I am a member of the blank generation. – Richard Hell
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY HAS LARGELY BUILT ITS TRADITIONS on the truths and tales of the human face. The art of illustrating urban narratives on the fly relies chiefly on how those stories register on those faces. It’s a visual drama that no shooter can resist.
But the story of how, for good or ill, modern cities affect people….the way they process, channel, contain or empower them as moving props……that kind of story can be told without clear or readable facial features. This doesn’t mean that “humanity” doesn’t matter in these pictures: it means that some images are designed to show how it’s impacted that humanity en masse rather than one person at a time.
There is one other singular thing that happens when a photograph renders a face as a blank canvas. It means that, for the interpretive viewer, that face can now contain whatever he/she wants it to. In such pictures, both photographer and audience are in a kind of coded conversation about what the image “says”.
To illustrate this point: the above photo may or may not be about anything more dramatic than three men in the act of riding an escalator, headed for lunch/a meeting/the parking lot. However, since their features are shrouded in shadow and presented in a softer focus, I can intend a message of my own devise, and outside eyes can supply subplots that either complement or derail that narrative. That’s the kind of chat that keeps an art throbbing along. It allows everybody on either side of a photograph a chance to paint portraits based on their own eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS BENEFIT FROM SOCIOLOGICAL “PIVOT POINTS“, those unique junctures in time when tectonic plates between eras shift, grind and re-configure. Images, for better or worse, are the way we testify to big changes in our world. They are documents of where one age ends and a new one begins. They illustrate contrasts between then and now.
A change in society is an opportunity for pictures, photos which become obvious, even inevitable, in telling the story of how we evolve. And one of the biggest such changes over the last decade or so has been the re-birthing of the walking neighborhood. Urban cores long given up for dead are being re-vitalized by young people who want close, hands-on engagement with city life.
Whether this shift is a boomerang effect at the end of half a century of suburban flight, an economic remedy to rising housing prices (refurbishing is cheaper than new building), an ingenious way to re-purpose old resources for a greener planet (and get rid of cars), or just a generational restlessness, the old laboratory known as the urban neighborhood is back open for business, with darkened and deserted blocks sprouting new colors, shops, rhythms. Prime picking for photographers, who, first and foremost, go where the stories are.
For me, lateral, wide-angle portraits of businesses is great fun, as I try to channel the “neighborhood in miniature” panels made popular by painter Norman Rockwell during his magazine years. Watching foot traffic flow between laundries and liquor stores, with maybe a pizza joint in between, affords an instant variety of color, signage, reflections, and texture…in other words, lots to work with.
The street is dead. Long live the street.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
I SEE MANY, MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE THESE DAYS. Sometimes on
the streets of my home city. More occasionally on the streets of other towns. And every single day, without fail, on every photo upload site in the world. Many of the uploaders think this is “street photography”.
Many of the uploaders need to think again. Hard.
The mere freezing in a frame of someone whose lousy luck or bad choices have placed him on the street is not, of and by itself, some kind of visual eloquence. Not that it can’t be, if some kind of story, or context, or statement accompanies the image of a person driven to desperation. But not the careless and heedless snaps that are, I will say, stolen, at people’s expense, every day, then touted as art of some kind. The difference, as always, is in the eye of the photographer.
Many millions of people have been “captured” in photographs with no more revelatory power than a fire hydrant or a tree, and just catching a person unawares with your camera is no guarantee that we will understand him, learn what landed him here, care about his outcome. That’s on you as a photographer.
If all you did was wait until someone was fittingly juxaposed with a row of garbage cans, a grimy brick wall, or an abandoned slum, then lazily clicked, you have contributed nothing to the discussion. Your life, your empathy, your sense of loss or justice….all must interact with your shutter finger, or you have merely committed an act of exploitation. Oh, look at the poor man. Aren’t I a discerning and sensitive artist for alerting humanity to this dire issue?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Photographs are conversations. If you don’t hold up your end of it, don’t expect the world to pick up the slack. If you care, then make sure we care. After all, you’ve appropriated a human being’s image for your own glory. Make sure he gave that up for something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE MOST UNIQUE CASUALTIES OF SO-CALLED URBAN PROGRESS, key parts of a city’s visual signature, are the everyday signs associated with local businesses, from the red neon over your local bar to the hand-painted address on your favorite eatery. Naturally, photographers have a big stake in the obliteration of any feature of the changing urban landscape, and there is a growing movement to treasure signage as symbols of identity in neighborhoods that are increasingly in danger of being genericized by fast-food and mega-retail chains.
Graphic designer Molly Woodward deserves a lot of credit for the attention now being paid to urban signage, and her website on what she calls vernacular typography contains essays and samples that illustrate what is being lost in town after town. Cities like New York that experience a faster-than-average turnover in area retail see signs for locally owned businesses vanish more frequently. And while it’s normal for mom-and-pop ventures to wink in and out of existence all the time, the chance for entire blocks to be graphically drenched in a candy coating of Starbucks logos is greater in major metropolitan areas.
Woodward’s web archive is rich in photographs of these disappearing urban signatures, and there is certainly a rich vein of source material for any enterprising city photographer. Signs help anchor neighborhoods, acting as mile markers, landmarks, and a more human scale of commerce. They remind us where we are, what our streets are all about. They mark where we grew up, what we wanted to be. The boundaries of our bailiwick. They are personal transactions. Meet me under the clock near the Chinese laundry. See you at 5 near the giant neon cheeseburger.
Shooting signs is an act of reportage; it’s correspondent work. And it’s no less important than photographing the ruins of an ancient cathedral or a portal on the Great Wall, since it’s a kind of archaeology. Many thanks to the Molly Woodwards of the world as they hold back the tide against a mindless homogenization of our streets. And thanks in turn to those who pick up her vibe and click away at the Acmes and Ajaxes in their own towns, often just steps ahead of the wrecking ball.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT GOES BY MANY NAMES: THE MONEY SHOT, THE GOLDEN ANGLE, THE POSTCARD VIEW. Travel enough and you will snap one. The all-roads-lead-to-this-picture, must-shoot frame that defines a town or city. Rattle off the names from Eiffel to Empire State. Drawn like moths to flame, we make the same treks that millions before us have made to capture the classic destination, the local Mecca. Do we truly believe that we, the 400,000,000th visitor to the special site, will capture something that someone else missed? Well, yes, we do. For all the other tourists, it’s just a Kodak moment, but once we focus our lens, boy, it’ll be a moment for the ages. Or not.
But I also believe in the value of the dead opposite of the obvious shot, the image taken 180 degrees away from the holy object we all think we must shoot. The hiding-over-my-shoulder treasure that no one came to take, but which might just qualify as a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s across the alley from the Alamo? What’s a half a block to the left of Notre Dame? Or, in the case of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, what happens when you deliberately turn away from the most desired view in the city?
The iconic downward vista of the Steel City, at precisely the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers blend at the town’s terminus to form the Ohio, is chiefly shot from atop Mount Washington, a district reached via the romantic, cable-driven incline service that has trucked commuters up the Mount and down for over a century. Add the souvie shop and the walk-out view platforms at the top, and it’s one of the most obvious cases of here, take this picture in all of American tourism.
But the Mount, an old urban neighborhood unto itself, is like a flatland city dropped on top of a lumpy cliff, its streets rising and falling like a stone roller coaster. The sheer suddenness of its drop-offs and the skyward pitches of its roofs lends a zany angularity, its tiered vistas contrasted by the glass and steel of contemporary Pittsburgh just below. Think Rio with Czechs and Germans.
There’s something of a religious pilgrimage quality to taking your shot at a popular attraction, but it takes mere minutes to scout around beyond the crowds to what lies immediately beyond. The opposite of obvious is often a synonym for discovery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.
He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.
I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.
It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?
It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS IN ITS INFANCY WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE as a reportorial tool, a way of bearing witness to wars, disasters, and the passing parade of human folly and fashion. Since that time, at least a part of its role has been as a means of editorial commentary, a light shone on crisis, crime, or social ills. The great urban reformer Jacob Riis used it to chronicle the horrific gulf between poor and rich in the legendary photo essay How The Other Half Lives. Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, among many others, turned their cameras on the desperate need and changing landscape of America’s Great Depression. And now is the time for another great awakening in photography. It’s time to show where our cities need to go next.
Politics aside, the rotting state of our urban infrastructures is an emergency crying out for the visual testimony that photographers brought so eloquently to bear on poverty and war in ages past. The magnifying glass needs to be turned on the neglect that is rapidly turning America’s urban glory into rust and ruin. And no one can tell this story better than the camera.
We can fine-tune all the arguments about how to act, what to fund, and how to proceed. That’s all open to interpretation and policy. But the camera reveals the truths that are beyond abstraction and opinion. The underpinnings of one of the world’s great nations are rapidly dissolving into exposed rebar and pie-crust pavement. If part of photography’s mission is to report the news, then the decline of our infrastructure is one of the most neglected stories in the world’s visual portfolio. Photographers can entice the mind into action, and have done so for nearly two centuries. They have peeled back the protective cover of politeness to reveal mankind at its worst, and things have changed because of it. Agencies have been formed. Action has been accelerated. Lives have been changed. Jobs have been created.
It didn’t used to be an “extra credit” question on the exam of life just to maintain what amazing things we have. Photographers are citizens, and citizens move the world. Not political parties. Not kings or emperors. History is created from the ground up, and the camera is one of the most potent storytelling tools used in shaping that history. The story of why our world is being allowed to disintegrate is one well worth telling. Capturing it in our boxes just might be a way to shake up the conversation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OKAY, I JUST REALIZED HOW GROSSLY MISLEADING THE TITLE OF THIS POST COULD SEEM, but, trust me, I never meant it the way it sounds. I was just struggling to find a phrase for the kind of photograph in which a person is as private as possible while on full display to the world at large. There are behaviors that are intensely personal and astonishingly public at the same time, and such events in a human being’s life are rife, for the photographer, with a very singular kind of drama.
We like to think of ourselves as sufficiently camouflaged behind the carefully crafted mask that we present for the public’s consumption, all the better to preserve our sense of privacy. But there are always cracks in the mask, fleeting signals at the raw life underneath. Learning to detect those cracks is the talent of the street photographer, whose eye is always trained beyond the obvious.
Mourning, Joy, Discovery…all these things provide a teeter-totter balance between public display and private truth. The primal basics of life bring that juggling act into view, and, as a photographer, I am often surprised how much of them is in evidence in the simple act of nourishing ourselves. Dining would seem, on the surface, to be all about simple survival. Eating to live, and all that. But meals are laden with ritual and habit, the most hard-wired parts of one’s personality. Food gathers people for so much more than mere sustenance. It is memory, community, religion, friendship, negotiation, reassurance, replenishment. It is a symbol for life (and its passing), a trigger for shared experience, a talisman, a consecration.
Case in point: the man and woman in the above image were seen in a Los Angeles restaurant late on a Saturday night. Their relationship would seem to be that of mother and son, but it could be grandmother and nephew, son-in-law and mother-in-law, or a dozen other arrangements. A sharp contrast is provided by their comparative ages and physicality. One sits upright, while the other sits as well as she can. There is no eye contact….but does that necessarily mean that they do not want to see each other? There is no conversation. Has everything already been said? Are they grateful to still be there for each other after all these years, or is this the fulfillment of an obligation, a visitation occasioned by guilt?
Eating is a microcosmic examination of everything that it means to be human. So much for a single photographic frame to try to capture. So many ways of looking into the publicness of privacy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TAKE ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU WILL DEVELOP YOUR OWN SENSE OF “SIMPLICITY”. That is, you will arrive at your own judgement about how basic or complex a composition you need in a given situation. Some photographers are remarkable in their ability to create images that contain a mad amount of visual information. Some busy city scenes or intricate landscapes benefit wonderfully from an explosion of detail. Other shooters render their best stories by reducing elements to a bare minimum. And of course, most of us make pictures somewhere in the vast valley between those approaches.
I’m pretty accustomed to thinking of overly-busy pictures as consisting of a specific kind of “clutter”, usually defined as cramming too many objects or people into a composition. But I occasionally find that color can be a cluttering element, and that some very visually dense photos can be rendered less so by simply turning down hues, rather than rooting them out completely. Recently I’ve been taking some of the pictures that seem a little too “overpopulated” with info and taking them through what a two-step process I call a color compromise (patent not applied for).
First step involves desaturating the picture completely, while also turning the contrast way down, amping up the exposure and damn near banishing any shadows. This almost results in a bleached-out pencil drawing effect and emphasizes detail like crazy. Step two involves the slow re-introduction of color until only selected parts of the image render any hues at all, and making sure that the color that is visible barely, barely registers.
The final image can actually be a clearer “read” for your eyes than either the garish colored original or a complete b&w. Objects will stand out from each other a little more distinctly, and there will be an enhanced sensation of depth. It also suggests a time-travel feel, as if age has baked out the color. A little of this washed-out jeans look goes a long way, however, and this whole exercise is just to see if you can make the picture communicate a little better by allowing it to speak more quietly.
Compare the processed photo at the top, taken in the heart of the visually noisy Broadway district, with its fairly busy color original and see if any of this works for you. I completely stipulate that I may just be bending over backwards to try to salvage a negligible photo. But I do think that color should be a part of the discussion when we fault an image for being cluttered.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN FACED WITH A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO OUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the crabbier among us are liable to utter one of two responses. Both sound negative, but one could be positive:
Response #1: “I’d never do that!” (Emphatically negative. Discussion over. You will not persuade me.)
Response #2:”Why would I want to do that???” (Possibly as close-minded as response #1, but the person could be asking a legitimate question, as in, ‘show me the benefit in doing it your way, because I can’t imagine a single reason why I should change’.)
When first reading about the street photography technique of “shooting from the hip”, I was a definite response #2. Wasn’t going to slam the door on trying it, but failed to see what I would get out of it. The phrase means just what you’d think it does, referring to people with obvious cameras who do “street” work, shooting with the camera hanging at waist level, never bringing the viewfinder up to their eye. Subjects don’t cringe or lock up because you don’t “seem” to be taking a picture, and thus your images of them are far more unguarded and natural.
Now, suggesting this to a person who has never even owned a camera that didn’t have a viewfinder is a little like asking him to try to take pictures from the inside of a burlap sack. Kinda makes my inner control freak throw a bratrum (a brat tantrum). Think of it from my point of view. If I shoot manually all the time (I do) and if I need my viewfinder like Linus needs his blanket (cause, hey, I’m a tortured and insecure artist), then squeezing off a shot without even knowing if it’s in frame is, to say the least, counter-intuitive (French for “nuts”).
So there you have your honestly expressed Response #2.
Some things that finally made it worth at least trying:
It don’t cost nothin’.
I can practice taking pictures that I don’t care about. I wouldn’t be shooting these things or people even with total control, so what’s to lose?
Did I mention it don’t cost nothin’?
Shooters beware: clicking from the hip is far from easy to master. Get ready to take lots of photos that look like they came from your Urban Outfitter Soviet Union-era Plastic Toy Hipsta Camera. You want rakish tilt? You got it. You like edgy, iffy focus? It’s a given. In other words, you’ll spend a lotta time going through your day’s work like the Joker evaluating Vicki Vale’s portfolio (….”crap….crap….crap….” ). But you might eventually snag a jewel, and it feels so deliciously evil to procure truly candid shots that you may develop an addiction to the affliction. Observe a few basics: shoot as wide as you can, cause 35s, 50s and other primes won’t give you enough scope in composition at close range: go with as fast a shutter speed as the light will allow (in low light, compromise on the ISO): if possible, shoot f/5.6 or smaller: and, finally,learn how to pre-squeeze the autofocus and listen for its quiet little zzzz, then tilt the camera just far enough up to make sure everyone has a head, and go.
At worst, it forces you to re-evaluate the way you “see” a shot, since you have no choice but to accept what the camera could see. At best, you might see fewer bared fangs from people snarling, “hey is that a $&@*! camera?” inches from your nose. And that’s a good thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT STARTED OFF AS WHAT IS CURRENTLY REFERRED TO AS A FAIL: I was clicking away throughout the park areas in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, trying to make some kind of epic composition out of the beautiful Bailey Foundation near the war memorial arch. It features several heroic figures standing on the prow of a ship, under which can be seen several mythical denizens of the deep including Neptune himself. It’s a strong piece of sculpture, crowning a plaza that was designed by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, the mastermind behind Manhattan’s Central Park, and I should have been able to do something with it. Something.
Problem with the fountain is the water itself, which, instead of a wonderfully flowing cascade is something between a Jacuzzi shower head and a resort sprinkler system. Its renders the statuary nearly impossible to get in focus, and sends refracted rainbows and hotspots dancing gaily into your lens. Suddenly the impulse of a moment is a day’s work, and, just as I was beginning to check this particular world wonder off my to-do list, in moved the people you see here.
I don’t shoot weddings but the group you see here was, in fact, a shoot of a wedding, something else altogether, since there is a more relaxed dynamic than will ever be present during an actual ceremony. Photographically, rehearsals are more fruitful than actual play performances, and, in that vein, wedding prep holds more pictorial potential, for me, than weddings with a capital W. There is a looser feel, an air of celebration that somehow gets starched out of the final product. Do I stand here? You want me holding the flowers? Shouldn’t the tall people be at the back? Best thing of all, these folks were already taking direction from their “official” photog, so I was the last thing on their mind. There’s no better role at a wedding than that of The Invisible Man.
My glorious fountain had been reduced to a prop, which means the wedding party saw its potential, as I had. The difference is, they gave me what I hadn’t been able to find for myself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT COMES TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ART, THE WORD “ABSTRACT” IS PROBABLY THE MOST BATTED-ABOUT LINGUISTIC SHUTTLECOCK OF THE 20TH CENTURY, something we lob at each other across the conversational net as it suits our mood. Whenever we feel we should weigh in on a matter of artistic heft, especially something that doesn’t fit into a conveniently familiar cubbyhole, we drag “abstract” out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and cram it into place somewhere in the argument.
Any talk of architecture, and the photographer’s reaction to it, attracts a lot of stray “abstracts”, since attaching the word seems to settle… something. However, art can never be about settling anything. In fact, it’s about churning things up, starting, rather than resolving, arguments. As pieces of pure design, finished buildings do make a statement of sorts about the architect’s view, at least. But when trolling about town, I am more drawn to incomplete or skeletal frameworks for buildings yet to be. They are simply open to greater interpretation as visual subject matter, since we haven’t, if you like, seen all the architect’s cards yet. The emerging project can, for a time, be anything, depending literally on where you stand or how light shapes the competing angles and contours.
I feel that open or unfinished spaces are really ripe with an infinite number of framings, since a single uncompleted wall gives way so openly to all the other planes and surfaces in the design, a visual diagram that will soon be closed up, sealed off, sequestered from view. And as for the light, there is no place it cannot go, so you can chase the tracking of shadows all day long, as is possible with, say, the Grand Canyon, giving the same composition drastically different flavors in just the space of a few hours.
If the word “abstract” has any meaning at all at this late date, you could say that it speaks to a variation, a reworking of the dimensions of what we consider reality. Beyond that, I need hip waders. However, I believe that emerging buildings represent an opportunity for photographers to add their own vision to the architect’s, however briefly.
Whew. Now let’s all go out get a drink.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY PHOTO SITES THAT SUGGEST SHOOTS CALLED “WALKABOUTS“, informal outings intended to force photographers to shoot whatever comes to hand with as fresh an eye as possible. Some walkabouts are severe, in that they are confined to the hyper-familiar surroundings of your own local neighborhood; others are about dropping yourself into a completely random location and making images out of either the nothing of the area or the something of what you can train yourself to see.
Walks can startle you or bore you to tears (both on some days), but they will sharpen your approach to picture-making, since what you do is far more important than what you’re pointing to. And the discipline is sound: you can’t hardly miss taking shots of cute cats or July 4 fireworks, but neither will you learn very much that is new. Forcing yourself to abandon flashier or more obvious subjects teaches you to imbue anything with meaning or impact, a skill which is, over a lifetime, beyond price.
One of the things I try to keep in mind is how much of our everyday environment is designed to be “invisible”, or at least harder to see. Urban infrastructure is all around us, but its fixtures and connections tend to be what I call the unseen geometry, networks of service and connectivity to which we simply pay no attention, thus rendering them unseeable even to our photographer’s eye. And yet infrastructure has its own visual grammar, giving up patterns, even poetry when placed into a context of pure design.
The above power tower, located in a neighborhood which, trust me, is not brimming with beauty, gave me the look of an aerial superhighway, given the sheer intricacy of its connective grid. The daylight on the day I was shooting softened and prettied the rig to too great a degree, so I shot it in monochrome and applied a polarizing filter to make the tower pop a little bit from the sky behind it. A little contrast adjustment and a few experimental framing to increase the drama of the capture angle, and I was just about where I wanted to be.
I had to look up beyond eye (and street) level to recognize that something strong, even eloquent was just inches away from me. But that’s what a walkabout is for. Unseen geometry, untold stories.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE BEST RESPONSES TO THE DIZZYING SPEED OF CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE. It is, in fact, because of a photograph’s ability to isolate time, to force our sustained view of fleeting things, that image-making is valuable as a seeing device that counteracts the mad rush of our “real time” lives. Looking into a picture lets us deal with very specific slices of time, to slowly take the measure of things that, although part of our overall sensory experience, are rendered invisible in the blur of our living.
I find that, once a compelling picture has been made of something that is familiar but unnoticed, the ability to see the design and detail of life is restored in the viewing of that thing. Frequently, in making an image of something that we are too busy to notice, the thing takes on a startlingly new aspect. That’s why I so doggedly pursue architectural subjects, in the effort to make us regard how much of our motives and ideals are captured in buildings. They stand as x-rays into our minds, revealing not only what we wanted in creating them, but what we actually created as they were realized.
In writing a book, several years ago, about a prominent midwestern skyscraper*, I was struck by how very personal these objects were…to the magnates who commissioned them, to the architects who brought them forth, and to the people in their native cities who took a kind of ownership of them. In short, the best of them were anything but mere objects of stone and steel. They imparted a personality to their surroundings.
The building pictured here, Columbus, Ohio’s 1897 Wyandotte Building, was designed by Daniel Burnham, the genius architect who spearheaded the birth of the modern steel skeleton skyscraper, heading up Chicago’s “new school” of architecture and overseeing the creation of the famous “White City” exposition of 1893. It is a magnificent montage of his ideals and vision for a burgeoning new kind of American city. As something thousand walk past every day, it is rendered strangely “invisible”, but a photograph can compensate for our haste, allowing us the luxury of contemplation.
As photographers, we can bring a particularly keen kind of witnessing to the buildings that make up our environment, no less than if we were to document the carvings and decorative design on an Egyptian sarcophagus. Architectural photography can help us extract the magic, the aims of a society, and experimenting with various methods for rendering their texture and impact can lead to some of the most powerful imagery created within a camera.
*Leveque: The First Complete Story Of Columbus’ Greatest Skyscraper, Michael A. Perkins, 2004. Available in standard print and Kindle editions through Amazon and other online bookstores.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO DESCRIBE THE COMBINATION OF HOPE AND ANXIETY THAT ATTENDS MY EVERY USE OF A SMARTPHONE CAMERA. Coming, as do many geezers of my era, from a tradition of full-function, hands-on, manual cameras, I have had a tough time embracing these miraculous devices, simply because of the very intuitive results that delight most other people.
But: it’s a little more complicated than my merely being a control freak or a techno-snob.
What’s always perplexing to me is that I feel that the camera is making far too many choices that it “assumes” I will be fine with, even though, in many cases, I am flat-out amazed at how close the camera delivers the very image I had in mind in the first place. It doesn’t exactly make one feel indispensable to the process of picture-making, but that’s a bug inside my own head and I gotta deal with it.
I think what I’m feeling, most of the time, is what I call the “Polaroid Effect”. To crowd around family or friends just moments after clicking off a memory with the world’s first true instant film cameras, those bulky bricks of the Mad Men era, was to share a collectively held breath: would it work? Did I get it right? Then as now, many “serious” photographers were reluctant to trust a Polaroid over their Leicas or Rolliflexes. Debate raged over the quality of the color, the impermanence of the prints, the limited lenses, the lack of negatives, and so on. Well, said the experts, any idiot can take a picture with this.
Well, that was the point, wasn’t it? And some of us “idiots” learned, eventually, to take good pictures, and moved on to other cameras, other lenses, better pictures, a better eye. But there was that maddening wait to see if you had lucked out with those square little glimpses of life. The uncertainty of trusting this…machine to get your pictures right.
And yet look at the above image. I asked a lot in this frame, with wild amounts of burning hot sunlight, deep shadows, and every kind of contrast in between just begging for the camera to blow it. It didn’t. I’m actually proud of this picture. I can’t dismiss these devices just because they nudge me out of my comfort zone.
Smartphone cameras truly extend your reach. They go where bulkier cameras don’t go, prevent more moments from being lost, and are in a constantly upward curve of technical improvement. People can and do make astounding pictures with them, and I have to remind myself that the ultimate choice…that of what to shoot, can never be taken away just because the camera I’m holding is engineered to protect me from my own mistakes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF SUBURBAN SPRAWL, beyond the obscene commercial eye pollution, the devastation of open space, and the friendless isolation, is the absolute soulless-ness of the places we inhabit. The nowheres that we live in are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are. Move three miles and the cycle has repeated. Same Shell stations, same Wal-Marts, same banal patterns.
The title of a classic book on the passing of the star era of Hollywood could also be the story of the end of the great American house: They Had Faces Then.
I believe that the best old houses possess no less a living spirit than the people who live inside them. As a photographer, I seek out mish-mosh neighborhoods, residential blocks that organically grew over decades without a “master plan” or overseeing developer. Phoenix, Arizona is singular because, within its limits, there are, God knows, endless acres of some of the most self-effacing herdblocks created by the errant hand of man, but also some of the best pre-WWII neighborhoods, divine zones where houses were allowed to sprout, erupt, and just happen regardless of architectural period, style, or standard. It is the wild west realized in stucco.
When I find these clutches of houses, I don’t just shoot them, I idealize them, bathing the skies above them in azure Kodachrome warmth, amping up the earth tones of their exteriors, emphasizing their charming symmetries. Out here in the Easy-Bake oven of the desert, that usually means a little post-production tweaking with contrasts and colors, but I work to keep the homes looking as little like fantasies and as much like objects of desire as I can.
One great tool I have found for this is Photmatix, the HDR software program. However, instead of taking multiple exposures and blending them into an HDR, I take one fairly balanced exposure, dupe it, darken one frame, lighten the other, and process the final in the Tone Compression program. It gives you an image that is somewhat better than reality, but without the Game of Thrones fantasy overkill of HDR.
Photography is partly about finding something to shoot, and partly about finding the best way to render what you saw (or what you visualized). And sometimes it’s all about revealing faces.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S TRULY AMAZING TO CONSIDER THAT, AS RECENTLY AS THE LATE 1940’s, many serious photographers were, at best, indifferent to color, and at worst, antagonistic toward its use in their work. And we’re talking Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and many other big-shoulders guys, who regarded color with the same anxiety that movie producer experienced when silent segued to sound. We’re talking substantial blood pressure issues here.
Part of the problem was that black and white, since it was not a technical representation of the full range of hues in nature, was already assumed to be an interpretation, not a recording, of life. The terms between the artist and the audience were clear: what you are seeing is not real: it is our artistic comment on real. Color was thought, by contrast, to be “merely” real, that is to say limiting, since an apple must always be red and a blueberry must always be blue. In other words, for certain shooters, the party was over.
There were also technical arguments against color, or at least the look of color as seen in the printing processes of the early 20th century. Mass-appeal magazines like Look, Life, and National Geographic had made, in the view of their readers, massive strides in the fidelity of the color they put on newsstands. For Adams, these advances were baby steps, and pathetic ones at that, leading him and others to keep their color assignments to a bare minimum. In Adams’ case in particular, color jobs paid the bills that financed the black and white work he thought to be more important, so, if Kodak came calling, he reluctantly returned their calls. He then castigated his own color work as “aesthetically inconsequential but technically remarkable.”
Look where we are today, making color/not color choices in the moment, without changing films in mid-stream, deciding to convert or de-saturate shots in camera, in post processing, or even further down the road, based on our evolving view of our own work.
There are times when I still prefer monochrome as more “trustworthy” to convey a story with a bit more grit or to focus attention on textures instead of hues. In the above shot, I decided that the spare old building and its spidery network of power meters simply had more impact without the pretty colors from its creative makeover. However, one of my color frames was stronger compositionally than the black and white, so I desaturated it after the fact. Fortunately, I had shot with a polarizing filter, so at least the tonal range survived the transition.
The miracle of now is that we can make such microscopic tweaks in our original intention right on the spot. And that’s good, since, when it comes to color, nothing is ever black and white (sorry).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE BEST HUMAN INTEREST STORIES, EVEN WITH A CAMERA, CAN ONLY BE VIEWED INDIRECTLY. There are many cases in which even the best of us have to merely hint or suggest something about people that we clearly cannot show (or cannot show clearly). Maybe that intractable bit of visual mystery actually bonds us to our audiences, united as we are in speculation about what is beyond that wall or behind that door. The visual tease such photos provide are part of the art of making pictures, in that we are challenged to do more with less, and “show” something beyond the visible.
One of the simplest such stories to capture is very urban in nature: the last remaining nighttime lights in largely dormant buildings. Many of us have been the “last man standing” at the end of an extended work day. Others flee to engagements, family, dinner, but there we sit, chained to our desks until the report/project/research/budget is ready to be put to bed. There’s a readily identifiable feeling of loneliness, plus a little bit of martyr complex, that we can share in the plight of these unknown soldiers of the night.
Whenever I am driving through a city at night, I deliberately seek out those bluish, tube-lit warrens within the cubes and grids of otherwise featureless glass boxes. Who is there? What private eureka or oh, no moments are they experiencing? Which of a million potential dramas are being acted out, and with whom? The uncertainty, even from a photograph with little detail, sparks the imagination, and suddenly our viewers are completing the picture we were forced to deliver unfinished.
It’s the ongoing paradox of photography: what you don’t show is as vital as what you do show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS IT’S MY FATHER’S LOVE OF THOREAU AND EMERSON. Maybe it’s a late-in-life turn toward the meditational. It most certainly is due, in part, to a life-long adoration of all things bookish. Whatever the exact mix, I regard library space as far more sacred than the confines of any church or chapel. Many find their faith flanked by stained glass; I get centered in the midst of bookshelves.
And if libraries are my churches, reading rooms are the sanctuaries, the places within which the mind can be channeled into infinite streams, and where, incidentally, perfect mental quiet can translate into visual quiet. And that, for me, means black and white images. Color can be too loud, proud, and garish, wherein monochrome is the language of privacy, intimacy, and a perfect kind of silence. You might say black is the new quiet.
Inside reading rooms, the faces and clothing of the patrons seems, well, irrelevant to the mood. They have all come seeking the same thing, so compositionally, they are, themselves, all alike, and seeing them in silhouette against the larger details of the room seems to enhance the feeling of reverent quiet. As for composing, letting the room’s massive window take up 3/4 of the frame kept the readers as a small understatement along the bottom baseline of the shot. And, since I was reluctant to ruin the atmosphere of the room, or risk my “invisibility” with more than one audible click to betray me, I chose to go for broke with a single black & white image. I exposed for the cityscape beyond the window, to guarantee that the readers would be rendered as shapes, and that was it.
Having successfully purloined a treasure from within the Church Of The Holy Book, I proceeded to beat it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RETAIL CHAINS ARE STARVATION FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, a barren field where nothing grows, at least visually. America used to be a place where, in our business doings, our petticoat showed a bit; a certain raw vitality showed through our saggy banners, our improvised displays, our homespun marketing. It’s no wonder that the photojournalists of the Great Depression or the choniclers of the Lower East Side of the early 1900’s made poetry out of our back-of-the-truck veggie stands, our horse-drawn pushcarts, our roadside tag sales. There was texture there. There was the real drama of struggle, and it was a pictorial gold mine.
Of course it’s not all gone, and we are not, uniformly, Wal-Mart Nation. Not yet.
As picture makers, we have so much more to work with looking at the human, the risky, the uncertain in our do-it-yourself capitalism. There are stories in it. There are real people on the front lines of the culture to watch and capture. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun than trying to find drama in the grand opening of, say, Kwikie Mart # 3425.
And picture opportunities, created by the blacktop gypsies of our time, are still setting up shop across the country…..six days in a Target parking lot to sell fireworks, four hours in a church driveway to hawk cakes and pies, three weeks in a vacant lot to peddle Christmas trees. And then there are the fairs, the craft shows, and the garage sales, those stubborn little machines of mercantile faith. You can’t not grab gold in these fields.
There may be a great epic just waiting to be shot inside a massive wholesale warehouse, but I prefer my drama smaller, and a little more on the human side. Show me a guy trying to make a buck against all odds and I’ll show you a picture.
Or make you one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LATELY I’VE TAKEN TO GRABBING LYRICS OR TITLES FROM POP SONGS TO SUM UP WHAT I WANT TO SAY IN A GIVEN POST, and apparently I haven’t yet kicked the habit. Like the searcher in Cat Stevens’ early ’70’s tune, I am sure that (a) I don’t really know where I’m going most of the time, and (b) the place I’m eventually going to will explain all, eventually. Pretty sunny outlook for a burned out old flower child, I’ll admit, but, especially in photography, the journey is the quest. What we encounter “on the road to findout” is worth the price of the trip.
That’s a fancy-pants way of saying that, frequently when I’m on a photo walkabout, I only think I know what I’m looking for. Sometimes I actually snag the object of the expedition, then find that it’s as disappointing as winning that cheap plush toy that looked so wonderful behind the carnival barker’s counter. Such a thing happened this week, when I drove five miles out of my way to revisit a building that had grabbed my attention several months prior. Short term result: mission accomplished…building located and shot. Long term result: what did I think that was going to be? Ugh.
I was walking off my mild disappointment, heading back to my car, and then the mundane act of stowing my camera forced me to rotate my gaze just far enough to see what the midday light was doing to the building across the street. It’s masses of glass looks rather flat and dull by morning, but, near noon, it becomes a slatted mirror, kind of a giant venetian blind, reflecting the entire street scene below and across from itself. The temporary light tilt transforms the place into a surreal display space for about thirty minutes a day, and, had I not been standing exactly where I was across the street at that moment, I would have missed it, and missed the building as a subject for the next, oh, 1,000 years.
Kurt Vonnegut had a dear friend from Europe who always parted from him by hoping that they would meet again in the future if the fates allowed. Only the idiom got crumpled a little in translation, coming out as “if the accident will”. Vonnegut loved that, and so do I.
On the road to findout, we may take wonderful pictures.
If the accident will.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
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
IT’S OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, UNDER THE SPELL OF A CONCEPT, TO KNOW WHETHER THEY ARE MARCHING TOWARD SOME LOFTY QUEST or merely walking in circles, their foot (or their brain) nailed to the floor. Fall too deeply in love with a given idea, and you could cling to it, for comfort or habit, long after it has yielded anything remotely creative.
You might be mistaking a rut for revelation.
We’ll all seen it happen. Hell, it’s happened to many of us. You begin to explore a particular story-telling technique. It shows some promise. And so you hang with it a little longer, then a little longer still. One more interpretation of the shot that made you smile. One more variation on the theme.
Maybe it’s abstract grid details on glass towers, taken in monochrome at an odd angle. Maybe it’s time exposures of light trails on a midnight highway. And maybe, as in my own case, it’s a lingering romance with dense, busy neighborhood textures, shot at a respectfully reportorial distance. Straight-on, left to right tapestries of doors, places of business, upstairs/downstairs tenant life, comings and goings. I love them, but I also worry about how long I can contribute something different to them as a means of telling a story.
- The bustling tenement neighborhoods of early Norman Rockwell paintings appealed to me, as a child, because the frames were teeming with life: people leaning out of windows, sitting on porches, perching on fire escapes, delivering the morning milk…they were a divine, almost musical chaos. But they were paintings, with all the intentional orchestration of sentiment and nostalgia that comes with that medium. Those images were wonderful, but they were not documents…merely dreams.
That, of course, doesn’t make them any less powerful as an influence on photography.
When I look at a section of an urban block, I try to frame a section of it that tells, in miniature, the life that can be felt all day long as the area’s natural rhythm. There are re-gentrified restaurants, neglected second-floor apartments, new coats of paint on old brick, overgrown trees, stalwart standbys that have been part of the street for ages, young lovers and old duffers. Toss all the ingredients together and you might get an image salad that captures something close to “real”. And then there is the trial-and-error of how much to include, how busy or sparse to portray the subject.
That said, I have explored this theme many times over the years, and worry that I am trying to harvest crops from a fallow field. Have I stayed too long at this particular fair? Are there even any compelling stories left to tell in this approach, or have I just romanticized the idea of the whole thing beyond any artistic merit?
Hopefully, I will know when to strike this kind of image off my “to do” list, as I fear that repetition, even repetition of a valid concept, can lead to laziness….the place where you call “habit” a “style”.
And I don’t want to dwell in that place.