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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THANKSGIVING WEEK USUALLY DEPUTIZES WRITERS OF EVERY VARIETY to generate lists of things the author is thankful for, everything from baby puppies to the designated-hitter rule, all enveloped in the gold glow of gratitude. Photographers are usually not enlisted for these rosters of wonderfulness, but, if you make pictures long enough, you will, no doubt, have a list of very specific items that warm your heart.
Over a lifetime, I have generally been grateful for photography’s consistent ability to excite my senses, challenge my thinking, and create the addictive sensation known as surprise. I’m grateful that George Eastman introduced the first practical roll film, taking photography from the hands of the few and giving it to the world at large. I’m glad that images have found languages with which to speak to people, languages that surpass the power of speech. I’m glad that photographs stitch together links across every gulf of human experience. And I’m thankful for the pictures that enraged me to action, that gladdened me to tears, that encouraged me to make more pictures of my own.
I’m grateful for the men and women who have created the greatest visual art form the world has ever known. You can sub your own gallery of gods, but mine includes Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Walker Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, W.Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz, and, most importantly, the millions of invisible eyes and hands out there cranking, out there living by one unshakable credo: Always be shooting.
I thank the photo gods for images of my parents, first as sweethearts in the aftermath of World War II, then as newlyweds in the ’50’s, then as Mommy and Daddy in the Space Age, and presently as the great long-distance runners of romance, still mad for each other at 66 years and counting. I thank fortune for the bunny ears and hamming and mugging and bright toothy giggles of my own children, frozen now in their newness and their hunger for life. And I incidentally thank luck for Kodachrome, quick-charging batteries, fast lenses and a few moments in which I swung around, just in time, and got the shot.
The camera is many things…charmer, chronicler, narrator, witness, liar, magic wand. It gains all these special powers in the hands of people. Photographs are measures of who we are, what we care about, and what we want time to say about us after we’re gone.
Lots to do, lots left to attempt.
Lots to be thankful for.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE OF HIS EARLIEST SILENT FILMS, legendary director D.W. Griffith, one of the first cinematic pioneers to use tight shots to highlight vital narrative details, drew fire from theatre exhibitors, who objected to his new-fangled “close-up” or “iris” technique. “We have paid for the entire actor”, one wrote, apparently of the opinion that showing only a player’s hand or face, even in the interest of a good story, was somehow short-changing the audience. Griffith knew better, however. He was using his compositional frame to tell his viewers, in no uncertain terms, what was important. Outside the frame was all the other stuff that mattered less. If I show it, you should pay attention.
Photography is not so much about whether a subject is intrinsically important (think of the apple in a still-life) but whether an artist, armed with a camera and an idea, can make it important. At the dawn of the medium, painters pretty much dominated the choices about which images were immortalized as emblematic of the culture. The subject matter often ran to big targets; war, portraits of the elite, historical and religious events. And, indeed, the earliest photographs were “about something”, the “somethings” often being documents of the world’s wonders (pyramids, cathedrals) fads (politicians, authors) and foibles (crime, the occasional disaster). Subjects were selected for their importance as events, as leaves of history worthy of preservation.
In the 20th century the same abstract movements that engulfed painting allowed photography to cast a wider net. Suddenly that apple in the bowl was a worthy, even a vital subject. Light, composition, angle and mood began to weigh as heavily as the thing pictured. We made images not because the objects looked right, but because they looked right when made into a photograph. Pictures went from being about what “is” to being about what could be….evoking, like poetry, music or literature the magics of memory, dream, potentiality, emotion.
This is really the ultimate freedom of not only photography, but of any true art; the ability to confer special status on anything, anywhere. That doesn’t mean that all photographs are now of equal value; far from it. The burden of proof, the making of the argument for a particular subject’s preservation in an image, still rests squarely on the shooter’s shoulders. It’s just not necessary to wait for a natural disaster, a ribbon cutting, or a breathless landscape to make an amazing photograph. The eye is enough. In fact, it’s everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE LONG SINCE ABANDONED THE TASK OF CALCULATING HOW MANY DIGITAL IMAGES ARE CREATED every second of every day. The numbers are so huge as to be meaningless by this time, as the post-film revolution has removed most of the barriers that once kept people from (a) taking acceptable images or (b) doing so quickly. The global glut of photographs can never again be held in check by the higher failure rate, longer turnaround time, or technical intimidation of film.
Now we have to figure out if that’s always a good thing.
Back in the 1800’s. Photography was 95% technical sweat and 5% artistry. Two-minute exposures, primitive lenses and chancey processing techniques made image-making a chore, a task only suited to the dedicated tinkerer. The creation of cheap, reliable cameras around the turn of the 20th century tilted the sweat/artistry ratio a lot closer to, say, 60/40, amping up the number of users by millions, but still making it pretty easy to muck up a shot and rack up a ton of cost.
You know the rest. Making basic photographs is now basically instantaneous, making for shorter and shorter prep times before clicking the shutter. After all, the camera is good enough to compensate for most of our errors, and, more importantly, able to replicate professional results for people who are not professionals in any sense of the word. That translates to billions of pictures taken very, very quickly, with none of the stop-and-think deliberation that was baked into the film era.
We took longer to make a picture back in the day because we were hemmed in by the mechanics of the process. But, in that forced slowing, we automatically paid more active attention to the planning of a greater proportion of our shots. Of course, even in the old days, we cranked out millions of lousy pictures, but, if we were intent on making great ones, the process required us to slow down and think. We didn’t take 300 pictures over a weekend, 150 of them completely dispensable, nor did we record thirty “takes” of Junior blowing out his birthday candles. Worse, the age’s compulsive urge to share, rather than to edit, has also contributed to the flood tide of photo-litter that is our present reality.
If we are to regard photography as an art, then we have to judge it by more than just its convenience or speed. Both are great perks but both can actually erode the deliberation process needed to make something great. There are no short cuts to elegance or eloquence. Slow yourself up. Reject some ideas, and keep others to execute and refine. Learn to tell yourself “no”.
There is an old joke about an airpline pilot getting on the intercom and telling the passengers that he’s “hopelessly lost, but making great time”. Let’s not make pictures like that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER AUGUST SANDER (1876-1964) created one of the most amazing projects in the history of portraiture with his seminal book The Face of Our Time. Born into a world that defined people much more by class division and by the literal work of their hands, Sander created a document of a vanishing world in a very simple way, surrounding bricklayers, cooks, soldiers, and dozens of other professionals with the literal tools of their trades. His work influenced street photography and portraiture throughout the 20th century, acting as both document and commentary.
The manual trades that Sanders celebrated are rapidly vanishing as automation and changing tastes take away the tv repairmen, cobblers, and pillow makers of yesteryear, taking with them the physical look of their workplaces. It’s feels like I’ve happened upon an archaeological dig when I run across a place where handcrafted work takes place, and to photograph the shops where the old magic still happens. The encroachment into urban neighborhoods of chain stores and the crush of ever-higher rents are chasing out the last generations of tinkerers and makers. Storefronts and the stories that reside within them are winking out across the urban landscape.
August Sander’s challenge to present-day photographers is to bear witness to the worker’s signature, the mark he makes on the world and the echo he leaves behind when he departs. The world is always in the act of going partly instinct. The camera measures what we lose in the process. In Sander’s elegant, simple pictures of working people, there is a peaceful quality, as everyone seems fitted to their place and role in the world. As we photograph the final days of such a world, we are commenting on the uncertainty that follows it into our present age.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ARE ACTUALLY DETOURS, things unearthed by accident in search of something completely different. Marconi was not looking to create the entertainment medium known as radio, but merely a wireless way to send telegraphs. The tough resin known as Bakelite was originally supposed to be a substitute for shellac, since getting the real thing from insects was slow and pricey. Instead, it became the first superstar of the plastics era, used to making everything from light plugs to toy View-Masters.
And the man who, for all practical purposes, invented photography was merely seeking a shortcut for the tracing of drawings.
Nicéphore Niépce, born in France in 1765, plied his trade in the new techniques of lithography, but fell short in his basic abilities as an artist, and searched for a way to get around that shortcoming by technical means. He became proficient in the creation of images with a camera obscura, a light-tight box with a pinhole on one side which projected an inverted picture of whatever it was pointed at on the opposite inside wall of the container, the pinhole acting as a glassless, small-aperture lens. Larger versions of the gadget were used by artists to project a subject onto an area from which tracings of the image could be done, then finished into drawings. Niépce grew impatient with the long lag time involved in the tracing work and began to experiment with various compounds that might chemically react to light, causing the camera’s image to be permanently etched onto a surface, making for a quicker and more accurate reference study.
Niépce tried a combination of fixing chemicals like silver chloride and asphalt, burning faint images onto surfaces ranging from glass to paper to lithographic stone. Some of his earliest attempts registered as negatives, which faded to complete black when observed in sunlight. Others resulted in images which could be used as a master from which to print other images, effectively a primitive kind of photocopy. Finally, having upgraded the quality of his camera obscura and coating a slab of pewter with bitumin, Niépce, around 1827 successfully exposed a permanent, if cloudy image from the window of his country house in La Gras. His account recalled that the exposure took eight hours, but later scientific recreations of the experiment believe it could actually have taken several days. Even at that, Niépce might have recorded a good deal more detail in the image had he waited even longer. In an ironic lesson to all impatient future shooters, the world’s first photograph had, in fact, been under-exposed.
Rather than merely create a short-cut for sketch artists, Nicéphore Niépce’s discovery, which he called heliography (“sun writing”), resulted in a new, distinctly different art that would compete with traditional graphics, forever changing the way painters and non-painters viewed the world. Centuries later, harnessing light in a box is still the task at hand, and the eternally novel miracle of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE BEGINNING, PHOTOGRAPHY WAS MOSTLY ABOUT RECORDING, arresting time in its flight in order to preserve scenes for posterity. And, for its earliest practitioners, that purely technical feat of stopping the clock was enough. We still use the word capture to describe this harvesting of moments. Soon, however, photographs became truly interpretive. That is, they set out to be about something beyond a mere logging of the physical world. In so doing, they passed from documents to statements, with shooters choosing which world view they wanted to present.
I find that, even in the most complex documentary photos, those views seem to collect into two main camps of thought. One kind of image, which may be called the “ruin” category, depicts what we have lost. Abandoned buildings, wrecked cities, damaged lives. “Ruin” campers show the deterioration of things and ask us to assess the loss of dreams. The second general kind of interpretive category, which I’ll call the “resurrection” camp, shows the things that might have experienced ruin but are rebounding, on their way back up. Rez campers show the resiliency of the human spirit, the belief that there will, indeed, be a tomorrow.
Human beings being partisan by instinct, curators, editors, and audiences can, and do, glorify the pictures of one camp while decrying the worthlessness of images from the other camp, in what is really a false choice. Life is never cleanly divided between heaven and hell, and neither should your pictures be.
Photographs that show what we have wasted are no more “authentic” than those that show us recovering from loss. And truly great photographers actually straddle both camps in their best work. But your purpose in a picture must be clear: the image at the top of this page seems to mourn the devastation of an old family farm. However, if I were to pull back to a larger frame, the camera would also show the freshly furrowed fields of a property that is in the process of being re-developed. Ruin or Resurrection? It’s down to approach, and context.
Some days it seems like the best story you can tell is a tragic one, but, at other times, there is nothing more courageously honest than depicting hope. It all depends on what comes to hand. The best plan is not to plan, to be open to whatever the best testimony is, right here, in this picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT IT WAS, the final residential design completed by the late Frank Lloyd Wright, mysteriously unsung in every major study of his late work and absent from nearly every retrospective on the cantankerous colossus of twentieth-century architecture. The house, designed for his son David in the Arcadia neighborhood of central Phoenix, Arizona, rose from the desert in 1950 and almost immediately faded from popular view, staying under the radar less than a mile from Camelback Mountain, the sight of which dictated the site of the home, in one of Wright’s most dramatic examples of organic architecture.
And now, just a few years after since daughter-in-law Gladys Wright’s death at the age of 104 and a blink of time since an interim owner first threatened the place with demolition, it is, in 2016, about to sink back from view once more, as the benevolent millionaire who saved it confers with various local factions on the best route to its complete restoration. Tours, which, for the past year have allowed visitors from around the world to walk through what Wright called a solar hemicycle design, his recipe for “how to live in the southwest”, will be suspended. 3-D laser scans will be studied to see where the house’s sixty-five year old foundations need to be fortified and repaired. And, for a time, this remarkably unique dwelling will again be beyond the reach of the camera.
Since The Normal Eye began, we have occasionally mounted photo essay pages featuring singular places, sites too special to be addressed in one or two images. The most recent of these was a tour of author Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Massachusetts. And today, we’ve added a new tab at the top of the blog titled Wright Thinking, with select photos of the David Wright home and its detached guest house, in an attempt to remind people that this hidden treasure does, indeed, survive in the American West.
The essay format seem appropriate because the Wright home is difficult house to convey in just a single photograph, rising from the desert floor in a continuous circular ramp that climbs to the house proper, a 2000 square-foot crescent of rooms mounted on concrete piers and looking north to Camelback Mountain with a window array that presents a view arc of over 200 degrees. Within and without are Wright’s signature components: dramatic furniture design; innovative use of humble materials, from linoleum to concrete; a visionary use of solar energy; and the most Wright of Wright ideas, the organic credo that the site comes first, the house second, and never the other way around.
So thumb through our impromptu Wright family album and visit the house’s wonderful website at www.davidwrighthouse.org to keep apprised of the next sighting of one of the master’s final bows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU MAY FIND, AS I HAVE, THAT MANY OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ALSO, ARTISTICALLY, SPEAKING, “SOMETHING ELSE“. That is, their creative energies emerge in more than just one medium, even if images are their preferred language. This has always been thus. During the camera’s infancy, many photogs were former painters. Writers were also among the first to explore the new art of picture-making, and the amateur photo work of scribes like Emile Zola and Lewis Carroll remain worthy of note today.
In the 20th century, some painters-turned-photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson turned back to the brush late in life, while other artists like Man Ray stayed firmly anchored in both camps. And even the great theologian and poet Thomas Merton spent his last years as a Trappist monk dabbling in a kind of zen expressionism through the viewfinder of his Canon 35mm.
This doesn’t exactly prove that everyone who is adept in one kind of art will also be effective as a photographer, but it does demonstrate that some people who are curious in all ways of expression will sometimes also choose the camera as an instrument. I personally believe that this can only improve your way of seeing, since “vision” isn’t achieved merely through the eyes, but through the accumulation of all one’s life experience.
I would even go one step farther and claim that just studying photography may be bad for one’s development as a photographer. Rather, it is the total weight of one’s life which shapes one’s seeing, just as a worldlier view can inform one’s writing, cooking, singing, or strumming. No one art is so complete that it can operate in a vacuum, sealed away from all the other arts.
We readily accept that composers need to occasionally be historians, that writers should sometimes be philosophers, and that both painters and chefs should master a little science, so how can we believe that photographers can comment on the whole of life without at least dabbling in the world beyond their computers or darkrooms? You cannot be willfully blind as a person and visionary as a photographer at the same time. The more there is of you, the more of you there is that makes it into your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ROLE OF THE URBAN PHOTOGRAPHER IS TO REKINDLE OUR RELATIONSHIP to our cities, to ignite a romance that might have gone cold or fizzled out. We grow up inside the buildings and streets of our respective towns one day at a time, and, while familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, the slow, steady drip of repetitive sequence can engender a kind of numb blindness, in that we see less and less of the places we inhabit. Their streets and sights become merely up, down, in, out, north side or east side, and their beauty and detail dissolve away before the regular hum of our lives.
An outside eye, usually trained on a camera, is a jolt of recognition, as if our city changed from a comfy bathrobe into a cocktail dress. We even greet images of our cities with cries of “where’s THAT????”, as if we never saw these things before. The selective view of our streets through a camera, controlling framing, context, color and focus, enchants us anew. If the photog does his job properly, the magic is real: we truly are in new territory, right in our own backyards.
A city with iconic landmarks, those visual logos that act as absolute identifiers of location, actually are easier for the urban photographer, since their super-fame means that many other remarkable places have gone under-documented. Neighborhoods are always rising and falling, as the Little Italys fade and the Chinatowns ascend. Yesterday’s neglected ghetto becomes today’s hip gallery destination. Photographers can truly rock us out of the lethargy of daily routine and reveal the metropolis’s forgotten children in not only aesthetic but journalistic ways, reminding us of problems that need remedy, lives that plead for rescue.
The photographer in the city is an interpretive artist. His mantra: hey, townies, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE LUXURY THAT PAINTERS HISTORICALLY ENJOYED OVER PHOTOGRAPHERS was the pure prolonged incubation time between their conception of a thing and its realization on the canvas. Whatever else painting is, it is never an instantaneous process, something that is especially true for portraits. The daubing of strokes, mixing of paint, the waiting for the light, and the waiting for the model to arrive (take a bathroom break, eat dinner, etc.) all contribute to painting’s bias toward the long game. The process cannot be hurried. There is no pigmentary equivalent of the photographic snap shot. Patience is a virtue.
The first photographs of people were likewise a gradual thing, with extended exposure times dictated by the slow speed of early plate and film processes. Once that obstacle was overcome, however, it became a simple thing to snap a person’s face in less and less time. Today, outside of the formal studio experience, most of us freeze faces in record timae, and that may be a bit of a problem in trying to create a true portrait of a person.
Portraits are more than mere recordings, since the subject matter is infinitely more complex than an apple or a vase of flowers. The daunting task of trying to capture some essential quality, some inner soulfulness with a mechanical device should make us all stop and think a little, certainly a little longer than a fraction of a second. Portraits at their best are a kind of psychoanalysis, an negotiation, maybe even a co-creation between two individuals. The best portraitists can be said to have produced a visible relic of something invisible. Can that be done in the instant that it takes to shout “cheese” at somebody?
And if the process of portraiture is, as I argue, an innately personal thing, how can we trust the “street portraits” that we steal from the unsuspecting passerby? Are any of these images revelatory of anything real, or have we only snatched a moment from the onrushing current of a person’s life? Taking the argument away from the human face for a moment, if I take a picture of a single calendar date page, have I made a commentary on the passage of time, or merely snapped a piece of paper with a number on it?
Painters have always been forced into some kind of relationship with their subjects. Some fail and some succeed, but all are approached with an element of planning, of intent. By contrast, the photographer must apprehend what he wants from a face in remarkably short time, and hope his instinct can make an intimate out of a virtual stranger.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“(the book is) flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness, (showing) a contempt for quality and technique…” –Popular Photography, in its 1958 review of The Americans
THOSE WORDS OF DISDAIN, designed to consign its subject to the ash heap of history, are now forever attached to the photographic work that, instead of vanishing in disgrace, almost single-handedly re-invented the way the world saw itself through the eye of a camera. For to thumb through Robert Frank’s 1958 collection of road images, The Americans, is to have one’s sense of what is visually important transformed. Forever.
In the mid-1950’s, mass-market photojournalist magazines from Life to Look regularly ran “essays” of images that were arranged and edited to illustrate story text, resulting in features that told readers what to see, which sequence to see it in, and what conclusions to draw from the experience. Editors assiduously guided contract photographers in what shots were required for such assignments, and they had final say on how those pictures were to be presented. Robert Frank, born in 1924 in Switzerland, had, by mid-century, already toiled in these formal gardens at mags that included Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and was ready for something else, a something else where instinct took preference over niceties of technique that dominated even fine-art photography.
Making off for months alone in a 1950 Ford and armed only with a 35mm Leica and a modest Guggenheim grant, Frank drove across much of the United States shooting whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. He worked quickly, intrusively, and without regard for the ettiquette of formal photography, showing people, places, and entire sub-cultures that much of the country had either marginalized or forgotten. He wasn’t polite about it. He didn’t ask people to say cheese. He shot through the windshield, directly into streetlights. He didn’t worry about level horizons, under-or-over exposure, the limits of light, or even focal sharpness, so much as he obsessed about capturing crucial moments, unguarded seconds in which beauty, ugliness, importance and banality all collided in a single second. Not even the saintly photojournalists of the New Deal, with their grim portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, had ever captured anything this immediate, this raw.
Frank escaped a baker’s dozen of angry confrontations with his reluctant subjects, even spending a few hours in local jails as he clicked his way across the country. The terms of engagement were not friendly. If America at large didn’t want to see his stories, his targets were equally reluctant to be bugs under Frank’s microscope. When it was all finished, the book found a home with the outlaw publishers at Grove Press, the scrappy upstart that had first published many of the emerging poets of the Beat movement. The traditional photographic world reacted either with a dismissive yawn or a snarling sneer. This wasn’t photography: this was some kind of amateurish assault on form and decency. Sales-wise, The Americans sank like a stone.
Around the edges of the photo colony, however, were fierce apostles of what Frank had seen, along with a slowly growing recognition that he had made a new kind of art emerge from the wreckage of a rapidly vanishing formalism. One of the earliest converts was the King of the Beats Himself, no less than Jack Kerouac, who, in the book’s introduction said Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film.”
Today, when asked about influences, I unhesitatingly recommend The Americans as an essential experience for anyone trying to train himself to see, or report upon, the human condition. Because photography isn’t merely about order, or narration, or even truth. It’s about constantly changing, and re-charging, the conversation. Robert Frank set the modern tone for that conversation, even if he first had to render us all speechless.