By MICHAEL PERKINS
I USED TO THINK THAT ONE CLEAR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AMATEUR AND PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS was that the amateurs recorded almost exclusively happy things, while the professional chronicled life’s grimmer moments as well. The “ams” were weighted on the side of weddings and birthdays, while the “pros” also threw funerals and war into the mix. Of course, I now see that as a gross over-simplification, albeit one which applies less and less with the aging of our world.
I do believe that the average shooter still hauls his/her camera out mostly to freeze incidents of joy, but, to a greater degree, all of us occasionally turn our gaze on the failures of the human animal as well, with raw physical destruction, intended or not, as a huge pictorial draw. When people (or their dreams) fail, there is often a spectacular visual result. Smashed walls. Craters. Wanton destruction. In such pictures we catch ourself in the act of discarding or destroying things that, in some way, represent dreams that have ground to a halt.
All across the world, the willing disassembly of our various infrastructures, such as this image of an old mall being wiped out of memory, is something of a cultural apology, an admission that, sorry, this just doesn’t work for us any longer. The amateur in us would gladly have snapped this place forty years ago, say, at its grand opening. The pros among us, or at least the growing number of us that are thinking more and more like citizen journalists, want to document the moment the vision perishes of old age, or just plain irrelevance. In the case of this particular place, the ground is merely being cleared for what will be a bigger, newer version of the same fake-community concept that gave rise to what’s being torn down, so, lesson not learned.
We always are interested in the ribbon cuttings, the alphas of things: however, in creating a record of the omega phase, of the end of the trail of those things, we are doing more than just making “sad” pictures. We are making a document of hope and loss, and all the temporary realities sequenced between those two historical brackets.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMANS EXPERIENCE AMNESIA IN TWO DISTINCT WAYS, both by organic accident, i.e., an affliction or injury that erases the memory, and by a deliberate effort to leave ugly things by the side of the road like a shed skin. It is the second kind with which we are concerned here.
Since early 2021, photographers have leveled their lenses at every aspect of The Great Hibernation, as a world of throngers became, overnight, a planet of cave-dwellers. We shot deserted streets, shuttered businesses, desperate moments in ERs. Now, as we all variously wander out into the sunlight to test our courage in a stab at the “new normal” (a perfect example of willful amnesia), cameras are recording a strange collection of conflicting messages, as both hope and haunting walk our streets hand-in-hand. We are either in the throes of recovery, or a colossal poker bluff with fate, or both, depending on who you ask, and anyone attempting to record what’s happening out there will see manifestations of relief, anxiety, relaxation, and readiness. We are in a unique transition phase, one that could result in both freedom and defeat. And the pictures, as always, will reflect that ambivalence.
As I mentioned in the post previous to this one, I have just spent the 2021 Fourth of July weekend reinserting myself into the flow of life in Los Angeles for the first time in sixteen months. The sensation was both reassuring and tentative. Masks are not everywhere, but they are in greater evidence in a city that was so battle-scarred by the pandemic than in the foolhardy desert domains of Arizona. People are mixing, partying, eating, laughing, even as they walk across worn “six feet” signs that remind them that, just because the big bombs have stopped falling, the war isn’t over. It’s confusing, but in an exhilarating, jump-out-of-the-plane kind of way. We could fall to our death, but, hey, on the other hand, how about that view?
Willful Amnesia is seen in a camera’s quick flashes, alternating with the latent fears that are still very much a part of our daily navigations. The above image seems to be All About The Party, but equally true pictures of the masked and homeless lie just inches away. Pivot to the left, and the energy says resurrection. Pivot to the left, and it’s Anxiety On Parade. Both kinds of photographs are true, at least until we can replace our willful amnesia with the real, healing variety.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE “U.S.A.” OF THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY was, in every way, a collection of separate and unconnected “Americas”. Cities were fewer in number, and the ones that did exist were hermetically sealed off from each other, each in their own orbits in a way that would end when telegraph wires and railroad tracks annihilated distance on the continent forever. At one end of the 1800’s, each town and village was its own distinct universe; at the other end, it was only one of many dots on a line chain-linking the nation as one entity.
In the 21st century, there is only spotty evidence of the days when your town was, in a very real way, the predominant version of “the world” to you. The terms of survival were so very different. “In town” and “out of town” were measured in blocks, not miles. There was a pronounced sense of “how we do things around here”. Local accents were a clearer stamp of identity. News from outer regions arrived slowly. People’s lives impacted each other directly. And the towns first canvassed by photographers reflected the isolation of one city from another, for good or ill.
My parents met each other in a town that started small and stayed that way. It’s contracted now, the way a grape shrinks to a raisin; there is still enough of its old essence to identify what it was, but no hope for a future that resembles the past in any remote manner. I love making photographs of places in America where the feeling of apartness is still palpable. It is harder to be hidden away now. We are all one coast-to-coast nervous system, with impulses crossing the void in nanoseconds. The places which still say “our town” are often baffled off from other towns by raw geography….the mountains someone forgot to cross, the rivers no one wanted to ford. And, in the towns walled off by those last remaining barriers, as in this view of Truckee, California in the Sierras, there are still stories to be told, and images to be captured.
I was struck in this picture by how close the residential and business parts of town were to each other, long before we all started spreading out and, well, getting away from each other. It creates a longing in me for something I can’t fully experience, and a desire to use my camera to come as close as I can.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS BENEFIT FROM SOCIOLOGICAL “PIVOT POINTS“, those unique junctures in time when tectonic plates between eras shift, grind and re-configure. Images, for better or worse, are the way we testify to big changes in our world. They are documents of where one age ends and a new one begins. They illustrate contrasts between then and now.
A change in society is an opportunity for pictures, photos which become obvious, even inevitable, in telling the story of how we evolve. And one of the biggest such changes over the last decade or so has been the re-birthing of the walking neighborhood. Urban cores long given up for dead are being re-vitalized by young people who want close, hands-on engagement with city life.
Whether this shift is a boomerang effect at the end of half a century of suburban flight, an economic remedy to rising housing prices (refurbishing is cheaper than new building), an ingenious way to re-purpose old resources for a greener planet (and get rid of cars), or just a generational restlessness, the old laboratory known as the urban neighborhood is back open for business, with darkened and deserted blocks sprouting new colors, shops, rhythms. Prime picking for photographers, who, first and foremost, go where the stories are.
For me, lateral, wide-angle portraits of businesses is great fun, as I try to channel the “neighborhood in miniature” panels made popular by painter Norman Rockwell during his magazine years. Watching foot traffic flow between laundries and liquor stores, with maybe a pizza joint in between, affords an instant variety of color, signage, reflections, and texture…in other words, lots to work with.
The street is dead. Long live the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY COULD POTENTIALLY STRIKE THE AVERAGE VIEWER as somewhat remote, even a bit cold. It flies in the face of some of the universally held “truths” about so-called street photography. Sometimes it doesn’t even have a face. Or faces.
If the best street shooters are thought to reveal truth in the features of the denizens of all those boulevards, then I might really be at a disadvantage, since many of my images are not about faces.
They are, however, about people.
I tend to use passersby, in city pictures, to several ends. beyond the regular kind of unposed portraiture that is standard “street” orthodoxy. One is scale, that is, how they dominate or are diminished by the sheer size or scope of their surroundings. Some cities seem to swallow people, reducing them to anti-sized props in an architect’s tabletop diorama. I try to show that effect, since, as a city dweller, it affects me visually. Other times, I show people completely silhouetted or swaddled in shadow. This is not because their faces aren’t important, but because I’m trying to accurately show their roles as components in an overall choreography of light, as I would a mailbox or a car. Again, the idea is not to avoid or conceal the stories that may reside in their faces, but to also accentuate their body language, how they occupy a space, and, yes, as abstract design elements in a large still life (okay, that sounds a bit clinical).
I certainly bow to the masters whose controlled ambushes of strangers have captured, in candid facial shots, harrowing, inspiring, or amusing emotions that deepen our understanding of each other. You could rattle off their names as easily as I. But using people in pictures isn’t only a miniature invasion into their features, and certainly isn’t the only way to depict their intentions or dreams.
And then there is the other problem for the street portraitist, in that some faces will remain ciphers, resisting the photographer’s probe, explaining or revealing nothing. In those cases, a face poses more questions than it answers. As usual, the argument is made by the individual picture.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
I SEE MANY, MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE THESE DAYS. Sometimes on
the streets of my home city. More occasionally on the streets of other towns. And every single day, without fail, on every photo upload site in the world. Many of the uploaders think this is “street photography”.
Many of the uploaders need to think again. Hard.
The mere freezing in a frame of someone whose lousy luck or bad choices have placed him on the street is not, of and by itself, some kind of visual eloquence. Not that it can’t be, if some kind of story, or context, or statement accompanies the image of a person driven to desperation. But not the careless and heedless snaps that are, I will say, stolen, at people’s expense, every day, then touted as art of some kind. The difference, as always, is in the eye of the photographer.
Many millions of people have been “captured” in photographs with no more revelatory power than a fire hydrant or a tree, and just catching a person unawares with your camera is no guarantee that we will understand him, learn what landed him here, care about his outcome. That’s on you as a photographer.
If all you did was wait until someone was fittingly juxaposed with a row of garbage cans, a grimy brick wall, or an abandoned slum, then lazily clicked, you have contributed nothing to the discussion. Your life, your empathy, your sense of loss or justice….all must interact with your shutter finger, or you have merely committed an act of exploitation. Oh, look at the poor man. Aren’t I a discerning and sensitive artist for alerting humanity to this dire issue?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Photographs are conversations. If you don’t hold up your end of it, don’t expect the world to pick up the slack. If you care, then make sure we care. After all, you’ve appropriated a human being’s image for your own glory. Make sure he gave that up for something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU SEE RIDICULOUS ARTICLES FROM TIME TO TIME claiming that baseball has been replaced as America’s Pastime. Such spurious scribblings invariably point to game attendance, TV ratings, or some other series of metrics that prove that football, basketball, and, who knows, strip Scrabble have reduced baseball to some quaint state of irrelevancy. All such notions are mental birdpoop for one salient reason. No one is giving due attention to the word pastime.
Not “passion”. Not “madness”. Not even “loyalty”. Pastime. A way of letting the day go by at a leisurely pace. A way to gradually unfurl afternoons like comfy quilts. People-watching. Memory. Sentiment. Baseball is for watchers, not viewers, something that television consistently fails to realize. It’s the stuff that happens in the pauses, of which the game has plenty. Enjoying baseball, and photographing it as an experience, is about what happens in the cracks.
Images are waiting to be harvested in the dead spots between pitching changes. The wayward treks of the beer guys. The soft silence of anticipatory space just before the crack of a well-connected pitch. TV insists on jamming every second of screen time-baseball with replays, stat tsunamis, and analysis. Meanwhile, “live”, in the stadium, the game itself is only part of the entertainment. Sometimes, it actually drops back to a distant second.
Only a small percentage of my baseball pictures are action shots from the field: most are sideways glances at the people who bring their delight, their dreams, and their drama to the game. For me, that’s where the premium stories are. your mileage may vary. Sometimes it’s what’s about to happen that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s the games you remember while watching this one. There are a lot of human factors in the game, and only some of them happen between the guys in uniform.
Photography, as a pastime, affords a great opportunity to show a pastime. America’s first, best pastime.
It’s not just a ballgame. It’s an “all” game.
Root, root, root.
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
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS IN ITS INFANCY WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE as a reportorial tool, a way of bearing witness to wars, disasters, and the passing parade of human folly and fashion. Since that time, at least a part of its role has been as a means of editorial commentary, a light shone on crisis, crime, or social ills. The great urban reformer Jacob Riis used it to chronicle the horrific gulf between poor and rich in the legendary photo essay How The Other Half Lives. Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, among many others, turned their cameras on the desperate need and changing landscape of America’s Great Depression. And now is the time for another great awakening in photography. It’s time to show where our cities need to go next.
Politics aside, the rotting state of our urban infrastructures is an emergency crying out for the visual testimony that photographers brought so eloquently to bear on poverty and war in ages past. The magnifying glass needs to be turned on the neglect that is rapidly turning America’s urban glory into rust and ruin. And no one can tell this story better than the camera.
We can fine-tune all the arguments about how to act, what to fund, and how to proceed. That’s all open to interpretation and policy. But the camera reveals the truths that are beyond abstraction and opinion. The underpinnings of one of the world’s great nations are rapidly dissolving into exposed rebar and pie-crust pavement. If part of photography’s mission is to report the news, then the decline of our infrastructure is one of the most neglected stories in the world’s visual portfolio. Photographers can entice the mind into action, and have done so for nearly two centuries. They have peeled back the protective cover of politeness to reveal mankind at its worst, and things have changed because of it. Agencies have been formed. Action has been accelerated. Lives have been changed. Jobs have been created.
It didn’t used to be an “extra credit” question on the exam of life just to maintain what amazing things we have. Photographers are citizens, and citizens move the world. Not political parties. Not kings or emperors. History is created from the ground up, and the camera is one of the most potent storytelling tools used in shaping that history. The story of why our world is being allowed to disintegrate is one well worth telling. Capturing it in our boxes just might be a way to shake up the conversation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, HARNESSING THE NATURAL ENERGY OF A CHILD is a little like flying a kite during a thunderstorm was for Ben Franklin. You might tap into a miraculous force of nature, but what are you going to do with it? Of course, there’s big money in artificially arranging light and props for formalized (or rather, idealized) portraits of kids. It’s a specialty art with specific rules and systems, and for proud parents, it’s a steady market. We all want our urchins “promoted” to angel status, albeit briefly. However, in terms of photographic gold, you can’t, for my money, beat the controlled chaos of children at play. It’s street photography with an overlay of comedy and wonder.
However, attempting to extract a miracle while watching kids be kids is like trying to capture either sports or combat, in that it has a completely different dynamic from second to second, so much so that you should be prepared to shoot a lot, shifting your focus and framing on the fly, since the center of the action will shift rapidly. I don’t necessarily believe that there is one decisive moment which will explain all aspects of childhood since the creation of the world, but I do think that some moments have a better balance between sizes, shapes, and story elements than others, although you will be shooting instinctively for much of the time, separating the wheat from the chaff later upon review of the results.
As with the aforementioned combat and sports categories, the spirit that is caught in a shot supersedes technical perfection. I’m not saying you should throw sharpness or composition to the wind, but I think the immediacy of some images trumps the controlled environment of the studio or a formal sitting. Some artifacts of blur, inconsistent lighting, or imprecise composition can be overlooked if the overall effect of the shot is truthful, visceral. The very nature of candid photography renders all arbitrary rules rather useless. The results justify themselves regardless of their raggedness, whereas a technically flawless shot that is also bloodless can never be justified on any grounds.
Work the moment; trust it to develop naturally; hitch a ride on the wave of the instantaneous.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.
The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.
For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.
The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.
Simply pick the story you like.
Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CAN GO TWO WAYS ON CONTEXT. It can either seek out surroundings which comment organically on subjects (a lone customer at a largely empty bar, for example) or it can, through composition or editing, artificially create that context (five people in an elevator becomes just two of those people, their locked hands taking up the entire frame). Sometimes, images aren’t about what we see but what we can make someone else seem to see.
Creating your own context isn’t really “cheating” (are we really still using that word?), because you’re not creating a new fact in the photograph, so much as you are slapping a big neon arrow onto said fact and saying, “hey look over here.” Of course, re-contextualizing a shot can lead to deliberate mis-representation of reality in the wrong hands (see propaganda, use of), but, assuming we’re re-directing a viewer’s attention for purely aesthetic reasons (using our powers for good), it can make a single photo speak in vastly different ways depending on where you snip or pare.
In the above situation, I was shooting through the storefront window of a combined art studio and wine bar (yes, I hang with those kind of people), and, given that the neighborhood I was in regularly packed folks in on “gallery hop” nights, the place was pretty jammed. The original full frame showed everything you see here, but also the connecting corridor between the studio and the wine bar which was, although still crowded, a lot less claustrophobic than this edited frame suggests.
And that’s really the point. Urban “hangs” that are so over-attended can give me the feeling of being jammed into a phone booth, like I’m part of some kind of desperately lonely lemming family reunion, so I decided to make that crushed sensation the context of the picture. Cropping down to a square frame improved the balance of the photograph but it also made these people look a little trapped, although oddly indifferent to their condition. The street reflections from the front plane of glass also add to the “boxed in” sensation. It’s a quick way to transform a snap into some kind of commentary, and you can either accept my choice or pass it by. That’s why doing this is fun.
Urban life presents a challenging series of social arrangements, and context in photographs can force a conversation on how that affects us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE PROVEN OURSELVES TO BE A SPECIES THAT HATES TO BE SENT TO BED. Night life being a kind of “second shift” in most of the modern world, we really never lock up our cities for the evening, and that has changed how those cities exist for photographers.
Here’s both the good and bad news: there is plenty of light available after dark in most towns. Good if you want the special mix of neon, tube glow and LED burn that sculpts the contours of most towns post-sundown. Bad if you really want to see cities as special entities defined by shadow, as places where dark is a subtle but aesthetically interesting design element. In many mega-cities, we have really banished the dark, going beyond essential illumination to a bleachingly bright blast of light which renders everything, big and small, in the same insane mutation of color and tone. Again, this is both good and bad, depending on what kind of image you want.
Midtown Manhattan, downtown Atlanta, and anyplace Tokyo are examples of cities that are now a universe away from the partial night available in them just a generation ago. A sense of architectural space beyond the brightest areas of light can only be sensed if you shoot deep and high, framing beyond the most trafficked structures. Sometimes there is a sense of “light decay”, of subtler illumination just a block away or a few stories higher than what’s seen at the busiest intersections. Making images where you can watch the light actually fade and recede adds a little dimension to what would otherwise be a fairly flat feel that overlit streets can generate.
Photography is often a matter of harnessing or collecting extra light when it’s scarce. Turns out that having too much of it is a creative problem in the opposite direction.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS THE OLDEST FRAMING DEVICE IN HISTORY. If you’ve ever watched a play on any stage, anywhere in the world, you’ve accepted it as the classic method of visual presentation. The Romans coined the word proscenium, “in front of the scenery”. Between stage left and stage right exists a separate reality, defined and contained in the finite space of the theatre’s forward area. What is included in the frame is everything, the center of the universe of certain characters and events. What’s outside the frame is, indefinite, vague, less real.
Just like photography, right? Or to be accurate, photography is like the proscenium. We, too select a specific world to display. We leave out all the other worlds not pertinent to our message. And we follow information in linear fashion…left to right, right to left. The frame gives us the sensation of “looking in” to something that we are only visiting, just as we only “rent” our viewpoint from our theatre seats.
We learned our linear habit from the descendants of stage arrangement….murals, frescoes, paintings, all working, as our first literate selves would, from left to right. Painters were forced to arrange information inside the frame, to make choices of what that frame would include, and, as the quasi-legitimate children of painting, we inherited that deliberately chosen viewpoint, that decision to show a select world, by arranging visual elements within the frame.
For some reason, in recent months, I have been abandoning the non-traditional in shooting street scenes and harking back to the proscenium, trying to convey a contained world of simple, direct left-right information. Candid neighborhood shots seem to work well without extra adornment. Just pick your borders and make your capture. It’s a way of admitting that some worlds come complete just as they are. Just wrap the frame around them like a packing crate and serve ’em up.
This is not to say that an angled or isometric view can’t portray drama or reality as well as a “stagy” one. Hey, sometimes you want a racing bike and sometimes you want a beach cruiser. Sometimes I don’t mind that the technique for getting a shot is, itself, a little more noticeable. And sometimes I like to pretend that there really isn’t a camera.
That’s theatre. You shouldn’t believe that the well-meaning director of the local production of Oklahoma really conjured a corn field inside a theatre. But you kind of do.
Hey what does Picasso say? “Art is the lie that tells the truth”?
Okay, now I’m making my own head hurt. I’m gonna go lie down.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN AMERICA WE GET ACCUSTOMED TO SEEING OUR URBAN HISTORY REGULARLY REDUCED TO RUINS, not because our cities are laid to waste by invaders or sacked by conquerors, but because we are such paltry stewards of the architectural legacies we share in this essentially young nation. Obvious nationalistic images aside, the wrecking ball, our answer to the crushing glaciers of history, is the real visual signature of the USA. We get tired of looking at old stuff. We knock the old stuff down. And in doing so, we squander the value of things to which we once attached great importance, rendering them moot, as if we really never cared about them at all.
The change glacier usually sweeps through the vast canyons of our larger cities, cutting a swath of wreckage that levels, implodes or simply knocks down any testimony to history, fashion, flair, whimsey, and the thing we most dread, uselessness. Every town has its casualties; stadiums, grand hotels, transportation hubs, retail centers, neighborhoods…it’s simply not American to get too attached to anything. It’s all going away, all of it, and with it, any sense of continuity, memory, or a contextual place in time.
Fortunately, it is the tendency of the glacier to “think big” that keeps the crushing onslaught of “renewal” concentrated in the larger urban centers, often leaving more survivors in small towns and rural communities. That means that some things in off-track towns, being below the radar of macro-change, are simply left alone, allowed to survive, because they are neglected by the bigger sweep of things.
This means that the “in-between” parts of the country still hold some treasures, a few gentle ties to times we have largely disposed of in the major hub cities. And while no one is suggesting that we bring back the village blacksmith and the local cobbler’s shop, it’s comforting in some way to be able to see and touch what in other parts of the nation are merely footnotes in books. That is, if we haven’t burned the books.
The building pictured at the top of this post is such a survivor. Built in 1879 just as the Toledo & Ohio Central railroad was being cut across the small village of Pickerington, Ohio (just southeast of Columbus), this compact little structure was the nerve center of trade and travel for “Picktown” for more than half a century. Its three rooms included an entry area for freight, an arrival room for passengers, and, in the center, an office for the combined jobs of depot agent and Western Union telegrapher. It was not until the hiring of its first female depot agent in 1947 that the facility could boast indoor plumbing, but the T&O’s tracks, during rail’s heyday, criss-crossed the tiny town with spur lines to a lumberyard, a grain mill, a hoop factory and warehouses.
Amazingly, the depot survived an extended closure from 1958 to 1975, when private money made its restoration possible. Lanterns, tools, bottles, wall maps, schedules, freight wagons, and a fully functional Western Union telegraph key were all assembled to visually cement the station in time. And there it stands to this day, serving no other “function” than to mark where the town, and we, have passed on our way to the inevitable.
Better than my luck in finding this place was in finding it just as dusk was streaking across the sky, giving me the perfect visual complement to the passing of time. And yet, here, out of the path of the glacier, time was allowed to tick just a little slower, slower enough to teach. And remember.
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.