By MICHAEL PERKINS
Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee.
Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…
Truck Driver: I like your sugar.
They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940
AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.
Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.
I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.
Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.
Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC STILL-LIFES ARE THE POOR MAN’S PRACTICE LAB. All the necessary elements for self-taught imaging are plentiful, nearby, and generally cheap. As has been demonstrated perpetually across the history of photography, the subjects themselves are only of secondary importance. What’s being practiced are the twin arts of exposure and composition, so it doesn’t matter a pig whistle whether you’re assembling a basket of oranges or throwing together a pile of old broken Barbie dolls. It’s not about depicting a thing so much as it is about finding new ways to see a thing.
That’s why an entire class of shooters can cluster around the same randomly chosen subject and produce vastly different viewing experiences. And why one of the most commonly “seen” things in our world, for example, food, can become so intriguingly alien when subjected to the photographer’s eye.
Shooting food for still-life purposes provides remarkably different results from the professional shots taken to illustrate articles and cookbooks. “Recipe” shots are really a way of documenting what your cooking result should resemble. But other still-life shots with food quickly become a quest to show something as no one else has ever shown it. It’s not a record of a cabbage; it’s a record of what you thought about a cabbage on a given day.
Many books over the years have re-printed Edward Weston’s famous black-and-white shots of peppers, in which some people “saw” things ranging from mountain terrain to abstract nudes. These remarkable shots are famous not for what they show, but for what they make it possible to see. Food’s various signature textures, under the photographer’s hand, suggest an infinite number of mental associations, once you visually unchain the source materials from the most common perception of their features.
As the head chef around my house, I often pick certain cooking days where I will factor in extra time, beyond what it takes to actually prepare whatever meal I’m planning. That additional time is reserved so I can throw food elements that interest me into patterns…..on plates, towels, counters, whatever, in an effort to answer the eternal photog question, is this anything? If it is, I snap it. If it’s not, I eat it (destroying the evidence, as it were).
Either way, I get what I call “seeing practice”, and, someday, when a rutabaga starts to look like a ballerina, I might be ready. Or maybe I should just lie down until the feeling passes.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- Is Food Art: Notes from a Food Photographer (okramagazine.org)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I‘M ALMOST TO THE POINT WHERE I DON’T WANT TO THROW ANYTHING AWAY. I’ve written here before about pausing just a beat before chucking out what, on first glance, appears to simply be junk, hoping that a second look will tell me if this rejected thing has any potential as a still life subject. I realize that this admission on my part may conjure images of a pathetic old hoarder whose apartment is packed with swaying columns of yellowed newspapers from 1976 and pizza boxes that have become filing cabinets for old soda bottles, mismatched hardware, and souvenir tickets from Elvis’ last concert.
It’s not that bad.
For this I have my wife to thank, since the civilizing influence she brings to my life tends to bank the freakier fires of my aesthetic wanderings. Still, there are hours each day when she’s at work, heh heh, hours during which the mad scavenger rescues the odd object, deluding himself that it is the next big thing in artsy coolness.
That’s what led me to the apple. Actually, I was rooting around in the garage fridge for a beer. The “backup” fridge often acts as a kind of museum of the lost for things we meant to finish eating or bring into the house. The abandoned final four strands of ziti from the restaurant. The sad survivors from the lunch we packed for the office, then left behind since we were running late.
And, in this case, a very old apple.
Having seen gazillions of pieces of fruit frozen in time by photographers, I am sometimes more interested in preserving the moment when Nature has decided to call them home. It’s not like decay is attractive per se, but seeing the instant where time is actually changing the terms of the game for an object, as it always is for us, can be oddly fixating.
So I set this old soldier on a slab and shot away for about a dozen frames. Window light, plain as mud, really zero technique. The colors on the apple were still bright, but the wrinkles had become furrows now, sucking up light and creating strange shadows. Something was leaving, collapsing, vanishing before my eyes, and I wanted to stop it, if only for a second.
And yes, in case you are asking, I did finally throw the thing away.
And got myself a beer.