By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SEEMS TO ME that a municipality only qualifies as a “real” city when it becomes nearly impossible to visually identify its beginnings. Neighborhoods may begin as unified civic signatures with coherent visual styles, but let fire, war, hard times or earthquakes add their input, and those same streets start to look like jigsaws with the pieces chosen from different puzzles. It’s a nightmare for urban planners but a treasure trove for the camera.
As they age, cities become visual collision points between good intentions and unintended consequences, with parts of one era being grafted onto fragments from another. Absent a bomb or natural disaster, few streets are completely destroyed by time, just evolved into a crazy-quilt jumble of bygone trends, deaths, and rebirths.
This image shows a typical block in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, with residential, retail and undefined space co-existing in a single building, following the general rule for the neighborhood that everything should be re-purposed and then re-re-purposed pretty much forever. Things get old. Things break. Ownerships and administrations change. Priorities shift. Some parts of buildings disappear, others are re-imagined, still others are absorbed into other visions.
This urban recycling has real benefits. As an area with the densest population concentration in all of Los Angeles county, there is no space in Koreatown to waste, and thus many priceless remnants of the Art Deco movement which might have fallen to the wrecking ball in other sectors of L.A. were saved and re-used when the neighborhood transitioned from an entertainment district to a residential and commercial area in the 1960’s. Like most of the city at large, Koreatown’s streets are living exhibits, laboratories involving all of the different “Los Angeleses” that have existed throughout the last century. And as with “real” cities in general, part of the new way for the various Koreatown’s is always marbled with what Paul McCartney calls “my ever-present past”. creating unique photographic opportunities in the process. Essentially, cameras were born to bear witness to this amazing cross between architecture and archaeology, this irreconcilable argument between competing jigsaw puzzles. It’s part of the Big Picture we all seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOLLYWOOD IS ONE OF THE SELECT LOCALITIES in the world’s largest democracy where royalty is not only tolerated but slavishly sought after. The crown (or crowns, plural) transfer from the recently fallen to the newly anointed with predictable regularity, but the ritual is always the same: we love the common people (they’re just like us!) until they are lucky enough to escape our ranks, after which we, in turn, adore them, despise them (who do they think they are?), forgive them, and adore them anew.
In terms of photography, the camera seeks out ever new lovers, nearly all of them human, and therefore fleeting. A careful study of Tinseltown, however reveals that the true royalty, the royalty that endures, is the real estate. And even in a town where “reality” is defined by whether you shoot on location or on the back lot, Hollywood harbors plenty of actual places where actual events actually occurred. Some are on the bus tours (Marilyn Monroe slept here), while others require a bit more digging. One of the industry’s most prestigious addresses is smack dab in a section so spectacularly tacky that, by virtue of merely being merely ostentatious, it seems positively muted.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named in memory of Teddy, not Franklin) survives in legend not because it served as a studio or corporate cradle for the film industry, but because it was the first time the town turned out to honor….itself. Then make an annual habit of it. Hey, if you want modesty, live in Des Moine, okay?
The Roosevelt earned its filmic pedigree from the get-go, financed in 1926 by a group that included MGM chief Louis B.Mayer and screen idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (two-fourths of the founding quartet behind United Artists Pictures, along with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith). Two years later, the hotel hosted a modest little dinner for 270 guests to fete honorees of the newly organized Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, some three months after the actual awards had been handed out, and minus the nickname “Oscars”, which would come about four years later.
Over the decades the Roosevelt and its across-the-street neighbor the Chinese Theatre (which opened within months of the “R”‘s premiere) saw a fairly staid business district transformed into “Hollywood & Highland” (trade mark)…. Sucker Bait Central, a day-glo drag whose countless souvenir stops, IMAX pleasure palaces, low-rent novelties and neon knock-offs raised tackiness to the status of a religious movement. Meanwhile, the hotel’s crazy-quilt architectural style (‘Spanish Colonial Revival’…and, yes, there will be a test later), with its coffered ceilings, mid-century pool cabanas and wrought-iron chandeliers, was just fake-elegant enough to pass for average in a town renowned for its, er, flexible relationship with “class”. Rolling through the years with an occasional ownership transfer and the odd walk-on in movies like Beverly Hills Cop II and Catch Me If You Can, the Roosevelt has recently offered lodging as a contest prize on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and landed landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #545.
The Roosevelt’s photographic riches lie chiefly in its extremely dark main and elevator lobbies, its still-regal pool area and the legendary Cinegrill Lounge. The lobbies, at least for handheld shots, require high ISOs, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. Flash may not be verboten but you won’t like the result, trust me. Indeed, the soft gold afforded by natural light washing into the murk from outside brings out the warmth of the Spanish textures, and adds a little tonal nostalgia to the scene. All things together, the Roosevelt stands as a monument to real occurrences, some of them fairly historically significant, in The Town That Invented Phony. And that’s the main challenge in Hollywood: if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GIVEN THAT JOB ONE, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, is maximizing his ability to see, it’s worth considering how we unconsciously condition our eyes not to see….to, in a way, confer a sort of invisibility on whole big chunks of the viewable world. It’s not that those chunks can spontaneously vanish on their own: it’s that we, in the act of managing the everyday flood of sensory information, prioritize some data above others. The lowest priority data effectively becomes invisible.
Cities provide an interesting example of this phenomenon, which I term the Invisible Middle. The upper stories of the buildings in a metropolitan are clearly noticed as “treetops”, clusters of skyscrapers easily apprehended from a distance. Equally visible are the bottom, or street-level layers of cities, the door-to-door sequences of businesses that parallel our daily journeys, the very stuff of habit. By contrast, the details of urban life from just above our line of sight all the way up to the spires and crowns of the skyline can become phantom acreage, something our schedule doesn’t demand that we notice.
As one example, the building shown here, 452 Fifth Avenue in New York City, presents a magnificent face to anyone lucky enough to be in a position to crane their neck just a few extra floors above street level. Built in 1902, when a ten-story building was still a big deal in Manhattan, the Knox Building, named for Edmund Knox and the hat factory that made him a millionaire, was an anomaly from the start. Knox decided not to engage just any architect, but to hire John Hemenway Duncan, the man who had designed both the memorial arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Grant’s Tomb, an act slightly akin to hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to build you a 7-11. Decades later, however, having survived years of attempts to raze it, the Knox landed on the National Registry, and in the 1980’s, got a new glass tower wrapped around it to make it the crown jewel of a major midtown banking complex. If one of Mr. Knox’ hats were still available, giving it a tip would be an apt gesture of respect.
This particular view was chiefly available to me because I was seven floors up in the building on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Vantage point gave me access to this part of the city’s Invisible Middle, but, more importantly, it left my eye hungry for more, and just a little more trained as to the complete range of places to cast my gaze. Because of this lucky accident, I may, in future, also do other good things….on purpose.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BUILDING YOU SEE HERE may not, on first glance, match your sensory memory of what a “public library” is supposed to look like. However, step into this amazing complex on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and you will certainly see, from every angle of its curvy vastness, the public….buzzing away at research, cozying next to comfy reads in cafes, tucked away in private warrens of study and solitude.
One of photography’s functions is to chronicle the public space that mankind creates, and how it occupies that space. And visually, there can be no greater illustration of the changes in how that space is defined than in the architectural evolution of public libraries. More than mere warehouses for books, libraries were the first common gathering places in our young republic, no less important than legislatures or marketplaces. Indeed, we built many libraries to be brick and mortar celebrations of learning, grand, soaring temples to thought, arrayed in oak clusters, dizzying vaults, sprawling staircases, and mottoes of the masters, wrought in alabaster and marble. To see these spaces today is to feel the aspiration, the ambitious reach inside every volume within the stacks of these palaces.
The library, in the twenty-first century, is an institution struggling to find its next best iteration, as books share the search for knowledge with a buffet of competing platforms. That evolution of purpose is now spelled out in new kinds of public space, and the photographer is charged with witnessing their birth, just as he witnessed the digging of the subways or the upward surge of the skyscraper. New paths to fortune are being erected within the provocative wings of our New Libraries. Their shapes may seem foreign, but their aim is familiar: to create a haven for the mind and a shelter for the heart.
There are legends to be written here, and some of them will be written with light…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMANS HAVE A DEFINITE ANTHROPOMORPHIC BIAS when it comes to faces. From dancing Disney flowers to Pixar office lamps, we tend to project our features onto nearly every kind of object or entity. And, as a photographer, I fall prey to that selfsame bias, especially when it comes to making pictures of buildings.
It’s isn’t much of a stretch, really. Windows become eyes. Doors assume the role of both noses and mouths. Overhangs and pitched rooves take on the appearance of eyebrows. And so on. For a variety of reasons, I tend to position houses in the same way I might shoot the most basic human portrait. Eyes facing straight toward the camera, face centered in the shot. No arty angles, no three quarter views. As clinical as a mug shot, or, in architectural terms, the plainspoken exposition of Walker Evans’ studies of houses and businesses in days of the New Deal.
And, like the aforementioned mug shot, I tend to frame the picture as close as I dare without sacrificing either context or impact. Again, the human face is the template, with the same decisions to be made about cropping. Do you need the top of the hair, the width of both ears? Should the shot stop at the bottom of the chin? Below the shoulders? Does any surrounding information add to the selling of the picture?
Does the traditional rectangular framing of the house in the top shot feel roomy, or merely loose? Is the square re-cropping of the same image, seen just overhead, simplified, or cramped? If the front of a building truly has the same potential impact as that of a face, it would follow that a building study might benefit from the same compositional criteria. That means that, like a face, a building has to earn every inch it occupies within the frame.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO ATTRACT ATTENTION IN HOLLYWOOD, a town that shouts in five dimensions, a million colors, and four thousand decibels about almost everything. Here, in the town that hype calls home, design always swings for the fences, and Subtle Is For Sissies. Small wonder, then, that photographers, who typically love to play top this with their peers, find that Tinseltown and greater L.A. are already at gold medal status in playing the very same game. I’ll see your weird, and raise you two weirders.
As a street shooter in Hollywood/L.A., you routinely witness the bizarre being passed off as the normal. As a consequence, the very act of visually commenting on this mad sensual overdose can make even your most prosaic shots seem like a trip through the looking glass. Words like stately, venerable, or traditional seem oddly out of place in the town that invented fourteen-story billboards and the Walk of Fame. Using a camera to say something new about it all can be a fool’s errand, or at least, a mental obstacle course.
Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I am constantly looking for some kind of reversal pattern, a way to treat the most outrageous visual artifacts on their heads. I don’t always succeed. I did, however, have fun trying, recently, to come up with a new way of seeing a very strange building, the Peterson Automotive Museum, located at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the outside of which has undergone a very radical facelift in recent years. From afar, the building seems to be a wild, untethered series of curves and swoops, a mobius strip of red and steel spaghetti floating in space in an abstract suggestion of motion. It’s a stunning bit of sculpture that actually is a wrap-around of the original, far more conventionally-shaped museum building beneath it.
And, as it turns out, that’s the way to reverse-engineer a photo of the museum, since it’s possible to walk behind the swirly facade and into a shadow-and-color-saturated buffer space that exists between it and the underlying structure. From inside said space you can view the outer bands as a peekaboo grid through which you can view neighboring buildings and local traffic, rather like looking between the slats of some big psychedelic set of venetian blinds. And that’s where I stood when taking the above shot with a Lensbaby Composer Pro lens with a fisheye optic, the aperture set at about f/5.6 to render the whole thing somewhat soft and dreamy. I’ll see your two weirders and raise you one bizarre.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO MEASURE MAN’S RELATIONSHIP to his physical environment, giving us the distance we need to see these arrangements from a more objective distance. People design places in which other people are to live and work, but once these plans get off the drawing board, it can become unclear what people’s place in the whole puzzle was intended to be.
More to the point, there is real picture-making potential in the occasional mis-match between what we design and how we fit into it. Some things that seem terrific to the people on the planning board seem cold or intimidating to regular users once they’re actually built. Seeing us try to find our place in things that are really inhospitable can be visually interesting because it makes us look and feel somewhat alien. We can become oddly placed props in our own projects, as the places made to house our dreams look more like warehouses for our nightmares.
Of course, one man’s horror is another man’s heaven, a rule that has certainly been constant over the history of innovation. That means, artistically, that we can wind up, inevitably, making images that start arguments, which is, I believe, the perfect function for art anyway. It’s one thing to smear a daub of paint on a canvas and lacerate someone’s vision with it. After all, you can abandon the painting, leave the gallery, etc. But if the building that was meant to be the gallery seems like a bad fit for you as a human being, that’s something else entirely.
The right compositions with the right lenses deliver stark visual messages about how we slot ourselves into the world we’ve created. Sometimes we make a statement for the ages. Sometimes we erect mouse mazes. Either way, there’s a picture in the process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME VISUAL SUBJECTS ARE SO RICH IN POTENTIAL that they evolve from a few essential shots to what, for lack of a better term, passes for a photo “essay”. Such extended coverage of buildings, countries and people used to be common in the heyday of the picture magazine, with up to a dozen pages of images strung together with narrative links in the pages of Life, Look and their many imitators. It’s a great format to work in once you discover a worthy candidate. But, in practical terms, it can be a little like working a checklist.
I document a lot of Art Deco architecture, since it embodies history, abstraction, illustration, design, and fantasy, all in one big fat buffet. That means I spend a lot of time dodging passersby on sidewalks and lingering in lobbies long enough to make the security personnel twitchy. Deco is all about the splendor of detail, some of which can only be revealed by patiently moving from door to grille, elevator to stairway, entrance to entrance, and looking for light that will bring that detail into bold relief.
I used the word checklist a while back because you are often working one in your mind, ticking off the various items as you wander around the site. Gotta do the mezzanine. Need a shot of the ceiling. Did I catch those wall sconces? Thing is, we tend to think of those little check marks as meaning, I’m done here. Moving on….when, in terms of what changing light does to these buildings within a short span of time, we should be actually be thinking, okay, I’ve done the preliminary work. Should go back and check this again in a while. Deco, especially, is rife with reliefs and murals made from a wide variety of materials, many of which will register color and shadows very differently at different times of day. You have to think in terms of “Take One, Take Two”, rather than in the snapshot mentality of “nailed it.”
The images you see here, of the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent Marine Building (read all about it here) were shot just twenty minutes apart. The top shot shows light landing on the door and its surrounding niche fairly flatly, almost sideways. However, within minutes, as seen in the second shot, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to blast away at the center of the space, throwing the overhang of the arch into deep shadow. This change intensifies the contrast between raised and flat surfaces and makes the exterior terra-cotta (a material in which the colors are baked right in) more vivid. It also is projecting shadows like crazy. Which version is better? Not the point. It’s about editing choices and being reluctant to think that there is one “official” way to shoot something.
I could show similar changes to the lobby, with light softly entering the stained glass over the door, then crashing through it like a golden ray just minutes later. The point is, exposure is time plus light, and, when tackling a large essay-type project, it’s important to do more than one visualization on key elements. It’s the difference between grabbing a souvenir and creating a keepsake.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS, A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE known as the “home field advantage”, wherein a team can turn a superior knowledge of its native turf against its visiting opponent. The accuracy of this belief has never been conclusively proven, but it’s interesting to think on whether it applies to photography as well. Do we, for the purposes of making pictures, know our own local bailiwicks better than visitors ever can? Or is it, as I suspect, the dead opposite?
Familiarity may not breed contempt, but, when it comes to our seeing everything in our native surroundings with an artistic eye, it can breed a kind of invisibility, a failing to see something that has long since receded into the back part of our attention, and thus stops registering as something to see anew, or with fresh interpretation. How many buildings on the street we take into the office are still standouts in our mind’s eye? How many objects would we be amazed to learn are actually part of our walk home, and yet “unseen” by us as we mentally drift along that drab journey?
It may be that there is actually a decided “out-of-towner” advantage in visiting a place where you have no pre-conceptions or habitual routes, in approaching things and places in cities as totally new, free of prior associations. I’ve often been asked of an image, “where did you take that?” only to inform the questioner that the building in the picture is a half block from their place of business. The above image was taken on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not more than a half block and across the street from the Chrysler building. It is a gorgeous treasure of design cues every bit as symbolic of the golden age of Art Deco as its aluminum clad neighbor, and yet I could hold a contest amongst many New Yorkers as to where or what it is and never have to award the prize money. The Chrysler’s very fame eclipses its neighbors, rendering them less visible.
Perception is at the heart of every visual art, and the most difficult things to re-imagine are the ones which have ceased to strike us as special. And since everyone lives in a city that is at least partly invisible to them, it stands to reason that an outside eye can make its own “something new” out of everyone else’s “something old”. Realize and celebrate your special power as a photographic outlier.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT IT WAS, the final residential design completed by the late Frank Lloyd Wright, mysteriously unsung in every major study of his late work and absent from nearly every retrospective on the cantankerous colossus of twentieth-century architecture. The house, designed for his son David in the Arcadia neighborhood of central Phoenix, Arizona, rose from the desert in 1950 and almost immediately faded from popular view, staying under the radar less than a mile from Camelback Mountain, the sight of which dictated the site of the home, in one of Wright’s most dramatic examples of organic architecture.
And now, just a few years after since daughter-in-law Gladys Wright’s death at the age of 104 and a blink of time since an interim owner first threatened the place with demolition, it is, in 2016, about to sink back from view once more, as the benevolent millionaire who saved it confers with various local factions on the best route to its complete restoration. Tours, which, for the past year have allowed visitors from around the world to walk through what Wright called a solar hemicycle design, his recipe for “how to live in the southwest”, will be suspended. 3-D laser scans will be studied to see where the house’s sixty-five year old foundations need to be fortified and repaired. And, for a time, this remarkably unique dwelling will again be beyond the reach of the camera.
Since The Normal Eye began, we have occasionally mounted photo essay pages featuring singular places, sites too special to be addressed in one or two images. The most recent of these was a tour of author Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Massachusetts. And today, we’ve added a new tab at the top of the blog titled Wright Thinking, with select photos of the David Wright home and its detached guest house, in an attempt to remind people that this hidden treasure does, indeed, survive in the American West.
The essay format seem appropriate because the Wright home is difficult house to convey in just a single photograph, rising from the desert floor in a continuous circular ramp that climbs to the house proper, a 2000 square-foot crescent of rooms mounted on concrete piers and looking north to Camelback Mountain with a window array that presents a view arc of over 200 degrees. Within and without are Wright’s signature components: dramatic furniture design; innovative use of humble materials, from linoleum to concrete; a visionary use of solar energy; and the most Wright of Wright ideas, the organic credo that the site comes first, the house second, and never the other way around.
So thumb through our impromptu Wright family album and visit the house’s wonderful website at www.davidwrighthouse.org to keep apprised of the next sighting of one of the master’s final bows.
A dream of life comes to me. Come on up for the rising tonight—-Bruce Springsteen
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POST 9/11 RESURRECTION OF LOWER MANHATTAN might have begun as a kind of act of defiance, a refusal to knuckle under to fear in the aftermath of the largest attack in history on American soil. Somewhere amidst the tears and rage, however, the project to re-establish this crucial corner of New York City moved onto a higher plane, transitioning from anger to elegance, mourning to…morning. And now, for both casual travelers and astounded visitors, the master plan for the area is an ever-blooming monument to faith. To excellence.
Photographers from around the world have known, from the days of the first cleanups, that an amazing opportunity for historic documentation was unfolding on this hallowed ground, and their images have provided an invaluable service in tracking the city’s transition between two distinct eras. The first two mile-markers in this transformation, the openings of World Trade Center One and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, have been interpreted in a global cascade of visual impressions, occurring, as they have, in the first explosion of social media and digital imaging. And now, the third piece of the puzzle, the stunning new Oculus PATH terminal, is nearly ready to serve as the proof that the city, along with all its millions of comings and goings, is still very much open for business.
Photographers have already made a visit to Oculus something of a pilgrimage, and, looking over the first few photos to emerge from their visits, it might be closer, architecturally, to a religious experience. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the structure, presenting its ribbed wings to the skies like an abstract bird of prey, resembles, within, a kind of sci-fi cathedral of kaleidoscopic light effects, serving as both monument and utility. An inventory of its features and a gallery of interior images can be seen here.
And, of course, this is New York, so opinion on the Oculus’ value, from poetic prayers to crass carping, will go through the usual grappling match. But, whatever one’s eventual take on the project, its power as a statement….of survival, of power, of hope, and, yes, of defiance, cannot be denied. To date, I’ve only been able to photograph limited parts of the construction phase (see above), but I will be back after the baby’s born. And my dreams will collide with Oculus’ own, and something magical will happen inside a box.
Make your way to Manhattan, and let your own camera weigh in on the new arrival.
Come On Up For The Rising.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON THE SPOCK SIDE OF OUR BRAINS, OF COURSE WE KNOW that there is nothing particularly magical about buildings per se. Stone and steel cannot, after all, generate memory or experience; they merely house the people who do. Still and all, the loss of certain edifices engenders a purely emotional response in us, perhaps because special things can no longer happen there, and the physical proof that any of it happened at all is being rendered, at least physically, into dust. That puts us in the realm of dreams, and that’s where great photographs are born.
When a place that is special to us is about to wink out of existence, everyone who used that place stamps it with their own stories. We went to school here. This is where I proposed to your mother. The bandstand was here, along this wall. So personal a process is this that our farewell photographs of these places can take on as many different flavors as the number of people who walked their halls. And, as a result, it’s often interesting to compare the final snaps of important places as filtered through the disparate experiences of all who come to reflect, and click, in the shadow of the wrecking ball.
I have attended many an opening at theatres, but I always make a point to attend their closings. Not the end of a certain film or engagement, but the final curtain on the theatres themselves. How best to see their final acts? As a quiet, gentle sunsetting, as with the above image of Scottsdale, Arizona’s Camelview theatre, shuttering in deference to a bigger, newer version of itself at the end of 2015? Or, in the colorful confusion of the venue’s final night, with crowds of well-wishers, local dignitaries and well-wishers crowding into the final screening?
Each view projects my own feelings onto the resulting images, whether it be a golden dusk or a frenetic, neon-drenched, tomorrow-we-die send-off, complete with champagne and cheers. The introspective daytime shot has no teeming crowds or fanfare. The night, with its ghostly guest blurs (a result of the longer exposure) features people who are as fleeting as the theatre’s own finite run. Both are real, and neither is real. But they are both mine.
Buildings vanish. Styles change. Neighborhoods evolve. And photographic goodbyes to all these processes are never as simple as a one-size-fits-all souvenir snap. People, and memories, are too customized for that. As with movies themselves, there is always more than one way to get to the final fadeout.
Entering a Frank Lloyd Wright home is like unwrapping a birthday present. The concrete walk ends in a circular ramp that rises to the left and around the David Wright house to create this wonderful open space.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A HOME CAN BE SAID TO BE AN EVENT, then a door is the engraved invitation that bids you to witness that event. When you think about it, a door is the most crucial part of a house’s design, certainly its most deliberately provocative. It advertises and defines what lies within. It’s a grand tease to a mystery, the last barrier before you invade someone’s most personal space. It’s no wonder that entrances to places are among the most photographed objects on the planet. The subject is as inexhaustibly varied as the people who construct these lovely masks.
Frank Lloyd Wright did more than create drama as you entered one of his houses; he actually enlisted you in generating your own wonder. Often the great man made you a little squirmy as you prepared to come inside, compressing door heights and widths to slightly uncomfortable dimensions. Pausing for a moment, you could almost feel like Alice after she ate the wrong cake, as if you might never be able to wriggle through the door frame.
Shortly after this ordeal, however, Wright would let the full dimensions of the inner house open suddenly and dramatically, as he does in the image above, taken at the home that he designed for his son David in Phoenix, Arizona. After ducking your head, you step into a court that has…no ceiling…since it ends in a ramp that both climbs around and supports a house that encircles you, creating an intimate courtyard that is both confined and limitless.
Doors make statements, almost boasts, about the wonder that lies just inches beyond them, and, like all generators of mystery, they are often most interesting when the question is never answered. Doors we never see beyond are often the most intriguing, like a woman behind a veil. When I invade a new neighborhood, my camera’s eye goes to doors before anything else. Sometimes the spaces they conceal don’t live up to the hype, but doors, these stage productions at the front of grand and humble abodes alike, offer something tantalizing to the eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ROLE OF THE URBAN PHOTOGRAPHER IS TO REKINDLE OUR RELATIONSHIP to our cities, to ignite a romance that might have gone cold or fizzled out. We grow up inside the buildings and streets of our respective towns one day at a time, and, while familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, the slow, steady drip of repetitive sequence can engender a kind of numb blindness, in that we see less and less of the places we inhabit. Their streets and sights become merely up, down, in, out, north side or east side, and their beauty and detail dissolve away before the regular hum of our lives.
An outside eye, usually trained on a camera, is a jolt of recognition, as if our city changed from a comfy bathrobe into a cocktail dress. We even greet images of our cities with cries of “where’s THAT????”, as if we never saw these things before. The selective view of our streets through a camera, controlling framing, context, color and focus, enchants us anew. If the photog does his job properly, the magic is real: we truly are in new territory, right in our own backyards.
A city with iconic landmarks, those visual logos that act as absolute identifiers of location, actually are easier for the urban photographer, since their super-fame means that many other remarkable places have gone under-documented. Neighborhoods are always rising and falling, as the Little Italys fade and the Chinatowns ascend. Yesterday’s neglected ghetto becomes today’s hip gallery destination. Photographers can truly rock us out of the lethargy of daily routine and reveal the metropolis’s forgotten children in not only aesthetic but journalistic ways, reminding us of problems that need remedy, lives that plead for rescue.
The photographer in the city is an interpretive artist. His mantra: hey, townies, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS INSTINCTIVELY SEEK OUT VARIATION. We spend so much time looking at so much of the world that a lot of it starts to sort itself into file folders of things, patterns, or places, pre-sorting our pictures into this or that category. Sunsets: see Nature. Famous Buildings: a sub-set of Travel. And so on, until we are fairly starved for some visual novelty to shock us out of our slumber and spur us on to new ways of seeing.
One of the things that settles most readily into sameness is the human dwelling. Most of us live in some kind of basic four-walls, bedroom-kitchen-bath sequence, making our living spaces fairly predictable as subject matter. By way of awe and admiration, the real geniuses of, magazine illustration, to me, have always been the “house beautiful” photographers, since they must spend year after year making Mr.& Mrs. J.D. Gotmore’s McMansions seem unique and bold. That said, there is something about nearly everyone’s castle that might be distinctive, even revelatory, about the people who live within. It’s all in your approach.
I love to explore the places where people are forced to improvise living spaces either near or as part of their work, places that usually exist in stark isolation as compared to the crush of crowded urban centers. In the above image, I was allowed to climb to a small viewing angle of the beacon room atop a coastal lighthouse in San Diego, and, perhaps because I was limited to a shooting stance below the surface of the room’s floor, the resulting photo further exaggerated the confined, angular working space, which sits above living areas further down the house’s twisty central staircase.
These areas pose more questions than they answer. What is it like to have this building be your entire world for long stretches of time? What kind of person can do this work? What is the center of this unusual story? The blurring of boundaries between working and living areas is among the most novel material a photographer can tackle, since it contains one of the things he craves most….mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EROSION AND COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN URBAN INFRASTRUCTURES of the 20th century is more than bad policy. It is more than reckless. It is also, to my mind, a sin against hope.
As photographers, we are witness to this horrific betrayal of the best of the human spirit. The pictures that result from this neglect may, indeed, be amazing. But we capture them with a mixture of sadness and rage.
Hope was a rarity in the early days of the Great Depression. Prosperity was not quite, as the experts claimed, “right around the corner.” And yet, a strategy arose, in private and federal project alike, that offered uplift and utility at the same time. People were put to work making things that other people needed. The nation erected parks, monuments, utilities, forests, and travel systems that turned misery to muscle and muscle to miracle. Millionaires used their personal fortunes to create temples of commerce and towers of achievement, hiring more men to turn more shovels. Hope became good business.
One of the gleaming jewels of the era was, and is, the still-amazing Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which, in its decorative murals and reliefs, lionized the working man even as it put bread on his table. The dignity of labor was reflected across the country in everything from newspaper lobbies to post office portals, giving photographers the chance to chronicle both decline and recovery in a country brought only briefly to its knees.
Today, the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC studios, still provides a soaring tribute to the iron workers and sandhogs who made it possible for America to again put one foot in front of the other, marching, not crawling, back into the sunlight. It still makes a pretty picture, as can thousands of such surviving works across the country. Photographing them in the current context of priceless inheritance offers a new way to thank the bygone architects of hope.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S CLASSIC REAR WINDOW IS THE ULTIMATE GUILTY PLEASURE, and not just because the Master of Suspense is at the peak of his edge-of-your-seat powers in the telling of its thrilling murder story. No, the massive, full-sized set of James Stewart’s Manhattan neighborhood, with all its apartment-dwellers’ secrets open to the most casual snoop, is the creepy, giddy candy at the center of this cinematic confection. In making it temporarily okay to be, in effect, peeping toms, Hitchcock is making us complicit in his hero’s unsavory curiosity. All these dramas. All these secrets that we have no right in knowing. And, of course, we can’t look away.
Photographing the intersection of living spaces in city settings is far often more subtle than Hitch’s feat of shaving the back wall off an entire community, and that makes for a lot more mystery, most of us beyond solution. Look too little, and a slab of brick is more like a beehive than a collection of stories. Look too deeply, and the truths you unearth can feel stolen, like an invasion done purely for prurient entertainment. What’s most interesting is to imply much but reveal little, and hitting that balance is tough.
I recently killed off the last fifteen minutes of a generally unproductive night of street shooting by gazing out the window of my nondescript hotel at an equally nondescript apartment building across the way. The last vestiges of dusk offered scant details on the outside wall, and the warm yellow hum of electrical light had already begun to flicker on in the various cubicles. I thought of Rear Window and how you could look at the fully visible doings of people, yet still know virtually nothing of their lives. Here the lighting was random, undefined, with little real information on the life throbbing within the individual spaces….the dead opposite of Hitchcock’s deliberate staging.
I couldn’t see a face, a hand, an activity. All I had was the mere suggestion of human presence. What were they reading, watching, wishing, enduring, enjoying, hating? I couldn’t know and I couldn’t show it, but I could show the mystery itself. I could share, if you will, the sensation of not being able to know. And so I made a photograph of that lack of information.
Some photographs are about things, obvious things that you’re able to freeze in time. Other images are about the idea of something, a kind of unsatisfied anticipation. Both kinds of pictures have their own narrative code, and learning how to manage these special languages is great practice for the idea, and the mind back of it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EACH MAJOR URBAN CENTER HAS ITS PHOTOGRAPHIC SUPERSTARS, those destination attractions that are documented to death by shooters great and small. Name the city and you can rattle off the names of the usual suspects. The landmarks. The legends. The here’s-proof-that-I-was-there vacation pictures. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings within our super-cities, that is the majority of the remaining structures on most streets everywhere, remain under-photographed and, largely, unknown.
Part of the problem is our photographic viewpoint, which apes our human viewpoint. As drivers or pedestrians, we necessarily focus most our attention at events topping out at just about two stories above street level. This means we will almost certainly n0t see the mashup of architectural styles just outside our peripheral range. We don’t follow the visual line of buildings all the way up, either because we are walking, or because we don’t want to look like some out-of-town rube. But there is real drama in the collision of all those unseen details, and, if you’re interested in showing the city as an abstract design, some real opportunities.
I find that shooting toward the intersection of parts of three or more buildings amplifies the contrast between design eras, with doric columns and oak clusters crashing into International style glass boxes, overlayed with Art Deco zigzags. I shoot them with standard lenses instead of zooms to preserve the intensity of color and contrast, then create the final frame I want in the cropping. Zooms also tend to flatten things out, making buildings that are actually hundreds of feet from each other appear to be in single flat plane. Regular lenses keep the size and distance relationships relatively intact.
Importantly, I don’t shoot entrances, emblems, signage, anything that would specifically identify any one building, and I steer away from places that are recognizable in a touristy way. I’m not really interested in these buildings in their familiar context, but as part of a larger pattern, so I don’t want to “name” things in the image since it will draw away interest from other elements.
The city is a concrete (sorry) thing, but it is also a rich puzzle of design that offers almost infinite variety for the photographer. Best thing is, these compositions are just inches away from where you were bored to death, just a second ago.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TYPICALLY SHY AWAY FROM USING OR CREATING PHOTOGRAPHS as illustrations of work in another medium. Writers don’t try to caption my images, and I don’t presume, for the most part, to imagine visuals for their works. As both photographer and writer, I am sympathetic to the needs and limits of both graphic and written mediums. And still, there are rare times when a combination of events seem to imply a collaboration of sorts between the two means of storytelling. I made such an attempt a while back in these pages, in the grip of nostalgia for railroads, and so here goes with another similar experiment.
Last week, during a blue mood, I sought out, as I often do, songs by Sinatra, since only Frank does lonely as if he invented the concept, conveying loss with an actor’s gift for universality. I stumbled across a particularly poignant track entitled A Cottage For Sale, which I sometimes can’t listen to, even when I need its quiet, desolate description of a dream gone wrong. So, that song was the first seed in my head.
Seed two came a few days later, when I was shortcutting through one of those strange Phoenix streets where suburban and rural neighborhoods collide with each other, blurring the track of time and making the everyday unreal. I saw the house you see here, a place so soaked in despair that it seemed to cry out for the lyrics of Frank’s song. Again, I’m not trying to provide the illustration for the song, just one man’s variation. So, for what it’s worth:
Is lonely and silent, the shades are all drawn,
And my heart is heavy as I gaze upon
A cottage for sale
Where you planted roses,the weeds seem to say,
“A cottage for sale”.
But when I reach a window, there’s empty space.
But no one is waiting for me any more,
The end of the story is told on the door.
A cottage for sale.