By MICHAEL PERKINS
CULTURAL ICONS, which burn very distinct patterns into our memory, can become the single most challenging subjects for photography. As templates for our key experiences, icons seem to insist upon being visualized in very narrow ways–the “official” or post card view, the version every shooter tries to emulate or mimic. By contrast, photography is all about rejecting the standard or the static. There must be, we insist, another way to try and see this thing beyond the obvious.
Upon its debut as the central symbol for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the stainless steel structure known as the Unisphere was presented as the emblem of the peaceful ideals put forth by the Exhibition’s creators. Under the theme “Peace Through Understanding”, the Uni, 120 feet across and 140 feet in height, was cordoned off from foot traffic and encircled by jetting fountains,which were designed to camouflage the globe’s immense pedestal, creating the illusion that this ideal planet was, in effect, floating in space. Anchoring the Fair site at its center, the Unisphere became the big show’s default souvenir trademark, immortalized in hundreds of licensed products, dozens of press releases and gazillions of candid photographs. The message was clear: To visually “do” the fair, you had to snap the sphere.
After the curtain was rung down on the event and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park began a slow, sad slide toward decay, the Unisphere, coated with grime and buckling under the twin tyrannies of weather and time, nearly became the world’s most famous chunk of scrap metal. By 1995, however, the tide had turned; the globe was protected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and its rehabilitation was accompanied by a restoration of its encircling fountains, which were put back in service in 2010. The fair park, itself staging a comeback, welcomed back its space-age jewel.
As for photography: over the decades, 99% of the amateur images of the Unisphere have conformed to the photographic norm for icons: a certain aloof distance, a careful respect. Many pictures show the sphere alone, not even framed by the park trees that flank it on all sides, while many others are composed so that not one of the many daily visitors to the park can be seen, robbing this giant of the impact imparted by a true sense of scale.
In shooting Uni myself for the first time, I found it impossible not only to include the people around it, but to marvel at how completely they now possess it. The decorum of the ’64 fair as Prestigious Event now long gone, the sphere has been claimed for the very masses for whom it was built: as recreation site, as family gathering place..and, yes, as the biggest wading pool in New York.
This repurposing, for me, freed the Unisphere from the gilded cage of iconography and allowed me to see it as something completely new, no longer an abstraction of the people’s hopes, but as a real measure of their daily lives. Photographs are about where you go and also where you hope to go. And sometimes the only thing your eye has to phere is sphere itself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATE STUDS TERKEL’S BOOKS created almost a category of their own, collecting memoirs from across the length and breadth of American experience and class in essential essays like Working, The Good War, and Hard Times. Traveling the length and breadth of the nation for over forty years, Terkel interviewed the big and the small, the meek, the marginal and the mighty, as they recalled their individual experiences in the wake of massive historical events, from wars to depressions. For one of his final social montages, he spoke to people in their twilight years about their efforts to remain positive and engaged despite lives that had often proven challenging, even tragic.
Its title: Hope Dies Last.
Upon first seeing the book, I had to read it, partly because it was Studs, and partly because that title spoke to my own minor acts of faith in what I look for in photographs. Pictures are often testimony about people who cannot be seen, measured in the objects they care about, or in which they invest their hope. We have all seen the tenacity of wildflowers thrusting up between the fissures of cracked concrete, and appreciated, in the abstract, what that image says about the faith of the human animal. We capture pictures of places bombed to ruin, then testify with our cameras as they begin, once more, to lay a stone upon a stone. Building. Dreaming. Launching our boats against the current.
Hope dies last.
When I see a picture of something that, to me, symbolizes our collective refusal to knuckle under, I want to take it home with me. Because we need it. Now, yesterday, ever. We draw strength from that escapist wildflower, or a battered face upturned toward the light, or, as above, a potted plant defying the odds in a dark apartment air shaft. Someone decided to give that plant a chance…or, at least, to remind the grey walls and grimy brick that color and life are still around, still fighting for their shot.
Studs made his best case for the persistence of hope with the words of his interviewees. I find comfort in trying to find visual evidence of their actions. Either way, photographers can serve as conservators of hope.
If there’s a better gig to be had in this life, please let me know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE CAN BE NO BETTER DEMONSTRATION OF THE HUMAN RACE’S TWO CONFLICTING APPROACHES TO EXISTENCE than are on display in the peaceful town of Concord, Massachusetts, where one of the most renowned jumping-off sites for war and destruction sits cheek-by-jowl with one of the quietest monuments to the serenity of the mind. It’s a contrast which no photographer should fail to experience.
Just a few hundred yards from the tiny footbridge which is rumored to have launched the American Revolution is a carefully preserved haven known as the Old Manse, a modest two-story country home built in 1770 for patriot minister William Emerson. The home came, eventually, to temporarily host a trio of the young nation’s most eloquent voices: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (the good minister’s grand-son).
The house remained in the hands of the extended Emerson family until as late as 1939, when it was conveyed to the state’s Trustee of Reservations. Over the years, the Manse helped incubate the energies that produced Emerson’s Nature, Hawthorne’s Mosses From An Old Manse, and various love poems written between Thoreau and his wife. The house also retains writing desks used by Hawthorne and Emerson.
The manse supports itself, its side garden and its replica corn field with a modest bookstore and daily walking tours of the house’s rooms, which are said to feature nearly 90% of the structure’s original furnishings. However, as is the case with Annie Liebowitz’ profound essay on the living spaces of quintessential Americans, Pilgrimage, the effect of the house on the photographer’s eye can never only be in the arrangement of physical artifacts. There is something more ethereal going on than merely snapping The Place Where He Sat And Wrote, an unfilled space that exists between these mere things and the essence of those transcendent writers.
And while I’m not sentimental enough to believe that you can render a person just by photographing an object from his desk, there is something that lingers, however impossible it is to quantify. Revolutions are very amorphous things. Some come delivered by musket ball. Others arrive in wisps of quietude, seeping into the soul with the stealth of smoke. The Old Manse launched its own crop of “shots heard ’round the world”, the echoes of which can sometimes resound in the echo of an image.
It’s a lucky thing to be ready when the message comes.