BOOKENDING THE WONDER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN ASKED BY FANS, OVER HIS LONG CAREER, “HOW THINGS WERE GOING“, Paul Desmond, the wry saxophonist for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, would often reply, “we’re playing music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is…” Glib, sure, but, in a way, the most accurate thing that can be said of art in general, and photography in particular. We are always trying to arrest the flight of things that are going away. We make our feeble attempts to capture time inside a box, a task made perpetually urgent by the fact that everything in the world is eventually heading for the wastebasket.
In recently snapping some images of the demolition of a local mall that had finally passed its historical sell-by date, I recalled that, just a few years prior, it had, out of the need for rental revenue, gotten into the annual habit of hosting a small carnival in a section of its parking lot. I wondered if the carnival itself was gone now as well, or if it merely has continued to rotate through a vast gypsy circuit of bookings by other businesses that, for one reason or another, have a rendezvous with the executioner.
I love the bizarre, crowded texture and loud color, the visual vulgarity of carnivals, fairs, and circuses, and I seem to be more aware than I should be that all three institutions are going the way of the T-Rex in a world that no longer defines entertainment in terms of gaudy neon, strange aromas, and the din of barkers. And not only are these amusements in their own cultural niche, they occupy a strangely unique place in photography.
By that I mean that many of the normal canons of good picture-making are freely abandoned once the canvas and cotton candy come to town. Compositions cannot be too cluttered. Color cannot be too garish. Normal parameters for contrast and luminescence go out the window. Even focus itself can be sacrificed at the service of sensations of immediacy or speed. Shooting rides, food booths, banners and signs means the gloves come off on all restraint. Suddenly it’s all about sensation.
But these little worlds of wonder are being bookended by a world that’s changed its idea of a “good time”, along with its definition of the forbidden or the unsavory. Pointed at such strange subjects, the camera now acts as a time machine, with more of these experiences becoming extinct. So take pictures like it’s going out of style.
Because, believe me, it is.
LIGHT ‘EM UP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.
Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.
Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.
MR. KITE HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
They’re Off And Running (2012) Ponies performing in the round at the Santa Monica Pier.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S PRINCIPLE BENEFIT IS THE STEALING AND PRESERVATION OF THE FLEETING. That was the miracle that originally astonished the world, the ability to arrest time, to selectively snatch away droplets of the infinitely flowing river of moments and keep them in a jar. And as the young art flourished and began to flex, it proved capable of not only grabbing individual instants, but chronicling the passing of entire modes of life.
As the prairie was settled, as the great distances of the planet were traversed and tamed, as the horse gave way to the car, and as the country mouse became the city mouse, photography laid down mile markers, clearly labeled “this is”, “this is going away” and “this was”. As a consequence, we now have a visual record of worlds and ways of living that have already long since gone extinct. We rifle through shared and inherited images that mark the passing of empires, fashions, movements.
This is all, of course, beyond obvious, but there are times when photographers are more keenly mindful that something big is in the process of winking out. I experienced such a moment a few days ago with the news that Ringling Brothers’ circus was shuttering its operations after more than 150 years, ringing down the curtain on a mixed record of extravaganza and exploitation, depending on where you stand on the issue. Whether circuses were a wonder or an abomination or both, they represented a distinctly analog kind of entertainment, a direct tie between sensations and senses that is one of the last traces of 19th-century culture.
Along with world’s fairs, carnivals, vaudeville, even rodeo, the circus serves as a strange relic of a time when the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon or the pitching of the Chautauqua tent could be the height of the social season in many a town. The visually rich pageant of having dozens of clowns, acrobats, and performing beasts parade right down your main street was, in the days before mass media, pretty heady stuff, and, even at its twilight, it still has a powerful, if quaint, pull on the imagination. All of this is fertile ground for the photographer/chronicler.
It’s now fifty years since John Lennon transcribed the text from an old circus poster to evoke a vanished era with the song Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite, overdubbing the music track with a montage of calliopes and hurdy-gurdys to paint a very visual piece of audio. To this day, I can’t hear the tune without concocting my own mental photo of prancing ponies and carnival barkers. Mr. Kite may already be retiring to his dressing room, as are so many analog forms of entertainment. But we have the pictures. Or we need to start making them.
May 22, 2017 | Categories: Americana, Commentary, History, Nostalgia | Tags: carnival, circus, Entertainment, popular culture | Leave a comment