By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMONG THE GROUPS INVITING FLICKR USERS TO POST PHOTOGRAPHS OF A CERTAIN THEME OR TYPE, there is a group called, “This Should Be A Postcard”, apparently composed of images that are so iconically average that they resemble mass-produced tourist views of scenic locales. The name of this group puzzles me. I mean, if you called it, “Perfectly Ordinary, Non-Offensive and Safe Pictures of Over-Visited Places”, people would write you off as a troll, but I’d at least give you points for accuracy. It’s hard to understand why any art would aspire to look like something that is almost deliberately artless.
And still, it is perceived as a compliment to one’s work to be told that it “looks just like a postcard”, and, I swear, when I hear that remark about one of my own images, my first reaction is to wipe said image from the face of the earth, since that phrase means that it is (a)average, (b) unambitious), (c) unimaginative, or (d) a mere act of “recording”. Look, here’s the famous place. It looks just like you expect it to, taken from the angle that you’re accustomed to, lit, composed and executed according to a pre-existing conception of what it’s “supposed” to be. How nice.
And how unlike anything photography is supposed to be about.
This conditioning we all have to render the “official” view of well-known subjects can only lead to mediocrity and risk aversion. After all, a postcard is tasteful, perfect, symmetrical, orderly. And eventually, dull. Thankfully, the infusion of millions of new photographers into the mainstream in recent years holds the potential cure for this bent. The young will simply not hold the same things (or ways to view them) in any particular awe, and so they won’t even want to create a postcard, or anyone else’s version of one. They will shudder at the very thought of being “on the nose”.
I rail against the postcard because, over a lifetime, I have so shamelessly aspired to it, and have only been able to let go of the fantasy after becoming disappointed with myself, then unwilling to keep recycling the same approach to subject matter even one more time. For me, it was a way of gradually growing past the really formalized methods I had as a child. And it’s not magic.Even a slight variation in approach to “big” subjects, as in the above image, can stamp at least a part of yourself onto the results, and so, it’s a good thing to get the official shot out of the way early on in a shoot, then try every other approach you can think of. Chances are, your keeper will be in one of the non-traditional approaches.
Postcards say of a location, wish you were here. Photographs, made by you personally, point to your mind and say, “consider being here.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ALL HATE THE TASK OF SHOOTING OVERLY FAMILIAR SUBJECTS. The famous. The iconic. The must-stop, we’ll-be-getting-off-the-bus-for-ten-minutes “sights” that decorate every postcard rack, every gift store shelf, in their respective cities. The Tower, the Ruins, the Once-Mighty Palace, the Legendary Cathedral. Things that have more pictures taken of them by breakfast than you’ll have taken of you in three lifetimes. Scadrillions of snaps, many of them composed for the “classic” orientation, an automatic attempt to live up to the “postcard” shot. It’s dull, but not because there is no fresh drama or grandeur left in a particular locale. It’s dull because we deliberately frame up the subject in almost the same way that is expected of us.
There must be a reason we all fall for this.
Maybe we want everyone back home to like our pictures, to recognize and connect with something that is easy, a pre-sold concept. No tricky exposures, no “arty” approaches. Here’s the Eiffel Tower, Uncle Herb, just like you expected to see it.
On a recent walking shoot around D.C.’s National Mall, snapping monument upon monument, I was starting to go snowblind with all the gleaming white marble and bleached alabaster, the perfection of our love affair with our own history. After a few miles of continuous hurrahs for us and everything we stand for, I perversely looked for something flawed….a crack in the sidewalk, a chipped tooth on a presidential bust, something to bring forth at least a little story.
Then I defaulted to an old strategy, and one which at least shakes up the senses. Photograph parts of buildings instead of the full-on official portrait of them. Pick a fragment, a set of light values, a selection of details that render the thing new, if only slightly. Take the revered and venerated thing out of its display case and remove its normal context.
The Lincoln Memorial proved a good choice. The basic shot of the front looked like just a box with pillars. A very, very white box. But shooting a bracket of three exposures of just the upper right corner of the roof , then blending them in an exposure fusion program, revealed two things: the irregular aging and texture of the stone, and the very human bit of history inscribed along the crown: the names of the states, with the years they came into the union below them. All at once something seemed unified, poetic about Abraham Lincoln sitting inside not a temple to himself, but a collection of the states and passions he stitched back together, repaired and restored into a Union.
The building had come back alive for me.
And I didn’t even have to shoot the entire thing.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU VISIT ENOUGH MUSEUMS IN YOUR LIFETIME, you may decide that at least half of them, seen as arranged space, are more interesting than their contents. It may be country-cousin to that time in your childhood when your parents gave you a big box with a riding toy inside it, and, after a few minutes of excitement, you began sitting in the box. The object inside was, after all, only a fire engine, but a box could be a mine shaft, a Fortress of Solitude, the dining car on the Orient Express, and so on.
And so with museums.
I truly do try to give lip service to the curated exhibits and loaned shows that cram the floors and line the walls of the various museums I visit. After all, I am, harumph and ahem, a Patron Of The Arts, especially if said museums are hosting cocktail parties and trays of giant prawns in their hallowed halls…I mean, what’s not to like? However, there are times when the endless variations on just a room, a hall, a mode of lighting, or the anticipatory feeling that something wonderful is right around the next corner is, well, a more powerful spell than the stuff they actually booked into the joint.
Spaces are landscapes. Spaces are still lifes. Spaces are color studies. Spaces are stages where people are dynamic props.
Recently spinning back through my travel images of the last few years, I was really surprised how many times I took shots inside museums that are nothing more than attempts to render the atmosphere of the museum, to capture the oxygen and light in the room, to dramatize the distances and spaces between things. It’s very slippery stuff. Great thing you find, also, is that the increased light sensitivity and white balance controls on present-day cameras allow for a really wide range of effects, allowing you to “interpret” the space in different ways, making this somewhat vaporous pursuit even more …vaporous-y.
In the end, you shoot what speaks to you, and these “art containers” sometimes are more eloquent by far than the treasures they present. That is not a dig on contemporary art (or any other kind). It means that an image is where you find it. Staying open to that simple idea provides surprise.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’LL NEVER KNOW THE NAMES OF MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT HAD THE GREATEST ROLES IN SHAPING MY EARLY WAY OF SEEING. The most important primary influences on my visual style in childhood weren’t the guys who received billing in the very public credits of Life, Look, or National Geographic, but the nameless freelancers whose work popped out of the small 3-d Kodachrome squares mounted in white cardboard View-Master reels. To this day, I can directly link the way I visualize images to VM’s crew of uncredited shooters, with their full-color highlight tours of everything from Yosemite to Notre Dame. Truly, from the first brown bakelite Model “D” viewer I received as a boy, through endless model variations over the next fifty years, I framed my own method for telling a picture story after the scenes in those little blue envelopes which bore the portentous legend, Seven More Wonders Of The World.
If you’ve been out of short pants for a while, you might not know that these little middle-tech stereoscopic beauties are still around, although just barely. View-Master has provided diversion and delight for three generations of devotees the world over, but the ride, billions of reels and zillions of memories later, might finally be crawling to a halt. More on that in a moment.
The co-invention of a photographer/tinker and a postcard salesman, View-Master cranked out its first rudimentary viewers and travel titles in 1939, more or less growing out of its appearance at the New York World’s Fair, where its souvenir views of “The World Of Tomorrow” made their debut. One of the earliest VM subjects was the then-new Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, setting the tone for the format’s explanatory “texts”, image descriptions short enough to make Tweets look encyclopedic, all crammed to fit inside the tiny caption window resting between your eyes. View-Master was largely an adult amusement for its first decade, catering to the armchair traveler with an endless catalogue of national parks, castles, cathedrals, and natural wonders, selling through a network of dealerships at camera shops and the souvenir stands at various travel attractions. Many of the format’s contributing scenic photographers also made some side money as VM sales agents, criss-crossing the country by car, shooting a little here, selling a little there.
By the early 50’s, View-Master grew from single-subject reels to three-reel packets and from travel images to its first children’s titles. Entering into a contract with Walt Disney studios, the VM format made a seismic shift toward youth fare with cartoon and TV shows, movies, even their own original fairy tale and nursery titles, shot with tiny clay figures arranged in their own miniature tabletop dioramas. And of course “the scenics”, as they were called, rolled on to chronicle many more World’s Fairs, canyons, mountains, parks, even NASA flights.
Depending on when you first encountered the format, View-Master was made either by Sawyers, GAF, Tyco, Fisher-Price, or Mattel, and the classic viewer was joined by projectors (2-D and 3-d), stereo cameras for making your own reels, “talking” viewers with internal phonographs to announce the captions, home “theatre” sets, storage cases and a slew of other short-and-long-term products.Now for the inevitable “passage of time” part: by the start of the 21st century, View-Master’s ancestral factory in Portland, Oregon closed its doors and production was moved to Mexico. And in 2013, there is, after sixty-four years, the clear possibility that the View-Master division of Mattel will be leased to a separate company, spun off like a despised stepchild, if not discontinued altogether.
Why the nostalgia? Because my whole orientation toward trying to tell a compelling, simple story in pictures, nurtured later by more famous photographers, cut its baby teeth on View-Master images: the composition, the angle, the way of leading the viewer’s eye into a frame and nailing it there….that’s all part of the “reel” world of my early, baby-sized eyes. There is no wasted space, no cute artiness in a View-Master image. It is all practical information, all shorthand communication. And even though the kiddie titles have long dominated the format’s output, there are, amazingly, still artists who create everything from complete tours of the Lewis & Clark expedition to edgy art exhibits with View-Master. And in a world that still embraces lo-tech imaging artifacts like plastic toy cameras and artificial “retro” platforms like Instagram, it seems that VM could still be an instrument for at least some kinds of photo expression.
Or, as with our tearful farewell to Kodachrome a few years back, we might, at least, cast a fond backward glance at the little box that gave us the world.
Seven wonders at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS 10% PLANNING, 90% SERENDIPITY. Yes, I know. we would all rather believe that most of our images spring from brilliant conceptions, master plans, and, ahem, stunning visions. But a lot of what we do amounts to making the most of what fate provides.
There is no shame in this game. In fact, the ability to pivot, to improvise, to make the random look like the intentional…all of these things reveal the best in us. It exercises the eye. It flexes the soul. And, in terms of images, it delivers the goods.
Getting lost (geographically, not emotionally) is less an emergency than in ages past. Armed with smartphones, GPS, and other hedges against our own ignorance, we can get rescued almost as soon as we wander off the ranch. It is easier than ever to follow the electronic trail of crumbs back to where we belong, so drifting from the path of righteousness is no longer cause for panic. Indeed, for shooters, it’s pure opportunity.
Okay, so you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Fine. Re-group and start shooting. There is something in all these “unfamiliar” things that is worth your gaze.
Last week , my wife and I decided to trust her car’s onboard guidance system. The results were wrong but interesting. No danger, just the necessary admission that we’d strayed really far afield of our destination. We’re talking about twenty minutes of back-tracking to set things right.
One of the rural roads we drifted down, before realizing our error, led us to a stunning view of the back end of Tucson’s Catalina mountains, framed by small town activity, remnants of rainfall, and a portentous sky. I squeezed off a few shots straight out of the windshield and got what I call the “essence” exposure I needed. That single image was relatively well-balanced, but it wouldn’t show the full range of textures from the stormy sky and the mountains. Later, in post, I duplicated the one keeper frame that I got, modifying it in Photomatix, my HDR processing program. Adding underexposure, deeper contrast, and a slight rolloff of highlights on the dupe, I processed it with the original shot to get a composite that accentuated the texture of the clouds, the stone,, even the local foliage. A sheer “wild” shot had given me something that I would have totally missed if the car’s GPS had actually taken us to our “correct” destination.
What was ironic was that, once we got where we were going, most of the “intentional” images that I sweat bullets working on were lackluster, compared to the one I shot by the seat of my pants. Hey, we’ve all been there.
Maybe I should get lost more often.
Actually, people have been suggesting that to me for years.
Especially when I whip out a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.
Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment. You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.
Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile.
I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.
I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.
Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.
Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…
There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.
Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.
While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.
Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?
Now, where did my mommy go?
Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. ——-George Eastman
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I WAS ASSEMBLING THE FIRST COMPILATION OF MY OWN IMAGES, Juxtapositions, I felt a little awkward about captioning the photos in any way, since they were clearly the work of an unaccomplished amateur. In my native Catholic thinking, my default question was, who the hell did I think I was to pontificate on anything, hmm? Notice that, since you are presently reading the musings of the selfsame unaccomplished amateur, I obviously got over past that obstacle, but anyway…
Needing the book to have some kind of general structure or theme, I decided that, although my own wisdom may not be in demand, there were plenty of thoughts from the greats in the photographic field that were worth re-quoting, and which, correctly placed, might even illustrate or amplify what I was trying to say in my own photos. It was a way of channeling great minds and acknowledging that, pro or amateur, we all started off on the same journey with much the same aims.
Looking at the finished book, I noticed that the two most consistent subjects among the finest minds in photography were (1) light; how to harness it, how to serve it, shape it, seek its ability to frame or exalt a subject and (2) the importance of staying flexible, open, and able to embrace the moment.
Both objectives came into clear focus for me last week. A combination of early sunlight, dense foliage and thick morning fog came together in breathtaking patterns in the high canyon rim streets of Santa Barbara, California. Light was busting out wherever it could, coming through branches and boughs in soft shafts that lent an almost supernatural quality to objects even a few feet away, which, when suffused with this satiny mist, were themselves softened, even abstracted. If there was ever a delicate, temporary gift of light, this was it, and I was suddenly in a hurry, lest it run away from me. Any picture I failed to take in the moment was lost within minutes. Overthinking meant going home empty.
There was no time to carefully read the tyrannical histogram, since I knew it would disapprove of the flood of white that would throw some of my shots off the graph. Likewise I couldn’t “cover” myself by bracketing exposures, since there was so much territory to cover, so many images to attempt before the light could mutate into something else. I needed to be shooting, not fiddling.
Better to burn out than to rust out, as Neil Young famously said. One particular arch of overhanging branches called me. It looked like this:
I was, after all these years, back to complete instinct. Snap shot? Certainly. Snap judgement? Hope not.
I didn’t go home empty. And when I got home, a re-check of one of Ansel Adams’ quotes encouraged me:
Sometimes, I do get to places where God’s ready for somebody to click the shutter.
Look for the moment. Listen for God (sometimes he whispers).
And don’t forget to click.
- The 15 Most Popular Photography Tutorials from the 2nd Half of 2012 (digital-photography-school.com)
- What is photography? (bangladesh2u.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)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard, remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).
The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.
It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.
But that’s only the beginning.
On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.
The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.
Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.
Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.
Suggested video link: Desmond’s Department Store http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN AMERICA WE GET ACCUSTOMED TO SEEING OUR URBAN HISTORY REGULARLY REDUCED TO RUINS, not because our cities are laid to waste by invaders or sacked by conquerors, but because we are such paltry stewards of the architectural legacies we share in this essentially young nation. Obvious nationalistic images aside, the wrecking ball, our answer to the crushing glaciers of history, is the real visual signature of the USA. We get tired of looking at old stuff. We knock the old stuff down. And in doing so, we squander the value of things to which we once attached great importance, rendering them moot, as if we really never cared about them at all.
The change glacier usually sweeps through the vast canyons of our larger cities, cutting a swath of wreckage that levels, implodes or simply knocks down any testimony to history, fashion, flair, whimsey, and the thing we most dread, uselessness. Every town has its casualties; stadiums, grand hotels, transportation hubs, retail centers, neighborhoods…it’s simply not American to get too attached to anything. It’s all going away, all of it, and with it, any sense of continuity, memory, or a contextual place in time.
Fortunately, it is the tendency of the glacier to “think big” that keeps the crushing onslaught of “renewal” concentrated in the larger urban centers, often leaving more survivors in small towns and rural communities. That means that some things in off-track towns, being below the radar of macro-change, are simply left alone, allowed to survive, because they are neglected by the bigger sweep of things.
This means that the “in-between” parts of the country still hold some treasures, a few gentle ties to times we have largely disposed of in the major hub cities. And while no one is suggesting that we bring back the village blacksmith and the local cobbler’s shop, it’s comforting in some way to be able to see and touch what in other parts of the nation are merely footnotes in books. That is, if we haven’t burned the books.
The building pictured at the top of this post is such a survivor. Built in 1879 just as the Toledo & Ohio Central railroad was being cut across the small village of Pickerington, Ohio (just southeast of Columbus), this compact little structure was the nerve center of trade and travel for “Picktown” for more than half a century. Its three rooms included an entry area for freight, an arrival room for passengers, and, in the center, an office for the combined jobs of depot agent and Western Union telegrapher. It was not until the hiring of its first female depot agent in 1947 that the facility could boast indoor plumbing, but the T&O’s tracks, during rail’s heyday, criss-crossed the tiny town with spur lines to a lumberyard, a grain mill, a hoop factory and warehouses.
Amazingly, the depot survived an extended closure from 1958 to 1975, when private money made its restoration possible. Lanterns, tools, bottles, wall maps, schedules, freight wagons, and a fully functional Western Union telegraph key were all assembled to visually cement the station in time. And there it stands to this day, serving no other “function” than to mark where the town, and we, have passed on our way to the inevitable.
Better than my luck in finding this place was in finding it just as dusk was streaking across the sky, giving me the perfect visual complement to the passing of time. And yet, here, out of the path of the glacier, time was allowed to tick just a little slower, slower enough to teach. And remember.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
As I have practiced it, photography produces pleasure by its simplicity. I see something special and show it to the camera. A picture is produced. The moment is held until someone sees it. Then it is theirs. -Sam Abell, STAY THIS MOMENT, 1990
THERE ARE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT ARE SO AMAZINGLY ADVANCED that they make their images, wrought with love, ferocity, daring, and single-minded purpose, seem not merely visionary but inevitable. We see what they have brought us and exclaim, “of course”, as if theirs is the only way this message could possibly have been crafted, as if its truth is so self-evident that to have to formally recognize it is almost needless overkill. We confirm and validate that, for these pictures, the machine has truly been placed in the service of a soul, and one which writes fluently while we stumble with numb gestures.
One such soul resides in the work of Sam Abell.
If his name doesn’t roll off the top of your tongue alongside those of the obvious Jedi knights of photography, it’s because, for most of his forty-plus year career, he has kept a lower profile than Amelia Earhart, producing amazing work beneath the masthead of National Geographic magazine along with a host of other special commissions. When Sam came to to Geographic in 1967 as an intern, he already had four years of “hard” experience producing images for the University of Kentucky’s school of journalism to his credit, but the magazine’s photo editor, Robert Gilka, was hesitant to hire him, worried that his work was “too artistic”, too personal in its beauty to survive in the service of journalism.
With help, Sam Abell learned the balance for getting the facts for stories and getting the truth implied in their locales. Even when those stories’ words shouted with urgency, Sam’s notes were always on the soft pedal. Their poignancy fades in and builds, rises to your attention and then rivets it in place. Writing in his 1990 collection Stay This Moment, Abell declares that the test of great pictures is that “they cannot be memorized”. Small wonder that he began, early in life, to pursue a career on the cello. Smaller wonder yet is that the patience of that instrument is “heard” in the music of his pictures.
Even more muted than the images Sam creates is his technical approach to taking them. For much of his early career, he shot breathtaking landscapes with a simple 35mm camera, often a Leica reflex or rangefinder, mounted with standard or “normal” lenses ranging from 28 to 35mm, generating the least amount of distortion and rendering the most natural relationship of sizes and distances. For years, the most advanced tools in his bag were a sturdy Gitzmo tripod and the slowest, richest films he could find, frequently Kodachrome 25 and 64. The tripod delivered the stability needed to produce slow, sensual exposures; the ‘Chrome delivered texture and nuance beyond the power of hand-held shots. However, the most vital weapon in Abell’s arsenal is his astonishing patience, the wisdom, which flies in the face of traditional journalism photography, to wait for the story in a picture to slowly unfold, like the petals of a flower. Some of the best images Abell placed in National Geographic over the years took nearly a year to create. It happens when it happens, and once it does, God is it worth it.
The number of printed collections of Sam’s work are few and far between, given his enormous output, but diligence rewards the curious. Among the most available of them is the collaboration undertaken with historian Steven Ambrose, Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery ( 2002), for which Sam created images of the surviving sections of the legendary explorers’ trail to the Pacific; Amazonia (2010), an essay on the kind of delicate ecosystems that are vanishing from the earth; and Life of a Photograph (2008), an examination of how his most famous pictures were built, stage by stage. And, of course, there is the luxuriant (and hopelessly out-of-print) Stay This Moment (1990), the companion book to his mid-career exhibition at New York’s International Center for Photography. Buy it in a used book shop, grab it on e-Bay, scour your local library, but find this book.
More importantly, find Sam’s work…any of it…and savor every detail. For copyright protection purposes, I have deliberately kept the illustrations in this article constrained to minimal resolutions. Find the real stuff, and see what Abell’s amazing sweep and scope can do at full-size. This blog is chiefly about how I, as a rank amateur, struggle with my own creative conundrums. But it is also about knowing what teachers to bend toward. Sam Abell, who literally teaches in mentor programs all over the country, has a powerful gift to impart. “What is right?”, he asked in 1990. “Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer has a significant emotional stake.” He also emphasized an important distinction (one of my favorites) in his remarks to a young photography student. Don’t say, he said, I took this picture.
Say instead, I made this picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE CAN ONLY GUESS, AS HE GAZED OUT UPON CANAAN, the long-promised homeland of the wander-weary Israelites, what Moses felt, especially given that he himself would be forbidden to set foot upon that sacred soil. Perhaps, in our recent history, something of a parallel can be drawn to the vista shown above, the aerie from which John Muir, the lanky, ascetic Scotsman who became the first champion of the Yosemite, peered into the vast wilderness he was sworn to protect. This is the view from atop Glacier Point, directly opposite Half-Dome and, in the farther distance, the majesty of Yosemite Falls. It is also one of the only places in the United States where you can literally stand on the spot where history took a new turn.
Like Moses, Muir was a both a prophet and a protector, entranced by the stunning beauty of his adopted country and horrified at its vulnerability before the juggernaut of progress. Unlike Moses, he actually gained entry to his personal promised land, hiking its immense acreage, personally discovering many of its most amazing features and acting as correspondent to his fellow countrymen to apprise them of the great treasure lying unknown inside their borders.
As the founder of the Sierra Club and the most profound poet laureate of the preservation movement (he favored that word over the later “conservation”), Muir’s first choice would probably have been to surround all of Yosemite with at least a mental fence, a barrier of conscience to prevent its plunder by profiteers. His second choice became fateful for us all…..to enlist the federal government as a guardian for his Eden, and to unleash the energy of that nation’s most intrepid crusader for the environment.
John Muir was a veteran of nearly 35 years of preservationist skirmishes by the time he met President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Muir, desperate for a way to protect Yosemite beyond the puny efforts of local and state governments, met TR in Oakland, California, and the pair traveled by train to Redmond before taking a stagecoach the rest of the way into Yosemite Valley. Muir used the travel time to implore the president to place Yellowstone under national protection, and Roosevelt, agreeing, asked his host to show him “the real Yosemite”. After heading out into the back country essentially alone and camping under the stars atop Glacier Point, the two awoke to new-fallen snow and a new alliance.
That alliance was captured in the shot at left, which shows nearly the same view of the Yosemite Valley as my image at the head of this article. Three years later, in 1906, Muir and the Sierra Club successfully added the valley and the Mariposa Grove (a massive forest of giant sequoias) to the overall Yosemite National Park acreage, and finally saw the entire area placed under federal protection. The United States National Park concept, unique in the entire world of the early 20th century, had been born, the American Moses leading the way to a greener, more perfect union.
- Congress to consider Yosemite site for new “Los Angeles Lake” (yubanet.com)
- Happy 174th birthday, John Muir. (fossicking.wordpress.com)
- My First Summer in the Sierra: Illustrated Edition downloads (dubcoou.typepad.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY APPEAL THAT ATTRACTS HORDES OF VISITORS to travel destinations around the world, sites that are photographed endlessly by visitors and pilgrims alike, may be the same thing that ensures that most of the resulting images will be startlingly similar, if not numbingly average. After all, if we are all going for the same Kodak moment, few of us will find much new truth to either the left or right of a somewhat mediocre median.
In a general sense, yes, we all have “access” to the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, etc., but it is an access to which we are carefully channeled, herded, and roped by the keepers of these treasures. And if art is a constant search for a new view on a familiar subject, travel attractions provide a tightly guarded keyhole through which only a narrowly proscribed vantage point is visible. The very things we have preserved are in turn protected from us in a way that keeps us from telling our subject’s “big story”, to apprehend a total sense of the tower, temple, cathedral or forest we yearn to re-interpret.
More and more, a visit to a cultural keepsake means settling….for the rooms you’re allowed to see, the areas where the tours go, the parts of the building that have been restored. Beyond that, either be a photographer for National Geographic, or help yourself to a souvenir album in our gift shop, thank you for your interest. Artistically speaking, shooters have more latitude in capturing the stuff nobody cares about; if a locale is neglected or undiscovered, you have a shot at getting the shot. Imagine being Ansel Adams in the Yosemite of the 1920’s, tramping around at will, decades before the installation of comfort stations and guard rails, where his imagination was only limited by where his legs could carry him (and his enormous and unwieldy view camera, I know). Sadly, once a site has been “saved”, or more precisely, monetized, the views, the access, the original feel of its “big story” is buried in theme cafes, commemorative shrines, info counters, and, not insignificantly, competition with every other ambitious shooter, who, like you, wants a crack at whatever essences can still be seen between the trinkets and kiosks.
On a recent visit to the 1930’s luxury liner RMS Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California, I tried with mixed results to get a true sense of scale for this Art Deco leviathan, but its current use as a hotel, tour trek and retail mall has so altered the overall visual flow that in some cases only “small stories” can effectively be told. Steamlined details and period motifs can render a kind of feel for what the QM might have been before its life as a kind of ossified merchandise museum, but, whereas time has not been able to rob the ship’s beauty, commerce certainly nibbles around its edges.
Sometimes you win the game. I recently discovered the above snapshot of the Eiffel Tower, taken in 1900 by the French novelist Emile Zola, where real magic is at work. Instead of clicking off the standard post card view of the site, Zola climbed to the tower’s first floor staircase, then shot straight down to capture an elegant period restaurant situated below the tower’s enormous foundation arches. And although only a small part of the Eiffel is in his final frame, it is contextualized in size and space against the delicate details of tables, chairs, and diners gathered below, glorifying both the tower and the bygone flavor of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps, for a well-recorded destination, the devil (and the delight) is in the details. Maybe we should all be framing tighter, zooming in, looking for the visual punctuation instead of the whole paragraph. Maybe all the “little stories” add up to a sum greater than that of the almighty master shot we originally went after. Despite the obstacles, we must still try to dictate the terms of engagement.
One image at a time.
One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.
THERE IS NO GREATER CANDY STORE FOR PHOTOGS than New York City. It is the complete range of human experience realized in steel and concrete. It is both a monument to our grandest dreams and a mausoleum for all our transgressions. It casts shadows that hide both joy and fear; it explodes in light that illuminates, in equal measure, the cracked face of the aged contender and the hopeful awe of the greenest newcomer. There is not another laboratory of human striving like it anywhere else on the planet. Period period period. Its collapses and soarings are always news to the observer. Bob Dylan once said that he who is not busy being born is busy dying. New York is, famously, always busy doing both.
I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.
This month’s announcement that the new WTC 1 (built on the site of the old 6 World Trade Center building, itself a rather short edifice) has finally surged past the height of the Empire State Building (a repeat champ for height, given the strange twists of history) is a bittersweet bulletin at best. Cheers turned to tears turned back into cheers. In the long-view, the inevitable breathe-in-breathe-out rhythm of NYC’s centuries-old saga, the site’s entire loop from defeat to defiant rebirth is only a single pulse point. Still, on a purely emotional, even sentimental level, it’s thrilling to see spires spring from the ashes. The buildings themselves, along with their daily purposes and uses, hardly matter. In a city of symbols, they are affirmations in an age when we need to remain busy being born.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN BECOME SO FIXATED on the shot you think you want that the shot you could have can’t squeeze through the mental haze. You might even regard an element that has the potential to actually save your image as an annoyance, as if it’s blocking the view of your sacred “plan”. The alternate idea buzzes around your skull like some stubborn house fly, and you’re eager to bat it away and get back to your grand vision.
A while back, such an element was fighting to get my attention. It was the very thing my picture needed…and the very last thing I wanted. I wish I could say I came to my senses, but it was actually only after I viewed a burst of shots, after the fact, that I fully realized I had been given a gift.
The above scene, a small rustic graveyard, can be found in a mountainous village near the greater Santa Fe area in New Mexico. The location pulled me off the road with its breathtaking setting, as well as the many hand-crafted monuments scattered among the more traditional headstones. I was thinking: nice, self-contained scenic shot, lots of local flavor, warmer-than-normal desert light, just point and click, right? Simple.
Simple, that is, until our friend here showed up. Immediately I regarded him as noise, as an interruption of my “ideal” shot. Never mind the folly of thinking that there is only one way to approach a subject: I was muttering a few silent oaths even as I continued to click and track him as he crossed the graveyard. When was he going to get out of the way, so I could back to my master plan?
I kept everything I shot, figuring that I might have accidentally gotten my wonderful empty scenic before my visitor came along. Instead, at full-size review later, I came back again and again to look at him. His slim solitary form, his simple dress, his two plain flowers, and his downcast gaze all lent a story to what had been a simple, if nice, still life. In giving that sad little field some badly needed human context, his presence proved that it was he who belonged there. If there was an intruder in this drama, it was me. I was just there to take pictures of his life.
He was busy living it.
I frequently find that if I just turn my mind off and stop obsessing about my “vision”, many settings yield something stronger and more elequent than my original design. Think of it as being a sketch artist who keeps his options open by laying in as many pencil lines as you can before inking the final choice. Most importantly, you must trust and be thankful for the occasional gift.
THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.