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
BEFORE THE ELEVENTH OF SEPTEMBER WAS DEFINED, for the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Company Number 3, by grief, the date had long stood as a milestone of devotion. Dedicated on September 11, 1865, Ladder 3 as one of Manhattan’s first fire companies, “the 3” was well on target toward its sesquicentennial on the morning that eleven of its finest perished while trying to evacuate the 40th floor of the doomed North Tower at the World Trade Center.* Death above was mirrored by destruction below: parked along West Street, the 3’s apparatus (ladder) truck was sheared in half, corkscrewed into a clawed snarl by the astonishing force of the building’s collapse.
And so it happened that one of the most poignant symbols of American valor was entombed, literally, at the epicenter of the nation’s most raw, most anguished loss, the geographic coordinates that quickly came to be called Ground Zero. However, the 3’s truck would not immediately serve as an official visual headstone, a graphic barometer of our loss. That day would have to wait.
First would be the accounting, the sorting out. As ashes were sifted and rebirth begun in this most vigorously contested patch of Lower Manhattan, the twisted remains of Ladder 3 were removed, the truck warehoused at JFK airport, silently sequestered against the day it would be re-purposed as a red-and-rust jewel in the reverent setting of the 9/11 memorial museum.
That resurrection and re-internment, a mixture of sacred fervor and steely defiance, would come on July 20, 2011, when the returned Ladder 3 apparatus truck, swaddled in U.S. and FDNY flags, would be lowered 70 feet down into the subterranean display space that serves as the nerve center of the museum. Now, before daily batteries of Nikons, Canons, and iPhones, its silent testimony can follow millions back home, the countless new images illustrating, as no words could, the full impact of history. Standing in as a grave marker for the thousands of human remains housed invisibly nearby, Ladder 3’s gnarled visage would pose as a surrogate, a way of marking valor’s Ground Zero.
* * * * *
*Ladder 3, in firefighter parlance, was “running heavy” on the morning of 9/11. The attack occurred almost precisely at the company’s change of shift, with both first and second shift crews remaining on duty to combat the catastrophe. This horrific quirk of fate doubled the 3’s losses at the site, claiming the lives of Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown, Lt. Kevin W. Donnelly, Michael Carroll, James Raymond Coyle, Gerard Dewan, Jeffrey John Giordano, Joseph Maloney, John Kevin McAvoy, Timothy Patrick McSweeney, Joseph J. Ogden, and John Olson.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR AS LONG AS THERE HAS BEEN PHOTOGRAPHY, the United States of America has flown some version of the Stars and Stripes, a banner that has symbolized, in cloth and thread, what we profess and hope for ourselves as one of the world’s experiments in self-government. That argues for the flag being one of the most photographed objects in history, and, therefore, one of the most artistically problematic. Those things that are visualized most, by most of us, endure the widest extremes in interpretation, as all symbols must, and observing that phenomenon as it applies to the flag is both fascinating and frustrating.
Fascinating, because the flag can embody or evoke any emotion, any association, any memory, providing a gold mine for photographers who always must look beyond the mere recording of things to their underlying essences. Frustrating, because that task can never be complete, in that there can be no definitive or final statement about a thing that resonates so intensely, so personally with a diverse nation. Photographing the flag is always new, or, more precisely, it can always be made new.
The problem with fresh photographic approaches to the flag is really within ourselves. The banner is so constantly present, on public buildings, in pop culture, even as commentary, that it can become subliminal, nearly invisible to our eye. Case in point: the image at left of the front facade to Saks’ in Manhattan. The building is festooned in flags across its entire Fifth Avenue side, which is, being across the street from Rockefeller, a fairly well-trafficked local. And yet, in showing this photo to several people from the city, I have heard variations on “where did you take that?” or “I never noticed that before” even though the display is now several years old.
And that’s the point. Saks’ flags have now become as essential a part of the building as its brick and mortar, so that, at this point, the only way the building would look “wrong” or “different” is if the flags were suddenly removed. Training one’s eye to see afresh what’s just been a given in their world is the hardest kind of visual re-training, and the American flag, visually inexhaustible as a source of artistic interpretation, can only be blunted by how much we’ve forgotten to see it.
Photography has found a cure for sharpness, clarity, exposure, even time itself. But it can’t compensate for blindness. That one’s on us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE MOST PHOTO-DOCUMENTED EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY, the attacks of September 11, 2001 have spawned images that can never be unseen. Images that tear at you, slam you in the back of the head, wring tears and rage from you, stun you mute.
As the keeper and curator of many of the most powerful of these images, the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan has achieved a tough but fair balance of emotion and academia. Given the staggering number of people whose personal stake in this space covers every human motive and perspective, the making of this part-exhibit-part-shrine may have been one of the most thankless jobs imaginable.
And yet the job has been done, with eloquence and a spare, stark restraint that is poetic. Visiting the museum is no easy task. As Shakespeare said, if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now. But visit you should, and, yes, there is something that a camera can capture there without being crass or irreverent. The designers have seen to it.
Firstly, they have guaranteed that the main central exhibits of debris, personal documents, voice messages and news video are completely off-limits to any kind of photography. Walk in there, and you’ll know why. Those who accidentally caught this epic horror in the moment of its occurrence will never be equaled or surpassed by anyone taking a casual snap on a smartphone anyway, and trying to do so would be like setting off sparklers at a requiem mass.
No, the real photographic opportunities are in the dark, cavernous spaces under the surface of the street, dim caves that make you feel as if you yourself, are, for a moment, trapped, running out of light and time. The enormous foundation known as the slurry wall, which, in surviving the titanic forces of the towers’ collapse, kept the Hudson River from flooding all of lower Manhattan. The rusted girder that, like a day-glo-autographed tombstone, bears the signature of every working company of first responders that slaved away at Ground Zero, first as rescuers, next as salvagers, always as heroes.
It is here, in the quiet arrangement of these incredibly scaled spaces, that the 9/11 Memorial Museum becomes more spiritual than any hour you will ever pass in church. It is in these dark, harrowing parts of the hall that you fully sense what a slender thread we all hang from, and understand that light and darkness struggle for the same real estate, now as then.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHARPER MINDS THAN MINE WILL SPEND AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF EFFORT THIS WEEK CATALOGUING THE COSTS OF THE “GREAT WAR“, the world’s first truly global conflict, sparked by the trigger finger of a Serbian nationalist precisely one hundred years ago. These great doctors of thinkology will stack statistics like cordwood (or corpses) in an effort to quantify the losses in men, horses, nations and empires in the wake of the most horrific episode of the early 20th century.
Those figures will be, by turns, staggering/appalling/saddening/maddening. But in the tables of numbers that measure these losses and impacts, one tabulation can never be made: the immeasurable loss to the world of art, and, by extension, photography.
There can be no quantification of art’s impact in our lives, no number that expresses our loss at its winking out. Photography, not even a century old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was dispatched to history, was pressed into service to document and measure the war and all its hellish impacts. But no one can know how many war photographers might have turned their lenses to beauty, had worldwide horror not arrested their attention. Likewise, no one can know how many Steichens, Adamses, or Bourke-Whites, clothed in doughboy uniforms, were heaped on the pyre as tribute to Mars and all his minions. Most importantly, we cannot know what their potential art, now forever amputated by tragedy, might have meant to millions seeking the solace of vision or the gasp of discovery.
Photography as an art was shaped by the Great War, as were its tools and techniques, from spy cameras to faster films. The war set up a symbiosis of horror between the irresistible message of that inferno and the unblinking eye of our art. We forever charged certain objects as emblems of that conflict, such that an angel now is either a winged Victory, an agent of vengeance, or a mourner for the dead, depending on the photographer’s aims. That giant step in the medium’s evolution matters, no less than the math that shows how many sheaves of wheat were burned on their way to hungry mouths.
Our sense of what constitutes tragedy as a visual message was fired in the damnable forge of the Great War, along with our ideals and beliefs. Nothing proves that art is a life force like an event which threatens to extinguish that life. One hundred years later, we seem not to have learned too much more about how to avoid tumbling into the abyss than we knew in 1914, but, perhaps, as photographers, we have trained our eye to bear better witness to the dice roll that is humanity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEATH PERMANENTLY RENDERS REAL HUMAN BEINGS INTO ABSTRACTIONS. With every photo, formerly every painting, drawing, or statue of a renowned person, some select elements of an actual face are rearranged into an approximation, a rendering of that person. Not the entire man or woman, but an effect, a simulation. The old chestnut that a certain image doesn’t do somebody “justice”, or the mourner’s statement that the body in the casket doesn’t “look like” Uncle Fred are examples of this strange phenomenon.
Nothing amplifies that abstraction like having your image “officially” interpreted or commemorated after death, and, in the case of the very public Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Washington’s National Mall offers two decidedly contrasting ways of “seeing” the civil rights pioneer. One is more or less a tourist destination, while the other is muted, nearly invisible amongst the splendors of the U.S. Capitol. Both offer a distinct point of view, and both are, in a way, incomplete without the other.
The official MLK memorial, opened in 2011 as one of the newest additions to the Mall, stands at the edge of the Tidal Basin, directly across a brief expanse of water from the Jefferson Memorial. Its main feature shows a determined, visionary King, a titanic figure seeming to sprout from a huge slab of solid stone, as if, in the words of the monument, “detaching a stone of hope from a mountain of despair”. Arms folded, eyes fixed on a point some distance hence, he is calm, confident, and resolute. This gleaming white sculpture’s full details can best be captured with several bracketed exposures (fast shutter speeds) blended to highlight the grain and texture of the stone, but such a process abstract’s King even further into something out of history, majestic but idealized, removed.
The contrast could not be greater between this view and the bronze bust of King installed in 1988 in the rotunda of the Capitol building. This King is worried, subdued, straining under the weight of history, burdened by destiny. The bust gains some additional spiritual context when framed against its near neighbor, Robert Weir’s painting The Embarkation Of The Pilgrims, which shows the weary wayfarers of the Mayflower, bound for America, on bended knee, praying for freedom, for justice. Used as background to the bust, they resemble a kind of support group, a congregation eager to be led. Context mine? Certainly, but you shoot what you see. Inside the capitol, light from the dome’s lofty skylights falls off sharply as it reaches the floor, so underexposure is pretty much a given unless you jack up your ISO. Colors will run rich, and some post-lightening is needed. However, the dark palette of tones seems to fit this somber King, just as the triumphant glow of the MLK Memorial’s King seems suited to its particular setting.
Death and fame are twin transfigurations, and what comes through in any single image is more highly subjective than any photo taking of a living person.
But that’s where the magic comes in, and where mere recording can aspire to become something else.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THOSE WHO TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON, D.C.’s VARIOUS MONUMENTS each year generally strike me as visitors, while those who throng to the memorial honoring Abraham Lincoln seem more like pilgrims. Scanning the faces of the children and adults who ascend the slow steps to the simple rectangular chamber that contains Daniel Chester French‘s statue of the 16th president, I see that this part of the trip is somehow more important to many, more fraught with a sense of moment, than the other places one may have occasion to view along the National Mall. This is, of course, simply my subjective opinion. However, it seems that this ought to be true, that, even more than Jefferson, Washington or any other single person attendant to the creation of the republic, Lincoln, and the extraordinary nature of his service, should require an extra few seconds of silent awe, and, if you’re a person of faith, maybe a prayer.
This week, one hundred and fifty years ago, the gruesome and horrific savagery of the Civil War filled three whole days with blood, blunder, sacrifice, tragedy, and finally, a glimmer of hope, as the battle of Gettysburg incised a scar across every heart in America. Lincoln’s remarks at the subsequent dedication of the battlefield placed him in the position of official pallbearer for all our sorrows, truly our Commander-In-Grief. Perhaps it’s our awareness of the weight, the loneliness, the dark desolation of that role that makes visitors to the Lincoln Memorial a little more humble, a little quieter and deeper of spirit. Moreover, for photographers, you want more of that statue than a quick snap of visiting school children. You want to get something as right as you can. You want to capture that quiet, that isolation, Lincoln’s ability to act as a national blotter of sadness. And then there is the quiet resolve, the emergence from grief, the way he led us up out of the grave and toward the re-purposing of America.
The statue is a simple object, and making something more eloquent than it is by itself is daunting.
The interior of the monument is actually lit better at night than in the daytime, when there is a sharp fall-off of light from the statue to the pillars and colored glass skylights to its right and left. You can crank up the ISO to retrieve additional detail in these darker areas, but you risk the addition of grainy noise. In turn, you can smooth out the noise later, but, in so doing, you’ll also smear away the beautiful grain in the statue itself.
In my own case, I decided to take three bracketed exposures, all f/5.6, , nice and wide at 20mm, low noise at ISO 100, with shutter speeds of 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200. In blending the three later in Photomatix’ Detail Enhancement mode, I found that the 1/200 exposure had too little information in it, so a composite of the three shots would have rendered the darkest areas as a kind of black mayonnaise, so I did the blend with only two exposures. Stone being the main materials in the subject, I could jack up the HDR intensity fairly high to accentuate textures, and, for a more uniform look across the frame, I gently nudged the color temperature toward the brown/amber end, although the statue itself is typically a gleaming white. The overall look is somewhat more subdued than “reality”, but a little warmer and quieter.
Abraham Lincoln was charged with maintaining a grim and faithful vigil at America’s bedside, in a way that no president before or since has had to do. Given events of the time, it was in no way certain that the patient would pull through. That we are here to celebrate his victory is a modern miracle, and the space his spirit occupies at the Lincoln Memorial is something photographers hunger to snatch away for their own.
What we try to capture is as elusive as a shadow, but we need to own something of it. The commander-in-grief’s legacy demands it.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS NO GREATER ART THAN THAT WHICH DEMANDS THAT THE VIEWER BECOME A PARTICIPANT, an active co-creator of a bond between creator and user. That is the ineffable power that pervades all great art; the ability to draw you into a world not your own, a world which, in an instant, becomes your own. This elusive quality moves art from mere depiction to a kind of partnership arrangement. It’s so uncommon, so rare, that, when we see an instance of it, the very nature of the effect is radiant, unforgettable.
There are many attempts along Washington, D.C.‘s National Mall to name the nameless, to five utterance to the wordless qualities that define greatness, vision, loss, courage, passion, and pain. America‘s noisy, erratic journey through its young life have left trails of triumph and tragedy, paths that artists have illuminated with the various memorials and monuments which ring the mall from east to west. Some elevate presidents to the level of demigods; some mark the passage of noble laws; others, like the Vietnam War memorial, evoke deep feeling with a reverent stillness, and my favorite, the more recent Korean War Memorial, captures the quiet terror of setting out upon the grim errand of battle in a way that is eerie, and yet elegant.
There are two major elements to the memorial, dedicated in 1995 just southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The first is reminiscent of the wall of names that comprise the solemn Vietnam memorial, but is slightly different in that it is a wall of faces, the effigies of nameless veterans of the conflict, scanned from candid photographs and etched into a stone slab that lines one side of the site. The other, and far more haunting feature is that of a silent patrol of soldiers, its members drawn from each branch of service in the Korean conflict, setting out in a cautious recon march across an open field. The statuary figures are impressive, averaging about seven feet in height. All of the soldiers cast their nervous gaze about the area as they seem to emerge from the relative safety of a copse of trees that border the monument site. The men are exhausted, grim. There is no call to duty in their poses, no grand gestures of heroism, no “follow me, boys!” rallying cry. Sculptor Frank Gaylord has created a squad of the Spirits Of Thankless Jobs Past, laden with gear, shrouded in ponchos, their steps weary and woeful. Get close enough to them and you can almost fall into step among them. Unlike the church-like quiet of the Vietnam memorial or the majestic marble of the WWII memorial, the Korean shows real men who have been sent to an unhappy, uncertain task, then consigned to the shadows, in what history has since labeled “the forgotten war.”
No majestic slogans mark the monument; only the cautionary sentence “Freedom Is Not Free” serves to warn the visitor that every act undertaken by politicians and kings has a real cost for real men. That cost is also recorded on the monument, with the dead, wounded, captured and missing totaling 172,847 Americans, not to mention the losses of the other twenty-two United Nations members whose soldiers comprised the total war effort.
To stand at many of the National Mall’s war memorials is to deal in abstractions…..patriotism, truth, sacrifice…noble words, noble ideals. To stand at the Korean War Memorial is to feel the blood and bone of war, its terror and tension, its risk and reality. It is the greatest kind of public art, because the public are destined, always, to become a vital part of it.
In the line of fire.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.