By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN, FAIRLY EARLY ON, that he who controls the frame controls the conversation. The act of composition is really forced upon the artist, since every picture has some kind of hard physical limits or arbitrary dimensions. And since no photographic vista is truly unlimited, one’s vision is subject to two crucial choices: what to put in the frame, and what to leave out.
This process is lovingly demonstrated in 2017’s glorious film Wonderstruck, a nostalgic observation on the art of presentation, specifically the way it has historically been practiced by traditional museums, those special places where we arrange, as do photographs, a version of reality. The film chiefly centers upon New York’s Museum of Natural History, whose legendary dioramas of global habitats have transported generations of young minds to a universe of savannahs, shores, and deserts, all trapped in backlit cubicles and arranged in grand halls, warehouses of worlds orchestrated in darkness.
Here, in this supermarket of climates and locales, each diorama must convey its message in a shorthand of visual cues, hinting at entire ecosystems within a limited space and with only a modest number of props and textures. At their best, they echo the skills of the most effective of photographs, making eloquent choices on what is included, what is excluded, and whatever narrative power those choices generate in the finished product.
Of course, Wonderstruck’s affection for the museums it honors (including Los Angeles’ Museum Of Natural History, shown here) is a valentine to an age that is quickly vanishing, its prosaic, passive vistas giving way to the buzz and flash of ever more interactive, “hands-on” experiences, an immersive engagement that can make the dioramas of old seem like silent movies.
Still, if you can slow your absorption rate to pre-digital speeds, the old wonder boxes can still teach, because photographers are still bound by many of rules of engagement they observe. Don’t distract, attract: clarify your message: get the story told. Snapping an image is a fairly process. It takes time, real time, to learn to curate them.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST CONSISTENT CRITICISM I’VE CAUGHT ABOUT MY URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY over a lifetime is that it’s a little, well, clinical. Now, it’s true that I like to feature urban spaces in their purest form, or, as near the architect or planner’s original vision as possible. Certainly, the urban dwellings I shoot were designed to serve people, but I can’t resist occasionally showing these spaces as absolute designs, minus the visitors. I realize that, for some, this can render things a little antiseptic, but I don’t mean anything personal (impersonal?) by it.
Comparing notes with other shooters, I find that they, too, occasionally like to just show things that were designed for humans, only without…the humans. And I believe that parks, libraries, and museums can actually increase their profit by accommodating photographers in the same way that they might for their own marketing efforts.
Universally, when it’s time to do a photo feature on an historic site, the first thing that curators do is chase all the peasants off the property and give a photographer exclusive access to the place. You’ll see this to a lesser degree when people shoot real estate listings, and it makes perfect sense. The shooter has time to plan and experiment, without working around an endless supply of kids with Slurpees and moms with strollers. It’s not anti-human, it’s pro-photo.
So here’s the idea: why not dedicate a set amount of an attraction’s weekly tour schedule solely to solo photography tours? Calculate your place’s slow earning days and book those times in, say, half-hour increments, chunks in which the only persons inside the joint would be one employee and one photographer. I know many shooters who would gladly pay a bump of up to 100% of the going tour rate just to ensure privacy, and be allowed to effectively prepare shots.
Parks like Yellowstone, along with a growing list of museums and monuments have already crafted private tour options for photographers. It’s all found money,since all attractions have their dead seasons, weeks or months out of the year when they could throw a bowling ball across the place without hitting anything. Why not use those off-days as moneymakers? I love people, but if I’m visiting a place to have my one shot at capturing a magnificent structure, I hate settling for what I can frame around, versus what I could do if I just had the same access as National Geographic. Just once.