Now you see it, now you don’t: the death of Paradise Valley Mall, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2021
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SO-CALLED “CREATIVE” ARTS ARE CONSPICUOUSLY OBSESSED WITH RUIN. Whether our platform is the printed page, the canvas, or the camera, we who are supposedly committed to the depiction of uplift and inspiration seem equally fascinated with devastation. Easily half of the photographic images that have copped the Pulitzer Prize chronicle death rather than life, destruction in lieu of generation. The old saw about not being able to resist craning our necks when slow-rolling past a gruesome accident is based in truth: when it comes to Things Gone Wrong, we just can’t look away.
Our gradual escape from The Great Hibernation has already produced images that act like an encyclopedia of the horrible, a grotesque gallery of sudden tragedies, unexpected nightmares. But not all things that come apart are torn asunder in an instant, and we will continue, for the next few years, to also be witness to a series of what might be called slo-mo earthquakes, shifts in the tectonic plates of our behaviors that unfold in quiet, gradual tableaux, still visceral in their power, but less seismic in their suddenness, parts of our daily lives that don’t so much explode as melt away.
Some of these things, like the dead mall you see here being reduced to dust, will be vanished without epitaph or tears. Others, like the cozy neighborhood bars or the single-screen bijous, may elicit a sigh on their way out the door. Is it important to make photographs of these things? Opinions will vary, as one man’s “tragic loss” is another man’s “good riddance”. But perhaps what’s most important is that the camera is the only time machine that yanks time out of joint on purpose, that extracts people and places out of their proper sequence of life, abstracting them as they imprison selected fragments of them in amber. Without the bustle of people and commerce, is a mall even really a mall? Are the frozen images of a place’s now-separate component parts of any interest, once they are no longer integrated into a whole? And who’s to say?
Well, of course, as always, you’s to say….that is, you and your camera. We not only comment on meaning with our images, we confer meaning on things as well. Photography is both reportorial and editorial; it’s just another tool in the arsenal of the poet. Use your art to suggest, even insist upon, what things mean to you. Because not all earthquakes unfold in slow-motion, and time is opportunity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE JOURNEY OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN SOCIETY courses along two diametrically opposed paths. Both roads can impel the spirit toward ends that are both cherished and loathed. One fork cruises through the innumerable ranks of the predictable, taking the individual along prescribed patterns of conformity; the other travels the more arduous road to individuality, a complete realization of the unique self. Both paths have their positive and negative aspects; both seem attractive or repellent at different times in our lives. And both have a visual signature for the photographer.
Conformity is perhaps the easier of the two paths to trace, evoking row after row of identical work cubicles or endless blocks of lookalike dwellings. It leaves its visible track in the way we close ranks or join organizations; the kinds of gatherings that offer us protection or anonymity. Our photographer’s eye readily tags the look of the collective, the joiner society.
The path toward individual expression is a little more abstract, as there are as many ways to stand out or apart as there are human hearts in the world. How do we choose to leave the rutted path? What means do we employ in improvising a personal life signature? How is our rebellion in the name of a more sculpted self visually measured?
It can be something simple, like being the only kid that wears bunny slippers to symphony rehearsals. A bumper sticker that’s guaranteed to provoke comment. Or, as seen above, a little public space that we convert to private space with a paper lantern, a wind chime, or a bird feeder. Making photographs of the way we go along to get along is measuring the patterns of our agreement (maybe even our surrender), and that creates one kind of picture. Framing up the stories that we tell out of our very own storybook gives us another result completely. Both kinds of images are educational. Both are commentary. And if we’re really lucky, both can be compelling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REPEATED TROPES IN PHOTOGRAPHIC INSTRUCTION in recent years has been some variant on the “there are no rules” theme, as if all of image-making were some miraculous hybrid of instinct and chance. And while I certainly applaud an attitude of flexibility when it comes to artistic expression, and even allowing for personal preferences for baseline techniques or practices, I would assert that, for nearly all photographers, there is one immutable law, and that is, simply, to allow yourself the opportunity to fail.
Failure is the cheapest and most lasting of educational building blocks. No art happens out of a natural superabundance of talent or taste: it has to be nurtured through the refinement of negative feedback. Even the most advanced AI devices feed off of bad data; evaluating errors, filtering them out, re-designing systems to reject those errors in future iterations. Failure in photography, defined here as “making bad pictures”, is the only correct path to making good ones. There is no technical advancement or ideal toy that can short-cut this process. You simply have to put in the time.
This is means learning to love your losers, to, in fact, have a particular gratitude for the shots you blow. Just as we lament over other mistakes we’ve made in our lives, we naturally linger over our artistic miscalcuations. The mis-read light. The fouled focus. The Compositions From Hell. The gap between what we could see and what we could induce our camera to see. And, most significantly, our own ignorance or life inexperience. Mistakes make us questions things in a way that successes seldom do.
A picture doesn’t even have to be a flat-out flop to gnaw at us, to demand re-takes and re-thinks, as seen in the image above, which neither completely delights or disgusts me, but certainly haunts me. The near misses can sometimes nag us as mercilessly as the missed-by-a-miles. More aggravating still is the fact that some of the very things that drive us mad will totally skate past the casual observer, or even appear to them to be “just fine”. Happily, as we develop, we learn to trust our own eye and dismiss everyone else’s as, well, irrelevant. Buying a more expensive camera, trying to “go with the flow”, following trends….nothing can compete with the slow, gradual, agonizing, and eventually gratifying process of snapping a lot of duds and changing course as we digest what went wrong until the problem is addressed.
The study of photography is fat with experts who swear it’s all about a whole bunch of rules on one end and people on the other extreme who declare that rules are meaningless. The real truth, your truth, is somewhere in between those two poles. But believe this: there is no substitute, formal or otherwise, for doing your homework, loving your losers as if they were wayward children, and working honestly to bring them right.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.
That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.
Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.
And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.
THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.
The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.
If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.
Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.
I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RISE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY empowered artists to chronicle events in documentary fashion for the first time in human history. And as miraculous a change as that worked (and is still working) on the world, one can still have fun pondering what that power might have allowed us to show, had it been granted us years earlier. Imagine being able to map the daily progress of the great pyramids, or to report on Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. I have my personal “what if” list of what I’d love to have seen through a camera, and you no doubt could compile one of your own, if you haven’t already.
Since the craft of making pictures centers so much on human quests, it also lends itself readily to the study of human motivation. We can picture what we are looking for, but we can also trace the emotions that play over our faces as we set out on our explorations. And that’s, of course, how photojournalism has developed over the years. We don’t merely snap the planting of the flag, so to speak, but also the anxiety and near-misses that preceded that triumph, as mapped on the faces of those who embark on the journey. Photo essayists have documented great achievements that, as a sidebar, are also triptychs through the human mind, giving us the procedural steps of the first heart transplants and the terse emotions on the faces of the surgical crew. The two parts of the story each suffer if they are not paired in the narrative.
I don’t typically find myself in the company of globe-trotting explorers, but, when I am with people who are working toward any goal, such as the patient birdwatchers at left, I try to spend just as much time studying their process as what they actually produce. Sure, the main objective is to snap the Vermillion Flycatcher, but, to me, the other part of the job is looking at the lookers, telling the story of the search. The quarry may actually escape, but the quester’s journey is a tale in itself, maybe even a better one.
So, in my retelling of the history of photography, a history in which we are actually present with a Leica when Caesar first rides into Gaul, the preferred part of the assignment for me would be to get a look at the great man himself in the act of conquering not only the foe but, perhaps, himself. We like to think that we use our cameras to tell the truth, but without examining why people choose to do great things, and capturing those desires as well as their deeds, we can miss a vital part of the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TECHNOLOGY IS A SNAKESKIN, a perpetually decaying epithelial layer that we shed to reveal the fresh flesh (or the latest “version) just beneath. This death-and-rebirth cycle is so constant in our world as to be nearly invisible: things are in daily use, everywhere, until they’re not, and once they have been replaced, their new iterations seem inevitable, as if they had always been around, as if nothing else ever made any sense. How did we ever survive with that other old thing? How could we call ourselves advanced without the shiny new one?
Photography is at least partly about observing the mile markers at which we said goodbye to things. You can comprise a whole career just out of documenting objects that have made the journey from Latest And Greatest to Oh, That Old Thing, that inexorable slouch from You Simply Must Get One to Are You Still Using That? We don’t stop needing a function like television, but television sets themselves are as transient as mayflies. We don’t stop driving cars, but we have already torn down the first museums that enshrined the earliest automobiles. And so it goes.
In a recent walk through the old downtown in Flagstaff, Arizona, I seemed to pass something on every other block that reminded me of how quickly and completely we shed the tech snakeskin. In some cases, the old devices were still sort of in use, like the battered pay phone seen above. In other cases, they were so far out of synch with the times that they had been reduced to arcane decor in a store front window, as seen with the old Speed Graphic press cameras below, abstracted to mere form by their utter uselessness. In either case, I felt that a picture was warranted.
This all may be a symptom of my own rapidly advancing age. I certainly acknowledge a feeling that the entire merry-go-round of progress seems to have been cranked faster in recent years, although it may just be that I am catching slower than life is pitching. Either way, I find myself in the process of saying goodbye to lots of things lots more of the time. And even though I vainly try to slow this cascading process by catching glimpses of the casualties within my magic light box, I know, at some level, that it’s a losing battle. The snake sheds its skin, but never sheds a tear about that skin. It’s just something that was vital, until it wasn’t. Most of the time, we shed whole versions of ourselves, with little more thought or regret. It’s when we do pay attention to what’s been lost that we have to decide, in our pictures and our hearts, what of it was really important.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you wish to depict humanity as your mind would arrange and design it, then a formal sitting or a studio setting would seem to be the place where you could exercise the most creative control. If, on the other hand, you wish to capture humanity in the act of just, well, being, then street work is probably better. This means taking what you get from people, behavior-wise, and noticing how those behaviors shift and evolve.
Street work is truly a barometer on what’s important to people, from the fashions they wear to the conveyances that take them around to what they prize most about daily life. And, in this part of the twenty-first century, that means how they interact with cellular phones.
The ubiquity and non-stop use of these devices is now simply a part of the visual vocabulary of street photography. It has become, in a very short space of time, nearly impossible to take a candid scene without recording someone on their phone….consulting it, catching up with it, charging it, using it for social connectivity. This has become a real challenge for me, since I believe that the best social pictures come from evidence of inter-action between people in real time, in real physical places. What I have to work with, instead, is a crop of one-sided interactions. There may be some human drama in such images (imagine outrage, surprise, delight playing out on phoners’ faces), but I frequently just chuck many of these frames from a street batch because I, personally, can’t extract any kind of story from them.
Of course, isolation as an urban condition is not new, nor is it even novel in the street shooter’s experience. Seventy-year old photos of commuters crammed on the subway, each mesmerized by his or her own personal newspaper, reflects just as much loneliness as a present-day scene of crowds all separately entranced by their mobiles. And yet the cellphone has produced a new kind of lonely, with greater numbers of us showing a more complete pulling away from each other. I find this sad, and, while that feeling, by itself, can also produce a good picture, I still, typically, put such images in my “pass” pile.
This one registered a little differently with me.
I really had no interest in the two people in the frame other than their ability to take up compositional space and account for a wide range of light contrast, something I always like to practice with. So I must be honest and report that, in the actual taking of the picture, their “story” was not on my radar. Moreover, given how many hundreds of other “phoners” I’ve accidentally recorded, usually concluding that there was “no picture there”, I think I can be forgiven a certain dismissiveness in snapping the photo. It was only later that the completeness of their isolation struck me. Not only are they facing away from the somewhat scenic, bright view out the window, but they are completely isolated from each other. As it happens, they are in a Manhattan museum which, even if you were to completely eschew the contents of the exhibits, offers any number of stunning skyline scenes out the windows, including several high-rise walk-out platforms. But none of that matters to this pair, any more than they matter to each other, or whether a live, nude performance of King Lear would matter, were it just inches away from them. Their place in the present world does not matter…..only their proximity to a wall outlet. This, to me, is beyond isolation. This is self-banishment, and, in this case, the image I accidentally snapped of the condition shows, at least in miniature, the crux of the dilemma: the fact that we have become one international village of strangers.
But if we completely ignore this phenomenon, of what are we to craft street images that are accurate testimony of our age? Are there deeper stories behind this tsunami of blank faces, stories that are worth pursuing? Or do we, as photographers, just turn away from those who have turned away?
I really wish I knew.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FACES ARE A LOT LIKE SKIES ON A DAY OF WIND-DRIVEN OVERCAST, with emotions sweeping swiftly across their features, alternatively lightening, darkening, producing bursts of color and dusks of shadow, all in the space of a few seconds. The mood changes that play upon our faces from moment to moment are so far-reaching that, in a static medium like still photography, we often feel we cannot create a single image that “tells all” about even the most familiar people in our lives. There are times when more than one feeling is layered over others, with only one state of mind captured in a single frame.
Or so I used to believe.
As stated in previous pages of this small-town newspaper, my parents have had both the great good luck and the jarring challenge of living very close to the century mark. With geography separating us from each other most of the time, the ticking of the clock adds a fearful urgency to my attempts to photograph them in what is essentially their ninth inning. As to how I can shoot them, formal sittings are largely a thing of the past: both are well beyond forced posing, having said “cheese” more times than the entire population of Wisconsin, leaving me to maintain a constant vigil for the unguarded, and potentially revelatory, moment. And that’s where a latter-day gift of sorts has burst onto the scene. Far from the emotionally simple “happy Dad”, “sad Mom” pictures that were emblematic of their earlier years, I now see their faces as aggregations, multi-level combinations of several emotions all registering in the same moment. It’s as if their features have become one of those plexiglass “how it’s made” models of a complex airplane that shows all of the craft’s inner workings at once, or, in simpler terms, as if my camera had been transformed into a CT scanner.
One very effective ignition point for seeing this layering in my father, for example, comes when he is consuming what we will lightly call The News Of The Day. One need not comment on specific issues to recognize that the present world is a very complicated place, and that, when you are ninety, it’s tough not to filter everything through decades of comparable experiences. In watching Dad watch the world these days, I can simultaneously see the many versions of him that I’ve learned to recognize throughout the years. Curiosity? Certainly, but also consternation, hope, bewilderment, sadness, wisdom, and, to a greater and greater degree, resignation. The world is racing forward, not quite yet without him on board, but certainly nowhere near the front of the parade. And since I trail him in age by twenty-three years, I have not yet seen all that he has seen, but I certainly feel a version of his own feelings of accumulation, even from my more limited lookout point above life’s battlefield. The sheer weight of all those feelings is fully one-third stronger in him than in me, but my own legacy of sensations has taught me to detect (and hopefully capture in my box) stories that say much more about his inner mind than just “happy” or “sad”. His face, and that of my mother’s as well, is now more than just familiar: it’s prophetic. I try to see what he and she are teaching…..a very strange, elegant and sometimes terrifying tapestry. Still, even though the view is often obscured by tears, I will never blink or look away. This is a premium seat I occupy now, and I have paid handsomely for the privilege of sitting here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL ENTER THE WORLD FREE OF ENTANGLEMENTS, but even the simplest lives end in piles of….leftovers.
Detritus. Collections. Memorabilia.
The Romans might have had the right idea about a lot of things). Their word for “luggage” was impedimenta. Things that get in your way.
The recent death of a very old, sick man near my neighborhood has had, for some reason, a uniquely personal impact on my heart. Perhaps because his passing was so slow, so silent, more like a long fade-out than a sudden curtain. Perhaps because people in the area had known so little about him until a large storage bin was parked in front of his house to haul out the accumulated props of his lifetime. Most of the objects were emotionally sterile, like the rolls of peeled-up carpet or the shell of an old bathtub, items with no plain backstory in evidence.
And maybe that was what was oddly riveting about watching each succeeding batch of rubbish being carted out. The sadness of seeing that an entire life might, finally, amount to just so much broken garbage, so many banal, unknowable things. Things that would reveal little or nothing about the man around whom they briefly orbited. Items that could be anybody’s….or nobody’s.
So I did what I always do. I made a picture of the storage bucket. And then the bucket was gone. The noise of things being removed became the drone and drill of an empty house being remodeled for someone else to use. To fill with his own junk.
Then, two days later, the organ appeared.
A Lowry Pageant electronic organ, complete with coffeecup-ringed stool, apparently considered too good for the trash heap. Perhaps a poll was taken by the workers:
Do you want it?
Not me, I don’t play.
Nah, I got no room.
Perhaps someone actually said, well, we can’t just throw it out...
This called for another kind of picture. A picture of an instrument that, at one time, would have set you back the price of a small car. One of the first home keyboard instruments made before synthesizers that came with its own custom rhythm beats. Make you a one-man band, it would. What was on the program? Great Hits From Broadway? The Old Rugged Cross and Other Beloved Hymns? The Carpenters’ Songbook? I realized that, photographically, I was in different territory now. After all, a couch is just furniture, but a musical instrument is personal. Turns out a straightforward 50mm lens was fine for the trash bin shot, but I wanted to find some way to make the Lowrey, camped on the curb in front of the old man’s house, appear more…important than the free-to-good-home takeaway that it was. I finally decided that, while my 24mm prime would exaggerate the organ’s angles with a little more drama, my Lensbaby fisheye would bump up the distortion even more, allowing his house to also make it into the frame. One thing was certain: time was of the essence. Free things, especially free working things, go quickly in this neighborhood.
Sure enough, four hours after I made the picture, the Lowrey, as well as the last vapor of memory of the old man’s life, was gone. I’d like to think that some relative, somewhere, has a snap of him at the keyboard in better days. Some way to tie the man to the remnant. That’s what photographs do: they start the gears of speculation. What else happened? What else is true?
All teased by images, but never really delivered. Photographs are proof to some, unreliable testimony to others.
In the end, I got my picture, and, for a little while, my sadness at the old man’s leave-taking was salved.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.
It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.
The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.
Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.
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.