By MICHAEL PERKINS
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, MEMORIALS TENDED TO BE FAIRLY STATIC THINGS. A tomb or monument depicting a battle, celebrating a leader, or enshrining a belief was built, and it stood, for as long as time and fortune might allow. After the invention of photography, however, things tended to be not fully finished, especially tributes and honors. We track their context with pictures in real time: over consecutive eras, we document their rise and fall, and that of the societies that produced them.
The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, parked for 80 years at the entrance to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (which T.R.’s family riches helped establish) has, as of this writing, been removed, transferred to what historians hope will be a better teaching context. His mounted figure, flanked by depictions of both Native and African-American men on foot, had been problematic for the museum, passersby, and, indeed the Roosevelt family itself in recent years, given the 26th President’s troubling mix of views on race, eugenics, and colonialism, and so the removal came as little surprise. Now, however, as a consequence of the move, anyone taking a photograph of the work henceforth will be interpreting it through the “lens” of a completely different societal context.
Now you see it, now you won’t: the recently removed Teddy Roosevelt statue, an 80-year fixture at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, as seen by the author in 2012.
When people change, the symbols they value, as well as the images they create of those symbols, change as well. Just as it’s odd now to see the Statue of Liberty’s disembodied torch hand in old photographs, the images makes sense once one realizes that the landmark originally came to American in stages, with the arm on display in Manhattan for a time in a push for funding to complete the memorial. Thus that picture, in its original time frame, makes perfect sense. It’s only that more familiar pictures have replaced that view, rendering its original reality strange.
It’s not for this author to try to climb into the mind of the original creators of the T.R. statue in question: it was a product of its time. Similarly, this image I made of it, from its chosen angle to its processing to the unsettling presence of an enormous red spider(!), is now locked away from all other moments on a single day in 2012. “The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on”. Heroes, from generals to philosophers, are nuanced, complicated. Making pictures of our struggle with that complexity is part of our quest to tell our complete story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHAT DO YOU DO when you’re a quirky bit of modern art and the museum that hosts you has been shuttered for missing the rent? Futher, let’s assume your creator’s homeland regards your “art” as political blasphemy and let’s also stipulate that you are, say, a fifteen-foot-high chromed head of Vladimir Lenin with a tiny baby balanced on its top.
In the words of Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”
Beginning in 2011, expatriot Chinese artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang found a home for their satirical sculpture, Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself At The Top Of Lenin’s Head, in front of Los Angeles’ ACE Museum at 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. Locals and tourists alike soon embraced the weird, much as motorists might grow fond of sites like The Giant Ball Of String or The World’s Crookedest House, worshiping the sheer asinine novelty of the thing over any aesthetic merit. The result? Art meant as provocation landed, instead, with the soft cushiony comfort of fun, an ironic landmark, as in, “to get to my house, take the first left after the Lenin head..”
But here’s the take-away for photographers. Part of our job is to freeze the human drama as it shifts and morphs. That means being particularly sensitive to the things in society that change the quickest, including the fashion waves of the art world. And if serious art falls out of favor quickly, art that is loaded with satire or irony really races to the front of the obsolescence checkout. Weird ain’t forever.
Lenin and Miss Mao found by 2017 that it’s hard to stay a head (sorry) when the ACE Museum was evicted, leaving the work essentially homeless. Zhen and Qiang tried in vain to land the Commie Chromedome a new roost in China, but the Big Red One basically told them to pound sushi (humorless bunch, those socialists). What’s a murderous goateed revolutionary to do?
At this writing (June 2018), the most recent citing of Vlad’s Big Head was at the site of a trucking company near Newberry Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert, property owned by artist Weiming Chen, a friend of the Gao brothers who operates the area as a kind of statuary boneyard for his own works and those of others. A snapshot taken of the head showed Lenin looking characteristically defiant, although absent the lovely Miss Mao. I like to think she’s found peace as the hood ornament for a 1966 Diamond Reo rig highballing down CA-10. Hey, I can dream.
So, I treasure my 2014 snap of the head in situ in L.A. (seen above), back when life was good and fate was kind. Photography is commentary, but often, the top comment that comes to mind is something like “okaaaaay, so that happened..” No matter: it’s always worth a grin, and usually worth a picture.
As with Miss Mao, it’s a balancing act.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PART OF THE EVOLUTION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE is the imparting of new importance to things we have forgotten to see, those everyday objects that line or border our rituals and our daily to-and-froms, but which gradually are rendered invisible because our gaze is focused elsewhere. We fix upon the subway train that we have to catch, but miss the miniature tales buried in brick, steel, rust, entrances and exits. We’ve been down this street a million times, and always pause to peer in the window of, in order, the bakery, the newsstand, the Chinese take-out joint. Across the same street are a dry cleaner, a watch repair shop, and a storefront cathedral. We have never seen them.
Photography involves extracting stories where others see a blank slate, but that means first training ourselves to constantly re-see the things we believe we “know”, only to find that there are stunning revelations mere inches away from those known things. It’s the hardest habit to cultivate, this revealing of new layers in what we assume is the familiar. And yet it’s really the fresh blood that rejuvenates our art when it’s gone anemic.
One trick I try more often than I used to is to pause, after entering a building, to look back at the other side of that entrance…in other words, the view I would see facing me if I were using that entrance as an exit. It’s a very simply thing, but frequently there’s something fresh that presents itself, in something I believed I knew all about.
The above image comes from such an exercise. It’s taken just inside the main entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library, which, as you can see, has a great Art Deco grille of storybook characters over the door. But that’s just as you walk in. Pay equal attention when you’re walking out, and you see a strange bird looming over the entrance (now your exit). But not just any bird. It is, in fact, a rescued statue which once graced the main lobby of the long-departed Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, out of its old context as a symbol of high-flying journalism, but now a reminder of one of the city’s best voices. Best of all, the late afternoon sun projects the silhouettes of the storybook grille onto the eagle and the adjacent wall in an unearthly display of shadow. It’s worth looking back at. Or I could say I am always looking forward to looking back at it.
When looking for something new to photograph, seek out the places in which you’ve seen it all. You’ll never be happier to be proven wrong.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EROSION AND COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN URBAN INFRASTRUCTURES of the 20th century is more than bad policy. It is more than reckless. It is also, to my mind, a sin against hope.
As photographers, we are witness to this horrific betrayal of the best of the human spirit. The pictures that result from this neglect may, indeed, be amazing. But we capture them with a mixture of sadness and rage.
Hope was a rarity in the early days of the Great Depression. Prosperity was not quite, as the experts claimed, “right around the corner.” And yet, a strategy arose, in private and federal project alike, that offered uplift and utility at the same time. People were put to work making things that other people needed. The nation erected parks, monuments, utilities, forests, and travel systems that turned misery to muscle and muscle to miracle. Millionaires used their personal fortunes to create temples of commerce and towers of achievement, hiring more men to turn more shovels. Hope became good business.
One of the gleaming jewels of the era was, and is, the still-amazing Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which, in its decorative murals and reliefs, lionized the working man even as it put bread on his table. The dignity of labor was reflected across the country in everything from newspaper lobbies to post office portals, giving photographers the chance to chronicle both decline and recovery in a country brought only briefly to its knees.
Today, the information desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of NBC studios, still provides a soaring tribute to the iron workers and sandhogs who made it possible for America to again put one foot in front of the other, marching, not crawling, back into the sunlight. It still makes a pretty picture, as can thousands of such surviving works across the country. Photographing them in the current context of priceless inheritance offers a new way to thank the bygone architects of hope.