By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ——William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And though she feels as if she’s in a play….she is, anyway…. ——Lennon & McCartney, Penny Lane
THE NATURE OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE AWARENESS THAT WE ARE ALL PERFORMERS, that, from sunrise to sunset we are carrying out roles, parts played to move society along or smooth our own way within it. The most obvious symbols of performance….masks, costumes, a proscenium…these are all artifacts of the stage, and are but a small part of the dramas and comedies awaiting the attentive eye of the photographer, most of them outside the physical limits of the theatre.
We assume parts that convey ritual, occupations, celebration, even our rank within our communities. We divide our years into seasons and our seasons into roles, marks on the calendar that also define how we will dress ourselves, the codes of behavior we will observe, and the slogans and symbols we use to commune with all the other players. Thus, in street photography, we train our eyes to spot the beginnings, middles and endings of these “scenes”, to see performances in nearly every aspect of life. Some of us are destined to go for the laugh, while others seemed fated for tragedy. We invent insignia, uniforms, jargon, procedures for playing our parts, like the policemen seen here standing on alert at what will be the beginning of a parade. Over time, we develop, as an actor does, “bits of business”, ways of doing things, each with their own key visual signatures. But street work happens in the unranked and the unorganized as well…..indeed, there are actors and actresses everywhere we look. When we first begin to take notice, we may find it hard to see their stories; after a while, we can more easily trace where they’ve come from, where they’re headed, and what constitutes a climax or a turning point in their lives.
Some people choose to see street photography as eavesdropping, as an invasion of privacy. I reject this idea, because my personal intention is not to degrade but to cherish, to attempt pictures that celebrate the universal struggles of the human animal. The thing that makes our part-playing truly lonely is not the sensation that someone is watching, but the fear that no one is. Just as literature, poetry, painting and song all tie the travails of the individual to the traits of the general, so to, then, does the best photography. For if we are all “merely players”, may we not all long for the occasional chance to take a bow?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CAMERA IS FAIRLY CRAMMED with features and functions that may or may not help you make better pictures. Certainly, all are intended as conveniences or shortcuts, but, since no one will ever utilize 100% of their gear’s potential gimmicks, you alone must decide which menus and goodies will actually help you exercise the most control over your results, and which are merely distractions. Your own path as a photographer will decide the real value of your camera’s various add-ons.
One automatic setting that I personally toyed with for a time but now almost exclusively avoid is the so-called “burst” setting, which allows you to automatically snap a ton of images very quickly by merely depressing and holding the shutter button. Its appeal is chiefly in helping to track fast-moving activities, like sports, children, or any other rapidly changing situation that presents challenge in setting or formulating shots on the fly. The camera is basically taking pictures faster than you suppose that you could plan them yourself, the idea being that, upon review, something in that batch must be usable, with the also-rans just being deleted later.
But I really find this mode a detriment, not a bonus, simply because the entire picture-taking process has been handed over to the camera. The shooter is completely passive, a bystander to a machine that is now making all the decisions. It’s like spraying a fusillade of bullets over a wide arc in the hope that you’ll hit something…anything, and it’s about as far from purposeful picture-making as you can get. I realize that the fear of missing something great can be tempting, but taking a whole bunch of pictures real fast, none of which could be anything other than a technically acceptable accident, is not a creative decision. How can it be?
Listen, I get it. Things happen fast, and it takes a great deal of practice in shooting in changing conditions. But the idea that there’s no time to frame or conceive an image just because it’s in motion is a false one. Will some opportunities be missed if you have to compose and click in the moment? Sure. Will some choices be unproductive? Yes. But the results will be your results. The image you see above was taken in a concert environment, which is just as volatile as any kid’s baseball game or birthday party. Faces, physical blocking, postures and light change mightily from moment to moment. But there is still time to plan a shot. Yes, your reaction time is measured in seconds, but there is time. More importantly, you can change your mind about whether to try something. You have direct influence over what’s planned and attempted. The camera is carrying out your commands. That’s the important part: they are your commands.
The shot you see here is the product of about fifty shots that were either deleted on the fly or winnowed out in the editing process. But I know what they are because I shot them. That’s not my vanity talking: it’s just the difference between learning to trust yourself and handing that trust over to the machine. For me, the choice is simple.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY PUBLIC, WONDERFULLY ELEGANT expressions of holiday spirit we all share in common, dripping in lights and bursting with sentiment, are measures of how we might observe an “ideal” season, perfect in execution, it’s every detail wonderfully balanced between love, memory and mystery. But the Christmases that we craft with what’s on hand, either emotionally or financially……well, that’s another thing entirely.
The holidays we piece together one lonely candle, one sad string of lights at a time, are worth seeking with your camera, no less than the forty-story firs in the public square. Stationed wherever we happen to wind up, cadging together makeshift moments from inside a barracks, in the last dark apartment down the hall, we “make do”, but we also re-make ourselves. We drill down to what’s essential. And pictures of those tiny acts of enchantment are worth discovering.
One of the most poignant moments, among many, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol describes the humble holiday preparations of the family of Scrooge’s impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, modest rituals that, over time, have rung truer than all the grand and glorious galas trotted out each season by the more fortunate. Bob’s wife is described as “dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned (re-re-hemmed) gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence…”, This sentence has remained burned into my brain since I first read it more than half a century ago. Brave in ribbons. The quiet, persistent dignity of that woman has, for me, symbolized the season more than all the lights and garlands on the earth.
In the years since that first reading, I have tried to train my photographer’s eye to look beyond the big and loud of Christmas to find the small and soft iterations of the holiday, those places where its spirit must inch its way skyward like a wildflower struggling through a crack in the sidewalk. I see some amazing testaments to human survival in the modest windows and tiny yards where many a loving remembrance resides.
Some, as in the case of the picture seen here, are observed at the backsides of alleys, eight stories up in a parking garage, overlooked, unsung. But sing them we should, and picture them we must. Oversized dreams in department store windows are seductive, to be sure, a visual ode to If Only. But down here on the ground, where most Christmases are crafted, a lot more must be supplied by dint of imagination and dreams. Here, closer to the human heart, we learn to ignore our tattered hems, and to be brave in ribbons.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.
Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.
Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.
Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.
As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS SOMETHING TRAGIC, AND CONFOUNDING, in America’s longstanding reluctance to re-use and re-purpose its historic infrastructure. This ever-young nation seems to have an allergic reaction to preservation, as if the physical artifacts of its heritage contained some kind of dread plague. As a consequence, buildings that have figured most prominently in the story of our nation’s amazing evolution fall…. first to neglect, then to the wrecking ball.
Photography is a way to bear witness to what Gore Vidal called “the United States Of Amnesia”, a way to document lost opportunities and wasted potential across the fifty states. Miles of once-vital roads that no longer lead anywhere: blocks of neighborhoods that now howl and whistle in a dead wind: acres of buildings that once housed history instead of cockroaches and cobwebs. All is ripe for either revelation or regret at the point of a camera.
Columbus, Ohio’s original air terminal building, opened in 1929 with hoopla and help from both Amelia Earhart and co-founder Charles Lindbergh, is one such location. Created as part of the country’s first fledgling attempt at a transcontinental air service (and this, only two years after Lindbergh’s astonishing solo flight to Paris) “Port Columbus” was solid proof that the air age was real.
Real enough, in fact, that a mere nineteen years later, the city’s air traffic had grown so rapidly that construction began on a shiny new international hub, big enough to accommodate a mid-century tourist boom, the jet era, and an explosion of international travel. The 1929 terminal was shuttered, living a few latter-day half-lives as offices for one short-term tenant or another, finally coming its silent rest on the Port’s back property, its legacy given half-hearted lip service with the obligatory plaque on the door.
Full disclosure: Columbus, Ohio was, for most of my life, my hometown. It is, among other things, a city of many firsts, a vital test market of ideas for everything from ATMs to hula hoops. And while I know that new uses won’t be in the cards for all historically important buildings there (or, indeed, anywhere), I am glad, at least, that, as photographers, we are privileged to say of such places: look here. This happened. This was important.
It’s often said that there are no second acts in American lives.
That’s tragic. And confounding.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE JOKES ABOUT HOW HUMANS END TO OVER-THINK THINGS involves a farmer standing by the side of the road with a herd of cattle, who is greeted by a passing urban tourist. “Excuse me”, says the visitor, “are those Herefords or Guernseys?” “Gee”, replies the farmer, “I just call ’em ‘moo-cows’!”
Similarily, I sometimes think that the weighted term street photography is more distinction than difference. City, country, street, pasture…hey, it’s all just pictures, right? Yes, I know….”street” is supposed to denote some kind of commentary, an interpretive statement on the state of humanity, an analysis on How We Got Here. Social sciences stuff. Street work is by nature a kind of preachment, born as it was out of journalism and artists like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who used images to chronicle the city’s ills and point toward solutions. For these geniuses and so many that followed, those street scenes rested fundamentally on people.
And by people, we mean discernible faces, unposed portraits that seared our souls and pricked our consciences. Street photography came to focus almost solely on the stories within those faces: their joy, their agony, their buoyant or busted dreams. In my own work, however, I am also drawn to street scenes where people are not front and center, but blended into the overall mix of elements, props, if you like, in an overall composition, like streetlamps, cars or buildings. There can be strong commentary in images that don’t “star” people but rather “feature” them. Walker Evans, one of the premiere shooters working for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, and creator of many classic depictions of the Great Depression, remarked that folks, as such, were not his aim when it came to street shots. “I’m not interested in people in the portrait sense, in the individual sense”, he said in 1971. “I’m interested in people as part of the pictures….as themselves, but anonymous.”
There is always a strong strain of competition among photographers, and street photography can become a wrestling match about who is telling the most truth, drilling down to the greatest revelation….a kind of “streeter than thou” mentality. However, just because something is raw and real doesn’t make it interesting, or else we could all just shoot the inside of garbage cans all day and be done with it. Compelling is compelling and boring is boring and if you know how to make a picture that grabs the eye better than the next guy, then subject matter, even motivation, doesn’t matter a damn. The picture is all. The picture will always be all. Everything else is noise.