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
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
That’s the approximate number, in the digital era, of annual photo postings to the internet in a single year.
That’s a serious buncha digits. And a significant chunk of that staggering total comes from visitors to tourist sites and museums, many of whom, awestruck by the wonders in various collections, seek visual souvenirs of said wonders.
Except when they can’t.
Public attractions in the age of shared media are struggling to accommodate, regulate, or just plain rein in the photographic urge among their patrons. You can take pictures here, but not here. Here? Unsure, ask the guy in the uniform.
Flash? Selfie Sticks? Tripods? On the endangered species list. We have our reasons.
We don’t all have the same reasons, but still…
Full disclosure: I am a docent at a museum. I fully understand the various problems that come with allowing photography in the halls. For example, the collection at my joint could actually be damaged by flash, so we allow clickers to go flashless. We also have found that the more hardware the hardcore photog packs in, the greatest hazard to our exhibits and our patrons, so no selfie sticks or tripods. Ours is what I would call a negotiated policy. Other shops, as you yourselves may have already painfully learned, are more draconian, from the places where no one is allowed to take any pictures anywhere to sites like the Natural History Museum of Rwanda, one of the institutions which actually charges a fee for the privilege of snapping. Between those two end zones is a lot of open field. A quick look at the challenges from both sides:
Even allowing for the fact that flashes can actually damage some types of artifacts, regulating the no-flash rule requires extra policing and essentially stands or falls on the honor of the individual photographer. Then there’s the issue of the particular kind of shooter I like to call The Selfish Jerk, who will camp out in front of a statue or a painting to the discomfort of other paying guests, because he’s just gotta get The Shot. Some of these same nitwits also employ improvised gymnastics that could get the institution sued and could (and do) get the photographer dead. Ask the undermanned park employees at the Grand Caaaaaaaanyon. Then let’s consider the “keepsake” motive that makes some people want to take a bit of their favorite art home with them. Cameras are getting better at making more perfect representations of paintings and statuary. At the same time, museum gift shops enjoy a sizable revenue stream from poster and postcard images of their own collections. If everyone can make their own, that revenue goes away, a purely and understandably fiscal reason for institutions to say “no mas”. The claim has also been made that art piracy could be exacerbated by the use of cameras, but that argument is anything but settled.
To further muddy the waters, museums and other public sites are fighting a losing technological battle, since, for every super-obvious Canon or Nikon there are legions of tinier and tinier snap machines that are damn near undetectable. Should the institutions forbid the higher-resolution DSLRs (art thieves!!) and allow the more humble iPhones (harmless amateur!)? And then there’s the problem of universal enforcement of camera bans, which is, let’s face it, impossible. What’s the answer? Some reasonableness all around: reasonable policies that do allow pictures, with limits: reasonable guests who can be asked to leave if they contravene stated policies or, well, decency: and a reasonable attitude toward the positive publicity that online sharing of images can produce for your exhibits and institutions. After all, it’s hard to buck a trillion photos a year, even if only a couple of hundred billion of them are headed in your particular direction. Policies, from free-for-all to pay-for-play, must be rooted in the real world, or they’re not worth the paper they’re (maybe not even) printed on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIR TO SAY that photographers are occasionally the worst possible judges of what will save or spoil a picture. Try as we may to judiciously assemble the perfect composition, there are random forces afoot in the cosmos that make our vaunted “concepts” look like nothing more than lucky guesses. And that’s just the images that actually worked out.
All great public places have within them common spaces in which the shooter can safely trust to such luck, areas where the general cross-traffic of humanity guarantees at least a fatter crop of opportunity for happy marriages between passersby and props. At Boston’s elegant Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the surrounding walls of the central court are the main public collecting point, with hundreds of visitors framed daily by the arched windows and the architectural splendor of a re-imagined 15th-century Venetian palace. The couple seen here are but one of many pairings observable in a typical day.
The pair just happens to come ready-made, with enough decent luck assembled in one frame for almost anyone to come away with a half-decent picture. The size contrast between the man and the woman, their face-to-face gaze, their balanced location in the middle arch of the window, and their harmony with the overall verticality of the frame seem to say “mission accomplished”. I don’t need to know their agenda: they could be reciting lines of Gibrhan to each other or discussing mortgage rates: visually, it doesn’t matter. At the last instant, however, the seated woman, in shadow just right of them, presents some mystery. Is she extraneous, i.e., a spoiler, or does she provide a subplot? In short, story-wise, do I need her?
I decide that I do. Just as it’s uncertain what the couple is discussing, it’s impossible to know if she’s overhearing something intimate and juicy, or just sitting taking a rest. And I like leaving all those questions open, so, in the picture she stays. Thus, what you see here is exactly one out of one frame(s) taken for the hell of it. Nothing was changed in post-production except a conversion to monochrome. Turns out that even the possibility of budding romance can’t survive the distraction of Mrs. Gardner’s amazing legacy seen in full color, and the mystery woman is even more tantalizing in B&W. Easy call.
As we said at the beginning, working with my own formal rules of composition, I could easily have concluded that my picture would be “ruined” by my shadowy extra. And, I believe now, I would have been wrong. As photographers, we try to look out for our own good, but may actually know next to nothing about what that truly is.
And then the fun begins….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH MUSEUMS ARE DESIGNED as repositories of history’s greatest stories, I often find that the most compelling narratives within those elegant walls, for the photographer in me, are provided by the visitors rather than the exhibits.
We’ve seen this effect at zoos: sometimes the guy outside the ape house bears a closer resemblance to a gorilla then the occupant within. With the museum experience, making controlled, serene exposures of the artifacts is never as interesting as turning your reporter’s eye on the folks who came in the door. The juxtaposition of all the museum’s starched, arbitrary order with humanity’s marvelously random energy creates a beautifully strange staging site for social interaction….great hunting for street shooters.
The sculpture gallery shown here, one of the most beautiful rooms in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is certainly “picturesque”enough all by itself. However when the room is used to frame the chessboard-like weaving of live humans into the pattern of sculpted figures, it can create its own unique visual choreography, including the mother who would love to bottle-bribe her baby long enough to finish just one more chapter.
Anyone who’s visited The Normal Eye over the years recognizes this museum-as-social-laboratory angle is a consistent theme for me. I just love to mash-up big art boxes with the people who visit them. Sometimes all you get is statues. Other times, one kind of “exhibit” feeds off the other, and magic happens.
“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important. It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there, wherever I happened to be. For any reason.” –William Eggleston
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NOT PRIME MOVERS, in that the majority of us don’t personally carve out the foundations of new truths, but rather build on the foundations laid by others. Art consists of both revolutionaries and disciples, and the latter group is always the larger. With that in mind, it’s more than enough for an individual shooter to establish a single beachhead that points the way for those who follow, and to be able to achieve two such breakthroughs is almost unheard of. Strangely, one of the photographers who did just that is, himself, also almost unheard of, at least outside of the intellectual elite.
William Eggleston (b. 1939) can correctly be credited as one of the major midwives of color photography at a time that it was still largely black and white’s unwanted stepchild. Great color work by others certainly preceded his own entry to the medium in 1965, but the limits of print technology, as well as a decidedly snobby bias toward monochrome by the world at large, slowed its adoption into artsy circle by decades. After modeling himself on the great b&w street shooters Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston practically stumbled into color, getting many of his first prints processed at ordinary drugstores rather than in his own darkroom. His accidental discovery of the dye-transfer color process on a lab’s price list sparked his curiosity, and he soon crossed over into brilliantly saturated transparencies, images bursting with radiant hues that were still a rarity even in major publications. Eggleston’s work was, suddenly, all about color. That was Revolution One.
Revolution Two emerged when he stopped worrying about whether his pictures were “about” anything else. Eggleston began what he later termed his “war with the obvious”, eschewing the popular practice of using photographs to document or comment. His portfolios began to center on mundane subjects or street situations which fell beneath the notice of most other shooters. The fact that something was in the world was, for Eggleston, enough to warrant having a picture made of it. A street sign, an abandoned tricycle, a blood-red enameled ceiling..anything and everything was suddenly worth his attention.
Reaction in the photographic world was decidedly mixed. While John Szarkowski, the adventurous director of photography at the New York Museum Of Modern Art, marveled at a talent he saw as “coming out of the blue”, making Eggleston only the second major color photographer to exhibit at MOMA, others called the work ugly, banal, meaningless. Even today, Eggleston’s subjects elicit reactions of “…so what??” from many viewers, as if someone told them the front end of a joke but omitted the punch line. “People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken”, Eggleston remarked in one interview. “It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.”
However, as can frequently happen in the long arc of photographic history, Eggleston’s work reverberates today in the images created by the Instantaneous Generation, the shoot-from-the-hip, instinctive shooters of the iPhone era who celebrate randomness and a certain hip detachment in their view of the world. As a consequence of Eggleston’s work, images have long since been freed of the prison of “relevance”, as people rightfully ask who is qualified to say what a picture is, or if there is any standard for photography at all. Thus does the obvious become a casualty of war.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.
If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.
Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.
Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:
“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE RITES OF PASSAGE FOR SCHOOL KIDS IN COLUMBUS, OHIO IN THE 1960’s was a field trip to the Center of Science and Industry, or COSI, one of the nation’s first interactive tech museums, mounted before either the terms “interactive” or “hands-on” were common parlance. In those JFK-flavored days of early space exploration and Jetson-gee-whiz futurism, flying cars and picture phones seemed our inevitable legacy, and the Center’s exhibits often veered closer to the World’s Fair than the science fair, its dazzling displays often trumping pure enlightenment. A generation later, the sizzle lingers in the mind a little better than the steak. Something to work on.
Science was presented as something of a magic trick then, a sure and certain answer to all human needs and desires. But to my tween-sized mind, it also retained an air of mystery, something wondrously alien to my daily experience. Few of COSI’s exhibits from the time created more of a sense of wonder in me than an illuminated timeline of fetal gestation, with each crucial stage between embryo and newborn illustrated by a separately preserved specimen of a transitional human that never made it to the delivery room. As fascinating as the display was, it was also a little creepy, somewhat like, if you will, viewing pre-mummies from a colony of visitors from the future.
In a recent visit to the new COSI, now re-located to a larger, brighter HQ across from Columbus’ downtown riverfront, I was both amused and amazed to see that the timeline had been retained in nearly the same way I remembered it from 1964. Having survived to the era of iPhones and DNA mapping, its dim, the strange, amber-glow profiles still had a hypnotic effect on me, housed as they were in a dark, shadowy sector of the museum, sealed within a showcase that distorted the faces of passersby, even as it shrouded their bodies in mystery. For the shot you see here, I liked the strange juxtaposition of the exhibit’s clinical coldness with the form of a young visitor, casually viewing the timeline as if it were no more notable than a collection of butterflies. I shut the exposure down so that the case provided the only light, opened the lens as far as I dared for the right depth of field, and jacked the ISO slightly to compensate for the murky room ambience.
The COSI of the New Frontier years was always a place that could cast science in a distinctly optimistic light. In 2015, I hoped to re-imagine that magic through the insight of an additional fifty years of living. Mood in photography is created as much by what you conceal as by what you reveal, and trying to get that balance right is 90% of the game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE GULLIVER GOT HIMSELF HOG-TIED BY LEGIONS OF LILLIPUTIANS, we have been fascinated with the contrast between the VERY BIG and the VERY..small. The history of photography is pretty peppered with its share of dinky dioramas, miniature models and teensy-weensy mockups and the cool pictures they inspire. On the silver screen, still photography’s stepchild, the motion picture, launched the careers of thousands of miniaturists in its first half century, genius modelers who could create Tokyo on a tabletop, then have a guy in a rubber Godzilla suit reduce it to splinters.
In another vein, kidlings that were 3-D fans also got their tiny on during the decades that the makers of View-Master told fairy tales in stereo, not with animation cels, but with their own separate miniature studios at the company’s HQ in Portland, doing so-close-you-can-touch-it takes on everything from Donald Duck to the Wizard of Oz. And photographically, the idea was always the same: make this look like the real thing.
Oddly, in recent years, there’s been a bit of a double-reverse going on with miniatures with the creation of optics like the Lensbaby, a low-fi version of a tilt-shift lens that throws selective parts of the frame out of focus, allowing you, according to Lensbaby fans, to take a normal street scene and “make it look like a miniature model”. At this point we leave Photography class and walk down the hall to Irony 101, in which we learn that it’s cool to make something real look fake. Seriously.
I always feel like a sneak trying to make a fake thing look real, and now, it seems, I’m off the hook, since it’s not about the fakery but how cool we all agree we are in doing it (okay, I need to think about that one for a bit). In the meantime, consider a visit to one of the world’s most amazing collection of all things small and awesome at the Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, Arizona. This place makes a large impression, one little object at a time. Photograph away to your heart’s content (no flash), and make the fakes look real, or fanciful, if you’re in the cool kids group. Either way, it’s big fun (that was the last one, I swear).
If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.——Edith Wharton
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LONG BEFORE HER NOVELS THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, ETHAN FROME, AND THE HOUSE OF MIRTH made her the most successful writer in America, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was the nation’s first style consultant, a Victorian Martha Stewart if you will. Her 1897 book, The Decoration Of Houses, was more than a few dainty gardening and housekeeping tips; it was a philosophy for living within space, a kind of bible for combining architecture and aesthetics. Her ideas survive in tangible form today, midst the leafy hills of Lenox Massachusetts, in the Berkshire estate her family knew as “The Mount”.
Wharton only occupied the house from 1902 to 1911, but in that time established it as an elegant salon for guests that included Henry James and other literary luminaries. Although based on several classical styles, the house is a subtle and sleek counter to the cluttered bric-a-brac and scrolled busyness of European design. Even today, the house seems oddly modern, lighter somehow than many of the robber-baron mansions of the period. Many of its original furnishings went with Wharton when she moved to Europe, and have been replicated by restorers, often beautifully. But is in the essential framing and fixtures of the old house that the writer-artist speaks, and that is what led me to do something fairly rare for me, a photo essay, seen at the top of this page in the menu tab Edith Wharton At The Mount.
The images on this special page don’t feature modern signage, tour groups, or contemporary conveniences, as I attempt to present just the basic core of the estate, minus the unavoidable concessions to time. The house features, at present, an appealing terrace cafe, a sunlit gift store, and a restored main kitchen, as part of the conversion of the mansion into a working museum. I made no images of those updates, since they cannot conjure 1902 anymore than a Mazerati can capture the feel of a Stutz-Bearcat. The pictures are made with available light only, and have not been manipulated in any way, with the exception of the final shot of the home as seen from its rear gardens, which is a three-exposure HDR, my attempt to rescue the detail of the grounds on a heavily overcast day.
Take a moment to click the page and enter, if only for a moment, Edith Wharton’s age of elegance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.
This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.
Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.
The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.
Or at least they will by the third can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M VERY ACCUSTOMED TO BEING STOPPED IN MY TRACKS AT A PHOTOGRAPH THAT EVOKES A BYGONE ERA: we’ve all rifled through archives and been astounded by a vintage image that, all by itself, recovers a lost time.
It’s a little more unsettling when you experience that sense of time travel in a photo that you just snapped. That’s what I felt several weeks ago inside the main book trove at the Morgan Library in New York. The library itself is a tumble through the time barrier, recalling a period when robber barons spent millions praising themselves for having made millions. A time of extravagant, even vulgar displays of success, the visual chest-thumping of the Self-Made Man.
The private castles of Morgan, Carnegie, Hearst and other larger-than-life industrialists and bankers now stand as frozen evidence of their energy, ingenuity, and avarice. Most of them have passed into public hands. Many are intact mementos of their creators, available for view by anyone, anywhere. So being able to photograph them is not, in itself, remarkable.
No, it’s my appreciation of the fact that, today,unlike any previous era in photography, it’s possible to take an incredibly detailed, low-light subject like this and accurately render it in a hand-held, non-flash image. This, to a person whose life has spanned several generations of failed attempts at these kinds of subjects, many of them due to technical limits of either cameras, film, or me, is simply amazing. A shot that previously would have required a tripod, long exposures, and a ton of technical tinkering in the darkroom is just there, now, ready for nearly anyone to step up and capture it. Believe me, I don’t dispense a lot of “wows” at my age, over anything. But this kind of freedom, this kind of access, qualifies for one.
This was taken with my basic 18-55mm kit lens, as wide as possible to at least allow me to shoot at f/3.5. I can actually hand-hold fairly steady at even 1/15 sec., but decided to play it safe at 1/40 and boost the ISO to 1000. The skylight and vertical stained-glass panels near the rear are WINOS (“windows in name only”), but that actually might have helped me avoid a blowout and a tougher overall exposure. So, really, thanks for nothing.
On of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the one about Burgess Meredith inheriting all the books in the world after a nuclear war, with sufficient leisure to read his life away, was entitled “Time Enough At Last”. For the amazing blessings of the digital age in photography, I would amend that title by one word:
Light Enough…At Last.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT MATTER, ONCE YOU’VE TRAINED YOURSELF TO SPOT IT, is always in ready supply. But, let’s face it: many of these opportunities are one-and-done. No repeats, no returns, no going back for another crack at it. That’s why, once you learn to make pictures out of almost nothing, it’s like being invited to a Carnival Cruise midnight buffet to find something that is truly exploding with possibilities, sites that actually increase in artistic value with repeat visits. I call such places “labs” because they seem to inspire an endless number of new experiments, fresh ways to look at and re-interpret their basic visual data.
My “labs” have usually been outdoor locations, such as Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Gardens or the all-too-obvious Central Park, places where I shoot and re-shoot over the space of many years to test lenses, exposure schemes, techniques, or, in the dim past, different film emulsions. Some places are a mix of interior and exterior and serve purely as arrangements of space, such as the Brooklyn Museum or the Library of Congress, where, regardless of exhibits or displays, the contours and dynamics of light and form are a workshop all in themselves. In fact, some museums are more beautiful than the works they house, as in the case of Guggenheim in NYC and its gorgeous west coast equivalent, The Getty museum in Los Angeles.
Between the gleaming white, glass-wrapped buildings of this enormous arts campus and its sinuous, sprawling gardens (not to mention its astounding hilltop view), the Getty takes one complete visit just to get yourself visually oriented. Photographically, you will find a million isolated tableaux within its multi-acre layout upon subsequent trips, so there is no end to the opportunities for exploring light, scale, abstraction, and four full seasons of vibrant color. Not a color fan? Fine. The Getty even dazzles in monochrome or muted hues. It’s like Toys ‘R’ Us for photogs.
I truly recommend laying claim to a laboratory of your own, a place that you can never truly be “finished with”. If the place is rich enough in its basic components, your umpteenth trip will be as magical as your first, and you can use that one location as a growth graph for your work. Painters have their muses. Shooter Harry Calahan made a photographic career out of glorifying every aspect of his wife. We all declare our undying love for something.
And it will show in the work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SPACE, BY ITSELF, DOESN’T SUGGEST ITSELF AS A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT, that is, unless it is measured against something else. Walls. Windows. Gates and Fences. Demarcations of any kind that allow you to work space compelling into compositions. Arrangements.
I don’t know why I personally find interesting images in the carving up of the spaces of our modern life, or why these subdivisions are sometimes even more interesting than what is contained inside them. For example, the floor layouts of museums, or their interior design frequently trumps the appeal of the exhibits displayed on its walls. Think about any show you may have seen within Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum, and you will a dramatic contrast between the building itself and nearly anything that has been hung in its galleries.
What I’m arguing for is the arrangement of space as a subject in itself. Certainly, when we photograph the houses of long-departed people, we sense something in the empty rooms they once occupied. There is fullness there inside the emptiness. Likewise, we shoot endless images of ancient ruins like the Roman Coliseum, places where there aren’t even four walls and a roof still standing. And yet the space is arresting.
In a more conventional sense, we often re-organize the space taken up by familiar objects, in our efforts to re-frame or re-contextualize the Empire State, The Eiffel, or the Grand Canyon. We re-order the space priorities to make compositions that are more personal, less popular post card.
And yet all this abstract thinking can make us twitch. We worry, still, that our pictures should be about something, should depict something in the documentary sense. But as painters concluded long ago, there is more to dealing with the world than merely recording its events. And, as photographers, we owe our audiences a chance to share in all the ways we see.
Subdivisions and all.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
VISUAL WONDERS, IN EVERY HOUR AND SEASON, ARE THE COMMON CURRENCY OF CALIFORNIA’S GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. The setting for this marvelous facility, a breathtaking overlook of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills, and the Pacific Ocean, will evoke a gasp from the most jaded traveler, and can frequently upstage the scientific wonders contained within its gleaming white Deco skin.
And when the light above the site’s vast expanse of sky fully asserts itself, that, photographically, trumps everything. For, at that moment, it doesn’t matter what you originally came to capture.
You’re going to want to be all about that light.
Upon my most recent visit to Griffith, the sky was dulled by a thick overcast and drenched by a slate-grey rain that had steadily dripped over the site since dawn. The walkways and common decks were nearly deserted throughout the day, chasing the park’s visitors inside since the opening of doors at noon. By around 3pm, a slow shift began, with stray shafts of sun beginning to seek fissures in the weakening cloud cover. Minute by minute, the dull puddles outside the telescope housing began to gleam; shadows tried to assert themselves beneath the umbrellas ringing the exterior of the cafeteria; the letters on the Hollywood sign started to warm like white embers; and people of all ages ventured slowly to the outside walkways.
By just after 5 in the afternoon, the pattern had moved into a new category altogether. As the overcast began to break and scatter, creating one diffuser of the remaining sunlight, the fading day applied its own atmospheric softening. The combination of these two filtrations created an electric glow of light that flickered between white hot and warm, bathing the surrounding hillsides with explosive pastels and sharp contrasts. For photographers along the park site, the light had undoubtably become THE STORY. Yes the buildings are pretty, yes the view is marvelous. But look what the light is doing.
Like everyone else, I knew I was living moment-to-moment in a temporary, irresistible miracle. The rhythm became click-and-hope, click-and-pray.
And smiles for souvenirs, emblazoned on the faces of a hundred newly-minted Gene Kellys.
“Siiingin’ in the rainnnn…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU VISIT ENOUGH MUSEUMS IN YOUR LIFETIME, you may decide that at least half of them, seen as arranged space, are more interesting than their contents. It may be country-cousin to that time in your childhood when your parents gave you a big box with a riding toy inside it, and, after a few minutes of excitement, you began sitting in the box. The object inside was, after all, only a fire engine, but a box could be a mine shaft, a Fortress of Solitude, the dining car on the Orient Express, and so on.
And so with museums.
I truly do try to give lip service to the curated exhibits and loaned shows that cram the floors and line the walls of the various museums I visit. After all, I am, harumph and ahem, a Patron Of The Arts, especially if said museums are hosting cocktail parties and trays of giant prawns in their hallowed halls…I mean, what’s not to like? However, there are times when the endless variations on just a room, a hall, a mode of lighting, or the anticipatory feeling that something wonderful is right around the next corner is, well, a more powerful spell than the stuff they actually booked into the joint.
Spaces are landscapes. Spaces are still lifes. Spaces are color studies. Spaces are stages where people are dynamic props.
Recently spinning back through my travel images of the last few years, I was really surprised how many times I took shots inside museums that are nothing more than attempts to render the atmosphere of the museum, to capture the oxygen and light in the room, to dramatize the distances and spaces between things. It’s very slippery stuff. Great thing you find, also, is that the increased light sensitivity and white balance controls on present-day cameras allow for a really wide range of effects, allowing you to “interpret” the space in different ways, making this somewhat vaporous pursuit even more …vaporous-y.
In the end, you shoot what speaks to you, and these “art containers” sometimes are more eloquent by far than the treasures they present. That is not a dig on contemporary art (or any other kind). It means that an image is where you find it. Staying open to that simple idea provides surprise.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.