Nothing is revealed.—-Bob Dylan
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE YOUNG MAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH IS A DANDY. A FOP. A DUDE. A slave to fashion. A symbol of the impossibly proper British spirit. A remnant of the Edwardian age, teetering on the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a decade that will later seem uniquely American. But he is not an American. Not yet.
But he has dreams.
It is around 1920.
And he is my grandfather.
The photograph is formal, a studio portrait with someone else’s furniture and carpet suppled as homey props. His gaze is intense…too serious for a young man, some might think. And yet, of course, he will need all the determination that gaze implies to book passage, very soon, on the ship Mauritania (the Lusitania’s sister ship) and enter New York City through the thresher of Ellis Island, taking a train into the great midwest, to Lorraine, Ohio, where an uncle has vouched for his industry and loyalty. He will stay in his new country for the rest of his natural life.
The picture has come to me unexpectedly, just as you see it here, from a lost trove of family lore that my sister has kept for years, finally deciding that, with my archivist’s inclinations, I “might want to do something with it.” I have never seen this image over the course of my 67 years. And, yet, seeing it, I am struck by the strange double impact of photographs, these windows into “was” that reveal and conceal equally. It is, certainly, a treat to see my grandfather as this determined young man, to place him in the context of everything else that his life would hold afterwards. But the image is also absent nearly any context of its own. The back shows it to have been printed by a British postcard company, but the message portion of the card is gone, leaving several mysteries. Who was the intended recipient? If family, was the card to serve as a forever reminder of the boy who was just about to cross the Atlantic, never to return? And, if friend, what story is left untold between he and whoever? The card is inscribed with the word “effectionately” and his full name, not merely “Leonard”. Why the formality? Is it a clue to the relationship, or just the starchy propriety which we would later know to be his hallmark?
And then there is the outfit. “Fancy” is the word that comes to mind, with its formal bowler and short leather gloves. But therein lies a case of coloring the past with the sense of the present: in the age of torn cutoffs, flip-flops and selfies, we have lost all sense of what it was, around 1920, to “have one’s portrait made”. Certainly it was a rarer thing, an occasion. Even at the dawn of the Kodak-inspired age of candid photography, many millions of people around the world were still going to their mortal reward with their faces recorded but a few scant times by a camera, and many not at all. And now, to see this picture rise out of the mist, to show Grandfather as a real person with no connection (by that time) to anyone or anything else I have inherited as family legend, is to be teased by the fact that photographic interpretation does not cease with the shooter’s intention, of the way he chooses to show a thing. It continues infinitely through the eyes of other interpreters, who take the photographer’s “reality” and subject it to a scrutiny all their own. Revelation. Concealment. Discovery. Mystery.
He seems to be trying to appear older, just, as later, he would use clothing (always the top-drawer stuff) to appear military, dignified, taller, and, always, serious. I realize now that I never saw a truly candid photo of him, regardless of the occasion or setting. Every photo was a performance, a record, a testament. Leonard George Tate Perkins is a force to be reckoned with. I am nobody’s fool. Respect must be paid.
I am now paying that respect in a new way, forty years past his death, by looking into the face of that stern young dandy, and into the open secret that all photographs hold.
Think you see the truth?
Not so fast.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“Ooh, nice. Looks just like a post card!”—98% of everyone who looks at your pictures
MUCH AS I WOULD LOVE TO BE SEEN AS A “SERIOUS” PHOTOGRAPHER (whatever that means), I am, basically, always seeking beauty and some way to freeze it in time.
Come to think of it, that seems pretty “serious” too, although there are schools of thought that seem to profess that making pretty pictures is somehow as insubstantial as crocheting tea cozies or writing haikus about clouds.
My visual sense actually developed along two fairly exclusive tracks. There was the reportorial photography of Life, which reliably came to our house each week chock full of amazing portraiture, riveting war coverage and contentious social issues. That’s the “serious” track. And then there was my early and abiding love for the travel destinations in the illuminated Kodachrome of my View-Master reels, stunning forays into color crafted mostly by unknown shooters working for scale, many of whom sold the company’s “scenic” packets to photo dealers for their real paychecks. These eye-popping tours of France, The Grand Canyon, New York City, and the Holy Land held me spellbound in a way none of VM’s kiddie titles could. Their beauty was their justification. They deserved to be, just because they were a celebration of symmetry, shape, scale, mystery, history.
Since my childhood I have seemed to toggle between taking pictures that “matter” (another meaningless distinction) and images that merely delight me because I was able to grab a sliver of something larger than myself, a souvenir that I myself helped create. And, much as I hate the generic and dismissive “looks like a post card” remark I often get on some kinds of photos, it is the iconic view of the iconic object that I consciously go for, attempting to put my own stamp on something even as I realize that creating the image is way above my pay grade or skill set.
There are times to be a reporter, and there are times to gawk and gape in awe. Anytime I have any chance to be anywhere near the Monterey Peninsula, I vault onto the plane like a ’49-er who heard they just found gold at Sutter’s Mill. The stunning mix of coastal terrain, local botany and color that floods the eye at every turn in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel blows me right out of “documentary” mode and makes my romantic heart beat faster.
I am going postal, as in postal card. I want the ooh-ahh moment. Later on, I’ll get back to shooting urban decay and despair. Right now, we’re making the ultimate View-Master reel.
“Seven More Wonders Of The World!” So ran the wording on the paper envelopes that held those little 3-d wheels.
Seven more wonders.
That’s all I need.