by MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN A CAMERA’S CHIEF FUNCTION IS TO BEAR WITNESS, TO ASSERT THAT SOMETHING FANTASTIC REALLY DID EXIST IN THE WORLD. Of course, most photography is a recording function, but, awash in a sea of infinite options, it is what we choose to see and celebrate that makes an image either mundane or majestic.
And then sometimes, you just have the great good luck to wander past something wonderful. With a camera in your hand.
The New York Public Library’s main mid-town Manhattan branch is beyond magnificent, as even a casual visit will attest. However, its beauty always seems to me like just “the front of the store”, a controlled-access barrier between its visually stunning common areas and “the good stuff” lurking in untold chambers, locked vaults and invisible enclaves in the other 2/3 of the building. I expect these two worlds to be forever separate and distinct, much as I don’t expect to ever see the control room for electrical power at Disneyland. But the unseen fascinates, and recently, I was given a marvelous glimpse into the other side at the NYPL.
A recent exhibit of Mary Surratt art prints, wall-mounted along the library’s second-floor hall, was somehow failing to mesmerize me when, through a glass office window, I peeked into a space that bore no resemblance whatever to a contemporary office. The whole interior of the room seemed to hang suspended in time. It consisted of a solitary woman, her back turned to the outside world, seated at a dark, simple desk, intently poring over a volume, surrounded by dark, loamy, ceiling-to-floor glass-paneled book shelves along the side and back walls of the room. The whole scene was lit by harsh white light from a single window, illuminating only selective details of another desk nearer the window, upon which sat a bust of the head of Michelangelo’s David, an ancient framed portrait, a brass lamp . I felt like I had been thrown backwards into a dutch-lit painting from the 1800’s, a scene rich in shadows, bathed in gold and brown, a souvenir of a bygone world.
I felt a little guilty stealing a few frames, since I am usually quite respectful of people’s privacy. In fact, had the woman been aware of me, I would not have shot anything, as my mere perceived presence, however admiring, would have felt like an invasion, a disturbance. However, since she was oblivious to not only me, but, it seemed, to all of Planet Earth 2013, I almost felt like I was photographing an image that had already been frozen for me by an another photographer or painter. I increased my Nikon’s sensitivity just enough to get an image, letting the light in the room fall where it may, allowing it to either bless or neglect whatever it chose to. In short, the image didn’t need to be a faithful rendering of objects, but a dutiful recording of feeling.
How came this room, this computer-less, electricity-less relic of another age preserved in amber, so tantalizingly near to the bustle of the current day, so intact, if out of joint with time? What are those books along the walls, and how did they come to be there? Why was this woman chosen to sit at her sacred, private desk, given lone audience with these treasures? The best pictures pose more questions than they answer, and only sparingly tell us what they are “about”. This one, simply, is “about” seeing a woman in a time machine. Alice through the looking-glass.
A peek inside the rest of the store.
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THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.