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
RETAIL CHAINS ARE STARVATION FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, a barren field where nothing grows, at least visually. America used to be a place where, in our business doings, our petticoat showed a bit; a certain raw vitality showed through our saggy banners, our improvised displays, our homespun marketing. It’s no wonder that the photojournalists of the Great Depression or the choniclers of the Lower East Side of the early 1900’s made poetry out of our back-of-the-truck veggie stands, our horse-drawn pushcarts, our roadside tag sales. There was texture there. There was the real drama of struggle, and it was a pictorial gold mine.
Of course it’s not all gone, and we are not, uniformly, Wal-Mart Nation. Not yet.
As picture makers, we have so much more to work with looking at the human, the risky, the uncertain in our do-it-yourself capitalism. There are stories in it. There are real people on the front lines of the culture to watch and capture. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun than trying to find drama in the grand opening of, say, Kwikie Mart # 3425.
And picture opportunities, created by the blacktop gypsies of our time, are still setting up shop across the country…..six days in a Target parking lot to sell fireworks, four hours in a church driveway to hawk cakes and pies, three weeks in a vacant lot to peddle Christmas trees. And then there are the fairs, the craft shows, and the garage sales, those stubborn little machines of mercantile faith. You can’t not grab gold in these fields.
There may be a great epic just waiting to be shot inside a massive wholesale warehouse, but I prefer my drama smaller, and a little more on the human side. Show me a guy trying to make a buck against all odds and I’ll show you a picture.
Or make you one.
IN ITS FIRST DAYS, photography took on the inward, personal aspect of painting, both in its selection of pictorial subjects and in its method of presentation, which was designed to legitimize the new science by aping the look of the canvas. Only by actively engaging the world and invading every corner of it in an outward search for truth or beauty did picture-making break free of the painter’s constraints. Once Matthew Brady’s stark images of the Civil War froze that conflict’s horror on glass, at least one leg of the photographer’s stool rested on a confrontation of reality.
In the 20th century, as shooters toggled between deliberate, arranged images and pure documentation, the “face” of the public became an unwitting tool in the artist’s toolbox. Human manifestations of delight, horror, revelation and ruin told the story of the new era even more graphically than the correspondent’s pen, creating some of the most indelible images of modern times. Indeed, there seemed to be an unspoken pact between the artist and his “prey” to the effect that their lives, like ours, could be endlessly recorded, interpreted, interrupted and enshrined for the sake of our “art”.
But is that era coming to an end? And, for photography, what lies beyond?
In recent years, both public and private institutions have begun to disallow photography in some venues that had historically been open to it, including retail stores, parks, malls and other previously “free” spaces. Some of this is the inevitable aftermath of our recent obsession with security, a kind of whoa-slow-down against the pervasive replication of all aspects of one’s identity. Perhaps, several gazillion camera phone snaps and gotcha YouTubes later, we have reached a tipping point of sorts, a world in which people desperately seek a firewall around their secret selves.
Even as certain nondescript individuals shamelessly seek the spotlight of reality shows and paparazzi-fed ego gratification, many more are feeling an unfamiliar new yen for shelter from the ubiquitous flash of fame. In such a time, the concept of commentary or “street” photography faces one of its most daunting challenges. What is permissible in an image, now? Are what were once the eloquently revealing truths of spontaneous snaps now a kind of voyeurism, a “reality porn” peek into peoples’ lives to which we have no right?
Without the harrowing chronicle of Dorothea Lange’s dust-bowl refugees, would we understand less of the horrific impact of the Great Depression? Was she underscoring an important message or exploiting her subjects’ suffering? Absent Larry Burrows’ grunt’s-eye-view of Vietnam for Life magazine, would we have missed a valuable insight into a war our government might just have gladly kept under wraps? We may have already reached the point where some of us, embarrassed for the intrusive nature of our craft, have begun to self-censor, to mentally de-select some images before we even shoot them. Such prior restraint may be the height of sensitivity, but it spells paralysis for art.