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)