By MICHAEL PERKINS
BIRTHDAYS. Glibly speaking, ya can’t live without ’em.
Thing is, after a while they don’t come alone. More and more, they show up accompanied by echoes. Ghosts. Remains and remnants. And the guest lists of Things That Were that trundle alongside all those birthdays often focus on buildings, structures that are barometers of where we started out and where we wound up.
The image above was taken within days of this year’s natal anniversary, and put me in mind of one of the most eloquent musings ever on the subject of loss from singer–songwriter Judy Collins. Looking at this sad, sagging house, I could clearly hear her singing:
My grandmother’s house is still there, but it isn’t the same
A plain wooden cottage, a patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing and sighing in the Seattle rain
I drive by with strangers and wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds flying in sunlight
A forest of lilies, an orchard of apricot trees
Secret gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE HAVE A LIFETIME OF HEART-TO-HEART TALKS with ourselves, seeking the answer to questions like “what’s this I see?”, or “what do I want to tell?” Tricky thing is, of course, that, as time progresses, you are talking with a variety of conversational partners. As we age, we re-engineer nearly every choice-making process or system of priority. I loved Chef-By-Ar-Dee as an eight-year-old, but the sight of the old boy would probably make me gag at 63. And so it goes with clothing, choice of good reads, and, of course photography.
One of the things it’s prudent to do over the years is to take the temperature of present-day You, to really differentiate what that person wants in an image, versus what seemed essential at other stages in your life. I know that, in my case, my favorite photographers of fifty years ago bear very little resemblance to the ones I see as signposts today.
As a boy, I was in love with technical perfection and a very literal form of storytelling. Coming up in an artist’s household, I saw photos as illustrations, that is, subservient to some kind of text. I chose books for their pictures, yes, but for how well they visualized the writing in those books. The house was chock full of the mass-appeal photo newsmagazines of that day, from Life to Look to National Geographic to the Saturday Evening Post, periodicals that chose pictures for how well they completed the stories they decorated. A picture-maker for me, then, basically a writer’s assistant.
By my later school years, I began, slowly, to see photographs as statements unto themselves, something beyond language. They were no longer merely aids to understanding a writer’s position, but separate, complete entities, needing no intro, outro or context. The pictures didn’t have to be “about” anything, or if they were, it wasn’t a thing that was necessarily literal or narrative. Likewise, the kind of pictures I was interested in making seemed, increasingly, to be unanchored from reference points. Some people began to ask me, “why’d you make a picture of that?” or “why aren’t there any people in there?”
By this time in my life, I sometimes feel myself rebelling against having any kind of signature style at all, since I know that any such choice will eventually be shed like snake-skin in deference to some other thing I’ll deem important. For a while. What this all boils down to is that the journey has become more important than the destination, at least for my photography. What I learn is often more important than what I do about it.
And some days, I actually hope I never get where I’m going.