By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT HAS BEEN CALLED “THE EIFFEL TOWER OF AMERICA”, a “stairway to nowhere”, a “bold addition to the city’s landscape” and “an eyesore”,…….in other words, a new structure in New York City. Whatever its eventual place in the hearts of Manhattanites, architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a hollow, honeycombed tower of open staircases, viewing landings and dizzying geometry, all sixteen stories of it, has become the visual exclamation point for the continuing explosion of shops and businesses known as Hudson Yards, a project so huge it may not max out for another decade. At this writing, it’s late 2019, and the tower’s creators, who claim the name “vessel” is just a transitional one, have already weathered a short tsunami of plaudits and protests since the beehive’s opening earlier in the spring. And in a city defined by bold visual signatures, the structure seems destined to become a darling for photographers, especially at its current newborn phase, in which there is, as yet, no “official” way of viewing it, no established postcard depiction to inhibit or limit individual visions. It’s at this first phase in a landmark’s life that all captures are equal: it’s the photographic equivalent of the Wild West.
Vessel sits near the periphery of the High Line, the internationally praised West Side reclamation of the New York Central Railway’s old raised infrastructure, which now welcomes millions of strolling visitors and locals each year along its 1.45 miles of twisty, landscaped boardwalks, and has acted as the launch pad for recovery of the entire area, including Hudson Yards’ forest of skyscrapers and high-end shops. The first phase of the Yards is crowned by a glistening five-story mall whose massive glass facing wall is directly opposite Vessel. On the day when I visited, the free timed daily tickets to the inside of the honeycomb were all gone, so viewing it in the regular fashion was off the table. However, every floor of the mall has a spectacular view of the structure and its surrounding plaza, which actually appealed to me almost as much as a trip inside. The combination of reflection, refraction, and the golden glow of the approaching sunset made for a slightly kaleidoscopic effect, and so I decided to re-configure my plans. As mentioned before, the utter newness of the tower plays superbly well into photographic experimentation, as its design seems to present a completely different experience to the viewer every few feet, a very democratic sensation that rewards every visitor in a distinctly personal way. Besides, part of the fun of seeing new things in New York is weighing the hoorays and howls against each other and then making up your own mind.
In a city that has seen both P.T. Barnum’s dime museum and Penn Station fade from the scene over the centuries, it’s useless to guess whether Vessel is eventually regarded as a must-see or a fizzle. But it doesn’t matter much either way. Right now, it is neither building nor dwelling. Like Eiffel, it just is, and maybe that’ll be enough. In the meantime, photographers are using the opportunity of its present existence to celebrate the uncertainty that informs the making of the best pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN IN A WORLD BENT UPON WORSHIP OF THE NEW, not all of the past is erased all at once. The destruction of the old may indeed seem inevitable, but sometimes it is gradual, even incomplete. And when the inexorable crush of progress is even partially slowed, photography gains entry to the process of change, and can bear witness.
Neighborhoods come and go: businesses close: eras end. Still, the architectural and aesthetic footprint of fashions and trends can linger long after their original animus has faded. What’s left in view are signs, buildings, old faces in new places, strange survivors left alone on blighted blocks. On this site will soon stand…..
The old ways are debated by civic groups and historical societies, with the value of what we were weighed against the forward surge of new needs. What deserves to be preserved? What should already have been dismantled? Opportunities for the photographer are obvious. We make a record. We give testimony. And when things must depart, we prevent their being forgotten, at least not for lack of evidence.
For nearly 100 years, San Franciscans in the heart of the Bay City’s business and tourist energy stopped at Marquard’s Little Cigar Store at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell for their morning paper, a bottle of spirits, or a pack of smokes. The neon sign announcing these delights was erected sometime in the ’20’s and stayed until Danny Ortega, who first climbed a ladder behind the counter to wait on customers while in early grade school, finally threw in the towel in 2005. At that point, the demolition of the store’s wraparound entrance seemed like a foregone conclusion. But local preservationists, eager to preserve the look, if not the function, of the old neighborhood, managed to get landmark status for at least the sign. What would henceforth happen beneath it would be up to the new leaseholders….in this case, a hat store whose smaller “LIDS” announcement can be seen in the 2012 image seen here. Several more years later, the neon tubing visible in this shot was also removed, still leaving most of the gloriously garish Marquard’s overhang intact, including its very West Coast promotion of the New York Times. This kind of half-a-loaf solution is becoming far more common in American cities, many of which are laden with buildings that can continue to cosmetically charm or educate, even as their original functions are either obviated or re-tooled. Movie theatres become live performance venues. Department stores become law schools. And cigar stores become landmarks, reminders of who we were just a few scant minutes ago.
I always feel privileged to photograph places that have been even partially saved from the wrecking ball. First, because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to the original local energy that birthed them. But more importantly, because, without the testimony of photographs, yesterdays become obliterated at ever greater speeds. Certainly taking just a little more time to properly say our goodbyes takes work. But as with any bittersweet task, there’s a little smile accompanying the tears.
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE FREQUENTLY ASKED to define a “bad” picture, or, more specifically, the worst picture they themselves ever shot. The question is a bit of a logic trap, though, since it typically tricks us into naming something that failed because the subject was moribund, or because we mis-read the light, the aperture, the composition. The trap further reasons that, if you have checked off all those boxes, you should end up with a great picture.
But all of that is bug wash. What makes a picture bad is when you were not ready to take it….. but you took it anyway.
Sometimes the problem is ignorance: you simply aren’t old or wise enough to know what to do with the subject. Other times, you have substantial barriers between you and an effective story, but you try to drill past what you can’t fix. And, you can no doubt add your own list of things that, ahead of the shutter click, should scream, “not now”. Try to make the picture before either the conditions or you (usually you) are right, and you lose. Just as I lost, in great big neon letters, with the mess you at above left.
In 2016, I visited the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, a venerable colonial-era home which sits right next to the small footbridge that served as the site of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. What excited me most, however, was that it had served as a temporary home for the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he had written Nature, the first of his great works, while living there. And to really put the cherry on the sundae, the house still contains the small writing desk he used to do it.
The house is lit only with indirect window light during the day, but with a fast prime lens and a decent eye, there’s more than enough soft illumination to work with to produce decent results (see left). In fact, just before my tour was to head into the room containing the desk, I had already harvested quite a few usable shots…so many, in fact, that I was getting teased by the others in the group…the usual “oh, another picture?” stuff. Uncharacteristically, I began to worry about whether I was holding everyone else up, and thus started to hurry myself, to shoot not as I intended, but in deference to what I thought others would like. By the time I got to Emerson’s chair, the light, my lens, even my own experience were all useless to me….because I wasn’t ready to shoot….but did anyway.
And so you behold the unholy mess that resulted: lousy contrast, uneven exposure, muddy texture (is the chair made out of wood or Play-Doh?), tons of noise, indifferent angle, and, oh yeah, garbage focus. Worse yet, the psyche I’d put upon myself was so severe that I didn’t slow down for a more considered re-do. No, I rejoined the group like a polite little camper, and left without what I had come for.
And that is all on me, and thus an important entry in The Normal Eye, an ongoing chronicle which is designed to emphasize personal choice and responsibility in photography, versus just hoping well-designed machines will compensate for our lack of concept or intention. This is not easy. This is ha It’s no fun realizing that what went wrong with an image was us.
But it’s a valuable thing to own. And to act upon.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL PLAYED THE CHILDREN’S GAME OF REPEATING A WORD UNTIL IT BEGINS TO SOUND FOREIGN, OR SILLY, to be drained, in fact, of all real meaning. Context being everything, no less in photography than in any other form of expression, we can often make images that, because they have been so endlessly replicated over the years, become drained of their power, and beg for a re-imagining.
In brief, some things have been photographed so many times that they need to be taken far out of context to rebirth them as vital subject matter.
Look around the next airport souvenir shop you encounter. Look at the paperweights, the tee-shirts, the memorial shot glasses. There, in a moment, you see the symbols of the town you’re visiting (or leaving), reduced to the most hideous kitsch ever created. Lady Liberty. The Space Needle. San Francisco trolleys. You can’t “do” the towns in which these icons hold court unless you visit them and crank off a few snaps. They’re “to do” items, but not “must do”‘s. And every depiction of them is post-card standard, seen from a certain angle and in a certain orientation.
Sadly, many of these sights still could hold the symbolic power they once had, except that few of us are demanding that said power be brought forth. Ironically, we approach totally unknown subjects, things we blithely stumble onto, with the freshest eyes, not knowing the “correct” way to visualize them. We produce instinctual reactions based on how and where we first saw a thing, without the accumulated cultural baggage about how it’s “supposed” to look. We visualize it personally, rather than measuring it against the standard of thousands of other images taken of it.
So how to photograph the over-documented icon? Well, for one thing, the “postcard” view, the one in the travel brochures, must be abandoned completely. Instead of making it a homework assignment to visit a well-known place, why not assume you’ll get one random, fleeting glance at it….through a dirty window, a picket fence, a reflection in a window….and have that be your only chance to photograph it. Instead of trying to get the image “right”, pretend that you have never seen this thing, whether it be a temple or a tower. And imagine, further, that you didn’t even know the thing existed, but that, upon rounding a blind corner, you were suddenly forced to react to it.
As seen at the top of the page, the sign for Seattle’s famed Public Market is often photographed as if it were the market itself, filling the frame of many photos with just its giant red neon letters. In reality, it is a small component in a vital, bustling neighborhood filled with rich visuals. Why not merely suggest the sign as part of a larger tapestry? More importantly, what is your vision?
One great advantage in making new images of old icons is that you know so much of the standard view of the thing that, in abstracting it, you know the viewer will still follow you on the journey….that is, they can make the leap from the literal to the symbolic. It’s like improvising a jazz solo on a well-known melody.
Visualization is the photographer’s most important skill, but occasionally, re-visualization is even more vital…and revitalizing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT GOES BY MANY NAMES: THE MONEY SHOT, THE GOLDEN ANGLE, THE POSTCARD VIEW. Travel enough and you will snap one. The all-roads-lead-to-this-picture, must-shoot frame that defines a town or city. Rattle off the names from Eiffel to Empire State. Drawn like moths to flame, we make the same treks that millions before us have made to capture the classic destination, the local Mecca. Do we truly believe that we, the 400,000,000th visitor to the special site, will capture something that someone else missed? Well, yes, we do. For all the other tourists, it’s just a Kodak moment, but once we focus our lens, boy, it’ll be a moment for the ages. Or not.
But I also believe in the value of the dead opposite of the obvious shot, the image taken 180 degrees away from the holy object we all think we must shoot. The hiding-over-my-shoulder treasure that no one came to take, but which might just qualify as a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s across the alley from the Alamo? What’s a half a block to the left of Notre Dame? Or, in the case of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, what happens when you deliberately turn away from the most desired view in the city?
The iconic downward vista of the Steel City, at precisely the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers blend at the town’s terminus to form the Ohio, is chiefly shot from atop Mount Washington, a district reached via the romantic, cable-driven incline service that has trucked commuters up the Mount and down for over a century. Add the souvie shop and the walk-out view platforms at the top, and it’s one of the most obvious cases of here, take this picture in all of American tourism.
But the Mount, an old urban neighborhood unto itself, is like a flatland city dropped on top of a lumpy cliff, its streets rising and falling like a stone roller coaster. The sheer suddenness of its drop-offs and the skyward pitches of its roofs lends a zany angularity, its tiered vistas contrasted by the glass and steel of contemporary Pittsburgh just below. Think Rio with Czechs and Germans.
There’s something of a religious pilgrimage quality to taking your shot at a popular attraction, but it takes mere minutes to scout around beyond the crowds to what lies immediately beyond. The opposite of obvious is often a synonym for discovery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ALL HATE THE TASK OF SHOOTING OVERLY FAMILIAR SUBJECTS. The famous. The iconic. The must-stop, we’ll-be-getting-off-the-bus-for-ten-minutes “sights” that decorate every postcard rack, every gift store shelf, in their respective cities. The Tower, the Ruins, the Once-Mighty Palace, the Legendary Cathedral. Things that have more pictures taken of them by breakfast than you’ll have taken of you in three lifetimes. Scadrillions of snaps, many of them composed for the “classic” orientation, an automatic attempt to live up to the “postcard” shot. It’s dull, but not because there is no fresh drama or grandeur left in a particular locale. It’s dull because we deliberately frame up the subject in almost the same way that is expected of us.
There must be a reason we all fall for this.
Maybe we want everyone back home to like our pictures, to recognize and connect with something that is easy, a pre-sold concept. No tricky exposures, no “arty” approaches. Here’s the Eiffel Tower, Uncle Herb, just like you expected to see it.
On a recent walking shoot around D.C.’s National Mall, snapping monument upon monument, I was starting to go snowblind with all the gleaming white marble and bleached alabaster, the perfection of our love affair with our own history. After a few miles of continuous hurrahs for us and everything we stand for, I perversely looked for something flawed….a crack in the sidewalk, a chipped tooth on a presidential bust, something to bring forth at least a little story.
Then I defaulted to an old strategy, and one which at least shakes up the senses. Photograph parts of buildings instead of the full-on official portrait of them. Pick a fragment, a set of light values, a selection of details that render the thing new, if only slightly. Take the revered and venerated thing out of its display case and remove its normal context.
The Lincoln Memorial proved a good choice. The basic shot of the front looked like just a box with pillars. A very, very white box. But shooting a bracket of three exposures of just the upper right corner of the roof , then blending them in an exposure fusion program, revealed two things: the irregular aging and texture of the stone, and the very human bit of history inscribed along the crown: the names of the states, with the years they came into the union below them. All at once something seemed unified, poetic about Abraham Lincoln sitting inside not a temple to himself, but a collection of the states and passions he stitched back together, repaired and restored into a Union.
The building had come back alive for me.
And I didn’t even have to shoot the entire thing.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.