By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Reports Of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PRONOUNCING NEW YORK CITY DEAD since the Dutch first tried to turn the place into a satellite business enterprise and the locals decided, in reverse Cinderella fashion, that those wooden shoes weren’t really a good fit for their feet. In fact, The City That Never Sleeps is kind of like a cat on steroids, endowed with not merely nine but a seemingly infinite number of separate lives, each one built on the ashes of the one that preceded it. Something in New York is always under threat, soon to open on this site, not as good as it used to be, and something that no one’s ever seen before, all at the same time. It is a chorus that, to outsiders, can sound like a cacophony. The locals hear music in the crashing of the garbage cans. To those who don’t get it, the reaction to what Manhattan regards as Business As Usual is often some variation on Oh My God How Can You Live Like This.
It’s no wonder that the camera, any camera at any time, can’t look away.
After all, you blink….you might miss something.
At this writing, March of 2020, the city is curled up into a ball, bracing itself for an impending impact that no one knows how to estimate or pre-measure. By any reasonable guess, the meteor, when it hits, will hurt big, and for a long time. And so I don’t propose a mere “pick yourself up” attitude or cheery bravado as the country looks down the barrel of this cannon. But I also believe that, like Twain’s death, any bets that are taken against New York’s survival will be ill-advised. I am not a native, but over a lifetime, I have spent enough time in New York streets to know that this brash kid is here to stay. You can smash airplanes into our neighborhoods. So what else you got? You can tear up the streets, close our favorite bar, church, or theatre, swaddle the whole place in economic depression, and even flood the subway. Is that your best shot? This isn’t empty bluster: it’s demonstrated fact. Yeah, sure, we’ll dim the lights on Broadway from time to time, but, hey, there’s a new sushi joint opening in Soho next week, y’know?
The proof of what I’m saying is in the photographic record, in the visual poetry of all the Berenice Abbotts and Walker Evanses and Alfred Eisenstadts and Robert Frankses and Diane Arbuses and too many other testimonial eyes to count. If you’ve got a little spare time these days, check out a few. There are even a few occasionally lucky entries from yours truly. And while everyone else in the world has an opinion, good or bad, with or without a camer, about New York, only one vote really counts.
And that’s theirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.
Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.
As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.
Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.
As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREATEST TEACHING MUSEUMS are not “museums” at all, but those sites where a present, living enterprise is ongoing, activities that also preserve and demonstrate the original purpose of the spaces. Walking through a building whose continuing existence illustrates what made it great in the first place outranks any mere remembrance staged in some sterile exhibit space. It also allows photographers to re-invent the visual records of such sites for their generation.
In the case of one venerable building in New York City, I have lately felt a poignancy in how photography itself has figured in the creation of the American Century.
As this little scribble goes to press, the latest owner for the long-embattled New York Daily News has decided to lay off nearly fifty per cent of that scrappy newspaper’s editorial staff, including virtually all its photographers. Born in 1919, the News was, from the beginning, an upstart, a locally focused, close-to-the-ground, bare-knuckled chronicle of Gotham’s daily doings, delivered with a huge dollop of attitude. Promoting itself as “New York’s Picture Newspaper”, the NYDN brought photography to the fore as a dominant storytelling component, in a way no other American newspaper ever had. While the New York Times‘ polite and prim broadsheet spoke in its inside voice, the News, its smaller tabloid format an easier fit for one-handed commuters, screamed “EXTRA!!”. You might not like the message, but by God, you couldn’t look away.
Inside the lobby of the News‘ building at 220 East 42nd Street, the message was a little more mellow, with its enormous illuminated world globe emitting a vibe of stability, science, order, reliability. Today, with the paper long since having emigrated to 4 New York Plaza, the globe, now protected (as is its host building) by city landmark status, still revolves, quietly glowing like the ember of a world that once burned as bright as a comet.
And that world moves on, of course. Markets decide what kinds of newspapers they want, and careers will always wax and wane. But, for photographers, places like the News building, places that defined the American Century, still speak more eloquently than any tepid re-creations in formal museums, and chronicling them with cameras qualifies as vital work.
Finally, there is no substitute for the real thing, something director Richard Donner affirmed in 1978. Building sets for Superman: The Movie, Donner decided that he could save a tidy sum in the creation of the atmosphere for Clark Kent’s day job at the Daily Planet. The solution? Just send the camera crew and cast down to the News building……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.
A case study……
There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.
This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.
In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.
This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.
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
NEIGHBORHOODS HAVE THEIR OWN VISUAL SIGNATURES, and photographers looking to tap into the energy of streets do well to give their locales a bit of advance study, the better to try to read an area’s particular identity. Sometimes the storytelling potential lies in a single building, even a part of a building. Other times it’s the mix of foot traffic. And, every once in a while, the saga of a street lies in the pavement itself.
New York City’s South Street Seaport district is drenched in local lore, tracing the contours of its alleys and warehouses to the beginnings of Manhattan’s first days as an international shipping destination. From the times of the Dutch’s tall-masted sailing vessels to the present mix of museum and modern retail, the port, on a typical day, offers color, texture, and a feeling of deeply rooted history that is a goldmine for photographers.
Of course, every neighborhood has its off days, and, on my recent trek to the area, a persistent, wind-driven rain had chased all but the hardiest locals off the streets and into the oaky timbers of the port’s quaint shops. Life on the street slowed to a crawl as iron-grey skies robbed the scene of its bolder hues. It was a day to huddle indoors with a good read and a hot cuppa anything. My camera, usually an unfelt burden around my beltline, began to drag like an anchor, stuffed into my woolen jacket to ward off the pelting drizzle, giving me the appearance of someone in sore need of a hip replacement.
Despairing of finding any vital activity along the street, I turned in desperation to the pavement itself, realizing that, in this eastward edge of Manhattan, the texture of the roads abandons the even concrete of most of the island and reverts to the cobbled brick textures of Melville’s time, with many old waterfront fixtures installed at curbside for extra atmosphere. Suddenly I had a little story to tell. The varied mix of firings in the brick, along with the steady rain, delivered the vivid color that was lacking in the area’s shops, allowing me to create an entire frame from just the street itself. Finding that some scale was needed, I sought out an old iron fixture for the left edge of the photo with just the legs and feet of two passing girls to balance out the right side. Suddenly there was enough, just enough of something to make a picture.
Obviously, if the street had been mere wet concrete or blacktop, the impact would have been different, and, were I in a different neighborhood, the street itself might have been unable to compete with the businesses for color or interest. On that morning, however, simple worked best, and my camera, at least for a moment, felt less like an anchor and more like a sailing ship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS, A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE known as the “home field advantage”, wherein a team can turn a superior knowledge of its native turf against its visiting opponent. The accuracy of this belief has never been conclusively proven, but it’s interesting to think on whether it applies to photography as well. Do we, for the purposes of making pictures, know our own local bailiwicks better than visitors ever can? Or is it, as I suspect, the dead opposite?
Familiarity may not breed contempt, but, when it comes to our seeing everything in our native surroundings with an artistic eye, it can breed a kind of invisibility, a failing to see something that has long since receded into the back part of our attention, and thus stops registering as something to see anew, or with fresh interpretation. How many buildings on the street we take into the office are still standouts in our mind’s eye? How many objects would we be amazed to learn are actually part of our walk home, and yet “unseen” by us as we mentally drift along that drab journey?
It may be that there is actually a decided “out-of-towner” advantage in visiting a place where you have no pre-conceptions or habitual routes, in approaching things and places in cities as totally new, free of prior associations. I’ve often been asked of an image, “where did you take that?” only to inform the questioner that the building in the picture is a half block from their place of business. The above image was taken on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not more than a half block and across the street from the Chrysler building. It is a gorgeous treasure of design cues every bit as symbolic of the golden age of Art Deco as its aluminum clad neighbor, and yet I could hold a contest amongst many New Yorkers as to where or what it is and never have to award the prize money. The Chrysler’s very fame eclipses its neighbors, rendering them less visible.
Perception is at the heart of every visual art, and the most difficult things to re-imagine are the ones which have ceased to strike us as special. And since everyone lives in a city that is at least partly invisible to them, it stands to reason that an outside eye can make its own “something new” out of everyone else’s “something old”. Realize and celebrate your special power as a photographic outlier.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SKYLINE OF NEW YORK CITY, if you think about it a bit, is almost like a bar graph in steel and stone.
Just as higher and lower bars on a business graph chart the successes and failures of a company or stock, so do the vertical surgings above Manhattan island track the ebb and flow of energy, of the life flow of the most amazing metropolis on earth. And for photographers, the Apple’s skyline is always news. Someone is moving up. Someone else is moving down, or over. There’s always a new kid on the block, and that means that the photographic story of New York must be re-imagined yet again.
New York buildings create context for themselves and for the city at large, as the fresh arrivals jostle in and try to mingle with their more historically landed neighbors. That process is always exciting, but the rebirth of the part of lower Manhattan scarred and scorched by the hateful events of 9/11/01 brings more than just a new crop of jutting profiles. It brings one of the most powerful symbols of resurrection in the modern age. To paraphrase the song lyric, America proved, on that most battered of battlegrounds, that, if we could make it there, we could make it anywhere, and the nation at large stood a little taller with the arrival of the new World Trade Center.
Cameras now idealize that which is already miraculous, and WTC One, visible from anywhere in the city, will create its own photographic history, or, rather, make it irresistible for photographers to try to write it themselves. Postcard views, neighborhood contrasts, abstractions, souvenir snaps…all will be the story and none will be the story, at least not the whole story. New York is always ready for her close-up, but the challenge is always, are you good enough to shoot her best side?
Photographers visit New York to size themselves up in their own bar graph of pass/fail/maybe. Like everyone who ever stepped off a Port Authority bus fresh off the farm, they ask themselves: am I good? According to whom? Compared to what? Can I make something last as I create images of a city that not only never sleeps, but never even slows down?
“Autumn in New York. It’s good to live it again….”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN A GAME OF INCHES, a struggle in which outcomes vary wildly based on small, rather than large issues. Early photographers learned this the hard way, since their limited gear forced them to innovate composition and exposure with tiny tweaks that slowly but gradually added more refined skill to their work and better performance from their equipment. Ernest Haas’ great quote that a wide-angle lens is just as close as taking three steps backward still holds true. What has changed is that we have a greater tendency to think that we need more tech to make better pictures. That concept, simply, is poppycock.
For years, the option of a zoom lens was out of the question for the average photographer. The consumer-level zooms that existed were often optically inferior to standard or wide-angle glass (as testified to by Annie Leibowitz and other heavyweights), and so composition was acquired by physically closing or widening the actual distance between yourself and your subject. This is not to say that zooms didn’t eventually prove amazing tools, because they have. However, they demonstrate and instance in which tech has automated, and thus eliminated, an extra step of mindful concentration that used to reside solely in the photographer’s brain. This can lead, over time to an over-reliance on the gear to bring everything home, something it cannot ever do.
Learning to simply maximize the effect of whatever you have up front of the shutter is the easiest, and yet most overlooked aspect of many people’s work. We’d spend a lot less time lugging and swapping lenses if we knew how far we could push whatever we’ve got attached at the moment, and, indeed, masters like Scott Kelby, author of the best-selling Digital Photography Book series, has several “why change lenses? hunks of glass like the 18-200mm that can get him through an entire day without a swap. This works because he works a little harder at exploiting everything his gear can do.
Consider the above image. It’s taken at 18mm, but, because I arched the shot upwards, instead of maintaining a level horizon line, I forced the lens to do a little more of what it was originally designed to do….exaggerate dimensions and distances. The development of wide-angle lenses was, after all, pursued by shooters who wanted an enhancement, an interpretation, and not a recording, of reality. As such, the wide-angle in this shot over-accentuates the most prominent feature of this room within the old U.S. Customs building in Manhattan…its amazing murals. It also creates an illusion of vastness, front-to-back, in a room that is already pretty huge. And this is all done by pivoting my head upward about 30 degrees.
The game of inches is the great equalizer in photography between pro and amateur, because it gives the advantage to those who plan the best, see the most, and think the widest. And you don’t need a closet full of geegaws to do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EROSION AND COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN URBAN INFRASTRUCTURES of the 20th century is more than bad policy. It is more than reckless. It is also, to my mind, a sin against hope.
As photographers, we are witness to this horrific betrayal of the best of the human spirit. The pictures that result from this neglect may, indeed, be amazing. But we capture them with a mixture of sadness and rage.
Hope was a rarity in the early days of the Great Depression. Prosperity was not quite, as the experts claimed, “right around the corner.” And yet, a strategy arose, in private and federal project alike, that offered uplift and utility at the same time. People were put to work making things that other people needed. The nation erected parks, monuments, utilities, forests, and travel systems that turned misery to muscle and muscle to miracle. Millionaires used their personal fortunes to create temples of commerce and towers of achievement, hiring more men to turn more shovels. Hope became good business.
One of the gleaming jewels of the era was, and is, the still-amazing Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which, in its decorative murals and reliefs, lionized the working man even as it put bread on his table. The dignity of labor was reflected across the country in everything from newspaper lobbies to post office portals, giving photographers the chance to chronicle both decline and recovery in a country brought only briefly to its knees.
Today, the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC studios, still provides a soaring tribute to the iron workers and sandhogs who made it possible for America to again put one foot in front of the other, marching, not crawling, back into the sunlight. It still makes a pretty picture, as can thousands of such surviving works across the country. Photographing them in the current context of priceless inheritance offers a new way to thank the bygone architects of hope.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW YORK CITY IS A VERY IRONIC CANVAS. Artists who set brush upon that canvas may think they are attempting to depict something outside themselves, but what they show actually reveals very personal things. There are more stories than all the storytellers in the world can ever hope to render…in paint, in print, or through the lens of a camera, and while some of us entertain the notion that we are adding this commentary objectively, that, plainly, is impossible.
From handheld luggage to emotional baggage, everyone brings something to New York, layering their own dreams and dreads onto the multi-story sandwich of human experience that makes it the world’s most unique social laboratory. Hard as it is on the artistic ego, one can’t make the statement that defines the city. Wiser minds from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan have tried, and they have all contributed their versions….wonderful versions. But the story can never be completed. New York won’t be contained by mere words and images. It is, like the song says, a state of mind.
Still, trying to scale the mountain can be fun. So, with this post, The Normal Eye has added a new gallery tab at the top of the page to share a few recent takes on my own ongoing love affair with the Apple. The title, I’ll Take Manhattan, is hardly original, but it is easy to remember. I have done essays on NYC before, but, this time out, I strove to focus as much on the rhythm of people as on the staggering scope of the skyline. New York is, finally, its people, that perpetually fresh infusion of rigor, rage, talent and terror that adds ever-new coats of paint to the neighborhoods, and this batch of pictures tries, in 2015, to show the town as it is used, by its daily caretakers. The push. The pull. The gamut of sensations from sky to gutter.
So have a look if you will and weigh these impressions against those you’ve discovered through others or developed within yourself. Taking on a photographic task that can never be finished is either frustrating or freeing, depending on your artistic viewpoint. In the meantime, what a ride.
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
ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY, versus shooting in rural settings, is the constant variability of light. On its way to the streets of a dense city, light is refracted, reflected, broken, interrupted, bounced and just plain blocked in ways that sunshine on a meadow can never be. As a result, shooting in cities deals with direct light only intermittently: it’s always light plus, light in spite of, light over here, but not over there. And it’s a challenge for all but the most patient photographers. Almost every frame must be planned somewhat differently from its neighbors, for there can be no “standard” exposure strategy.
I often think of city streets as big window sills sitting below a massive set of venetian blinds, with every slat tilted a little differently. And I personally greet this condition as an opportunity rather than a deficit, since the unique patterns of abstraction mean that even mundane scenes can be draped in drama at any given moment. That’s why, as I age, I’ve come to highly value selective lighting, for mood, since I’m convinced that perfectly even lighting on an object can severely limit that selfsame drama.
I’m also reminded of the old Dutch masters painters, who realized that a partially dark face contains a kind of mystery. Conversely, a street scene that contains no dropouts of detail or light makes everything register just about the same with the eye, and can keep your images from having a prominent point of interest. Darkness, by contrast, asks your imagination to supply what’s missing. Even light is a kind of full disclosure, and it can rob your pictures of their main argument, or the “look over here” cue that’s needed to make a photograph really connect.
Back to street photography. Given that glass and metal surfaces, the main ingredients in urban structures, can run a little to silver and blue, I may actually take an unevenly lit scene and either modify it toward those colors with a filter, or simply under-expose by a half-stop to see how much extra mood I can wring out of the situation, as in the above image of an atrium in midtown Manhattan. Think of it as “working” those big venetian blinds. Cities both reveal and conceal, and your images, based on your approach, can serve both those ends.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, DESPITE ENGAGING THEIR AUDIENCES IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS, have retained one common aim over the centuries, at least when it comes to pictorial or scenic subjects. Both the photo and the canvas arrange their visual information on a two-dimensional surface, and both seek to draw the viewer’s eye into a depth that is largely illusionary. The cameraman and the painter both contrive to create the illusion that the distance from front to back in their works is as real as the distance from side to side.
In terms of simulating depth, some photographs benefit from both shadow and light, which alternatively “model” the information in an image, making it seem to “pop” in some faux-dimensional sense. But the best and simplest trick of composition is what we popularly term the “leading line”, information that trails from the front of the picture and pulls the viewer’s attention to an inevitable destination somewhere deeper back in the scene.
Putting a picture together this way ought to be the most automatic of instincts in the composition of a photograph, but it still is formally taught, as if it were less than obvious. In fact, it just means extending an invitation to someone to join you “in” the photograph.
Trails, paths, railroad tracks, lines of trees or phone poles….these are all examples of information that can start at one side of a photo and track diagonally to the “back” of the image, making the eye experience a kind of gravity, tugging it toward the place you want their gaze to end up. It is also the easiest way to force attention to a central subject of interest, sort of like inserting a big neon arrow into the frame, glowing with the words over here.
Leading lines are a landscape’s best friend, as well, since the best landscapes are arranged so that the focal point of the story is streamlined and obvious. Anyone who has ever shown too much in a landscape will tell you that what fails in the composition is that it allows the viewer to wander around the place wondering what the point of the picture is. The use of a powerful leading line gives the illusion of depth and corrals the eyes of your audience to the exact spot you need them to be for full effect.
Composition is the most democratic of photographic skills. It’s easy, it’s free, and anyone from a point-and-shooter to a Leica addict can use it effectively. Bottom line: there are great things happening in your pictures. Invite the people inside.
A PICTURE, WHEN IT TRULY COMMUNICATES, isn’t worth a thousand words. The comforting cliché notwithstanding, a great picture goes beyond words, making its emotional and intellectual connection at a speed that no poet can compete with. The world’s most enduring images carry messages on a visceral network that operates outside the spoken or written word. It’s not better, but it most assuredly is unique.
Most Veteran’s Days are occasions of solemnity, and no amount of reverence or respect can begin to counterbalance the astonishing sacrifice that fewer and fewer of us make for more and more of us. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, there’s a limit to what our words, even our most loving, well-intended words, can do to consecrate that sacrifice further.
But images can help, and have acted as a kind of mental shorthand since the first shutter click. And along with sad remembrance should come pictures of joy, of victory, of survival.
Of a sailor and a nurse.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, the legendary photojournalist best known for his decades at Life magazine, did, on V-J day in Times Square in 1945, what millions of scribes, wits both sharp and dull, couldn’t do. He produced a single photograph which captured the complete impact of an experience shared by millions, distilled down to one kiss. The subjects were strangers to him, and to this day, their faces largely remain a mystery to the world. “Eisie”, as his friends called him, recalled the moment:
In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, it didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder, but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.
Those few seconds have been frozen in time as one of the world’s most treasured memories, the streamlined depiction of all the pent-up emotions of war: all the longing, all the sacrifice, all the relief, all the giddy delight in just being young and alive. A happiness in having come through the storm. Eisie’s photo is more than just an instant of lucky reporting: it’s a toast, to life itself. That’s what all the fighting was about anyway, really. That’s what all of those men and women in uniform gave us, and still give us. And, for photographers the world over, it is also an enduring reminder from a master:
“This, boys and girls, is how it’s done.”