By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART”, goes the old joke about a lowbrow walking through a gallery, “but I know what I like.” Turns out that, in terms of how a photographer can remain true to his or her own heart, that’s a pretty wise statement. The message: don’t carry around loaded words that no one can define. Stick with your instincts, since they are beyond labels. Labels like “art”.
We place little verbal baggage tags on lots of things, mostly as convenient mental shortcuts, and so, in discussions about picture-making, the word art gets dropped more than an MC’s mic. And while it’s only mildly annoying that people bandy around a word that none of us even know the meaning of, it’s usually used to talk about something we aspire to do, i.e., “make art”. In today’s marketing environment, however, the whole thing has moved from silly to sinister, as the word art is now attached to certain kinds of equipment, so-called “art lenses” (as they are often called in advertisements), meaning, I guess, that you can buy the ability to make art. Just send for our free booklet…
The idea that art can be achieved with the purchase of a particular piece of gear is like saying that if you buy a really expensive hammer, you’re an architect. Or, let’s come at it from the reverse angle. Are we saying that, since I don’t own a certain kind of camera, I can’t make art? A quick Google of the phrase “what is an art lens” will actually dredge up three or more solid pages of links to a single lens manufacturer (whose products are on the high end of the precision scale) who cleverly put the word art in the actual name of an entire line of their optics. On the other end of the spectrum, in the land of instinctual, hipster-bound low-fidelity photography, a second manufacturer also refers to its product as creating “art” effects. Okay, so let’s parse this thinking out a little.
What can an “art lens” actually do? Is it specialized glass (think fisheyes, macros, selective focus) that performs one effect well? Does that confer “art” on your work? Is it anything that radically improves sharpness, or, vice versa, radically diminishes it in a desirable fashion? Is it a particular focal length, resolution rate, distortion spec? Does it cook your lunch and get your dog’s teeth 30% cleaner in ten days? Is the image seen up top “artistic?” And does my choice of equipment have any role in that? Was I doing something with an expensive optic to get this look, or was I shooting with something so basic that it always produces this result? And who is to say?
Art is hard enough to identify without slapping the word “art” on a particular hunk of gear. Art is nearly impossible to define, but, like the guy in the gallery, you know what you like. And the completely individual definition of that sensation is what makes for art…not a purchase, not a baggage tag, not an advertising claim. Equipment is less of a determinant in excellence than any other factor in photography. And those who quack the loudest about what “art” is may be, in the final analysis, as clueless to name it as the rest of us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.
The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.
The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.
It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.
Or the click of a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY CONSUMER, Apple, Inc. seems to stand alone in its ability to define a market for a product, fill that market before anyone else can, and engineer the very need for that product in its customers. Apple has not only wrought great things, it has convinced us that, even though we couldn’t have imagined them ourselves, we can no longer imagine life without them. That bond between provider and user seems unique in the history of the world.
But it’s been done before.
In the 1880’s, when George Eastman perfected the world’s first practical photographic roll film, the idea of owning one’s own camera was quaint at best. Early photo images were created by talented, rich tinkerers and the first few professionals, making photographers a small, select brotherhood. Even so, Eastman’s boldest idea was not his film but the affordable means to make a film user out of the average man. The new Eastman Kodak company, like Apple, conceived of a market, filled it almost exclusively with their own products, and closed the deal by proceeding to teach people not only how to use their Kodaks but how to link photography with a full and happy life.
Over the last few Decembers, I have dedicated pages of The Normal Eye to the decades-long love affair between Kodak and the world that it trained to treasure photographs. Its marketing reached its creative zenith with the “Open Me First” Christmas campaigns of the 1950’s and ’60’s, which posited the idea that nothing wonderful could happen in the life of your family, especially on The Big Day, if you failed to record even a moment of it on Kodak film.
However, Kodak’s mastery of emotional messaging was in full flower generations before the “Open Me First” pitches for Instamatic cameras and Carousel projectors. Long before television and radio, the company’s persuasive use of print carried much the same appeal: if it’s important, it’s worth preserving, and we have the tools and talent you need to do it. Kodak cameras quickly became positioned as The Ideal Christmas Present, as the company targeted newlyweds and young parents with their upscale models and cultivated the youth market with their $1 line of children’s cameras. In an early example of inspired branding, the kids’ models were marketed with the names and images of illustrator Palmer Cox’ runaway juvenile book characters, the Brownies, playful elves who were featured on Kodak packaging and ads for more than a decade, helping launch the world’s most successful lines of cameras, in continuous production from 1900 to 1980.
Not even Apple in all its marketing glory has managed to align itself so solidly with the emotional core of its customers in the same way that Kodak, for nearly a century, forged a bond between its users and the most emotionally charged time of the year. In so doing, they almost singlehandedly invented the amateur photographer, fueling a hunger for images in the average Joe that continues unabated.
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
ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING BY-PRODUCTS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, a trend still evolving across both amateur and professional ranks, is a kind of tidal return to black-and-white imaging. The sheer volume of processing choices, both in-and-out-of-camera, have made at least dabbling in monochrome all but inevitable for nearly everyone, reversing a global trend toward near exclusive use of color that was decades in the making. At one point, to be sure, we chose black and white out of necessity. Then we embraced color and relegated B&W to the dustbin of history. Now, we elect to use it again, and increasing numbers, simply because everything technical is within our reach, cheaply and easily.
Looking back, it’s amazing how long it took for color to take hold on a mass scale. Following decades of wildly uneven experimentation and dozens of processes from Victorian hand-tinting to the Autochromes of the early 1900’s, stable and affordable color film came to most of us by the end of the 1930’s. However, there was a reluctance, bearing on tantrum, among “serious” photographers to embrace it for several more decades. This article from the Life magazine Library of Photography, a history-tutorial series from the 1970’s, discusses what can only be called photography’s original anti-color bias:
Although publishers and advertisers enhanced their messages with pictures in color during the first few decades of the color era, most influential critics and museum curators persisted in regarding color photographs as “calendar art”. Color, they felt, was, at best, merely decorative, suitable, perhaps, for exotic or picturesque subjects, but a gaudy distraction in any work with “serious” artistic goals.
Of course, for years, color printing and processing was also unwieldy and expensive, scaring away even those few artists who wanted to take it on. Still, can you imagine, today, anyone holding the belief that any kind of processing was a “gaudy distraction” rather than just one more way to envision an image? Color was once seen by serious photographers as an element of the commercial world, therefore somehow..suspect. Fashion and celebrity photography had not yet been seen as legitimate members of the photo family, and their explosive use of color was almost thought of as a carnival effect. Cheap and vulgar.
Of course, once color became truly ubiquitous, sales of monochromatic film plummeted, and, for a time, black-and-white found itself on the bottom bunk, minimized as somehow less than color. In other words, we took the same blinkered blindness and just turned it on its head. Dumb times two.
Jump to today, where you can shoot, process and show images in nearly one continuous flow of energy. There are no daunting learning curves, no prohibitive expenses, no chemically charred fingertips to slow us down, or segregate one kind of photography from all others. What an amazing time to be jumping into this vast ocean of possibilities, when images get a second life, upon second thought.