By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE 1985 DISCOVERY OF THE WRECK OF THE TITANIC by Robert Ballard tested the talents of experts from as wide a range of specialities as the objects found in the doomed ship’s debris field. Some of the things found on the floor of the Atlantic were readily identifiable to the casual observer: chandeliers: cases of wine bottles: chairs. Cataloging others required the trained eyes of cultural historians, people versed in the daily world of 1912. The everyday becomes the exotic in very short order in the modern world. And one of the tasks for photographers is having these quotidian objects sit for their portraits before they pass, swept along in an ever-accelerating tide of change.
You read about stunts in which common bits of household clutter from just a few decades ago are shown to millennials or teens, many of whom puzzle over what the object did, or was for. To be sure, going all the way back to, say, a rotary dial telephone could confound more than a few of us, but in these demonstrations, some young people have been stumped by iPods. Part of what brings a thing to the commercial market is the style it takes to catch the customer’s eye. If that typically fleeting style proves consistent with the object’s function, the thing may survive long enough to be a classic. Other such gizmos are transitional, the things given to us “on the way” to something more essential.
The recent Grand Hibernation we’re all under has made photographers reassess lots of things. What’s a fitting thing to make a picture of? What among our tools is still vital to our art, versus mere collected clutter? And, in the inevitable house-cleaning sparked by all this surplus time, what’s to be done with all the things we no longer use but for which we might harbor some residual affection? Should we mark their passing with a photograph? Should we create a “deleted” catalog of some kind? Is there anything to be gained or taught by doing so?
My favorite photographs often turn out to be the very ones I wondered the most about…that is, arguing with myself about whether they should be made at all. In the case of the Sony D-2 “Discman” you see here (circa 1988), I can’t say it was the first such device ever made for the purpose of making compact discs a portable and private habit, but it certainly influenced my own decision to turn away from vinyl (“heresy” I hear you hipsters hissing), and that, in turn, changed utterly the kind of music consumer I would become going forward. For some, the earlier, cassette-based “Walkman” was that moment. I just never embraced taped formats for a variety of reasons.
So this image represents a point at which I went from a rotary phone to a push-button? Craft your own analogy, and find the objects that, before they vanished, served as pivot points in your own life. Throw them out or tenderly tuck them back into storage for another day. But look at a few of them with a photographer’s eye. You may be far enough removed from them to see something new.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
REFLECTION TAKES A KIND OF MENTAL TALENT. Others would say that it takes humility. Or wisdom.
But mostly, it takes time.
Looking back is not a speedy process. First, it helps for us to personally advance to the point where certain things are in the past, since the distancing of ourselves from the immediacy of events invites and facilitates our thoughtful analysis of them. Perspective requires distance, a way to separate ourselves from the blindness of our immediate environment. The questions then become obvious: what did all that stuff mean? Which parts of it can I learn from? Does it all deserve to go away?
The process of reflection in photography also waits, if you will, for enough time to pass, allowing the artist to re-evaluate things, to take a second crack at trying to understand them. Once an experience floats far enough away from us, we are free to either appreciate it anew or merely release it as less than essential. The dear departed, once we get far enough away from them, become open to interpretation by many means, the camera among them. Everyday objects can tend to be invisible, because we mainly see only their use. With time, we can often re-visit them, seeing new elements in their design, the context of why they were important in the first place, or other considerations.
Think Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.
By forcing a conversation about a seemingly banal object, forcing it into “serious” art galleries as an important thing, Warhol made us look at why we consume things, as well as what we would, going forward, consider “art”. Lately, in the age of the Great Hibernation, many photographers are picking through the accumulated stuff of their immediate environment, looking for something from which to craft images. In so doing, we’ll inevitably stumble across things we have forgotten, or simply don’t consider anymore on an everyday basis. Some of these objects have only recently drifted out of the flood of impressions that make up our daily world, like the cassette seen here. How could anything have been more ubiquitous at the height of its popularity? What could be anymore superfluous than it is now? And yet…
Using the camera and our increasing distance from familiar things can free those things from their popular associations. They can become our soup can, sparking some interesting questions. Why did we use this thing? Why did it not last? And now that it is, truly, just a thing, what can we learn about ourselves by looking at it from a new direction? This is not as ridiculous a rainy-day project as it seems. We still visit places whose famous sites are so over-photographed that we have to labor to say anything new about them, to, in effect, make the Eiffel tower our Eiffel tower. The whole idea of re-visualizing dear, recently departed is really part of the same exercise, done one cassette at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Reports Of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PRONOUNCING NEW YORK CITY DEAD since the Dutch first tried to turn the place into a satellite business enterprise and the locals decided, in reverse Cinderella fashion, that those wooden shoes weren’t really a good fit for their feet. In fact, The City That Never Sleeps is kind of like a cat on steroids, endowed with not merely nine but a seemingly infinite number of separate lives, each one built on the ashes of the one that preceded it. Something in New York is always under threat, soon to open on this site, not as good as it used to be, and something that no one’s ever seen before, all at the same time. It is a chorus that, to outsiders, can sound like a cacophony. The locals hear music in the crashing of the garbage cans. To those who don’t get it, the reaction to what Manhattan regards as Business As Usual is often some variation on Oh My God How Can You Live Like This.
It’s no wonder that the camera, any camera at any time, can’t look away.
After all, you blink….you might miss something.
At this writing, March of 2020, the city is curled up into a ball, bracing itself for an impending impact that no one knows how to estimate or pre-measure. By any reasonable guess, the meteor, when it hits, will hurt big, and for a long time. And so I don’t propose a mere “pick yourself up” attitude or cheery bravado as the country looks down the barrel of this cannon. But I also believe that, like Twain’s death, any bets that are taken against New York’s survival will be ill-advised. I am not a native, but over a lifetime, I have spent enough time in New York streets to know that this brash kid is here to stay. You can smash airplanes into our neighborhoods. So what else you got? You can tear up the streets, close our favorite bar, church, or theatre, swaddle the whole place in economic depression, and even flood the subway. Is that your best shot? This isn’t empty bluster: it’s demonstrated fact. Yeah, sure, we’ll dim the lights on Broadway from time to time, but, hey, there’s a new sushi joint opening in Soho next week, y’know?
The proof of what I’m saying is in the photographic record, in the visual poetry of all the Berenice Abbotts and Walker Evanses and Alfred Eisenstadts and Robert Frankses and Diane Arbuses and too many other testimonial eyes to count. If you’ve got a little spare time these days, check out a few. There are even a few occasionally lucky entries from yours truly. And while everyone else in the world has an opinion, good or bad, with or without a camer, about New York, only one vote really counts.
And that’s theirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS OFTEN FIND THAT SOME SUBJECTS HAVE A DISTINCT VISUAL SIGNATURE. That is to say, they instantly convey precisely what they are. The word iconic means something that stands as the defining symbol for its class and and category, signaling us in a moment exactly what we’re looking at. In architecture, some structures are, in a way, self-explanatory, and cannot be confused with anything else. Thus churches tend to look like churches, palaces kinda always look like palaces, and, for purveyors of twentieth-century pop culture, diners look, unmistakably, like diners. They bespeak informality, convenience, comfort, and, if luck holds, good eats. They also communicate immediate context and poignant memory for the camera.
Diners first appeared on the national scene in the 1920’s as horse-drawn wagons with food, then stretched out to resemble railroad dining cars clad in gleaming Art Deco chrome, all rounded corners, streamlined stainless steel, and mirrors. Lots of mirrors, like the ones in the ceilings, which allowed counter waitresses to quickly ascertain which booth needed a coffee refill. The eateries peaked just after World War II, when casual dining had become a national habit, the joints were finally attracting as many women as male laborers, and diner ownership served, for a time, as an affordable first business move for returning vets.
While most eating establishments are built like any other other structure, that is, on-site, working from a framework which is then layered over with different levels of support or decor, the classic American diner of the 20’s through the 50’s was produced modularly, much like an automobile. Indeed, the closest relative to the diner might be the Airsteam trailer, an edifice built as a single unit in a factory and shipped to its final destination. Over the half-century or so that diners dotted the national map, companies like Silk City, Kullman and Fodero manufactured compact, curvilinear eateries that were trucked, fully equipped inside and out, to their initial locations ready for business. Such was the origin of the diner you see in the above image (a Fordero diner…shout-out to New Jersey), which began its life near the Gibsonia exit of the Pittsburgh portion of the Pennsylvania turnpike. As the place was situated only seven miles from the neoghboring town of Mars, Pa., the diner’s owners decided to maintain the planetary theme, naming their joint the Venus.
Half a century later, another alignment of cosmic forces began to ready the Venus for a second life. Just as it was pouring its last cups o’ joe, the owners of a tony Minneapolis decor boutique called Modern Forage Workshop were getting pretty tired of the wretched view out their store window, which looked across the street to a dilapidated Taco Bell fronted by a seedy vacant lot. Mike Smith and James Brown almost simultaneously hit on the idea of obtaining a classic diner for the spot, but where to get one? Diner manufacturers were a speciality even back in the day, making their restoration even more of a niche skill in the twenty-first century. Smith and Brown sniffed about and unearthed Steve Harwin, a Cleveland tinkerer who had begun his career refurbishing high-end sports cars, then switched specialities when his European pals told him that diners were “the coolest things in America”.
Shipped to Harwin via flatbed truck and police escort (wiiiiiide load), the Venus was cleaned, sanded and primped for a second cross-country trek to the Twin Cities. As in the past, the local landscape determined the place’s new monicker, which celebrated the regentrification of both the HIawatha and LOngfellow neighborhoods to be christened the Hi-Lo, opening to rave reviews in 2016 and even opening a kitschy tiki patio around the side in 2018. Recently, my wife Marian and I caught a glimpse of the old girl out the car window en route to St. Paul and decided to circle back for a better look. One very intense plate of corned beef hash later, I betook myself to the opposite side of the street for the same vantage point that Smith and Brown once disdained, later celebrated. It goes without saying that the view is a helluva lot better these days.
And the coffee ain’t bad either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONCE LINDA EASTMAN BECAME LINDA McCARTNEY, the world ignorantly chose to define her as rock’n’roll arm candy basking in the reflected sun of her globally famous husband. In fact, however, by the time she chose to rock a family, she had already created a self that would outlast her role as a reluctant musician and perennial target of every wise-ass disk jockey from London to New York. She did it with a remarkable, natural eye for composition and the untrained instinct to know where to click, and when. While her bandmates wielded electric axes to give voice to their muses, Linda wailed with a Hasselblad.
By the time she became a Mrs. Beatle, Linda had already become the first great photographer in rock history, pioneering an intimate, direct style that humanized its bright lights and consigned the formal portraits of the record label’s in-house shooters to the dustbin. It is work that, finally, in recent years, has been allowed to glow as the star trove that it is, eclipsing her much-derided designations as Yoko With A Tambourine, A Pig With Wings, or whatever other lame tag the hacks in the rock press felt like hanging on her. Recent showings of her work in America, Europe, even South Korea continue to celebrate her instinctual knack for showing the human inside the star. And none of it was by the book.
She didn’t ignore the rules; she simply didn’t know they existed. She never had a formal studio, shopping for backgrounds and locales on the fly. She never used flash, ever, believing that it was bulky and off-putting. She attended exactly one class on photography, was told she had talent, and never went back for lesson two. She gave away original negatives of her top shots to friends, finding herself with nothing to sell to publishers except the “shoves”, lesser takes which, somehow, were still better than what everyone else was doing with this crazy longhair music.
What kind of photographer was this? Linda never posed people, forgot to re-calculate the ASA (ISO) settings when switching from color to black and white, sent the magazines blurred concert shots. And despite her never joining the ranks of the camera-ly cultured, the true souls of the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Yardbirds, Jimi, Janis, Dylan, and, most notably, the Beatles shone forth in her grainy frames. Linda Eastman McCartney captured the dawning genius in them all, before the crank-up of the hype machines, before the twilight of the vultures, before rock careened from the summer of love to the winter of our discontent.
After Paul, the images were family candids, and yet the vision shone forth, most famously in her shot of baby Mary peeking out of her Beatle daddy’s jacket on a morning stroll, the rear-cover photo for the McCartney album in 1970. From that point on, the farm and the fam were everything, the road and the tour bus, not so much. She chose to settle for being Mrs. Paul, the girl who couldn’t sing but who hitched a ride on one of the biggest pop rockets of the ’70s. Decades later, what her eye saw way back then seems inevitable, her work the official chronicle of so many moments that mattered. Linda left us in 1998, but she left us that eye. It is a smiling eye, an innocent one, and one which was magnificently focused on the stuff of dreams.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE EARLY 1950’s, AS TELEVISION FIRST BLINKED INTO LIFE ACROSS AMERICA, storytelling in film began to divide into two very clearly defined camps. In theatres, desperate to retain some of the rats who were deserting their sinking ships to bathe in cathode rays at home, movie studios went for stories that were too big to be contained by the little screen, and almost too big for theatres. You remember the wider-than-thou days of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-Ao, Cinerama and Super-Panavision, as well as the red-green cardboard glasses of 3-D’s first big surge, and the eye-poking wonders of House Of Wax, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Bwana Devil. Theatres were Smell-O-Vision, True Stereophonic Reproduction and bright choruses of Let’s Go Out To The Lobby sung by dancing hot dogs and gaily tripping soda cups. Theatres was Big.
The other stories, the TV stories, were small, intimate, personal, compact enough to cram into our 9-inch Philcos. Tight two-shots of actors’ heads and cardboard sets in live studios. It was Playhouse 90 and Sylvania Theatre and The Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Minus the 3,000 Roman extras and chariot races, we got Marty, Requiem For A Heavyweight, and On The Waterfront. Little stories of “nobodies” with big impact. Life, zoomed in.
For photographers, pro or no, many stories can be told either in wide-angle or tight shot. Overall effect or personal impact. You can write your own book on whether the entire building ablaze is more compelling than the little girl on the sidewalk hoping her dog got out all right. Immense loads of dead trees have been expended to explore, in print, where the framing should happen in a story to produce shock, awe or a quick smile. I like to shoot everything every way I can think of, especially if the event readily presents more than one angle to me.
The release of the new iPhone 6, which dropped worldwide today, is a big story, of course, but it consists of a lot of little ones strung together. Walk the line of the faithful waiting to show their golden Wonka ticket to gain admission to the Church of Steve and you see a cross-section of humankind represented in the ranks. Big things do that to us; rallies, riots, parties, flashmobs, funerals….the big story happens once a lot of little stories cluster in to comprise it.
Simply pick the story you like.
Remember, just like the phone, they come in two sizes.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee.
Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…
Truck Driver: I like your sugar.
They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940
AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.
Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.
I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.
Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.
Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.