts of its heritage contained some kind of dread plague. As a consequence, buildings that have figured most prominently in the story of our nation’s amazing evolution fall…. first to neglect, then to the wrecking ball.
Photography is a way to bear witness to what Gore Vidal called “the United States Of Amnesia”, a way to document lost opportunities and wasted potential across the fifty states. Miles of once-vital roads that no longer lead anywhere: blocks of neighborhoods that now howl and whistle in a dead wind: acres of buildings that once housed history instead of cockroaches and cobwebs. All is ripe for either revelation or regret at the point of a camera.
Columbus, Ohio’s original air terminal building, opened in 1929 with hoopla and help from both Amelia Earhart and co-founder Charles Lindbergh, is one such location. Created as part of the country’s first fledgling attempt at a transcontinental air service (and this, only two years after Lindbergh’s astonishing solo flight to Paris) “Port Columbus” was solid proof that the air age was real.
Real enough, in fact, that a mere nineteen years later, the city’s air traffic had grown so rapidly that construction began on a shiny new international hub, big enough to accommodate a mid-century tourist boom, the jet era, and an explosion of international travel. The 1929 terminal was shuttered, living a few latter-day half-lives as offices for one short-term tenant or another, finally coming its silent rest on the Port’s back property, its legacy given half-hearted lip service with the obligatory plaque on the door.
Full disclosure: Columbus, Ohio was, for most of my life, my hometown. It is, among other things, a city of many firsts, a vital test market of ideas for everything from ATMs to hula hoops. And while I know that new uses won’t be in the cards for all historically important buildings there (or, indeed, anywhere), I am glad, at least, that, as photographers, we are privileged to say of such places: look here. This happened. This was important.
It’s often said that there are no second acts in American lives.
That’s tragic. And confounding.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YARD SALES AROUND THE WORLD abound with unwanted gadgets that, just a few year prior, seemed utterly indispensable, be they electric olive pit extractors or deluxe coffee foam skimmers. You know the kind of toys I mean– those glorious, gleaming, largely single-function devices that dazzle us on all-night infomercials and seem like depraved decadence after we’ve hooked them up a few times and found that, hey, you can still access a new batch of carrots with a 79-cent manual can opener and use the regained counter-space for something more essential. Like food.
And, of course, these one-trick ponies of gimmickdom are not only found in the world’s greatest kitchens, but also on dusty shelves in the closets of disaffected photographers, who, like any humans, are subject to the lure of the new. Hey, I get it. It’s fun to have a special, fresh, whirly-twirly glowing godalmighty gizmo, that little add-on that creates amazing effects, amusing simulations, crazy textures. Lens manufacturers are particularly great at getting the fishhook into the mouths of photogs when it comes to toy time, since no one responds better to the latest optical trick. But, as in the case of the pit extractor, you have to ask yourself how much permanent, sustaining, everyday use you will get out of a given piece of gear.
One great way lens manufacturers have devised to separate you from your cash is to introduce a new version of a classic or “art” lens that re-creates an effect that is associated with the halcyon days of early photography. One such lens is the Petzval, named after Josef Petzval, who developed it around the 1840’s. The optics of the Petzval are particularly seductive for portraitists, as they separate your subject from the ambient scenery by rendering it sharp at the center while making all background information look like a swirling blur. Very artsy, very specialized, and very, very expensive.
Neo-Petzvals are all-manual (niche market #1), metal bodied (niche market #2) and gorgeously nostalgic (niche market #3), looking like something Ahab would use to track Moby Dick around the seven seas. These beauties, which, again, can only make one kind of image at one focal length, can cost upwards of $700 through Lomography.com. Companies like Lensbaby can create the same effect for around $149 and more than a few phone apps can deliver the same thrill for $2.99 or under. But the cost is almost irrelevant. What counts is how much you will actually use the thing.
You have to decide what your approach to equipment is, making a personal calculation based on what you most need to do for you. My own version of this riddle is based on how much I can do with how little, making me prefer lenses and appliances that can multi-task. However, there’ll always be days when life’s hella hectic and you just haven’t got time to scrape your own coffee foam. As usual, the answer lies in the kind of photography that snaps your personal shutter. Your pictures, your playthings.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE “U.S.A.” OF THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY was, in every way, a collection of separate and unconnected “Americas”. Cities were fewer in number, and the ones that did exist were hermetically sealed off from each other, each in their own orbits in a way that would end when telegraph wires and railroad tracks annihilated distance on the continent forever. At one end of the 1800’s, each town and village was its own distinct universe; at the other end, it was only one of many dots on a line chain-linking the nation as one entity.
In the 21st century, there is only spotty evidence of the days when your town was, in a very real way, the predominant version of “the world” to you. The terms of survival were so very different. “In town” and “out of town” were measured in blocks, not miles. There was a pronounced sense of “how we do things around here”. Local accents were a clearer stamp of identity. News from outer regions arrived slowly. People’s lives impacted each other directly. And the towns first canvassed by photographers reflected the isolation of one city from another, for good or ill.
My parents met each other in a town that started small and stayed that way. It’s contracted now, the way a grape shrinks to a raisin; there is still enough of its old essence to identify what it was, but no hope for a future that resembles the past in any remote manner. I love making photographs of places in America where the feeling of apartness is still palpable. It is harder to be hidden away now. We are all one coast-to-coast nervous system, with impulses crossing the void in nanoseconds. The places which still say “our town” are often baffled off from other towns by raw geography….the mountains someone forgot to cross, the rivers no one wanted to ford. And, in the towns walled off by those last remaining barriers, as in this view of Truckee, California in the Sierras, there are still stories to be told, and images to be captured.
I was struck in this picture by how close the residential and business parts of town were to each other, long before we all started spreading out and, well, getting away from each other. It creates a longing in me for something I can’t fully experience, and a desire to use my camera to come as close as I can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.