By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE TRAINED TO REACT QUICKLY, the better to keep crucial moments from perishing unpreserved. We generally teach ourselves to measure, within an instant, what is fleeting and what deserves to be preserved. But there are times when important things actually disappear slowly, over years or decades, giving us a more generous window of time to record their passing. Cities, for example, don’t burst forth, grow, and die with the speed of mayflowers. They fade gradually, shedding their traditions and signature traits in a slow-motion oblivion that allows us to linger a little longer over the proper way for our cameras to say goodbye.
It’s the quotidian, the shared ordinary, in our world that is peeled off with the least notice. The boxy computers that give way to sleek tablets: the percolator that becomes the coffee maker: the paper billboard that morphs into the animated LED: or the movie theatre that changes from elegant palace to stark box to streaming video. All such passages are marked by physical transformations that the photographer’s eye tracks. The ornate gives way to the streamlined, function revising fashion in distinct visual cues.
The grand ticket kiosk seen here, which still graces the 1926 Ohio Theatre in Columbus, is now part of a vanished world: we don’t associate its details with elegance or “class” anymore. We don’t look to dedign elements of the old world to frame the new, as we did in the age of the flapper and the flivver. Images made of these disappearing gateways are poignant to the old and bizarre time machines for the young.
Most importantly, images are records. Once the familiar becomes the antique, our own memories suffer dropouts, missing bits of visual data that the camera can retrieve. Thus the making a picture is more than mere memory…it’s the logging of legacy as well.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S PRINCIPLE BENEFIT IS THE STEALING AND PRESERVATION OF THE FLEETING. That was the miracle that originally astonished the world, the ability to arrest time, to selectively snatch away droplets of the infinitely flowing river of moments and keep them in a jar. And as the young art flourished and began to flex, it proved capable of not only grabbing individual instants, but chronicling the passing of entire modes of life.
As the prairie was settled, as the great distances of the planet were traversed and tamed, as the horse gave way to the car, and as the country mouse became the city mouse, photography laid down mile markers, clearly labeled “this is”, “this is going away” and “this was”. As a consequence, we now have a visual record of worlds and ways of living that have already long since gone extinct. We rifle through shared and inherited images that mark the passing of empires, fashions, movements.
This is all, of course, beyond obvious, but there are times when photographers are more keenly mindful that something big is in the process of winking out. I experienced such a moment a few days ago with the news that Ringling Brothers’ circus was shuttering its operations after more than 150 years, ringing down the curtain on a mixed record of extravaganza and exploitation, depending on where you stand on the issue. Whether circuses were a wonder or an abomination or both, they represented a distinctly analog kind of entertainment, a direct tie between sensations and senses that is one of the last traces of 19th-century culture.
Along with world’s fairs, carnivals, vaudeville, even rodeo, the circus serves as a strange relic of a time when the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon or the pitching of the Chautauqua tent could be the height of the social season in many a town. The visually rich pageant of having dozens of clowns, acrobats, and performing beasts parade right down your main street was, in the days before mass media, pretty heady stuff, and, even at its twilight, it still has a powerful, if quaint, pull on the imagination. All of this is fertile ground for the photographer/chronicler.
It’s now fifty years since John Lennon transcribed the text from an old circus poster to evoke a vanished era with the song Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite, overdubbing the music track with a montage of calliopes and hurdy-gurdys to paint a very visual piece of audio. To this day, I can’t hear the tune without concocting my own mental photo of prancing ponies and carnival barkers. Mr. Kite may already be retiring to his dressing room, as are so many analog forms of entertainment. But we have the pictures. Or we need to start making them.
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
IN RAY BRADBURY’S WONDERFUL ONE-ACT PLAY, TO THE CHICAGO ABYSS, an old man equipped with a near-photographic memory makes both friends and enemies because he remembers so much of a world vanished in the aftermath of global war. His talent lies not merely in being able to conjure the world of large things….cathedrals, cars, countries, but of the micro-minutia of a life, a realm filled with the colors of cigarette packages, what compressed air sounded like hissing out of a newly opened can of coffee, the names of candy bars. The play reminds us that it is the million little pieces, the uncountable props of daily living, that matter…..especially when they are no more.
Professions and services offer the photographer the chance to preserve entire miniature worlds for the viewer, worlds which are in the constant process of sunsetting, of transitioning from “is” to “was”. Shops where we used to get our watches repaired. Bookstores that are now furniture warehouses. Home where those people we knew, oh, you know their names, used to live. Was it on the corner? Or over there?
Even when long-familiar things survive in some form, they are not quite as we knew them. Does anyone still get their shoes re-soled? Was there ever a time when “salons” were just “barber shops”? Was it, long ago, some kind of luxury to weigh yourself for a penny in the bus station? Photos of these daily rituals take on even greater import as time re-contexualizes our lives, shuffling our position in the cosmic deck. Decades hence, we almost need visible evidence that we ever lived this way, ever dressed like that.
I love shooting businesses that should not be around, but are, places that should have already been scrubbed from day-to-day experience, but stubbornly linger around the edges. Images taken of these places argue strongly that not all forward motion is progress, that the familiar and the comfortable are also little pieces of our identity. In the words of the old song, there used to be ballpark right here.
Here, I have a picture of it…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR GRADE SCHOOL HISTORY CLASSES DRUMMED CERTAIN NAMES INTO OUR HEADS AS THE “EXCLUSIVE” CREATORS of many of the wonders of the modern age. We can still bark back many of those names without any prompting, saluting the Edisons, Bells, and Fords of the early part of the 20th century and the Jobses and Gateses of its final years. However, as we grew older, we realized that the births of many of our favorite geegaws (television, for example) can’t be traced to a single auteur. And when it comes to photography, their are too many fathers and mothers in all ends of the medium to even enumerate.
Several tinkerer-wizards do deserve singling out, however, especially when it comes to the mindset that all of us in the present era share that photography ought to be immediate and easy. And, in a very real way, both of these luxuries were born in the mind of a single man, Dean Peterson, who presided over half a dozen revolutions in the technology of picture making, most of his own creation. As an engineer at Eastman Kodak in the early ’60’s, Dean created and developed the Instamatic camera, and, in so doing, changed the world’s attitude toward photography in a way every bit as dramatic as George Eastman’s introduction of cheap roll film in the late 1800’s. Peterson’s new wrinkle: get rid of the roll.
Or, more precisely, get rid of loose film’s imprecise process for being loaded into the camera, which frequently ruined either single exposures or entire rolls, depending on one’s fumble-fingered luck. Peterson’s answer was a self-contained drop-in cartridge, pre-loaded with film and sealed against light. Once inside the camera, it was the cartridge itself that largely advanced the film, eliminating unwanted double-exposures and making the engineering cost of the host camera body remarkably cheap. Peterson followed Eastman’s idea of a fixed-focus camera with a pre-set exposure designed for daylight film, and added a small module to fire a single flashbulb with the help of an internal battery. Follow-up models of the Instamatic would move to flashcubes, an internal flash that could operate without bulbs or batteries, a more streamlined “pocket Instamatic” body, and even an upgrade edition that would accept external lenses.
With sales of over 70 million units within ten years, the Instamatic created Kodak’s second golden age of market supremacy. As for Dean Peterson, he was just warming up. His second-generation insta-cameras, developed at Honeywell in the early ’70’s, incorporated auto-focus, off-the-film metering, auto-advance and built-in electronic flash into the world’s first higher-end point-and-shoots. His later work also included the invention of a 3d film camera for Nimslo, high-speed video units for Kodak, and, just before his death in 2004, early mechanical systems that later contributed to tablet computer design.
Along the way, Peterson made multiple millions for Kodak by amping up the worldwide numbers of amateur photographers, even as he slashed the costs of manufacturing, thereby maximizing the profit in his inventions. As with most forward leaps in photographic development, Dean Peterson’s work eliminated barriers to picture-taking, and when that is accomplished, the number of shooters and the sheer volume of their output rockets ahead the world over. George Eastman’s legendary boast that “you press the button and we do the rest” continues to resonate through our smartphones and iPads, because Dean Peterson, back in 1963, thought, what the heck, it ought to be simpler to load a camera.
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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LAST SUNDAY EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FOR 2012 features its annual review of the year’s most essential news images, a parade of glory, challenge, misery and deliverance that in some ways shows all the colors of the human struggle. Plenty of material to choose from, given the planet’s proud display of fury in Hurricane Sandy, the full scope of evil on display in Syria, and the mad marathon of American politics in an electoral year. But photography is only half about recording, or framing, history. The other half of the equation is always about creating worlds as well as commenting on them, on generating something true that doesn’t originate in a battlefield or legislative chamber. That deserves a year-end tribute of its own, and we all have images in our own files that fulfill the other 50% of photography’s promise.
This year, for example, we saw a certain soulfulness, even artistry, breathed into Instagram and, by extension, all mobile app imaging. Time ran a front cover image of Sandy’s ravages taken from a pool of Instagramers, in what was both a great reportorial photo and an interpretive shot whose impact goes far beyond the limits of a news event. Time and again this year, I saw still lifes, candids, whimsical dreams and general wonderments of the most personal type flooding the social media with shots that, suddenly, weren’t just snaps of the sandwich you had for lunch today saturated with fun filters. It was a very strong year for something personal, for the generation of complete other worlds within a frame.
I love broad vistas and sweeping visual themes so much that I have to struggle constantly to re-anchor myself to smaller things, closer things, things that aren’t just scenic postcards on steroids, although that will always be a strong draw for me. Perhaps you have experienced the same pull on yourself…that feeling that, whatever you are shooting, you need to remember to also shoot…..something else. It is that reminder that, in addition to recording, we are also re-ordering our spaces, assembling a custom selection of visual elements within the frame. Our vision. Our version. Our “other 50%.”
My wife and I crammed an unusual amount of travel into 2012, providing me with no dearth of “big game” to capture…from bridges and skyscrapers to the breathlessly vast arrays of nature. But always I need to snap back to center….to learn to address the beauty of detail, the allure of little composed universes. Those are the images I agonize over the most at years’ end, as if I am poring over thumbnails to see a little piece of myself , not just in the mountains and broad vistas, but also in the grains of sand, the drops of dew, the minutes within the hours.
Year-end reviews are, truly, about the big stories. But in photography, we are uniquely able to tell the little ones as well. And how well we tell them is how well we mark that we were here, not just as observers, but as participants.
It’s not so much how well you play the game, but that you play.
Happy New Year, and many thanks for your attention, commentary, and courtesy in 2012.
- 10 social mobile photography trends for 2013 (davidsmcnamara.typepad.com)
- Old-Timer Joins Instagram, Schools Everyone With Poignant Flood Photos (wired.com)