By MICHAEL PERKINS
TAGGING, OR MARKING A BUILDING WITH GRAFFITI, seems to me one of the strangest bids for immortality that an artist can undertake. It’s obviously, on one level, a plea not to be ignored: I was here. But since so much of the information in its various signatures and symbols are rigidly encoded, it’s only a testament to some people for some vague stretch of time. Soon, like the grass reclaims the battlefield, rust and amnesia efface the artist just as surely as if he had never passed this way.
When infrastructures rot and fail, they either collapse in catastrophe (like a fallen bridge) or needless suffering (like a municipal water system), and, as their pieces are hauled away, every cultural element tied up in their daily use, especially signs or writing, are taken away as well, robbing the tagger of his/her shot at immortality. Other times, the rot just stands, useless and unmourned amidst other changes in our daily world, still emblazoned with the phantom scrawlings of earlier poets who now cannot rely on either memory or context to make their work persist in meaning.
The strange legend on this disintegrating trestle bridge in Ventura, California was explained to me by a local as a reference to a heinous crime that occurred in the area. She didn’t seem to recall the precise details nor the time frame, although I assume it does not pre-date the invention of aerosol spray paint. Point is, even though the bridge has the year of its erection, 1909, stamped into it at the back and front, the span’s name, to everyone who passes until it plunges into the river, will be “the ‘Baby Girl’ bridge”. Unfair to the anonymous scribe who sought to freeze a horrific event in time, but eventually a moot point.
I wanted to shoot the bridge because of the textures of its deterioration, but then I realized that, eventually, I was also making what would, eventually, become the lone record of a message that someone, somewhere, thought important enough to stamp onto the trestle’s oxidized remains. Maybe, in some way, I think it’s important as well. Artists hate the idea of other artists dissolving into history. We come into the world by ourselves, and, after mingling with the world, we all end up, as the song goes, alone again. Naturally.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEAR ONE WITH MY VERY FIRST CAMERA was a demonstration in pure randomness. Whatever passed directly in front of my $5 Imperial Mark XII got caught in the frame. Whatever wasn’t… well..
Without a doubt, I made some fumbling attempts at composition, but, at least at first, the idea that anything at all would show up on the film was so mind-blowing that my idea of “success” was a packet of prints that came back from the processor having registered basically any registration of color or definition. I was too busy being grateful for the miracle to nitpick the results.
This picture of my sister Elizabeth came from that period, probably the summer of 1966, and although it was, in execution and planning, a pure snapshot, it has brought a few souvenirs along with it as it’s travelled through time. It’s shot wide, but then, with a fixed-focus plastic lens loaded with aberrations, that’s about the only way she could have wound up even reasonably sharp. Again, I said reasonably. And so, even though she is prominent in the shot, it also took in a lot of incidental time-capsule information that is really only relevant to we two, all these ages later.
For one thing, the thoroughfare to her right, a two-lane country road out in “the sticks” at the time, is now an eight-lane feeder highway to Columbus, Ohio’s massive I-270 outerbelt. The creek she is looking into is largely invisible due to this expansion. Up beyond the horizon on the right is a densely forested metro park where we were taken for school picnics and field trips. It’s still there, but negotiating a service road to gain entry into it now requires a degree from MIT. And, of course, the only place you’ll find the autos that are touring back and forth is at either a museum or a classic car show.
When I’m away from this shot, it’s easy to forget a lot, like how going to that park was a “day in the country” for us at the time, even though it was hardly a twenty-minute drive from our house. Today, that “country” is a sprawling crush of chain stores, restaurants, and housing tracts, all of which have surged further and further eastward from the city’s core over half a century. And finally there is that face, that flawless, guileless, innocent face, still free of the scarring battles that would envelop us both over the course of our lives together. This week, this child turns sixty-eight, and I am about four hundred and thirteen or so, depending on which day you ask. But when my thoughts turn to my undying love for Elizabeth, I see this image, taken wide to include lots of temporal flotsam and jetsam, but shot just close enough to bring an angel into focus.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WOULD EMERGE AS UNDISPUTED CHAMP OF ANY DRINKING GAME in which I took a shot for every time in my life that I’ve uttered the words “I love photography”. The same, I’m sure, can be said of so many of you.
But “love” is different than “need”. Some attachments are beyond any willful or voluntary commitment, existing in excess of any voluntary affection. We often love things we don’t need, and just as often need things we don’t love. But in the case of making pictures, even when my love flags, my need goes relentlessly on.
The times we live in have generated a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and in such times, the list of things we actually need becomes tighter, more focused. Photography, which is a coordinated act of the eye, hand, and heart, makes even my own most severely edited list of needful things. What it represents to me is beyond price, as it is an attempt to establish order, to, in effect, extract it from the random clutter and noise of life. Such times move my photography well past anything that the world at large finds essential to a realm in which I keep the things I desperately require for survival.
These words sound hyperbolic as I write them, and so I expect that they may strike you as such as well. Or maybe not. Maybe there are many of you for which the crafting of an image is an act of faith, a deliberate attempt to curse the darkness by answering it with something literally made from light. I suspect that, in any art, the artist is seeking a kind of life support. He is not trying to save the world so much as he is trying to save himself.
None of us has any objective way of knowing if the pictures we make will ever have an ameliorative or transformative effect on any other living person. But we do know what we ourselves derive from the process. And right now, that process is helping me put one foot in front of the other. And yet, I would describe myself as calm rather than panicky, clear rather than confused.
After all, I have my camera, and the curiosity required to make it speak for me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY PHOTOGRAPHY DOES NOT FOCUS ON HORROR, nor does it have despair as a factory default. I don’t set out at the start of the day to use my camera to prove that life is worthless. Quite the opposite, in fact. Certainly, I realize that my own native need to depict hope in my creative work will render me quaint, even naive in the eyes of many. However, that persistent bias toward beauty, toward uplift, does not mean that I shy away from visualizing the things that make life difficult. As always, it’s in the balance between the two extremes that we manage to be most honest in the pictures that we make.
The universality of grief, as it’s enveloped the entire world in recent years, can be crushing, and yet deciding to express that grief in photographs can be daunting. Can we just glibly shoot weeping mourners at graveside and say we’ve told the complete story of our communal losses? Can we restrict our commentary to merely depicting statistics, tables, charts? Can we veil our tears behind symbolic images? How can we use the camera to show something that is so internal, so personal, so individual?
Looking over my work from the end of 2019 to the present (or late ’21, at this writing) I don’t see a lot of deliberate attempts to “show” the damage the pandemic has done to us…that is, nothing purely reportorial. You can’t “cover” a global nightmare the way you’d cross town to “cover” a building on fire or document a collapsed highway. Everyone creates their own visual contours to these kinds of feelings, and any attempt to cram them into a ready-made template will fall short.
And then there’s another idea that occurs to me.
Perhaps my way of walking out of this crater is through images of hope, to make my camera a defiant force for not allowing the darkness to prevail. Maybe the persistence of ugliness demands that at least some art embrace the light, to affirm our need to go on, to actually insist on doing so.
We could all fill huge portfolios of pictures that merely symbolize the burden of our times, such as the shot seen above, which, ironically, actually predates the crisis. But where are the pictures that proclaim that “my heart will go on”? Are those to be thought of as hopelessly sentimental, and thus dismissable? Is our only concept of “reality” a mosaic of misery? I believe the world of photography is wide enough for many voices to be heard, and I refuse to certify the mere recording of tragedy as the only official story worth telling, even in these times. My camera is my tool for finding a path out of the shadows, and I trust myself to make pictures that acknowledge horror while showing what forces are needed to counter it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE BELIEVE WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY IN ITS ESSENCE because some version of it has been handed down to us across the ages, but, as we grow wiser, we know that there are many versions of What Really Happened, each filtered through the agenda/biases of the storyteller. Many of us have at least heard, for example, of the 12th-century King Canute, and may dimly recall a story about his going down to the seashore and foolishly ordering the waves to stop to demonstrate his imperial power. In examining the legend further, however, it seems that he may have gone through the exercise just to illustrate for his subjectsthe limits of his powers. Both versions make great stories. Both drive home the concept of the futility of our struggle against nature, and time.
As I write this, I have received word that the old building where I began my professional career is about to be torn down. Aside from being the physical site of events that pertained to me particularly, the joint has no real reason to be preserved, or saved. It’s architecturally insignificant and aesthetically bland, not to mention its physical decay after lying empty for many years. The project which will stand in its place is likewise lackluster in the extreme, but it will at least be useful and profitable in a way that the old hulk can never be again. And so it goes.
It’s been so long since I walked the halls of 22 South Young Street, Columbus, Ohio (which still bears a few stamps of the call letters for WCOL radio, my alma mater) that taking a tour of it now would only rupture the delicate membrane in which my memories are preserved. I have few photographic records of the time I spent there, as can happen when you’re busier living your life than documenting it. The only images of any recent vintage I have were taken about four years ago and are limited to a few exterior shots, which do what photographs do…document that, like Canute, we are powerless to hold back the sea, and more foolish than powerless in even making the attempt. Sometimes I think that the ultimate “memory” shot for all occasions, designed as a kind of universal symbol, would merely be an image of sand sifting through fingers. Plus or minus a few personal particulars, photographs of things that were are mostly illustrative within the mind. The camera, a dumb box essentially, can only see things as they are, not as they were or might have been.
Still, we cling to these pallid echoes and paltry souvenirs of our lives, gleaning at least minor comfort from them. Some days that’s enough. Other days, the magic fails us. As old King Canute, I often fantasize that he might actually have gone down to the shore more than once, always thinking, en route, “maybe this time it will work.” All too sad, yes, but also, all too human.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE RIGHTLY ACCUSED, from time to time, of trying too hard to capture every key moment of life. Part of that drive can certainly be written off to the pursuit of any obsessive-compulsive hobby, from stamp collecting to Elvis paraphernalia. But some of it is driven by the haunted regrets that involve the pictures that we didn’t, and now never can, take.
I got a sad reminder of that this week. Because a friend of mine died. And somehow, I, the perpetual pest with a camera (in the estimation of my entire social circle, and beyond) never managed, in the seven years of that friendship, to take his picture even once. The hollow feeling that has accompanied that realization over the past few days is twice as painful, since this is not the first time this has happened. No, I can actually count a small crowd of people who have moved into important rooms in the house of my life, then packed and left without my having so much as a snapshot to remember them by. What does this say about me, and how I see my relationships with people?
Since my children have grown to adults and launched their own lives, I have seldom had subjects that have justified the feverish shower of photos that once defined my active parenting years. There are grandchildren now, but, compared to the torrent of images taken of them (and shared with me) by other family members, I see my own yield of personally shot pictures as a paltry pile. Now ask me how many images I’ve made of skyscrapers. Ouch.
And now another friend is gone, destined to live only in my memory, the way almost everyone was remembered by almost everybody before the invention of the camera. Surely my reminiscences of the most important people in my life are stronger, more personal, than any photograph I might create of any one of them, right? Or would a picture be the best tribute to those no longer here, a true measure, at least in light and dimensions, of what they were actually like? Or, further, do I just believe that even my best work might fall short of their best essence, and simply dodge the daunting task of documenting them in a physical way?
Friendships, at least the good ones, are like our notion of our very own lives, in that they seem to be destined to go on forever. Until they don’t. At this point in the game, I’m fast approaching a world populated largely by ghosts of adventures long past. A mere two-dimensional record of those who are gone is probably a sorry substitute for the detail of memory, except, of course, that memory itself will eventually corrode and go brown around the edges. Maybe the real reason to make a photograph of someone is the same reason a jazz musician creates an improvisation, in the moment, on a familiar tune. We are celebrating the now, interpreting this person’s impact on us right now. It’s be funny to learn that images are not so much about preserving people forever as they are emotional reactions to where they are for you while they are still here. Maybe our pictures don’t preserve anything about those people except how much we loved them. That’s not enough to show from the so many lives in our life. But it’s something.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ALWAYS SCRATCH MY HEAD WHEN I SEE AN EATERY sporting a sign that boasts “American Cuisine”, and often have to suppress an urge to step inside such joints to ask the proprietor to explain just what that is. If there is one thing about this sprawling broad nation that can’t be conveniently corralled and branded, it’s the act of eating. Riff through a short stack of Instagrams to see the immense variety of foodstuffs that make people say yum. And as for the places where we decide to stoke up….what they look like, how they serve us, how they feel….well, that’s a never-ending task, and joy, for the everyday photographer.
Eating is, of course, more than mere nourishment for the gut; it’s also a repast for the spirit, and, as such, it’s an ongoing human drama, constantly being shuffled and re-shuffled as we mix, mingle, disperse, adjourn and regroup in everything from white linen temples of taste to gutbucket cafes occupying speck of turf on endless highways. It’s odd that there’s been such an explosion of late in the photographing of food per se, when it’s the places where it’s plated up that hold the real stories. It’s all American, and it’s always a new story.
I particularly love to chronicle the diners and dives that are on the verge of winking out of existence, since they possess a very personalized history, especially when compared with the super-chains and cookie-cutter quick stops. I look for restaurants with “specialities of the house”, with furniture that’s so old that nobody on staff can remember when it wasn’t there. Click. I yearn for signage that calls from the dark vault of collective memory. Bring on the Dad’s Root Beer. Click. I relish places where the dominant light comes through grimy windows that give directly out onto the street. Click. I want to see what you can find to eat at the “last chance for food, next 25 mi.” Click. I listen for stories from ladies who still scratch your order down with a stubby pencil and a makeshift pad. Click. Click. Click.
In America, it’s never just “something to eat”. It’s “something to eat” along with all the non-food side dishes mixed in. And, sure, you might find a whiff of such visual adventure in Denny’s #4,658. Hey, it can happen. But some places serve up a smorgasbord of sensory information piping hot and ready to jump into your camera, and that’s the kind of gourmet trip I seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS AN OLD ADVERTISING MAXIM that the first person to introduce a product to market becomes the “face” of all versions of that product forever, no matter who else enters as a competitor. Under this thinking, all soda generically becomes a Coke; all facial tissues are Kleenexes: and no matter who made your office copier, you use it to make…Xeroxes. The first way we encounter something often becomes the way we “see” it, maybe forever.
Photography is shorthand for what takes much longer to explain verbally, and sometimes the first way we visually present something “sticks” in our head, becoming the default image that “means” that thing. Architecture seems to send that signal with certain businesses, certainly. When I give you Doric columns and gargoyles, you are a lot likelier to think courthouse than doghouse. If I show you panes of reflective glass, large open spaces and stark light fixtures, you might sift through your memory for art gallery sooner than you would for hardware store. It’s just the mind’s convenient filing system for quickly identifying previous files, and it can be a great tool for your photography as well.
As a shooter, you can sell the idea of a type of space based on what your viewer expects it to look like, and that could mean that you shoot an understated or even tightly composed, partial view of it, secure in the knowledge that people’s collective memory will provide any missing data. Being sensitive to what the universally accepted icons of a thing are means you can abbreviate or abstract its presentation without worrying about losing impact.
Photography can be at its most effective when you can say more and more with less and less. You just have to know how much to pare away and still preserve the perception.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AGO, RONALD REAGAN, UPON VISITING HIS OLD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL for a presidential photo opportunity, famously asked the local administrators how they managed to shrink the desks in the classrooms. Of course he was joking, but the remark was a telling one; when we return to the scenes of our earliest dramas and farces, we tend to believe that some other outside force sneaked into the place, before our arrival, and somehow re-ordered reality. We laugh at Reagan’s quip because we can see ourselves saying the same thing. It’s all about us.
Just as we are pleasantly shocked to view the graduated pencil marks on our old kitchen wall that logged our increasing height at different ages, we marvel when we take cameras back to the same places where we took cameras in the past. We think we are measuring time in what we shoot, but we are actually measuring ourselves in how we shoot. A recent trip to my hometown afforded me time to roll around to a number of places where I have repeatedly returned over a lifetime, each time approaching photography, and myself, a little differently. In some cases, the first frames I ever shot of these sites go back over forty years, and, good pictures or bad, the results are a few universes away from those first efforts.
How can it be otherwise? I don’t see the same way. I don’t look to see in the same way. Years ago, I was still enthralled with the idea of capturing an image in the box….any image. Hey, it worked. It’s not a stretch to say that, when I first learned to load and wind film or squint into a viewfinder, I was still amazed by the process alone, the idea of freezing time being an inexplicable miracle to me. Beyond hungering to produce my own miracles, I had no concept as to what I should be seeking, or saying.
One thing that has changed over the years is that I no longer try to stop the world with, you know, The Image. There is no “the” anymore, only “the next”. The thing I need to learn to make the picture will come, in time, if I spend long enough thinking or feeling my way through the problem. The photograph, I now know, is already in there, someplace. I just have to carve and peel until it emerges. In the images you see here, I have finally, decades hence, become ready to register the unknown in a familiar place.
To my amazement, I can actually pre-imagine a shot now, with a reasonable hope of eventually making my hand cash the check my eye has written. Back when I started, every picture was an accident….sometimes happy, often frustrating. Now, as I point my lens toward locales that are old friends, I know that they, largely, are constant. It is I who has moved. There’s some comfort, and lots of possibility, in realizing that the desks didn’t really shrink.
I just learned to stand up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE DEPICTION OF THE FACES OF THOSE WE LOVE IS AMONG THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY. Since the beginning of the medium, thoughts on how to capture them “best” clearly fall into two opposing camps. In one corner, the feeling that we must idealize, glamorize, venerate the features of those most special in our lives. In the other corner, the belief that we should capture faces as effects of time and space, that is, record them, without seeking to impose standards of grace or beauty on what is in front of the lens. This leads us to see faces as objects among other objects.
The first, more cosmetic view of faces, which calls for ideal lighting, a flattering composition, a little “sweetening” in the taking, will always be the more popular view, and its resultant images will always be cherished for emotionally legitimate reasons. The second view is, let’s “face” it, a hard sell. You have to be ready for a set series of responses from your subjects, usually including:
Don’t take me. I just got up.
God, I look so old. Delete that.
I hate having my picture taken.
That doesn’t even look like me.
Of course, since no one is truly aware of what they “look like”, there is always an element of terror in having a “no frills” portrait taken. God help me, maybe I really do look like that. And most of us don’t want to push to get through people’s defenses. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And, in this photo-saturated world, it’s a major trick to get people to drop their instinctive masks, even if they want to.
As I visually measure the advance of age on my living parents (both 80+ ) and have enough etchings on my own features to mirror theirs, I am keener than ever to avoid limiting my images of us all to mere prettiness. I am particularly inspired by photographers who actually entered into a kind of understanding with their closest life partners to make a sort of document out of time’s effects. Two extreme examples: Richard Avedon’s father and Annie Leibovitz’ partner Susan Sontag were both documented in their losing battles with age and disease as willing participants in a very special relationship with very special photographers….arrangements which certainly are out of the question for many of us. And yet, there is so much to be gained by making a testament of sorts out of even simple snaps. This was an important face in my life, the image can say, and here is how it looked, having survived more than 3/4 of a century. Such portraits are not to be considered “right” or “wrong” against more conventional pictures, but they should be at least a part of the way we mark human lives.
Everyone has to decide their own comfort zone, and how far it can be extended. But I think we have to stretch a bit. Pictures of essentially beautiful people who, at the moment the shutter snaps, haven’t done up their hair, put on their makeup, or conveniently lost forty pounds. People in less than perfect light, but with features which have eloquent statements and truths writ large in their every line and crevice. We should also practice on ourselves, since our faces are important to other people, and ours, like theirs, are going to go away someday.
In trying to record these statements and truths, mere flattery will get us nowhere. The camera has an eye to see; let’s take off the rose-colored filter, at least for a few frames.
- The Great Richard Avedon (sandroesposito.wordpress.com)