By MICHAEL PERKINS
Reports Of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PRONOUNCING NEW YORK CITY DEAD since the Dutch first tried to turn the place into a satellite business enterprise and the locals decided, in reverse Cinderella fashion, that those wooden shoes weren’t really a good fit for their feet. In fact, The City That Never Sleeps is kind of like a cat on steroids, endowed with not merely nine but a seemingly infinite number of separate lives, each one built on the ashes of the one that preceded it. Something in New York is always under threat, soon to open on this site, not as good as it used to be, and something that no one’s ever seen before, all at the same time. It is a chorus that, to outsiders, can sound like a cacophony. The locals hear music in the crashing of the garbage cans. To those who don’t get it, the reaction to what Manhattan regards as Business As Usual is often some variation on Oh My God How Can You Live Like This.
It’s no wonder that the camera, any camera at any time, can’t look away.
After all, you blink….you might miss something.
At this writing, March of 2020, the city is curled up into a ball, bracing itself for an impending impact that no one knows how to estimate or pre-measure. By any reasonable guess, the meteor, when it hits, will hurt big, and for a long time. And so I don’t propose a mere “pick yourself up” attitude or cheery bravado as the country looks down the barrel of this cannon. But I also believe that, like Twain’s death, any bets that are taken against New York’s survival will be ill-advised. I am not a native, but over a lifetime, I have spent enough time in New York streets to know that this brash kid is here to stay. You can smash airplanes into our neighborhoods. So what else you got? You can tear up the streets, close our favorite bar, church, or theatre, swaddle the whole place in economic depression, and even flood the subway. Is that your best shot? This isn’t empty bluster: it’s demonstrated fact. Yeah, sure, we’ll dim the lights on Broadway from time to time, but, hey, there’s a new sushi joint opening in Soho next week, y’know?
The proof of what I’m saying is in the photographic record, in the visual poetry of all the Berenice Abbotts and Walker Evanses and Alfred Eisenstadts and Robert Frankses and Diane Arbuses and too many other testimonial eyes to count. If you’ve got a little spare time these days, check out a few. There are even a few occasionally lucky entries from yours truly. And while everyone else in the world has an opinion, good or bad, with or without a camer, about New York, only one vote really counts.
And that’s theirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT RESURGENCE OF INSTANT CAMERAS AND FILM IS NOT A REVOLUTION: it’s more like a symptom. I mean, eventually everything in the history of photography is a symptom of something larger in human development, innit? One year it’s a certain hot piece of gear, another it’s a trend in technique. The medium is a barometer of sorts on who we are and what we value. And now, for a while (again), it’s the stage for a kind of return to an imagined wonderful yesteryear.
It’s not hard to see how the youngest generation of shooters (the biggest demographic chunk of new instant pix users) has embraced a revisitation of the golden age of Polaroid. Making generally flawless images by the zillions in the digital age has, for some, sparked the question is any of this stuff designed to last? Are any of the thousands of pictures you squeezed off with your phone “keepers” as to memory, emotional resonance, uniqueness? And can an analog picture designed to be an unrepeatable original, tangibly printed out in the hand, promote the production of photos that are more special, more warmly personal? In short, is Polaroid Originals film (or Fuji/Instax film, for that matter) the next vinyl LP?
Scan through the most ecstatic raves about the instant photography experience and you’ll see lots of references to emotion, shared fun, even a kind of nostalgic pang for pictures that are, well, as crappy as most Polaroids were before the original company shuttered (sorry) in 2001. In fact, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of instanting readily admit to the technical clunkiness of their favorite cameras and the so-lousy-it’s-cool aesthetic of the prints, as if making technically inferior pictures is some badge of either spontaneity or authenticity. It should be noted that both the revival of plastic, Soviet-era toy cameras by the Lomography crowd a few years back and the re-emergence of Polaroid were spearheaded by European art school hipsters, both espousing how “real” random or uneven results are, as opposed to the bloodless precision of digital imaging. Here, however, as I see it, are the real constants of both the revived Polaroid brand and its (slightly) superior cousins at Fuji /Instax:
Most everybody’s instant film renders colors horribly.
Films formats like Instax mini (waay smaller than Polaroid) are virtually useless for complex compositions: the images are just too teeny.
All instant film is too damned expensive, making some prints cost out at $1.00 or more apiece.
Polaroid Originals (the new guardians of Polaroid’s old intellectual properties) brought back the emotional sensation of instant pix, but all of its problems as well…including crummy resolution, low contrast, and meh optics.
And, most importantly, there are, at this writing, almost no mid-line price instant cameras that afford a broad array of hands-on settings. This means almost no control at the low end (less than $75) and exorbitant prices on the high-end (over $700 in many cases). It also means you can either take cheap/bad pictures with no creative override whatsoever or sink a fortune into a camera with a huge learning curve that still may pump out technically inferior pictures. That cost a lot.
Certainly the “cool” value of instants is an emotional by-product of the digital age. Unlike the thousands of images residing on your phone, many of which may never be seen or shared even hours after they’re created, you can physically hold and pass around a Polaroid-esque print. And there may even be an ancillary benefit for serious photographers as well: since your resources are limited and expensive, you will likely spend more time planning shots, editing on the fly, even rejecting bad ideas before they’re even committed to film. Or, you could be chosen the winner on The Bachelor, in which the sky’s the limit. In a way, instants impose the same restraint on a shooter that all film does, the same thing that happens to digital shooters that are ten shots away from battery death, or stuck shooting everything with one mediocre lens on a given day. When you’re forced to slow down and plan, different pictures happen.
So…. Instant Photography, Part II, The Sequel presents a real challenge for its current avatars. Several standout models aside, Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid, did not bring great cameras to the masses, nor did he ever create a world-beating film or amazing optics. He did give a world bent on instant gratification a fun toy to serve that sensation up on demand (and at a premium price). But while his heirs may eventually succeed where he failed, generating both the tools and the medium for great photographic work, right now, instant photography feels like the first three Star Wars prequels. And if you think that’s a compliment, then I have a Jar-Jar Binks tee-shirt I’d like to sell you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY COMPLETE DISCUSSION OF THE LEGACY OF THE BEATLES‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, will include voluminous analyses of its ground-breaking production technique and breakthrough approach to musical composition, and rightfully so. But this most fundamental of pop culture events of the 1960’s must also be thought of in purely visual terms, since many of us first encountered it as an amazing, challenging image.
In truth, the collaboration between Pop Art designer Peter Blake and studio photographer Michael Cooper, with its ad-hoc gathering of cardboard celebrities grouped around a gravesite with the word BEATLES spelled out in blossoms, is the first act of a two-act play. The cover set the same audacious terms of engagement that the record inside the sleeve would abide by: Art and Music are what we say they are: We, the Beatles, are in complete charge of our music, our image, and our connection with the audience: we will not have “a” style, but will hybridize whatever schools of thought come to hand, from modes of composition to instruments to shifting patterns of Past, Present, and Future to coloring outside the lines of even our own culture. I read the news, today, oh, boy, and it said there are no more rules: there are no more walls. The stage can no longer hold us. Only the studio itself is vast enough to contain what we have to say.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper made a stunning break with the accepted practices used by record labels to market their goods. Quite simply, the suits in the front office were no longer in charge of the pictures. And what of that picture, or, more accurately, that picture of pictures? Is it a tribute? A put-on? A serving of notice that the Beatles are dead, long live the Beatles? Yes, yes, and hell, yes. Pepper made it plain, once and for all, that album covers, which had begun in the 1930’s as basic advertising sleeves for the goods within, could be venerated, influential, and, yeah, framed on some freak’s wall. Like, you know, man, art.
And, if Cooper and Blake were drawing a line between eras for the record world, they were doing so to an even greater degree for photography, which, in 1967, was still considered by some as more craft than art. Within a few years after A Day In The Life‘s long, ringing super-chord, museums were mounting shows by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, right alongside the painters, and directly adjacent to people like Warhol who constituted categories all their own.
Just as Alice In Wonderland is somehow legless without John Tenniel’s illustrations, Sgt. Pepper’s’ outside will always be wedded to its inside, and vice versa. As the most popular multimedia product in commercial history, it owes much of its titanic impact to the image of four oddly costumed men with four strangely new mustaches and one big message: there is more to us than meets the eye. Like the best of photography, the picture issues a challenge. Nothing is real.
And nothing to get hung about…….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE LINDA EASTMAN BECAME LINDA McCARTNEY, the world ignorantly chose to define her as rock’n’roll arm candy basking in the reflected sun of her globally famous husband. In fact, however, by the time she chose to rock a family, she had already created a self that would outlast her role as a reluctant musician and perennial target of every wise-ass disk jockey from London to New York. She did it with a remarkable, natural eye for composition and the untrained instinct to know where to click, and when. While her bandmates wielded electric axes to give voice to their muses, Linda wailed with a Hasselblad.
By the time she became a Mrs. Beatle, Linda had already become the first great photographer in rock history, pioneering an intimate, direct style that humanized its bright lights and consigned the formal portraits of the record label’s in-house shooters to the dustbin. It is work that, finally, in recent years, has been allowed to glow as the star trove that it is, eclipsing her much-derided designations as Yoko With A Tambourine, A Pig With Wings, or whatever other lame tag the hacks in the rock press felt like hanging on her. Recent showings of her work in America, Europe, even South Korea continue to celebrate her instinctual knack for showing the human inside the star. And none of it was by the book.
She didn’t ignore the rules; she simply didn’t know they existed. She never had a formal studio, shopping for backgrounds and locales on the fly. She never used flash, ever, believing that it was bulky and off-putting. She attended exactly one class on photography, was told she had talent, and never went back for lesson two. She gave away original negatives of her top shots to friends, finding herself with nothing to sell to publishers except the “shoves”, lesser takes which, somehow, were still better than what everyone else was doing with this crazy longhair music.
What kind of photographer was this? Linda never posed people, forgot to re-calculate the ASA (ISO) settings when switching from color to black and white, sent the magazines blurred concert shots. And despite her never joining the ranks of the camera-ly cultured, the true souls of the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Yardbirds, Jimi, Janis, Dylan, and, most notably, the Beatles shone forth in her grainy frames. Linda Eastman McCartney captured the dawning genius in them all, before the crank-up of the hype machines, before the twilight of the vultures, before rock careened from the summer of love to the winter of our discontent.
After Paul, the images were family candids, and yet the vision shone forth, most famously in her shot of baby Mary peeking out of her Beatle daddy’s jacket on a morning stroll, the rear-cover photo for the McCartney album in 1970. From that point on, the farm and the fam were everything, the road and the tour bus, not so much. She chose to settle for being Mrs. Paul, the girl who couldn’t sing but who hitched a ride on one of the biggest pop rockets of the ’70s. Decades later, what her eye saw way back then seems inevitable, her work the official chronicle of so many moments that mattered. Linda left us in 1998, but she left us that eye. It is a smiling eye, an innocent one, and one which was magnificently focused on the stuff of dreams.
A PICTURE, WHEN IT TRULY COMMUNICATES, isn’t worth a thousand words. The comforting cliché notwithstanding, a great picture goes beyond words, making its emotional and intellectual connection at a speed that no poet can compete with. The world’s most enduring images carry messages on a visceral network that operates outside the spoken or written word. It’s not better, but it most assuredly is unique.
Most Veteran’s Days are occasions of solemnity, and no amount of reverence or respect can begin to counterbalance the astonishing sacrifice that fewer and fewer of us make for more and more of us. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, there’s a limit to what our words, even our most loving, well-intended words, can do to consecrate that sacrifice further.
But images can help, and have acted as a kind of mental shorthand since the first shutter click. And along with sad remembrance should come pictures of joy, of victory, of survival.
Of a sailor and a nurse.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, the legendary photojournalist best known for his decades at Life magazine, did, on V-J day in Times Square in 1945, what millions of scribes, wits both sharp and dull, couldn’t do. He produced a single photograph which captured the complete impact of an experience shared by millions, distilled down to one kiss. The subjects were strangers to him, and to this day, their faces largely remain a mystery to the world. “Eisie”, as his friends called him, recalled the moment:
In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, it didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder, but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.
Those few seconds have been frozen in time as one of the world’s most treasured memories, the streamlined depiction of all the pent-up emotions of war: all the longing, all the sacrifice, all the relief, all the giddy delight in just being young and alive. A happiness in having come through the storm. Eisie’s photo is more than just an instant of lucky reporting: it’s a toast, to life itself. That’s what all the fighting was about anyway, really. That’s what all of those men and women in uniform gave us, and still give us. And, for photographers the world over, it is also an enduring reminder from a master:
“This, boys and girls, is how it’s done.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.
The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.
For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.
The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.
Simply pick the story you like.
Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU’VE EVER RELIED ON UNCLE SAM FOR YOUR THREE SQUARES A DAY (thanks for your service), you know that, at least in the military, waste is worse than gluttony. Got a man-sized appetite? Great. Go back for seconds. Or thirds. But the taxpayers paid for that creamed chipped beef on toast, so if you put it on your plate, you’d better also put it down your gullet. Take All You Want, but Eat All You Take.
Same with composing a street photo. God knows that often you’re up to your armpits in sensory overload. Bright lights, big city, busy intersections, a visual smorgasbord (don’t write posts when you’re hungry!) of input. Sure, you can stick it all in your image, but, in the same way that a shavetail recruit shoves mashed potatoes and ham and ice cream sky-high on his tray….you’d better eat it all. Just showing a chaotic jumble of elements is not “reportage”, nor is it particularly inspiring. You’re on the street to tell a story. If your story is merely “gee, it’s really crowded here today”, you probably need to hone your narrative skills, and it might be smart to start carving stuff out of the composition to, let us say, let it breathe a little.
Shoot all you want. Use all you shoot.
Hollywood Boulevard is a place where absurd levels of street theatre are as normal as fire hydrants and stop lights. It’s in a perpetual state of over-the-top, so much so that it’s damned near impossible, amidst the mimes, acrobats, dancers and show biz mutants, for anyone to draw more than a distracted nanosecond of attention to themselves. Taking photos of this non-stop ballet of weird between jaded tourists and frantic performers can easily become the visual equivalent of the buck private’s overloaded dinner tray. A mess, with all the gravies, juices and seasonings of the city running together.
Or you could try the dead opposite. One Sunday afternoon near sunset, I was lucky enough to see this wondrous fellow, creating his own mix of lucha libre and hip-hop in front of his own sad little stereo, working in isolation just across the street from the most heavily trafficked sites in that part of Hollywood. After shooting a few frames that showed him from several angles, I decided that his performance was story enough, all by itself. I didn’t need to show the thrilled reaction of passersby, or frame the shot to include popular destinations like the Chinese theatre or the teeming souvenir shops that scream so loudly up and down the block. Simply, including all that other glitter and glitz would have robbed our friend of his moment in the sun. I just liked him better as king of the block.
Full disclosure: had I not committed a lifetime of over-crowding flubs in my own images, I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this post at all. But part of this enterprise is taking my lumps when I go off the rails, and doing penance is the first step to healing, blah blah blah…
Which is all to say, some photos need side dishes. Sometimes, however, you just want the meat and potatoes.
Again, never write when you’re hungry.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee.
Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…
Truck Driver: I like your sugar.
They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940
AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.
Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.
I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.
Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.
Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR GRADE SCHOOL HISTORY CLASSES DRUMMED CERTAIN NAMES INTO OUR HEADS AS THE “EXCLUSIVE” CREATORS of many of the wonders of the modern age. We can still bark back many of those names without any prompting, saluting the Edisons, Bells, and Fords of the early part of the 20th century and the Jobses and Gateses of its final years. However, as we grew older, we realized that the births of many of our favorite geegaws (television, for example) can’t be traced to a single auteur. And when it comes to photography, their are too many fathers and mothers in all ends of the medium to even enumerate.
Several tinkerer-wizards do deserve singling out, however, especially when it comes to the mindset that all of us in the present era share that photography ought to be immediate and easy. And, in a very real way, both of these luxuries were born in the mind of a single man, Dean Peterson, who presided over half a dozen revolutions in the technology of picture making, most of his own creation. As an engineer at Eastman Kodak in the early ’60’s, Dean created and developed the Instamatic camera, and, in so doing, changed the world’s attitude toward photography in a way every bit as dramatic as George Eastman’s introduction of cheap roll film in the late 1800’s. Peterson’s new wrinkle: get rid of the roll.
Or, more precisely, get rid of loose film’s imprecise process for being loaded into the camera, which frequently ruined either single exposures or entire rolls, depending on one’s fumble-fingered luck. Peterson’s answer was a self-contained drop-in cartridge, pre-loaded with film and sealed against light. Once inside the camera, it was the cartridge itself that largely advanced the film, eliminating unwanted double-exposures and making the engineering cost of the host camera body remarkably cheap. Peterson followed Eastman’s idea of a fixed-focus camera with a pre-set exposure designed for daylight film, and added a small module to fire a single flashbulb with the help of an internal battery. Follow-up models of the Instamatic would move to flashcubes, an internal flash that could operate without bulbs or batteries, a more streamlined “pocket Instamatic” body, and even an upgrade edition that would accept external lenses.
With sales of over 70 million units within ten years, the Instamatic created Kodak’s second golden age of market supremacy. As for Dean Peterson, he was just warming up. His second-generation insta-cameras, developed at Honeywell in the early ’70’s, incorporated auto-focus, off-the-film metering, auto-advance and built-in electronic flash into the world’s first higher-end point-and-shoots. His later work also included the invention of a 3d film camera for Nimslo, high-speed video units for Kodak, and, just before his death in 2004, early mechanical systems that later contributed to tablet computer design.
Along the way, Peterson made multiple millions for Kodak by amping up the worldwide numbers of amateur photographers, even as he slashed the costs of manufacturing, thereby maximizing the profit in his inventions. As with most forward leaps in photographic development, Dean Peterson’s work eliminated barriers to picture-taking, and when that is accomplished, the number of shooters and the sheer volume of their output rockets ahead the world over. George Eastman’s legendary boast that “you press the button and we do the rest” continues to resonate through our smartphones and iPads, because Dean Peterson, back in 1963, thought, what the heck, it ought to be simpler to load a camera.
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.
“MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS” IS ONLY HALF OF PHOTOGRAPHY. The other half consists of placing yourself in the oncoming path of that runaway truck Experience so that you can’t help getting run over, then trying to get the license plate of the truck to learn something from the crash. You need to keep placing your complacency and comfort in harm’s way in order to advance, to continue your ongoing search for better ways to see. Thus the role models or educational models you choose matter, and matter greatly.
Lately, much as I thrive on wisdom from the masters and elders of photography, I am relying more and more on creative energy and ideas from people who are just learning to take pictures. This may sound like I am taking driving lessons from toddlers instead of licensed instructors, but think about it a moment.
Yes, nothing teaches like experience….seasoned, life-tested experience. Righty right right. But art is about curiosity and fearlessness, and nothing says “open to possibility” like a 20-year-old hosting a podcast on what could happen “if you try this” with a camera. It is the fact that the young are unsure of how things will come out (the curiosity) which impels them to hurry up and try something to find out (the fearlessness). Moreover, if they were raised with only the digital world as a reference point, they are less intimidated by the prospect of failure, since they are basically shooting for free and their universe is one of infinite do-overs. There is no wrong photograph, unless it’s the one you just didn’t try for.
Best of all, photography, always the most democratic of arts, has just become insanely more so, by putting some kind of camera in literally everyone’s fist. There is no more exclusive men’s club entitlement to being a shooter. You just need the will. Ease of operation and distribution means no one can be excluded from the discussion, and this means a tidal wave of input from those just learning to love making pictures.
One joke going around the tech geek community in recent years involves an old lady who calls up Best Buy and frets, “I need to hook up my computer!”, to which the clerk replies, “That’s easy. Got a grandchild?”
Find yourself a path. Find yourself a world of influences and approaches for your photography. And, occasionally, find yourself a kid.
- Resist the need to Get some new Camera – Change your Photography Instead (textb.wordpress.com)
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
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.
We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.
As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.
It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.
McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.
Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.
What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.
Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.
Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @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
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
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
WE ALL SAY IT: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS.
We all say it. None of us believes it. It’s just not, well, American to throw aside our national myths, and the folk tale of the lucky, quick genius who zooms to the head of the line to fame, bounding in front of all the sloggers and suckers, is intoxicating. One blinding inspiration, we tell ourselves, just one great notion, and we can bypass all that “practicing and patience” stuff, the same virtues we feel honor bound to extol in others. In anyone else but me.
Me, I’m taking the shortcut.
So now is about the time when the photography angle of this rant should kick in, right?
Okay, here goes.
As the automode functions of cameras have grown ever more complex, they have made taking a perfectly acceptable picture effortless. Great for immediate gratification. Not so great for the art of photography. Think about it. It has become so fabulously easy to point and get something that isn’t too bad, that we are bypassing the slower, uglier, but eventually more satisfying process that comes with trial, error, recalculation, and risk. We produce more error-free pictures than ever before, but, to do that, we have to hang our own creativity…..the raw, sloppy process of imagineering our own vision…on the wall. We get fat and lazy. And so do our pictures.
Now that I have successfully defended my title as the great Grinch Buzzkill, trying to rid Whoville of good, clean camera fun, let me just ask one more question. Do we want a large mountain of “okay” pictures, taken, to an ever greater degree, by our cameras, or a smaller, more amazing pile of remarkable pictures borne of our own sweat and struggle? Tricky part: there is no right or wrong answer, just a choice to be made based on your own expectations. Turning off the “green zone” of guaranteed effect modes and really educating ourselves as to what is going into the making of our pictures means turning off a snapshot mentality and opting for the unpredictable.
Hey, I’m not suggesting you go all Matthew Brady and lug around forty pounds of wet plates and a covered wagon full of caustic chemicals just to take a birthday picture of Grandma blowing out her candles. But we can probably aspire to more than just the golden age of okay.
We already know how easy it is to take a picture. Now we need to rediscover how hard it can be, and what miracles can spring from our minds when we get our hands dirty and go down the rockier path.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LAST SUNDAY EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FOR 2012 features its annual review of the year’s most essential news images, a parade of glory, challenge, misery and deliverance that in some ways shows all the colors of the human struggle. Plenty of material to choose from, given the planet’s proud display of fury in Hurricane Sandy, the full scope of evil on display in Syria, and the mad marathon of American politics in an electoral year. But photography is only half about recording, or framing, history. The other half of the equation is always about creating worlds as well as commenting on them, on generating something true that doesn’t originate in a battlefield or legislative chamber. That deserves a year-end tribute of its own, and we all have images in our own files that fulfill the other 50% of photography’s promise.
This year, for example, we saw a certain soulfulness, even artistry, breathed into Instagram and, by extension, all mobile app imaging. Time ran a front cover image of Sandy’s ravages taken from a pool of Instagramers, in what was both a great reportorial photo and an interpretive shot whose impact goes far beyond the limits of a news event. Time and again this year, I saw still lifes, candids, whimsical dreams and general wonderments of the most personal type flooding the social media with shots that, suddenly, weren’t just snaps of the sandwich you had for lunch today saturated with fun filters. It was a very strong year for something personal, for the generation of complete other worlds within a frame.
I love broad vistas and sweeping visual themes so much that I have to struggle constantly to re-anchor myself to smaller things, closer things, things that aren’t just scenic postcards on steroids, although that will always be a strong draw for me. Perhaps you have experienced the same pull on yourself…that feeling that, whatever you are shooting, you need to remember to also shoot…..something else. It is that reminder that, in addition to recording, we are also re-ordering our spaces, assembling a custom selection of visual elements within the frame. Our vision. Our version. Our “other 50%.”
My wife and I crammed an unusual amount of travel into 2012, providing me with no dearth of “big game” to capture…from bridges and skyscrapers to the breathlessly vast arrays of nature. But always I need to snap back to center….to learn to address the beauty of detail, the allure of little composed universes. Those are the images I agonize over the most at years’ end, as if I am poring over thumbnails to see a little piece of myself , not just in the mountains and broad vistas, but also in the grains of sand, the drops of dew, the minutes within the hours.
Year-end reviews are, truly, about the big stories. But in photography, we are uniquely able to tell the little ones as well. And how well we tell them is how well we mark that we were here, not just as observers, but as participants.
It’s not so much how well you play the game, but that you play.
Happy New Year, and many thanks for your attention, commentary, and courtesy in 2012.
- 10 social mobile photography trends for 2013 (davidsmcnamara.typepad.com)
- Old-Timer Joins Instagram, Schools Everyone With Poignant Flood Photos (wired.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONG TITLES EVER IS BRIAN WILSON’S You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone. At least in my own life, that is probably the truest sentence in the English language. We love to promote the all-too-American myth of the self-made man (or woman), the rugged pioneer who walks into the dark forest and emerges covered in gold and glory. Our folklore is chock full of legendary giants who seem to have single-handedly crafted their own destiny. All by themselves. Don’t need help, thanks. I got this.
It is, of course, baloney. And it may help, in light of the devastation that is still unfolding this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to start emphasizing how crazy it is to talk about our wondrous ability to bend the cosmos to our will. Instead, we might reluctantly admit that we are all part of the same timid bluff against a random universe that regularly delivers knockout punches too strong for any one of us to sustain.
I thought about this last night while reviewing some recent shots of the Monterey Peninsula’s gorgeous visual icon of survival, “The Lone Cypress”. This hardy tree has endured on a barren crag on the coastline between Pacific Grove and Carmel, California since being planted nearly 250 years ago. To call its location “iffy” would be an understatement, given the typical delicate constitution of cypresses, and it has only been able to hold its position against storm and surf by being able to snake its enormous root system down deep into cliff stone, giving it at least a fighting chance.
Adopted nearly a century ago by the Pebble Beach Co., (the golf course people) as its official symbol, the tree has been immortalized on shirts, caps, ads, and promotional materials of every size and type, making the cypress into the botanical equivalent of that “self-made man.” Don’t need nothin’ from nobody. I’m good. I’m gonna do this all by myself.
Only, like the humans it inspires, it doesn’t…really…do that.
The “lone” cypress is bolstered by a brick basin built around its root line. It is tethered and stiffened with steel cables. Most importantly, it is fenced off at some considerable distance from the millions of people who pull off the Seventeen Mile Drive each year to snap it, their multiple accents filling the air with various international versions of, “Gee, ain’t that purty?” Without the fence, the cypress would already be souvenir popsicle sticks hanging from the keychains of every Tom, Dick and Tourist. It comes down to this: the tree is too vital as a symbol to truly be a “lone cypress” any longer.
It, like us, needs a mess of help to stand alone.
Half a country away, this week, we have millions of little lone humans trying to stand alone as well, and, without the rest of us being factored in, regardless of their grit or willpower, some will be blown out to sea. They will crack and snap and wither unless we make their survival as important as…..well, as a tree.
We all have a lot of work to do.
We sink or swim together.
- Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath How you can help… Millions of… (instagram.com)