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
THE CAMERA IS THE MOST INTRUSIVE INVENTION EVER UNLEASHED ON THE WORLD, and the world has been altered forever by its peering, prying eye. That is both a negative and positive statement.
It has to be, since the fruits of photography are, on a good day, a mixed blessing. This unique bit of Industrial-Age machinery has, over several centuries now, investigated, invaded, illuminated and violated all of us. We simultaneously embrace this phenomenon and recoil from it. We hope its all-seeing orb won’t expose our particular secrets, but we cannot look away when it probes the dark truths of others.
Like many, I shoot through open windows as I walk through neighborhoods. I record what I tend to call “life leaks”. I maintain what I tell myself is a respectful distance, working hard not to capture anything starkly intimate about the lives that are concealed within houses, apartments, shops. I am only after shards, suggestions. Hints at the real wonders within. After all, it’s not, strictly speaking, my business, is it? Or might it be?
The camera, at any given time, is engaged in several ongoing chronicles of horrors and triumphs of the human condition in various global “hot spots”. It has ever been thus. We look in on people’s daily toils, invited or not. We are peepers. This is not always a good thing, nor is it always a bad thing. Sometimes, as in the image shown here, our curiosity about how people live is rather benign. Look at the way the light plays inside that house. Oh, what’s that picture on the wall? What’s around that corner, I wonder? Other times, our curiosity is reportorial, even prurient. What happened to this building? Is there anyone left alive inside? Who did this? It’s a short walk from childlike wonder to journalistic horror shows. I wonder where the line is.
I wonder if there even is a line.
Since the invention of the camera, we are all witnesses. And we are all subject matter.
I worry about walking a tightrope between wanting to know and demanding to know, and how we can all stay aloft on that rope. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. We, every one of us, has to make that call one image at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIRST OFF, LET’S AGREE ON ONE THING: photographs are not “the truth”. Well, at least not what we think we mean by truth. Maybe we use the “reality” of a captured image as a mere point of departure, the place we start off from, on the way to…well, that’s up to the artist, innit? What I’m trying to say here is that merely snapping a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve told the absolute truth about what your lens was pointing toward. Only the bones of truth…a structure on which to drape the rest, through interpretation, and the shared experience of inviting other eyes into the discussion.
Some of our inherited thinking about the veracity of a photo (“the camera doesn’t lie”) is that it is produced by a machine, a device inserted between our vision and the finished product, a mechanism that we associate with reproduction. After all the device measures light; it is indifferent, just as a seismograph or a lie detector would be. Only it isn’t. We humans are interacting with that “recording” function at every turn, just as personally as the painter measures and controls strokes of a brush. And then there’s the consideration of time. We don’t capture all of life in our box, just a stolen sliver of it, which guarantees that the sample, having been yanked out of its original context, is tainted from the start.
Even the best picture, then, comes out compromised, depending on how it was taken, and by whom. Clicking a shutter may be a means of producing something thought provoking, even profound, but it is nothing as simple as capturing the truth. As illustration: it’s easy to identify all the contributing elements of the above image….light, shadow, color, water textures, solid objects…but it was only possible to combine them all into the result you see here for a single moment. Someone else, working with the very same elements just a second later, would likely produce vastly different results. And yet, both of us are “right”.
Thinking of photographs as truth is tricky business. Consider this quote from photographer Giles Duley, who has garnered some distinction of late as what I call a camera-oriented journalist:
“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘truth’ in photography. As soon as I walk in a room and point a camera at you, I’ve already ruled out the rest of the people. As soon as I press the shutter on that second, I’ve ruled out the rest of the day. There is only honesty….”
A photograph is something used to illustrate a point of view. It’s not the only point of view to be had, and so it can’t be the absolute “truth” for everyone. But that’s the beauty of it, the fascinatingly infinite variety of “my truths” to be had in the artistic realm. This is not science. Science is different. You can’t present your “version” of gravity, or photosynthesis, or the speed of light. They just are. Art happens in the realm of “might be” or “could be”, and our photographs are, at their best, suppositions, suggestions. This picture might be true, and it might not, and so let the debate begin. And that is what makes the creation of image an art. Because it’s yours, and, with luck, it might be ours, and the dialogue that decides that is, well, everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR BOTH ARTIST AND AUDIENCE, operates like all the other arts, in that it affords us entry into a million worlds beyond the narrow confines of our own. The camera is both reporter and thief, a kind of mechanical pack rat that comes back to home base bearing treasures from other people’s lives. Like poetry, painting, literature, and music, the art of making images is an act of purloining pieces of things that do not belong to us. And that’s a good thing?
The question mark at the end of that sentence is needful, as are further inquiries. Are the things we nick from the stores of other people’s experience thefts, or are they an innocent sampling of wonder, like a bunch of wildflowers carried home from the field? Obviously, such questions can only be settled one picture at the a time. Photographers have, indeed, hooked themselves, worm-like, onto the hearts of people who are both content and suffering, of those who deserve some kind of baseline privacy which the very existence of the camera has placed at risk.
In making pictures of children at play, I make no bones about the fact that I am, certainly, eavesdropping on their experience. It can’t be expressed any other way. I am using a machine to freeze slices of their joy in an effort to enhance my own. But it’s not a predatory activity per se: I have no criminal motive in stealing a fragment of their carefree game, which is both private and public property in a strange see-saw that photographers must always struggle to keep in balance. The photograph shown here, for example, is more benign, even respectful, than the work of a reporter, say, who, under deadline, must extract loss or grief from the aftermath of war or disaster to earn his daily bread. But is my invasion only a friendly one because I have told myself it is? This is all to be discussed further, and by “further”, I mean “endlessly”.
In other arts, the audience comes into contact with a variety of lives, and yet, in novels or movies, those lives are largely invented to illustrate the creator’s point of view. In a photograph, the subjects are actual people, and our parking ourselves near them for our enjoyment dictates different rules of engagement. Appropriating someone’s story makes you, as its next translator, responsible for its truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FORTUNATE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT THERE AREN’T MORE THAN A FEW WRITERS IN THE WORLD who can render a sense of place, of emotional truth, or of vivid detail as effectively as did Pete Hamill, the peerless New York journalist who passed earlier this week in this, 2020, the year of the Great Hibernation. Indeed, if the world was more generally peopled with people of his skill and passion, there would be no need of cameras. None.
This little hometown newspaper has, over the years, offered up brief sketches of the great shooters, from Walker Evans and Ansel to Diane Arbus, as well as gifted amateurs like Lewis Carroll. But this week, in my grief over the passing of a man who was a stranger to me personally, but, just as personally, as important as a blood relative, I realize that he, too, must be enshrined in a gallery of people who mostly shone in purely visual terms. Because, for those who live in and love the greater New York area, William Peter Hamill, Jr. did everything a good photographer strives to do, creating many images on the page that rival anything that even the best shooter could create.
Pete’s career as a columnist, novelist, essayist and teacher is the stuff of solid legend, but others have a far greater handle on the details of that story than I, like the New York Times, whose obituary on him is offered here. What I am talking about, in this forum, is the way he rendered the streets of Manhattan and the outer boroughs for those who had never had the privilege to walk them in person. He knew those streets the way a mother of twelve knows her kids…their names, their birthdays, their talents, their torments. In a city that never stands still long enough to linger over memory, Pete could dig through the strata of centuries in any neighborhood on the island, drilling all the way down to the gray schist that the Dutch stepped onto at the beginning of the entire mad experiment. Peeling those layers apart, he could place the territories of any immigrant from any tribe; where they landed, where they wandered, where they built legends, where they perished. In Hamill’s hands, the word nostalgia did not merely mean a sentimental ache for things lost or demolished. Certainly he kept score on what the city had sacrificed in its everlasting dash toward The Next Big Thing, but it was the details beyond mere longing that made his stories sing. It was what made him an indispensable guide for Ric Burns’ epic New York PBS miniseries, and Downtown: My Manhattan as indispensable a tool for newcomers as the Fodor’s travel guides. And it was what made even his darkest accounts of things great and small elicit, in the reader, a wry smile of recognition. “The tragic sense” he observed with true Irish fatalism, “opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present.”
Like a photographer, Pete Hamill knew how to compose a frame to make your eye go directly to the most important thing. He knew where to lavish light and where to accent with darkness. He felt the value of negative space. He had a photo editor’s instinct for where to wield the cropping scissors. And he realized that the best human stories are simple, universal, direct things. Pete did with a Royal what the greatest photographers do with a Leica, but the result was the same. Immediacy. Truth. And the wisdom to ensure that his readers would always see The Big Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STRIVE TO GIVE DIRECT TESTIMONY to life’s key moments, to minimize the distance between event and reporter. The most arresting photographs benefit from this straight line-of-sight from what we witness to how we record it. Other times, however, we are forced to depict things indirectly, making pictures not of things, but of the impact of those things.
One example of this occurs in wartime. It’s impossible, in many cases, to directly make an image of all those who are lost in a battle, but many eloquent photographs have been made of the way those dead are remembered, by photographing lists of names inscribed on a memorial, or by capturing a ritual during which those names are recited. Since society records the damage of wars or disasters in a variety of clerical or statistical ways, such tabulations, for photographers, stand in visually for the actual event.
Our latest global “war”, in which even the immediate families of the dead are barred from witnessing their loved ones’ final moments, a time in which thousands of us seem to just vaporize into abstraction, has made a new, horrific addition to a very old instrument of death’s grammar: the newspaper obituary. In recent months, the virus has begun to be specifically listed as a cause of death in the stately columns of the New York Times, a revision which signals the importance of change in how slowly the Old Gray Lady adjusts to it. There now, on the page, along with the Parkinson’s diseases and the cancers and the sanitized descriptions of those who “passed peacefully” are the dread new words, now officially inducted into the vocabulary of grief.
And so, in the age of COVID-19, our cameras are stalled at arm’s length, unable to be true eyewitnesses, forced, by circumstances, to be eyewitnesses, once removed. We make pictures of pictures, images of lists, views of rosters.
It’s not enough. But for now, it will have to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE CAMERA IS A KIND OF REPORTER, it is called upon to capture or convey every aspect of the human experience. In a strict journalistic context, this can mostly consist of emotional extremes…..that is, joy, devastation, triumph, disaster, life, death. Feelings that laugh (or scream) out loud sell newspapers and pump ratings. But photographers are also called upon to show that, for one reason or another, we humans spend a lot of time….waiting.
You can make your own list of all the things we actually wait upon: trains, planes, the next opportunity, the last piece of cake, Christmas, true love. To be human is to abide, to patiently hang until the next item on life’s menu comes along. Sometimes there is nothing visually special in all that waiting. On the other hand, sometimes we can use our cameras to depict our restlessness, our expectation. Certainly time can slow to a crawl, and, with it, the heartbeat of our existence. But occasionally, all that “nothing looks”, at least in a photograph, like something.
We learn to document and measure emptiness. Cities before they fully wake. Courtrooms that have just emptied out. The first seepage of night into the dying day. Places that should be bustling, but aren’t. Towns on the edge of the end. People who’ve been stood up, left out, or merely missed their connection. But, there’s no guarantee that when “nothing” happens, a picture with “something” results. Sometimes, nothing is just…nothing.
But then again….
The hotel lobby seen here has graced its small town for over a hundred years. And it stands to reason that, if the owners were making a promotional video of that century, the end product would feature plenty of images of the famous and infamous who crossed its threshold over the joint’s lifetime. The parties. The ends of wars. The changes from horse-drawn carriages to tin lizzies. But today, there are no greatest hits on the schedule. Today, there is only waiting. Killing time. Glancing at the clock, again. Last week’s stale gossip reheated for today’s visitors. Perhaps a weary remark by someone that “nothing ever happens around here”. The challenge, then: on this particular day, will all that nothing arrange itself into a scene, a small story about a small day, a tale worth telling? Or is the waiting all there is?
Making photographs on “nothing” days is an exercise, just like push-ups or jumping jacks. Often it merely amounts to keeping in practice. Staying limber. Just in case. Still, the pictures where nothing happens are occasionally, themselves, something else.
Anyone around here have a deck of cards?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“DO YOU KNOW THAT PERSON?”
If you’ve ever even dipped your little toe into street photography, chances are that you have fielded that question from somebody, right after they encounter an unfamiliar face among your pictures. Further, should you answer in the negative, you’re liable to be met with a quizzical look, as if the person were asking, “then why in the world would you take their picture?” Strangely, the answer isn’t that complicated: it’s because that face is at least as interesting, as full of mystery and misery and joy, as the face of any of my “tribe”: a face, in short, worth a picture.
Of course, the majority of faces we record with cameras are those that we know and cherish. But every face on the planet has the same potential to be treasured as every other face, since all record the same conflicts and aspirations. The features found in our own social circle are not exclusively magical: they don’t portray dramas or dreams that are peculiar to us alone. The “others” are just “us” with some of the information missing. The information that begins being amplified the moment the shutter clicks.
Street photography is a second cousin to journalism in one very key respect, in that both kinds of images endeavor to take us from the particular to the general, showing us faces that react the way we might react to a given stimulus, be it a celebration, a war, a comedy, or a tragedy. We are led by the best of these images from the very specific reaction of one person we don’t know to a general shared human feeling we all recognize. Magazines, televised news reports, documentaries all remind us of the feelings we all hold in common. And yet, when an unknown face invades a batch of pictures that we regard as “relevant” someone is bound to sneer that the photographer ” always takes pictures of complete strangers”, as if there could be such a thing. In the case of the woman seen above, with whom I had the great accidental luck to share a bench in a museum, I see a symphony of short stories, mixed and remixed every time I come back to the image. I will never be her intimate friend in the standard sense of the word, but, in another sense, we are communicating with each other on a very special level.
At minimum, once a photograph is made of a face, the person to whom it belongs can never again be a “complete stranger”. At most, he or she could be an “incomplete” stranger, with the strangeness of a good candid portrait ebbing away with each additional viewing. Like the reporter or journalist, the street photographer is finding the unguarded moment, the unanticipated event, the unforeseen result. And that humanness is universal, immediate in its cognitive effect. We know these people.
We are these people.
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 FIRST EMOTION I EXPERIENCE IN LOOKING AT GREAT COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, is, of course, the awe that vision and talent naturally elicit. The second emotion, although I’m not proud to say it, is something akin to old-fashioned, green-eyed envy, given that so many of the world’s best images are, no surprise, taken from the world’s best vantage points. National Geographic, The Audubon Society, NASA, and hundreds of amazing journalists take our breath away not only for what they shoot, but for where they shoot it. Theirs is the stuff of Pulitzers and mass circulation. They literally make the shots seen ’round the world.
But there is, in all this camera envy, a spark of hope for the rest of us. Consider: not all of us can create great work even, by being in the right place at the right time. We also have to be the right people to make a shot eloquent, even if we’re standing at the edge of momentous events or breathtaking views. Yes, sadly, many of us won’t be sent by our editor to the sites with the greatest potential, or have enough liquidity to venture to them on our own dime. Most of us won’t be across the street for those moments when the world changes.
But here’s the deal: we do control the way we approach the places that we can get to. We can be the difference between a mundane and a miraculous image, even if the subjects we cover might escape everyone else’s glance. And we can re-imagine, through an angle, a viewpoint, a sensibility, something that’s been thought to be “photographed to death”, and harvest something fresh from it. Our cities, our daily routines, our most familiar mile markers need not have a single, “official” identity in photographs. Where we stand, what we choose to say, transforms even the most well-trod material. The street corner in the image at the top has mostly been seen or photographed at street level. Did I find something new in shooting it from an eighth-story window? And if I didn’t, could someone else?
Cameras, even the most expensive ones, don’t create beauty. Events, no matter how momentous, don’t guarantee stunning images. It’s the eye at the viewfinder, and the brain behind it, that determines whether a picture speaks.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO MEASURE MAN’S RELATIONSHIP to his physical environment, giving us the distance we need to see these arrangements from a more objective distance. People design places in which other people are to live and work, but once these plans get off the drawing board, it can become unclear what people’s place in the whole puzzle was intended to be.
More to the point, there is real picture-making potential in the occasional mis-match between what we design and how we fit into it. Some things that seem terrific to the people on the planning board seem cold or intimidating to regular users once they’re actually built. Seeing us try to find our place in things that are really inhospitable can be visually interesting because it makes us look and feel somewhat alien. We can become oddly placed props in our own projects, as the places made to house our dreams look more like warehouses for our nightmares.
Of course, one man’s horror is another man’s heaven, a rule that has certainly been constant over the history of innovation. That means, artistically, that we can wind up, inevitably, making images that start arguments, which is, I believe, the perfect function for art anyway. It’s one thing to smear a daub of paint on a canvas and lacerate someone’s vision with it. After all, you can abandon the painting, leave the gallery, etc. But if the building that was meant to be the gallery seems like a bad fit for you as a human being, that’s something else entirely.
The right compositions with the right lenses deliver stark visual messages about how we slot ourselves into the world we’ve created. Sometimes we make a statement for the ages. Sometimes we erect mouse mazes. Either way, there’s a picture in the process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FEEL THAT THERE SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE BEEN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, just as there always has been for literature. Why one of the lively arts should be deemed more capable of uplift or inspiration than another is beyond me. I even think that a photo Nobel might be more inspiring, overall, than the majority of images that cop the journalistic Pulitzer prize each year, since so many of the winning entries focus on horror, loss, war, and suffering….you know, the stuff that sells newspapers.
If there ever had been a Nobel for photography, I can think of no more obvious winner than the legendary Family Of Man exhibit, mounted by Edward Steichen, which just observed its sixtieth anniversary with a marvelously updated edition of its original catalogue book. Steichen, who in 1955 was the director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, was himself a grand master of still-lifes, portraits, fashion, architectural, and even floral studies, whose own output towered over the world for over seven decades. However, he used the Family show not to showcase his own work but to show the universality of the human experience across every culture on the planet, as interpreted by over 273 photographers in 69 countries. Mounted in cooperation with the United States Information Agency as a diplomatic tool, The Family Of Man celebrates those things that unite us, not the petty divisions amplified by journalists and other mischief makers. It is an inventory of births, deaths, weddings, rituals, weddings, wars, discoveries, and delights. It is a miraculous catalogue on the phenomenon of being human.
Over the years, the optimistic message of Family Of Man fell victim to the ironic detachment and busted ideals of several generations of hipper-than-thou cynics, some criticizing it as a Pollyanna-ish vision of mankind, others saying that it rendered many individual photographers faceless by jumbling all their work together. In fact, all photos in the exhibit are captioned with their creator’s name as well as his/her nation of origin. And as for hope being the antithesis of honest art…well, if you hold that belief, you’re wasting your time here.
Over sixty years later, The Family Of Man remains one of the towering achievements of art and journalist photography, reassembled now in its original presentation format at Clervaux Castle in Steichen’s home country of Luxembourg. Art must be about raising us up, even as we use it to remain mindful of how far we have to come as a race. But I will always, always vote on the side of hope, as Edward Steichen did. The Family Of Man is neither sugar-coated nor bleak. It is both imperfect and filled with potential, as we ourselves are. And its credo, as stated in 1955, remains a lesson for anyone trying to use a camera to chronicle the human condition:
“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women.There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU SEE RIDICULOUS ARTICLES FROM TIME TO TIME claiming that baseball has been replaced as America’s Pastime. Such spurious scribblings invariably point to game attendance, TV ratings, or some other series of metrics that prove that football, basketball, and, who knows, strip Scrabble have reduced baseball to some quaint state of irrelevancy. All such notions are mental birdpoop for one salient reason. No one is giving due attention to the word pastime.
Not “passion”. Not “madness”. Not even “loyalty”. Pastime. A way of letting the day go by at a leisurely pace. A way to gradually unfurl afternoons like comfy quilts. People-watching. Memory. Sentiment. Baseball is for watchers, not viewers, something that television consistently fails to realize. It’s the stuff that happens in the pauses, of which the game has plenty. Enjoying baseball, and photographing it as an experience, is about what happens in the cracks.
Images are waiting to be harvested in the dead spots between pitching changes. The wayward treks of the beer guys. The soft silence of anticipatory space just before the crack of a well-connected pitch. TV insists on jamming every second of screen time-baseball with replays, stat tsunamis, and analysis. Meanwhile, “live”, in the stadium, the game itself is only part of the entertainment. Sometimes, it actually drops back to a distant second.
Only a small percentage of my baseball pictures are action shots from the field: most are sideways glances at the people who bring their delight, their dreams, and their drama to the game. For me, that’s where the premium stories are. your mileage may vary. Sometimes it’s what’s about to happen that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s the games you remember while watching this one. There are a lot of human factors in the game, and only some of them happen between the guys in uniform.
Photography, as a pastime, affords a great opportunity to show a pastime. America’s first, best pastime.
It’s not just a ballgame. It’s an “all” game.
Root, root, root.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CONSISTS MOSTLY OF SHOWING PEOPLE in the full context of their regular worlds.
In terms of portraits or candids, it’s usually sufficient to showcase those we know in controlled environments….family gatherings, special occasions, a studio setting. However, to reveal anything about the millions of strangers we encounter over a lifetime, we only have context to show who they are and what they do. To say something about these fascinating unknowns, we truly need the “props” that define their lives.
I never thought it was that profound to just snap a candid of someone walking down the street. Walking to where? To do what? To meet whom? Granted, a person composed as part of an overall street scene can be a great compositional elements all by him/herself, but to answer the question, who is this person? requires a setting that fixes him in time, in a role or a task. Thus pictures of people doing something, i.e., being in their private universe of tools, objects, and habits…now that can make for an interesting study.
We now have successful reality TV shows like Somebody’s Gotta Do It which focus on just what it’s like to perform other people’s jobs, the jobs we seldom contemplate or tend to take for granted. It satisfies a human curiosity we all share about what else, besides ourselves, is out there. Often we try to gain the answer by sending probes to the other side of the galaxy, but, really, there’s plenty to explore just blocks from wherever we live. Thing is, the people we show make sense only in terms of the accumulations of their lives…the objects and equipment that fill up their hour and frame them in our compositions.
The legendary Lewis Hine made the ironwalkers of Manhattan immortal, depicting them in the work of creating the city’s great skyscrapers. Others froze workers and craftsmen of every kind in the performance of their daily routines. Portraits are often more than faces, and showing people in context is the real soul of street photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS IN ITS INFANCY WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE as a reportorial tool, a way of bearing witness to wars, disasters, and the passing parade of human folly and fashion. Since that time, at least a part of its role has been as a means of editorial commentary, a light shone on crisis, crime, or social ills. The great urban reformer Jacob Riis used it to chronicle the horrific gulf between poor and rich in the legendary photo essay How The Other Half Lives. Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, among many others, turned their cameras on the desperate need and changing landscape of America’s Great Depression. And now is the time for another great awakening in photography. It’s time to show where our cities need to go next.
Politics aside, the rotting state of our urban infrastructures is an emergency crying out for the visual testimony that photographers brought so eloquently to bear on poverty and war in ages past. The magnifying glass needs to be turned on the neglect that is rapidly turning America’s urban glory into rust and ruin. And no one can tell this story better than the camera.
We can fine-tune all the arguments about how to act, what to fund, and how to proceed. That’s all open to interpretation and policy. But the camera reveals the truths that are beyond abstraction and opinion. The underpinnings of one of the world’s great nations are rapidly dissolving into exposed rebar and pie-crust pavement. If part of photography’s mission is to report the news, then the decline of our infrastructure is one of the most neglected stories in the world’s visual portfolio. Photographers can entice the mind into action, and have done so for nearly two centuries. They have peeled back the protective cover of politeness to reveal mankind at its worst, and things have changed because of it. Agencies have been formed. Action has been accelerated. Lives have been changed. Jobs have been created.
It didn’t used to be an “extra credit” question on the exam of life just to maintain what amazing things we have. Photographers are citizens, and citizens move the world. Not political parties. Not kings or emperors. History is created from the ground up, and the camera is one of the most potent storytelling tools used in shaping that history. The story of why our world is being allowed to disintegrate is one well worth telling. Capturing it in our boxes just might be a way to shake up the conversation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHARPER MINDS THAN MINE WILL SPEND AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF EFFORT THIS WEEK CATALOGUING THE COSTS OF THE “GREAT WAR“, the world’s first truly global conflict, sparked by the trigger finger of a Serbian nationalist precisely one hundred years ago. These great doctors of thinkology will stack statistics like cordwood (or corpses) in an effort to quantify the losses in men, horses, nations and empires in the wake of the most horrific episode of the early 20th century.
Those figures will be, by turns, staggering/appalling/saddening/maddening. But in the tables of numbers that measure these losses and impacts, one tabulation can never be made: the immeasurable loss to the world of art, and, by extension, photography.
There can be no quantification of art’s impact in our lives, no number that expresses our loss at its winking out. Photography, not even a century old when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was dispatched to history, was pressed into service to document and measure the war and all its hellish impacts. But no one can know how many war photographers might have turned their lenses to beauty, had worldwide horror not arrested their attention. Likewise, no one can know how many Steichens, Adamses, or Bourke-Whites, clothed in doughboy uniforms, were heaped on the pyre as tribute to Mars and all his minions. Most importantly, we cannot know what their potential art, now forever amputated by tragedy, might have meant to millions seeking the solace of vision or the gasp of discovery.
Photography as an art was shaped by the Great War, as were its tools and techniques, from spy cameras to faster films. The war set up a symbiosis of horror between the irresistible message of that inferno and the unblinking eye of our art. We forever charged certain objects as emblems of that conflict, such that an angel now is either a winged Victory, an agent of vengeance, or a mourner for the dead, depending on the photographer’s aims. That giant step in the medium’s evolution matters, no less than the math that shows how many sheaves of wheat were burned on their way to hungry mouths.
Our sense of what constitutes tragedy as a visual message was fired in the damnable forge of the Great War, along with our ideals and beliefs. Nothing proves that art is a life force like an event which threatens to extinguish that life. One hundred years later, we seem not to have learned too much more about how to avoid tumbling into the abyss than we knew in 1914, but, perhaps, as photographers, we have trained our eye to bear better witness to the dice roll that is humanity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE CAMERA IS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, A RECORDING INSTRUMENT, it has always defaulted to the function of a journalist’s device, a reportorial machine for bearing witness to events. Certainly, it was inevitable that newspapers and magazines would, over time, turn to the camera as a way of marking or defining events, of making a visual document of things. And soon, of course, that simple recording process gave way to overt commentary, to an event being imbued with as much personal bias by a photographer as had always been the case with prose writers. It was possible for the camera to have an opinion.
Street photography, which allowed the amateur to stamp his view on what he saw no less than the professional journalist, should, certainly, have developed a judgemental eye toward the tragic, the awful in life. But, as often happens, it has spawned a school of thought in which people who fancy themselves “serious” artists reflect only rotting cities or crying children. This promotes a dishonest view of the world, since, sometimes, as Elton John once wrote, “the boulevard is not that bad.” And that makes our art lopsided. I call it “photographing OWIEs” (Orphans, Winos, Idiots and Eccentrics), and it has become something of a runaway industry.
It’s a popular conceit: only dour poets are “real” poets. Only depressed writers know anything of life. And only photographers who depict abject misery really “get” the human condition. This is flawed thinking, but invariably catches hold in every “authentic” gallery exhibit, every “honest” critical essay, and every other place pretentious humans congregate to celebrate their shared gravitas.
Street photography that reflects hope, or, God spare us, even a modicum of human normalcy should never be discounted or marginalized. Artists are charged with embracing both light and shadow. And certainly, for purely scientific reasons, photographs are impossible without taking both into account.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ABRAHAM ZAPRUDER almost didn’t change history.
The Dallas women’s wear designer, a refugee from Soviet Russia and a Democrat, was eager to take a break from his office on November 22, 1963 to head down to the city’s Dealey Plaza, accompanied by his receptionist, to get a look at the man for whom he had voted three years earlier. An assistant suggested he first swing by his house and pick up his movie camera, a Bell & Howell Zoomatic “Director” Model 414 PD. Standing on a concrete pedestal, framing the presidential motorcade as it made its turn onto Elm Street, Zapruder, too stunned by what he was seeing through his viewfinder to even stop, captured 26.6 seconds that would document the world’s shift from innocence to agony.
He had no sophisticated experience documenting news stories. He had never taken a course on photography. Understandably, for the rest of his life, he could never again even bring himself to shoot either still or movie images. But that day, he had a camera. And if anything of Abraham Zapruder’s unique role in the Kennedy tragedy is emblematic of the fatefulness of photography, of being present when things are ready to happen, it is those 486 frames of Kodachrome, footage that no one….no news service, no network, no freelancer…nobody but a dressmaker with an amateur camera was poised to capture.
Because of Abraham Zapruder, the chaos and fear of those seconds now represent a time line, a sequence. The event has parameters, colors. Tone. Zapruder’s camera transformed him from “a” witness to “the” witness, the image maker of record, just as it had for others when the Hindenburg erupted into flame, the Arizona billowed black smoke, and, a generation later, Challenger painted the sky with a billion fiery atoms.
Half a century later, the multiplier effect of personal media devices guarantees that each key event in our history is documented by hundreds, even thousands of witnesses at once, but, on that horrible day in Dallas, Abraham Zapruder’s preservation of murder on celluloid was an outlier, an accident. And by the end of Friday, November, 22, 1963, the day the world unspooled, he was no longer merely a tourist taking a home movie. He was the sole possessor of Exhibit A.
- Zapruder Film: Images As History, Pre-Smartphone (dfw.cbslocal.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LAST SUNDAY EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FOR 2012 features its annual review of the year’s most essential news images, a parade of glory, challenge, misery and deliverance that in some ways shows all the colors of the human struggle. Plenty of material to choose from, given the planet’s proud display of fury in Hurricane Sandy, the full scope of evil on display in Syria, and the mad marathon of American politics in an electoral year. But photography is only half about recording, or framing, history. The other half of the equation is always about creating worlds as well as commenting on them, on generating something true that doesn’t originate in a battlefield or legislative chamber. That deserves a year-end tribute of its own, and we all have images in our own files that fulfill the other 50% of photography’s promise.
This year, for example, we saw a certain soulfulness, even artistry, breathed into Instagram and, by extension, all mobile app imaging. Time ran a front cover image of Sandy’s ravages taken from a pool of Instagramers, in what was both a great reportorial photo and an interpretive shot whose impact goes far beyond the limits of a news event. Time and again this year, I saw still lifes, candids, whimsical dreams and general wonderments of the most personal type flooding the social media with shots that, suddenly, weren’t just snaps of the sandwich you had for lunch today saturated with fun filters. It was a very strong year for something personal, for the generation of complete other worlds within a frame.
I love broad vistas and sweeping visual themes so much that I have to struggle constantly to re-anchor myself to smaller things, closer things, things that aren’t just scenic postcards on steroids, although that will always be a strong draw for me. Perhaps you have experienced the same pull on yourself…that feeling that, whatever you are shooting, you need to remember to also shoot…..something else. It is that reminder that, in addition to recording, we are also re-ordering our spaces, assembling a custom selection of visual elements within the frame. Our vision. Our version. Our “other 50%.”
My wife and I crammed an unusual amount of travel into 2012, providing me with no dearth of “big game” to capture…from bridges and skyscrapers to the breathlessly vast arrays of nature. But always I need to snap back to center….to learn to address the beauty of detail, the allure of little composed universes. Those are the images I agonize over the most at years’ end, as if I am poring over thumbnails to see a little piece of myself , not just in the mountains and broad vistas, but also in the grains of sand, the drops of dew, the minutes within the hours.
Year-end reviews are, truly, about the big stories. But in photography, we are uniquely able to tell the little ones as well. And how well we tell them is how well we mark that we were here, not just as observers, but as participants.
It’s not so much how well you play the game, but that you play.
Happy New Year, and many thanks for your attention, commentary, and courtesy in 2012.
- 10 social mobile photography trends for 2013 (davidsmcnamara.typepad.com)
- Old-Timer Joins Instagram, Schools Everyone With Poignant Flood Photos (wired.com)