By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STRIVE TO GIVE DIRECT TESTIMONY to life’s key moments, to minimize the distance between event and reporter. The most arresting photographs benefit from this straight line-of-sight from what we witness to how we record it. Other times, however, we are forced to depict things indirectly, making pictures not of things, but of the impact of those things.
One example of this occurs in wartime. It’s impossible, in many cases, to directly make an image of all those who are lost in a battle, but many eloquent photographs have been made of the way those dead are remembered, by photographing lists of names inscribed on a memorial, or by capturing a ritual during which those names are recited. Since society records the damage of wars or disasters in a variety of clerical or statistical ways, such tabulations, for photographers, stand in visually for the actual event.
Our latest global “war”, in which even the immediate families of the dead are barred from witnessing their loved ones’ final moments, a time in which thousands of us seem to just vaporize into abstraction, has made a new, horrific addition to a very old instrument of death’s grammar: the newspaper obituary. In recent months, the virus has begun to be specifically listed as a cause of death in the stately columns of the New York Times, a revision which signals the importance of change in how slowly the Old Gray Lady adjusts to it. There now, on the page, along with the Parkinson’s diseases and the cancers and the sanitized descriptions of those who “passed peacefully” are the dread new words, now officially inducted into the vocabulary of grief.
And so, in the age of COVID-19, our cameras are stalled at arm’s length, unable to be true eyewitnesses, forced, by circumstances, to be eyewitnesses, once removed. We make pictures of pictures, images of lists, views of rosters.
It’s not enough. But for now, it will have to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE WAYS WE USE PHOTOGRAPHY TO NAVIGATE through our tricky lives is to use it to sort of mark our personal territory. To leave a trail of bread crumbs about the places we passed on our journey. Pictures stitch together a rough chronology of who we are, who we care about, what we believe is important. And one of the most conspicuous parts of this timeline involves our interactions with each other, and the images that those interactions generate.
Our virtual world, with all its facebookings and instagramations, is but a simulation of the dimensionally deep contact we have with each other in our best moments. It’s a wonderful abbreviation of full human experience, but it is just that: an abbreviation. A synthetic version of real interplay between real people. Photographs, by contrast, are of endless interest to us because they are chronicles of those interplays. A visual record. A testament. As we often say, the camera both reveals and conceals, showing what might have happened, what we wish had happened….and maybe, in lucky moments, a trace of what actually did happen when we met. And talked. And shared. And traded lives, if only for fractions of seconds.
The picture you see here is what, for lack of a more precise term, was a happy accident. It wasn’t planned. Heck, it wasn’t even deliberately framed, being a snap taken from lap level in the second it occurred to me that the two men seen here might be having a moment. An exchange. A life-swapping. Turns out, without really having done much of anything on purpose, I walked away with what I regarded as a story. It doesn’t even bother me that I don’t know the players, or the plot, or the outcome. The story, as seen in the picture, just is. There is a connection between Man A and Man B that lives on in frozen form and it doesn’t require, or even benefit from, a word of explanation from me. It’s something real, even if it’s not something real clear. It’s a record of the Luxury Of We.
As humans, we crave connection. We even settle for social media, which is a sharp step down in true intimacy, just because we want that contact so badly. Me? Give me a real human moment every time. Snapping such special exchanges is more than mere “posting”: it’s witnessing, and that’s a whole other level of experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS YOU READ THIS, I WILL BE SAILING ACROSS YET ANOTHER ANNUAL MERIDIAN, my shaky little rowboat meekly tying up at the dock of one more birthday. Many years, I am astonished to find the scruffy little skiff of my life still afloat: it’s certainly not due to my skills as a navigator or seaman, but rather the kind fortune of the currents, the gentle mercy of the waves. Life is an ocean which can and does engulf us all, sometimes in a series of undulations, sometimes in surges of anger. But eventually we all head to the same damp destiny. Chalking up one more year on the topside of the foam doesn’t create a feeling of relief so much as a tsunami of amazement.
In years past, like many of us, I have indulged my vanity by taking at least a quick-snap selfie to mark the occasion, as if my continuing to draw breath was, in itself, some kind of achievement. Of course, in my quieter moments, I realize that I am, in the main, merely a lucky idiot, far more fortunate than smart. But, when I consider the role my wife Marian has played in my ongoing survival…..well, then, I am looking at a kind of genius, an emotional genius that has done more than merely protect and value me. Better than knowing my worse flaws, she has systematically outfoxed them at every turn. And in doing that, she has not only bought me time, she has made that time burn brighter than any birthday candle.
And so, this year, I’m giving the back-patting selfie a rest, and filing this small report with an image of her that, over the years, has given me courage and comfort. On one level, it’s merely a woman looking out to sea. For me, however, it’s the nature of that looking, and the deep concentration that goes with it. Marian never just glances: she evaluates, she catalogues hopes and fears: she shuffles the cards of a million scenarios and masterminds the selection of the perfect hand. As I said, a kind of genius.
So Happy My Birthday to Marian, my Magellan, my compass, my north star. Without her, I’d be lucky to read the map of my own mind. With her, I can journey on.
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
SOME MEMORIES ARE BURIED SO DEEPLY in our mental archives that, like old snapshots, they deteriorate, browning along the edges, retrieved only in imprecise or incomplete detail. Ironically, these mainstays of our very personhood evolve over time from fact into folklore, rendering fundamental, formative events unreliable, suspect.
And if one’s personal memory of a time or place is less than “actual”, what about photographs of the places where those imperfect memories were forged? How can camera images of battlefields, home towns, even one’s childhood home record anything real beyond physical dimensions?
The park in the above picture first entered my consciousness in the late 1950’s, when my mother had medical appointments a block away and my father walked me around the perimeter of the pond to kill time while she lingered in the waiting room. I recall very specific things about tile mosaics of fish set in the concrete walkways around the water, and a few flashing impressions of a nearby cafe which no longer exists, but that’s pretty much the sum total of my memories of the place.
So, as a photographer in 2017, how do I even attempt to make a visual document of this locale? Any specifics of my own experiences here have been smeared and sandpapered until they only represent a part of a part of the real story. Shouldn’t I, in fact, sort of “free-associate” the scene, assuming that any fresh impressions are at least as trustworthy as my moth-eaten memories of it? Since I can’t reasonably capture a faded dream, isn’t the dream realm where I should draw for the missing pieces?
We only suppose that a camera, which at one level is a mere recording instrument, will act as an objective reporter on the current sites of our old adventures. But that’s the problem. It can only take measure of things as they are, not the unique mix of fact and fable that passes for experience in our imperfect minds. And so we frown at the results and mutter, “it’s not like it was…”
The reply to which should be: how would we know?