By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHORTLY AFTER THE TURN OF THE 21st CENTURY, SCULPTOR TODD McGRAIN completed a series of wondrous statues dedicated to the memory of five different birds rendered extinct not in antiquity, like the prehistoric dodo, but by the encroachment of human excesses of the fairly recent world. In all five cases, the subjects of what would become known as The Lost Bird Project were hounded into oblivion by over-hunting, loss of habitat, and other charming habits of the planet’s dominant and negligent stewards. This quintet of quietly minimal monuments, as magnificent as they are as art, were fated to become even more important as carefully placed reminders of what we have done, and what we must not fail, going forward, to do.
The Heath Hen, one of five Todd McGrain sculptures memorializing recently extinct species of birds.
Not content to merely let the statues remain in some permanent gallery setting, McGrain set about on a nationwide odyssey to identify the locales where the birds* were last seen before vanishing, and to convince the current controllers of those lands to accept the statues as living history lessons, by permitting their permanent installation at, if you like, the scene of the environmental crime. He soon learned how hard it is to give someone a gift they never thought to ask for, navigating the ebb and swell of the tides of diplomacy, federal red tape and even active opposition to the bequests. Finally, he was able to find homes for all five statues, visually recording the quest and eventually becoming a documentary film maker in his own right.
The Lost Bird Project is still an active endeavor, continuing to fund conservation education through sale of that resulting film. Even at that, McGrain had to admit that the statues’ impact was limited to whomever might visit the installations in person, and so, to keep the works from being caged off, away from the general public, he also cast a duplicate set of the figures, and has sent them continually around the country on loan to a variety of venues, such as the Phoenix Zoo, which is where I made the above image.
I feel that photography can serve as the third leg of the visual testimony that McGrain has now carried on for nearly a quarter of a century. The reasoning goes that, if the copies are less limited in their ability to teach and influence than the originals, then it is through photographs by thousands of us, in dozens of locales, that the word can be spread exponentially. The camera helps us bear witness, teaching history by lighting, annihilating both time and distance to extend the wingspan of these essential messengers, canaries in a the coal mine of our collective neglect.
*the birds and their last known whereabouts: the Great Auk (Fogo Island, Newfoundland), the Labrador Duck (Elmira, New York), the Passenger Pigeon (Columbus, Ohio), the Carolina Parakeet (Okeechobee, Florida), and the Heath Hen (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts).
THE NEW ERA OF TESTIMONY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHETHER THERE IS CONSENSUS ABOUT THE PRESENT OR FUTURE STATE OF THE NATURAL WORLD, we are certainly in the midst of the most muscular conversation about its fate than many of us have ever known. That means that we are changing and challenging our relationship to the globe almost daily…and, along with that relationship, the way that we see, and visually report upon it. That generates a new emphasis on bearing witness to what the planet is/can be/ might be.
I call it the new era of testimony.
The birth of photography coincided with the first great surge of cross-continental expansion in America, as well as an explosion in invention and mechanization. The new system for making a physical record of the world was immediately placed into service to help quantify the scope of the nation…to measure its mountains, track its rivers, count its standing armies. Photographers like Timothy Sullivan and William Henry Jackson lugged their cameras east-to-west alongside geological surveys, railroad agents, and the emerging naturalist movement. While some shooters chose to capture the creation of new trestle bridges, others helped poets illustrate their Walden-esque reveries. In all cases, photography was tasked with the job of showing the natural world and our interaction with it. Most importantly, the images that survive those times are a visual seismograph on both the grand and grotesque choices we made. They are testimony.
And now is a time of radical re-evaluation of what that interaction should look like. That means that there is a visual story to tell, one of the most compelling and vital that photography has ever told. Regardless of your personal stances or stats, man’s place on the planet will be in a state of fundamental shift over the coming decades. And the images that this change generates will define both photography as an art and ourselves as stewards of an increasingly fragile ecology.
Ansel Adams, for all his gorgeously orchestrated vistas, was, I believe, mistaken in almost deliberately subtracting people from his grand scenes, as if they were irrelevant smudges on nature’s work. It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not make war on our native world. But whatever we do, we need to use the camera to mark the roads down which we have chosen to walk. Whether chronicling wise or foolish decisions, the photograph must be used to testify, to either glorify or condemn our choices going forward.
BE THE CAMERA. NOW BE BETTER THAN THAT.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MERELY INVOKING THE NAME OF ANSEL ADAMS is enough to summon forth various hosannas and hallelujahs from anyone from amateur shutterbug to world-renowned photog. He is the saint of saints, the yardstick of yardsticks. He is the photographer was all want to be when (and if) we grow up. His technical prowess is held as the standard for diligence, patience, vision. And yet, even at the moment we revere Adams for his painstaking development of the zone system and his mind-blowing detail, we are still short-changing his greatest achievement.
And it is an achievement that many of us can actually aspire to.
What Ansel Adams did, over a lifetime, was work his equipment way beyond its limits, milking about 2000% out of every lens, camera and film roll, showing us that, to make photographs, we have to constantly reach beyond what we think is possible. Given the slow speed of much of the film stocks and lenses of his era, he, out of the wellspring of his own ingenuity, had to make up the deficit. He had to be smarter, better than his gear. No one piece of equipment could give him everything, so he learned over a lifetime how to anticipate every need. Look at one of many lists he made of things that he might need on a major shoot:
Cameras: One 8 x 10 view camera with 20 film holders and four lenses; 1 Cooke Convertible, 1 ten-inch Wide Field Ektar, 1 nine-inch Dagor, one six and three-quarters-inch Wollensak wide angle. One 7 x 17 special panorama camera with a Protar 13-1/2-inch lens and five holders. One 4 x 5 view camera with six lenses; a twelve-inch Collinear, including an eight-and-a-half Apo Lentar, a nine-and-a-quarter Apo Tessar, 4-inch Wide Field Ektar, Dallmeyer telephoto. One Hasselblad camera outfit with 38, 60, 80, 135, & 200 millimeter lenses. A Koniflex 35 millimeter camera. Two Polaroid cameras. 3 exposure meters (one SEI, two Westons).
Extras: filters for each camera: K1, K2, minus blue, G, X1, A, C5 &B, F, 85B, 85C, light balancing, series 81 and 82. Two tripods: one light, one heavy. Lens brush, stopwatch, level, thermometer, focusing magnifier, focusing cloth, hyperlight strobe portrait outfit, 200 feet of cable, special storage box for film.
Transport: One ancient, eight-passenger Cadillac station wagon with 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top.
However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ work is not in how much equipment he packed. It’s that he knew precisely what tool he needed for every single eventuality. He likewise knew how to tweak gear to its limits and beyond. Most importantly, his exacting command of the elemental science behind photography, which most of us now use with little or no thought, meant that he took complete responsibility for everything he created, from pre-visualization to final print.
And that is what we can actually emulate from the great man, that total approach, that complete immersion. If we use all of ourselves in every picture that we make, we can always be better than our cameras. And, for the sake of our art, we need to be.
THE NEW MOSES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE CAN ONLY GUESS, AS HE GAZED OUT UPON CANAAN, the long-promised homeland of the wander-weary Israelites, what Moses felt, especially given that he himself would be forbidden to set foot upon that sacred soil. Perhaps, in our recent history, something of a parallel can be drawn to the vista shown above, the aerie from which John Muir, the lanky, ascetic Scotsman who became the first champion of the Yosemite, peered into the vast wilderness he was sworn to protect. This is the view from atop Glacier Point, directly opposite Half-Dome and, in the farther distance, the majesty of Yosemite Falls. It is also one of the only places in the United States where you can literally stand on the spot where history took a new turn.
Like Moses, Muir was a both a prophet and a protector, entranced by the stunning beauty of his adopted country and horrified at its vulnerability before the juggernaut of progress. Unlike Moses, he actually gained entry to his personal promised land, hiking its immense acreage, personally discovering many of its most amazing features and acting as correspondent to his fellow countrymen to apprise them of the great treasure lying unknown inside their borders.
As the founder of the Sierra Club and the most profound poet laureate of the preservation movement (he favored that word over the later “conservation”), Muir’s first choice would probably have been to surround all of Yosemite with at least a mental fence, a barrier of conscience to prevent its plunder by profiteers. His second choice became fateful for us all…..to enlist the federal government as a guardian for his Eden, and to unleash the energy of that nation’s most intrepid crusader for the environment.
John Muir was a veteran of nearly 35 years of preservationist skirmishes by the time he met President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Muir, desperate for a way to protect Yosemite beyond the puny efforts of local and state governments, met TR in Oakland, California, and the pair traveled by train to Redmond before taking a stagecoach the rest of the way into Yosemite Valley. Muir used the travel time to implore the president to place Yellowstone under national protection, and Roosevelt, agreeing, asked his host to show him “the real Yosemite”. After heading out into the back country essentially alone and camping under the stars atop Glacier Point, the two awoke to new-fallen snow and a new alliance.
That alliance was captured in the shot at left, which shows nearly the same view of the Yosemite Valley as my image at the head of this article. Three years later, in 1906, Muir and the Sierra Club successfully added the valley and the Mariposa Grove (a massive forest of giant sequoias) to the overall Yosemite National Park acreage, and finally saw the entire area placed under federal protection. The United States National Park concept, unique in the entire world of the early 20th century, had been born, the American Moses leading the way to a greener, more perfect union.
- Congress to consider Yosemite site for new “Los Angeles Lake” (yubanet.com)
- Happy 174th birthday, John Muir. (fossicking.wordpress.com)
- My First Summer in the Sierra: Illustrated Edition downloads (dubcoou.typepad.com)