NOT QUITE A MEMORY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY WIFE’S MOTHER WAS NOT MUCH FOR COLLECTING, but, over the years, she did lay aside a rather large bag of silver dollar coins dating from the late 1800’s through the post-WWI era. Like many of us, I suppose she thought they would inevitably increase in value, sort of like a low-interest passbook account. The jury’s still out on that, although I really doubt if Marian and I are sitting on the motherlode: the real value in the coins lies in their ability to conjure other times.
Occasionally, the coins are trotted out and sniffed over, then put back under wraps, but, at their most recent airing, I decided to do some macro work with them, employing a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens (which magnifies nearly to 1 to 1). Like most Lensbaby optics, the 56 is designed to create a “look” that borrows more from art than reality, delivering a warm, glowing haze layer atop a focused underlying image. Words like “glamour” or “dreamy” are used to describe the effect, conjuring visions of Hollywood starlets posing for their studio head shots.
Most of the coins showed no human face at all, just a profile of Lady Liberty, but one from the U.K. featured a visage that was both real and fantasy, depending upon whom you asked: a portrait of a decidedly young Elizabeth II from the 1950’s, an artist’s idealization that happens on all official money, sanding the rough edges and more mortal flaws from various sovereigns both good and evil, transforming them into a vision of the leaders we wish we had. Elizabeth’s 70-year reign is a classic example of how the idea of something substantial, or lasting, is as powerful as actually being substantial or lasting. Come to think of it, that sounds like the very stuff of making photographs.
What could be less “real” or “representational” than using a lens to make an abstraction of something that was an abstraction to begin with? And yet, what could be more purely photographic? In my choice of lens, alone, I’ve made a series of interpretive choices… deciding that I would present this object in this distinct fashion, that its flaws and features alike would be filtered through something that would assign a different value to them. Pictures are made of things as we wish to see them, not as they are, since that kind of reality is beyond the power of any device. If we let ourselves, we truly work without limits or expectations.
It’s almost as great an entitlement as being Queen….