the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Neighborhoods

FIGHTING TO FORGET

By MICHAEL PERKINS

STORIES OF “THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT” COMPRISE ONE OF THE MOST RELIABLE TROPES IN ALL OF FICTION. The romantic notion of stumbling upon places that have been sequestered away from the mad forward crunch of “progress” is flat-out irresistible, since it holds out the hope that we can re-connect with things we have lost, from perspective to innocence. It moves units at the book store. It sells tickets at the box office. And it provides photographers with their most delicate treasures.

Trackside, 2014. 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Trackside, 2014. 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Whether our lost land is a village in some hidden valley or a hamlet within the vast prairie of middle America, we romanticize the idea that some places can be frozen in amber, protected from us and all that we create. Sadly, finding places that have been allowed to remain at the margins, that have been left alone by developers and magnates, is getting to be a greater rarity than ever before. Small towns can be wholly separate universes, sealed off from the silliness that has engulfed most of us, but just finding one which has been lucky enough to aspire to “forgotten” status is increasingly rare.

That’s why it’s so wonderful when you take the wrong road, and make the right turn.

The above stretch of sunlit houses, parallel to their tiny town’s main railroad spur, shows, in miniature, a place where order is simple but unwavering. Colors are basic. Lines are straight. This is a town where school board meetings are still held at the local Carnegie library, where the town’s single diner’s customers are on a first name basis with each other. A place where the flag is taken down and folded each night outside the courthouse. A village that wears its age like an elder’s furrowed brow with quietude, serenity.

There are plenty of malls, chain burger joints, car dealerships and business plazas within several miles of here. But they are not of here. They keep their distance and mind their manners. The freeway won’t be barreling through here anytime soon. There’s time yet.

Time for one more picture, as simple as I know how to make it.

A memento of a world fighting to forget.


THE TORQUOISE TIME TRAVELER

The wondrous Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. A three-exposure HDR to amplify time's toll on the building's exterior.

The wondrous Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. A three-exposure HDR to amplify time’s toll on the building’s exterior.

by MICHAEL PERKINS

SHE HAS WITHSTOOD THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A WORLD WAR, DECADES OF ECONOMIC UPS & DOWNS, and half a dozen owners (some visionaries and some bums), and still, the sleek green/blue terra-cotta wedge that is the Wiltern Theatre is one of the most arresting sights in midtown Los Angeles. From her 83-year old perch at the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the jewel in the lower half of the old Pelissier building still commands attention, and, for lovers of live music, a kind of creaky respect. The old girl isn’t what she used to be, but she is still standing, as the same house that once hosted film premieres in the days of Cagney and Bogart now hosts alternative and edge, with pride.

And she still makes a pretty picture, lined face and all.

Opened in 1931 as a combination vaudeville house and flagship for Warner Brothers’ national chain of film theatres, The Warner Western, as it was originally named, folded up within a few years, re-opening in mid-Depression L.A. as the Wiltern (for Wilshire and Western) operating virtually non-stop until about 1956. As a vintage movie house, it had been equipped with one of the most elegant pipe organs in town, and enthusiasts of the instrument built a small following for the place for a while with recitals featuring the instrument. By the 1970’s, however, economies for larger-than-life flicker palaces were at an all-time low, and the Wiltern’s owners tried twice themselves to apply for permission to blow her down. Preservationists got mad, then got busy.

The Wiltern's ticket kiosk sits under a plaster canopy of Deco sunrays. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

The Wiltern’s ticket kiosk sits under a plaster canopy of Deco sunrays. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

Restoration began in the 1980’s on the Pelissier building in general, but the Wiltern, with its ornate plaster reliefs and murals, had been so neglected over the years that its turnaround was slower. It was finally reborn in 1985 as a live performance theatre, losing some seat room but newly able to stage everything from brain-blaster garage rock to Broadway road productions and ballet.

I shot the Wiltern with three HDR frame, all f/5.6, with exposure times of 1/60, 1/100. and 1/160, and blended the final image in Photomatix to really show the wear and tear on the exterior. HDR is great for amplifying every flaw in building materials, as well as highlighting the uneven color that is an artifact of time and weather. I wanted to show the theatre as a stubborn survivor rather than a flawless fantasy, and the process also helped call attention to the building’s French Deco zigzags and chevrons. For an extra angle, I also made some studies of the glorious sunburst plaster ceiling over the outside ticket kiosk. It was great to meet the old girl at last, and on her own terms.

 


TRY A DIFFERENT DOOR

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PUBLIC PLACES, ESPECIALLY RECREATION SPACES, ARE A REAL STUDY IN IMAGE CONTROL. The world’s playgrounds and theme parks are, of course, in the business of razzle-dazzle, and their marquees, grand courts and official entrances are carefully crafted facades designed to delight. For photographers, that usually means we all take the same pictures of the same Magic Gate or Super Coaster or whatever. Great for convenience: not so great for photography.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to improvise a different way to frame something new in shooting something overly familiar. But I am saying that sneaking around to the service entrance can have its points, too, offering a flavor of things that are a little funkier, a little less polished, a little less ready for prime time. I recall my dad, who, years ago, dreamed of taking the ultimate “real” shots of the circus, trolling around near some of the lesser-traveled entrances and halls, trying to catch the clowns and acrobats either just before or just after their time in the ring. I still pursue that strategy sometimes.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

Pacific Park, the amusement center along the boardwalk at the Santa Monica pier, is a predictably colorful, semi-cheesy mix of carny sights and smells. The main foot traffic is straight down the pier to the fishing lookout, but there are alternate ways to get there along the back of the ride and games section. This shot is rather gauzy, as it’s taken through some sun-flecked netting, softening the color (and the appearance of reality) for some gaming areas. I took a lot of standard stuff on this day, but I keep coming back to this frame. It’s not a work of art, by any means, but I like the feeling that I’m not supposed to be there.

Of course, where I’m not supposed to be is, photographically, exactly where I want to be.

You never know when you might spy a clown without his rubber nose.

 


ALIENATIONS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE STRANGEST VISUAL EVIDENCE OF MAN’S PRESENCE ON THE PLANET IS HIS ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE HIS THINKING, the ability to say, of his living patterns, “over here, cool. Over there, six inches away, ick. You see these kind of yes/no, binary choices everywhere. The glittering, gated community flanked by feral urban decay. The open pasture land that abuts a zoo. And the natural world, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of its near neighbors from our co-called “civilization”.

As seen from Griffith Observatory: park running paths and a smog-shrouded L.A.: 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

As seen from Griffith Observatory: park running paths and a smog-shrouded L.A. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

I recently re-evaluated this image of the running paths at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and the nearby uber-grid of the central city. The colors are a bit muted since it was taken on a day of pretty constant rolling overcast, and it really is not a definitive portrait of either the city or the nearby greenspace, but there is a little story to be told in the ability of the two worlds to co-exist.

L.A’s lore is rife with stories of destroyed environments, twisted eco-structure, bulldozed neighborhoods and political hackery advanced at great cost to the poor and the powerless. In the face of that history, the survival of Griffith, a 4,310-acre layout of parks, museums, kiddie zoos, sports courts, and concert venues on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, is something of a miracle. It’s the lion lying down with the lamb, big-time, a strange and lucky juxtaposition that affords some of the most interesting fodder for photographers anywhere in California. Photogs observe natural pairings in the world, but they also chronicle alienations, urban brothers from different mothers, tales of visual conflicts that, while they can’t be reconciled, are worth noting.

 


MINUTE TO MINUTE

Going, Going: Dusk giveth you gifts, but it taketh them away pretty fast, too. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 200, 18mm.

Going, Going: Dusk giveth you gifts, but it taketh them away pretty fast, too. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 200, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

VOLUMES HAVE BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE WONDROUS PHENOMENON OF “GOLDEN HOUR“, that miraculous daily window of time between late afternoon and early evening when shadows grow long and colors grow deep and rich. And nearly all authors on the subject, whatever their other comments, reiterate the same advice: stay loose and stay ready.

Golden hour light changes so quickly that anything that you are shooting will be vastly different within a few moments, with its own quirky demands for exposure and contrast. Basic rule: if you’re thinking about making a picture of an effect of atmosphere, do it now. This is especially true if you are on foot, all alone in an area, packing only one camera with one lens. Waiting means losing.

The refraction of light through clouds, the angle of the sun as it speeds toward the horizon, the arrangement between glowing bright and super-dark….all these variables are shifting constantly, and you will lose if you snooze. It’s not a time for meditative patience. It’s a time for reactivity.

I start dusk “walkarounds” when all light still looks relatively normal, if a bit richer. It gives me just a little extra time to get a quick look at shots that may, suddenly, evolve into something. Sometimes, as in the frame above, I will like a very contrasty scene, and have to shoot it whether it’s perfect or not. It will not get better, and will almost certainly get worse. As it is, in this shot, I have already lost some detail in the front of the building on the right, and the lighted garden restaurant on the left is a little warmer than I’d like, but the shot will be completely beyond reach in just a few minutes, so in this case, I’m for squeezing off a few variations on what’s in front of me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised more than once after getting back home.

What’s fun about this particular subject is that one half of the frame looks cold, dead, “closed” if you will, while there is life and energy on the left. No real story beyond that, but that can sometimes be enough. Golden hour will often give you transitory goodies, with its more dramatic colors lending a little more heft to things. I can’t see anything about this scene that would be as intriguing in broad daylight, but here, the hues give you a little magic.

Golden hour is a little like shooting basketballs at Chuck E. Cheese. You have less time than you’d like to be accurate, and you may or may not get enough tickets for a round of Skee-Ball.

But hey.


THE PARTY’S OVER

The Leavings: Christmas Tree Lot, Phoenix, AZ, 12/26/13. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

The Leavings: Christmas Tree Lot, Phoenix, AZ, 12/26/13. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE SCIENCE OF SECONDS. The seconds when the light plays past you. The seconds when the joy explodes. The seconds when maybe the building explodes, or the plane crashes. The micro moments of emotion’s arrivals and departures. Here it comes. There it goes. Click.

We are very good with the comings….the beginnings of babies, the opening of a rose, the blooming of a surprised smile. However, as chroniclers of effect, we often forget to also document the goings of life. The ends of things. The moment when the party’s over.

Christmas is a time of supreme comings and goings, and we have more than a month of ramp-up time each year during which we snap away at what is on the way. The gatherings and the gifts. The approaching joy. But a holiday this big leaves echoes and vacuums when it goes away, and those goings are photo opportunities as well.

This year, on 12/26, the predictably melancholy “morning after” found me driving around completely without pattern or design, looking for something of the magic day that had departed. I spun past the abandoned ruin of one of those temporary Christmas tree lots that sprout in the crevices of every city like gypsy camps for about three weeks out of the year, and something about all its emptiness said picture to me, so I got out and started bargaining with a makeshift cyclone fence for a view of the poles, lights and unloved fir branches left behind.

Pack up and get out of town.

Pack up and get out of town.

The earliness of the hour meant that the light was a little warmer and kinder than would be the case later on in the bleached-out white of an Arizona midday, so the scene was about as nice as it was going to get. But what I was really after was the energy that goes out of things the day the circus drives out of town. The holidays are ripe with that feeling of loss, and, to me, it’s at least as interesting as recording the joy. Without a little tragedy you don’t appreciate triumph, and all that. Christmas trees are just such an obvious measure of that flow: one day you’re selling magic by the foot, the next day you’re packing up trash and trailer and making your exit.

Photographs come when they come, and, unlike us, they aren’t particular about what their message is. They just present chances to see.

Precious chances, as it turns out.


ANOTHER YEAR OUT THE WINDOW

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF YOU WANT TO PUT A SMILE ON MY FACE WHEN I VISIT YOUR CITY, there is no sweeter sentence you can say to me than:

“I’ll drive”.

There is, for photographers, one way to maximize your time touring through other people’s towns, and that’s the time-honored tradition of “riding shotgun”. Drive me anywhere, but give me a window seat. I wasn’t trying to go for some kind of personal best in the area of urban side shots in 2013, but by good fortune I did snag a few surprises as I was ferried through various towns, along with a “reject” pile about a mile high. Like any other kind of shooting, the yield in window shooting is very low in terms of “killers per click”, but when you hit the target, you crack through a kind of “I’m new in town” barrier and take home a bit of the street for your own.

Call me if someone dies.

Business has been really dead lately. 1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm. 

This guy just killed me (excuse the expression). He seemed like he was literally waiting for business to drop in (or drop dead), and meanwhile was taking in the view. Probably he didn’t even work for the casket company, in which case, what a bummer of neighbor to pick. Maybe he’s rent controlled.

Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 500, 35mm.

Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 500, 35mm.

This one took a little tweaking. The building was actually blue, as you see here, lit with subdued mood for the holidays. However, in lightening this very dark shot, the sky registered as a muddy brown, so I made a dupe, desaturated everything except the conservatory, then added tint back in to make the surrounding park area match the building. All rescued from an “all or nothing” shot.

I’m also ashamed to admit that I bagged a few through-the-window shots while actually driving the car, all done at red lights and so not recommended. Don’t do as I do, do as I……oh, you know.

Here’s to long shots, at horse tracks or in viewfinders, and the few that finish in the money.


RISING TO THE OCCASION

The Desmond building's elevator floor indicator, circa 1928. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

The Desmond building’s elevator floor indicator, circa 1928. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LOS ANGELES USED TO BE COMPOSED OF MANY PEOPLE LIKE RUBEN PARDO, the balding, beaming driver of the elevator at the Desmond building at 5500 Wilshire Boulevard. Once upon an urban time long, long, ago there were people who specialized in guiding, in fact, feeling the rise and fall of elevators in cabs they manually controlled. They were the unofficial greeters of their buildings, as familiar with the fortunes of the tenants and clients of their respective towers as the counterman at a diner.

Once, these ascension specialists were turned out in resplendent uniforms befitting their twin duties as both concierge and mechanic. Epaulets. Braided cords. Hats that earned the word “snappy”. Gloves. And always, the inextinguishable smile that Ruben still radiates to all, from the edgy curators of the Desmond’s second floor Gallery “A” to its street level Fed Ex workers to the Deco lovers who float into his lobby to admire his peacock-bedecked elevator doors and the warm mahogany wood of his stately 6×8 foot cab, all original from 1928.

And always, there is the science of measuring the distance between the floors himself, knowing when the car is level, waiting for the right moment to sweep back the flexible cage door that protects his passengers. Watch your step, sir. Turn right and go to the end of the hall, ma’am. Press the button to call me if you finish early, and  I’ll come up and get you.

Mr. Pardo has seen Desmond’s descend into the ashes of yesterglory, and now, is still around to see new leases beginning to give the old girl a facelift in one of L.A.’s biggest comeback neighborhoods. Everything old is new again, and, as the crowds start coming back, he is ready.

Don't do the joke about his job having "its ups and downs": he's heard it. Ruben Pardo at his post at the Desmond's elevator. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Don’t do the joke about his job having “its ups and downs”: he’s heard it. Ruben Pardo at his post at the Desmond’s elevator. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

I asked Ruben, after thirty-seven years on the job, if he would mind posing for me before his cab. “I’ll just look out toward the street”, he said, and he was right. Mid-morning sun from Wilshire lit his smiling face to perfection as he stood next to his beloved car. It was the look of someone who is doing exactly what he wants to do, a rare thing in a world where we hurry to throw things away, to surge on to we don’t know what. Ruben has earned his little vertical sliver of sky, and he’ll take you up there anytime, himself.

Whenever you’re ready.


FRAGMENTING THE FRAME

1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

1/160 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE MADE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT, IN RECENT YEARS,  TO AVOID TAKING A “STRAIGHT SHOT” OUT OF, OR THROUGH A WINDOW, of using that rectangle or square as a conventional means of bordering a shot. Making a picture where a standard view of the world is merely surrounded by a typical frame shows my eye nothing at all, whereas the things that fragment that frame, that break it into smaller pieces, bisecting or even blocking information…..that’s fascinating to me.

This is not an arbitrary attempt to be “arty” or abstract. I simply prefer to build a little mystery into my shots, and a straight out-the-window framing defeats that. My showing everything means the viewer supplies nothing of his own. Conversely, pictures that both reveal and conceal, simultaneously, invite speculation and encourage inquiry. It’s more of a conversation.

Think about it like a love scene in a movie. If every part of “the act” is depicted, it’s not romantic, not sexy. It’s what the director leaves out of the scene that fires the imagination, that makes it a personal creation of your mind. Well-done love scenes let the audience create part of the picture. Showing everything is clinical….boring.

With that in mind, The Normal Eye’s topside menu now has an additional image gallery called Split Decisions, featuring shots that attempt to show what can result when you deliberately break up the normal framing in and out of windows. Some of the shots  wound up doing what I wanted: others came up short, but may convey something to someone else.

As always, let us know what you think, and thanks for looking.


GOING OFF-MENU

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I AM ALREADY ON RECORD AS A CHAMPION OF THE ODD, THE OFF-KILTER, AND THE JOYFULLY STRANGE IN AMERICAN RETAIL. As a photographer, I often weep over the endangered status of the individual entrepreneur, the shopkeeper who strikes out in search of a culturally different vibe, some visual antidote to the tsunami of national chains and marts that threatens to drown out our national soul. Sameness and uniformity is a menace to society and a buzzkill of biblical proportions for photography. Art, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

It is, of course, possible that someone might have created a deathless masterpiece of image-making using a Denny’s or a Kohl’s as a subject, and, if so, I would be ecstatic to see the results, but I feel that the photog’s eye is more immediately rewarded by the freak start-ups, the stubborn outliers in retail, and nowhere is this in better evidence than in eateries. Restaurants are like big sleeves for their creators to wear their hearts on.

1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

The surf is seldom “up” at the Two Hippies’ Beach House Restaurant in Phoenix, AZ, but the joint is “awash” in mood. 1/640 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

That’s why this divinely misfit toy of a diner, which was hidden in plain sight on one of the main drags in central Phoenix, has given me such a smile lately. I have never eaten at the swelegant Two Hippies’ Beach House, but I have visually feasted on its unabashed quirkiness. And if the grub is half as interesting as the layout, it must be the taste equivalent of the Summer of Love.

Even if the food’s lousy, well, everyone still gets a B+ anyway for hooking whoever is induced to walk in the door.

On the day I shot this, the midday sun was (and is) harsh, given that it’s, duh, Arizona, so I was tempted to use post-processing to even out the rather wide-ranging contrast. Finally, though, I decided to show the place just as I discovered it. Amping up the colors or textures would have been overkill, as the joint’s pallette of colors is already cranked up to 11, so I left it alone. I did shoot as wide as I could to get most of the layout in a single frame, but other than that, the image is pretty much hands-off.

Whatever my own limited skill in capturing the restaurant, I thank the photo gods for, as the old blues song goes, “sending me someone to love.”

Trippy, man.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.


REVELATION OR RUT?

Cafe Chill, Brooklyn, 2013. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Cafe Chill, Brooklyn, 2013. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT’S OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, UNDER THE SPELL OF A CONCEPT, TO KNOW WHETHER THEY ARE MARCHING TOWARD SOME LOFTY QUEST or merely walking in circles, their foot (or their brain) nailed to the floor. Fall too deeply in love with a given idea, and you could cling to it, for comfort or habit, long after it has yielded anything remotely creative.

You might be mistaking a rut for revelation.

We’ll all seen it happen. Hell, it’s happened to many of us. You begin to explore a particular story-telling technique. It shows some promise. And so you hang with it a little longer, then a little longer still. One more interpretation of the shot that made you smile. One more variation on the theme.

Maybe it’s abstract grid details on glass towers, taken in monochrome at an odd angle. Maybe it’s time exposures of light trails on a midnight highway. And maybe, as in my own case, it’s a lingering romance with dense, busy neighborhood textures, shot at a respectfully reportorial distance. Straight-on, left to right tapestries of doors, places of business, upstairs/downstairs tenant life, comings and goings. I love them, but I also worry about how long I can contribute something different to them as a means of telling a story.

As staged as a Broadway show, Norman Rockwell's idealized neighborhoods are still alluring in their appeal.

As staged as a Broadway show, Norman Rockwell’s idealized neighborhoods are still alluring in their appeal.

The bustling tenement neighborhoods of early Norman Rockwell paintings appealed to me, as a child, because the frames were teeming with life: people leaning out of windows, sitting on porches, perching on fire escapes, delivering the morning milk…they were a divine, almost musical chaos. But they were paintings, with all the intentional orchestration of sentiment and nostalgia that comes with that medium. Those images were wonderful, but they were not documents…merely dreams.

 That, of course, doesn’t make them any less powerful as an influence on photography.

When I look at a section of an urban block, I try to frame a section of it that tells, in miniature, the life that can be felt all day long as the area’s natural rhythm. There are re-gentrified restaurants, neglected second-floor apartments, new coats of paint on old brick, overgrown trees, stalwart standbys that have been part of the street for ages, young lovers and old duffers. Toss all the ingredients together and you might get an image salad that captures something close to “real”. And then there is the trial-and-error of how much to include, how busy or sparse to portray the subject.

That said, I have explored this theme many times over the years, and worry that I am trying to harvest crops from a fallow field. Have I stayed too long at this particular fair? Are there even any compelling stories left to tell in this approach, or have I just romanticized the idea of the whole thing beyond any artistic merit?

Hopefully, I will know when to strike this kind of image off my “to do” list, as I fear that repetition, even repetition of a valid concept, can lead to laziness….the place where you call “habit” a “style”.

And I don’t want to dwell in that place.