By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS STRIVE TO GIVE DIRECT TESTIMONY to life’s key moments, to minimize the distance between event and reporter. The most arresting photographs benefit from this straight line-of-sight from what we witness to how we record it. Other times, however, we are forced to depict things indirectly, making pictures not of things, but of the impact of those things.
One example of this occurs in wartime. It’s impossible, in many cases, to directly make an image of all those who are lost in a battle, but many eloquent photographs have been made of the way those dead are remembered, by photographing lists of names inscribed on a memorial, or by capturing a ritual during which those names are recited. Since society records the damage of wars or disasters in a variety of clerical or statistical ways, such tabulations, for photographers, stand in visually for the actual event.
Our latest global “war”, in which even the immediate families of the dead are barred from witnessing their loved ones’ final moments, a time in which thousands of us seem to just vaporize into abstraction, has made a new, horrific addition to a very old instrument of death’s grammar: the newspaper obituary. In recent months, the virus has begun to be specifically listed as a cause of death in the stately columns of the New York Times, a revision which signals the importance of change in how slowly the Old Gray Lady adjusts to it. There now, on the page, along with the Parkinson’s diseases and the cancers and the sanitized descriptions of those who “passed peacefully” are the dread new words, now officially inducted into the vocabulary of grief.
And so, in the age of COVID-19, our cameras are stalled at arm’s length, unable to be true eyewitnesses, forced, by circumstances, to be eyewitnesses, once removed. We make pictures of pictures, images of lists, views of rosters.
It’s not enough. But for now, it will have to do.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DAYS, MAKING PICTURES IS A LABOR OF LOVE.
On a few days, however, it’s just….labor.
Just as it’s harder, on occasion, to manage a radiant smile for everyone you meet, there are days when photography can, for a short while, become a chore. Homework. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but, as I experience it, making pictures is a deliberate mutiny against the forces of despair. And while despair itself seems never to weaken or abate, my own armor against it can occasionally buckle or crack. That’s when pointing a camera at anything can seem, just for a time, to be a worthless exercise, something too frivolous to be of value in a world that seems bent on ugliness.
Thankfully, I eventually recall that making pictures, at least for me (standard disclaimer), is an act of faith. Faith that the world will continue. Faith that there are things within it that ought to be praised, sung, celebrated. In returning to the role of photographer, I also return to a new sense of what kind of photographer I am, and must generally be. I can’t fixate on the horrible, although sometimes my pictures will show traces of it. I can’t marinate in misery, or use my images to do so. I have to seek beauty, and not just the cute-kitty or pretty-flower varieties. It’s a careful balance. My work is biased toward the affirmation of things, and yet I do acknowledge that some things and some people in life are, simply, no damned good. But beauty isn’t a denial of ugliness. It’s an answer to it. An alternative. And on different days there will be different ways to fight that fight.
Photography came into my life as a kind of magic trick, as something so amazing on its face that I felt drawn to learn something about how the trick was done. Having passed that purely technical point, I now see it as perhaps the most important tool available to me in trying to craft a world I long for, as important in its way as my writing or music or graphic work has always been. It gives me a distinct voice. Other times it just gives me an extra eye, or opens the two I already possess. And while there will always be times when we all think the most intelligent response to life is to shut all the doors and windows, we will, eventually, recall that making pictures is about opening those things back up…..and that a house full of light is one hell of a lot easier to live in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WASN’T LONG AFTER THE INTRODUCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY that one of the biggest and most durable myths about the new art was launched to generally unquestioning acceptance. The line “the camera doesn’t lie” attached itself to the popular imagination with what seemed the purest of industrial-age logic. Photographs were, to the 19th-century mind, a flawless record of reality, a scientifically reliable registration of light and shadow. And yet the only thing that moved as quickly as photography itself was the race to use the camera to deliberately create illusion, and, eventually, to serve the twin fibbing mills of propaganda and advertising. The camera, it turned out, not only could lie, but did do so, frequently and indetectably.
Later, as photojournalism came into its own, the “doesn’t lie” myth seemed to drape news coverage in some holy mantle of trustworthiness, as if every cameraman were somehow magically neutral in the way he shot an event. This, in spite of the obvious fact that, merely by changing composition, exposure, or processing, the photographer could alter his image’s impact…..its ability to, in effect, transmit “truth”. Certainly, outright fakery got better and better, but, even without deliberately trying to falsify facts, the news photographer still had his own personal eye, an eye which could easily add bias to a seemingly straightforward picture. Did this proclivity make his pictures “lies”?
As a point of discussion, consider the above photo, which is, fundamentally, a document of part of an actual event. But what can really be learned from what’s in the frame? Are there thousands at this rally, or do the attendees shown here constitute the entire turnout? Are all those on hand peaceful and calm, or have I merely turned my lens away from others, immediately adjacent, who may be screaming or gesturing in anger? And how about my use of selective focus with the girl in pink? Am I simply calling attention to her face, the colors in her outfit, her sign, her physical posture… or am I trying to make her argument for her by using blur to make everyone else seem less important? Am I an artist, a reporter, a liar, or all three?
Here’s the thing: since I don’t make my living as a journalist, I can choose any or all of those three job titles without fear of conflict. I work only for myself, so I make no claim for the neutrality of my coverage of anything, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits. I likewise make no guarantees of objectivity in what I regard as an art. Only the observer can decide whether the camera, or I, have “lied”. We repeat this mantra frequently, but it bears clear emphasis: photographs are not (mere) reality. Never were, never can be.
Good thing or bad? You literally take that determination into your own hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATE STUDS TERKEL’S BOOKS created almost a category of their own, collecting memoirs from across the length and breadth of American experience and class in essential essays like Working, The Good War, and Hard Times. Traveling the length and breadth of the nation for over forty years, Terkel interviewed the big and the small, the meek, the marginal and the mighty, as they recalled their individual experiences in the wake of massive historical events, from wars to depressions. For one of his final social montages, he spoke to people in their twilight years about their efforts to remain positive and engaged despite lives that had often proven challenging, even tragic.
Its title: Hope Dies Last.
Upon first seeing the book, I had to read it, partly because it was Studs, and partly because that title spoke to my own minor acts of faith in what I look for in photographs. Pictures are often testimony about people who cannot be seen, measured in the objects they care about, or in which they invest their hope. We have all seen the tenacity of wildflowers thrusting up between the fissures of cracked concrete, and appreciated, in the abstract, what that image says about the faith of the human animal. We capture pictures of places bombed to ruin, then testify with our cameras as they begin, once more, to lay a stone upon a stone. Building. Dreaming. Launching our boats against the current.
Hope dies last.
When I see a picture of something that, to me, symbolizes our collective refusal to knuckle under, I want to take it home with me. Because we need it. Now, yesterday, ever. We draw strength from that escapist wildflower, or a battered face upturned toward the light, or, as above, a potted plant defying the odds in a dark apartment air shaft. Someone decided to give that plant a chance…or, at least, to remind the grey walls and grimy brick that color and life are still around, still fighting for their shot.
Studs made his best case for the persistence of hope with the words of his interviewees. I find comfort in trying to find visual evidence of their actions. Either way, photographers can serve as conservators of hope.
If there’s a better gig to be had in this life, please let me know.