By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY REACTS TO SHIFTS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR, in that it both reports and creates the news. Let people surge or sparkle in any particular direction, and the camera will shift with them, for good or ill. Photographers are camp-followers by nature, and instinctively sniff out the Next Big Thing, the Next Medium Thing, even the next Is This A Thing? in search of subject matter.
There is, at this writing, a wealth of story-telling to be done in the rebirth of American urban centers, and it’s more than just stopping by the hottest new part of town. Suddenly, it’s about the complete reversal of the systemic desertion of cities that began right after World War II, with a new generation sizing up thousands of Spielbergian burbs and finding them wanting. Moreover, urban cores are being not just renovated but embraced, not merely as this year’s megatrend but as this age’s new answer. In city after city, we are coming home, transforming our idea of “a life” to define walkable neighborhoods, an explosion in the arts, dense diversity, and locally owned businesses. It’s a great time for cities, and a great time to be a photographer.
All of human activity, from ritual to celebration, social interaction to creativity, is being re-cast in urban terms, with block after block being claimed in the name of re-use and re-purpose. It’s greener, it’s groovier, and it is rich with visuals, as the barn dance becomes the street stomp and the dead warehouse becomes the very alive coffee-house. Most importantly, children are being born into places where they can walk to real shops versus driving to unreal chains. Something is up, and it’s not merely generational, and the camera has a role in all of this.
A role and a say.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, UNDER THE SPELL OF A CONCEPT, TO KNOW WHETHER THEY ARE MARCHING TOWARD SOME LOFTY QUEST or merely walking in circles, their foot (or their brain) nailed to the floor. Fall too deeply in love with a given idea, and you could cling to it, for comfort or habit, long after it has yielded anything remotely creative.
You might be mistaking a rut for revelation.
We’ll all seen it happen. Hell, it’s happened to many of us. You begin to explore a particular story-telling technique. It shows some promise. And so you hang with it a little longer, then a little longer still. One more interpretation of the shot that made you smile. One more variation on the theme.
Maybe it’s abstract grid details on glass towers, taken in monochrome at an odd angle. Maybe it’s time exposures of light trails on a midnight highway. And maybe, as in my own case, it’s a lingering romance with dense, busy neighborhood textures, shot at a respectfully reportorial distance. Straight-on, left to right tapestries of doors, places of business, upstairs/downstairs tenant life, comings and goings. I love them, but I also worry about how long I can contribute something different to them as a means of telling a story.
- The bustling tenement neighborhoods of early Norman Rockwell paintings appealed to me, as a child, because the frames were teeming with life: people leaning out of windows, sitting on porches, perching on fire escapes, delivering the morning milk…they were a divine, almost musical chaos. But they were paintings, with all the intentional orchestration of sentiment and nostalgia that comes with that medium. Those images were wonderful, but they were not documents…merely dreams.
That, of course, doesn’t make them any less powerful as an influence on photography.
When I look at a section of an urban block, I try to frame a section of it that tells, in miniature, the life that can be felt all day long as the area’s natural rhythm. There are re-gentrified restaurants, neglected second-floor apartments, new coats of paint on old brick, overgrown trees, stalwart standbys that have been part of the street for ages, young lovers and old duffers. Toss all the ingredients together and you might get an image salad that captures something close to “real”. And then there is the trial-and-error of how much to include, how busy or sparse to portray the subject.
That said, I have explored this theme many times over the years, and worry that I am trying to harvest crops from a fallow field. Have I stayed too long at this particular fair? Are there even any compelling stories left to tell in this approach, or have I just romanticized the idea of the whole thing beyond any artistic merit?
Hopefully, I will know when to strike this kind of image off my “to do” list, as I fear that repetition, even repetition of a valid concept, can lead to laziness….the place where you call “habit” a “style”.
And I don’t want to dwell in that place.