By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN OF PHOTOGRAPHY, there has been one format or another for the creation of three-dimensional views. The first, and by far the most successful of the “armchair traveler” systems was the elegant stereopticon, the gadget through which paired, cardboard-mounted images transported the Victorian explorer to the wonders of the world, at precisely the same moment that many of those sites/sights were being photographically documented for the very first time. The Keystone View Company and its several imitators littered the planet with travelogues and celebrity portraits for nearly seventy years, and even served as many a hobbyist’s first introduction to color pictures (albeit hand-tinted ones) created years ahead of any practical chromatic film.
Keystone’s expansive packets on various subjects included lavish text on the card’s backs, and were marketed to adults with an emphasis on erudition. Over the next hundred years, dozens of 3-d formats would be launched, many of them supplying at least a smidge of context on their subjects, lots of them riding the line between serious devices and toys. The world’s most successful stereo product by far, View-Master, began with scenic titles in 1939, and has survived to the present day by licensing the use of Disney characters, TV and movie scenes, and in the 21st century, even an attempt at a virtual reality re-boot.
Leaning heavily on the kid’s plaything side of the ledger, a folding plastic card viewer from the late ’50’s called VistaScreen issued series on birds, animals and other subjects accompanied by neat little explanatory paragraphs. View sets were sold at the tourist attractions that they depicted as well as by mail order. The company’s brief tenure was boosted a bit in the early ’60’s when it entered into a promotion with the United Kingdom’s most successful cold breakfast cereal, Weetabix (think shredded wheat without the thrills). Kids in Australia, England, and New Zealand mailed away for the viewer (emblazoned with the product’s name on the back) and then collected one new stereo card per “packet” of cereal. There were 6 different sets of 25 cards with series names like Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals, and Our Pets. The cereal cards were disdained by stereo purists for being substantially inferior in quality to VistaScreen’s mail order sets, but the promotion actually kept the company alive for most of its five-year span, while also making a childhood 3-d fan of many a youngster, including Brian May, destined to become a stereoscopic collector, astrophysicist, and, not incidentally, the co-founder of Queen.
As a childhood View-Master geek, I was delighted to discover the VistaScreen system a few years back, since it was actually the stereo formats, and not standard “flat” photography, that first taught me composition and the importance of telling a clear visual story within a strict format. It’s ironic that I don’t typically shoot a lot of scenic titles these days, and yet have a lifelong affection for the travel images of my first photographic “toys”, the bait that got me to first pick up a camera and ask myself, “will this be a picture?”
And I didn’t have to eat Weetabix.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE THING THAT GUARANTEES VIRTUALLY INFINITE VARIETY AMONG PHOTOGRAPHERS is that, not only do we all see most things completely differently, we also vary wildly on what it is important to see. Turn ten photographers loose on the same subject and the results might just as well have been shot on different planets. Our individual brains seems to rank things in the world by how “view-essential” they are, or how worthy they are of our notice. This renders somethings that are vital to me nearly invisible to you.
We’ve all experienced the strange feeling of looking at images taken by someone else of a place that we have both visited at the same time, and seeing things that we could swear were never there. Who put that fountain near the plaza? Wasn’t the mountain to the left? Our mind is selectively failing to see some of the very same information that is obviously available to it, making our own work with cameras subject to selective invisibilities.
What renders something important enough for us to actively acknowledge it? Can some things become so common, so ubiquitous in our lives that we no longer see them? In the case of the vintage cabinets shown here: what, in our daily lives, could have been more commonplace, more taken for granted, than a bank of public telephone booths? How could these structures have been more widespread than they once were, in railway stations, courthouses, department stores, bus terminals, and a million other gathering places? And would that commonality have placed them somewhat below our radar, visually speaking? Now turn that on its head: what could be more noticeable than when this everyday object is rendered obsolete, its purpose vanished in a blink of technology? Will that thing now be more visible, or completely vanished, and for whom?
I bring this up to unstick us from the tired idea that “everything’s already been photographed”, that, for the camera, there is nothing new under the sun. In reality, were we to start shooting images of all the things we have, for one reason or another, failed to see all our lives, we would find poetry and plenty in what we think of as “nothing”. Many things that are “here” go unseen simply because we will not see them, and many things that are “gone” remain because we will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE 1985 DISCOVERY OF THE WRECK OF THE TITANIC by Robert Ballard tested the talents of experts from as wide a range of specialities as the objects found in the doomed ship’s debris field. Some of the things found on the floor of the Atlantic were readily identifiable to the casual observer: chandeliers: cases of wine bottles: chairs. Cataloging others required the trained eyes of cultural historians, people versed in the daily world of 1912. The everyday becomes the exotic in very short order in the modern world. And one of the tasks for photographers is having these quotidian objects sit for their portraits before they pass, swept along in an ever-accelerating tide of change.
You read about stunts in which common bits of household clutter from just a few decades ago are shown to millennials or teens, many of whom puzzle over what the object did, or was for. To be sure, going all the way back to, say, a rotary dial telephone could confound more than a few of us, but in these demonstrations, some young people have been stumped by iPods. Part of what brings a thing to the commercial market is the style it takes to catch the customer’s eye. If that typically fleeting style proves consistent with the object’s function, the thing may survive long enough to be a classic. Other such gizmos are transitional, the things given to us “on the way” to something more essential.
The recent Grand Hibernation we’re all under has made photographers reassess lots of things. What’s a fitting thing to make a picture of? What among our tools is still vital to our art, versus mere collected clutter? And, in the inevitable house-cleaning sparked by all this surplus time, what’s to be done with all the things we no longer use but for which we might harbor some residual affection? Should we mark their passing with a photograph? Should we create a “deleted” catalog of some kind? Is there anything to be gained or taught by doing so?
My favorite photographs often turn out to be the very ones I wondered the most about…that is, arguing with myself about whether they should be made at all. In the case of the Sony D-2 “Discman” you see here (circa 1988), I can’t say it was the first such device ever made for the purpose of making compact discs a portable and private habit, but it certainly influenced my own decision to turn away from vinyl (“heresy” I hear you hipsters hissing), and that, in turn, changed utterly the kind of music consumer I would become going forward. For some, the earlier, cassette-based “Walkman” was that moment. I just never embraced taped formats for a variety of reasons.
So this image represents a point at which I went from a rotary phone to a push-button? Craft your own analogy, and find the objects that, before they vanished, served as pivot points in your own life. Throw them out or tenderly tuck them back into storage for another day. But look at a few of them with a photographer’s eye. You may be far enough removed from them to see something new.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY SHOULD ALWAYS OPERATE, at least to some extent, as a cultural mile marker, a chronicle of what time has taken away, a scrapbook of vanishings and extinctions. We make records. We bear witness. We take pictures of the comings and the goings.
One of the things that has been going, since the coming of the permanent, Disneyeque theme parks, those sanitized domains of well-regulated recreation, is the great American carnival, in all its gaudy and ever so slightly dodgy glory. Loud, crude and exotically disreputable, these neon and canvas gypsy camps of guilty pleasure once sprang up in fields and vacant lots across the nation, laden with the delicious allure of original sin, that is, if the first apple of Eden had been dipped in shiny red candy. We came, we saw, whe rode, we ate, we clicked off millions of snapshots on our Kodak Brownies.
The thing that made it all so magical was geography. Unlike Seven Flags or Cedar Point, the carnival came to us. Like the circus, the carnival was coming to your town, just down your block. That meant that your drab streets were transformed into wonderlands in the few hours it took for the roustabouts to assemble their gigantic erector sets into rickety Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. And then there was the faint whiff of danger, with rides that made dads ask “is this thing safe?” and crews that made moms repeat horrific tales of what happens to Little Children Who Talk To Strangers.
It was heaven.
The images seen here are a partial return to that sketchy paradise, with the arrival in my neighborhood, this week of a carnival in an area that hasn’t hosted one in well over a decade. It’s almost as if Professor Marvel just ballooned in from Oz, or Doc and Marty had suddenly materialized in the DeLorean. It’s that weird. Four days in, and I’m there with a different lens each time, sopping up as much trashy delight as I can before the entire mirage folds and all our lives return to, God help us, normal. Photographs are never a substitute for reality, any more than a hoof print is a horse. But when dreams re-appear, however fleetingly, well past their historical sell-by date, well, I’ll settle for a few swiftly stolen souvenirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S PRINCIPLE BENEFIT IS THE STEALING AND PRESERVATION OF THE FLEETING. That was the miracle that originally astonished the world, the ability to arrest time, to selectively snatch away droplets of the infinitely flowing river of moments and keep them in a jar. And as the young art flourished and began to flex, it proved capable of not only grabbing individual instants, but chronicling the passing of entire modes of life.
As the prairie was settled, as the great distances of the planet were traversed and tamed, as the horse gave way to the car, and as the country mouse became the city mouse, photography laid down mile markers, clearly labeled “this is”, “this is going away” and “this was”. As a consequence, we now have a visual record of worlds and ways of living that have already long since gone extinct. We rifle through shared and inherited images that mark the passing of empires, fashions, movements.
This is all, of course, beyond obvious, but there are times when photographers are more keenly mindful that something big is in the process of winking out. I experienced such a moment a few days ago with the news that Ringling Brothers’ circus was shuttering its operations after more than 150 years, ringing down the curtain on a mixed record of extravaganza and exploitation, depending on where you stand on the issue. Whether circuses were a wonder or an abomination or both, they represented a distinctly analog kind of entertainment, a direct tie between sensations and senses that is one of the last traces of 19th-century culture.
Along with world’s fairs, carnivals, vaudeville, even rodeo, the circus serves as a strange relic of a time when the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon or the pitching of the Chautauqua tent could be the height of the social season in many a town. The visually rich pageant of having dozens of clowns, acrobats, and performing beasts parade right down your main street was, in the days before mass media, pretty heady stuff, and, even at its twilight, it still has a powerful, if quaint, pull on the imagination. All of this is fertile ground for the photographer/chronicler.
It’s now fifty years since John Lennon transcribed the text from an old circus poster to evoke a vanished era with the song Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite, overdubbing the music track with a montage of calliopes and hurdy-gurdys to paint a very visual piece of audio. To this day, I can’t hear the tune without concocting my own mental photo of prancing ponies and carnival barkers. Mr. Kite may already be retiring to his dressing room, as are so many analog forms of entertainment. But we have the pictures. Or we need to start making them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN RAY BRADBURY’S WONDERFUL ONE-ACT PLAY, TO THE CHICAGO ABYSS, an old man equipped with a near-photographic memory makes both friends and enemies because he remembers so much of a world vanished in the aftermath of global war. His talent lies not merely in being able to conjure the world of large things….cathedrals, cars, countries, but of the micro-minutia of a life, a realm filled with the colors of cigarette packages, what compressed air sounded like hissing out of a newly opened can of coffee, the names of candy bars. The play reminds us that it is the million little pieces, the uncountable props of daily living, that matter…..especially when they are no more.
Professions and services offer the photographer the chance to preserve entire miniature worlds for the viewer, worlds which are in the constant process of sunsetting, of transitioning from “is” to “was”. Shops where we used to get our watches repaired. Bookstores that are now furniture warehouses. Home where those people we knew, oh, you know their names, used to live. Was it on the corner? Or over there?
Even when long-familiar things survive in some form, they are not quite as we knew them. Does anyone still get their shoes re-soled? Was there ever a time when “salons” were just “barber shops”? Was it, long ago, some kind of luxury to weigh yourself for a penny in the bus station? Photos of these daily rituals take on even greater import as time re-contexualizes our lives, shuffling our position in the cosmic deck. Decades hence, we almost need visible evidence that we ever lived this way, ever dressed like that.
I love shooting businesses that should not be around, but are, places that should have already been scrubbed from day-to-day experience, but stubbornly linger around the edges. Images taken of these places argue strongly that not all forward motion is progress, that the familiar and the comfortable are also little pieces of our identity. In the words of the old song, there used to be ballpark right here.
Here, I have a picture of it…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE POP CULTURE TRENDS OF THE PAST FEW YEARS has been the improbable reemergence of the vinyl LP, inching its way back onto shelves in edgy fashion boutiques and chain stores alike along with an entire battery of support materials: preeners, cleaners, racks, boxes, even the iconic hippie fruit crate, along with a new generation of high-and-low tech turntables and speakers. It’s fun to watch the emotional re-run that people of, ahem, a certain age will experience as we recall a world that used to be divided into Side One and Side Two.
However, we’ re missing out on a very important part of all that lore. The humble 45 rpm record.
Singles were the dominant format for record sales from the beginning of rock to the mid-’70’s, with marketing of pop tunes aimed squarely at the middle bulge of the Baby Boom, a flood of teens armed with disposable cash but consuming their music mostly two songs (A-side, B-side), or about a dollar’s worth, at a time. Eventually, a new crop of college students embraced the LP for its long-form story-telling potential, graduating from singles like Love Me Do to albums like Sergeant Pepper.
Photographically, the remains of all those singles-fed slumber parties and sock hops tell a strong story in the tattered textures of kid’s objects that, like action figures and train sets, were loved to death and treasured all the more because of their imperfections. In the above 45 carrier (party in a box!), half the visual story is told in the wear and tear that is hard-wired into analog. The battered box sings a song all its own.
For this shot, I took a single exposure, side-lit with bright but soft window light, then made a dupe of it, one copy tweaked to near-underexposure, the other to uber-brightness. The two were then made into a fake HDR in Photomatix, which is, above all, a great detail enhancer. Since the shot was done at f/5.6, the whole box is sharp, giving the software plenty to chew on. A few minor changes in contrast to amp up the differences in color along the faded box pattern, and presto, the golden age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Photography is about recording change, halting decay in its tracks for a moment….preservation, if you will. The new flawless vinyl reissues of our old faves possess the sound of yesterday, but they can’t tell us a thing about how it all looked.
And that’s where you, the guy with the camera, come in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU SEE RIDICULOUS ARTICLES FROM TIME TO TIME claiming that baseball has been replaced as America’s Pastime. Such spurious scribblings invariably point to game attendance, TV ratings, or some other series of metrics that prove that football, basketball, and, who knows, strip Scrabble have reduced baseball to some quaint state of irrelevancy. All such notions are mental birdpoop for one salient reason. No one is giving due attention to the word pastime.
Not “passion”. Not “madness”. Not even “loyalty”. Pastime. A way of letting the day go by at a leisurely pace. A way to gradually unfurl afternoons like comfy quilts. People-watching. Memory. Sentiment. Baseball is for watchers, not viewers, something that television consistently fails to realize. It’s the stuff that happens in the pauses, of which the game has plenty. Enjoying baseball, and photographing it as an experience, is about what happens in the cracks.
Images are waiting to be harvested in the dead spots between pitching changes. The wayward treks of the beer guys. The soft silence of anticipatory space just before the crack of a well-connected pitch. TV insists on jamming every second of screen time-baseball with replays, stat tsunamis, and analysis. Meanwhile, “live”, in the stadium, the game itself is only part of the entertainment. Sometimes, it actually drops back to a distant second.
Only a small percentage of my baseball pictures are action shots from the field: most are sideways glances at the people who bring their delight, their dreams, and their drama to the game. For me, that’s where the premium stories are. your mileage may vary. Sometimes it’s what’s about to happen that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s the games you remember while watching this one. There are a lot of human factors in the game, and only some of them happen between the guys in uniform.
Photography, as a pastime, affords a great opportunity to show a pastime. America’s first, best pastime.
It’s not just a ballgame. It’s an “all” game.
Root, root, root.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.
A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.
Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.
The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.
True to the ethos of L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.
Hooray for Hollywood.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AGO, RONALD REAGAN, UPON VISITING HIS OLD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL for a presidential photo opportunity, famously asked the local administrators how they managed to shrink the desks in the classrooms. Of course he was joking, but the remark was a telling one; when we return to the scenes of our earliest dramas and farces, we tend to believe that some other outside force sneaked into the place, before our arrival, and somehow re-ordered reality. We laugh at Reagan’s quip because we can see ourselves saying the same thing. It’s all about us.
Just as we are pleasantly shocked to view the graduated pencil marks on our old kitchen wall that logged our increasing height at different ages, we marvel when we take cameras back to the same places where we took cameras in the past. We think we are measuring time in what we shoot, but we are actually measuring ourselves in how we shoot. A recent trip to my hometown afforded me time to roll around to a number of places where I have repeatedly returned over a lifetime, each time approaching photography, and myself, a little differently. In some cases, the first frames I ever shot of these sites go back over forty years, and, good pictures or bad, the results are a few universes away from those first efforts.
How can it be otherwise? I don’t see the same way. I don’t look to see in the same way. Years ago, I was still enthralled with the idea of capturing an image in the box….any image. Hey, it worked. It’s not a stretch to say that, when I first learned to load and wind film or squint into a viewfinder, I was still amazed by the process alone, the idea of freezing time being an inexplicable miracle to me. Beyond hungering to produce my own miracles, I had no concept as to what I should be seeking, or saying.
One thing that has changed over the years is that I no longer try to stop the world with, you know, The Image. There is no “the” anymore, only “the next”. The thing I need to learn to make the picture will come, in time, if I spend long enough thinking or feeling my way through the problem. The photograph, I now know, is already in there, someplace. I just have to carve and peel until it emerges. In the images you see here, I have finally, decades hence, become ready to register the unknown in a familiar place.
To my amazement, I can actually pre-imagine a shot now, with a reasonable hope of eventually making my hand cash the check my eye has written. Back when I started, every picture was an accident….sometimes happy, often frustrating. Now, as I point my lens toward locales that are old friends, I know that they, largely, are constant. It is I who has moved. There’s some comfort, and lots of possibility, in realizing that the desks didn’t really shrink.
I just learned to stand up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU LONG TO HEAR IT. The audible gasp, the sustained, breathless, collective “oooooh” from the crowd when the house lights are doused and the holiday tree glows into life in the darkened room. It’s a sonic sample of the extra dimension of emotional engagement that occurs at this time of year, imbuing your photographs with additional firepower. Call it wonder, magic, enchantment, or what you will, but it is there, in greater supply during the season, a tangible thing amidst the bustle and the endless lists of errands.
Children are the best barometers of this heightened awareness, since so many of their experiences are first-time experiences. Regular routines become magically unpredictable. Ordinary things take on the golden warmth of tradition. People that are normally on looser orbits circle closer to them for a time. Time expands and contracts. And their faces register it all, from confusion to anticipation. Reading the wonder in a child’s face is truly easy pickings at times like this, but I’m a big believer in catching them while they live their lives, not queueing up for rehearsed smiles or official sittings. Those are important, but the real Santa stuff, the magic fairy dust, gets into the camera when you eavesdrop on something organic.
The wonderful thing is, it’s not big feat to keep a kid distracted during the holidays. They are in a constant state of sensory overload, and so extremely unaware of you that all you have to do is keep it that way. Get reactions to, not re-creations of, their joy. Be a witness, not a choreographer. Stealth is your best friend for seasonal images, and it’s never easier to pull off, so bask a bit in your anonymity.
And, to further feed your own wonder, stay aware of how fleeting all of it is. You are chronicling things that can never, in this exact way, be again. That is, you’re at the very core of why you took photography up in the first place, a way to reboot your enthusiasm.
And it that’s not magic, then I will never know what is…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HOLIDAY SEASON MAY OFTEN SEEM TO HAVE “OFFICIAL” COLORS, (red, green, etc.) but its unofficial colors reside primarily, and gloriously, in memory. Given how many iterations of photography span most of our lives, our minds tend to twist and tweak colors into highly individualized chromatic channels. Are your most treasured moments in ’50’s Black and White? ’60’s Kodachrome? In the time-tinted magentas of snaps from the 70’s? In blue-green Super 8 Ektachrome or expired Lomo film? Or do you dream in Photoshop?
This is personal stuff, very personal. It seems like we ought to agree universally on the “correct” colors of the season, but, given that our most precious holiday moments are preserved on various archival media, it might be our memory of seeing these events “played back” that is stronger than our actual remembrance of them. As Paul Simon says, everything looks worse in black and white, or in this case, what really happened pales in comparison to our print, Polaroid, movie and slide souvenirs.
This means that there are a million subliminal color “cues” that trigger memory, and not all of them come from “correctly” exposed images. Color is mood, and seasonal pictures can benefit greatly from the astounding range of processing tools suddenly available to everyone. Not all photographs benefit from apps and digital darkroom massages, for sure, but their use is perhaps more seductive, in this mental mid-point between reality and memory than at other times of the year. Fantasy is in play here, after all, and fantasy has no “right” hue. Dreams are too vast a realm to be confined to the basics, so ’tis the season to dip into a wider paintbox.
Memory needs room to breathe, and the photographs that help them fully fill their lungs become the gifts that keep on giving.
I CAME ACROSS SOME MENTAL BAGGAGE THE OTHER DAY DURING A SHOOT BENEATH AN OLD TRESTLE. The following song by the late Harry Nilsson churned back into my forebrain from a land far away. It wasn’t one of his bigger hits, but it has always struck a chord with me, at least the part of me that likes to make pictures:
When we got married back in 1944
We’d board that Silverliner below Baltimore
Trip to Virginia on a sunny honeymoon
Nobody cares about the railroads anymore
We’d tip the porter for a place of our own
Then send a postcard to your mom and dad back home
Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee
Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee
We had a daughter and you oughtta see her now
She has a boyfriend who looks just like my gal Sal
And when they’re married they won’t need us anymore
They’ll board an aeroplane and fly away from Baltimore
Woo-ee, woo-oo-oo-ee, woo-ee
Nobody cares about the railroads anymore
(lyrics copyright Warner-Chappell Music)
The ghosts are out there. So are the pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, AT MY LOCATION IN LIFE, NOW PROCEEDS LIKE A CRUISE MISSILE, OR FASTER. Some days the signposts are zipping by so quickly that I seem to be inside a blender going full tilt puree.
I began THE NORMAL EYE as a kind of “let’s see what happens” project in 2012. Back at the starting line, 200 posts ago today, I wondered if I could even get to 200 words. Then a lucky accident occurred. Photography, which, over a lifetime has been an unfailing miracle of discovery for me, willed that passion onto my pages. Maybe it’s the kind of writing that is available to me, to all of us, as a unique feature of the present world. Maybe I had to live this long to become a chronicler for my eye and the soul that stands behind it.
As a broadcaster, I made my living for over thirty years writing advertising copy, news features, presentations, columns and tutorial material, but always for someone else, always to other agendas beyond my own. But, even while I was working for everyone else but myself, photography served as one of the very few constants in my life, and one of its principal sources of joy. Happy problem: I feel like I need another whole life to try to realize what I can now visualize. If I have any regret, it is that I learn everything the hard way, the slow way, experientially. If I could conceptualize the finer points of the art of imaging without running it personally through my own fingers, I would. It would save time, a premium item at any age, but beyond price from where I stand now.
When I first began clicking away as a kid with a kamera, I knew nothing but that I wanted to make pictures. I was divinely unaware of how truly ignorant I was and keen for the fray. My father, being a graphic artist, subscribed to Life magazine when it was still the premier photo newsmagazine in the world, tearing out the images in every issue and organizing them into a morgue file. There was the world in our garage, alphabetized as a ready reference on any subject. Want to know how to draw a giraffe? Look in the G folder.
But something else was happening as well. I was getting a crash course from the leading photographers on the planet as to how to see, how to show what you saw, how to make others see. I had my own version of the twelve apostles in the works of Alfred Eisenstadt, Gordon Parks, Larry Burrows, Richard Avedon, Otto Karsh, Margaret Bourke-White, and a half dozen others. Inside this special Bible I studied chapters and verses from the books of Aperture, F-stop, Exposure, Tri-Pan X, Graphlex. Praise the Lord and pass the polarizing filter.
As photographers, we all know that our favorite picture is the one we haven’t taken yet, since therein lies the potential for everything. I have to approach this blog the same way. Your input and my impatience have both fueled the fun and the fury of THE NORMAL EYE, and I hope to continue the affair as far as it will take us. I can’t focus for infinity, since I don’t know how far away that is. But, with your help, I can definitely manage 200 words at a time.
Thanks for coming here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ISN’T ANYTHING EMPTIER THAN THE PERFECT EXECUTION OF A FLAWED IDEA. And in the present effects-drenched photographic arena, where nearly any texture, color, or conception can be at least technically realized, we need, always, to be making one crucial distinction: separating what we can do from what we should do.
The basic “fixes” which come natively loaded in even the most basic cameras (filters, effects, nostalgic slathers of antique colors) suggest a broad palette of choices for the photographer looking to extend his reach through what is basically an instantaneous short cut. Fine and dandy, so far. Who, after all, wants to labor for hours to augment a shot with a particular look if that effect can be achieved at the touch of a button? Certainly no one gets into photography anymore with the understanding that they will also have to act as a chemist, and creativity need not be the exclusive playground of the scientifically elite. We all agree that the aim of photography always has and always should be the placing of all tools in as many hands as possible, etc., etc.
But waita seccint. Did I say the world tool? ……(will the recorder read that last part back….?……”placing of all tools in as many…”)… yep, tool. Ya see, that word has meaning. It does not mean an end unto itself. A fake fisheye doth not a picture make. Nor doth a quickie panorama app, a cheesy sepia filter, nor (let’s face it) the snotty habit of saying “doth”. These things are supposed to supplement the creative moment, not be a substitute for it. They are aids, not “fixes”.
This comes back to the earlier point. Of course we can simulate,imitate, or re-create certain visual conditions. But what are we actually saying in the picture? Did we use the effect to put a firm period at the end of a strong sentence, or did we use it as a smoke bomb to allow us to exit the stage before the audience gets wise to the fakery?
One of the original objections to photography, as stated by painters, was that we were handing off the actual act of visual artistry to a (gasp!) machine. A little hysterical, to be sure, but a concern is still worth addressing.
There is a soul in that machine, to be sure.
But only if we supply it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I IMAGINE THAT, IF SOMEONE UN-INVENTED CHRISTMAS, the entire history of personal photography might be compressed into about twenty minutes. I mean, be honest, was there ever a single event or phase of human experience for which more images were clicked than the holiday season? Just given the sheer number of cameras that were found under the tree and given their first test drive right then and there, you’d have one of the greatest troves of personal, and therefore irreplaceable, images in modern history.
Holidays are driven by very specific cues, emotional and historical.
We always get this kind of tree and we always put it in this corner of the room. I always look for the ornament that is special to me, and I always hang it right here. Oh, this is my favorite song. What do you mean, we’re not having hot chocolate? We can’t open presents until tomorrow morning. We just don’t, that’s all.
If, during the rest of our year, “the devil’s in the details”, that is, that any little thing can make life go wrong, then, during the holidays, the angel’s in the details, since nearly everything conspires to make existence not only bearable, but something to be longed for, mulled over, treasured in age. Photographs seem like the most natural of angelic details, since they lend a gauzy permanence to memory, freezing the surprised gasp, the tearful reunion, the shared giggle.
As the years roll on, little is recalled about who got what sweater or who stood longest in line at GreedMart trying to get the last Teddy Ruxpin in North America. Instead, there are those images…in boxes, in albums, on hard drives, on phones. Oh, look. He was so young. She looks so happy. That was the year Billy came home as a surprise. That was the last year we had Grandma with us. Look, look, look.
So remember, always….the greatest gifts you’ll ever receive aren’t under the tree.
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.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU HAVE BEEN ON THE PLANET FOR MORE THAN FIFTY CHRISTMASES, your holiday memories (at least those frozen in family snapshots) will include more than a few black and white images. Some families made the switch to color photography earlier than others, but, at least until the mid-1960’s, for millions of us, more than a few “our best tree ever” photos were shot in monochrome. A little web research or family album-browsing can illustrate just how well beloved memories were captured by millions of us, long before Kodachrome became the visual currency of family folklore.
It’s interesting to note that, with the universal availability of not only simple cameras but post-processing apps, there’s been a sort of retro-fed love of b&w that’s refreshing, given that we are, once again, admitting that some subjects can be wonderfully rendered in a series of greyscale tones. Certainly the general marketing and depiction of the season is a color-drenched one, but many new photographers are re-discovering the art of doing more with less, or, more properly, seeing black and white as an interpretation of reality rather, as in the case of color, as a recording of it.
Observing the season out in the American West, thousands of miles from loved ones, I find that my holiday shots are increasingly journalistic or “street” in nature, since I am viewing and interpreting other people’s Christmases. The contours and designs of retail become a vibrant source of stories for me, and black and white allows me to shoot at an emotionally safe distance while calling special attention to texture and detail.
Depending on whether you’re showing the splendor of food and presents or evoking some Dickens-era urban grit, some subjects will come up flat or drab in black and white, given our very specific memory cues as to what Christmas should “look like”, so getting the desired result may be elusive. But, of course, if photography was easy, everyone would do it.
Oh, wait, everybody does do it.
Thing is, you always add another voice to the creative conversation. That’s the best part of both photography and the holidays.
No way is best but your way.
- Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White (dailypost.wordpress.com)
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.
- 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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AFTER, AS A YOUNG BOY, I FIRST SAW KODACHROME SLIDES PROJECTED ONTO OUR LIVING ROOM WALL, I learned that the first popular projectors had actually been called “magic lanterns” How right they were, and what an incredible spell these flashes of color and light wove for a little boy breathless in the familiar, yet miraculous dark.
It wasn’t that, as a family, we didn’t have dozens of albums crammed with traditionally processed prints of our most treasured moments. It’s just that, in the shadows, those clear, color-soaked images, half a wall in size, took on a life of their own. Bigger. More immediate. And as communal as a trip to the theatre. Only this was our theatre….our lore, our legend, writ large, compelling somehow in its size and scale.
Father’s Day is always a poignant time for me, since my life is insanely blessed. For me to be in the last third of my own life, and to still have the author of so many of my dreams still on the scene, still available to teach and direct my visions, as he did so ably then….well, it’s everything, that’s all.
As a father myself, I learned that it’s not always possible to transmit your passions to your children. Sometimes they don’t want to follow dear old Dad into whatever passionate pursuits he’s chosen for his own life. The fact that, sometimes, your kids “get” what even a part of you is really about is amazing, and, in the case of my father, I was lucky enough to be struck by the same lightning that hit him when it came to the graphic image….drawn or painted, realized in solid space in sculpture, or frozen on film. Photographs to him were another way of teaching himself to select, to edit, to choose something magical to depict or interpret, and he let me be the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Early into the Christmases of my adolescence, the power of our family albums was left in the dust as our memories began to shine and glow in our living room with the arrival of Dad’s new Bell & Howell 500 slide projector. It was Cinemascope, Cinerama, and the video wall from The Jetsons all in one, and I was mesmerized. The arrival of every yellow, flat box of new Kodak slides, all the way from the regional processing plant in Findley, Ohio, was like the reveal of a stage magician. I had caught the fever. I wanted to make pictures, too.
I wanted to make pictures like his.
The best statement I can make, all these years later, about the wonder of projected images was expressed several years ago on the Mad Men TV series, when adman Don Draper has the chance to make a fictional pitch to Eastman Kodak on how to market and name its new series of home slide projectors. And, even though our home projector used a “cube” tray instead of the wheel on Kodak’s “Carousel”, the magic was the same. Draper’s pitch began with the very essence of family memory:
“In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’.
It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backward and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called ‘The Wheel’. It’s called ‘The Carousel’ It lets us travel the way a child travels…around and around and back home again.
A place where we know we are loved. “
On this Father’s Day, as on every other, my heart is filled with memories and gratitude for the love that created them, but also a special thanks for a father who taught me the adventure, the patience, the joy of making an image. Armed with his trusty Kodak Pony 828, he taught me how to celebrate the triumphs and live with the failures, and, most importantly, to always go back to the well for another try. As both a photographer and graphic artist, he showed me that the concept is all, that it’s worth fighting for, worth worrying about, worth loving as your own special treasure.
Thanks, Dad. I love you.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter at MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE LIVE IN AN AGE IN WHICH MOST OF OUR LIVES ARE EXHAUSTIVELY OVER-DOCUMENTED. We are, compared to our recent ancestors, photographically bitmapped from cradle to grave with a constellation of snaps that practically draw an outline around us and everything we do.
Globally, we will take more photographs in two minutes today than the entire world took over the entire 19th century.
That said, it’s amazing how few photos taken of, or by, us really look deeply into our souls, or whatever it is that animates us, makes us truly alive. It’s not that there aren’t enough pictures of us being taken: it’s how inarticulate so many of them are.
But go back just a generation or two, and observe the contrast. Far fewer images of most lives. And, with their increasing rarity or loss, more and more value attached to each and every one of those images that survives. Grandfather is gone, leaving only a handful of curled, cracked, and browning snapshots to mark his passing. But how rich the impact of those remaining pictures. The thirst for more, for a greatest number of clues to who this person was!
How to increase or deepen his spirit without having him here?
Explore the things he left behind. The tools he touched. The places where he invested his spirit, his aura. The parts of the world that he deemed important.
And I say: if you love someone, and have to let them go, use your camera to sniff around the found objects of their lives. It may not conjure them up like a holograph of Obi-Wan, but it will focus your thoughts about them in away which is nearly, well, visual.
I fell in love with the worn little instrument case you see at the top of this page. It belonged to my wife’s father, a man whose life was cut short by illness, a life under-represented in photographs. He made his living with his wits and with his hands. The compass which was carried in this case was a tool of survival, something he used to make his living, to measure out his skill and art. It’s a treasure to have it around to look at, and it’s a privilege to be able to photograph its worn corners, its tattered grain, its rusted buttons. Time has allowed it to speak, louder than its owner ever can, and to act as his visual proxy.
I’ve explored this theme in past posts, because I feel so strongly about the expressive power of things as emblems of lives. Long before our every action could be captured in an endless Facebook page of banal smartphone snaps, images had to work a lot harder, and say more. I’m not saying you should spend the next six months of your life raiding your closets for Ultimate Truth. I am saying you might be walking past a chunk of that Truth every day, and that it might just be worth framing up.
And thinking about.
(let’s help each other find amazing images! Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITHOUT GETTING TOO OVERLY OOKY-SPOOKY, I believe that photographers are witnesses to, well, ghosts. Specializing in the visualization of what might be (as near as our next frame), we are also retro-witnesses, or mediums, if you will, using found objects to call back the spirit of things that are no longer here. “If these walls could talk”, we instinctively remark as we walk into Notre Dame, Independence Hall, or Ellis Island, and yet, we think we are merely being poetic when we utter that phrase.
Objects give up their secrets slowly, and in these posts I have often gone back to my fond desire to resurrect at least the essence of the owners of those objects, re-capturing people in the things they held, kept, cherished, wore to pieces, loved to death. We use every atom of our imagination trying to inch forward toward some revelation yet-to-be….a way to will a picture into being. But we are surprised to find ourself also trying to conjure forth echoes. And yet some of the most moving portraits we can produce show no people at all. I’m sure you have found this to be true.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, chairs resonate especially for me. They’re personal. They’re social. Deals are struck in them; stories are told, babies are soothed, pauses are taken, contemplation occurs. Lives pass.
For you, it might be other things that are left behind, but still ringing with the echoes of people. Books. Clothing. Cars. They can be anything, but whatever their strange stories, you can often hear them, and that makes them far from “empty”. Cameras record everything that can be seen and lots of things that can only be sensed. They may be only machines, but in the hands of dreamers they are divining rods.
Your houses are haunted, and in a good way.
Call the spirits forth.
- Between objects and life (thehindu.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH SHOOTERS FANCY THEMSELVES “INTERPRETIVE VISUAL POETS”, a big part of photography is also the dutiful marking of time, the chronicling of things that are in the process of going away. The medium of image-making itself is one long history of mutation, evolution and imminent obsolescence, so why should we shy away from recording those things in our world which are always going extinct? Think of the world as one big repeat of your eighth-grade class picture. Yeah.
I am a lifelong Coca-Cola buff. Part of this fascination comes out of a career in mass media advertising and marketing, where Coke has largely shown the rest of the world how a brand is created and sustained. This fizzy (and guilty) pleasure is probably unique among all of the products ever marketed in the industrial world, coming, as it does, with its own traditions, mythology, and iconography. From the annual seasonal Haddon Sundblom illustrations of Santa Claus pausing to refresh himself to our present-day polar bear soda fantasies, Coke has established a legacy of style and, yes, a certain visual vocabulary. We may argue “new recipe” versus “classic formula”, but we know what Coca-Cola should look like.
One of the “looks” that we expect is the sinuous curl of the so-called “contour” bottle, introduced in 1916 and maintained as a constant of style well into the 21st century. This distinctively shaped design was so quintessentially American that it was originally nicknamed the “Mae West” due to its, er, curvaceous dimensions. And when it comes to Coca-Cola, icons die hard. Years after this traditional container has ceased to be the dominant delivery system for Coke products, current commercials still show customers lifting, ta da, a glass bottle to their joyful lips. In everyday practice, of course, nearly all Coke sold in America is encased in plastic, with, by 2012, only a single bottling plant in Winona, Minnesota continuing to refill the 6.5- ounce “green glass” bottles, or “bar Cokes”. By October, rising costs and diminishing returns called a halt to it all, and the last bottles rolled off the line to a chorus of pop culture weeping and wailing.
Some small glass bottles of Coke will continue to be sold at retail going forward, but their graphics are painted on, rather than molded into the glass. Call me a purist, but, as a fan of tabletop still lifes, I thought it was high time the original hand-sized, green glass, America-won-the-war Coca-Cola bottle posed for its closeup. I decided to add a little pomp by way of props to suggest Everyman’s Drink as a fine vintage, but, hey, we all know damn well that we never, ever had a glass of wine that came close to the first burpy sting of a cold swig of The Real Thing.
It’s fun mocking up product shots. It’s even more fun when it’s an act of love.
Still, maybe all those kids singing on the side of a hill in that old TV ad were on to something.
I’d like to buy the world a Coke……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ONE PIECE OF “EQUIPMENT” THAT HAS SEEN ME THROUGH THE TRANSITION FROM FILM TO DIGITAL is not a hunk of techno gear. In fact, it has not directly figured in the taking of even a single picture. I was reminded of its amazing longevity a few months ago, as I was going through a 2002 shoot done in Ireland. Among my own shots was a pretty good candid of me, taken by my wife, as I crouched to line up a shot next to a road heading to the Ring of Kerry. And there “it” was with me.
In fact, it was keeping me warm and dry.
Context: I never took the plunge of the eager amateur and purchased one of those puffy, sleeveless photog vests, honeycombed with a zillion pockets, pouches and secret compartments, much as I never painted the words CAMERA NERD on my face in day-glo orange. Chalk it up to self-consciousness. I figured it was hard enough to blend in and keep people relaxed in a shooting situation without looking like a cross between a spinster butterfly hunter and a middle-school lab assistant. Call me vain.
And you’d be right.
So, a plain brown leather jacket. Gimme three good pockets and call it day. And thus it was that, for the next thirteen years or so, I have had “skin in the game”, skin that has survived exploded pens, leaked batteries, rotten weather on two sides of the Atlantic, and more scrapes, tears, and rips than I care to recall. It has also helped keep countless camera straps from inscribing a permanent groove in my left shoulder, and, here in the Land Of Incipient Arthritis, I appreciate that more than I can say.
Such service calls for a little respect, and so, in the name of the weirdest still lifes ever, I figured it was time for Old Faithful to pose for a portrait of its own. Originally I thought to lay it out straight, the way they show off famous duds at the Smithsonian. But what really caught my eye was that, texture-wise, it is almost six different jackets, from the glossy sheen of an old horse saddle to the frayed look of something that’s been making out with a cheese grater.
At the last, I simply experimented with a few crumpled waves of grain, as if the jacket had been hastily tossed aside, which, trust me, it has been, on countless occasions.
Best thing is, when I’m ready, it’s still there.
I’m not a big fan of good luck charms, but maybe some things protect against bad luck, and that’s no easy feat, either. Either way, me and what Kipling would have called my “Lazarushian leather” and I will keep signing up new missions.
At least until one of our arms fall off.