the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Architecture

LOOKING FOR AN OPENING

Entering a Frank Lloyd Wright home is like unwrapping a birthday present.

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.

Doors are the first story tellers in a house.

Doors are the first story tellers in a house.

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.

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MODEL CITIZENS

Cities can suggest any place, any time, even within your most familiar neighborhoods.

Cities can suggest any place, any time, even within your most familiar neighborhoods.

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.


THE PLACES THEY LIVED

"I want to marry a lighthouse keeper..."

“I want to marry a lighthouse keeper…”  1/125 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 24mm.

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.


ARCHITECTS OF HOPE

Soaring mural above the main information desk just inside the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Part of Jose Maria Sert’s soaring mural American Progress (1937) above the main information desk just inside the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

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.


UNKNOWN KNOWNS

1/15 sec., f/1.8, ISO 1000, 35mm.

1/15 sec., f/1.8, ISO 1000, 35mm.

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.


URBAN MIX

erere

Competing architectural styles establish a natural rhythm of conflict in major cities.

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.


CITY OF DREAMS

An enormous public amphitheatre arch at Arcosanti, a crumbling "urban laborotory" near Phoenix, Arizona.

An enormous public amphitheatre arch at Arcosanti, a crumbling “urban laborotory” near Phoenix, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS HOVER AROUND URBAN RUIN LIKE MOTHS AROUND A FLAME. It’s just a thing that we do. Not by sifting through the ashes of Babylon, Rome or Athens so much as the demolished details of abandoned malls, stores or gas stations. There is a kind of reverence for those banal or ugly things that had their brief moment at the top of the news, then rolled backwards into rot. Shooters love trying to mine ugliness in search of Higher Truth. But when we do this, we’re only doing half the job.

A country the scope and breath of America enshrines plenty of greed and stupidity in brick and steel, but so do the near-miss dreamers, the visionaries whose grand prophecies might have made our lives better. They leave behind their legacies of litter no less than the rapacious developers, and they deserve to have those failures immortalized by the camera as well.

Touring the fifteen-acre architectural tomb that is Arcosanti, a disintegrating “urban laboratory” sixty-five miles outside of Phoenix, Arizona is to see where Disney turns into Dystopia. The miniature model city, conceived by architect and urban planner Paolo Soleri in the 1970’s is, three years after his death, still uncompleted, baking in the desert sun, its proud dream of responsible urban density and communal harmony a hallowed-out echo. While the rest of us wore our vegetable-dye shirts on the first Earth Day, Soleri dreamt of a society where we built up instead of out, chose spirituality over sprawl, yearned to chuck our planet-killing cars for a tight, efficient village designed to give the planet a chance to take a clean breath.

It didn’t work, and there are more reasons why than there are residents at Arcosanti, where 5,000 people were supposed to co-exist in ecstasy but where, today, fewer than 60 actually dwell. The common buildings, the amphitheatres, the beehive apartments heated by recycled sunshine still function, after a fashion, but they are losing their battle with nature as the rugged basalt mesas in the neighborhood lash them with harsh winds that peel paint, crack concrete, mock the grand vision.

Photographers are reporters, so in our fascination with the ruin of the past, we would do well to document not just the rotted remains of New Valley Mall, but also the places where poets tried to change the narrative.


THE ROMANCE OF RUIN

The Honeymoon is, indeed, over.

The honeymoon is, indeed, over.

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.

DSC_1568Last 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:

 

Our little dream castle with every dream gone,                                     
Is lonely and silent, the shades are all drawn,
And my heart is heavy as I gaze upon
A cottage for sale
The lawn we were proud of is waving in hay,
Our beautiful garden has withered away,
Where you planted roses,the weeds seem to say,
“A cottage for sale”.
From every single window, I see your face,
But when I reach a window, there’s empty space.
The key’s in the mail box, the same as before,
But no one is waiting for me any more,
The end of the story is told on the door.
A cottage for sale.  
From A Cottage For Sale, Music by Willard Robison, Lyrics by Larry Conley

 


COME EARLY / STAY LATE

Gainey Ranch, 2015. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Gainey Ranch, Phoenix, 2015. 1/320 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PUBLIC SPACES OFTEN LOSE THEIR POWER AS GRAND DESIGNS once they actually are occupied by the public. If you have ever leafed through books of architectural renderings, the original drawings for squares, plazas, office buildings or other mass gathering places, the elegance of their patterns is apparent in a way that they cease to be, once they are teeming with commuters or customers.

This doesn’t mean that humans “spoil” the art of architecture, however, the overlay of drama and tension created by the presence of huge hordes of people definitely distracts from an appreciation of the beauty that is so clean and clear in a place’s sketch phase. Photographically, people as design objects tend to steal the scene, if you will, making public settings less dramatic in some ways. That’s why I like to make images of such locales when they are essentially empty, since it forces the eye to see design as the dominant story in the picture. I suppose that I’m channeling the great designers and illustrators that influenced me as a young would-be comic book artist. It’s a matter of emphasis. While other kids worked on rendering their superheroes’ muscles and capes correctly, I wanted to draw Metropolis right.

I recently began driving to various mega-resorts in the Phoenix, Arizona area to capture scenes in either early morning or late afternoon. Some are grand in their ambition, and more than a few are plain over-the-top vulgar, but sometimes I find that just working with the buildings and landscaping as a designer might have originally imagined them can be surprising. Taking places which were meant to accommodate large gatherings of people, then extracting said people, forces the eye to align itself with the original designer’s idea without compromise. Try it, and you may also find that coming early or staying late at a public area gives you a different photographic perspective on a site. At any rate, it’s another exercise in re-seeing, or forcing yourself to visualize a familiar thing eccentrically.


PRESERVING THE PERCEPTION

Your memory tells you that this space is more like a "library" than a "drug store", unless you live in a much nicer neighborhood than mine.

Your memory tells you that this space is more like a “library” than a “drug store”, unless you live in a much nicer neighborhood than mine.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS AN OLD ADVERTISING MAXIM that the first person to introduce a product to market becomes the “face” of all versions of that product forever, no matter who else enters as a competitor. Under this thinking, all soda generically becomes a Coke; all facial tissues are Kleenexes: and no matter who made your office copier, you use it to make…Xeroxes. The first way we encounter something often becomes the way we “see” it, maybe forever.

Photography is shorthand for what takes much longer to explain verbally, and sometimes the first way we visually present something “sticks” in our head, becoming the default image that “means” that thing. Architecture seems to send that signal with certain businesses, certainly. When I give you Doric columns and gargoyles, you are a lot likelier to think courthouse than doghouse. If I show you panes of reflective glass, large open spaces and stark light fixtures, you might sift through your memory for art gallery sooner than you would for hardware store. It’s just the mind’s convenient filing system for quickly identifying previous files, and it can be a great tool for your photography as well.

As a shooter, you can sell the idea of a type of space based on what your viewer expects it to look like, and that could mean that you shoot an understated or even tightly composed, partial view of it, secure in the knowledge that people’s collective memory will provide any missing data. Being sensitive to what the universally accepted icons of a thing are means you can abbreviate or abstract its presentation without worrying about losing impact.

Photography can be at its most effective when you can say more and more with less and less. You just have to know how much to pare away and still preserve the perception.

 


THE GEOMETRY OF VIEW

Information, Please, 2014.

Information, Please, 2014. 1/60 sec., f/3.5, ISO 160, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO APPREHEND THE OVERALL DESIGN OF A SPACE, be it a midtown skyscraper or a suburban cathedral, is to see it the way the designer originally envisioned it; as a logical arrangement of spaces and shapes. Sometimes, viewing the layout of floors, lobbies, or courtyards from the top-down, or “bird’s-eye” view of the original design sketches is especially helpful, since it takes our eye far enough away from a thing to appreciate its overall conception. It’s also not a bad thing for a photographer to do when trying to capture common spaces in a new way. Move your camera, change your view, change the outcome of your images.

The overarching vision for a place can be lost at ground, or “worker bee” level, in the horizontal plane along which we walk and arrange our viewpoint. Processing our understanding of architecture laterally can only take us so far, but it almost seems too simple to suggest that we shift that processing just by changing where we stand. And yet you will invariably learn something compositionally different just by forcing yourself to visualize your subjects from another vantage point.

I’m not suggesting that the only way to shake up your way of seeing big things is to climb to the top floor and look down. Or descend to the basement and look up, for that matter. Sometimes it just means shooting a familiar thing from a fresh angle that effectively renders it unfamiliar, and therefore reinvents it to your eye. It can happen with a different lens, a change in the weather, a different time of day. The important thing is that we always ask ourselves, almost as a reflex, whether we have explored every conceivable way to interpret a given space.

Each fresh view of something re-orders its geometry in some way, and we have to resist the temptation to make much the same photographs of a thing that everyone else with a camera has always done. We’re not in the postcard business, so we’re not supposed to be in the business of assuring people with safe depictions of things, either. Photography is about developing a vision, then ripping it up, taping it back together out-of-order, shredding that, and assembling it anew, again and again. In a visual medium, any other approach will just make us lazy and make our art flat and dull.


ANATOMY OF A BOTCH

This murky mess is barely tolerable in monochrome. 1/25 sec., f/3.5, ISO 1250, 18mm.

This murky mess is barely tolerable in monochrome. 1/25 sec., f/3.5, ISO 1250, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE SHOULD BE A MIRROR-IMAGE, “NEGATIVE” COOKBOOK FOR EVERY REGULAR ONE PUBLISHED, since there are recipes for inedible failures, just as surely as there are ones for gustatory delights. It might be genuinely instructive to read an article called How To Turn A Would-Be Apple Pie Into A Shapeless Heap Of Glop or You, Too Can Make Barbecue Ribs Look Like The Aftermath Of A Cremation. So too, in photography, I believe I could easily pen an essay called How To Take Pictures That Make It Seem That You Never Touched A Camera Before. 

In fact…..

In recent days, I’ve been giving myself an extra welt or two with the flagellation belt in horrified reaction to a shoot that I just flat-out blew.It was a walk through a classic hotel lobby, a real “someday” destination for myself that I finally got to visit and wanted eagerly to photograph. Thing is, none of that desire made it into the frames. Nor did any sense of drama, art, composition, or the basics of even seeing. It’s rare that you crank off as many shots as I did on a subject and wind up with a big steaming pile of nothing to show for it, but in this case, I seem to have been all thumbs, including ten extra ones where my toes should be.

So, if I were to write a negative recipe for a shoot, it would certainly contain a few vital tips:

First, make sure you know nothing about the subject you’re shooting. I mean, why would you waste your valuable time learning about the layout or history of a place when you can just aimlessly wander around and whale away? Maybe you’ll get lucky. Yeah, that’s what makes great photographs, luck.

Enjoy the delightful surprise of discovering that there is less light inside your location than inside the fourth basement of a coal mine. Feel free to lean upon your camera to supply what you don’t have, i.e., a tripod or a brain. Crank up the ISO and make sure that you get something on the sensor, even if it’s goo and grit. And shoot near any windows you have, since blowouts look so artsy contrasted with pitch blackness.

Resist the urge to have any plan or blueprint for your shooting. Hey, you’re an artist. The brilliance will just flow as you sweep your camera around. Be spontaneous. Or clueless. Or maybe you can’t tell the difference.

Stir vigorously and for an insane length of time with a photo processing program, trying to manipulate your way to a useful image. You won’t get there, but life is a journey, right? Even when you’re hopelessly lost in a deep dark forest.

************************

You could say that I’m being too Catholic about this, and I would counter that I’m not being Catholic enough.

Until I do penance.

Gotta go back someday and do it right.

And make something that really cooks.

 


THE JOY OF BEING UNIMPORTANT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE AT LEAST TWO WOMEN IN MY LIFE WHO WORRY if I am sufficiently entertained whenever I am borne along on their ventures into various holy lands of retail. Am I waiting too long? Am I bored at being brought along? Would I like to go somewhere else and rejoin them later at an appointed time and place?

Answers: No to questions 1, 2 and 3…so long as I have my hands on a camera.

I can’t tell you how many forays into shoe emporiums, peeks into vintage stores and rambles through ready-to-wear shops have provided me with photographic material, mainly because no one would miss me if I were to disappear for a bit, or for several days. And, as I catalogue some of the best pickings I’ve plucked from these random wanderings, I find that many of them were made possible by the simple question, “do you mind amusing yourself while I try this on?” Ah, to have no authority or mission! To let everything pale in importance when compared to the eager search for pictures! To be of so little importance that you are let off the leash.

DSC_0435

The above image happened because I was walking with my wife on the lower east side of Manhattan but merely as physical accompaniment. She was looking for an address. I was looking for, well, anything, including this young man taking his cig break several stories above the sidewalk. He was nicely positioned between two periods of architecture and centered in the urban zigzag of a fire escape. Had I been on an errand of my own, chances are I would have passed him by. As I was very busy doing nothing at all, I saw him.

Of course, there will be times when gadding about is only gadding about, when you can’t bring one scintilla of wisdom to a scene, when the light miracles don’t reveal themselves. Those are the times when you wish you had pursued that great career as a paper boy, been promoted to head busboy, or ascended to the lofty office of assistant deacon. I’m telling you: shake off that doubt, and celebrate the glorious blessing of being left alone…to imagine, to dream, to leave the nest, to fail, to reach, to be.

Photography is about breaking off with the familiar, with the easy. It’s also having the luck to break off from the pack.


ON THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW

1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

New & Beaver, 2014. 1/200 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE NARROW STREETS OF LOWER MANHATTAN WERE NEVER DESIGNED TO ACCOMMODATE the claustrophobic jam of commerce, foot traffic and skyscrapers that have characterized the neighborhood since the early 20th century. I should back that up and acknowledge that, for some locals, the streets of lower Manhattan were never designed,period. New York’s growth has always come in rangy spurts and jolts, much like a gangly adolescent that shoots upward and outward overnight without any apparent plan, and yet, those unruly explosions are also what delight the photographer’s eye and make the city an inexhaustible laboratory for technique.

Shooting down the slits that pass for side streets and alleys in lower Manhattan is enough to make even the most seasoned native feel like he or she is being shut up in a tomb, but I am drawn to going even further, and over-emphasizing the extreme dimensions peculiar to the area. That, for me, means shooting with as wide a lens as I have handy, distortion be damned. Actually, it’s distortion be welcomed, since I think that the horizontal lines of the buildings create a much more dramatic lead-in for the eye as they race far away from the foreground. And since ultra-wide magnify front-to-back distances, the bigness and closeness of the city is jacked into a real exaggeration, but one that serves my purpose.

It helps to crouch down and tilt up when composing the shot, and to make sure that you don’t crop passersby out of the shot, since they will add to the drama even more as indications of scale. I have certainly gone too far more than once and rendered rectangular buildings into futuristic trapezoids, but the aim of each image will dictate what you’re going for. Also, in many of these shots, I decide, after much dithering, to choose monochrome over color, but I always shoot the originals in color, since they respond better to re-contrasting once they’re desaturated.

The magic about Manhattan is that no camera can ever tame her or show all her beauty and/or ugliness. It’s somthing of a fool’s errand to try to take the picture of NYC. Better to take a picture you like and add it to the ongoing story.


THE AGE OF ELEGANCE

The Mount, Edith Wharton's Berskshire Estate, now a working museum.

The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Berskshire Estate, now a working museum.

If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.——Edith Wharton

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LONG BEFORE HER NOVELS THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, ETHAN FROME, AND THE HOUSE OF MIRTH made her the most successful writer in America, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was the nation’s first style consultant, a Victorian Martha Stewart if you will. Her 1897   book, The Decoration Of Houses, was more than a few dainty gardening and housekeeping tips; it was a philosophy for living within space, a kind of bible for combining architecture and aesthetics. Her ideas survive in tangible form today, midst the leafy hills of Lenox Massachusetts, in the Berkshire estate her family knew as “The Mount”.

.

A world apart.

Wharton only occupied the house from 1902 to 1911, but in that time established it as an elegant salon for guests that included Henry James and other literary luminaries. Although based on several classical styles, the house is a subtle and sleek counter to the cluttered bric-a-brac and scrolled busyness of European design. Even today, the house seems oddly modern, lighter somehow than many of the robber-baron mansions of the period. Many of its original furnishings went with Wharton when she moved to Europe, and have been replicated by restorers, often beautifully. But is in the essential framing and fixtures of the old house that the writer-artist speaks, and that is what led me to do something fairly rare for me, a photo essay, seen at the top of this page in the menu tab Edith Wharton At The Mount. 

The images on this special page don’t feature modern signage, tour groups, or contemporary conveniences, as I attempt to present just the basic core of the estate, minus the unavoidable concessions to time. The house features, at present, an appealing terrace cafe, a sunlit gift store, and a restored main kitchen, as part of the conversion of the mansion into a working museum. I made no images of those updates, since they cannot conjure 1902 anymore than a Mazerati can capture the feel of a Stutz-Bearcat. The pictures are made with available light only, and have not been manipulated in any way, with the exception of the final shot of the home as seen from its rear gardens, which is a three-exposure HDR, my attempt to rescue the detail of the grounds on a heavily overcast day.

Take a moment to click the page and enter, if only for a moment, Edith Wharton’s age of elegance.

 


TAKING FLIGHT ONCE MORE

The Aerodrome, 2014. 1/30 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 35mm.

The Aerodrome, 2014. 1/30 sec., f/3.5, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE CHARGES GIVEN TO ALL PHOTOGRAPHERS IS TO MARK THE PASSAGE OF TIME, to chronicle and record, to give testimony to a rapidly vanishing world. Certainly interpretation, fantasy, and other original conceptions are equally important for shooters, but there has been a kind of unspoken responsibility to use the camera to bear witness. This is especially difficult in a world bent on obliterating memory, of dismantling the very sites of history.

Humorist and historian Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, One Summer: America 1927 frames the amazing news stories of its title year around its most singular event, the solo transatlantic flight of Charles A. Lindbergh. A sad coda to the story reveals that nothing whatever remains of Roosevelt Field, the grassy stretch on Long Island from which the Lone Eagle launched himself into immortality, with the exception of  a small plaque mounted on the back of an escalator in the mall that bears the field’s name. Last week, hauled along on a shopping trip to the mall with relatives, I made my sad pilgrimage to said plaque, lamenting, as Bryson did, that there is nothing more to photograph of the place where the world changed forever.

Then I got a little gift.

The mall is under extensive renovation as I write this, and much of the first floor ceiling has been stripped back to support beams, electrical systems and structural gridwork. Framed against the bright bargains in the mall shops below, it’s rather ugly, but, seen as a whimsical link to the Air Age, it gave me an idea. All wings of the Roosevelt Field mall feature enormous skylights, and several of them occur smack in the middle of some of the construction areas. Composing a frame with just these two elements, a dark, industrial space and a light, airy radiance, I could almost suggest the inside of a futuristic aerodrome or hangar, a place of bustling energy sweeping up to an exhilarating launch hatch. To get enough detail in this extremely contrasty pairing, and yet not add noise to the darker passages, I stayed at ISO 100, but slowed to 1/30 sec. and a shutter setting of f/3.5. I still had a near-blowout of the skylight, saving just the grid structure, but I was really losing no useful detail I needed beyond blue sky. Easy choice.

Thus, Roosevelt Field, for me, had taken wing again, if only for a moment, in a visual mash-up of Lindbergh, Flash Gordon, Han Solo, and maybe even The Rocketeer. In aviation, the dream’s always been the thing anyway.

And maybe that’s what photography is really for…trapping dreams in a box.


7/4/14: A MORE PERFECT UNION

The Washington Memorial, 2013. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 28mm.

Washington Memorial, 2013. 1/400 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 28mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MY FATHER CAN TESTIFY TO MY NATIVE, AND LIFELONG IMPATIENCE. While most kids learned to be told how to “mind”, I had to be taught how to wait. “It’s a process”, he would remark when I fumed about how long something I wanted was taking to come about, “not a product”. I willingly admit that he is much more Zen than I can ever be, infinitely better at the wait-and-see thing. I have developed a little long vision in my later years, but I am still like a lab rat. I keep punching the bar, ’cause I want that bloody biscuit now.

Oddly, photography has taught me a few things about waiting, as has my native optimism about the country of my birth. The Fourth of July is not, however, a day typically spent in quiet contemplation, but in exuberant celebration of how unique our story is in the history of the world. But, for me, Independence Day is for taking measure, walking off the distance on the chain that stretches between What We’ve Done and What We Have Yet To Do. In America, we’re always 3rd and 4, looking for the next first down. We are never, and can never, be finished.

I think I prefer the above image of the Washington Monument, which I took last year during its restoration, to an image of the obelisk without its temporary scaffolding, and it’s because it reminds me that freedom is always being refined, reworked, re-earned. The race goes ever on. Similarly, I love photos of the U.S. Capitol during its construction phase far more than shots of the finished product. The building’s dome teetered between being-ness and nothing-ness all through the Civil War, a visually indelible barometer of the changing fortunes of Washington itself as the battle raged on, often just outside the city limits. Seeing the Washington Monument sheathed in wood carries the same visual weight for me. It’s like we haven’t quite taken it out of the packing crate. There’s a temporary, even endangered quality to the building that should stay with us, at least a little, as we go on with our labors.

America is beautiful. But along the way, the old girl benefits from a nip here and a tuck there. We show we care when we keep trying to make her flawless. When we do that, all the penny fireworks in the world can’t compete with the glow, a torch bright enough to light the world.

It’s a process…not a product.

 


INS AND OUTS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHEN IT COMES TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ART, THE WORD “ABSTRACT” IS PROBABLY THE MOST BATTED-ABOUT LINGUISTIC SHUTTLECOCK OF THE 20TH CENTURY, something we lob at each other across the conversational net as it suits our mood. Whenever we feel we should weigh in on a matter of artistic heft, especially something that doesn’t fit into a conveniently familiar cubbyhole, we drag “abstract” out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and cram it into place somewhere in the argument.

Frames within frames within frames: 1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Frames within frames within frames: 1/125 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Any talk of architecture, and the photographer’s reaction to it, attracts a lot of stray “abstracts”, since attaching the word seems to settle… something. However, art can never be about settling anything. In fact, it’s about churning things up, starting, rather than resolving, arguments. As pieces of pure design, finished buildings do make a statement of sorts about the architect’s view, at least. But when trolling about town, I am more drawn to incomplete or skeletal frameworks for buildings yet to be. They are simply open to greater interpretation as visual subject matter, since we haven’t, if you like, seen all the architect’s cards yet. The emerging project can, for a time, be anything, depending literally on where you stand or how light shapes the competing angles and contours.

I feel that open or unfinished spaces are really ripe with an infinite number of framings, since a single uncompleted wall gives way so openly to all the other planes and surfaces in the design, a visual diagram that will soon be closed up, sealed off, sequestered from view. And as for the light, there is no place it cannot go, so you can chase the tracking of shadows all day long, as is possible with, say, the Grand Canyon, giving the same composition drastically different flavors in just the space of a few hours.

If the word “abstract” has any meaning at all at this late date, you could say that it speaks to a variation, a reworking of the dimensions of what we consider reality. Beyond that, I need hip waders. However, I believe that emerging buildings represent an opportunity for photographers to add their own vision to the architect’s, however briefly.

Whew. Now let’s all go out get a drink. 


ON THE NOSE (AND OFF)

I had originally shot the organ loft at Columbus, Ohio's St. Joseph Cathedral in a centered, "straight on" composition. I like this variation a little better. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 1000, 18mm.

I had originally shot the organ loft at Columbus, Ohio’s St. Joseph Cathedral in a centered, “straight on” composition. I like this variation a little better. 1/40 sec., f/3.5, ISO 1000, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AMONG THE GROUPS INVITING FLICKR USERS TO POST PHOTOGRAPHS OF A CERTAIN THEME OR TYPE, there is a group called, “This Should Be A Postcard”, apparently composed of images that are so iconically average that they resemble mass-produced tourist views of scenic locales. The name of this group puzzles me. I mean, if you called it, “Perfectly Ordinary, Non-Offensive and Safe Pictures of Over-Visited Places”, people would write you off as a troll, but I’d at least give you points for accuracy. It’s hard to understand why any art would aspire to look like something that is almost deliberately artless.

And still, it is perceived as a compliment to one’s work to be told that it “looks just like a postcard”, and, I swear, when I hear that remark about one of my own images, my first reaction is to wipe said image from the face of the earth, since that phrase means that it is (a)average, (b) unambitious), (c) unimaginative, or (d) a mere act of “recording”. Look, here’s the famous place. It looks just like you expect it to, taken from the angle that you’re accustomed to, lit, composed and executed according to a pre-existing conception of what it’s “supposed” to be. How nice.

And how unlike anything photography is supposed to be about.

This conditioning we all have to render the “official” view of well-known subjects can only lead to mediocrity and risk aversion. After all, a postcard is tasteful, perfect, symmetrical, orderly. And eventually, dull. Thankfully, the infusion of millions of new photographers into the mainstream in recent years holds the potential cure for this bent. The young will simply not hold the same things (or ways to view them) in any particular awe, and so they won’t even want to create a postcard, or anyone else’s version of one. They will shudder at the very thought of being “on the nose”.

I rail against the postcard because, over a lifetime, I have so shamelessly aspired to it, and have only been able to let go of the fantasy after becoming disappointed with myself, then unwilling to keep recycling the same approach to subject matter even one more time. For me, it was a way of gradually growing past the really formalized methods I had as a child. And it’s not magic.Even a slight variation in approach to “big” subjects, as in the above image, can stamp at least a part of yourself onto the results, and so, it’s a good thing to get the official shot out of the way early on in a shoot, then try every other approach you can think of. Chances are, your keeper will be in one of the non-traditional approaches.

Postcards say of a location, wish you were here. Photographs, made by you personally, point to your mind and say, “consider being here.”


RESTORING THE INVISIBLE

The Wyandotte Building (1897), Columbus, Ohio's first true skyscaper, seen here in a three-exposure HDR composite.

as[e The Wyandotte Building (1897), Columbus, Ohio’s first true skyscaper, seen here in a three-exposure HDR composite.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE BEST RESPONSES TO THE DIZZYING SPEED OF CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE. It is, in fact, because of a photograph’s ability to isolate time, to force our sustained view of fleeting things, that image-making is valuable as a seeing device that counteracts the mad rush of our “real time” lives. Looking into a picture lets us deal with very specific slices of time, to slowly take the measure of things that, although part of our overall sensory experience, are rendered invisible in the blur of our living.

I find that, once a compelling picture has been made of something that is familiar but unnoticed, the ability to see the design and detail of life is restored in the viewing of that thing. Frequently, in making an image of something that we are too busy to notice, the thing takes on a startlingly new aspect. That’s why I so doggedly pursue architectural subjects, in the effort to make us regard how much of our motives and ideals are captured in buildings. They stand as x-rays into our minds, revealing not only what we wanted in creating them, but what we actually created as they were realized.

In writing a book, several years ago, about a prominent midwestern skyscraper*, I was struck by how very personal these objects were…to the magnates who commissioned them, to the architects who brought them forth, and to the people in their native cities who took a kind of ownership of them. In short, the best of them were anything but mere objects of stone and steel. They imparted a personality to their surroundings.

The building pictured here, Columbus, Ohio’s 1897 Wyandotte Building, was designed by Daniel Burnham, the genius architect who spearheaded the birth of the modern steel skeleton skyscraper, heading up Chicago’s “new school” of architecture and overseeing the creation of the famous “White City” exposition of 1893. It is a magnificent montage of his ideals and vision for a burgeoning new kind of American city. As something thousand walk past every day, it is rendered strangely “invisible”, but a photograph can compensate for our haste, allowing us the luxury of contemplation.

As photographers, we can bring a particularly keen kind of witnessing to the buildings that make up our environment, no less than if we were to document the carvings and decorative design on an Egyptian sarcophagus. Architectural photography can help us extract the magic, the aims of a society, and experimenting with various methods for rendering their texture and impact can lead to some of the most powerful imagery created within a camera.

 

*Leveque: The First Complete Story Of Columbus’ Greatest Skyscraper, Michael A. Perkins, 2004. Available in standard print and Kindle editions through Amazon and other online bookstores.