By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULYSSES S. GRANT HAS BEEN REMEMBERED AS A MAN OF SEVERAL “FIRSTS”. He has been called the first practitioner of “modern” warfare, utilizing methods that rendered the courtly style of his Confederate foes obsolete. He also was the first American president to pen a purely military autobiography. History students can probably agree on other career distinctions. But in watching the recent excellent History Channel miniseries on his life (based on the book by Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton), it becomes clear that the eighteenth president was also the first to have nearly his entire adult life documented in photographs. In a print world still dominated by illustrations and engravings, Grant was captured on glass plates over three hundred times in the space of about twenty years, twice as often as such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In point of fact, Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the world over the span of the entire nineteenth century.
At a time when most people lived out their lives without posing for even a single portrait, Grant endured dozens of formal “sittings”, caught as well in photojournalist snaps by Matthew Brady’s roving band of Civil War photographers, who pictured him poring over maps, sitting in tent-side conferences with other officers, conferring with his president in both the field and the capitol, attending that same president’s funeral, welcoming visitors to his own White House, resting with family on his front porch. Consider: being photographed in the 1800’s was, for a time, an occasion, a privilege, maybe even an accident. Certainly, Grant was not the first president to have his picture “made”, but the sheer volume of views of him across his public life was a quantum leap from our visual sense of any public figure up to that time. Chernow’s book (and the miniseries) both reckon with the incredible explosion in notoriety wrought by Grant’s roles as both the general who won the war and the president who tried to preside over the peace. And while some of the incredible trove of photo images of Grant can be accounted for by breakthroughs in the technical growth and expansion of photography during his lifetime, the astonishing bulk of it can only be attributed to the fact that Grant was an international celebrity, one of the first in the Industrial Age.
WIthout his realizing it, Ulysses Grant had come along in one of those transformational transition periods in history in which our established way of viewing things is undergoing a convulsion toward something completely different. Photography, in his time, was slowly re-negotiating our relationship to our leaders. They ceased to operate at a distance or as abstractions. They now had features, dimensions, traits brought to us in a new kind of intimacy that only the camera could create. And as films and lenses improved, the stiff formality of a sitting portrait gave way to images of a much more spontaneous, candid nature. The image seen here (which I love) is itself a transitional one. Grant had to remain still long enough for the still-slow exposure times of the Brady corps’ devices, but already he has to remain at attention for a much shorter span that he might have in a studio just a few years prior. The most important element of the pose, however, is a kind of tell about Grant’s priorities. His face seems to say, take the picture already…I’ve got more important things to do.
First paparazzi prez? Hardly. But over the term of his public life, Ulysses Grant may be the first president to be, almost, our public property, a “person of interest” in purely visual terms. As now, sitting (or standing, or running) for a portrait is no guarantee that the truth will make it through the lens. But there are certain times in the history of photography where a pivot point is glowingly obvious, and the weary resignation in Grant’s face is a kind of seismograph of what was to come, for good or ill, for all of us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
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
MANY OF THOSE WHO TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON, D.C.’s VARIOUS MONUMENTS each year generally strike me as visitors, while those who throng to the memorial honoring Abraham Lincoln seem more like pilgrims. Scanning the faces of the children and adults who ascend the slow steps to the simple rectangular chamber that contains Daniel Chester French‘s statue of the 16th president, I see that this part of the trip is somehow more important to many, more fraught with a sense of moment, than the other places one may have occasion to view along the National Mall. This is, of course, simply my subjective opinion. However, it seems that this ought to be true, that, even more than Jefferson, Washington or any other single person attendant to the creation of the republic, Lincoln, and the extraordinary nature of his service, should require an extra few seconds of silent awe, and, if you’re a person of faith, maybe a prayer.
This week, one hundred and fifty years ago, the gruesome and horrific savagery of the Civil War filled three whole days with blood, blunder, sacrifice, tragedy, and finally, a glimmer of hope, as the battle of Gettysburg incised a scar across every heart in America. Lincoln’s remarks at the subsequent dedication of the battlefield placed him in the position of official pallbearer for all our sorrows, truly our Commander-In-Grief. Perhaps it’s our awareness of the weight, the loneliness, the dark desolation of that role that makes visitors to the Lincoln Memorial a little more humble, a little quieter and deeper of spirit. Moreover, for photographers, you want more of that statue than a quick snap of visiting school children. You want to get something as right as you can. You want to capture that quiet, that isolation, Lincoln’s ability to act as a national blotter of sadness. And then there is the quiet resolve, the emergence from grief, the way he led us up out of the grave and toward the re-purposing of America.
The statue is a simple object, and making something more eloquent than it is by itself is daunting.
The interior of the monument is actually lit better at night than in the daytime, when there is a sharp fall-off of light from the statue to the pillars and colored glass skylights to its right and left. You can crank up the ISO to retrieve additional detail in these darker areas, but you risk the addition of grainy noise. In turn, you can smooth out the noise later, but, in so doing, you’ll also smear away the beautiful grain in the statue itself.
In my own case, I decided to take three bracketed exposures, all f/5.6, , nice and wide at 20mm, low noise at ISO 100, with shutter speeds of 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200. In blending the three later in Photomatix’ Detail Enhancement mode, I found that the 1/200 exposure had too little information in it, so a composite of the three shots would have rendered the darkest areas as a kind of black mayonnaise, so I did the blend with only two exposures. Stone being the main materials in the subject, I could jack up the HDR intensity fairly high to accentuate textures, and, for a more uniform look across the frame, I gently nudged the color temperature toward the brown/amber end, although the statue itself is typically a gleaming white. The overall look is somewhat more subdued than “reality”, but a little warmer and quieter.
Abraham Lincoln was charged with maintaining a grim and faithful vigil at America’s bedside, in a way that no president before or since has had to do. Given events of the time, it was in no way certain that the patient would pull through. That we are here to celebrate his victory is a modern miracle, and the space his spirit occupies at the Lincoln Memorial is something photographers hunger to snatch away for their own.
What we try to capture is as elusive as a shadow, but we need to own something of it. The commander-in-grief’s legacy demands it.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.