By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY APPEAL THAT ATTRACTS HORDES OF VISITORS to travel destinations around the world, sites that are photographed endlessly by visitors and pilgrims alike, may be the same thing that ensures that most of the resulting images will be startlingly similar, if not numbingly average. After all, if we are all going for the same Kodak moment, few of us will find much new truth to either the left or right of a somewhat mediocre median.
In a general sense, yes, we all have “access” to the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, etc., but it is an access to which we are carefully channeled, herded, and roped by the keepers of these treasures. And if art is a constant search for a new view on a familiar subject, travel attractions provide a tightly guarded keyhole through which only a narrowly proscribed vantage point is visible. The very things we have preserved are in turn protected from us in a way that keeps us from telling our subject’s “big story”, to apprehend a total sense of the tower, temple, cathedral or forest we yearn to re-interpret.
More and more, a visit to a cultural keepsake means settling….for the rooms you’re allowed to see, the areas where the tours go, the parts of the building that have been restored. Beyond that, either be a photographer for National Geographic, or help yourself to a souvenir album in our gift shop, thank you for your interest. Artistically speaking, shooters have more latitude in capturing the stuff nobody cares about; if a locale is neglected or undiscovered, you have a shot at getting the shot. Imagine being Ansel Adams in the Yosemite of the 1920’s, tramping around at will, decades before the installation of comfort stations and guard rails, where his imagination was only limited by where his legs could carry him (and his enormous and unwieldy view camera, I know). Sadly, once a site has been “saved”, or more precisely, monetized, the views, the access, the original feel of its “big story” is buried in theme cafes, commemorative shrines, info counters, and, not insignificantly, competition with every other ambitious shooter, who, like you, wants a crack at whatever essences can still be seen between the trinkets and kiosks.
On a recent visit to the 1930’s luxury liner RMS Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California, I tried with mixed results to get a true sense of scale for this Art Deco leviathan, but its current use as a hotel, tour trek and retail mall has so altered the overall visual flow that in some cases only “small stories” can effectively be told. Steamlined details and period motifs can render a kind of feel for what the QM might have been before its life as a kind of ossified merchandise museum, but, whereas time has not been able to rob the ship’s beauty, commerce certainly nibbles around its edges.
Sometimes you win the game. I recently discovered the above snapshot of the Eiffel Tower, taken in 1900 by the French novelist Emile Zola, where real magic is at work. Instead of clicking off the standard post card view of the site, Zola climbed to the tower’s first floor staircase, then shot straight down to capture an elegant period restaurant situated below the tower’s enormous foundation arches. And although only a small part of the Eiffel is in his final frame, it is contextualized in size and space against the delicate details of tables, chairs, and diners gathered below, glorifying both the tower and the bygone flavor of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps, for a well-recorded destination, the devil (and the delight) is in the details. Maybe we should all be framing tighter, zooming in, looking for the visual punctuation instead of the whole paragraph. Maybe all the “little stories” add up to a sum greater than that of the almighty master shot we originally went after. Despite the obstacles, we must still try to dictate the terms of engagement.
One image at a time.
ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS of shooters is, “what’s that supposed to be?”, usually asked of any image that is less obvious than a sunset shot of the Eiffel Tower or a souvenir snap of Mount Rushmore. You may have found, in fact, that the number of times that the question is asked is directly proportional to how intensely personal your vision is exercised on a given project. As much as the hidden aspects of life fascinate us, the obvious recording of familiar objects soothe the eye, like a kind of ocular comfort food. The farther you wander in your own direction as a photographer, the greater journey you also ask of your viewers. Sometimes the invitation is taken. Sometimes you must face “the question”.
What’s that supposed to be?
How, actually, in a world shaped by our own subjective experience, an image is “supposed” to be anything is a little baffling. It’s probably safe to say that what we present, as artists is probably supposed to be the view as one’s mind filters it through his or her accumulated life. When we use the camera as a mere recorder, it may make it easier, presenter-to-viewer, to agree on that image’s terms of engagement, but that may or may not reveal what we actually felt about when creating it. If I use the same three colors to render a picture of the American flag as everyone else uses, I may get into fewer arguments about how appropriate the resulting image is, but then, I don’t get to open up the discussion to any other conceptions of that flag. Back in the first days of the environmental movement, the simple use of green on the original, Old-Glory-derived ecology flag suggested an alternative way of being American, of living your life. As I recall, some viewed the design as sacrilegious, while others embraced it as liberating.
Over 150 years after the first photographs were regarded as a threat to the painter’s domain, we are still most at ease with pictures that ape the painting’s method for framing the world. Oddly, it is always outlaws and amateurs that break free of these pictorial chains first; the professionals must protect the turf they have so carefully mapped out for themselves in the mainstream. There remains, then, an ongoing battle over what should or should not be called a “picture”. Abstractions, arranged or perceived patterns, even selected details or drastic re-imaginings of small parts of the so-called “actual” world must always fight for their place at the table alongside the technically accurate mirroring of easily named subjects. We still regard that which is realistic as being the most real, and the most worthy of praise.
To want to show something for its own sake on our own terms is to move into more personal territory, and hence onto shakier ground for critical evaluation, but occasionally we strike a balance between what people want to see and what we must show. In the above image, I only wanted to focus attention on an arrangement that was a very small and visually ignored accent along a heavily travelled public street. An unsung landscaper’s arrangement of tiles, gravel, paving rock, and succulent plants, was in plain view, and yet, at only a few inches in height, easily missed by the thousands of daily passersby speeding along the street. To me, when framed close to ground level, it resembled a kind of desert cityscape, blocks of abstract skyscrapers, a cactus metropolis, and that’s how I tried to frame and process it. Of course, it us, after all, just a pattern, and anyone who looks at the image can fill in their own blanks with impressions that are just as valid as my kind of toy idea.
The vital point is that no one else’s take on your dream can be wrong, just because it differs with yours. Art is not a science, which is why we don’t become photographers, or as the word implies, “light writers” just by pushing a button.
We become photographers by pushing everyone’s buttons.
What is it “supposed to be”? You tell me, and I’ll tell you.