By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE HAVE DEFINITELY BEEN TIMES IN MY LIFE when I have actually craved the special kind of loneliness that Arizona has in abundance. This is a place where brain-boggling chasms of space can exist between society and desolation, between boom and bust. The contrast is stark with a capital, well, stark. If you want to get lost, I mean good and lost, like vanished-off-the-freaking-map lost, Arizona’s vast, starched plains and heat-blasted mesquite are your solution. Other times there is such a sharp edge between lots of something and all kinds of nothing that you can almost feel despair chewing around the edges of your contentment like a termite on a bender.
Photographically, you can either celebrate Arizona’s chest-thumping pride in the survival of the individual or lament the sense of isolation underscored by its lunar landscapes….or both. An image that thrills one person with a sensation of unfettered freedom can make another individual feel like the state has abandoned him or her by the side of a dusty road to no place.
In the case of the above image, it could go either way. The buildings here do not constitute the entire business district of downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, but they’re damned close. One thing that’s absolutely true is that there isn’t much on either side of the town’s main stem that feels…town–like. Yes, the municipality has a few small supporting streets, peppered with a smattering of residences and small shops, but Cottonwood is essentially a brief, linear dash in the middle of an endless paragraph about emptiness. To some shooters, (sometimes me) this is an enlistment poster for personal liberty, with the land always having the last say in any discussion. For others (again, sometimes me), it’s a reminder that, in a face-off between man and the West, the West has a decided, even unfair edge. Showing both of these stories within a single picture, however, isn’t necessarily a conflict in terms.
Photography addresses extremes, and often in a frustratingly ambiguous fashion. But show me an art where that doesn’t happen.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF SUBURBAN SPRAWL, beyond the obscene commercial eye pollution, the devastation of open space, and the friendless isolation, is the absolute soulless-ness of the places we inhabit. The nowheres that we live in are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are. Move three miles and the cycle has repeated. Same Shell stations, same Wal-Marts, same banal patterns.
The title of a classic book on the passing of the star era of Hollywood could also be the story of the end of the great American house: They Had Faces Then.
I believe that the best old houses possess no less a living spirit than the people who live inside them. As a photographer, I seek out mish-mosh neighborhoods, residential blocks that organically grew over decades without a “master plan” or overseeing developer. Phoenix, Arizona is singular because, within its limits, there are, God knows, endless acres of some of the most self-effacing herdblocks created by the errant hand of man, but also some of the best pre-WWII neighborhoods, divine zones where houses were allowed to sprout, erupt, and just happen regardless of architectural period, style, or standard. It is the wild west realized in stucco.
When I find these clutches of houses, I don’t just shoot them, I idealize them, bathing the skies above them in azure Kodachrome warmth, amping up the earth tones of their exteriors, emphasizing their charming symmetries. Out here in the Easy-Bake oven of the desert, that usually means a little post-production tweaking with contrasts and colors, but I work to keep the homes looking as little like fantasies and as much like objects of desire as I can.
One great tool I have found for this is Photmatix, the HDR software program. However, instead of taking multiple exposures and blending them into an HDR, I take one fairly balanced exposure, dupe it, darken one frame, lighten the other, and process the final in the Tone Compression program. It gives you an image that is somewhat better than reality, but without the Game of Thrones fantasy overkill of HDR.
Photography is partly about finding something to shoot, and partly about finding the best way to render what you saw (or what you visualized). And sometimes it’s all about revealing faces.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
IN 1956, ARCHITECT PAOLO SOLERI BEGAN THE FIRST MINIATURE DEMONSTRATION OF WHAT WOULD BECOME HIS LIFE’S WORK, an experimental, self-contained, sustainable community he called Cosanti. Erecting a humble home just miles from his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, in what was then the wide-open desert town of Paradise Valley, Arizona, he started sand-casting enormous concrete domes to serve as the initial building blocks of a new kind of ecological architecture. And, over the next half-century, even as Soleri would call Paradise Valley his home, he would construct bigger versions of his dream city, now renamed Arcosanti, on a vast patch of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
The project, which at his death in 2013 was still unrealized, was funded over the years by the sales of Soleri’s custom fired bronze and clay wind bells, which became prized by Arizona visitors from all over the world. At present, his early dwellings still stand, as do the twisting, psychedelic paths and concrete arches that house his smelting forges, his kilns, the Cosanti visitor center, and a strange spirit of both wonder and dashed dreams. It is a magnificent ruin, a mad and irresistible mixture of textures for photographers.
Name the kind of light…….brilliant sun, partial shade, catacomb-like shadows, and you’ve got it. Name the material, from wood to stone to concrete to stained glass, and it’s there. The terrain of the place, even though it’s now surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions, still bears the lunar look of a far-flung outpost. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright in The Shire. It’s Fred Flintstone meets Dune. It continues to be a bell factory, and a working architectural foundation. And it’s one of my favorite playgrounds for testing lenses, flexing my muscles, trying stuff. It always acts as a reboot on my frozen brain muscles, a place to un-stall myself.
Here’s to mad dreamers, and the contagion of their dreams.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE SCIENCE OF SECONDS. The seconds when the light plays past you. The seconds when the joy explodes. The seconds when maybe the building explodes, or the plane crashes. The micro moments of emotion’s arrivals and departures. Here it comes. There it goes. Click.
We are very good with the comings….the beginnings of babies, the opening of a rose, the blooming of a surprised smile. However, as chroniclers of effect, we often forget to also document the goings of life. The ends of things. The moment when the party’s over.
Christmas is a time of supreme comings and goings, and we have more than a month of ramp-up time each year during which we snap away at what is on the way. The gatherings and the gifts. The approaching joy. But a holiday this big leaves echoes and vacuums when it goes away, and those goings are photo opportunities as well.
This year, on 12/26, the predictably melancholy “morning after” found me driving around completely without pattern or design, looking for something of the magic day that had departed. I spun past the abandoned ruin of one of those temporary Christmas tree lots that sprout in the crevices of every city like gypsy camps for about three weeks out of the year, and something about all its emptiness said picture to me, so I got out and started bargaining with a makeshift cyclone fence for a view of the poles, lights and unloved fir branches left behind.
The earliness of the hour meant that the light was a little warmer and kinder than would be the case later on in the bleached-out white of an Arizona midday, so the scene was about as nice as it was going to get. But what I was really after was the energy that goes out of things the day the circus drives out of town. The holidays are ripe with that feeling of loss, and, to me, it’s at least as interesting as recording the joy. Without a little tragedy you don’t appreciate triumph, and all that. Christmas trees are just such an obvious measure of that flow: one day you’re selling magic by the foot, the next day you’re packing up trash and trailer and making your exit.
Photographs come when they come, and, unlike us, they aren’t particular about what their message is. They just present chances to see.
Precious chances, as it turns out.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA’S SOUTHWESTERN STATES COME EQUIPPED WITH SOME OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY TO BE HAD ANYWHERE ON EARTH; jutting crags, yawning canyons, vast valleys, and more sky than you’ve ever seen anywhere. Photographically, the mountains, mesas and arroyos deliver on drama pretty much year-round, while the sky can be an endless expanse of, well, not much, really. Compositionally, this means rolling the horizon line in your framing pretty far toward the top, crowding out a fairly unbroken and featureless ocean of blue….except for more humid summer months, when cloud formations truly steal the scene.
It’s true: as the storm season (sometimes called the “monsoon”, for reasons that escape me) accompanies the year’s highest temperatures in desert regions, rolling, boiling billows of clouds add texture, drama, even a sense of scale to skies in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and California. It’s like getting free props for whatever photographic theatre you care to stage, and it often makes sense to rotate your horizon line back toward the bottom of the frame to give the sky show top billing.
Early photographers often augmented the skies in their seascapes and mountain views by layering multiple glass negatives, one containing ground features, the other crammed with “decorator” clouds. The same effect was later achieved in the darkroom during the film era. Hey, any way you get to the finish line. Suffice it to say that the harvest of mile-high cloud banks is particularly high in the desert states’ summer seasons, and can fill the frame with enough impact to render everything else as filler.
I still marvel at the monochrome masterpiece by Life magazine’s Andreas Feininger, Texaco Station, Route 66, Seligman, Arizona, 1947, which allows the sky overhead to dwarf the photo’s actual subject, creating a marvelous feeling of both space and scale. I first saw this photo as a boy, and am not surprised to see it re-printed over the decades in every major anthology of Life’s all-time greatest images. It’s a one-image classroom, as all the best pictures always are. For more on Feininger’s singular gift for composition, click the “related articles” link below.
Big Sky country yields drama all along the America southwest. And all you really have to do is point.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Photography Monograph (conordoylephoto.wordpress.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.
We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.
As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.
It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.
McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.
Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.
What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.
Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.
Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I TRAVEL, A STRANGE PHENOMENON OCCURS. We will be standing on the exact same geographic coordinates, pointing separate cameras in generally the same general area. And, invariably when she gets her first look at the pictures I took on that day, I will hear the following:
Where was THAT? I don’t remember seeing that!? Where was I?
Of course, we see differently, as do any two shooters. Some things that are blaring red fire alarms to one of us are invisible, below the radar, to the other. And of course we are both right. And valid. Admittedly, I do seem to come back with more strange, off-to-the-side-of-the road oddities than Marian does, but that may be due more to my wildly spasmodic attention span than any real or rare “vision”. Lots of it comes because I consciously trying to overcome the numbing experience of driving in a car. I have to work harder to take notice of the unconventional when repeatedly tracking back and forth,day after day, down routine driving routes. Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also fosters artificial blindness. The “outliers” within five miles of your own house should glow like fluorescent paint….but often they seem cloaked by a kind of habit-dulled camo.
Once detected, outliers don’t quite fit within their neighboring context. The last Victorian gingerbread home in a clutch of tract houses. The old local movie theatre reborn as a Baptist church. Or, in a place like Phoenix, Arizona, where urban development is not only unbridled but seemingly random, the rare “undeveloped” lot, crammed between more familiar symbols of sprawl.
The above image is such an outlier. It’s about an acre-and-a-half of wild trees bookended by a firehouse,
a row of ranch houses, and a busy four-lane street. Everything else on the block screams “settled turf”, while this strange stretch of twisted trunks looks like it was dropped in from some fairy realm. At least that’s what it says to me.
My first instinct in cases like this is to get out and shoot, attempting, as I go, to place the outlier in its own uncluttered context. Everything else around my “find” must be rendered visually irrelevant, since it adds nothing to the image, and, in fact, can diminish what I’m after. Sometimes I also tweak my own color mix, since natural hues also may not get my idea across.
Even after all this, I often find that there is no real revelation to be had, and I must chalk the entire thing up to practice. Occasionally, I come back with something to show my wife. And I know I have struck gold if the first thing out of her mouth is, “Where is THAT?”
To paraphrase the old proverb, behind every great man is a woman who rightfully asks, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Sometimes I have an answer….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE’S A REASON BATMAN DOESN’T SWING THROUGH THE SKY AT HIGH NOON. Or that Shakespeare didn’t have his witches crowded around a cauldron during the mid-morning coffee break. And, of course, there are no love ballads bearing the title By The Light Of The Silvery…Sun. Mood is everything in photography and many subjects just don’t convey mystery or romance when brightly lit. This is no truer anywhere else than in the American southwest.
In Arizona, New Mexico, and California, there are plenty of places where the sun blazes away like a Hollywood klieg light during most of the day. The light is harsh, white, glaring. By mid-morning across the summer months most of the richer colors are blasted right out of the sky, and the only way to capture beauty is to wait for the hours warmed by low light.
Or no light.
I’ve always been a big believer in the transformation of familiar materials once night falls, and, going back to my old baby box camera days, I have always marveled at the simple miracle of holding a shutter open long enough to wring a few extra drops of light—just enough–from the deepening dark. I call it waiting for the reveal, and it never fails to serve up surprises.
One night last week, I was waiting on the sunset to fully finish behind a destination restaurant in Paradise Valley, Arizona (that’s really the name of the town…kind of like naming your city “Wonderfulville”). The front entrances and patios were gorgeous, of course, but after about a half hour I found myself getting restless with the utter postcardiness of it all. I was looking for something off the grid, forbidden even.
I found this door around the side of the resort, hidden by an overgrown, narrow walkway and illuminated by a single bleak bulb. As a location, especially in the daytime, this is no one’s idea of a choice spot. Except at this precise moment. It actually works better because of how much you can’t see, and I can’t justify shooting it at all, except that the reveal was working for me. And, while I liked the more conventional Chamber of Commerce shots I had taken earlier, there is something iffy and offbeat about this frame that I keep coming back to.
Sometimes the underdog is the best dog in the fight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE READ MORE THAN A FEW ARTICLES OF LATE by professional photographers who confess that they occasionally get stuck in teaching mode, even to the detriment of their own love of shooting. One such author went to far as to recall a recent concert he had attended, camera-less, only to observe, with snotty amusement, the attempts of a young woman to capture action on the far-off stage area. His first reaction was to disdain not only her limited camera but to catalogue all her most heinous errors in composition, exposure, and use of flash, as he mentally predicted how poor her results would be and how she was, essentially, wasting her time.
Then something shifted in his thinking. Instead of being depressed at what hadn’t worked, the woman’s energy revealed that she was actually making the most of the moment; learning, through trial and error, what to do or not do in future. At the end of his essay, he came to realize that “she is a better photographer than me”, since she was taking risks, pushing the limits of her own skills, and developing her craft, one frame at a time, while he had left his own camera at home and was learning nothing. His point hit home with me, since it is a recurring theme of this blog and a key belief among those I respect most in the imaging world.
Shoot. Shoot some more. Dare to fail. Be willing to take more “bad” pictures than the next guy. Get your head out of academic minutia and into the doing of it. Screw up, suck up, but above all, show up.
Ready to play.
Sometimes, just the sheer unwillingness to go home empty-handed provides you with real delight. Last week, I was making the rounds at an area gallery district, the type that does nightly “art walks” as a way of speed-dating potential customers. Many of the best shots I get in these surroundings are near or just after dark, and I always like peeping into the windows of shuttered businesses at night, since some key character of light and mood invariably occurs. For the shot shown above, I fell in love with one gallery that had a kind of sentry posted outside, in the form of an enormous sculpted head. Its aloof expression reminded me of a cross between Easter Island and Blue Man Group, and I really wanted him/her/it to be a part of the shot. However, I had not brought an external flash unit with me, and the sculpture was reading 100% dark in contrast to the interior of the gallery. I was desperate, but not desperate enough to use straight-on pop-up flash, which would have blown the face out completely and destroyed any chance at a moody feel.
Time to improvise.
Having left my bounce card at home as well (I was on foot and truly traveling light), I noticed that the head was underneath a low over-hanging porch roof, something you just must have on the front of an Arizona business in summer. Going totally into what-the-hell mode, I stuck my flat left hand just under the bottom of the pop-up flash and angled it upward about 15 degrees to create a crude bounce off the roof ceiling, allowing the light to soften as it came down upon the top of the head. It took a few tries to avoid creating an uber-white Aurora Borealis effect on the ceiling, and I had to move my feet around to figure out how to get some of the light to cascade down the head’s front and illuminate its features. I also had to bump the ISO up a bit to compensate for the fall-off in the flash at the distance I was standing, but, at the end, I at least got something. Moreover, like the woman at the concert, what I had picked up in technique more than compensated me for the fact that the shot wasn’t strictly an award winner.
I have been playing around with primitive flash bouncing for a while now, and the results run the gamut from god-awful to glad-I-did-that. But it’s all a win no matter how each individual shot plays out, because every image brings me closer to the cumulatively evolved instinct that, someday, will give me great pictures. The baby will eventually be born, but the midwife has to do the front-end work. Nothing I will ever shoot will be captured under perfect conditions, so why drop dead of old age waiting for that to happen? We’re almost to the end of Century Two in this game of writing with light, and all the easy pictures have already been shot, so what’s left will have to be hewed out by hand.
I suggest that we occasionally get our nose out of books (and, duh, blogs too) and start carving.