By MICHAEL PERKINS
DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU FIRST READ THIS POST, the events of The Horror Year 2020 may well already have sealed the fate of the establishment I write about today. The perishability of current events is one of the reasons that, over the last decade, I have almost completely kept “news” items out of the pages of The Normal Eye. Such stories age worse than limburger in the hot sun, and I have mostly chosen to address the eternal questions that affect photography, those universal struggles that occur in every age, regardless of what’s on the front page on any given day.
But part of photography is always about that very perishability, the race to document or capture things before they vanish beneath the tides of time. And so I find myself calling attention to what is, at this moment, a poignant by-product of the Horror Year. On the surface, it’s just about the potential closing of a bookstore, hardly worth a ripple in the tragic tsunami of business failures and bankruptcies that are the persistent drumbeat of our current time. On another level, it’s about one of the most familiar and venerable of bookstores anywhere in America, the Strand in New York City, an establishment whose very existence symbolizes survival. Once part of a glorious 44-store district in the city known as Book Row, The Strand, at age 93, is the last man standing, its 2.5 million volumes serving as not merely a commercial concern but a community center, a cultural touchstone in the life of Manhattanites. Under the care of Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of the founder, the Strand, in this Season of the Plague, has crawled through the first months of the pandemic with some federal help, but, at this writing, it faces nothing short of extinction, and just this week, in October of 2020, the store has posted appeals to current and former customers around the world…a desperate S.O.S. that simply says, if you love us, save us. Within twenty-four hours of the story going public, the store’s website was so flooded with responses that it crashed.
And there my crystal ball goes dark. At the time of this writing, I can’t predict whether you, the someday reader, are smiling because the Strand has been saved or shedding a quiet tear at its passing. The one reason I felt compelled to cite a fast- moving news story at all in this forum is that it reminds me why we make pictures of things in the first place. Because they close. They fade. They burn. They fall to enemy bombs. To floods. To negligence. To our own failed memories. Photographs are one of the only hedges against the dread onslaught of temporal decay. And they themselves are also subject to that rot, becoming lost, left behind, forgotten. Beyond mere “souvenirs” of lost times, they are soul-venirs, testaments of times ago. For this reason, I went rooting this week through my old images of the Strand from the last twenty years. None of them are masterpieces, but all of them are markers, headstones for a time, and a condition, and a way of life, not only for New York but for your town, my town. Time is fleeting. Therefore make pictures. Sometimes, as Yogi Berra famously said, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but even a smudged shadow of history may someday be all we’ve got. Better to grab a box and go shadow-catching.
A dream of life comes to me. Come on up for the rising tonight—-Bruce Springsteen
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE POST 9/11 RESURRECTION OF LOWER MANHATTAN might have begun as a kind of act of defiance, a refusal to knuckle under to fear in the aftermath of the largest attack in history on American soil. Somewhere amidst the tears and rage, however, the project to re-establish this crucial corner of New York City moved onto a higher plane, transitioning from anger to elegance, mourning to…morning. And now, for both casual travelers and astounded visitors, the master plan for the area is an ever-blooming monument to faith. To excellence.
Photographers from around the world have known, from the days of the first cleanups, that an amazing opportunity for historic documentation was unfolding on this hallowed ground, and their images have provided an invaluable service in tracking the city’s transition between two distinct eras. The first two mile-markers in this transformation, the openings of World Trade Center One and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, have been interpreted in a global cascade of visual impressions, occurring, as they have, in the first explosion of social media and digital imaging. And now, the third piece of the puzzle, the stunning new Oculus PATH terminal, is nearly ready to serve as the proof that the city, along with all its millions of comings and goings, is still very much open for business.
Photographers have already made a visit to Oculus something of a pilgrimage, and, looking over the first few photos to emerge from their visits, it might be closer, architecturally, to a religious experience. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the structure, presenting its ribbed wings to the skies like an abstract bird of prey, resembles, within, a kind of sci-fi cathedral of kaleidoscopic light effects, serving as both monument and utility. An inventory of its features and a gallery of interior images can be seen here.
And, of course, this is New York, so opinion on the Oculus’ value, from poetic prayers to crass carping, will go through the usual grappling match. But, whatever one’s eventual take on the project, its power as a statement….of survival, of power, of hope, and, yes, of defiance, cannot be denied. To date, I’ve only been able to photograph limited parts of the construction phase (see above), but I will be back after the baby’s born. And my dreams will collide with Oculus’ own, and something magical will happen inside a box.
Make your way to Manhattan, and let your own camera weigh in on the new arrival.
Come On Up For The Rising.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM OFTEN ASKED WHY ARCHITECTURE FIGURES SO STRONGLY in my photography, and I can only really put part of my answer into words. That’s what the pictures are for. I imagine that the question itself is an expression of a kind of disappointment that my work doesn’t focus as much on faces, as if the best kind of pictures are “people pictures”, with every other imaging category trailing far behind. But I reject that notion, and contend that, in studying buildings, I am also studying the people who make them.
Buildings can be read just as easily as a smile or a frown. Some of them are grimaces. Some of them are grins. Some of them show weary resignation, despair, joy. Architecture is, after all, the work of the human hand and heart, a creative interpretation of space. To make a statement? To answer a need? The furrowed brows of older towers gives way to the sunny snicker of newborn skyscrapers. And all of it is readable.
In photography, we are revealing a story, a viewpoint, or an origin in everything we point at. Some buildings, as in the case of the first newly rebuilt World Trade Center (seen above), are so famous that it’s a struggle to see any new stories in them, as the most familiar narratives blot the others out of view. Others spend their entire lives in obscurity, so any image of them is a surprise. And always, there are the background issues. Who made it? What was meant for it, or by it? What world gave birth to this idea, these designs, those aims?
Photography is about both revelation and concealment. Buildings, as one of the only things we leave behind to mark our having passed this way, are testaments. Read their faces. No less than a birthday snapshot, theirs is a human interest story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW YORK CITY IS A VERY IRONIC CANVAS. Artists who set brush upon that canvas may think they are attempting to depict something outside themselves, but what they show actually reveals very personal things. There are more stories than all the storytellers in the world can ever hope to render…in paint, in print, or through the lens of a camera, and while some of us entertain the notion that we are adding this commentary objectively, that, plainly, is impossible.
From handheld luggage to emotional baggage, everyone brings something to New York, layering their own dreams and dreads onto the multi-story sandwich of human experience that makes it the world’s most unique social laboratory. Hard as it is on the artistic ego, one can’t make the statement that defines the city. Wiser minds from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan have tried, and they have all contributed their versions….wonderful versions. But the story can never be completed. New York won’t be contained by mere words and images. It is, like the song says, a state of mind.
Still, trying to scale the mountain can be fun. So, with this post, The Normal Eye has added a new gallery tab at the top of the page to share a few recent takes on my own ongoing love affair with the Apple. The title, I’ll Take Manhattan, is hardly original, but it is easy to remember. I have done essays on NYC before, but, this time out, I strove to focus as much on the rhythm of people as on the staggering scope of the skyline. New York is, finally, its people, that perpetually fresh infusion of rigor, rage, talent and terror that adds ever-new coats of paint to the neighborhoods, and this batch of pictures tries, in 2015, to show the town as it is used, by its daily caretakers. The push. The pull. The gamut of sensations from sky to gutter.
So have a look if you will and weigh these impressions against those you’ve discovered through others or developed within yourself. Taking on a photographic task that can never be finished is either frustrating or freeing, depending on your artistic viewpoint. In the meantime, what a ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR AS LONG AS THERE HAS BEEN PHOTOGRAPHY, the United States of America has flown some version of the Stars and Stripes, a banner that has symbolized, in cloth and thread, what we profess and hope for ourselves as one of the world’s experiments in self-government. That argues for the flag being one of the most photographed objects in history, and, therefore, one of the most artistically problematic. Those things that are visualized most, by most of us, endure the widest extremes in interpretation, as all symbols must, and observing that phenomenon as it applies to the flag is both fascinating and frustrating.
Fascinating, because the flag can embody or evoke any emotion, any association, any memory, providing a gold mine for photographers who always must look beyond the mere recording of things to their underlying essences. Frustrating, because that task can never be complete, in that there can be no definitive or final statement about a thing that resonates so intensely, so personally with a diverse nation. Photographing the flag is always new, or, more precisely, it can always be made new.
The problem with fresh photographic approaches to the flag is really within ourselves. The banner is so constantly present, on public buildings, in pop culture, even as commentary, that it can become subliminal, nearly invisible to our eye. Case in point: the image at left of the front facade to Saks’ in Manhattan. The building is festooned in flags across its entire Fifth Avenue side, which is, being across the street from Rockefeller, a fairly well-trafficked local. And yet, in showing this photo to several people from the city, I have heard variations on “where did you take that?” or “I never noticed that before” even though the display is now several years old.
And that’s the point. Saks’ flags have now become as essential a part of the building as its brick and mortar, so that, at this point, the only way the building would look “wrong” or “different” is if the flags were suddenly removed. Training one’s eye to see afresh what’s just been a given in their world is the hardest kind of visual re-training, and the American flag, visually inexhaustible as a source of artistic interpretation, can only be blunted by how much we’ve forgotten to see it.
Photography has found a cure for sharpness, clarity, exposure, even time itself. But it can’t compensate for blindness. That one’s on us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THESE DAYS IT SEEMS TO TAKE LESS TIME TO SNAP A PHOTOGRAPH THAN IT DOES TO DECIDE WHETHER IT HAS ANY MERIT. Photography is still largely about momentary judgements, and so it stands to reason that some are more well-conceived than others. There’s a strong temptation to boast that “I meant to do that, of course” when the result is a good one, and to mount an elaborate alibi when the thing crashes and burns, but, even given that very human tendency, some pictures stubbornly linger between keeper and krap, inhabiting a nether region in which you can’t absolutely pronounce them either success or failure.
The image at left is one such. It was part of a day spent in New York’s Central Park, and for most of the shots taken on that session, I can safely determine which ones “worked”. This one, however, continues to defy a clear call either way. Depending on which day I view it, it’s either a slice-of-life capture that shows the density of urban life or a visual mess with about four layers too much glop going on. I wish there were an empirical standard for things like photographs, but…..wait, I really don’t wish that at all. I like the fact that none of us is truly certain what makes a picture resonate. If there were such a standard for excellence, photography could be reduced to a craft, like batik or knitting. But it can never be. The only “mission” for a photographer, however fuzzy, is to convey a feeling. Some viewers will feel like a circuit has been completed between themselves and the artist. But even if they don’t, the quest is worthwhile, and goes ever on.
I have played with this photo endlessly, converting it to monochrome, trying to enhance detail in selective parts of it, faking a tilt-shift focus, and I finally present it here exactly as I shot it. I am gently closer to liking it than at first, but I feel like this one will be a problem child for years to come. Maybe I’m full of farm compost and it is simply a train wreck. Maybe it’s “sincere but just misunderstood”. I’m okay either way. I can accept it for a near miss, since it becomes a reference point for trying the same thing with better success somewhere down the road.
And, if it’s actually good, well, of course, I meant to do that.
THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.