by MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN A CAMERA’S CHIEF FUNCTION IS TO BEAR WITNESS, TO ASSERT THAT SOMETHING FANTASTIC REALLY DID EXIST IN THE WORLD. Of course, most photography is a recording function, but, awash in a sea of infinite options, it is what we choose to see and celebrate that makes an image either mundane or majestic.
And then sometimes, you just have the great good luck to wander past something wonderful. With a camera in your hand.
The New York Public Library’s main mid-town Manhattan branch is beyond magnificent, as even a casual visit will attest. However, its beauty always seems to me like just “the front of the store”, a controlled-access barrier between its visually stunning common areas and “the good stuff” lurking in untold chambers, locked vaults and invisible enclaves in the other 2/3 of the building. I expect these two worlds to be forever separate and distinct, much as I don’t expect to ever see the control room for electrical power at Disneyland. But the unseen fascinates, and recently, I was given a marvelous glimpse into the other side at the NYPL.
A recent exhibit of Mary Surratt art prints, wall-mounted along the library’s second-floor hall, was somehow failing to mesmerize me when, through a glass office window, I peeked into a space that bore no resemblance whatever to a contemporary office. The whole interior of the room seemed to hang suspended in time. It consisted of a solitary woman, her back turned to the outside world, seated at a dark, simple desk, intently poring over a volume, surrounded by dark, loamy, ceiling-to-floor glass-paneled book shelves along the side and back walls of the room. The whole scene was lit by harsh white light from a single window, illuminating only selective details of another desk nearer the window, upon which sat a bust of the head of Michelangelo’s David, an ancient framed portrait, a brass lamp . I felt like I had been thrown backwards into a dutch-lit painting from the 1800’s, a scene rich in shadows, bathed in gold and brown, a souvenir of a bygone world.
I felt a little guilty stealing a few frames, since I am usually quite respectful of people’s privacy. In fact, had the woman been aware of me, I would not have shot anything, as my mere perceived presence, however admiring, would have felt like an invasion, a disturbance. However, since she was oblivious to not only me, but, it seemed, to all of Planet Earth 2013, I almost felt like I was photographing an image that had already been frozen for me by an another photographer or painter. I increased my Nikon’s sensitivity just enough to get an image, letting the light in the room fall where it may, allowing it to either bless or neglect whatever it chose to. In short, the image didn’t need to be a faithful rendering of objects, but a dutiful recording of feeling.
How came this room, this computer-less, electricity-less relic of another age preserved in amber, so tantalizingly near to the bustle of the current day, so intact, if out of joint with time? What are those books along the walls, and how did they come to be there? Why was this woman chosen to sit at her sacred, private desk, given lone audience with these treasures? The best pictures pose more questions than they answer, and only sparingly tell us what they are “about”. This one, simply, is “about” seeing a woman in a time machine. Alice through the looking-glass.
A peek inside the rest of the store.
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By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA’S ROMANCE WITH RAIL TRAVEL MAY NOW JUST BE A SORT OF CASUAL ACQUAINTANCE (hey, we can still be friends), but the temple which sparked much of the old love between man and train still throbs with life. At 100, Grand Central Terminal (don’t, they beg, call it a station) still delights the eye of even a jaded New Yorker with the sheer scale of its vision. Over 750,000 people per day file through its platforms, shops and restaurants, and, of course, its commuter connections.
As to the era when the terminal truly connected the entire nation, the inevitability of the building as a final destination was never better captured than in the opening for the old network radio series named for it:
As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at GRAND CENTRAL STATION, heart of the nation’s greatest city.
Drawn by the magnetic forces of the fantastic metropolis, day and night, great trains rush toward the Hudson River…..sweep down its eastern bank for one hundred and forty-three miles…..flash briefly by the long, red row of tenement houses south of 125th street…..dive with a roar in to the two and one-half mile tunnel that burrows beneath the glittering swank of Park Avenue…and then…..GRAND CENTRAL STATION!!!!
Shooting the terminal is a bit of an alluring trap, since we all want the wider-than-wide, one-shot glama-panorama that takes in every window, skylight, side stall, commuter, ceiling detail and kiosk. The trap is in becoming so wedded to that shot that we forget about all the smaller dramas and details that would be lost within those gigantic, where’s-waldo mega-frames. On my latest trip there, I had been avoiding the usual wide-angle mania that is all too easy to surrender to, in shooting New York, traveling with only a 35mm prime lens and forcing myself to shoot smaller, more intimate subjects. Primes have normal, human-eye proportions, rather than the distorted stretch of a wide-angle, and cannot zoom. Therefore, shooting inside Grand Central meant:
I couldn’t even dream of getting everything in a single shot, meaning a select part of the story had to be chosen over a “master shot”.
I would have a lens that’s incredibly fast and sharp, so I could take advantage of the terminal’s vast interior (275 ft. long, 120 ft. wide, 125 ft. high) a space that is still largely illuminated by east-west natural light.
When I arrived, the golden glow of mid-afternoon was gently warming its way through the 75-ft-high arched windows on the terminal’s west side. I avoided shooting toward the east, since it currently features large “1-0-0” anniversary numerals in the three windows, plus the new Apple store, both of which I regard as barriers to visual enjoyment of the building. Go time: I settled on 1/200 second, ISO 160, wide open at f/1.8 (sharp to infinity since I was shooting from the diagonal opposite of my subject…we’re talking looong distance) and I kept one of about twenty frames.
Lenses, no less than subjects, are about decisions. You choose one thing and un-choose all other options.
And let the sun shine through.
For more history on the terminal, check out this article, courtesy of Gotham magazine:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GOING BACK OVER HUGE FOLDERS OF IMAGES LONG AFTER THE FACT OF THEIR CREATION, a kind of aesthetic amnesia comes over me as to what the original intent of some of the pictures were. Who is this person? And why can’t I remember being him when this thing was shot?
A bit of background:
As much time as I have spent in New York’s Time Square, I should know better than to even raise my camera to my face, given that this particular locale has produced, for me, more hot messes and failed missions than any other subject I’ve ever aimed at. The place is a mirage, a trap for shooters: a visual overload, obscenely loud and demanding of attention, but spectacularly devoid of content. There is no “message” afoot in this vast glowing urban canyon except step right up we got what you need right here great seats at half price a whole dinner for just ten bucks hey watch who yer shovin’.
Hey, if you’re looking for meaning, stay home and read your Bible.
And yet, every time I’m there, I still try to take “THE shot”, vainly sticking to the idea that there is even one in there, and that all I have to do is find it. If I only had a helicopter, if I shot it at this end of the street, if I just find the great unifying theme, the truth will come forth….
Anyway, in reviewing the above image, one I originally consigned to the dustbin, I’m once again that aesthetic amnesiac. I don’t recognize the person who took it. It doesn’t look like anything I’d try, since it’s just an arrangement of angles, colors, and dark spaces. In other words, an attempt to see a design in part of the scene, rather than an overall tapestry of the entire phenom. Sort of splintering the square. It’s the casting of the city as a personality, I guess, that appeals to me, like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner or the neon neo-Asia of Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City.
What adds to the mystery is the fact that, I’m not usually this loose. I’m a little too formalized in my approach, a mite too Catholic. I tend to have a plan, an intention. Let’s stick with the outline, kids, and proceed in order. Shooting from the hip and living in the moment is not instinctual to me. I’m always fighting with my inner anal bureaucrat.
I seriously don’t remember what I was going for here, and maybe, with a subject like this, that’s the only way to go. Stop calculating, stop plotting, just react, and treat Times Square as the amusement park ride it is. Going for “THE shot” has always given me dozens of , eh, sorta okay pix, but this approach appeals to me a little bit. I am not totally unpleased with it, or as a more eloquent writer might put it, it doesn’t suck.
And given my track record in Times Square, that’s slightly better than a break-even.
Now if I could only remember who took the damned thing…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS THE OLDEST FRAMING DEVICE IN HISTORY. If you’ve ever watched a play on any stage, anywhere in the world, you’ve accepted it as the classic method of visual presentation. The Romans coined the word proscenium, “in front of the scenery”. Between stage left and stage right exists a separate reality, defined and contained in the finite space of the theatre’s forward area. What is included in the frame is everything, the center of the universe of certain characters and events. What’s outside the frame is, indefinite, vague, less real.
Just like photography, right? Or to be accurate, photography is like the proscenium. We, too select a specific world to display. We leave out all the other worlds not pertinent to our message. And we follow information in linear fashion…left to right, right to left. The frame gives us the sensation of “looking in” to something that we are only visiting, just as we only “rent” our viewpoint from our theatre seats.
We learned our linear habit from the descendants of stage arrangement….murals, frescoes, paintings, all working, as our first literate selves would, from left to right. Painters were forced to arrange information inside the frame, to make choices of what that frame would include, and, as the quasi-legitimate children of painting, we inherited that deliberately chosen viewpoint, that decision to show a select world, by arranging visual elements within the frame.
For some reason, in recent months, I have been abandoning the non-traditional in shooting street scenes and harking back to the proscenium, trying to convey a contained world of simple, direct left-right information. Candid neighborhood shots seem to work well without extra adornment. Just pick your borders and make your capture. It’s a way of admitting that some worlds come complete just as they are. Just wrap the frame around them like a packing crate and serve ’em up.
This is not to say that an angled or isometric view can’t portray drama or reality as well as a “stagy” one. Hey, sometimes you want a racing bike and sometimes you want a beach cruiser. Sometimes I don’t mind that the technique for getting a shot is, itself, a little more noticeable. And sometimes I like to pretend that there really isn’t a camera.
That’s theatre. You shouldn’t believe that the well-meaning director of the local production of Oklahoma really conjured a corn field inside a theatre. But you kind of do.
Hey what does Picasso say? “Art is the lie that tells the truth”?
Okay, now I’m making my own head hurt. I’m gonna go lie down.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME I READ SINCERE ARGUMENTS FOR THE SUPERIORITY OF FILM OVER DIGITAL, the debate seems a little more lopsided on the side of sentiment than on the side of reason. The whole thing can make me a little….tired. As I write this, Arizona Highways has just released its annual collection of the fifty best images ever published in that august standard of print photography, and, yep, you guessed it, only about the last three images are digital. It’s an aesthetic bias which AH will only abandon once the entire rest of the world regards film as a quaint artifact of The Good Ole Days, but, God bless ’em, they are true believers. As for myself, I am in no huge hurry to see film go the way of the Hostess Twinkie. However, I do readily admit that it’s my heart casting that vote, and not my head.
Emulsions or pixels? Your preference still comes down to what you need to do and how you need to do it. That means that many of us will choose one medium or the other because it either enables or constricts our art…..in other words, a simply practical judgement, not one based on our fondness for what we are used to. Earlier this year, I applauded National Public Radio’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam (one of the first Civil War skirmishes to be photographically documented), by commissioning their own photog to shoot some of the same battle sites as Alexander Gardner had done in 1862, using the same kind of coated glass plate process. Were the results fascinating? Certainly. Are they likely to create a run on camera stores for collodion? Don’t hold your breath.
Photography is a constant process of knocking down more obstacles between what you are shooting at and the imagination you are shooting with. You need to keep the camera from fighting you, due to its inability to react, think, discriminate or judge the way that only you can. To that end, you have to be in a constant flow of improvement, simply because your mind is always traveling on a faster track than even the best camera, and that instrument must be corralled into helping, and not hindering, the task of getting your vision into that box.
One of the most helpful such advances for me has been the accelerated performance of DSLRs in low-light situations and the improvement in picture quality at increasingly higher ISO settings. In the film world of “ago”, if you wanted to shoot at 800 speed ASA, you had to have a camera loaded with 800 speed film. If you then, five minutes later, wanted to shoot at 100 speed ASA you would need to reload your camera with that speed of film, or have a whole separate camera that was loaded with it. And so on.
Not the best for flexibility. Or spontaneity.
This rocketing forward of the technology that gives us sharp, nearly noise-free pictures, handheld and at fast exposure times, in all but the most hopeless lighting scenarios, is now filtering down to even the most rudimentary camera phones.It’s not alarmist or false to declare that the days of the compact point-and-shoot are officially numbered. With ISO now delivering better results in so many shooting situations, I can now go nearly anywhere and have a shot at getting a shot. That puts me at a distinct advantage over the most proficient shooters and the best cameras of barely a generation ago.
Does that guarantee I’ll bring back a winner? Nope. But the point is, more and more, if I don’t get the shot, it’s on me. I can’t blame my failure on balky technology, at least not in this particular case.
And it means I can spend more time shooting, dreaming, doing, instead of crossing my fingers and hoping.
- Camera+ 3.6 is here: “It’s a camera, not a flight simulator!” (taptaptap.com)
- Is a DSLR right for you? (fatwallet.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE ANY NUMBER OF LANDMARKS IN THE GREATER NEW YORK AREA which reward repeated viewings. Their mythic impact is such that it is never dulled or diminished. On the contrary, these special places (in a city which boasts so many) actually reveal distinctly different things to different visitors, and, doing so, cannot be exhausted by the millions of interpretations of them that flood the photographic world.
We make pictures of these objects, pictures of the pictures, a tribute picture to someone else’s picture, an impression of someone’s painting. We shoot them at night, in close-up, in fisheye, in smeary Warholian explosions of color, in lonely swaths of shadow.
For me, the Brooklyn Bridge is about two things: texture and materials.
After more than a century over the East River, John and Washington Roebling’s pioneering span, the first steel cable suspension bridge in the world, shows its wear and tear as a proud trophy of its constant service. The delicate and yet sinewy cables, amazingly strong interwoven strands of what Roebling manufactured under the name “steel rope”, are the most amazing design elements in the bridge, presenting an infinite number of kaleidoscopic web patterns depending on when and where you look.
As simply stunning as its two towers are, it is its grid of steel that mutates, shimmers, and hypnotizes the visitor as he makes his way past the crushing mobs of walkers, runners, skaters and cyclists that clog the span’s upper promenade from dawn to dusk. To show the bridge and only the bridge is a challenging trick. To get the dance of angles and rays that the cables have to offer in a way that speaks to you is both frustrating and fun.
Browse through several hundred amateur views of the bridge in one sitting sometime: marvel at how many ways it stamps itself onto the human imagination. Here, I tried to show the steady arc of the master cables as they dip down from the eastern tower, lope into a dramatic dip, then mount to the sky again to pass through the anchors on the western tower. HDR seemed like the way to go on exposure, with three separate shots at f/11, blended to maximize the detail of this most decorated of urban giants.
Next time, some other picture will call out to me, and to you. The bridge will display all the ways it wants to be seen, like a magician fanning out a trick deck. Pick a card, it invites, any card.
Doesn’t matter which one you choose.
They’re all aces.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE A LOT OF INSTANTANEOUS “KEEP” OR “LOSE” CALLS that are made each day when first we review a new batch of photos. Which to cherish and share, which to delete and try to forget? Thumbs up, thumbs down, Ebert or Roper. Trash or treasure. Simple, right?
Only, the more care we take with our shooting, the fewer the certainties, those shots that are immediately clear as either hits or misses. As our experience grows, many, many more pictures fall into the “further consideration” pile. Processing and tweaking might move some of them into the “keep” zone, but mostly, they haunt us, as we view, re-view and re-think them. Even some of the “losers” have a sort of beauty, perhaps for what they might have been rather than what they turned out to be. It’s like having a kid that you know will always be “C” average, but who will never stop reaching for the “A”, God love their heart.
I have thousands of such pictures now,pictures that I study, weep over, slap my forehead about, ask “what was I thinking?” about. I never have been one for doing a reflexive jab on the “delete” button as I shoot, as I believe that the near misses, even more than the outright disasters, teach us more than even the few lucky aces. So I wait at least to see what the shot really looks like beyond the soft deception of the camera monitor. I buy the image at least that much time, to really, really make sure I dropped a creative stitch.
Many times my initial revulsion was correct, and the shot is beyond redemption.
Ah, but those other times, those nagging, guilt-laden re-thinks, during which I get to twist in the wind a little longer. Pretty? Ugly? Genius? Jerk? Just like waiting for an old Polaroid to gradually fade in, so too, the ultimate success or failure of some pictures takes a while to emerge. And even then, well, let’s come back and look at this one later…….
The above frame, taken while I was walking toward the pedestrian ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, is just such a shot. My wife stepped into a coffee shop just fast enough to grab us some bottled water, while I waited on the sidewalk trying to make my mind up whether I had anything to shoot. As you can see, what I got could be legitimately called a fiasco. Nice color on the store’s neon sign, and a little “slice of life” with the customer checking out at the register, but then it all starts to mush into a hot mess, with the building and car across the street eating up so much of the front window that your eye is dragged all over the place trying to answer the musical question, “what are we doing here?” Storefront shots are a real crap shoot. That is, sometimes you have something to shoot, and sometimes you just have crap.
Even at this point, with more than a few people giving the shot a thumbs-up online, I can’t be sure if I just captured something honest and genuine, or if I’ve been reading too many pointy-headed essays on “art” and have talked myself into accepting a goose egg as something noble.
But as I said at the top of this piece, the choices get harder the more kinds of stuff you try. If you shoot your entire life on automode, you don’t have as many shots that almost break your heart. I wonder what my personal record is for how long after the fact I’ve allowed myself to grieve over the shots that got away. It’s tempting to hit that delete button like a trigger-happy monkey and just move on.
But, finally, the “almosts” show you something, even if they just stand as examples of how to blow it.
And that is sometimes enough to make the losers a little bit beautiful.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS WEEK, THE SPACE AT GROUND ZERO marks an anniversary that is slightly different from the annual reverences afforded the fallen of September 11, 2001. Even as we put a little more chronological, if not emotional, distance between ourselves and the unspeakable and obscene events that tore the fabric of history on that morning, we begin a second era of sorts, as we mark the first year of operation for the 9/11 Memorial that tries so nobly to advance, if not complete, the healing process. The site, specifically the pools marking the foundational footprints of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, is no less noble because it has been asked to provide an impossible service. Some things are beyond our reach, but that does not mean that the reaching effort should not be made. Something must endure that physically, visually states who our lost brothers and sisters were. And even a compromised version of that effort, wrested from people’s individual hearts and needs in an agonizing discussion, needs to be attempted.
Visiting the site just two months after its opening last year, I asked myself, how could we have done better, or more? Is there enough, just enough here, to fight off our lazy national habit of collective amnesia? Is there at least a start, marked on this spot, at trying to makes these names matter and persist in memory?
Every day, thousands ask that same question, and there are endless versions of the answer. It’s a gravesite, but a gravesite that is missing many of those being remembered. It is a memorial, but unlike most memorials, it is not located on a neutrally designated “elsewhere”, but on the actual place where the victims fell. It is a beautiful thing that evokes horror, and it is a place of horror where beauty is sorely needed to make going forward imaginable. Standing at the pool’s perimeters, you are struck silent, and you worry over the day when silence may not be the first response to this vista, as, properly, it still is at Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. And we wish we could know that there was even one atom of comfort afforded by this effort to those left behind, many of whom were annihilated no less in spirit than their loved ones were in fact. If you ever pray here, that’s what you pray for.
Shooting the above image, I wanted to wait for the morning surge of visitors to clear away as completely as possible. I felt, and still feel, that the site itself is at last, a noble thing, and neither I nor any other people around it can help breaking the visual serenity it presents. My shot is also, now, a bit of a time machine, since the rebuilding of the WTC site is now nearer completion by a year. The weather that morning was flawless, in a way in which, on every other place on the earth, does not automatically trigger a feeling of foreboding. I wished I was a better photographer, or that, on that morning, I could become one, if even for an instant. Looking around, I saw many others making the same vain wish. And, in the end, I still feel that I left something untold. But, whatever I captured was at least my personal way of seeing it, and it was about as close to “right” as I was going to get.
And getting “as close we can” is what we have to settle for, at this point in time, in processing the events of 9/11. I am always struck, in reading the remembrances from surviving families and spouses, by how absent of hate and anger most of them are. They fight only to understand, to place it all in some kind of workable context for living. Many of us may never get there. However, life is a journey, and, today, as with all of the anniversaries of this tragedy, we have to hope that we can at least stay on the path toward discovery and peace. The memorial is the first step in that journey.
- NYC 9/11 memorial surpasses 4 million visitors (kfwbam.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS PHOTOGRAPHIC STAGE FRIGHT, it most likely is that vaguely apprehensive feeling that kicks in just before you connect with a potentially powerful subject. And when that subject is really Subject One, i.e., New York City, well, even a pro can be forgiven a few butterflies. They ain’t kidding when they sing, if I can make it there I can make it anywhere. But, of course, the Apple is anything but anywhere…….
Theoretically, if “there are eight million stories in the Naked City”, you’d think a photographer would be just fine selecting any one of them, since there is no one single way of representing the planet’s most diverse urban enclave. And there are over 150 years of amazing image-making to support the idea that every way of taking in this immense subject is fair territory.
And yet we are drawn (at least I am) to at least weigh in on the most obvious elements of this broad canvas. The hot button attractions. The “to-do list” locations. No, it isn’t as if the world needs one more picture of Ellis Island or the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t likely that I will be one of the lucky few who will manage to bring anything fresh to these icons of American experience. In fact, the odds are stacked horribly in the opposite direction. It is far safer to predict that every angle or framing I will try will be a precise clone of millions of other visualizations of almost exactly the same quality. Even so, with every new trip to NYC I have to wean myself away from trying to create the ultimate postcard,to focus upon one of the other 7,999,999 stories in the city. Even at this late date, there are stories in the nooks and crannies of the city that are largely undertold. They aren’t as seductive as the obvious choices, but they may afford greater rewards, in that there may be something there that I can claim, that I can personally mine from the rock.
By the time this post is published, I will be taking yet another run at this majestic city and anything additional in the way of stories that I can pry loose from her streets. Right now, staring at this computer, nothing has begun, and everything is possible. That is both exhilarating and terrifying. The way to banish the travel jitters is to get there, and get going. And yes, I will bring back my share of cliches, or attempts at escaping them. But, just like a stowaway on a ship arriving in the New World, something else may smuggle itself on board.
I have to visit my old girlfriend again, even if we wind up agreeing to be just friends.
And, as all photographers (and lovers) do, I hope it will lead to something more serious.
One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.
THERE IS NO GREATER CANDY STORE FOR PHOTOGS than New York City. It is the complete range of human experience realized in steel and concrete. It is both a monument to our grandest dreams and a mausoleum for all our transgressions. It casts shadows that hide both joy and fear; it explodes in light that illuminates, in equal measure, the cracked face of the aged contender and the hopeful awe of the greenest newcomer. There is not another laboratory of human striving like it anywhere else on the planet. Period period period. Its collapses and soarings are always news to the observer. Bob Dylan once said that he who is not busy being born is busy dying. New York is, famously, always busy doing both.
I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.
This month’s announcement that the new WTC 1 (built on the site of the old 6 World Trade Center building, itself a rather short edifice) has finally surged past the height of the Empire State Building (a repeat champ for height, given the strange twists of history) is a bittersweet bulletin at best. Cheers turned to tears turned back into cheers. In the long-view, the inevitable breathe-in-breathe-out rhythm of NYC’s centuries-old saga, the site’s entire loop from defeat to defiant rebirth is only a single pulse point. Still, on a purely emotional, even sentimental level, it’s thrilling to see spires spring from the ashes. The buildings themselves, along with their daily purposes and uses, hardly matter. In a city of symbols, they are affirmations in an age when we need to remain busy being born.
PAUL DESMOND, LEGENDARY SAXOPHONIST for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was famous for his wry replies to mundane questions from the press. Asked once “so, how are things going?”, he quipped, “Great. We’re playing music like it’s going out of style…..which, of course, it is.”
Beyond the cleverness of the statement, Desmond actually provided a corolary to the ongoing state of photography. It is an art which is never “settled” into any final form, either in its mechanics or its aesthetic. Glass plates give way to roll film, which give way to digital storage, which will give way to..what? Recent trends in the forward edge of shooting hint at, among other things, bold new experiments in the direct exposure of chemically treated paper, minus lenses or shutters, resulting, in effect, in a camera-less camera. So now, what? A method so old that it’s new? So complicated that it’s totally simple? And where in these new crafts lie the art they might enable?
As image makers, we are really running down two parallel rails en route to obsolescence, since the world, as it can presently be seen, is passing away at the same lighting rate as our current means of documenting it. This is a constant for our art. When Eugene Atget recorded the last days of the Paris of the late 19th century, his methods for making the shots was fading out of fashion almost as quickly the dark, twisting streets he recorded. And when his protege, Berenice Abbott, undertook the same “mapping” of New York’s boroughs in the 1930’s (on assignment from various New Deal agencies), she, too was laboring against constantly improving methods for completing the book Changing New York, starting her massive project with a 60-pound view camera, and ending it with a new, lighter Rolleiflex miniature. She was also, understandably, racing against the wrecking ball of progress.
Worse, many places, such as the American southwest (where I live), hold the view that “old” is not “venerable”, but “in the way”….creating, for the shooter, a constant conundrum; what to visually archive, and in what way, and in what order?
The quiet death of Kodachrome, several years ago, proved a challenge for imagists the world over. If you were burning your last roll of this fabulous film forever, what shots would make your photographic bucket list? And how about expanding this scenario to include not just diehard “filmies”, but everyone? If there were an absolute deadline for imaging, a date beyond which no more pictures could be taken, ever, ever, what new urgency would inform your choices?
It’s almost that dire already. Time hurtles forward and lays waste to everything in its path, including ourselves. Today, now, we are watching it erase neighborhoods, cities, forests, the shapes of nations, even the names of places. Even if we use our skills largely for cataloguing the general effect of these changes, we are nonetheless under the gun to fill our days with the grabbing of these fleeting glances. Even while we perpetually change how we capture, we must capture as much as we can, by any means available.
There is no mission statement stronger than the three words always be shooting. Because we are doing more than saving memories; we are, in fact, bearing witness. Whatever the subject, wherever we want to start chronicling the word around us, we need to be taking pictures.
Like they’re going out of style.
THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.