STORIES WITHIN STORIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESTORATION OF HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT HOMES is an imprecise art. The challenges range from structures that are essentially unchanged since their original use, with all effects and furnishings intact, to buildings whose shells have been salvaged but which have lost all their historically correct detail. In the latter case, those returning the homes to daily use by the public must stage the places with period-correct props, trying to augment a narrative that an empty edifice along could not provide. They act in the same way as set directors on a movie shoot, filling in gaps to, in effect, supplement a big story with a lot of little ones.
Thing is, sometimes not only the devil, but the real interest, is in such details, as with this drafting set I encountered during a recent tour of a grand old summer home built by a millionaire in the Arizona desert of the 1920’s. Nearly every original accent in the house has been artificially placed to suggest real living space, even though its first owners sold the home soon after building it. One nice little tableau in a front-facing room features a copy of the original house blueprint, laid out on a table as if its creator were still poring over it, flanked by a lovely leather-bound kit from the long-forgotten Eugene Dietzgen Company, once one of the country’s premier maker of drafting tools. And therein lies a real tale.
Travelling (and drawing) in some very important circles.
Eugene, born in Germany in 1862, was soon moved by his father to Tsarist Russia, where Papa promptly got himself in hot water for distributing socialist literature critical of the reigning government. In 1881, Joseph Dietzgen sent his son to live in America, both to evade the local military draft and to spirit away some of the writings that had already landed the old man in prison on occasion. Arriving in New York at the age of 19, Eugene Dietzgen began working for a German drafting company, and soon moved to Chicago, where he formed his own tool-making firm in 1881. Applying his father’s progressive ideas in the new world, Eugene provided such exotic amenities for his employees as individual bathrooms for men and women (!) and open window sills inside the factory decorated with flowers. He also continued to promote the writings of his father, a philosopher who counted no less than Karl Marx among his fans. Early in the 20th century, the Dietzgen company soared to the top of its field with a very popularly priced slide rule, and slid into history as the Dietzgen Corporation, which exists to this day.
So, since it wasn’t the property of this historic house’s original designer, how did this elegant kit find its way to the Arizona desert? That’s the fun of diverting one’s attention from the intended purpose of placing the object on this particular table, and using the camera to celebrate the story within the story. This object was someone’s go-to for precision work. How? As a gift? An aspirational investment in a future career? An impulse purchase? As is often the case with a photograph, the picture is a two-way door: things are concealed and revealed, all in the same instant.
REALM OF THE RETRO-REAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO REGARD MUSEUM SPACE MUCH THE SAME WAY I VIEW THEATRICAL SPACE, as a staging point for stories and dreams. The best of such institutions achieve nearly the same suspensions of disbelief and time as one experiences in a great play or opera. Curators can create their own version of reality, choreographing our interpretation of events in nearly infinite ways. And just as there is no set “correct” theatrical interpretation of an eternal work like Hamlet or Death Of A Salesman, museums can present their own “take” on history, while freeing us to do likewise.
This, as you might surmise, follows through to the pictures we make of the various exhibits and objects. Therefore, as photographers, we need not be anchored to the mere documentary recording of images of things on display. With a little experimentation in either equipment or approach, we can be as interpretive in how we perceive an artifact as the presenters were in how they choose to showcase it. There is no one “right” way to photograph rare or exotic exhibits.
Jazz giant Lionel Hampton’s 1935 Deagan “King George” Vibraphone, seen at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ.
Official photographs by the museums themselves tend to be straight “product” or “catalog” shots, and, from a purely marketing point of view, that’s probably as it should be. But in visiting the museum as artists, we are free of all such constraints. We are not on salary, and it’s not our job to reflect upon the intentions of the House. In that way, our views of the goods are completely liberated, and that is where the fun stuff happens.
Personally, I tend to render exhibits that interest me in a gauzy dream state. I find that framing them in a kind of retro-real fashion tears them loose from their original temporal moorings. They return to being just things, judged by their own contours and design, rather than as part of an official narrative. And once they are absolute objects, anything can be drawn from or projected onto them as I desire. And that is so much more interesting than just snapping them as a sort of souvenir of my visit.
Museums are not merely warehouses. They are places for dreams to converge and reveal themselves. And if we are lucky (and open), we can aid that process, and make everything in those hallowed halls ring with new song.
ORCHESTRATING THE DARK
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.
IT HAPPENED RIGHT HERE. DIDN’T IT?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BY THE TIME IRVING PENN (1917–2008) WAS ESTABLISHED as a portraitist without equal for Vogue magazine, he had chalked off clear parameters for his style. Natural over artificial light: large format, high-resolution monochromes: a patient talent for extracting the essence of even the most reluctant subject: and an almost lucky-charm devotion to the worn and stained curtain he would use, almost exclusively, as his backdrop for the length and breadth of his legendary career.
Salvaging the curtain from a Paris theatre in 1950, Penn used it as the great equalizer in all his portrait work, staging everything from Picasso’s puckish gaze to Audrey Hepburn’s gamine charm in front of its collection of stains, spills and discolorations. The curtain was as essential to a Penn shoot as the great man’s lenses, and where he went, from remote African villages to literary salons, it went also. And finally, eight years after his death, it traveled one more time to New York, for a supporting role in an Instagram near you.
As part of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s centennial celebration of Penn’s work for 2017, the curtain was installed in a room chocked with shots of the famous people with which it had co-starred. Studio-style, it was mounted on a curved panel to avoid hot spots from glare, and visitors were invited to pose themselves in front of it, fore-lit by a well-placed fashion light. The message was seductively mis-leading. If the cloth is magic, maybe it’s transferable! Maybe it is that black crow’s feather that makes Dumbo fly…..
The Met’s true genius in installing this Penn-it-yourself feature in its exhibit became obvious once you took the bait. That is, there’s nothing better to teach you that his work was great than allowing you to take very bad pictures under some of the same circumstances. I certainly got the point after clicking off a seriously flawed candid of my wife, seen here. I mean, other than blowing the focus, the metering, and the placement of light and shadow, the shot’s perfect, right?
Of course, the Penn curtain challenge had a kind of theme-park appeal, sort of like when you stick your face through a hole in the back of a cartoon cutout at Coney Island to have your picture taken as a “strongman”…and just about as convincing. Because art isn’t gear: genius isn’t mere tools. And you can’t be Rembrandt just by picking up Rembrandt’s brush.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES COMPRISE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING WORKOUT SPACES for photographers, but for none of the reasons you might suppose. On the most obvious level, certainly,they are repositories of human endeavor, acting basically as big warehouses for things we deem important. But, beyond that, they are also laboratories for every kind of lighting situation, a big ‘ol practice pad for the mastery of lenses and exposure strategies. Sometimes the arrangement of color and shadow in some art houses is so drastically different from room to room that, even if there is nothing of note hanging on the walls, the walls themselves can frame amazing compositional challenges.
There is also a secondary, and fairly endless, source of photographic sketch work to be had in the people who visit public art spaces. The body language of their contemplative study of the artwork is a kind of mute ballet all its own, and no two patterns are alike. Watching the people who watch the art thus becomes a spectator sport of sorts, one which works to the advantage of the candid shooter, since people are more immersed in the paintings and thus a little less aware of themselves as regards the photographer. That leads to what I call “bodily candor”, a more relaxed quality in how they occupy their personal space.
Sometimes, as seen in the images in this article, your subject’s physical footprint is enough to express a full sense of the person without a trace of facial detail. In fact, I actually prefer this “no-face” approach, since it forces the viewer to supply some information of his own, making the photographs more interactive.
Try some gallerylab shots the next time you are hostage to a museum tour that was someone else’s idea of a good time. The exhibits themselves may disappoint, but the museum space and the people in it offer pretty consistent material.
THE WRITE SIDE OF HISTORY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE CAN BE NO BETTER DEMONSTRATION OF THE HUMAN RACE’S TWO CONFLICTING APPROACHES TO EXISTENCE than are on display in the peaceful town of Concord, Massachusetts, where one of the most renowned jumping-off sites for war and destruction sits cheek-by-jowl with one of the quietest monuments to the serenity of the mind. It’s a contrast which no photographer should fail to experience.
Just a few hundred yards from the tiny footbridge which is rumored to have launched the American Revolution is a carefully preserved haven known as the Old Manse, a modest two-story country home built in 1770 for patriot minister William Emerson. The home came, eventually, to temporarily host a trio of the young nation’s most eloquent voices: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (the good minister’s grand-son).
The house remained in the hands of the extended Emerson family until as late as 1939, when it was conveyed to the state’s Trustee of Reservations. Over the years, the Manse helped incubate the energies that produced Emerson’s Nature, Hawthorne’s Mosses From An Old Manse, and various love poems written between Thoreau and his wife. The house also retains writing desks used by Hawthorne and Emerson.
The manse supports itself, its side garden and its replica corn field with a modest bookstore and daily walking tours of the house’s rooms, which are said to feature nearly 90% of the structure’s original furnishings. However, as is the case with Annie Liebowitz’ profound essay on the living spaces of quintessential Americans, Pilgrimage, the effect of the house on the photographer’s eye can never only be in the arrangement of physical artifacts. There is something more ethereal going on than merely snapping The Place Where He Sat And Wrote, an unfilled space that exists between these mere things and the essence of those transcendent writers.
And while I’m not sentimental enough to believe that you can render a person just by photographing an object from his desk, there is something that lingers, however impossible it is to quantify. Revolutions are very amorphous things. Some come delivered by musket ball. Others arrive in wisps of quietude, seeping into the soul with the stealth of smoke. The Old Manse launched its own crop of “shots heard ’round the world”, the echoes of which can sometimes resound in the echo of an image.
It’s a lucky thing to be ready when the message comes.
YOU’RE IN MY SHOT
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.
THE AGE OF ELEGANCE
If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.——Edith Wharton
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LONG BEFORE HER NOVELS THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, ETHAN FROME, AND THE HOUSE OF MIRTH made her the most successful writer in America, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was the nation’s first style consultant, a Victorian Martha Stewart if you will. Her 1897 book, The Decoration Of Houses, was more than a few dainty gardening and housekeeping tips; it was a philosophy for living within space, a kind of bible for combining architecture and aesthetics. Her ideas survive in tangible form today, midst the leafy hills of Lenox Massachusetts, in the Berkshire estate her family knew as “The Mount”.
Wharton only occupied the house from 1902 to 1911, but in that time established it as an elegant salon for guests that included Henry James and other literary luminaries. Although based on several classical styles, the house is a subtle and sleek counter to the cluttered bric-a-brac and scrolled busyness of European design. Even today, the house seems oddly modern, lighter somehow than many of the robber-baron mansions of the period. Many of its original furnishings went with Wharton when she moved to Europe, and have been replicated by restorers, often beautifully. But is in the essential framing and fixtures of the old house that the writer-artist speaks, and that is what led me to do something fairly rare for me, a photo essay, seen at the top of this page in the menu tab Edith Wharton At The Mount.
The images on this special page don’t feature modern signage, tour groups, or contemporary conveniences, as I attempt to present just the basic core of the estate, minus the unavoidable concessions to time. The house features, at present, an appealing terrace cafe, a sunlit gift store, and a restored main kitchen, as part of the conversion of the mansion into a working museum. I made no images of those updates, since they cannot conjure 1902 anymore than a Mazerati can capture the feel of a Stutz-Bearcat. The pictures are made with available light only, and have not been manipulated in any way, with the exception of the final shot of the home as seen from its rear gardens, which is a three-exposure HDR, my attempt to rescue the detail of the grounds on a heavily overcast day.
Take a moment to click the page and enter, if only for a moment, Edith Wharton’s age of elegance.
NOT WHAT I CAME FOR, BUT…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S MADE A ROAD TRIP CAN TELL YOU THAT THE DESTINATION IS OFTEN FAR LESS ENJOYABLE THAN THE JOURNEY, a truth that also applies to photography. The best things result from the little surprises at the side of the highway. You’re fixated on your oh-so-holy “plan” and all the wonderful things you’ll see and do in executing it. But photography is an art of opportunity, and to the degree that you embrace that fact, your work will be broader, richer, looser.
This is now a real source of excitement for me. I still go to the trouble of sketching out what I think I’m going to do, but, I’m at least quietly excited to know that, in many cases, the images that will make the keepers pile will happen when I went completely off message. Yes, we are “officially” here today to shoot that big mountain over yonder. But, since the two people I met on the approach path to said mountain are in themselves interesting, the story has now become about them. I may or may not get back to the mountain, and, if I do, I may discover that I really did not have a strong concept in my bagga trix for making anything special out of it, and so it’s nice not to have to write the entire day off to a good walk spoiled.
Specific example: I have written before that I get more usable stuff in the empty spaces and non-exhibit areas of museums than I do from the events within them. This is a great consolation prize these days, especially since an increasingly ardent police state among curators means that no photos can be taken in some pretty key areas. Staying open means that I can at least extract something from the areas no one is supposed to care about.
The above image is one such case, since it was literally the final frame I shot on my way out of a museum show. It was irresistible as a pattern piece, caused by a very fleeting moment of sunset light. It would have appealed to me whether I was in a museum or not, but it was the fact that I was willing to go off-script that I got it, no special technical talent or “eye”. Nabbing this shot completely hinged on whether I was willing to go after something I didn’t originally come for. It’s like going to the grocery store for milk, finding they’re out, but discovering that there is also a sale on Bud Light. Things immediately look rosier.
Or at least they will by the third can.
TURN THE PAGE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M VERY ACCUSTOMED TO BEING STOPPED IN MY TRACKS AT A PHOTOGRAPH THAT EVOKES A BYGONE ERA: we’ve all rifled through archives and been astounded by a vintage image that, all by itself, recovers a lost time.
It’s a little more unsettling when you experience that sense of time travel in a photo that you just snapped. That’s what I felt several weeks ago inside the main book trove at the Morgan Library in New York. The library itself is a tumble through the time barrier, recalling a period when robber barons spent millions praising themselves for having made millions. A time of extravagant, even vulgar displays of success, the visual chest-thumping of the Self-Made Man.
The private castles of Morgan, Carnegie, Hearst and other larger-than-life industrialists and bankers now stand as frozen evidence of their energy, ingenuity, and avarice. Most of them have passed into public hands. Many are intact mementos of their creators, available for view by anyone, anywhere. So being able to photograph them is not, in itself, remarkable.
No, it’s my appreciation of the fact that, today,unlike any previous era in photography, it’s possible to take an incredibly detailed, low-light subject like this and accurately render it in a hand-held, non-flash image. This, to a person whose life has spanned several generations of failed attempts at these kinds of subjects, many of them due to technical limits of either cameras, film, or me, is simply amazing. A shot that previously would have required a tripod, long exposures, and a ton of technical tinkering in the darkroom is just there, now, ready for nearly anyone to step up and capture it. Believe me, I don’t dispense a lot of “wows” at my age, over anything. But this kind of freedom, this kind of access, qualifies for one.
This was taken with my basic 18-55mm kit lens, as wide as possible to at least allow me to shoot at f/3.5. I can actually hand-hold fairly steady at even 1/15 sec., but decided to play it safe at 1/40 and boost the ISO to 1000. The skylight and vertical stained-glass panels near the rear are WINOS (“windows in name only”), but that actually might have helped me avoid a blowout and a tougher overall exposure. So, really, thanks for nothing.
On of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, the one about Burgess Meredith inheriting all the books in the world after a nuclear war, with sufficient leisure to read his life away, was entitled “Time Enough At Last”. For the amazing blessings of the digital age in photography, I would amend that title by one word:
Light Enough…At Last.
GET THEE TO A LABORATORY
by MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT MATTER, ONCE YOU’VE TRAINED YOURSELF TO SPOT IT, is always in ready supply. But, let’s face it: many of these opportunities are one-and-done. No repeats, no returns, no going back for another crack at it. That’s why, once you learn to make pictures out of almost nothing, it’s like being invited to a Carnival Cruise midnight buffet to find something that is truly exploding with possibilities, sites that actually increase in artistic value with repeat visits. I call such places “labs” because they seem to inspire an endless number of new experiments, fresh ways to look at and re-interpret their basic visual data.
My “labs” have usually been outdoor locations, such as Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Gardens or the all-too-obvious Central Park, places where I shoot and re-shoot over the space of many years to test lenses, exposure schemes, techniques, or, in the dim past, different film emulsions. Some places are a mix of interior and exterior and serve purely as arrangements of space, such as the Brooklyn Museum or the Library of Congress, where, regardless of exhibits or displays, the contours and dynamics of light and form are a workshop all in themselves. In fact, some museums are more beautiful than the works they house, as in the case of Guggenheim in NYC and its gorgeous west coast equivalent, The Getty museum in Los Angeles.
Between the gleaming white, glass-wrapped buildings of this enormous arts campus and its sinuous, sprawling gardens (not to mention its astounding hilltop view), the Getty takes one complete visit just to get yourself visually oriented. Photographically, you will find a million isolated tableaux within its multi-acre layout upon subsequent trips, so there is no end to the opportunities for exploring light, scale, abstraction, and four full seasons of vibrant color. Not a color fan? Fine. The Getty even dazzles in monochrome or muted hues. It’s like Toys ‘R’ Us for photogs.
I truly recommend laying claim to a laboratory of your own, a place that you can never truly be “finished with”. If the place is rich enough in its basic components, your umpteenth trip will be as magical as your first, and you can use that one location as a growth graph for your work. Painters have their muses. Shooter Harry Calahan made a photographic career out of glorifying every aspect of his wife. We all declare our undying love for something.
And it will show in the work.