By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS DOCUMENT THE THOUSANDS OF PERFORMANCES AND RITUALS, from theatre to sacraments, that define human existence. They vary in language, music and format to an amazing degree: some are ornate, others simple. However, none are so exotic as our very last performances, those staged for us after we pass from this world.
The etiquette of death, the forms and symbols that we regard as “appropriate” or “reverent”, are, in themselves, a kind of show business, complete with their own exclusive cues, costumes and production values. Part of this strange pageant is an attempt to make the living feel comforted in times of grief or terror, since we know, all too well, that mere inches of random fate separate the mourners from the dearly departed. With luck, we feel oddly satisfied when things look “just so”, even as the images that mark these final acts can later strike us as eerie instead of elegant, banal rather than dignified.
I can never quite excuse my photographic expeditions in cemeteries over the years. Am I a ghoul, suffering some kind of Addams Family fixation with the morbid? Or am I merely looking at all this visual lore as the bizarre attempt at closure that it is? Perhaps it’s just the terribly strange juxtaposition of shapes, shadows, textures and artistry that’s produced in this most unlikely of dramas. And then there is the choice, for a photographer, of hue and tone. Is more hope expressed in color? Are the muted shades of monochrome more respectful?
I can’t say that walking through graveyards is a “guilty” pleasure, or any pleasure at all. At best, it’s like visiting the weirdest nation on the planet, Shakespeare’s Undiscovered Country. Everyone is, or at one point, will be, in the club, and so sizing up the visual totems of our eventual addresses is both fascinating and frightening. And what pictures all that confusion can make….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, MEMORIALS TENDED TO BE FAIRLY STATIC THINGS. A tomb or monument depicting a battle, celebrating a leader, or enshrining a belief was built, and it stood, for as long as time and fortune might allow. After the invention of photography, however, things tended to be not fully finished, especially tributes and honors. We track their context with pictures in real time: over consecutive eras, we document their rise and fall, and that of the societies that produced them.
The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, parked for 80 years at the entrance to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (which T.R.’s family riches helped establish) has, as of this writing, been removed, transferred to what historians hope will be a better teaching context. His mounted figure, flanked by depictions of both Native and African-American men on foot, had been problematic for the museum, passersby, and, indeed the Roosevelt family itself in recent years, given the 26th President’s troubling mix of views on race, eugenics, and colonialism, and so the removal came as little surprise. Now, however, as a consequence of the move, anyone taking a photograph of the work henceforth will be interpreting it through the “lens” of a completely different societal context.
Now you see it, now you won’t: the recently removed Teddy Roosevelt statue, an 80-year fixture at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, as seen by the author in 2012.
When people change, the symbols they value, as well as the images they create of those symbols, change as well. Just as it’s odd now to see the Statue of Liberty’s disembodied torch hand in old photographs, the images makes sense once one realizes that the landmark originally came to American in stages, with the arm on display in Manhattan for a time in a push for funding to complete the memorial. Thus that picture, in its original time frame, makes perfect sense. It’s only that more familiar pictures have replaced that view, rendering its original reality strange.
It’s not for this author to try to climb into the mind of the original creators of the T.R. statue in question: it was a product of its time. Similarly, this image I made of it, from its chosen angle to its processing to the unsettling presence of an enormous red spider(!), is now locked away from all other moments on a single day in 2012. “The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on”. Heroes, from generals to philosophers, are nuanced, complicated. Making pictures of our struggle with that complexity is part of our quest to tell our complete story.
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
YOU GET NO ARGUMENT FROM ME if you make the claim that photographic portraits are lies. I can’t see how they could be anything else.
Well, maybe the word lie is too negatively loaded, so let’s use faulty. Faulty works because both subject and photographer are up to some little games, conscious or no, once the camera comes out. They pose. We enhance. They edit out unwanted emotions. We choose the “real” image from several “failed” frames. Most importantly, we influence the results with either an overabundance of knowledge, and bias, regarding the subject, or with the opposite….a completely raw ignorance of who, really, is in front of our lenses. This is the natural subjectivity that we bring to photographing anything, and it is by putting our individual interpretation on it that we get something we call “art”.
At this writing, a storm is raging over what constitutes an appropriate portrait subject in a medium that far predates the camera…stone. Statues are the snapshots of the ancients, and, because of the human factor involved in their sculpting, they are as biased and distorted as anything that comes through a modern lens. Either the sculptors were commissioned by people who had a point to make, or else they themselves decided to make said point. These honorific slabs are idealizations, no less than a heavily Photoshopped portrait of a cute infant. No one ever set out to create a statue that made the subject appear weak, or hateful, or anything less than glorious, and such a baseline bias means the results will be skewed, from the figure’s rippling muscles to his chiseled jaw to his resolute gaze to the way he sits a horse. For good or ill, a statue is an artistic attempt to create perfection out of a mix of fact, legend and marble.
Problem is, once the real person who inspires a sculpture vanishes from the earth, the statue becomes the only record of him, flawed or not. In the age of photography, we can do some comparison shopping when formulating our concept of, well anyone. Picture “A” makes him look happy, but he was drunk when we snapped Picture “B”, he was morose in Picture “C” and, hey, Picture ‘D” is really gorgeous isn’t it? We can, in the present day, get a visual average of what someone is like, even though all of the many pictures of them may also contain false information. But statues are different. Their single view of a person’s life encourages us to learn less, to accept the official version of that person, to see History’s rough edges rounded off. Statues outlast context and when new context is applied to them, we may find we don’t actually like them very much….or that they remind us of something in ourselves that we don’t like, or both.
The National Statuary Hall, seen here, is inside the U.S. Capitol building and contains two figures from each of the fifty states. Google a listing of the statues and ask yourself which ones you personally would nominate for demolition. Maybe they all pass muster throughout the shifting centuries. Maybe some will, or deserve to, fall. But what makes any portrait live or wither is context, and anyone deciding what art is “unacceptable” must also become a diligent student of that context. We constantly create untrustworthy images with our cameras, and we think we know how those faces will hold up before future audiences. But time has a way of making us all look foolish, perhaps rightly so. What’s required in all cases is distance, balance, and humility.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EROSION AND COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN URBAN INFRASTRUCTURES of the 20th century is more than bad policy. It is more than reckless. It is also, to my mind, a sin against hope.
As photographers, we are witness to this horrific betrayal of the best of the human spirit. The pictures that result from this neglect may, indeed, be amazing. But we capture them with a mixture of sadness and rage.
Hope was a rarity in the early days of the Great Depression. Prosperity was not quite, as the experts claimed, “right around the corner.” And yet, a strategy arose, in private and federal project alike, that offered uplift and utility at the same time. People were put to work making things that other people needed. The nation erected parks, monuments, utilities, forests, and travel systems that turned misery to muscle and muscle to miracle. Millionaires used their personal fortunes to create temples of commerce and towers of achievement, hiring more men to turn more shovels. Hope became good business.
One of the gleaming jewels of the era was, and is, the still-amazing Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which, in its decorative murals and reliefs, lionized the working man even as it put bread on his table. The dignity of labor was reflected across the country in everything from newspaper lobbies to post office portals, giving photographers the chance to chronicle both decline and recovery in a country brought only briefly to its knees.
Today, the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC studios, still provides a soaring tribute to the iron workers and sandhogs who made it possible for America to again put one foot in front of the other, marching, not crawling, back into the sunlight. It still makes a pretty picture, as can thousands of such surviving works across the country. Photographing them in the current context of priceless inheritance offers a new way to thank the bygone architects of hope.
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.