By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020, IN ADDITION TO BEING THE EMOTIONAL EQUIVALENT of a meteor shower for many of us, has also packed a lot of cruel ironies into the overall mix of horrors. Observe; electronically, we are closer to some than we have ever been, while also being geographically more distant; we can’t go out for our favorite foods, but have connected with our inner sourdough baker; and, most poignant, to me at least, we have seen photographs exalted from random markers of time and place to essential messengers, proxies to represent us to those we love.
Pictures of the holidays pack an extra dollop of emotional freight in a good year. In a horrific one, everything that comes out of a camera is weighted with extra heft. Everyday tasks become art; mundane events are promoted to major milestones. That means that seasonal images, already doing a lot of heavy lifting, impart, in pandemic times, even greater import. Things are both sad and happy, hopeful and despairing. Pictures measure both joy and loss in ever more profound ways.
Take the simple idea of the front entrances to our homes. During the holidays, we decorate them to amplify the concept of home, safety. And yet, this year, the welcoming message is a hollow one. The front door is not so much an invitation as the final barrier between the outside world and the people within, who must, for this time, barricade themselves behind it. The bells, balls, tinsel and lights say, “Come on in” even as our wiser minds tell us to say “Stay away.” The third-degree burn of this irony has made me reduce my usual wide tide of seasonal shots to almost exclusively focus on front doors. The warmth they project remains visually unchanged from that of years past. It’s our own emotional context that makes us feel the pictures differently. They are images of conditional welcomes, as the entire holiday season, as it must, becomes one big exercise in delayed gratification.
As with so many other things, photographs have become repurposed in the Year Of The Plague. How could they not? And yet, as My Happy Home is temporarily recast as My Brave Face, the photographs we take during the final stretch of this global nightmare may, in time, be among our most prized possessions, because half of “bittersweet” is still, after all, “sweet”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT HIBERNATION OF 2020 has done, in the ages of fragmented audiences and unlimited media choices, what prehistoric TV networks used to do all the time…that is, knit the country together with universally shared experiences. Back in the days of three or four channels, we all went through the same big events generally at the same time. Bereft of the time-shifting and endless repeat patterns of our present video age, the narrow range of viewing choices in those days gave people of a certain age a common cultural baseline. We tended to experience one official version of large things, from coronations to assassinations to the first earth orbit to the last episode of The Fugitive (which was watched by 78,000,000 viewers). Now the events that we all experience in real time, together is limited to the Super Bowl and a few nervous election nights. Everything else we view, well, when we choose to view it, if it’s not on a platform that we ignore altogether.
The global virus tragedy has come closer to give us a shared, real-time experience than almost anything else in the lifetime of people under fifty. And yet, through the medium of art and the journeys of our own personal struggles, we are filtering it into our memory in very distinctive ways, taking this titanic problem from the general to the specific. We all begin at the same starting point as the emergency first breaks, and then, we customize the ways we internalize it, with every conceivable form of expression: diaries: drawings: essays: cartoons: memes: movies….
Alone at home, I must comment on the crisis in ways that sustain my own sense of hope. Also in ways that use distance to help me hold onto my reason. Some of that is just my circumstantial lot: I will never be, for example, a photojournalist on the front lines of this battle. I may never even walk the deserted streets that have become the haunting visual signature of the story. Within the confines of my reduced living space, I have little in the way of photographic tools besides my imagination or whatever humor I can muster in the moment. Sometimes, as you see above, I come down on the side of whimsy. Other times things get so heavy I don’t know if I’m capable of making an image that faithfully records that. I guess I’ll find out.
The Great Hibernation has snapped many people of my age back to the memory of other globally shared events from years ago…some tragic and some magic. We are certainly fragmented as compared to those days, but the amazing outpouring of heroism and sacrifice that have marked our reaction to this horror….well, that feels like a bond, anyway. And perhaps the art that we use to chronicle our feelings, even if they are very individual emotions, can occasionally strike a universal chord. It’s worth a try.
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
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
THE OLDER I BECOME, both as a person and as a photographer, I wonder if there truly is any such thing as a “self-portrait”. Of course, I don’t doubt that it’s technically easier than ever to record one’s own image in a photograph. What I do doubt is whether the term portrait is a valid one when applied to oneself. Simply, can we be objective enough to accurately interpret who we are with a camera that we ourselves wield?
Now, bear with me. This isn’t as hippy-dippy as it sounds.
Many of us can recall the first time we heard out recorded voice played back. Its sounded alien, untrue, outside ourselves, even abstract. Similarly, we have also disparaged other people’s attempts to “capture” us in a photograph, dismissing their efforts with “that doesn’t even look like me!” Does this mean that the other person’s camera somehow transformed us into a distortion of ourselves? Or is it, rather, that we have an imperfect concept of what our actual appearance really is? But….okay, let’s suppose for a moment that everyone else in the world that takes our photo somehow doesn’t “get” us, that we, out of our vast knowledge of our own hearts and minds, are, in fact, the only person qualified to reveal ourselves in a photograph. All right, that being our theory, what are the real results of our having, especially in the current age, almost unlimited “do-overs” to get our pictures of ourselves “just right”?
After all, as much sheer practice as we have taking images of ourselves (and it is some real tonnage, folks), we should have reached some plateau of proficiency, some perfecting of process for telling our true story. But have we? Are you satisfied that your best, most authentic self resides in a picture that you yourself have taken? I know that, in my own case, I can only confirm that I have gotten better at producing a version of myself that I choose to represent me to the world. I have crafted a performance out of my own talent as a photographer that shows me in the most flattering light, portraying me, by turns, as thoughtful, funny, courageous, resilient, and whatever other recipe of herbs and spices flatter me most. But have any of these performances qualified as “portraits”? I can’t answer that question with complete confidence….and neither, I suspect, can many of you.
So is the “self-portrait” destined to be a beautifully concocted lie? Well, to a degree, yes, always. Those of us who apply an unflinching and honest eye to our own shortcomings and biases may occasionally approach the truth in the way we present ourselves to our own cameras. And a few of us will even achieve a kind of angelic honesty. And it will always, always be easy to have the whole process collapse in self-parody. But the point is this: given the sheer volume of “selfie” traffic loose in the modern world, we should at least try to break through our estrangements, our protective layers. A photograph can certainly be seductive even when it’s a lie. Sometimes because it’s a lie. But from time to time, it’s nice to take a gut check and see if we recall what the truth looks like as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO CONSIDER A PHOTOGRAPH “FINISHED“, I have to be at peace with the choices made in creating it. I can take either an active or passive role in making an image, each role with its own set of choices. At the most active end of the scale, I might be shooting completely on manual, micromanaging every step of the process, making what I call shaping choices. At my most passive, I might be snapping in full automode, which means, after the camera makes its own arbitrary decisions, my choices are merely editorial, with me choosing my favorites from among a group of photos essentially taken by “someone else”.
“Live” performances can be a challenge for me whether I’m shooting actively or passively. The stakes are as follows:
Shooting on manual (actively) means making lots of adjustments in the moment, with action progressing so quickly that, even at my fastest, I may miscalculate or simply miss a key opportunity. In short, I could work really hard and still go home with nothing. Or I could follow my instinct and bag a beauty.
Now let’s say I shoot passively, using a mode designed for such situations. Some cameras call this mode “continuous”, while others refer to it as “sports” or “burst”, but it simply refers to the camera’s ability to crank off several frames per second, making all necessary adjustments to aperture, shutter speed, autofocus and ISO on the fly with just one touch from the shooter. Since the camera can make these shifts much faster than any human, you’ll have scads of shots to choose from, nearly all of which will be technically acceptable. You lose control over everything except choice of subject and composition, but you do get the final say over what constitutes a “keeper”, such as the image of a flamenco dancer you see here, which was caught on burst automode. Your choices are less creative and more editorial, and, if you disagree with all of the “other photographer’s” choices, you’re just as out of luck as if you had shot everything manually but hated it all. Wotta world, am I right?
As photographers, we choose subject matter, and then choose the best way to approach capturing it, based on whether you rate assistance from your camera as a bane or a blessing or something in between. Methods are a personal matter, but making a choice of some kind is key to comprehending what is happening in the picture-making process, and what role you want to play in it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENVY, WHILE A COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE HUMAN EMOTION, has only occasionally helped me advance as a photographer. Eating one’s heart out over someone else’s talent is, at best, a kind of sweet misery, but there are a few instances in which it’s almost a pleasure to look upon another person’s work and know that you’ll never approach that level of mastery.
For me, that juicy jealousy has always been reserved for the legendary output of the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal program charged with chronicling the nationwide impact of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the idea being that you couldn’t marshall public action against a problem people couldn’t see. The titanic FSA archive, containing more than 175,000 negatives, capitalized on the emerging 35mm film format and the country’s then-ubiquitous photo news magazines to produce images which were both objective reportage and so-called “street” photography. There is simply no comparable project in the history of the medium.
So, again, my own work, as previously confessed, is a admixture of envy and admiration. I can never take a crack at creating a narrative for the Dust Bowl or the great Oakie migration, but I can create an “homage” to those who did. You know how this works. When you get caught aping someone else’s technique, that’s “theft”. When you out yourself for doing the very same thing, it’s an “homage”. Soooooo…
The master shot of the above image was taken out the window of an Amtrak train winding its way between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, about ten days ago. I was struck by the visual isolation of the farm structures and the profound emptiness of the surrounding fields. The antique feel and texture of the finished product was supplied by the Hipstamatic app, the whole deal created completely in-camera on an iPhone, which is, to our era, what the Leica was to the FSA’s journeyman shooters….that is, the tool at hand. I can’t honestly chronicle the events of that time…..but I can render an echo of their feeling.
Some seventy-five years have passed since the Roosevelt administration sent a small army of shutterbugs across the country to live among those whose lives had been shattered by the Crash, to record what they were trying to do to restore equilibrium to a world that had run into a ditch. I will never be able to do that exact work. Still, I hope I can bring rigor to the challenges that my own time have placed before me. Sometimes, the two eras seem uncomfortably close, as if some very old dust were blowing up into a new storm…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CROWDS ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED as if they were single entities, as if each member were acting in accord with all others, like cells combining to form an organ. Writers likewise use the word “crowd” as a kind of collective noun, as in “the crowd went wild” or ” the crowd grew restless”, again making it seem as if a collection of individuals can act as a single thing. Spend time in any crowd as a photographic observer, however, and it becomes obvious that there is virtually no such thing as group behavior. Everyone comes to a crowd separately, one motive, one agenda at a time, and photographers can begin to harvest real human stories by seeing them that way.
To be sure, there is scope and drama in making uber-pictures that convey the sheer size and scope of mass gatherings. Likewise, there are certainly moments when crowds seem to be moving or acting as one, as in the moment when the winning run is hit or a rousing orator evokes a roar of approval. But look carefully within those general waves of action and you will still see the individual proudly on display. By turns, he is, even in a crowd, engaged, irritated, enthusiastic, bored, tired, ecstatic, and angry, just as visibly as if he were in any other situation. Get close enough to a mass of people and you’ll see The Person…..perhaps attempting to be part of something larger than himself, but still pushing his own brand of street theatre, still brandishing his own quirks.
Demonstrations, parades, celebrations, protests….they’re all staging points for persons, persons who give up their stories to the photographer’s eye no less in a mob than in the family den. Wait for the moment when that happens and grab it. Teach yourself to look at a crowd and see the person who’s truly one in a million.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST VALUED ARTIFACTS OF ANCIENT TIMES might not be considered so magnificent if they were not also so rare. The shards of pots found within the burial chambers of the Pharoahs seem remarkable because they are some of the only things that survive the age of their owners. However, were there hundreds, thousands of such sites around the world, these broken bits of pottery might be of less value than the discarded cigarette butts that litter the world’s highways.
Hey, isn’t this blog supposed to be about photography? Well, yeah, give me a little room here.
Photographs are thought to be documents, that is, a literal recording of reality. In fact, almost all of them are interpretations of reality, one person’s individual take on what’s “real”. In the beginning of the medium, pictures were more purely documentary, in that very few people took very few pictures of things unlikely to be photographed by anyone else before they vanished. It would be great to see dozens of different shooters’ interpretation of the battlefield of the Civil War, but, since the medium was not generally in use in the 1860’s, the work of Matthew Brady and his team of field photographers serves as our only record….in fact, as a document.
In the modern day, it is virtually impossible for your photograph of, say, the Empire State Building to be a “document”, since it will never, ever serve as the official or historical record of that structure. Once everyone’s picture is a document, then nobody’s is. You can interpret the building to endless variation, but you have to avoid thinking of the resulting images as “real”, since your own sense of that state defines how you make the picture. The edifice may be public property, but the vision is all yours.
Which brings us back to the Egyptians. Show a chamber filled with burial booty to a 21st-century archaeologist and he’ll exclaim, “let us carefully preserve this living record!”. Show the same room to the average Tut-era housewife and she might say, “get me a broom so I can clear all this junk out of here.” Photographs are your view of “reality”. Only when yours is the only eye on something vanished can it be documentary. Saying that a picture is great because it “looks realistic” is our way of admiring the photographer’s interpretation. That is, we agree with it. But images are more “istic” than they are “real”.
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
For decades, the legendary Life magazine provided richly illustrated summaries of the week’s events, competing with other photo-laden national weeklies from Look to Fortune, Collier’s to Liberty for the eyeballs of generations of subscribers. The weekly giants perfected the photo-essay, laying out stories on elections, wars, fashions and the arts in serial narrative form from opening headline to closing paragraph. Life has even had a second “life” of sorts, ceasing weekly publication clear back in 1972, but still visible on newsstands to the present day in re-mixed, themed reissues of its iconic image archives.
One of my favorite features in Life over the years was the Miscellany page, tucked just inside the magazine’s back cover, and reserved almost exclusively for whimsy or fun. Freed from the journalistic constraints of the rest of Life, the Miscellany images ended the week on an up note with novelty and warmth providing relief from starker, sterner material. Nearly all of the photos were “human interest” in nature, featuring amusing interactions between people. Lovers. Kids. Day laborers. There was a true “caught in the act” flavor to the shots, and most looked like lucky candids rather than staged or manipulated images.
The feature informed my own brand of street photography, the snap that makes the mind speculate on the story that takes place both before and after the click. Sometimes people figure in my own moments of whimsy. Other times, as in the case of the image up top, an unusual arrangement of elements captures my imagination, making me wonder how these particular things got to this particular place. The idea of a single blooming flowerpot on a cart standing outside a very industrial loading dock caught my eye, as the two things don’t seem, at first glance, to belong to the same world. I almost spent too long thinking about it, too, since, several seconds after I snapped the picture, a worker came into frame and removed the vase, vaporizing my little tableau forever. Snooze you lose.
Miscellany appealed to my child’s sense of how to tell a story in pictures, not by what was shown but by what else is going on. There is a limited “when” for all whimsy, and, as the editors of Life realized so well, a time when one picture on the page is worth a thousand more in the mind.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“(the book is) flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness, (showing) a contempt for quality and technique…” –Popular Photography, in its 1958 review of The Americans
THOSE WORDS OF DISDAIN, designed to consign its subject to the ash heap of history, are now forever attached to the photographic work that, instead of vanishing in disgrace, almost single-handedly re-invented the way the world saw itself through the eye of a camera. For to thumb through Robert Frank’s 1958 collection of road images, The Americans, is to have one’s sense of what is visually important transformed. Forever.
In the mid-1950’s, mass-market photojournalist magazines from Life to Look regularly ran “essays” of images that were arranged and edited to illustrate story text, resulting in features that told readers what to see, which sequence to see it in, and what conclusions to draw from the experience. Editors assiduously guided contract photographers in what shots were required for such assignments, and they had final say on how those pictures were to be presented. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Switzerland, had, by mid-century, already toiled in these formal gardens at mags that included Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and was ready for something else, a something else where instinct took preference over niceties of technique that dominated even fine-art photography.
Making off for months alone in a 1950 Ford and armed only with a 35mm Leica and a modest Guggenheim grant, Frank drove across much of the United States shooting whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. He worked quickly, intrusively, and without regard for the ettiquette of formal photography, showing people, places, and entire sub-cultures that much of the country had either marginalized or forgotten. He wasn’t polite about it. He didn’t ask people to say cheese. He shot through the windshield, directly into streetlights. He didn’t worry about level horizons, under-or-over exposure, the limits of light, or even focal sharpness, so much as he obsessed about capturing crucial moments, unguarded seconds in which beauty, ugliness, importance and banality all collided in a single second. Not even the saintly photojournalists of the New Deal, with their grim portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, had ever captured anything this immediate, this raw.
Frank escaped a baker’s dozen of angry confrontations with his reluctant subjects, even spending a few hours in local jails as he clicked his way across the country. The terms of engagement were not friendly. If America at large didn’t want to see his stories, his targets were equally reluctant to be bugs under Frank’s microscope. When it was all finished, the book found a home with the outlaw publishers at Grove Press, the scrappy upstart that had first published many of the emerging poets of the Beat movement. The traditional photographic world reacted either with a dismissive yawn or a snarling sneer. This wasn’t photography: this was some kind of amateurish assault on form and decency. Sales-wise, The Americans sank like a stone.
Around the edges of the photo colony, however, were fierce apostles of what Frank had seen, along with a slowly growing recognition that he had made a new kind of art emerge from the wreckage of a rapidly vanishing formalism. One of the earliest converts was the King of the Beats Himself, no less than Jack Kerouac, who, in the book’s introduction said Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film.”
Today, when asked about influences, I unhesitatingly recommend The Americans as an essential experience for anyone trying to train himself to see, or report upon, the human condition. Because photography isn’t merely about order, or narration, or even truth. It’s about constantly changing, and re-charging, the conversation. Robert Frank set the modern tone for that conversation, even if he first had to render us all speechless.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, and the other saw stars.–proverb attributed to Dale Carnegie
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ONLY SEVERAL DECADES OLD WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE to chronicle the world’s great comings and goings. The 19th century’s primitive print technology delayed the arrival of news photographs in the popular press for a while, but, once rotogravures and other methods caught up with the camera, the dizzying daily mix of wars, crimes, fancies and foibles that we call news began to be “illustrated” by photos, and we have never looked back since. If photography has a mission in the world, we came to believe, it is to use its unblinking eye to catch humanity in the act of behaving, well, like humanity. That reportorial bent, born in the 1800’s, still places a similar burden, by extension, on all photographers. We are supposed to Reveal The Facts, Get At The Truth, and Bear Witness.
So-called “street photography” has its roots in the works of crusading pioneers like Jacob Riis, the reporter turned photographer whose stark depiction of Manhattan slum life in the book How The Other Half Lives moved fellow reformers like Teddy Roosevelt to take action against that city’s brutal poverty. All these decades later, we place a certain trust in images that show the seamier or harsher side of life. Even those of us who aren’t officially campaigning to make the world a better place click off millions of “real” images of gritty cities, abandoned people, or hopeless conditions. We tend to regard these images as more authentic than the ones we create of things that poetic, or beautiful.
But this is a flawed viewpoint. We can, if we choose, look through the bars and see only the mud. But that doesn’t mean that marveling at the stars is any less important, or that beholding the beautiful is somehow a frivolous or non-serious pursuit. In fact, we need beauty to keep our souls from being crushed and rendering ourselves useless to do anything noble or good. Beauty is a template, a blueprint for the fulfillment of life, and we can’t even measure how far we’ve wandered toward the mud unless we know the distance we are from the stars.
Photography is “for” beauty, just as it is “for” everything else in human experience. We can, and should, be moved by cracked windows and wrecked alleys, to be sure, but it is our knowledge of the lark and the mountain that remind us why ugliness offends us. The fuller we are as humans, the better we are as photographers.
Don’t ignore the mud. That would be stupid. But keep your eyes, both yours and your camera’s, on the stars as well.