By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULYSSES S. GRANT HAS BEEN REMEMBERED AS A MAN OF SEVERAL “FIRSTS”. He has been called the first practitioner of “modern” warfare, utilizing methods that rendered the courtly style of his Confederate foes obsolete. He also was the first American president to pen a purely military autobiography. History students can probably agree on other career distinctions. But in watching the recent excellent History Channel miniseries on his life (based on the book by Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton), it becomes clear that the eighteenth president was also the first to have nearly his entire adult life documented in photographs. In a print world still dominated by illustrations and engravings, Grant was captured on glass plates over three hundred times in the space of about twenty years, twice as often as such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In point of fact, Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the world over the span of the entire nineteenth century.
At a time when most people lived out their lives without posing for even a single portrait, Grant endured dozens of formal “sittings”, caught as well in photojournalist snaps by Matthew Brady’s roving band of Civil War photographers, who pictured him poring over maps, sitting in tent-side conferences with other officers, conferring with his president in both the field and the capitol, attending that same president’s funeral, welcoming visitors to his own White House, resting with family on his front porch. Consider: being photographed in the 1800’s was, for a time, an occasion, a privilege, maybe even an accident. Certainly, Grant was not the first president to have his picture “made”, but the sheer volume of views of him across his public life was a quantum leap from our visual sense of any public figure up to that time. Chernow’s book (and the miniseries) both reckon with the incredible explosion in notoriety wrought by Grant’s roles as both the general who won the war and the president who tried to preside over the peace. And while some of the incredible trove of photo images of Grant can be accounted for by breakthroughs in the technical growth and expansion of photography during his lifetime, the astonishing bulk of it can only be attributed to the fact that Grant was an international celebrity, one of the first in the Industrial Age.
WIthout his realizing it, Ulysses Grant had come along in one of those transformational transition periods in history in which our established way of viewing things is undergoing a convulsion toward something completely different. Photography, in his time, was slowly re-negotiating our relationship to our leaders. They ceased to operate at a distance or as abstractions. They now had features, dimensions, traits brought to us in a new kind of intimacy that only the camera could create. And as films and lenses improved, the stiff formality of a sitting portrait gave way to images of a much more spontaneous, candid nature. The image seen here (which I love) is itself a transitional one. Grant had to remain still long enough for the still-slow exposure times of the Brady corps’ devices, but already he has to remain at attention for a much shorter span that he might have in a studio just a few years prior. The most important element of the pose, however, is a kind of tell about Grant’s priorities. His face seems to say, take the picture already…I’ve got more important things to do.
First paparazzi prez? Hardly. But over the term of his public life, Ulysses Grant may be the first president to be, almost, our public property, a “person of interest” in purely visual terms. As now, sitting (or standing, or running) for a portrait is no guarantee that the truth will make it through the lens. But there are certain times in the history of photography where a pivot point is glowingly obvious, and the weary resignation in Grant’s face is a kind of seismograph of what was to come, for good or ill, for all of us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE WAYS WE USE PHOTOGRAPHY TO NAVIGATE through our tricky lives is to use it to sort of mark our personal territory. To leave a trail of bread crumbs about the places we passed on our journey. Pictures stitch together a rough chronology of who we are, who we care about, what we believe is important. And one of the most conspicuous parts of this timeline involves our interactions with each other, and the images that those interactions generate.
Our virtual world, with all its facebookings and instagramations, is but a simulation of the dimensionally deep contact we have with each other in our best moments. It’s a wonderful abbreviation of full human experience, but it is just that: an abbreviation. A synthetic version of real interplay between real people. Photographs, by contrast, are of endless interest to us because they are chronicles of those interplays. A visual record. A testament. As we often say, the camera both reveals and conceals, showing what might have happened, what we wish had happened….and maybe, in lucky moments, a trace of what actually did happen when we met. And talked. And shared. And traded lives, if only for fractions of seconds.
The picture you see here is what, for lack of a more precise term, was a happy accident. It wasn’t planned. Heck, it wasn’t even deliberately framed, being a snap taken from lap level in the second it occurred to me that the two men seen here might be having a moment. An exchange. A life-swapping. Turns out, without really having done much of anything on purpose, I walked away with what I regarded as a story. It doesn’t even bother me that I don’t know the players, or the plot, or the outcome. The story, as seen in the picture, just is. There is a connection between Man A and Man B that lives on in frozen form and it doesn’t require, or even benefit from, a word of explanation from me. It’s something real, even if it’s not something real clear. It’s a record of the Luxury Of We.
As humans, we crave connection. We even settle for social media, which is a sharp step down in true intimacy, just because we want that contact so badly. Me? Give me a real human moment every time. Snapping such special exchanges is more than mere “posting”: it’s witnessing, and that’s a whole other level of experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STOP BEING “REALITY” mere seconds after their creation, in that the truths they record have, in every sense, moved on, on their way to becoming a million other versions of themselves. We treasure our fragile little time thefts, those frozen testimonies to what some thing in the world looked like at some time. In this way, every photograph is a souvenir, an after-image of something lost.
It’s small wonder that photographers often experience a sense of fearful urgency, a hurry-up-and-preserve-it fever bent on chronicling a world that is borning and dying at the same time. It’s hard sometimes not to think of everything as precious or picture-worthy. The beginnings of things are essential, because they cannot last. Vanishings are important because they are so final. Even an image of a person who is still living bears a poignancy…..because it was taken Before The War, When Mamma Was Alive, When We Still Lived Across Town.
And when it comes to the natural world, photographers and non-photographers alike are ever more aware that they may be capturing, for whatever reason, the lasts of things. Species. Coastlines. Remnants of a world whose regular timeline of goodbyes has been accelerated. Photographers always have a mission to immortalize the comings and goings most central to their own lives, and that’s understandably their primary emphasis. But the natural world will also press us to be reporters in a more general sense. As one reality passes away and others begin, our sense of what is real may come down to the images we make as life careens ever on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT WEARY OF QUESTIONS about the secret of his photographic technique, the late Lars Tunbjork once told an interviewer, “I try to take photos like an alien”, a statement which strikes me as the perfect description of the shooter’s viewpoint. We are steeped in our own humanity: we are swept along in its tidal swell. But being part of all life gives us a skewed perspective as commentators. Striving to renounce our membership, to become The Outsider, is an art in itself. And certain pictures simply can’t be made without it.
Observing a scene as if one were an “alien”, as if we were freshly arrived on a scene which possessed nothing familiar to us, forces us to make unbiased, instantaneous evaluations of what is picture-worthy, not from our memory or habit, but from instincts, even raw guesses. Like E.T., harvesting earth plants for the purpose of study, we are placing ourselves into the viewpoint of a Columbus or an Armstrong. If we succeed, our perspective is truly that of someone Who Has Never Been Before. These small stolen instants of what one photographer called the flash of perception free us, momentarily, from what we’ve learned or assumed over a lifetime of experience. They allow us to shoot things we don’t pause to understand or contexualize. We feel that something ought to be a picture, and so it becomes one.
Tunbjork often took shots of randomly selected people in office environments doing the daily mundane tasks of making a living. The pictures were certainly “real” in a sense, and can, in fact, convey the feeling that we are getting our first (fresh?) look at things so ordinary that they have become invisible. Just as in the case of the shot seen here, snapped as I took a shortcut through a busy restaurant, the sensation can be that we have just happened upon something previously hidden: a conversation, a short relaxed break, a backstage glimpse. We are intruding into a place where we normally are not admitted. We are stealing. Hopefully with a tale that, later, back on the mother ship, we can share with our fellow aliens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THANKSGIVING WEEK USUALLY DEPUTIZES WRITERS OF EVERY VARIETY to generate lists of things the author is thankful for, everything from baby puppies to the designated-hitter rule, all enveloped in the gold glow of gratitude. Photographers are usually not enlisted for these rosters of wonderfulness, but, if you make pictures long enough, you will, no doubt, have a list of very specific items that warm your heart.
Over a lifetime, I have generally been grateful for photography’s consistent ability to excite my senses, challenge my thinking, and create the addictive sensation known as surprise. I’m grateful that George Eastman introduced the first practical roll film, taking photography from the hands of the few and giving it to the world at large. I’m glad that images have found languages with which to speak to people, languages that surpass the power of speech. I’m glad that photographs stitch together links across every gulf of human experience. And I’m thankful for the pictures that enraged me to action, that gladdened me to tears, that encouraged me to make more pictures of my own.
I’m grateful for the men and women who have created the greatest visual art form the world has ever known. You can sub your own gallery of gods, but mine includes Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Walker Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, W.Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz, and, most importantly, the millions of invisible eyes and hands out there cranking, out there living by one unshakable credo: Always be shooting.
I thank the photo gods for images of my parents, first as sweethearts in the aftermath of World War II, then as newlyweds in the ’50’s, then as Mommy and Daddy in the Space Age, and presently as the great long-distance runners of romance, still mad for each other at 66 years and counting. I thank fortune for the bunny ears and hamming and mugging and bright toothy giggles of my own children, frozen now in their newness and their hunger for life. And I incidentally thank luck for Kodachrome, quick-charging batteries, fast lenses and a few moments in which I swung around, just in time, and got the shot.
The camera is many things…charmer, chronicler, narrator, witness, liar, magic wand. It gains all these special powers in the hands of people. Photographs are measures of who we are, what we care about, and what we want time to say about us after we’re gone.
Lots to do, lots left to attempt.
Lots to be thankful for.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH PAINTING AS ITS INITIAL INFLUENCE, THE YOUNG ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY spent its first years trying to record transcendent scenes of the world, from landscapes to portraits, in much the same elegant, poetic way that such subjects were translated to the canvas. Partly due to the limits of early exposure media, the task of making a picture was slower in those first years, almost a contemplative act. And so, in pace and mood, the strange new machine seemed intent on imitating its painterly elder, at least in part to make the argument that even a machine could be imbued with an artist’s eye.
Then came faster film and faster events. The images of war and the advancing grind of city life coincided with the introduction of more responsive films. The snapshot, the ability to catch an accelerating world on the fly, became commonplace. Photography took on a new role as reporter’s tool, a way to visually testify to human problems and their impacts. Photojournalism, in turn, gave way to commerce, which created an image bias in news coverage that persists to the present day. Photos take their tone from the needs of the marketplace. Tragedy outsells beauty. If it bleeds, it leads. Pulitzer prizes aren’t awarded to people who make pictures of daffodils.
And yet, there is a greater need for pictorial beauty than ever before, simply so that our visual diet doesn’t consist solely of red meat and blood. Certainly, the sensational holds tremendous sway over what gets published, re-printed, re-tweeted. The images that stamp themselves on our brains hold many traumas and dramas. Admittedly, some have sparked outrage, which in turn spurs action, and that can be a good thing. But photography can make us hard and jaded as well, and we dare not squeeze beauty into the margins of our consumption. Pictures shape feelings, and they can also condition us to feel less and less about more and more.
From Lewis Hine’s harrowing pictures of children in cotton mills to present-day iPhone dispatches from the latest repressions or riots, photographs are the seismograph of our collective consciences. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, he cannot subsist solely on nightmares. Beauty, harmony, aspiration, hope….we need to capture all these as well, lest, under the barrage of the shell and the bullet, the butterfly is blasted into extinction.
It’s a question of balance.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EROSION AND COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN URBAN INFRASTRUCTURES of the 20th century is more than bad policy. It is more than reckless. It is also, to my mind, a sin against hope.
As photographers, we are witness to this horrific betrayal of the best of the human spirit. The pictures that result from this neglect may, indeed, be amazing. But we capture them with a mixture of sadness and rage.
Hope was a rarity in the early days of the Great Depression. Prosperity was not quite, as the experts claimed, “right around the corner.” And yet, a strategy arose, in private and federal project alike, that offered uplift and utility at the same time. People were put to work making things that other people needed. The nation erected parks, monuments, utilities, forests, and travel systems that turned misery to muscle and muscle to miracle. Millionaires used their personal fortunes to create temples of commerce and towers of achievement, hiring more men to turn more shovels. Hope became good business.
One of the gleaming jewels of the era was, and is, the still-amazing Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which, in its decorative murals and reliefs, lionized the working man even as it put bread on his table. The dignity of labor was reflected across the country in everything from newspaper lobbies to post office portals, giving photographers the chance to chronicle both decline and recovery in a country brought only briefly to its knees.
Today, the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC studios, still provides a soaring tribute to the iron workers and sandhogs who made it possible for America to again put one foot in front of the other, marching, not crawling, back into the sunlight. It still makes a pretty picture, as can thousands of such surviving works across the country. Photographing them in the current context of priceless inheritance offers a new way to thank the bygone architects of hope.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.
The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.
More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.
Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine, and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.
Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS MOSTLY OF SHOWING PEOPLE in the full context of their regular worlds.
In terms of portraits or candids, it’s usually sufficient to showcase those we know in controlled environments….family gatherings, special occasions, a studio setting. However, to reveal anything about the millions of strangers we encounter over a lifetime, we only have context to show who they are and what they do. To say something about these fascinating unknowns, we truly need the “props” that define their lives.
I never thought it was that profound to just snap a candid of someone walking down the street. Walking to where? To do what? To meet whom? Granted, a person composed as part of an overall street scene can be a great compositional elements all by him/herself, but to answer the question, who is this person? requires a setting that fixes him in time, in a role or a task. Thus pictures of people doing something, i.e., being in their private universe of tools, objects, and habits…now that can make for an interesting study.
We now have successful reality TV shows like Somebody’s Gotta Do It which focus on just what it’s like to perform other people’s jobs, the jobs we seldom contemplate or tend to take for granted. It satisfies a human curiosity we all share about what else, besides ourselves, is out there. Often we try to gain the answer by sending probes to the other side of the galaxy, but, really, there’s plenty to explore just blocks from wherever we live. Thing is, the people we show make sense only in terms of the accumulations of their lives…the objects and equipment that fill up their hour and frame them in our compositions.
The legendary Lewis Hine made the ironwalkers of Manhattan immortal, depicting them in the work of creating the city’s great skyscrapers. Others froze workers and craftsmen of every kind in the performance of their daily routines. Portraits are often more than faces, and showing people in context is the real soul of street photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHO CAN SAY WHY SOMETHING CALLS OUT TO US VISUALLY? I have marveled at millions of moments that someone else has chosen to slice off, isolate, freeze and fixate on, moments that have, amazingly, passed something along to me in their photographic execution that I would never have slowed to see in the actual world. It’s the assist, the approach, if you will, of the photographer that makes the image compelling. It’s the context his or her eye imposes on bits of nature that make them memorable, even unforgettable.
It’s occurred to me more than once that, given the sheer glut of visual information that the current world assaults us with, the greatest thing a photographer can do is at least arrest some of it in its mad flight, slow time enough to make us see a fraction of what is racing out of our reach every second. I don’t honestly know what’s more fascinating; the things we manage to freeze for further consideration, or the monstrous ocean of visual data that is lost, constantly.
There’s a reason photography has become the world’s most loved, hated, trusted, feared, and treasured form of storytelling. For the first time in human history, these last few centuries have afforded us to catch at least a few of the butterflies of our fleeting existence, a finite harvest of the flurrying dust motes of time. It’s both fascinating and frustrating, but, like spellbound suckers at a magic show, we can’t look away, even when the messages are heartbreaking, or horrible.
We are light thieves, plunderers on a boundless treasure ship, witnesses.
Assistants to the seeing eye of the heart.
It’s a pretty good gig.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ABRAHAM ZAPRUDER almost didn’t change history.
The Dallas women’s wear designer, a refugee from Soviet Russia and a Democrat, was eager to take a break from his office on November 22, 1963 to head down to the city’s Dealey Plaza, accompanied by his receptionist, to get a look at the man for whom he had voted three years earlier. An assistant suggested he first swing by his house and pick up his movie camera, a Bell & Howell Zoomatic “Director” Model 414 PD. Standing on a concrete pedestal, framing the presidential motorcade as it made its turn onto Elm Street, Zapruder, too stunned by what he was seeing through his viewfinder to even stop, captured 26.6 seconds that would document the world’s shift from innocence to agony.
He had no sophisticated experience documenting news stories. He had never taken a course on photography. Understandably, for the rest of his life, he could never again even bring himself to shoot either still or movie images. But that day, he had a camera. And if anything of Abraham Zapruder’s unique role in the Kennedy tragedy is emblematic of the fatefulness of photography, of being present when things are ready to happen, it is those 486 frames of Kodachrome, footage that no one….no news service, no network, no freelancer…nobody but a dressmaker with an amateur camera was poised to capture.
Because of Abraham Zapruder, the chaos and fear of those seconds now represent a time line, a sequence. The event has parameters, colors. Tone. Zapruder’s camera transformed him from “a” witness to “the” witness, the image maker of record, just as it had for others when the Hindenburg erupted into flame, the Arizona billowed black smoke, and, a generation later, Challenger painted the sky with a billion fiery atoms.
Half a century later, the multiplier effect of personal media devices guarantees that each key event in our history is documented by hundreds, even thousands of witnesses at once, but, on that horrible day in Dallas, Abraham Zapruder’s preservation of murder on celluloid was an outlier, an accident. And by the end of Friday, November, 22, 1963, the day the world unspooled, he was no longer merely a tourist taking a home movie. He was the sole possessor of Exhibit A.
- Zapruder Film: Images As History, Pre-Smartphone (dfw.cbslocal.com)