By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE RITES OF PASSAGE FOR SCHOOL KIDS IN COLUMBUS, OHIO IN THE 1960’s was a field trip to the Center of Science and Industry, or COSI, one of the nation’s first interactive tech museums, mounted before either the terms “interactive” or “hands-on” were common parlance. In those JFK-flavored days of early space exploration and Jetson-gee-whiz futurism, flying cars and picture phones seemed our inevitable legacy, and the Center’s exhibits often veered closer to the World’s Fair than the science fair, its dazzling displays often trumping pure enlightenment. A generation later, the sizzle lingers in the mind a little better than the steak. Something to work on.
Science was presented as something of a magic trick then, a sure and certain answer to all human needs and desires. But to my tween-sized mind, it also retained an air of mystery, something wondrously alien to my daily experience. Few of COSI’s exhibits from the time created more of a sense of wonder in me than an illuminated timeline of fetal gestation, with each crucial stage between embryo and newborn illustrated by a separately preserved specimen of a transitional human that never made it to the delivery room. As fascinating as the display was, it was also a little creepy, somewhat like, if you will, viewing pre-mummies from a colony of visitors from the future.
In a recent visit to the new COSI, now re-located to a larger, brighter HQ across from Columbus’ downtown riverfront, I was both amused and amazed to see that the timeline had been retained in nearly the same way I remembered it from 1964. Having survived to the era of iPhones and DNA mapping, its dim, the strange, amber-glow profiles still had a hypnotic effect on me, housed as they were in a dark, shadowy sector of the museum, sealed within a showcase that distorted the faces of passersby, even as it shrouded their bodies in mystery. For the shot you see here, I liked the strange juxtaposition of the exhibit’s clinical coldness with the form of a young visitor, casually viewing the timeline as if it were no more notable than a collection of butterflies. I shut the exposure down so that the case provided the only light, opened the lens as far as I dared for the right depth of field, and jacked the ISO slightly to compensate for the murky room ambience.
The COSI of the New Frontier years was always a place that could cast science in a distinctly optimistic light. In 2015, I hoped to re-imagine that magic through the insight of an additional fifty years of living. Mood in photography is created as much by what you conceal as by what you reveal, and trying to get that balance right is 90% of the game.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS THE MOST PHOTO-DOCUMENTED EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY, the attacks of September 11, 2001 have spawned images that can never be unseen. Images that tear at you, slam you in the back of the head, wring tears and rage from you, stun you mute.
As the keeper and curator of many of the most powerful of these images, the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan has achieved a tough but fair balance of emotion and academia. Given the staggering number of people whose personal stake in this space covers every human motive and perspective, the making of this part-exhibit-part-shrine may have been one of the most thankless jobs imaginable.
And yet the job has been done, with eloquence and a spare, stark restraint that is poetic. Visiting the museum is no easy task. As Shakespeare said, if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now. But visit you should, and, yes, there is something that a camera can capture there without being crass or irreverent. The designers have seen to it.
Firstly, they have guaranteed that the main central exhibits of debris, personal documents, voice messages and news video are completely off-limits to any kind of photography. Walk in there, and you’ll know why. Those who accidentally caught this epic horror in the moment of its occurrence will never be equaled or surpassed by anyone taking a casual snap on a smartphone anyway, and trying to do so would be like setting off sparklers at a requiem mass.
No, the real photographic opportunities are in the dark, cavernous spaces under the surface of the street, dim caves that make you feel as if you yourself, are, for a moment, trapped, running out of light and time. The enormous foundation known as the slurry wall, which, in surviving the titanic forces of the towers’ collapse, kept the Hudson River from flooding all of lower Manhattan. The rusted girder that, like a day-glo-autographed tombstone, bears the signature of every working company of first responders that slaved away at Ground Zero, first as rescuers, next as salvagers, always as heroes.
It is here, in the quiet arrangement of these incredibly scaled spaces, that the 9/11 Memorial Museum becomes more spiritual than any hour you will ever pass in church. It is in these dark, harrowing parts of the hall that you fully sense what a slender thread we all hang from, and understand that light and darkness struggle for the same real estate, now as then.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE GULLIVER GOT HIMSELF HOG-TIED BY LEGIONS OF LILLIPUTIANS, we have been fascinated with the contrast between the VERY BIG and the VERY..small. The history of photography is pretty peppered with its share of dinky dioramas, miniature models and teensy-weensy mockups and the cool pictures they inspire. On the silver screen, still photography’s stepchild, the motion picture, launched the careers of thousands of miniaturists in its first half century, genius modelers who could create Tokyo on a tabletop, then have a guy in a rubber Godzilla suit reduce it to splinters.
In another vein, kidlings that were 3-D fans also got their tiny on during the decades that the makers of View-Master told fairy tales in stereo, not with animation cels, but with their own separate miniature studios at the company’s HQ in Portland, doing so-close-you-can-touch-it takes on everything from Donald Duck to the Wizard of Oz. And photographically, the idea was always the same: make this look like the real thing.
Oddly, in recent years, there’s been a bit of a double-reverse going on with miniatures with the creation of optics like the Lensbaby, a low-fi version of a tilt-shift lens that throws selective parts of the frame out of focus, allowing you, according to Lensbaby fans, to take a normal street scene and “make it look like a miniature model”. At this point we leave Photography class and walk down the hall to Irony 101, in which we learn that it’s cool to make something real look fake. Seriously.
I always feel like a sneak trying to make a fake thing look real, and now, it seems, I’m off the hook, since it’s not about the fakery but how cool we all agree we are in doing it (okay, I need to think about that one for a bit). In the meantime, consider a visit to one of the world’s most amazing collection of all things small and awesome at the Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, Arizona. This place makes a large impression, one little object at a time. Photograph away to your heart’s content (no flash), and make the fakes look real, or fanciful, if you’re in the cool kids group. Either way, it’s big fun (that was the last one, I swear).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY MAJOR CITY AROUND THE WORLD THAT BOASTS BOTANIC GARDENS OR PLANT CONSERVATORIES HAS EXPERIENCED THE STRANGE MIXTURE of biology, art, and science created by the glass installations of Dale Chihuly. Beginning as a starving student in Venice in the late ’60’s, Chihuly has carved out a unique niche for himself as the premier maestro of art glass creations, marked by strange, venous bulbs, eerie tendrils, and massive towers of color, all wrought together in a psychedelic weave of texture and (frequently) enormous scale. If Peter Max blew glass instead of spewing paint, he’d be Dale Chihuly. Like Max, Chihuly has benefited greatly from the ever-hot debate over the permanence or value of his work. And if you don’t like it, he, in the words of Liberace, cries all the way to the bank.
For the botanical denizens of the non-profit universe, however, the Chihuly phenomenon does have one indisputable trait: it puts butts in the seats. Gardens the world over record insane increases in attendance far beyond their normal “fan base” when Dale’s gorgon-like creations hit town and go mano-a-mano with their daisies and daffodils. For photographers, the juxtaposition of the organic and the “alt-ganic” is irresistible, and, here in the southwest, where sun is all, the extreme effects of our desert light give Chihuly’s glassworks a supernatural quality.
The Arizona “golden hour” just before final sunset produces very deep and intense color, and the Chihuly works installed at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden catch it like neon prisms. Go a little further and add, say, a polarizing filter to this natural amplification of color, and the hues go into overdrive. It’s Golden Hour on steroids.
The three glass “bushes” in the above frame, installed permanently at the DBG’s guest arrival area, are high enough above average terrain to act as light blotters for the late afternoon light. The addition of the polarizing filter seems to double the effect, although it will deepen and darken shadows in other parts of the images, and so exposure choices become a mite trickier. In this case, the striated clouds overhead also benefited from the tweak as they stood in sharper contrast against the sky, but, full disclosure, that part was dumb luck.
But hey, even dumb luck can make you a little smarter. And buy you a bigger chunk of “luck” next time. Does Dale do it for me as an artist? Does it even matter? His stuff creates light opportunities, and you can serve me up a plate of that anytime.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU VISIT ENOUGH MUSEUMS IN YOUR LIFETIME, you may decide that at least half of them, seen as arranged space, are more interesting than their contents. It may be country-cousin to that time in your childhood when your parents gave you a big box with a riding toy inside it, and, after a few minutes of excitement, you began sitting in the box. The object inside was, after all, only a fire engine, but a box could be a mine shaft, a Fortress of Solitude, the dining car on the Orient Express, and so on.
And so with museums.
I truly do try to give lip service to the curated exhibits and loaned shows that cram the floors and line the walls of the various museums I visit. After all, I am, harumph and ahem, a Patron Of The Arts, especially if said museums are hosting cocktail parties and trays of giant prawns in their hallowed halls…I mean, what’s not to like? However, there are times when the endless variations on just a room, a hall, a mode of lighting, or the anticipatory feeling that something wonderful is right around the next corner is, well, a more powerful spell than the stuff they actually booked into the joint.
Spaces are landscapes. Spaces are still lifes. Spaces are color studies. Spaces are stages where people are dynamic props.
Recently spinning back through my travel images of the last few years, I was really surprised how many times I took shots inside museums that are nothing more than attempts to render the atmosphere of the museum, to capture the oxygen and light in the room, to dramatize the distances and spaces between things. It’s very slippery stuff. Great thing you find, also, is that the increased light sensitivity and white balance controls on present-day cameras allow for a really wide range of effects, allowing you to “interpret” the space in different ways, making this somewhat vaporous pursuit even more …vaporous-y.
In the end, you shoot what speaks to you, and these “art containers” sometimes are more eloquent by far than the treasures they present. That is not a dig on contemporary art (or any other kind). It means that an image is where you find it. Staying open to that simple idea provides surprise.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
NOT CONTENT TO BE AN ART ON ITS OWN TERMS, PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALSO CONSTANTLY RE-INTERPRETING ALL THE OTHER ARTS AS WELL. Ever since imaging fell out of the cradle in the early 1800’s, several of us have always been looking at the works of others and saying, “eh, I can probably do something with that.”
Yeah, not too presumptuous, right? And the trend has continued (some say worsened) to the present day. Half the time we are creating something. The other half of the time we are tweaking, mocking, honoring, loving, hating, shredding, re-combining, or ragging on somebody else’s work. Are these mashups also art? Are we co-creators or just cheesy thieves?
And does it matter?
The Phoenix Art Museum greets customers with a stunning original sculpture in glass and plexi right at the entrance to its ticket lobby. A huge installation of light bulbs, mirrored surfaces and reflective discs, Josiah McIlheny’s The Last Scattering Surface resembles a brightly burning orb (planet? asteroid? dwarf star?) surrounded by jutting rods that carry the central sphere’s light along “rays” to a series of circular satellites (moons? craft? debris?) Like many examples of pure design it is both everything and nothing, that is, it is mutative based on your observation. So, in a way, as in the manner of a photographer, you are already a participant in the co-creation of this object just by looking at it. Does this mean that it’s less theif-ish to go ahead and mutate the man’s work?
Well, there’s probably a lively back-and-forth on that.
For my own “take”, I wanted to remove the background walls, visitors, ambient blurry light from other junk, to isolate this nova-like work in “space”. I only had one frame that I liked from my short blast of shots, so I duped it, slammed the contrast real light/real dark on the pair, and did an exposure fusion in Photomatix. Adding a little edge blur and a re-tinting to the composite gave me the look of an interstellar explosion.
I freely advertise that I am making a semi-original re-mix on a completely original work. It’s not much more radical than shooting with a filter on the lens, or choosing black and white for a color subject, and yet, it always feels funny to try and make something beautiful that was beautiful in the first place.
But art is supposed to be about starting conversation, so consider this mine.
I just did my talking with a box instead of a mouth.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @ mpnormaleye.com