LIGHT ‘EM UP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY IN THE 19th CENTURY was one of several singular scientific events that arrived in close parallel to the birth and development of photography. Prior to the throwing of the first voltage switches around the world, most objects had only one image identity, that being how they looked when delineated by natural daylight. After that first surge of power, however, the idea of “lighting” something….that is, creating a specific scheme for illuminating it at night, began to suggest itself as a specialized art in itself. These first mass glowings were, suitably, mass gatherings like expositions, world’s fairs, and circuses, with a new breed of engineer deliberately designing how something should appear when lit, making those kinds of choices for the very first time. And even as the Victorian era was exploring new ballets of shadow, frequency, intensity and color in cities all over the globe, photography was also trying to free itself from the limits of light as historically dictated by local sunset. Suddenly there were two ways to see everything, with many objects having a completely different visual signature when viewed after dark.
Decades later, we hardly stop to consider how very distinctive a city’s day is from its night. It seems as if things have always been this way, with many of us customizing the bright/dark light schemes of our personal gardens and homes in a way that only city planners and showmen could have accomplished a century ago. And yet, there are still things which create dramatic contrast between its daytime and nighttime versions. One of these is the brash collision of color and sensation that, as a holdover from the 1800’s, is finally vanishing from American life: the carnival midway. Subtle as a brickbat, corny as a Kansas cob and vivid to the point of vulgarity, carnies still crop up in vacant lots and small towns across America, continuing to enchant with their odd mix of ballyhoo and mystery. They are brash, loud, crude, and great fun. All our 21st-century entertainment options off to the side, there is still something visually visceral about these slightly disreputable encampments from the days of P.T. Barnum. They cry out for cameras, reminding us of an era in which a mere change of light was enough to quicken the imagination.
Daytime at a carnival is a tamer prelude to the noise and song that will explode from the tents and rides after sundown. Nothing is natural, yet everything is believable. The weird, seductive magic of blaring neon and exploding color still tugs at the photographer’s eye, building and intensifying as afternoon becomes dusk and dusk becomes show time. Everything in such an over-the-top environment deserves to be viewed by both day and night, as it’s often hard to imagine that two views of the same things could be so amazingly different. Circuses and tent shows historically were a great testing ground for the first color films, and they still test the performance of both gear and shooter today. Photography and artificial light, born side by side, are still strongly about putting on a performance. The show must go on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE PROVEN OURSELVES TO BE A SPECIES THAT HATES TO BE SENT TO BED. Night life being a kind of “second shift” in most of the modern world, we really never lock up our cities for the evening, and that has changed how those cities exist for photographers.
Here’s both the good and bad news: there is plenty of light available after dark in most towns. Good if you want the special mix of neon, tube glow and LED burn that sculpts the contours of most towns post-sundown. Bad if you really want to see cities as special entities defined by shadow, as places where dark is a subtle but aesthetically interesting design element. In many mega-cities, we have really banished the dark, going beyond essential illumination to a bleachingly bright blast of light which renders everything, big and small, in the same insane mutation of color and tone. Again, this is both good and bad, depending on what kind of image you want.
Midtown Manhattan, downtown Atlanta, and anyplace Tokyo are examples of cities that are now a universe away from the partial night available in them just a generation ago. A sense of architectural space beyond the brightest areas of light can only be sensed if you shoot deep and high, framing beyond the most trafficked structures. Sometimes there is a sense of “light decay”, of subtler illumination just a block away or a few stories higher than what’s seen at the busiest intersections. Making images where you can watch the light actually fade and recede adds a little dimension to what would otherwise be a fairly flat feel that overlit streets can generate.
Photography is often a matter of harnessing or collecting extra light when it’s scarce. Turns out that having too much of it is a creative problem in the opposite direction.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.
We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.
As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.
It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.
McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.
Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.
What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.
Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.
Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.