A rather cold, imperious rendition of “Liberty” as seen on this 1879 U.S. silver dollar.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST WAY TO APPROACH A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT PURELY ON YOUR OWN TERMS is for the thing to be severed from its original context, torn free of any associations it once had with the world at large. Once these so-called “found objects” come into our hands, we can make pictures of them as only we see them, not as they were anchored to everyday use. They become, in this way, blank canvasses of sorts.
In recently looking over some old coins ranging from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, I became struck with how self-obliterating their history was. That is, they were all something so commonly used by the public as to be virtually invisible…and then became literally invisible as newer designs vanished them, yanking them from circulation to be replaced by versions more consistent with the fashions and priorities of new eras. One thing that seemed particularly fluid was the depiction of Liberty, each generation’s edition created to conform to our conceptions of the concept they personified.
On the 1887 silver dollar, seen at top, the lady is a rather classic goddess figure, austere, inscrutable, even muscular. She’s shown in a classic two-dimensional profile, very much in the tradition of Greek and Roman antiquity. She’s remote, above it all. In contrast, the rendition that replaced her on the 1921 “peace” design, seen below, is more contoured, and decidedly a woman of the troubled twentieth century. Her neck is slender. Her expression is expectant, even anxious, coming at the end of a decade of horrendous global slaughter. Her “peace” is more of an aspiration than a fact, her femininity borne of a personal, more mortal idea of hope. I wanted to make a picture that captured those qualities.
Liberty for a new age: the same ideal as envisioned on the U.S. “peace” dollar coin.
For “my” Liberty, then, the clinically stern crispness of a standard macro shot, i.e., hard evidence of the tough life of a widely circulated coin (scratches, dents, etc., in bold relief) had to, in photographs, gave way to an idealized, softened kind of aspect, or as close as I could come to a kind of dream state. I used a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens, which is deliberately designed to create the spherical and chromatic aberrations that used to produce glowy, softer focus as an accidental artifact of older, more flawed lenses. In recent years, Canon, Pentax and Mamiya have also made glass that mimic that flaw, especially at wider apertures (this was shot at f/3).
Working to liberate “my Liberty” was creatively easier because the coin she graces has vanished from daily use, and, with it, all the associative ties to the world that it was created for. That allowed me to imagine her for myself, and every photograph I have ever truly cared about began under just such terms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s often difficult to know when a simple composition will serve as the best overall tool for an effective narrative. We all heard something from our ninth-grade science teacher about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, and some of that directness, expressed as an image that gets to the point without needless visual distractions or detours, certainly applies to some of our best work.
But then again…
Some pictures certainly suffer from an overabundance of detail. The eye can get lost on its way to the main point of the photograph; competing components of equal appeal can wrestle each other for dominance in a scene; and, of course, excessive clutter can defuse a photo’s impact altogether. Imagine a large Where’s Waldo? panorama in which, to your frustration, you just never manage to find Waldo at all.
That said, there are subjects which are busy, busy, busy, but which might actually lose their power if you tried to tidy them up or streamline them. Consider the above shot of a hallway inside the Library of Congress. Here is a place where no one even considered the minimalist credo that “less is more”. Indeed, this magnificent building is about majesty, power, prestige, officialdom, if you will. It means to shout loud and proud. It is an expression of an empire, an edifice to the grandeur of the ideas contained within its walls. Simple and spare just won’t cut it for such a place, and a photograph taken of it needs to respect that.
Even in places that boast this level of ornamentation, however, you can take small steps to prevent your viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed. An even, bright exposure, for example, with nothing lurking in shadows to trick your viewer into going on a scavenger hunt; sharp focus from front to back to allow all the detail to be prominently displayed; and the use of whatever leading lines might be in the structure, to keep the eye moving in as close to a single direction as possible, emphasizing depth and scale.
The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule does, indeed serve photographers well in scads of cases. But for those few occasions where busier is better, go full-tilt boogie and really ladle it on. The knack of knowing when to say “how much” and when to say “too much” is some of the best editorial education you can ever treat yourself to.
SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.
Or a tool.
Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.
But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.
With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.
I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.
NOTHING IS SO TIMELESS as something whose time has come and gone.
Once a thing… a style, a design element, a fashion, an idea…has outlasted its original context, becoming truly out of sync with the world, it can become visually fascinating to the photographer. Instead of forward-looking, it’s dubbed “retro”. Rather than radical, it becomes something no one can ever remember having been excited about, like looking at Carol Brady’s shag haircut 25 years on.m
The information booth in the frame shown here is one such anomaly, so odd a fit in the building that it’s part of (the California state capitol annex) that it wrenched my attention away from a pretty good tour. The wing the booth is part of, built from 1949 to 1952, is, generously speaking, as dull as dishwater, indistinguishable from most generic government buildings, a box of sugar cubes.
But the booths are something else again.
Far from the typical marble-block, cage-and-window, bank teller enclosure many public servants call home, the booth is curved wood and glass, sounding a faint echo of Art Deco which extends even to the aluminum letters that spell out INFORMATION. And yet, at present, the modernity of the original design is now itself antique, its lonely occupant looking as if he were banished to his post rather than assigned.
The lighting within the booth is so minimal that the poor man’s features are nearly swallowed in deepening shadow: he looks like a recreation in some museum diorama about What Offices Will Look Like In The Future!!!, as strange to view as “modern” renderings of someday space rockets as seen from 1950. And then there’s the insect-repellant visor green on half of the glass, which is there, I assume, to protect Mr. Info from harsh gamma rays(??). The entire effect is one of loneliness, of, again, the evidence of a time (or a man) whose time has come and gone. And that calls, in my world, for a picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.
A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.
Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.
The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.
True to the ethos of L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.
Hooray for Hollywood.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER, YEARS AGO, HEARING A COMMERCIAL FROM AN OLD RADIO SERIAL IN WHICH THE SPONSOR, Ovaltine, rhapsodized about the show’s latest mail-in “premium”, a genuine Captain Midnight Shake-Up Mug, which, according to the ad copy, was made of “exciting, new PLASTIC!!” It struck me, as a child of the ’50’s, that there actually had been a time when plastic was both exciting and new. The “latest thing” in an age which was bursting with latest things, an unparalleled era of innovation and miracle. Silly Putty. Rocket Ships. Television.
And your photographs….delivered in just one minute.
The introduction of the Polaroid Land Camera, Model 95, in 1948 was one of those “exciting, new plastic” moments. Developed by inventor Edward Land, the device was, amazingly, both camera and portable darkroom. Something mystical began to happen just after you snapped the shutter, an invisible, gremlins-in-the-machine process that accomplished the development of the image right in the camera. Open the back of the thing 60 seconds later, peel away the positive from the negative (a layer of developing gel lay in-between the them) and, sonofagun,you had a picture. Black and White only. Fragile, too, because you immediately had to dab it with a stick of smelly goo designed to keep the picture from browning and fading, a procedure which created the worldwide habit of fanning the picture back and forth to speed up the drying process (sing it with me: shake it like a Polaroid). And then you got ready for company. Lots of it.
When you brought a Model 95 (unofficially dubbed the “Speedliner”) to a party, you didn’t just walk in the door. You arrived, surrounded by an aura of fascination and wonder. You found yourself at the center of a curious throng who oohed and ahhed, asked endlessly how the damn thing worked, and remarked that boy, you must be rich. Your arrival was also obvious due to the sheer bulk of the thing. Weighing in at over a pound and measuring 10 x 5 x 8″, it featured a bellows system of focusing. Electronic shutters and compact plastic bodies would come later. The 95 was made of steel and leatherette, and was half the size of a Speed Graphic, the universal “press” cameras seen at news events. Convenient it wasn’t.
But if anything about those optimistic post-war boom years defined “community”, it was the Polaroid, with its ability to stun entire rooms of people to silent awe. The pictures that came out were, somehow, more “our” pictures. We were around for their “birth” like a roomful of attentive midwives. Today, over 75 years after its creation, the Polaroid corporation has been humbled by time, and yet still retains a powerful grip on the human heart. Unlike Kodak, which is now a hollowed out gourd of its former self, Polaroid in 2014 now makes a new line of instant cameras, pumping out pics for the hipsters who shop for irony on the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Eight photos’ worth of film will run you about $29.95 and someone besides Polaroid makes it, but it’s still a gas to gather around when the baby comes out.
So, a toast to all things “new” and “exciting”. But I’ll have to use a regular glass.
For some reason, I can’t seem to locate my Captain Midnight Shake-Up Mug.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SHE HAS WITHSTOOD THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A WORLD WAR, DECADES OF ECONOMIC UPS & DOWNS, and half a dozen owners (some visionaries and some bums), and still, the sleek green/blue terra-cotta wedge that is the Wiltern Theatre is one of the most arresting sights in midtown Los Angeles. From her 83-year old perch at the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the jewel in the lower half of the old Pelissier building still commands attention, and, for lovers of live music, a kind of creaky respect. The old girl isn’t what she used to be, but she is still standing, as the same house that once hosted film premieres in the days of Cagney and Bogart now hosts alternative and edge, with pride.
And she still makes a pretty picture, lined face and all.
Opened in 1931 as a combination vaudeville house and flagship for Warner Brothers’ national chain of film theatres, The Warner Western, as it was originally named, folded up within a few years, re-opening in mid-Depression L.A. as the Wiltern (for Wilshire and Western) operating virtually non-stop until about 1956. As a vintage movie house, it had been equipped with one of the most elegant pipe organs in town, and enthusiasts of the instrument built a small following for the place for a while with recitals featuring the instrument. By the 1970’s, however, economies for larger-than-life flicker palaces were at an all-time low, and the Wiltern’s owners tried twice themselves to apply for permission to blow her down. Preservationists got mad, then got busy.
Restoration began in the 1980’s on the Pelissier building in general, but the Wiltern, with its ornate plaster reliefs and murals, had been so neglected over the years that its turnaround was slower. It was finally reborn in 1985 as a live performance theatre, losing some seat room but newly able to stage everything from brain-blaster garage rock to Broadway road productions and ballet.
I shot the Wiltern with three HDR frame, all f/5.6, with exposure times of 1/60, 1/100. and 1/160, and blended the final image in Photomatix to really show the wear and tear on the exterior. HDR is great for amplifying every flaw in building materials, as well as highlighting the uneven color that is an artifact of time and weather. I wanted to show the theatre as a stubborn survivor rather than a flawless fantasy, and the process also helped call attention to the building’s French Deco zigzags and chevrons. For an extra angle, I also made some studies of the glorious sunburst plaster ceiling over the outside ticket kiosk. It was great to meet the old girl at last, and on her own terms.