GENUINE FAKE REVEAL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THUMBING THROUGH THE PORTFOLIOS OF THE CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD PORTRAITISTS, we marvel at the combination of art and science that created not just images of the famous but delicate, artificial constructs, visual myths of lower-case gods and goddesses that held far more allure than mere snapshots. We look at these pictures now and see them for the sly marketing they were, as we were taught to value the idea of a face more than the face itself.
Today, the average photographer has tools at his command that rival those of the old masters of airbrush and studio lighting, allowing us to mold our own smiles as deftly as George Hurrell sculpted the cheekbones of Joan Crawford or placed a twinkle in a corner of Myrna Loy’s eyes. The enormous surge in self-portraiture in the digital age has grown up side-by-side with these instant-fix tools, to the point that we are seldom presenting ourselves to the world “in the raw”, but, instead are troweling layers of post-shuttersnap glop onto ourselves in a desperate attempt to, if you will, create a legend. The legend of us as we’d like to be.
Getting the children of the iPhone age to agree to having their picture made without their direct participation in the endless preening and retouching process that comes after is a major effort. We all trust our own “vision” of what we look like and reject the original idea of portraiture, which is for the artists to make an outside observation and share out that interpretation with others. The photographer is not supposed to be a mere assistant to our own vanities, however well-justified, but an objective second opinion. He or she may produce something with which we disagree, but the beauty of art is that, as a personal statement, it can’t be invalidated as being false merely because we don’t see things the same way: art merely is.
It’s understandably impossible to create a completely honest self-portrait. We simply can’t bear the unvarnished, brutal truth of it. But that doesn’t mean someone else’s vision of our face is inaccurate or wrong in some way. Like the Hollywood giants of old, we naturally would like some publicity department to shape us until we’re perfect . But maybe, in being honest, we become more so than we ever dreamed.
STRIKE A POSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS GENERALLY ABOUT CAPTURING PEOPLE in their most natural element, freezing the more narratively interesting samples from their daily activity. In theory, the format really offers a fairly infinite number of quick examinations of virtually every trait and pursuit, promising a lot of visual variety in the depiction of the human condition. However, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing number of pictures of people on the street seem to be about more and more of the same thing: fixating on our phones.
You must have noticed by now that random images of people on the street are, in more cases than ever before, pictures of them watching screens. Texting. Tweeting. Dialing. Reading. In a world in which we do more of our private business out in public, our engagement has gone further and further inward, ever more insular, isolated. This is not a critique of the value of these precious devices, or a wish that they somehow be magically uninvented. My point is that their ubiquitous use presents fewer opportunities for exploration of human behavior by the street photographer, since, even though our phones are holding us spellbound, the way we look when we’re on them is, well, boring.
This 21st-century “look” is a strange sort of update of the facial aspect of photography’s first era in the 1800’s. In a time when exposures took a long time and people were just beginning to formulate their relationship to this invasive eye known as a camera, people tended to look frozen, solemn, as if they were only reluctantly granting admittance to the blasted thing. They stood at attention, staring blankly, their faces a cipher. Later on, we learned to love the camera, to mug and model and talk to it, a habit that still shapes our candids at intimate moments or the tidal wave of selfies we create.
On the street, however, that is to say, on our way to something else (all our various something elses), we are facially as lifeless as a Victorian-era farmer posing for his first daguerreotype. Thus the man in this image, already physically alone by virtue of the space he occupies, is doubly isolated by his further act of pulling away into his phone. A key part of him, a part that has always been a basic element of street shooting, is simply not available.
Does this trend alarm you? Do you find yourself approaching street work in a fundamentally different way because of it? Or is the job of a photo-observer to merely record what he sees, or in many more cases, what he sees being withheld?
A PRIVATE KIND OF TESTIMONY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
What moves me about what’s called “technique”…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.” – Diane Arbus
ONE EVERLASTING ARGUMENT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY centers on whether there is any such thing as a “pure” picture…..that is, an image which is merely the recording of reality without the slightest hint of intervention by the photographer. I believe that, in making pictures, we convince ourselves that we have only made a “document” of life, that our own thumbs don’t touch the scale in favor of any kind of bias. But I also believe that, no matter what we tell ourselves about the process, it is impossible for us to retreat to the mere act of punching the shutter button, since even that simple motion has some level of choice inherent in it. The objectivity we believe that we practice is largely an illusion: the impact of our photographs is in direct proportion to just how much we do interfere.
So if just punching the button is at one end of the interference spectrum, then self-portraiture, the age’s dominant obsession, is clear over at the other extreme. In trying to take our own picture, we do nothing but interfere. And stage. And shape. And edit. And perform. Most of this very hands-on approach to immortalizing ourselves is a matter of mere human vanity. We want to come off well. Is my hair all right? Do I look pleasant? Does this make me look too fat/serious/lonely/decisive? In the largely theatrical sphere of selfies, the massage is really the medium.
But, just because we’ve tried to frame our truth in the most sympathetic light doesn’t mean our self-portraits are automatically untrustworthy. In some very real way, we are trying to reveal something about ourselves that no one else has seen, or in Arbus’ words, to show “very deep choices” we have made “that take a long time” and keep “haunting” us. One of the most personal things about what I call our current Great Hibernation is the care or worry that’s etched on our faces in our unguarded moments, those minutes when we’re not sending along recipes and cheery memes on Facebook, or taking online classes, or catching up on our reading. There are real photographs to be made of the anguish and uncertainty we’re all experiencing, even if they can’t be taken in real time. The self-portrait you see here admittedly involves some acting, as it’s a purposeful re-creation of emotions once truly experienced in full, albeit in isolation. As a consequence, I stipulate that the result is imperfect, even though it may still be “true”. My thought process actually proceeds from an experiment in which, after making this picture, I’d show it to others and ask, “does this look like what you’re feeling right now?” In turn, the responses I got made me wonder if I should ever confess that I was the photographer as well as the subject, since I was afraid that such as admission would, for some, render the picture void, since, after all, aren’t we the worst judge of how we look, or should look, in an image?
But what if we’re not? What if our own knowledge of ourselves is so unique that we are, indeed, qualified to say to the world, I know this isn’t a true “candid”, but so what? Yes, it’s true that, in this photo, I wasn’t “caught unawares”. What you see here is a re-creation of how I felt, and will again feel. Still, who is around in my otherwise quiet house to tell this tale more effectively? Am I disqualified because I am trying to make art out of my own life? Diane Arbus also said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. Perhaps the most important pictures we can make, to plumb our own secrets, is to try to map our anxieties…in the moment, if we can, but as faithfully as we can after the fact, even when they’re re-constructed from memory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE MANY INSTANCES IN WHICH IT’S HEALTHY TO HAVE A LITTLE HUMILITY, and the biggest one probably is in the decision to depict a human face. It’s the most frequently performed operation in all of photography, and many of us only approach perfection in it a handful of times, if ever. The face is the essence of mystery, and learning how to draw the curtain away from it is the essence of mastery.
Nothing else that we will shoot fights so hard to maintain its inscrutability. It is easier to accurately photograph the microbes that swarm in a drop of water than to penetrate the masks that we manufacture. Even the best portrait artists might never show all of what their subject’s soul really looks like, but sometimes we can catch a fleeting glimpse, and getting even that little peek is enough to keep you behind a camera for a lifetime. It is everything.
Yousuf Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man and woman. a secret is hidden, and, as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” Sounds so simple, and yet decades can go into learning the difference between recording a face and rendering its truths. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to photograph people who are strangers to us. How can that ever happen? Other times I fear that it’s beyond our power to create images of those we know the most intimately. How can we show all?
The human face is a document, a lie, a cipher, a self-created monument, an x-ray. It is the armor we put on in order to do battle with the world. It is the entreaty, the bargain, the arrangement with which we engage with each other. It is a time machine, a testimony, a faith. Photographers need their most exacting wisdom, their most profound knowledge of life, to attempt The Reveal. For many of us, it will always remain that….an attempt. For a fortunate few, there is the chance to freeze something eternal, the chance to certify humanity for everyone else.
Quite a privilege.
Quite a duty.