By MICHAEL PERKINS
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, MEMORIALS TENDED TO BE FAIRLY STATIC THINGS. A tomb or monument depicting a battle, celebrating a leader, or enshrining a belief was built, and it stood, for as long as time and fortune might allow. After the invention of photography, however, things tended to be not fully finished, especially tributes and honors. We track their context with pictures in real time: over consecutive eras, we document their rise and fall, and that of the societies that produced them.
The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, parked for 80 years at the entrance to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (which T.R.’s family riches helped establish) has, as of this writing, been removed, transferred to what historians hope will be a better teaching context. His mounted figure, flanked by depictions of both Native and African-American men on foot, had been problematic for the museum, passersby, and, indeed the Roosevelt family itself in recent years, given the 26th President’s troubling mix of views on race, eugenics, and colonialism, and so the removal came as little surprise. Now, however, as a consequence of the move, anyone taking a photograph of the work henceforth will be interpreting it through the “lens” of a completely different societal context.
Now you see it, now you won’t: the recently removed Teddy Roosevelt statue, an 80-year fixture at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, as seen by the author in 2012.
When people change, the symbols they value, as well as the images they create of those symbols, change as well. Just as it’s odd now to see the Statue of Liberty’s disembodied torch hand in old photographs, the images makes sense once one realizes that the landmark originally came to American in stages, with the arm on display in Manhattan for a time in a push for funding to complete the memorial. Thus that picture, in its original time frame, makes perfect sense. It’s only that more familiar pictures have replaced that view, rendering its original reality strange.
It’s not for this author to try to climb into the mind of the original creators of the T.R. statue in question: it was a product of its time. Similarly, this image I made of it, from its chosen angle to its processing to the unsettling presence of an enormous red spider(!), is now locked away from all other moments on a single day in 2012. “The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on”. Heroes, from generals to philosophers, are nuanced, complicated. Making pictures of our struggle with that complexity is part of our quest to tell our complete story.
A rather cold, imperious rendition of “Liberty” as seen on this 1879 U.S. silver dollar.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST WAY TO APPROACH A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT PURELY ON YOUR OWN TERMS is for the thing to be severed from its original context, torn free of any associations it once had with the world at large. Once these so-called “found objects” come into our hands, we can make pictures of them as only we see them, not as they were anchored to everyday use. They become, in this way, blank canvasses of sorts.
In recently looking over some old coins ranging from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, I became struck with how self-obliterating their history was. That is, they were all something so commonly used by the public as to be virtually invisible…and then became literally invisible as newer designs vanished them, yanking them from circulation to be replaced by versions more consistent with the fashions and priorities of new eras. One thing that seemed particularly fluid was the depiction of Liberty, each generation’s edition created to conform to our conceptions of the concept they personified.
On the 1887 silver dollar, seen at top, the lady is a rather classic goddess figure, austere, inscrutable, even muscular. She’s shown in a classic two-dimensional profile, very much in the tradition of Greek and Roman antiquity. She’s remote, above it all. In contrast, the rendition that replaced her on the 1921 “peace” design, seen below, is more contoured, and decidedly a woman of the troubled twentieth century. Her neck is slender. Her expression is expectant, even anxious, coming at the end of a decade of horrendous global slaughter. Her “peace” is more of an aspiration than a fact, her femininity borne of a personal, more mortal idea of hope. I wanted to make a picture that captured those qualities.
Liberty for a new age: the same ideal as envisioned on the U.S. “peace” dollar coin.
For “my” Liberty, then, the clinically stern crispness of a standard macro shot, i.e., hard evidence of the tough life of a widely circulated coin (scratches, dents, etc., in bold relief) had to, in photographs, gave way to an idealized, softened kind of aspect, or as close as I could come to a kind of dream state. I used a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens, which is deliberately designed to create the spherical and chromatic aberrations that used to produce glowy, softer focus as an accidental artifact of older, more flawed lenses. In recent years, Canon, Pentax and Mamiya have also made glass that mimic that flaw, especially at wider apertures (this was shot at f/3).
Working to liberate “my Liberty” was creatively easier because the coin she graces has vanished from daily use, and, with it, all the associative ties to the world that it was created for. That allowed me to imagine her for myself, and every photograph I have ever truly cared about began under just such terms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS WE DRAW A HARD MENTAL LINE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH, so do we place a physical boundary between the areas where life proceeds apace and the sites where we mark its cessation. Cemeteries are perhaps the most obvious marker of this line between sun and shadow, defined by iron gates, serene gardens, engraved tributes, contemplation. Out there, the world goes on. In here, remembrance, not substance, defines reality.
Take a camera across the country one small town at a time, however, and you will see how our relationship to the departed has changed…has been, in effect, geographically outsourced. Graveyards, once a component in daily town life, are increasingly out in the country, in a dedicated park, somewhere else. Prior to the 19th century, people were interred close to where they lived, the echoes of their journeys woven like a thread into the pattern of their native villages, just as naturally as a church or a general store. Over the years, however, something changed. Graveyards started to be deliberately designed, becoming some cities’ first de facto public parks, as well as their earliest conservatories or sculpted gardens. They began to be concentrated away from the centers of towns, the dead being less and less a daily visual reminder of the local history or continuity.
Places like this local graveyard in Vermont are gradually vanishing from the American scene. Markers decay and crumble: valuable in-town land is negotiated, litigated, re-purposed. As a consequence, fewer and fewer cities of any size still bear monuments from the 1800’s, along with the historically unique elements of their design and sentiments. When I come across one, I am keenly aware that I am seeing something that is going the way of the dodo, and I stop. Extinctions, either human or institutional, are fascinating things, and walks within these spaces feel a bit less commercial or industrial than in the sites’ present-day “shady acres” equivalents. In such cases, the camera is meant to be a registrar, rather than an intruder. Cameras are certainly for things that are happening right now. But they are also a way to hedge our bet a little against the things which will soon happen no more.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY TOWNS in the American southwest, Superior, Arizona sprung up in the nineteenth century primarily to get people close to something promising that Nature had already parked in the local dirt. So long as that something gushed up, flashed in a prospector’s pan or helped light or heat something, the towns flourished….. boomed, as the term goes.
Until they didn’t.
In the case of Superior (2010 census population 2,837), the silver that anchored the locals to the grim crags of the Superstitions mountain range tumbled in value when the metal lost its status as the backing for the American dollar in 1893. Fortunately, Superior had a second act, rebounding with the discovery of copper in the same area where silver had been mined. And then, of course, Hollywood came calling, seeking a visual taste of the Real Old West. Superior rose yet again, standing in for yesteryear in the films How The West Was Won, Blind Justice, and The Gauntlet, among many others. And the beat goes on; as recently as the 1990’s, yet another copper mining company hooked Superior up to yet one more source of life support. And how’s your hometown?
Even so, a photographer looking to take Superior’s pulse in the twenty-teens is well advised to look a little deeper than the shopworn storefronts of the main street, heavy with thrift shops and antique stores but also alive with hot pastels and the twang of Saturday afternoon dance music, complete with Stetsons and cold longnecks. The town is rusty and dusty down to its toenails, pressed up against gritty stone peaks, but it is still brave at the corners of its mouth. As a place that is “a fur piece” from Phoenix and a hoot and a holler from Globe, Superior is more mile marker than actual destination, but it is still standing, still smiling for the camera.
And, who knows, things could change.
They always have before….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ALWAYS SCRATCH MY HEAD WHEN I SEE AN EATERY sporting a sign that boasts “American Cuisine”, and often have to suppress an urge to step inside such joints to ask the proprietor to explain just what that is. If there is one thing about this sprawling broad nation that can’t be conveniently corralled and branded, it’s the act of eating. Riff through a short stack of Instagrams to see the immense variety of foodstuffs that make people say yum. And as for the places where we decide to stoke up….what they look like, how they serve us, how they feel….well, that’s a never-ending task, and joy, for the everyday photographer.
Eating is, of course, more than mere nourishment for the gut; it’s also a repast for the spirit, and, as such, it’s an ongoing human drama, constantly being shuffled and re-shuffled as we mix, mingle, disperse, adjourn and regroup in everything from white linen temples of taste to gutbucket cafes occupying speck of turf on endless highways. It’s odd that there’s been such an explosion of late in the photographing of food per se, when it’s the places where it’s plated up that hold the real stories. It’s all American, and it’s always a new story.
I particularly love to chronicle the diners and dives that are on the verge of winking out of existence, since they possess a very personalized history, especially when compared with the super-chains and cookie-cutter quick stops. I look for restaurants with “specialities of the house”, with furniture that’s so old that nobody on staff can remember when it wasn’t there. Click. I yearn for signage that calls from the dark vault of collective memory. Bring on the Dad’s Root Beer. Click. I relish places where the dominant light comes through grimy windows that give directly out onto the street. Click. I want to see what you can find to eat at the “last chance for food, next 25 mi.” Click. I listen for stories from ladies who still scratch your order down with a stubby pencil and a makeshift pad. Click. Click. Click.
In America, it’s never just “something to eat”. It’s “something to eat” along with all the non-food side dishes mixed in. And, sure, you might find a whiff of such visual adventure in Denny’s #4,658. Hey, it can happen. But some places serve up a smorgasbord of sensory information piping hot and ready to jump into your camera, and that’s the kind of gourmet trip I seek.