By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE STILL PLACES ACROSS AMERICA where all the needs of life seem to be concentrated into very compact spaces. Small towns where the eating places, the living places, working places, worshiping places and dying places are all within a few blocks of each other, all of them viewable, knowable to everyone, all the time. The unchecked sprawl of modern life has left such villages behind, so isolated that they may as well be contained within a snow globe, their functions blended together like a box of inter-melted crayons. In such towns, photographs of a very different nature can be made.
The idea of a local main street moving seamlessly from the business section to residential houses to graveyards to a children’s playground now runs counter to the way we plan things. In little cities all functions orbit each other tightly, like animals sharing the same watering hole. Maybe some of these burgs were, originally, just that….replenishment stops, a place to change horses, grab a meal before heading back onto the trail, a collection point for outlying farms or ranches. In terms of the images that can be created in these out-of-the-way places, they are chronicles of a different kind of rhythm. They simply have to result in different kinds of pictures.
In traveling through such towns, I invariably stop at local churchyards. In a strange way, by containing the remains of our all too temporary shells, the yards themselves achieve a kind of permanence. Things go there and stay there. No one digs up a cemetery to build a supermarket. Its space remains apart, freed even more of the constraints of time than the towns which they occupy. And here, in the aftermath of the greatest interruptions we can ever face, there is order. A grave is just one more thing that falls to the human need to organize. To make sense of it all. We lay out parcels with a certain arbitrary logic. Grandpa is in section 3-A, while the mayor and his family are in 4-D, and so forth. Churches in such towns taper off into the sky with stiff steeples, and brick and marble perpetuate the illusion that everything in the area, in some way, lasts. In terms of technique for these oddly reassuring patches of quiet, I often will play around with selective focus, since that dreamy half-state seems to align with my interior dialogue. Our pasts are as strange in their own way as our presents, and the standard rules for picture-making are vaporous, like ghosts.
Small towns are often liberally dotted with antique stores, as if objects themselves have need of a graveyard, a place to be collected beyond anyone’s needs or desires. The way we say farewell to things is often impossible to measure visually, but we carry cameras along wherever we go, because, well, you never know. When life’s various elements slip away there is often nothing to mark their passage. And yet sometimes there is just a little. And sometimes we can see it. And steal it. And hoard it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT GOES BY MANY NAMES: THE MONEY SHOT, THE GOLDEN ANGLE, THE POSTCARD VIEW. Travel enough and you will snap one. The all-roads-lead-to-this-picture, must-shoot frame that defines a town or city. Rattle off the names from Eiffel to Empire State. Drawn like moths to flame, we make the same treks that millions before us have made to capture the classic destination, the local Mecca. Do we truly believe that we, the 400,000,000th visitor to the special site, will capture something that someone else missed? Well, yes, we do. For all the other tourists, it’s just a Kodak moment, but once we focus our lens, boy, it’ll be a moment for the ages. Or not.
But I also believe in the value of the dead opposite of the obvious shot, the image taken 180 degrees away from the holy object we all think we must shoot. The hiding-over-my-shoulder treasure that no one came to take, but which might just qualify as a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s across the alley from the Alamo? What’s a half a block to the left of Notre Dame? Or, in the case of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, what happens when you deliberately turn away from the most desired view in the city?
The iconic downward vista of the Steel City, at precisely the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers blend at the town’s terminus to form the Ohio, is chiefly shot from atop Mount Washington, a district reached via the romantic, cable-driven incline service that has trucked commuters up the Mount and down for over a century. Add the souvie shop and the walk-out view platforms at the top, and it’s one of the most obvious cases of here, take this picture in all of American tourism.
But the Mount, an old urban neighborhood unto itself, is like a flatland city dropped on top of a lumpy cliff, its streets rising and falling like a stone roller coaster. The sheer suddenness of its drop-offs and the skyward pitches of its roofs lends a zany angularity, its tiered vistas contrasted by the glass and steel of contemporary Pittsburgh just below. Think Rio with Czechs and Germans.
There’s something of a religious pilgrimage quality to taking your shot at a popular attraction, but it takes mere minutes to scout around beyond the crowds to what lies immediately beyond. The opposite of obvious is often a synonym for discovery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.
A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.
Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.
The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.
True to the ethos of L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.
Hooray for Hollywood.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT STARTED OFF AS WHAT IS CURRENTLY REFERRED TO AS A FAIL: I was clicking away throughout the park areas in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, trying to make some kind of epic composition out of the beautiful Bailey Foundation near the war memorial arch. It features several heroic figures standing on the prow of a ship, under which can be seen several mythical denizens of the deep including Neptune himself. It’s a strong piece of sculpture, crowning a plaza that was designed by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, the mastermind behind Manhattan’s Central Park, and I should have been able to do something with it. Something.
Problem with the fountain is the water itself, which, instead of a wonderfully flowing cascade is something between a Jacuzzi shower head and a resort sprinkler system. Its renders the statuary nearly impossible to get in focus, and sends refracted rainbows and hotspots dancing gaily into your lens. Suddenly the impulse of a moment is a day’s work, and, just as I was beginning to check this particular world wonder off my to-do list, in moved the people you see here.
I don’t shoot weddings but the group you see here was, in fact, a shoot of a wedding, something else altogether, since there is a more relaxed dynamic than will ever be present during an actual ceremony. Photographically, rehearsals are more fruitful than actual play performances, and, in that vein, wedding prep holds more pictorial potential, for me, than weddings with a capital W. There is a looser feel, an air of celebration that somehow gets starched out of the final product. Do I stand here? You want me holding the flowers? Shouldn’t the tall people be at the back? Best thing of all, these folks were already taking direction from their “official” photog, so I was the last thing on their mind. There’s no better role at a wedding than that of The Invisible Man.
My glorious fountain had been reduced to a prop, which means the wedding party saw its potential, as I had. The difference is, they gave me what I hadn’t been able to find for myself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOS ANGELES USED TO BE COMPOSED OF MANY PEOPLE LIKE RUBEN PARDO, the balding, beaming driver of the elevator at the Desmond building at 5500 Wilshire Boulevard. Once upon an urban time long, long, ago there were people who specialized in guiding, in fact, feeling the rise and fall of elevators in cabs they manually controlled. They were the unofficial greeters of their buildings, as familiar with the fortunes of the tenants and clients of their respective towers as the counterman at a diner.
Once, these ascension specialists were turned out in resplendent uniforms befitting their twin duties as both concierge and mechanic. Epaulets. Braided cords. Hats that earned the word “snappy”. Gloves. And always, the inextinguishable smile that Ruben still radiates to all, from the edgy curators of the Desmond’s second floor Gallery “A” to its street level Fed Ex workers to the Deco lovers who float into his lobby to admire his peacock-bedecked elevator doors and the warm mahogany wood of his stately 6×8 foot cab, all original from 1928.
And always, there is the science of measuring the distance between the floors himself, knowing when the car is level, waiting for the right moment to sweep back the flexible cage door that protects his passengers. Watch your step, sir. Turn right and go to the end of the hall, ma’am. Press the button to call me if you finish early, and I’ll come up and get you.
Mr. Pardo has seen Desmond’s descend into the ashes of yesterglory, and now, is still around to see new leases beginning to give the old girl a facelift in one of L.A.’s biggest comeback neighborhoods. Everything old is new again, and, as the crowds start coming back, he is ready.
I asked Ruben, after thirty-seven years on the job, if he would mind posing for me before his cab. “I’ll just look out toward the street”, he said, and he was right. Mid-morning sun from Wilshire lit his smiling face to perfection as he stood next to his beloved car. It was the look of someone who is doing exactly what he wants to do, a rare thing in a world where we hurry to throw things away, to surge on to we don’t know what. Ruben has earned his little vertical sliver of sky, and he’ll take you up there anytime, himself.
Whenever you’re ready.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, UNDER THE SPELL OF A CONCEPT, TO KNOW WHETHER THEY ARE MARCHING TOWARD SOME LOFTY QUEST or merely walking in circles, their foot (or their brain) nailed to the floor. Fall too deeply in love with a given idea, and you could cling to it, for comfort or habit, long after it has yielded anything remotely creative.
You might be mistaking a rut for revelation.
We’ll all seen it happen. Hell, it’s happened to many of us. You begin to explore a particular story-telling technique. It shows some promise. And so you hang with it a little longer, then a little longer still. One more interpretation of the shot that made you smile. One more variation on the theme.
Maybe it’s abstract grid details on glass towers, taken in monochrome at an odd angle. Maybe it’s time exposures of light trails on a midnight highway. And maybe, as in my own case, it’s a lingering romance with dense, busy neighborhood textures, shot at a respectfully reportorial distance. Straight-on, left to right tapestries of doors, places of business, upstairs/downstairs tenant life, comings and goings. I love them, but I also worry about how long I can contribute something different to them as a means of telling a story.
- The bustling tenement neighborhoods of early Norman Rockwell paintings appealed to me, as a child, because the frames were teeming with life: people leaning out of windows, sitting on porches, perching on fire escapes, delivering the morning milk…they were a divine, almost musical chaos. But they were paintings, with all the intentional orchestration of sentiment and nostalgia that comes with that medium. Those images were wonderful, but they were not documents…merely dreams.
That, of course, doesn’t make them any less powerful as an influence on photography.
When I look at a section of an urban block, I try to frame a section of it that tells, in miniature, the life that can be felt all day long as the area’s natural rhythm. There are re-gentrified restaurants, neglected second-floor apartments, new coats of paint on old brick, overgrown trees, stalwart standbys that have been part of the street for ages, young lovers and old duffers. Toss all the ingredients together and you might get an image salad that captures something close to “real”. And then there is the trial-and-error of how much to include, how busy or sparse to portray the subject.
That said, I have explored this theme many times over the years, and worry that I am trying to harvest crops from a fallow field. Have I stayed too long at this particular fair? Are there even any compelling stories left to tell in this approach, or have I just romanticized the idea of the whole thing beyond any artistic merit?
Hopefully, I will know when to strike this kind of image off my “to do” list, as I fear that repetition, even repetition of a valid concept, can lead to laziness….the place where you call “habit” a “style”.
And I don’t want to dwell in that place.