By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESTORATION OF HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT HOMES is an imprecise art. The challenges range from structures that are essentially unchanged since their original use, with all effects and furnishings intact, to buildings whose shells have been salvaged but which have lost all their historically correct detail. In the latter case, those returning the homes to daily use by the public must stage the places with period-correct props, trying to augment a narrative that an empty edifice along could not provide. They act in the same way as set directors on a movie shoot, filling in gaps to, in effect, supplement a big story with a lot of little ones.
Thing is, sometimes not only the devil, but the real interest, is in such details, as with this drafting set I encountered during a recent tour of a grand old summer home built by a millionaire in the Arizona desert of the 1920’s. Nearly every original accent in the house has been artificially placed to suggest real living space, even though its first owners sold the home soon after building it. One nice little tableau in a front-facing room features a copy of the original house blueprint, laid out on a table as if its creator were still poring over it, flanked by a lovely leather-bound kit from the long-forgotten Eugene Dietzgen Company, once one of the country’s premier maker of drafting tools. And therein lies a real tale.
Travelling (and drawing) in some very important circles.
Eugene, born in Germany in 1862, was soon moved by his father to Tsarist Russia, where Papa promptly got himself in hot water for distributing socialist literature critical of the reigning government. In 1881, Joseph Dietzgen sent his son to live in America, both to evade the local military draft and to spirit away some of the writings that had already landed the old man in prison on occasion. Arriving in New York at the age of 19, Eugene Dietzgen began working for a German drafting company, and soon moved to Chicago, where he formed his own tool-making firm in 1881. Applying his father’s progressive ideas in the new world, Eugene provided such exotic amenities for his employees as individual bathrooms for men and women (!) and open window sills inside the factory decorated with flowers. He also continued to promote the writings of his father, a philosopher who counted no less than Karl Marx among his fans. Early in the 20th century, the Dietzgen company soared to the top of its field with a very popularly priced slide rule, and slid into history as the Dietzgen Corporation, which exists to this day.
So, since it wasn’t the property of this historic house’s original designer, how did this elegant kit find its way to the Arizona desert? That’s the fun of diverting one’s attention from the intended purpose of placing the object on this particular table, and using the camera to celebrate the story within the story. This object was someone’s go-to for precision work. How? As a gift? An aspirational investment in a future career? An impulse purchase? As is often the case with a photograph, the picture is a two-way door: things are concealed and revealed, all in the same instant.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TAGGING, OR MARKING A BUILDING WITH GRAFFITI, seems to me one of the strangest bids for immortality that an artist can undertake. It’s obviously, on one level, a plea not to be ignored: I was here. But since so much of the information in its various signatures and symbols are rigidly encoded, it’s only a testament to some people for some vague stretch of time. Soon, like the grass reclaims the battlefield, rust and amnesia efface the artist just as surely as if he had never passed this way.
When infrastructures rot and fail, they either collapse in catastrophe (like a fallen bridge) or needless suffering (like a municipal water system), and, as their pieces are hauled away, every cultural element tied up in their daily use, especially signs or writing, are taken away as well, robbing the tagger of his/her shot at immortality. Other times, the rot just stands, useless and unmourned amidst other changes in our daily world, still emblazoned with the phantom scrawlings of earlier poets who now cannot rely on either memory or context to make their work persist in meaning.
The strange legend on this disintegrating trestle bridge in Ventura, California was explained to me by a local as a reference to a heinous crime that occurred in the area. She didn’t seem to recall the precise details nor the time frame, although I assume it does not pre-date the invention of aerosol spray paint. Point is, even though the bridge has the year of its erection, 1909, stamped into it at the back and front, the span’s name, to everyone who passes until it plunges into the river, will be “the ‘Baby Girl’ bridge”. Unfair to the anonymous scribe who sought to freeze a horrific event in time, but eventually a moot point.
I wanted to shoot the bridge because of the textures of its deterioration, but then I realized that, eventually, I was also making what would, eventually, become the lone record of a message that someone, somewhere, thought important enough to stamp onto the trestle’s oxidized remains. Maybe, in some way, I think it’s important as well. Artists hate the idea of other artists dissolving into history. We come into the world by ourselves, and, after mingling with the world, we all end up, as the song goes, alone again. Naturally.
The lunch crowd at Beach House Tacos, Ventura, California, 2022
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A KIND OF ROMANCE, CALL IT A CULT OF THE INDIVIDUAL, that informs our love of what can only be called The Great American Joint. We have a special affection for the one-location, one owner store or restaurant that outlasts global competitors. We revel in diners that celebrate “100 years at the same location” or burger stands that offer only one house specialty (no substitutions!) And it is altogether appropriate that Americans, in particular, should hold the Moms-and-Pops of the world dear. After all, we did everything we could to put them out of business.
The multiple-location business model was actually born in the U.K. in the 1700’s but really hit its stride in the States in the1860’s when a local New York tea shop owner opened multiple branches around the city. By 1900, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (or the A&P to you) became the first true grocery chain, and from there, the chain movement exploded to include hardware and department stores, hotels, clothiers, drugstores and, most importantly, restaurants. Over a hundred years later, chains offer familiarity and reliability as we move from one golden arch to the next, but they also starve the landscape of variety and, worse for photographers, distinctive visual experiences.
That’s why I doggedly seek out joints when traveling and shooting. The food varies wildly in quality, and that’s just fine: one man’s uncertainty is another man’s adventure, if you like. Beyond that, joints offer the chance to celebrate the different, the odd, the innovative. Chains are all about guaranteed outcomes. With Bob’s Crab Shack or the Keep Portland Weird Cafe you never know what you’ll get, and, for the sake of the pictures, unpredictability is a strength. And, in terms of karmic balance, it’s only fair that the country that tried to un-invent the private business learn, in its maturity, how to nurture what’s left. And if that means occasionally eating at a place where we have only one kind of burger, made daily on the premises, and when we’re out we’re out.….well, then, save me a seat. I’ll be with you as soon as I switch lenses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MONTH MARKS AN IMPORTANT MILESTONE IN PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY, in that it was almost exactly ten years to the day that a major news magazine, on deadline amidst a horrific disaster, decided, for the first time, to run a cellphone image from an Instagram posting as its cover picture. The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was, due to the newly accelerated penetration of mobile photography, covered to a much greater degree by the average shooter, but it was one very above-average professional, news photographer Ben Lowy, who provided the magazine with the image that would define the destruction and fury of the superstorm, and he took it not with his usual battery of Nikon and Canon gear, but with an iPhone 4S.*
This seems trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it actually represented a fairly seismic shift, as publications changed their idea of what constituted “real” coverage of a major new event. It also conceded what millions around the world already knew in their DNA: that their camera of convenience was now, also, their device of choice, their “real” camera. if you like. Lowy himself explained the mindset: “People don’t think twice about it. It’s a fast little camera, and I do like that on a tough assignment. At times, though, ‘pros’ will push me aside, assuming I’m a tourist or amateur. It’s the mind of the photographer that defines the quality of the image, not the equipment. Everyone has a pen, but not everyone can draw.”
Just as the average phone shooter knew by 2012 that the best camera is the one you have with you, so the world of editors had to grudgingly admit that a picture is a picture is a picture and who the hell cares what it was captured on? Of course, we know the answer to “who the hell cares”, as we all know people who argue that you need a “real” camera to get artistic results, at which point I remind them how many Pulitzer Prize-winning images are, in fact, underexposed, blurry, badly composed, or askew, despite the fact that they were made by world-class equipment. They copped Pulitzers because, despite how much we may spend or scrimp on gear, in the end, a compelling picture trumps everything else.
I have made my own dog-legged journey in my conception of a “good” camera, the device I would count on to make the “official” or “permanent” images of an important event or place. When traveling, for instance, I still use my mobile for snapshots, experiments or “pencil sketch” versions of things, bringing my formalized equipment in to render the “final” edition. I’ve gradually become more and more even-handed in budgeting shots between my “casual” and “serious” camera, but I know too well that I am behind a kind of global curve in thinking this way. Turns out photography is not merely about perfecting one’s technique, but also about perfecting the brain behind the shutter finger.
*Full disclosure: a bit of texture was added to Lowy’s shot before it was posted, not with Lightroom or Photoshop, but with the phone app Hipstamatic.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE LOUDEST ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE USE OF COLOR in photography have, over the past sixty years or so, been turned on their heads. Before color film became the dominant medium for amateur shooters, roughly after WWII, elites within the fine art community, that is, the people operating at the Ansel Adams level of control and command, frequently debated whether color was of any value at all. Part of their argument stemmed from the primitive processing technology of the time, which made many photographers feel that color either exaggerated reality to an intolerable degree, or, worse, that really great color work looked flat or inaccurate in magazines or prints.
As I say, though, two thirds of a century can make a big difference, and for some time now, color has been such a prevalent default choice that it’s the decision to work in monochrome that is now questioned. Certainly b&w has not vanished from the earth, but, while it was thought of as a medium of imagination and fine control before color, it is now seen by some as limiting, “less than”. And that’s too bad.
Black and white invites speculation, an additional layer of interpretation on the part of the viewer. He or she must supply, out of their own imagination, something which is not stated in the original. Nearly everyone has some mental concept of colors, personal palettes so ingrained that we can seem to “see” them even when they are not shown to us in an image. That is, we have an internal way of visualizing color where there is none.
I keep detailed presets for both color and mono shots stored in my camera, so that I can switch back and forth between modes with very little delay. As a result, some of the images I shoot in color have an almost 100% compositional convergence between the b&w and color versions (see examples here), giving me the ability to shoot and evaluate quickly in the field, while the subject is before me in real time. If a subject is important to me, I nearly always ask myself whether it is better served in one medium or the other, and usually shoot it in both as a mental insurance policy against my own indecision. I mention the presets because I believe that sculpting the precise degree of contrast, sharpness, etc. in camera is far superior to merely desaturating a color shot later in post-processing.
Eventually, it’s freeing to arrive at a place where neither color or mono are “givens” for every situation but have to earn their use in each particular frame. All tools can be used for anything, but no tool will work for everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PROPERTY AT THE NORTHWESTERN CORNER OF GOODALE PARK, in the “Short North” district of Columbus, Ohio has, over the past 117 years, served as private residence, office building, daycare center, fraternal lodge for commercial travelers, nursery school, and alcoholics’ recovery center. Incredibly, every one of these uses has been housed by the very same structure, a bizarre relic of the golden age of robber barons locally known as “the Circus House”.
And with good reason.
By 1895, Peter Sells was one of the founders of the nationally famous “Sells Brothers Quadruple Alliance, Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus”, and so was, in terms of the Victorian age’s pre-mass-media entertainment scene, a very rich man, and eager to be seen as such. Engaging one of the nineteenth century’s hottest architects, Frank Packard (creator of many of Columbus’ iconic structures, both public and private), Sells ordered up a mishmash of styles he and his wife Mary has seen during a recent trip to California, with elements of Moorish, High Gothic Victorian, Mission Revival and other flavors melding into a sprawling, three-story mansion that eventually swelled to 7,414 square feet, hosting twelve rooms, four bedrooms, five full bathrooms, and two half-baths. And there was more: the Sells’ servants’ quarters, a carriage house erected just to the west of the main house, weighed in at an additional 1,656 square feet, larger than most large private residences of the time.
For the photographer, the Circus House is more than a bit…daunting. Capturing the strange curvatures of its twin turrets, its swooping, multi-angled roof, its jutting twin chimneys or its scalloped brick trim (suggesting, some say, the bottom fringes of the roof of a circus tent), all in a single frame, is nearly impossible. For one thing, circling the structure, one finds that it looks completely different every ten feet you walk. This seems to dictate the use of a “crowd it in there” optic like a wide-angle lens, which further exaggerates the wild bends and turns of the thing, making features like the huge porte-corchiere loom even larger than they appear in reality.
Finally I decided to be at peace with the inherent distortion of a wide lens, as if it were somehow appropriate to this bigger-than-life space. Like the best circus, the Sells house has many things going on at once, often more than even the average three-ring managerie. Architecture as a kind of personalized signature, long after its namesakes have faded into history, creates a visual legacy that photographers use to chart who we were, or more precisely, who we hoped to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE KEYS TO UNDERSTANDING WHERE PHOTOGRAPHY IS lies in studying where it started from. If you place the camera amongst the other technical marvels of the nineteenth century, from trains to telegraphs to telephones to electrification, you see a steady stream of mechanical/scientific means of quantifying or measuring things, with the Magic Box That Imprisons Light being seen as one more device to help us master or harness nature. This got the invention off on a certain foot, in an origin story that we still struggle with.
We got used to thinking of photographs as recordings of reality. We wuz wrong.
Unlike painting, which was natively seen as an emotional / interpretative means of commenting on the world, the camera began life being regarded as a scientific instrument. An official recorder of reality…its dimensions, its contrasts, its events. The real record. But since, from the very beginning, one could manipulate the results, whether with recording medium (glass plates, film, etc.), exposure, processing, and so forth, each photographer had it within his power to also apply his/her own idea of what “the truth” was. Fakery appeared early on, and of course, both the choice to go with the default tonal palette of monochrome or the whim to deliberately engineer one’s one tonal schema (hand coloring, for example). This meant that, from the start, reality was not a final destination for photographs. It was a point of departure.
That’s why I don’t understand the backhanded compliment that something/anything is appealing because it “looks like a photograph”. My reflexive answer is, “whose photograph?” Walker Evans? Many Ray? Annie Liebovitz? Granny at the birthday party? Photographers may use “reality” as raw material, but none of the best of them, to my taste, are satisfied with reality as a final message. The image seen here, for example, is the product of manipulation, and, if I’m lucky, that fiddling will seem logical, or invisible, or, if I’m really careful, inevitable, as if my result could not be any other way. But real? God, don’t anchor me, or photography with the anvil of mere reality. The world as it is will never be as fascinating to artists as the world that might have been, or may yet be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, MEMORIALS TENDED TO BE FAIRLY STATIC THINGS. A tomb or monument depicting a battle, celebrating a leader, or enshrining a belief was built, and it stood, for as long as time and fortune might allow. After the invention of photography, however, things tended to be not fully finished, especially tributes and honors. We track their context with pictures in real time: over consecutive eras, we document their rise and fall, and that of the societies that produced them.
The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, parked for 80 years at the entrance to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (which T.R.’s family riches helped establish) has, as of this writing, been removed, transferred to what historians hope will be a better teaching context. His mounted figure, flanked by depictions of both Native and African-American men on foot, had been problematic for the museum, passersby, and, indeed the Roosevelt family itself in recent years, given the 26th President’s troubling mix of views on race, eugenics, and colonialism, and so the removal came as little surprise. Now, however, as a consequence of the move, anyone taking a photograph of the work henceforth will be interpreting it through the “lens” of a completely different societal context.
Now you see it, now you won’t: the recently removed Teddy Roosevelt statue, an 80-year fixture at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, as seen by the author in 2012.
When people change, the symbols they value, as well as the images they create of those symbols, change as well. Just as it’s odd now to see the Statue of Liberty’s disembodied torch hand in old photographs, the images makes sense once one realizes that the landmark originally came to American in stages, with the arm on display in Manhattan for a time in a push for funding to complete the memorial. Thus that picture, in its original time frame, makes perfect sense. It’s only that more familiar pictures have replaced that view, rendering its original reality strange.
It’s not for this author to try to climb into the mind of the original creators of the T.R. statue in question: it was a product of its time. Similarly, this image I made of it, from its chosen angle to its processing to the unsettling presence of an enormous red spider(!), is now locked away from all other moments on a single day in 2012. “The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on”. Heroes, from generals to philosophers, are nuanced, complicated. Making pictures of our struggle with that complexity is part of our quest to tell our complete story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE BEST OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS HAVE A KIND OF INEVITABILITY TO THEM, as if they were always destined to be made. Once they are finally captured, they also seem always to have existed, somehow. This is due, in part, to the fact that many of them had to fight hard to be born. That is, something about their conception or execution kept getting stuck in the pipe, try after try, until a tremendous amount of patience and work made them seem almost accidental or effortless.
I call these shots stubborns because I can almost feel them refusing to be taken, haunting me for months or even years until I can get a final take that does what I see in my head. The stubborns list contains a few that actually were tamed and brought to heel, but it’s mostly an agonizing roster of images that I have yet to nail down. Maybe the idea’s not fully formed. Maybe there’s something geographically blocking me, like a location I can’t readily get back to for a re-take. Sometimes I just haven’t brought the idea to its final, best form, unable to generate anything but near misses.
Ever since I first saw this wondrous entrance to the Hollywood Bowl, George Stanley’s Muses of Music, Dance, & Drama, I have dreamed of making “the” image of it. The enormous slab of concrete, which is faced by over two-hundred and forty-five tons of granite, depicts one sitting figure and two smaller standing figures (not visible in this shot) at its left and right flank. It is the biggest WPA-New Deal-era sculpture project in all of California, completed in 1940. Beyond the sheer beauty and enormity of the thing is that fact that, to do a proper job of interpreting it, you’d have to have time to roam around the site and shoot dozens of variously wrong versions over a number of hours, then decide whether it’s more stunning by daylight or lit on concert nights.
As fate and circumstance would have it, my access to it over the space of seven years and at least fifteen visits to the Los Angeles area has been limited to this passenger-seat drive-by (okay, we were paused at a light for ten whole seconds) from 2015, shot through a smudgy window on an iPhone 5S. Ideal conditions this ain’t, and as of 2022 I am still unsure when I will manage to get onto the Bowl property to do the ladies justice. Stubborn, indeed.
My point is that the best photographs are generated in stages, or drafts, if you like. True, some masterpieces come into the world on the first click, but even those lucky winners might be improved if time and care drill down to a second, more foundational truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VENERABLE BUILDINGS ARE VIEWED THROUGH SEVERAL AESTHETIC PRISMS OVER TIME, and so, as a consequence, photographs of them also fall under different general themes. To my eye, architecture is a visible testimony of so many things human: our relationship to each other: the myths and beliefs that we hold sacred: our own ambition: our way to contextualize ourselves in history or in space. And when I try to decide how to photograph a building, I tend to see it through three distinct filters, or what I call the three “R”s: reference, reverence and relevance.
Reference covers the image of a place from the original artist’s renderings and sketches through its opening phase, as we imagine how this new thing is designed to “fit in” to its hosting surroundings, which, themselves, figure in its original depictions. Reverence comes later on, as we idealize a structure out of context, long after its original neighborhoods or uses have faded. In this “post card” phase, we regard the building for itself, perhaps attempting to protect or restore it.
The aqua and gold terra-cotta of 1930’s Eastern Columbia Building, reborn in downtown L.A.
The third R, relevance, comes even later in the edifice’s life, perhaps post-rehab, as we happily welcome it back into daily use and re-apply the scale, objects and people that will anchor it to its second life, the same kind of use-context that was seen in the reference phase.
In finally checking Los Angeles’ 1930 Eastern Columbia Building off my life-list a few weeks ago, I found myself toggling between the reverence and relevance mindsets, taking idealistic images of the tower’s features in isolation from everything around it, and, in the case of this photo, showing it alive with people and activity, as part of the neighborhood. In the end, even though I have seen thousands of idealized images of the EC (the city’s most photographed building, and one of the most renowned Art Deco treasures in the country), I prefer this view, since it places it in a vital (that is, living) setting.
We make buildings for so many reasons, but, in all cases, we make them to be used, not merely adored. The Eastern Columbia, host to two of the country’s largest retailers until the 1960’s, emerged from its banishment years to enter life anew as multi-million dollar lofts to the the stars, its resurrection well in rhythm with the rise of the entire central L.A. “Broadway” district. That makes it relevant once more, and so the camera should always chronicle its elements of what America has always loved best: a second chance. It “R” the best way to treasure a space.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“PHOTOGRAPHERS, ESPECIALLY AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS, WILL TELL YOU that the camera cannot lie” wrote a columnist for Lincoln, Nebraska’s Evening News in 1895. “This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can…for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas, on occasion.” All of which is to restate the obvious, that the manipulation of images is as old as images themselves, and that, even when a picture does actually tell the truth, the healthy skepticism persists that tomfoolery, if not actually perpetrated in this particular case, lurks ever nearby.
Faked photos emerged in the nineteenth century as soon as photography itself was out of the cradle, and by the time the world was rounding the corner into the 1900’s, successful hoaxes were perpetrated along two main tracks: profit and propaganda. The very fact that people regarded the camera as an objective machine with no particular axe to grind, a mere recording instrument, if you like, gave credence to outright lies created with a growing variety of tweaking techniques. Propaganda proved an obvious growth medium, as governments attempted to massage the historical record to win hearts and minds, a practice brought to the level of art by both Hitler and Madison Avenue in the century that followed. Likewise, profit loomed large, as companies marketed images that the public wished were real, blurring the line between dreams and documents in the service of sentiment or fantasy.
Both the motive to influence and the desire to cash in converge in this image, one of the best-selling photos of the late 1800’s, which purports to show General U.S. Grant heroically astride his horse surveying a roundup of Confederate prisoners at City Point near Richmond in 1864. Following the death of the pioneering Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, his nephew L.C. Handy came into possession of most of his uncle’s negative masters, and began reproducing them to the custom order of many who had, just a short time before, served in the conflict. The picture is striking, mythic, and an unmitigated fake. In fact, it is not a single picture at all, but a composite that combines Grant’s head (from an original Brady portrait), the body of Major General Alexander McCook, and a third image of the prisoners, who were actually photographed at a separate battle that took place hundreds of miles away from City Point. Handy copyrighted the composite and made a small fortune marketing it.
It took decades for the fraud to be detected, after sleuths discerned that, among other inconsistencies, the officer’s body is that of a one-star general (Grant was a three-star by that time) and that the body markings on his horse do not match those of Cincinnati, Grant’s favored mount in 1864. The point is that today’s photographers certainly have no fewer scruples than did the old masters when it comes to fakery, and that, at least today, we are aware of the tools that can be employed to stretch or scar the truth, and accept photography as an interpretative art, for good or ill, rather than merely a means of documenting events. Caveat emptor.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER TIME, PHOTOGRAPHY ACTS AS A VISUAL SEISMOGRAPH, tracking the jagged line between ourselves and the things we encounter in the world. The objects and conditions that we regard as “everyday”, and thus somewhat ordinary, are actually in flux all the time, as is our relationship to them. In making pictures of the world that surrounds us, we are always documenting how we, and the things we either carry or leave behind, are changing the terms of our engagement with one another.
In The Corral For Keeps, 2021
Consider the automobile, a thing that is at once a utility, a medium for art, an environmental threat, a source of nostalgic glamour, and dozens of other things that wax and wane alongside us as we weave our way through our lives. There is, simultaneously, nothing more mundane and nothing more amazing than a car. It is a thing we made and which we are constantly remaking, and now, may also be a thing we are desperate to unmake.
All of this process, whether we are journaling our changing attitudes towards cars or carbs, creates opportunities for the visual artist. Photographs create a timeline, and, in so doing, graphically map the highs and lows of our loves/hates for everything that we encounter on a daily basis. The fact that we may now be entering the age of the Unmaking Of The Auto is cause for sadness, relief, and memory, but, above all, it is a new canvas upon which the photographer can re-interpret this strange relationship.
The idea here is not to set everyone out to catalogue every car on the road. The thing is, any part of our daily life that regularly changes in relation to ourselves can feed our imagination and yield great pictures. For some of us, that’s a building. For others, the evolution of a favored face over time. Your journey, your agenda. Cars are only things among other things, after all. And yet, through our lenses and eyes, they become part of a narrative about us at our most personal. And the best narratives make the best photographs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS WE DRAW A HARD MENTAL LINE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH, so do we place a physical boundary between the areas where life proceeds apace and the sites where we mark its cessation. Cemeteries are perhaps the most obvious marker of this line between sun and shadow, defined by iron gates, serene gardens, engraved tributes, contemplation. Out there, the world goes on. In here, remembrance, not substance, defines reality.
Take a camera across the country one small town at a time, however, and you will see how our relationship to the departed has changed…has been, in effect, geographically outsourced. Graveyards, once a component in daily town life, are increasingly out in the country, in a dedicated park, somewhere else. Prior to the 19th century, people were interred close to where they lived, the echoes of their journeys woven like a thread into the pattern of their native villages, just as naturally as a church or a general store. Over the years, however, something changed. Graveyards started to be deliberately designed, becoming some cities’ first de facto public parks, as well as their earliest conservatories or sculpted gardens. They began to be concentrated away from the centers of towns, the dead being less and less a daily visual reminder of the local history or continuity.
Places like this local graveyard in Vermont are gradually vanishing from the American scene. Markers decay and crumble: valuable in-town land is negotiated, litigated, re-purposed. As a consequence, fewer and fewer cities of any size still bear monuments from the 1800’s, along with the historically unique elements of their design and sentiments. When I come across one, I am keenly aware that I am seeing something that is going the way of the dodo, and I stop. Extinctions, either human or institutional, are fascinating things, and walks within these spaces feel a bit less commercial or industrial than in the sites’ present-day “shady acres” equivalents. In such cases, the camera is meant to be a registrar, rather than an intruder. Cameras are certainly for things that are happening right now. But they are also a way to hedge our bet a little against the things which will soon happen no more.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY GRANDMOTHER CALLED THEM “THE PICTURE SHOW“, which I always thought was a more elegant phrase than the self-important motion pictures. Indeed, well into our second century of going to special, secret places to see illuminated instants stab across the dark to illuminate a wall and charm our collective senses, we are experiencing a sea change in every way that we refer to “the movies”, including how much of the experience is “picture”, how much is “show”, or even how much of that event is to be shared with others.
I came back across this image from 2015 as I was thinking about the reported demise of movie palaces, about the umpteenth such prophecy I’ve heard over a lifetime. Television, the death of the nuclear family, the scourge of home video, and now streaming and plague have all taken their place in conversations about how the movies, or at least how we consume them, are “finally over”. Who knows, this time out, it might finally be time to cue the end titles and think of these stories in some profoundly different way. What I do know is that, as the drama unfolds, cameras of all kinds need to be there, to chronicle the transition.
The theatre seen here is actually holding a gala on its last night in operation. It is closing, not because of hard times, but because of good ones, as the Harkins family, the most powerful name in movie theatres in the soutwestern USA, prepares to raze the Camelview Cinema to build an insanely larger version of it just across the street inside a mall. There will be speeches, local tv coverage, even a few tears. And the neon will dim and the attendees will become ghosts, just as this time exposure has visualized them. It’s a gloriously unsubtle night of Happy/Sad/But Mostly Happy.
Since 2020, this scene has been repeated all around the world as, for the first time, the future of theatrically projected “picture shows” is seriously in doubt. As I write this, only mega-blockbusters and “franchise” releases like the latest Marvel Masterwork are turning the turnstiles to any degree. Cocooning, before smaller screens, phones, and tablets, is still being driven by a strange cocktail of convenience and survival.
But many theatres won’t get the luxury of a Harkins sendoff, or even a poetic fade to black, merely the sudden, jarring contrast of Lights Out. In my grandmother’s day, going to the movies was still a bit of a miracle, a definite event. The houses were gaudy, resplendent in their excess, with even the boxy little bijous of her own small town fitted out in their own carnival colors. Part picture, part show. The road ahead in uncertain, but I want to seek out the ones that last the longest and the ones that wink out the saddest and everything in the middle, and snap my shutter madly until the last “flicker.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO WILL NEVER OWN A LEICA, the brand has always been synonymous with pristine quality, innovation, and a mystique that is as durable as gold and as elusive as vapor. In fact, the company which began its life in Germany 1907 as Ernst Leitz Optische Werke (or simply “Leitz”) has inspired imitation, envy, and a definite bloodlust of desire that separates Those Who Would Have Nothing Else from Those Who Can Only Dream. In short, all Leicas are good children and all good children go to heaven. They are an impeccable species sufficient unto themselves, making no concessions to lesser species. History, right?
Except of course, that such “history” is mostly folklore. In point of fact, Leica has experienced the same ups and downs, the same botched launches and bitter failures, as other manufacturers, creating its own mutant wing of weird hybrids and downright flops, occasionally going so far afield as to come dangerously close to winking out of existence. One of those errant wanderings is traceable to the 1970’s, which was, overall, a marvelous time to own a camera, unless that camera was… a Leica.
Beginning in the ’60’s, the single-lens reflex camera revolutionized the world of both pro and amateur shooting, with Nikon, Canon, Pentax and other lean young barbarians adding amazing features at a reasonable cost in a way that was rendering the venerable Leica rangefinder system obsolete. The late-breaking line of Leicaflex SLRs, introduced years behind the competition, offered a mealy-mouthed feature set and insane price tags. They also brought the company nearly to its knees, as its makers found themselves unable to control runaway production costs, actually losing money on every unit sold.
And then something historic happened. Around 1973, Leica (whose parent company was still officially named Leitz) looked down from its perch atop photography’s Mt. Olympus (no camera joke intended) and asked for help, entering into a partnership with Minolta, which, at the time, was one of the big dogs in the SLR kennel. The two companies agreed to share designs while the actual manufacture of selected components would be moved from Wetzlar, Germany to Japan. Their first product collaboration was a revised rangefinder called the CL, which sold well, but chiefly at the expense of the equivalent “pure” Leica product line, a fact which succeeded in ticking off the company’s purist fan base (bless ’em). Right on schedule, the ever-present Leica snob machine began to put an asterisk after all such Leitz-Minolta products, marking them as less than genuine than “real Leicas”, even though the partnership actually helped improve the sleekness of the company’s SLR design and pioneered many new features, such as aperture and shutter priority, that would become standard in the following decades.
Over the next decade, the Leitz-Minolta marriage refined the weight, ergonomics and acuity of its mutual “children”, producing some of the world’s favorite cameras before differences in philosophy forced a divorce in the early ’80’s. Notable among their successes was the magnificent Leica R3 (1976, seen above), which boasted center-weighted metering, an improved mount to better accommodate a variety of lenses, and a more responsive shutter, all making for a full-on comeback for the folks in Wetzlar.
After the breakup, Minolta entered into a later arrangement with Sony, as eventually would Leica, which also went on to share technology with Panasonic. Neither company would ever again fly completely solo, and their original collaboration would demonstrate that even the companies with the highest pedigrees could enhance their survival in a fiercely competitive global market by thinking outside their own branded boxes.
RECOMMENDED READING: Josh Solomon, The Sweetest Taboo: The Unlikely Story Of Leitz-Minolta.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT THE PRINCIPLE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHY is twofold: firstly, to capture what is splendid in the world, celebrating the order of beauty, the majesty of nature, the grand talents of the enterprising soul: and, secondly, to point unflinchingly to what needs correction, to what challenges and threatens us. You can’t have life without both these drives, and you certainly can’t call photography an art if it doesn’t address them equally.
The world is at war at the moment. Our tragedies and losses in this conflict are not incurred by shells and bombs, but by the most primal forces in the natural world. For those who fall before this horror, the results are as final as if they had occurred during a bombardment or battle. The visual ways in which we measure our fear and dislocation are in some ways similar to those seen in regular wars. They are not symbolized by a single, terrible image, but by a million little pictures of very ordinary things, some of which we must put away for awhile as we arm our hearts for what is to come. In this very real way, every one of us that is armed with a camera becomes, in some sense, a war correspondent.
The image seen here is certainly not sinister in the true sense. It’s hard to summon a negative association with playground equipment. But that’s in peacetime.
During times of turmoil, the normal rhythms of life are not yanked away in one clean rip-of-the-bandaid jerk. Rather, they are eroded. Narrowed. You can only do your favorite thing on certain days, at certain hours, and under certain conditions, for the time being. Updates will be posted…
I sat before this scene for several moments before I could unpack why it upset me so. In personal terms, I had walked through the very same park several days prior. Nothing was different now, except…the tape. The word on the tape. And the implied message: this thing that typically gives you joy is now to be avoided. Normal is suspended.
In the short term, there will be many pictures that will break our hearts far more fundamentally than this one ever can. Images that will test our resolve. Touch off volatile emotions. This photo is nothing by comparison to what’s to come. And yet, it is part of the mosaic we are creating during this Great Hibernation (my gentle name for a horrific reality). Each tile in the mosaic is a story of some way that some part of the larger tragedy effected someone among us. I know that I, myself, will create other pictures that are far more jarring than this one. But, as always, it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact. Because when reality shifts, it happens one routine, or one playground, at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.
It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.
The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.
Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CONCEPT OF “STREET” PHOTOGRAPHY, assuming it interests you at all, is shaped by a variety of influences, including your idea of appropriate subject matter, biases in style or equipment, even your technical limits. But from my own particular perch, I think that the era into which I was born may be one of the strongest determinants of my preferences in street work, at least when it comes to the choice between black and white and color. To me, this kind of reportorial photography is vastly different either side of a key time line, with one side, say the world up to about 1955, weighted toward monochrome, and the other, the years that follow that mark and track forward up to the present day, being the more “color” era.
Before the mid-50’s, nearly all “important” photography was still being rendered in monochrome, much of it of a journalistic or editorial nature. From the crash of the Hindenburg to the New Deal’s chronicling of the impact of the Great Depression through endless newsreel and magazine essays, the pictures of record, of the stuff that mattered, was black and white. Consumer photography generally followed suit. Early color films were available from the 1930’s on, but the overarching curve of Everyman hobbyist work did not immediately flip to general use. Color was largely for commercial work, for selling things in a hyper-saturated advertising spread or brochure. Seminal black and white essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment seemed to reinforce the idea of monochrome as the messenger of realism, authenticity, grit. Ugly, sad, tragic, important things happened in black and white. Color was for kids’ parties.
By the 1960’s, faster consumer color films changed candid photography virtually overnight as amateurs opted for more “lifelike” images. Color print, slide and movie film sales soared, and, while magazine and newspaper “documentarians” continued to emphasize mono as the “official” tonal language of street work, younger photographers began to reframe the argument as to what constituted a fit format for commentary. In the present day, both approaches live comfortably side by side, and many shooters are not exclusively in the ‘either” or “or” camp, deciding one frame at a time whether a narrow or wide palette is right for a given image. Even the shooters who embraced color as young photographers may, today, toggle back to monochrome for a singular impact or even a nostalgic evocation of the past. Fashion historians can easily lose count: we’ve zoomed past ironic, post-ironic, post-post-ironic, and back to innocence again, spinning through both unconscious and super-self-conscious styles like the blades of a pinwheel. Beneficiaries of technologies that abett and invite multiple ways to rendering the same subject, we shoot in all eras and influences at once. Everything about photography is a la carte.
For me, black and white isn’t a signature, but then again, neither is color. I find them both adequate for the candid work that encompasses “street”, and I reserve the right to make the choice between the two at a moment’s notice. Tonal properties, after all, should be as improvisational as the decision to make a given picture. We are freer than ever to worry less about the how of a photograph, and focus on the why.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EDWIN M. STANTON, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, is, regarding photography, in the unique position of having acted both wisely and foolishly following the death of his Commander-in-Chief. Foolishly, because, at the request of the president’s bereaved widow, he reportedly ordered the destruction of the only glass plate negative showing the fallen president lying in state…..and wisely, because he apparently kept a personal print of the image amongst his personal papers, lost to history until a teenage Lincoln afficionado accidentally stumbled upon it in 1952. Stanton’s actions, along with those of the First Lady, betray a very human ambivalence to the camera’s ability to either annihilate or preserve memory, based on one’s viewpoint.
With its power to extract discrete slices of time, the photograph does provide a permanent record for the mournful….but is that comforting, or rather a clinical way of obviating the more personal, if less precise preservation afforded by memory? Did the camera enable us to re-conjure our loved ones at will, or did it deny us the right to keep them in the very private part of our hearts that exists beyond vision?
Essayist and librarian Jean-Noel Jeanneney, writing of the first days of photography, remarked that “the people who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth are the first in the long history of humanity to be able to see accurate and faithful portraits of their predecessors…..their ancestors are no longer the imagines carried at funeral ceremonies, no longer the painted mementoes devised as aides–memories. Instead, they appear to us as all too horribly true to life: perhaps that is why, today, a greater pathos is attached to our relationship to the departed…..”
The photographer is never merely a chronicler, and so images of the most important people of our experience can never really be mere snapshots. We frame faces in the shadow of our own influence, and time itself re-touches the images years after they are captured. Hence portraiture is never a purely casual act. Mr. Stanton and Mrs. Lincoln were both right, in their own ways. One could not bear the lingering memory of her husband. The other could not endure the idea of a world without his President.
Our last memory of a person may not literally be a shot of them in the coffin, but the impact, many ages on, of even their smallest interactions with this life makes images of them among the most remarkable of human documents. That confers a unique honor, as well as a profound responsibility, upon the photographer.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER, EVERYWHERE, TO INSTANTLY SHARE any part of his or her output with the world is both a blessing and curse. The “blessing” part’s easy to understand. Breaking down the barriers to publication of ideas that have separated us all from each other throughout time…well, that’s a very heady thing. Pictures can now transmit commentary at nearly the speed of thought, establishing linkages and narratives that have the potential to shape history.
Then there’s the “curse” part, in which this very same technology carries with it the potential for unlimited treachery and mischief. Who says what pictures can be seen…when, and by whom? Without supervisory curation or any kind of global uber-editor, photography can just be a visual torrent of garbage, or banality, or worse. Obviously, we have had to navigate some very tricky waters as both the blessing and curse elements of modern photography wrestle for supremacy.
What has happened for, good or ill, is that we are all, suddenly, tasked with being our own editors, asked to perform a skill that is very difficult to bring off with any honesty. You’d think that, after years of taking thousands of pictures, most of us would have a higher yield of excellence from all that work, but I have found that, at least for myself, the opposite is proving true. The more I shoot, the fewer of all those shots strike me as extraordinary. I thought that practice would indeed make perfect, or that, at least, I’d come closer to the mark more often, the more images I cranked off. But that hasn’t happened.
Your skills accelerate over time, certainly; but so do your standards. In fact, any really honest self-editing journey will mean you are less and less satisfied with the same pictures, today, that, just yesterday, you would have thought your best work. You start to refuse to cut certain marginal pictures a break; you stop grading yourself on the curve.
Most importantly, you have been doing this just long enough to realize how very long the journey to mastery will be. Not just control of the mechanics of a camera, although that certainly takes time. No, we’re talking about learning to tame the wild horse of one’s own undisciplined vision, something that, over a lifetime, is hardly begun. Our moon landings come to look to us like baby steps.
Becoming one’s own editor means that, through the years, you’re liable to view one of your “greatest hits” from yesteryear and be able, sadly, to see the huge gulf between what you were trying to do and what you actually accomplished. I was horrified, a few years ago, to learn that my father, at some point, had destroyed the paintings he had made when he was in college. I had grown up with those images and thought them powerful, but he only saw their shortcomings, and, at some time or other, it was just too much to bear. I often think of those paintings now, whenever I view an older picture that I once thought of as “my truth”. In some cases, I can’t see anything in them but the attempt. A few of them do survive the years with something genuine to say…but, ask me again tomorrow, and I may reluctantly transfer many of them over to the “nice try” pile. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s only one I trust.