By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW WOULD DISPUTE THE IDEA that photography forever changed the way we see. However, I also believe it has altered the way we recall. The process of accessing our memories as a reference point for our thoughts and feelings was complex even before the invention of the camera. But add the seemingly “trustworthy” or “authentic” records of things interpreted by photography, though, and the sorting of memory becomes an even greater muddle. Do we remember, or do we recognize, through the inheritance of masses of images, how someone else remembered?
Through the camera, we can confuse our actual sensory experiences of things with the trove of pictures which formed our “versions” of them beyond what we ourselves have lived. Many more of us have viewed photos of the Eiffel Tower than have actually gazed upon it. When we do first encounter a “known” thing in person, one of our first reactions is often that it “isn’t how I pictured it”……that is, our collective photographic “memory” doesn’t match authentic experience.
As photographers, we are trying to see things originally even as we hack our way through the inherited gallery of images of those things that are an unavoidable element of our visual legacy from other photographers. It is damned difficult to develop our own eye, since the after-image of everyone else’s take is always present in our consciousness.
I shot the image shown here in 2011, during a typical package tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Part of the circuit was a brief shuttle ride to Ellis on a boat that afforded a long, wide view of lower Manhattan. I shot the picture quite unconsciously, which is to say, oh look at that cool view. Later, in combing through the day’s shoot, I saw something else in the scene, something that connected me to photographs taken generations before me: Alfred Stieglitz’ poignant scenes of newly-arrived immigrants in steerage: grainy silent newsreels of crowded ferries passing the Statue, their passengers’ faces etched with a mixture of terror, longing and joy. Suddenly my own picture was no longer about a pleasure cruise for tourists. It was my chance to take in the same view millions had seen before me: the first glimpse of The Promised Land. The New Start. The Second Chance. And for many, Life Itself.
I had already underexposed the shot somewhat to emphasize the skyline, but the picture still contained too many distracting features on the faces of the passengers. I adjusted the exposure even more and saturated the color to further create the look of a low-light, slow film stock. Their particulars muted, my tourists now replicated the “look” of all those earlier arrivals, the ones I had inherited from other people’s experiences. Had I reached a kind of communion with those millions? Could I be adding my own story to theirs?
Even though I was traveling in the same waters as the people in the archival pictures had traveled, I wasn’t them. As a native-born American, I didn’t face the terrifying pass/fail that they had as they approached our front porch. I wouldn’t come this close, see a life beckoning just beyond that window, and yet be sent back because my eye looked odd to the doctors or my papers were not in order. I found this picture again the other day. I think I have to live inside it for a while. I may not have shot it with the eye of someone new to this country, but the inherited images of lives past have asked me, in my own limited way, to bear witness to the fact that, at some time, we have, all of us, been The Other. I really don’t want to forget that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.
Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.
As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.
Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.
As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MAIN OBJECTIVE OF THE NORMAL EYE has always been to promote mindfulness in the making of photographs, to be engaged in the why of images more than the mere how of mechanical technique. This is, I continue to believe, the correct emphasis. Learning how to operate a camera is a fairly short-term thing: figuring out what to do with the thing can take a lifetime.
As a sidebar to all that, TNE also was designed to suggest how photographic ideas might be developed, illustrated by the use of links to image galleries organized around selected themes. The idea here wasn’t so much to show off my own “greatest hits” as it was an attempt to demonstrate potential approaches. The image galleries are not a portfolio, nor are they auditions: they’re just examples. Like everything else used as an illustration in the pages of TNE, they’re supposed to act as a point of departure or discussion fodder.
I usually accompany the publication of new gallery pages with a preamble like this to reinforce the idea that this forum is about batting ideas back and forth, not earning my pictures blue ribbons. That said, I had a great deal of fun this week looking back at the last three years of photos from various trips to New York, my favorite playground, corralling a handful of them under the new tab Small Slices From A Big Apple, which, beginning today, you’ll find in the menu at the top of this page. Obviously, with such a vast subject, no photographer can ever consider himself “done”. However, that’s no reason not to make a start.
As usual, The Normal Eye is less about what I have done and more about what you will do. All we do around here is tee up ideas. The follow-up strokes are up to you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.
A case study……
There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.
This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.
In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.
This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR VERY HUMAN DESIRE TO MAKE OUR PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNICALLY FLAWLESS can be observed in the results you can glean from a simple Google search of the words “perfect” and “photos”. Hundreds of tutorials and how-tos pop up on how to get “the perfect portrait”, “the perfect family picture”, “the perfect sunset”, and of course, “the perfect wedding shot”. The message is all too clear; when it comes to making pictures, we desperately want to get it right. But how to get it right…that’s a completely different discussion.
Because if, by “perfect”, we means a seamless blend of accurate exposure, the ideal aperture, and the dream composition, then I think we are barking up a whole forest of wrong trees. Mere technical prowess in photography can certainly be taught, but does obeying all these rules result in a “perfect” picture?
If you stipulate that you can produce a shot that is both precise in technique and soulless and empty, then we should probably find a more reasonable understanding of perfection. Perfect is, to me, a word that should describe the emotional impact of the result, not the capital “S” science that went into its execution. That is, some images are so powerful that we forget to notice their technical shortcomings. And that brings us to the second part of this exercise.
Can a flawed image move us, rouse us to anger, turn us on, help us see and feel? Absolutely, and they do all the time. We may talk perfection, but we are deeply impressed with honesty. Of course, in two hundred years, we still haven’t shaken the mistaken notion that a photograph is “reality”. It is not, and never was, even though it has an optical resemblance to it. It became apparent pretty early in the game that photographs could not only record, but persuade, and, yes, lie. So whatever you shoot, no matter how great you are at setting your settings, is an abstraction. That means it’s already less than perfect, even before you add your own flaws and faults. So the game is already lost. Or, depending on our viewpoint, a lot more interesting.
Go for impact over perfect every time. You can control how much emotional wallop is packed into your pictures just as surely as you can master the technical stuff, and pictures that truly connect on a deep level will kick the keester of a flawless picture every single time. The perfect picture is the one that brings back what you sent it to do. The camera can’t breathe life into a static image. Only a photographer can do that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
…..through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing…..blind with the beggar’s mind, he is but a stranger to himself –Winwood/Capaldi
GRINNING, FRIENDLY LIARS: that’s what most of us are when offering up a socially amenable mask for public conception as a photographic portrait. It’s the facial equivalent of “putting your best foot forward”, an official version of someone who possesses our features but is as different from our selves as, to quote Twain, lighting is from the lightning bug. So who should know that genuine person better, or can capture its reality more accurately than we ourselves? Right?
We (the ultimate authority on us), are usually among the least trustworthy of narrators on our favorite subject. Many a memoir is merely a selective reconstruction of one’s past, leaking credibility at every seam. So why should our photographic self-portraits be any more reliable? We believe that we can reveal things outsiders can’t see, that our “real” face can only be shown by our own hand….that the others don’t really “get” us. But what actually happens with the insane new flood of selfies washing over the digital shores is that we merely substitute one “correct” face…the one we give to other photographers…for another, no less crafted, no less artificial. We are still trying to concoct an image that we feel is fit for public consumption. And we invariably fail.
This is hardly a new trap. Photographers have been trying to tell their own facial stories for over two centuries, sure that their interpretation of their secret selves will succeed where other chroniclers fall short. But the best self-portraits are still abstractions, momentary samples of our personality, never the personality in full. Ironically, we might make pictures of our selves that we prefer over those others make of us. Perhaps they are technically better, more deliberate, more flattering, and so forth. And maybe we like the selves we shoot better because they actually conceal what we want to remain hidden, whereas the stranger’s eye is, in fact, too penetrating for our comfort.
Contemporary solutions to this legendary conundrum know no limit. Every shooter has his or her own approach to a statement of self in an image, with some choosing to deliberately camouflage or hide themselves, and other concocting very formalized creations that mock the idea of recognition while seeming to be “real”. In Jackie Higgins’ wonderful book on alternative techniques Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, she argues that “faces rarely reflect the inner workings of minds”, suggesting that “there is no such thing as the unified self.” The take-home: you can’t get it right, this business of knowing and showing your own face. Does that mean the quest is unattainable? Sure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATE STUDS TERKEL’S BOOKS created almost a category of their own, collecting memoirs from across the length and breadth of American experience and class in essential essays like Working, The Good War, and Hard Times. Traveling the length and breadth of the nation for over forty years, Terkel interviewed the big and the small, the meek, the marginal and the mighty, as they recalled their individual experiences in the wake of massive historical events, from wars to depressions. For one of his final social montages, he spoke to people in their twilight years about their efforts to remain positive and engaged despite lives that had often proven challenging, even tragic.
Its title: Hope Dies Last.
Upon first seeing the book, I had to read it, partly because it was Studs, and partly because that title spoke to my own minor acts of faith in what I look for in photographs. Pictures are often testimony about people who cannot be seen, measured in the objects they care about, or in which they invest their hope. We have all seen the tenacity of wildflowers thrusting up between the fissures of cracked concrete, and appreciated, in the abstract, what that image says about the faith of the human animal. We capture pictures of places bombed to ruin, then testify with our cameras as they begin, once more, to lay a stone upon a stone. Building. Dreaming. Launching our boats against the current.
Hope dies last.
When I see a picture of something that, to me, symbolizes our collective refusal to knuckle under, I want to take it home with me. Because we need it. Now, yesterday, ever. We draw strength from that escapist wildflower, or a battered face upturned toward the light, or, as above, a potted plant defying the odds in a dark apartment air shaft. Someone decided to give that plant a chance…or, at least, to remind the grey walls and grimy brick that color and life are still around, still fighting for their shot.
Studs made his best case for the persistence of hope with the words of his interviewees. I find comfort in trying to find visual evidence of their actions. Either way, photographers can serve as conservators of hope.
If there’s a better gig to be had in this life, please let me know.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALSO THE HISTORY OF A STRANGELY INTIMATE DANCE WITH DEATH, a fascination with its look, its effects, its ability to transform both man and materials, mood and matter. From the first images of combat in the mid-nineteenth century to today’s Instagram chronicles of turmoil and trauma, we have tried to testify about how the world changes when we, or others like us, pass out of existence. The process is a constant rug-of-war between intimacy and publicity, between the glare of public destruction and the privacy of inner oblivion. And the pictures that result are arguments, quarrels with ourselves, which can never truly be settled.
There seems to have been a shift over the past few decades in how we grieve, or at least in the visual vocabulary of that grief that we choose to put on display. The quiet graveside memorials of eras past seems to have been supplanted by increasingly public vigils. We cry our tears in front of each other now, and the creation of instantaneous, group-generated shrines has become a bizarre kind of performance art, as visible as graffiti, and as personal as each man’s ending. Whether it takes the form of mountains of teddy bears stacked around an accident site or candle-lit collages of mementos offering mute testimony from well-meaning strangers, mourning is now something we experience globally, tribally. John Donne’s 1624 sentiment that “every man’s death diminishes me” seems, in the present day, eerily prescient.
I recently drove past an improvised memorial for a deceased high school student. I knew nothing of his life beyond what his friends decided to collect to mark its passing. And so, visually, I was presented with a puzzle. What specific articles can be used to symbolize a life? Conversely, what should be excluded? How does an object that says something for one person presume to speak for he who has been silenced?
I made the shot you see here in as plain and reportorial a fashion as I could, shooting it head-on, in the manner of Walker Evan’s iconic images of signs and posters from the 1930’s. The only interpretive factor here, really, is the light in which I chose to shoot, deciding that sunset would help boost texture in the shot, and, incidentally, serve as a kind of metaphor. Make of that what you will.
Some pictures don’t need people in them to speak loudly for them. Today’s collectively assembled registries of loss are, in themselves, interpretive statements, not unlike paintings, editorials, or eulogies. Acknowledging them in pictures seems less like invasion and more like reportage, since they are clearly designed to be seen, to bear witness. The fact that they are anonymous makes them intriguing. The fact that they are so intensely personal makes them photographically essential.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE BEGINNING, PHOTOGRAPHY WAS MOSTLY ABOUT RECORDING, arresting time in its flight in order to preserve scenes for posterity. And, for its earliest practitioners, that purely technical feat of stopping the clock was enough. We still use the word capture to describe this harvesting of moments. Soon, however, photographs became truly interpretive. That is, they set out to be about something beyond a mere logging of the physical world. In so doing, they passed from documents to statements, with shooters choosing which world view they wanted to present.
I find that, even in the most complex documentary photos, those views seem to collect into two main camps of thought. One kind of image, which may be called the “ruin” category, depicts what we have lost. Abandoned buildings, wrecked cities, damaged lives. “Ruin” campers show the deterioration of things and ask us to assess the loss of dreams. The second general kind of interpretive category, which I’ll call the “resurrection” camp, shows the things that might have experienced ruin but are rebounding, on their way back up. Rez campers show the resiliency of the human spirit, the belief that there will, indeed, be a tomorrow.
Human beings being partisan by instinct, curators, editors, and audiences can, and do, glorify the pictures of one camp while decrying the worthlessness of images from the other camp, in what is really a false choice. Life is never cleanly divided between heaven and hell, and neither should your pictures be.
Photographs that show what we have wasted are no more “authentic” than those that show us recovering from loss. And truly great photographers actually straddle both camps in their best work. But your purpose in a picture must be clear: the image at the top of this page seems to mourn the devastation of an old family farm. However, if I were to pull back to a larger frame, the camera would also show the freshly furrowed fields of a property that is in the process of being re-developed. Ruin or Resurrection? It’s down to approach, and context.
Some days it seems like the best story you can tell is a tragic one, but, at other times, there is nothing more courageously honest than depicting hope. It all depends on what comes to hand. The best plan is not to plan, to be open to whatever the best testimony is, right here, in this picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
T.S. ELIOT ONCE ASKED, POIGNANTLY, ‘WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING?‘ as if there could be no lonelier thing in this weary world. However, had he been a photographer, he might also have mused about the sound of one wife sighing, as her husband assures her that “I just need one more shot“, or “you can all go ahead, I’ll meet you at the gift shop.” Such assurances would be enough to send Mrs. Eliot’s one hand clapping T.S. soundly about the ears.
We really do hear the steam escaping from our wives’ ears as we mutter about whether we need a prime lens or a wide-angle for our next masterpiece. We understand that it’s not much fun watching your beloved stare at a pile of junk in a dark alley, pondering whether it all makes a profound statement about the state of the world. We get the fact that you might prefer that we answer your question about whether your mother should come and live with us, rather than mumble, “if I close down to f/11 to get past that glare, I’m gonna lose two stops of light…”
In short, we know what a colossal pain it is to be with someone who constantly hauls around a mad gaggle of gears, gauges, geegaws and gadgets. We even realize that you might have a hard time remembering the last time you saw us walking around on only two legs…..you know, without the tripod.
We stipulate that, sometimes, a hunk of rock is just a hunk of rock, not a canvas on which to mount our genius, just as “a little light reading” to the rest of the world might mean a beach thriller by Robert Crais, not the flash attachment section of the B&H Video catalog. We even admit that it’s a little catty of us to stare across the room at a restaurant and make our one contribution to the table’s conversation with, “look at that stupid guy. He’s not even framing up his shot!”
Yes, ladies, we need to not so much “get a life” as to get a slightly larger, wider one. So, thank you for reminding us that, if we fall off this mountain by stepping back for the perfect composition, we might make orphan our children. Thank you for occasionally filling us in on certain details of said children’s lives, such as their proper names, birthdays, distinguishing features, etc. Thank you for not wincing when we name the family dog Steiglitz. Thank you for not leaving us for dead when we use the foil cover from your best picnic casserole for a makeshift bounce reflector.
Mostly, as in the above scene, we humbly thank you for not seizing the opportunity to dump us and our dratted gear in the nearest abyss.
And then taking a picture of it.
And then laughing, hysterically.