By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RISE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY empowered artists to chronicle events in documentary fashion for the first time in human history. And as miraculous a change as that worked (and is still working) on the world, one can still have fun pondering what that power might have allowed us to show, had it been granted us years earlier. Imagine being able to map the daily progress of the great pyramids, or to report on Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. I have my personal “what if” list of what I’d love to have seen through a camera, and you no doubt could compile one of your own, if you haven’t already.
Since the craft of making pictures centers so much on human quests, it also lends itself readily to the study of human motivation. We can picture what we are looking for, but we can also trace the emotions that play over our faces as we set out on our explorations. And that’s, of course, how photojournalism has developed over the years. We don’t merely snap the planting of the flag, so to speak, but also the anxiety and near-misses that preceded that triumph, as mapped on the faces of those who embark on the journey. Photo essayists have documented great achievements that, as a sidebar, are also triptychs through the human mind, giving us the procedural steps of the first heart transplants and the terse emotions on the faces of the surgical crew. The two parts of the story each suffer if they are not paired in the narrative.
I don’t typically find myself in the company of globe-trotting explorers, but, when I am with people who are working toward any goal, such as the patient birdwatchers at left, I try to spend just as much time studying their process as what they actually produce. Sure, the main objective is to snap the Vermillion Flycatcher, but, to me, the other part of the job is looking at the lookers, telling the story of the search. The quarry may actually escape, but the quester’s journey is a tale in itself, maybe even a better one.
So, in my retelling of the history of photography, a history in which we are actually present with a Leica when Caesar first rides into Gaul, the preferred part of the assignment for me would be to get a look at the great man himself in the act of conquering not only the foe but, perhaps, himself. We like to think that we use our cameras to tell the truth, but without examining why people choose to do great things, and capturing those desires as well as their deeds, we can miss a vital part of the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NEW YORK TIMES recently published a marvelous article on the 1963 demolition of Manhattan’s iconic Penn Station, and the lasting lesson of its loss for cities of every size everywhere. On one level, it’s the specific story of how an essential public space fell to a specious idea of “progress”. On another, it’s a meditation on what kinds of buildings make or break a city. And then there’s the mythic quality we bestow on everything that is gone, a romantic pang we attach to that which can never be recovered. All of these discussions are fueled by what photography does to the popular imagination.
Because it was built in the very first days of the motion picture camera, Penn Station was more exhaustively documented in its death throes than at its opening. But one of the mixed blessings of its passing is the sheer photographic evidence that such a grand thing was, a way of bearing witness to why and how it vanished. In those pre-internet, three-tv-network days, photographs helped the building’s demolition function as a kind of global re-set in the thinking of civic planners worldwide. The ill-advised practices of what used to be called “urban renewal” were forever changed after Penn. Its destruction was just too great a mistake to allow for a repetition, and serious discussions began about what constitutes a legacy, even the elusive idea of a city’s “soul”.
One of the things that proved fatal for Penn was a shift from a culture based on railroads to one based on the automobile…a simple matter of sustainable economics, or so it would seem. And yet, more than half a century later, many of the great railway stations are still with us, proving that the lives of buildings need not be tied to their original purpose. Rebirths of structures from the 20th century are the urban success stories of the 21st, due to a word which would have seemed alien to the America of the mid-60’s: re-purposing. Commuter travel is, certainly, a fraction of what it once was, but the beautiful palaces that once served as hubs for millions of day travelers have, in many cases, been allowed to serve new functions, many of them being converted into active museum or gallery space. Others, like Portland, Oregon’s Union Station (shown here), are still key connectors for pleasure travel, if not a nation of nine-to-fivers. All of these fresh starts are ripe for new photo-documentation, for telling the stories that, for now, are protected, but which remain terribly fragile.
In some ways, the nation has also grown up a bit. We had such a love affair for so long with All Things New that there seemed little need to preserve or protect anything into its old age. The frontier was limitless, resources were infinite, and anything edging toward decrepitude could merely be swept away for the newer and the better. Now, we seldom throw away entire neighborhoods just to provide a superhighway with a five-mile shortcut. We build in and much as we used to build out. And, with a cooperation between urban visionaries and those sentient eyes behind the viewfinder, there is a greater likelihood that at least some of the world we knew will be viewable, even viable, for those who come after us. The camera is a way of measuring us, as well as the things we create, a time machine with an infinite capacity for emotional as well as educational truth-telling, a way to assemble many small images to compose the Big Picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER IS GOING TO ASK HIS AUDIENCE TO EXTRACT A STORY FROM AN IMAGE, then he must ensure that he is putting that same story into his pictures. Just suggesting a narrative, especially in a photograph, is not the same as conveying one. In legal terms, you are asking your viewers to “assume facts not in evidence.”
Do you have to spell everything out, like an S.O.S. in a bowl of alphabet soup? No, but just pointing your camera at just anything happening “on the street” doesn’t guarantee emotional impact, either. Nor does it imbue your pix with profundity, irony, or anything else that wasn’t happening through your eyes before it went through the lens. No street shot is guaranteed “authenticity” just because you were on the street when you pressed the shutter.
Look at the image at left, which I snapped rather accidentally while taking a lot of images of a crowded food market. I did not mean for the gentleman in the wheelchair to be the main appeal of this frame, but even though he’s been cropped to now be central to the shot, there is no clear narrative that “saves” this photo, or makes it compelling on its own terms.
Let’s dissect the picture to see why it fails. What it is, in raw terms, is a man in a wheelchair, sitting alone, wearing dark clothing, his face hidden.That is all that’s absolutely proven in the picture. Now, let’s assume that I was going for something poignant, a human “moment” if you will. Such moments are the heart and soul of great street shots, but this one is missing far too much vital information. If the man is “sad”, is it because he’s in a wheelchair? Why, and who am I to say so? After all, maybe he just had some restorative surgery which, after a month in the chair, will restore him to star-athlete status. Or maybe he is in the wheelchair for life and yet enjoys a richer existence than I do.
Let’s go farther. His face is hidden, but what story can I make the viewer believe is true about that? Is he catching a cat nap while his pile scores him a slice of pizza? Is he doing special exercises? Praying? Does his hat fit badly? Is he depressed, or actually a master of meditation who’s more connected to the cosmos than I can even dream of? And then there’s the monochrome. This picture began as a color shot, but I certainly didn’t increase its impact merely by sucking out the hues. That is, there isn’t some clear message that was being muffled by color which now speaks in a clear voice in mono. Finally, the cropping makes him the prominent feature in the photo without making him the dominant one. The background of the original was distracting, to be sure, but, as with the color, taking it away didn’t add to the picture’s force. If anything, it made it weaker. The man can’t be ironic or poignant since I’ve now cut him off from everything that provides context to his role in the picture.
You get the idea of the exercise. This shot, color or mono, cropped or wide, had nothing clear to say about the human condition. It was taken on the street but it ain’t “street” in effect. Try the same ruthless analysis with your own “near-miss” shots. It’s a humbling but educational process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STREET-HARDENED CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER ARTHUR FELLIG (1899-1968), who adopted the pseudonym “Weegee” was often asked the secret of his success as the journalist who best captured the stark essence of mobster arrests, gruesome murders, and various other manifestations of mayhem and tragedy. He had answered the “how do you do it” question so many times that he developed a uniform shorthand response which passed into photographic lore and stamped itself onto the brains of all future street shooters. The secret: “f/8 and be there.”
The “f/8” part spoke to the fact that Weegee, who seldom shot at any other aperture, was more interested in bringing back a usable picture than in creating great art. In the days before autofocus, shots taken on the fly at medium distance would almost always be reasonably sharp at that depth of field, no matter how sloppy the shooter’s finer focusing technique. Besides, since he was capturing sensation, not romance, why bother with subtle nuance? Weegee’s pictures were harsh, brutal, and grimy, just like the nether worlds they depicted. They were known for their high contrast and for the atomic blast of hard flashgun light he blew into the faces of society mavens and thugs alike. We’re talking blunt force trauma.
The second half of Weegee’s golden rule was far more telling for any photographer purporting to be an effective narrator. When Fellig spoke of “being there” he was not only referring to arriving on a crime scene ahead of any competition (which he guaranteed by grabbing early bulletins from the police-band radio in his car and having a mobile darkroom in his trunk), but in being mentally present enough to know when and what to shoot, with very little advance prep. The bulkiness of the old Graphlex and Speed Graphic press cameras (the size of small typewriters) meant that shooting twenty frames in as many seconds, as is now a given with reporters, was technically impossible. Time was precious, deadlines loomed, and knowing when the narrative peak of a story was approaching was an invaluable instinct, one which distinguished Weegee from his contemporaries. Opportunities were measured in seconds, and photogs learned to nail a shot with very little notice that history was about to be on the wing.
There will always be arguments about the finer points of focus and exposure, with most debates centering on the first half of Weegee’s prime directive. However, for my money, the urgency of being ably to identify immediacy and grab it in a box far outweighs the niceties of art. Many a Pulitzer Prize-winning image is under-exposed or blurs, while many a technically perfect picture actually manages to drain a scene of any human emotion. Make it f/8, f/4, hell, take the damned thing with a pinhole if need be. But be there.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US“, goes the classic Wordsworth sonnet, which points out that, not only do we miss seeing much of that which is most essential in our lives, we may not even know what we don’t know. And, in the general realm of art, and specifically in the art of photography, what survives in our visual record is limited to what we believed was important…at the time.
Reality is constantly morphing, and try as we might to use our cameras to bear witness to The Big Stuff, we neglect the fact that much of which we regard as anecdotal, as the “little stuff”, might just be biggest of all in the long run. The decisions required by art in the midst of history are terrifying. What image to make? What event to record? What kind of case to make for ourselves, as agents of our time?
This year, 2017, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then called The Great War. The term was grandiose, and dire, denoting a conflict that was, for the first time, truly global, a tsunami of slaughter so vast that it had been, heretofore, simply unimaginable. And yet, in time, the phrase was abandoned, because we had rendered it obsolete, by the obscene act of ordering up a sequel. And so we began to take the greatest mass murders of all time, and merely number them, as if they were nothing more than sequential lines on an endless horizon. And with these wars, for the first time, came pole-to-pole photographic coverage, an unprecedented, ubiquitous visual chronicle. Again, the questions: did we get it right? Did we make the pictures that needed to be made?
Who can know? The blood that soaks the battlefields also waters the grass that eventually covers them over. The din of death becomes the silence of lost detail. Photographs curl, tear, burn, vanish, become memories of memories. We hope some small part of our art becomes an actual legacy. And again, we ask: what did we miss? Whose stories did we neglect? Which evidence did we ignore? The world, always too much with us, forces us, now as then, to edit on the fly, hoping we can at least strive, against all odds, to be reliable narrators.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHETHER THERE IS CONSENSUS ABOUT THE PRESENT OR FUTURE STATE OF THE NATURAL WORLD, we are certainly in the midst of the most muscular conversation about its fate than many of us have ever known. That means that we are changing and challenging our relationship to the globe almost daily…and, along with that relationship, the way that we see, and visually report upon it. That generates a new emphasis on bearing witness to what the planet is/can be/ might be.
I call it the new era of testimony.
The birth of photography coincided with the first great surge of cross-continental expansion in America, as well as an explosion in invention and mechanization. The new system for making a physical record of the world was immediately placed into service to help quantify the scope of the nation…to measure its mountains, track its rivers, count its standing armies. Photographers like Timothy Sullivan and William Henry Jackson lugged their cameras east-to-west alongside geological surveys, railroad agents, and the emerging naturalist movement. While some shooters chose to capture the creation of new trestle bridges, others helped poets illustrate their Walden-esque reveries. In all cases, photography was tasked with the job of showing the natural world and our interaction with it. Most importantly, the images that survive those times are a visual seismograph on both the grand and grotesque choices we made. They are testimony.
And now is a time of radical re-evaluation of what that interaction should look like. That means that there is a visual story to tell, one of the most compelling and vital that photography has ever told. Regardless of your personal stances or stats, man’s place on the planet will be in a state of fundamental shift over the coming decades. And the images that this change generates will define both photography as an art and ourselves as stewards of an increasingly fragile ecology.
Ansel Adams, for all his gorgeously orchestrated vistas, was, I believe, mistaken in almost deliberately subtracting people from his grand scenes, as if they were irrelevant smudges on nature’s work. It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not make war on our native world. But whatever we do, we need to use the camera to mark the roads down which we have chosen to walk. Whether chronicling wise or foolish decisions, the photograph must be used to testify, to either glorify or condemn our choices going forward.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE A BIAS IN WHAT WE CALL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY that leans toward monochrome images, as if black and white were somehow more emotionally honest, maybe even more reportorially accurate as regards social commentary. I suppose this preference borrows a bit from the fact that journalism and photographic critique sort of grew up alongside each other, with black-and-white news coverage pre-dating the popular use of color by several decades. However, since color has become the primary, rather than the secondary choice for most photographers over the past forty or so years, there may be no leader or “winner” between bright and subdued hues, no real rule of thumb over what’s more “real.” Street, and the tones used to convey it, are in the eyes of the beholder.
There must be dozens of images that I myself take in color each year, that, upon later reflection, I re-imagine in mono. Of course, with digital imaging, it’s not only possible but probably smart to make one’s “master shots” in color, since modern editing programs can render more in the way of black and white than mere desaturation. Just sucking the color out of a shot is no guarantee that it will be more direct in its impact, and may actually drain it of a certain energy. Other times, taking out color can streamline the “reading” of a photograph, removing the distraction that can occur with a full range of tones. The only set answer is that there is no set answer.
In the film era, if you loaded black & white, you shot black & white. There was no in-camera re-think of the process, and few monochrome shots were artificially tinted after the fact. Conversely, if you loaded color, you shot color, and conversion to mono was only possible if you, yourself were expert in lab processing or knew someone who was. By contrast, in the digital age, there are a dozen different ways to reconfigure from one tone choice to another in seconds, offering the chance for anyone to produce almost limitless variations on an image while the subject is there is front of them, ripe for re-takes or re-thinks.
None of these new processes solve the ultimate problem of what tonal system works best for a given picture, or when you exercise that choice. However, the present age does place more decision-making power than ever before in the hands of the average photographer. And that makes street photography a dynamic, ever-changing state of mind, not merely an automatic bow to black-and-white tradition.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS BENEFIT FROM SOCIOLOGICAL “PIVOT POINTS“, those unique junctures in time when tectonic plates between eras shift, grind and re-configure. Images, for better or worse, are the way we testify to big changes in our world. They are documents of where one age ends and a new one begins. They illustrate contrasts between then and now.
A change in society is an opportunity for pictures, photos which become obvious, even inevitable, in telling the story of how we evolve. And one of the biggest such changes over the last decade or so has been the re-birthing of the walking neighborhood. Urban cores long given up for dead are being re-vitalized by young people who want close, hands-on engagement with city life.
Whether this shift is a boomerang effect at the end of half a century of suburban flight, an economic remedy to rising housing prices (refurbishing is cheaper than new building), an ingenious way to re-purpose old resources for a greener planet (and get rid of cars), or just a generational restlessness, the old laboratory known as the urban neighborhood is back open for business, with darkened and deserted blocks sprouting new colors, shops, rhythms. Prime picking for photographers, who, first and foremost, go where the stories are.
For me, lateral, wide-angle portraits of businesses is great fun, as I try to channel the “neighborhood in miniature” panels made popular by painter Norman Rockwell during his magazine years. Watching foot traffic flow between laundries and liquor stores, with maybe a pizza joint in between, affords an instant variety of color, signage, reflections, and texture…in other words, lots to work with.
The street is dead. Long live the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALSO THE HISTORY OF A STRANGELY INTIMATE DANCE WITH DEATH, a fascination with its look, its effects, its ability to transform both man and materials, mood and matter. From the first images of combat in the mid-nineteenth century to today’s Instagram chronicles of turmoil and trauma, we have tried to testify about how the world changes when we, or others like us, pass out of existence. The process is a constant rug-of-war between intimacy and publicity, between the glare of public destruction and the privacy of inner oblivion. And the pictures that result are arguments, quarrels with ourselves, which can never truly be settled.
There seems to have been a shift over the past few decades in how we grieve, or at least in the visual vocabulary of that grief that we choose to put on display. The quiet graveside memorials of eras past seems to have been supplanted by increasingly public vigils. We cry our tears in front of each other now, and the creation of instantaneous, group-generated shrines has become a bizarre kind of performance art, as visible as graffiti, and as personal as each man’s ending. Whether it takes the form of mountains of teddy bears stacked around an accident site or candle-lit collages of mementos offering mute testimony from well-meaning strangers, mourning is now something we experience globally, tribally. John Donne’s 1624 sentiment that “every man’s death diminishes me” seems, in the present day, eerily prescient.
I recently drove past an improvised memorial for a deceased high school student. I knew nothing of his life beyond what his friends decided to collect to mark its passing. And so, visually, I was presented with a puzzle. What specific articles can be used to symbolize a life? Conversely, what should be excluded? How does an object that says something for one person presume to speak for he who has been silenced?
I made the shot you see here in as plain and reportorial a fashion as I could, shooting it head-on, in the manner of Walker Evan’s iconic images of signs and posters from the 1930’s. The only interpretive factor here, really, is the light in which I chose to shoot, deciding that sunset would help boost texture in the shot, and, incidentally, serve as a kind of metaphor. Make of that what you will.
Some pictures don’t need people in them to speak loudly for them. Today’s collectively assembled registries of loss are, in themselves, interpretive statements, not unlike paintings, editorials, or eulogies. Acknowledging them in pictures seems less like invasion and more like reportage, since they are clearly designed to be seen, to bear witness. The fact that they are anonymous makes them intriguing. The fact that they are so intensely personal makes them photographically essential.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE WE WERE ABLE TO CAPTURE LIGHT IN A BOX, in the earliest days of photography, there seemed to be a worldwide obsession with recording things before they could vanish. Painters might linger in a wistful sunset over a craggy shoreline, and certainly that was part of the photographer’s prerogative as well, but, immediately following the introduction of the first semi-portable cameras, there was a concurrent surge in the recording of the ancient world…temples, churches, monuments, pyramids, waterfalls, Africa, Asia, empires new and old.
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of world tours available to at least the wealthy, as seen in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s chronicling of a global excursion of Americans to the venerable ports of the old world. Cartes-de-visites (later post cards), stereoscopic views and leather-bound books of armchair photo anthologies sold in the millions, and the first great urban photographers like Eugene Atget began to “preserve” the vanishing elements of their world, from Paris to Athens, for posterity and, quite often, for profit.
This first-generation fever among shooters carried forth through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and into the journalistic coverage of revolutions and disasters seen in the present day. The photographer is aware that this is all going away, and that bearing witness to its disappearance is important. We can’t help but realize that the commonplace is on its way to becoming the rare, and eventually the extinct. We can’t know what things we regard as banal will eventually assume the importance of the contents of the pharaoh’s tombs. Ramses’ everyday toilet items become our priceless treasures. Now, however, instead of sealing up pieces of the world in pyramids, we imprison the light patterns of it, with history alone to judge its value.
Making pictures is taking measure of our world. It is our voice preserved for another time. This is what we looked like. This is what we thought was important. This shows the distance of our journey. New worlds are always crowding out old ones. Photography slows that process so we can see where one curtain comes down and another rises.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, and the other saw stars.–proverb attributed to Dale Carnegie
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ONLY SEVERAL DECADES OLD WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE to chronicle the world’s great comings and goings. The 19th century’s primitive print technology delayed the arrival of news photographs in the popular press for a while, but, once rotogravures and other methods caught up with the camera, the dizzying daily mix of wars, crimes, fancies and foibles that we call news began to be “illustrated” by photos, and we have never looked back since. If photography has a mission in the world, we came to believe, it is to use its unblinking eye to catch humanity in the act of behaving, well, like humanity. That reportorial bent, born in the 1800’s, still places a similar burden, by extension, on all photographers. We are supposed to Reveal The Facts, Get At The Truth, and Bear Witness.
So-called “street photography” has its roots in the works of crusading pioneers like Jacob Riis, the reporter turned photographer whose stark depiction of Manhattan slum life in the book How The Other Half Lives moved fellow reformers like Teddy Roosevelt to take action against that city’s brutal poverty. All these decades later, we place a certain trust in images that show the seamier or harsher side of life. Even those of us who aren’t officially campaigning to make the world a better place click off millions of “real” images of gritty cities, abandoned people, or hopeless conditions. We tend to regard these images as more authentic than the ones we create of things that poetic, or beautiful.
But this is a flawed viewpoint. We can, if we choose, look through the bars and see only the mud. But that doesn’t mean that marveling at the stars is any less important, or that beholding the beautiful is somehow a frivolous or non-serious pursuit. In fact, we need beauty to keep our souls from being crushed and rendering ourselves useless to do anything noble or good. Beauty is a template, a blueprint for the fulfillment of life, and we can’t even measure how far we’ve wandered toward the mud unless we know the distance we are from the stars.
Photography is “for” beauty, just as it is “for” everything else in human experience. We can, and should, be moved by cracked windows and wrecked alleys, to be sure, but it is our knowledge of the lark and the mountain that remind us why ugliness offends us. The fuller we are as humans, the better we are as photographers.
Don’t ignore the mud. That would be stupid. But keep your eyes, both yours and your camera’s, on the stars as well.