“Something’s going to happen. Something….wonderful!” —Astronaut David Bowman, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST FUNCTION WAS AS A RECORDING MEDIUM, as a way to arrest time in its flight, to freeze select seconds of it. As evidence. As reference points. We were here. This happened. Soon, however, the natural expansion that art demands generated images of the things that happened before our direct experience. Ruins. Monuments. Cathedrals. Finally, the photograph began to speculate forwards. To anticipate, even guess, about what might be about to happen. That is the photography of the potential, the imminent. It’s rather ghostly. Indefinite. And all in the eyes of the creator and the beholder.
Is something about to happen? Does this place, this kind of light, truly portend something? Can a picture said to be ripe with the possibility of emerging events? I think they can, but these bits of pre-history are harder to sense than those we capture in the mere recording or retrieval functions of photography. In this case, we are not just witnesses or detectives, but seers. Of course, we may be wrong. Something may not happen as we seem to see it at present. History may not be made here. Perhaps no one will ever say or do anything extraordinary on this spot. The image of the possibility, then, becomes a kind of creative fiction, a pictorial what-if. And that places photos in the same arena as sci-fi, mysticism, poetry. If other arts can paint worlds that might be, why can’t a picture?
I don’t know why the meeting room shown here, which was being prepared for a conference later in the day, struck me. It might have been the somber color scheme, or the subdued light. It may have been the grand emptiness of it all; a room designed to be packed with people, sitting there, waiting for them to animate it. I just know that it was enough to slow my trek through a resort hotel long enough to try to show that potential. For what? A moment of high corporate drama? The end of someone’s career, the launch pad for a bold new idea? The meeting that might redraw the map of human destiny? Or nothing?
Ah, but what actually happens after the photo is taken is mere reality, and never to be matched or compared with the strong sense of eventuality that can linger in an atmosphere before something occurs. These kind of images are not, after all, witnesses to anything, but visions of the possible. And that is the essence of photography, where even a medium invented to record reality can ofttimes transcend it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SPACE, BY ITSELF, DOESN’T SUGGEST ITSELF AS A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT, that is, unless it is measured against something else. Walls. Windows. Gates and Fences. Demarcations of any kind that allow you to work space compelling into compositions. Arrangements.
I don’t know why I personally find interesting images in the carving up of the spaces of our modern life, or why these subdivisions are sometimes even more interesting than what is contained inside them. For example, the floor layouts of museums, or their interior design frequently trumps the appeal of the exhibits displayed on its walls. Think about any show you may have seen within Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum, and you will a dramatic contrast between the building itself and nearly anything that has been hung in its galleries.
What I’m arguing for is the arrangement of space as a subject in itself. Certainly, when we photograph the houses of long-departed people, we sense something in the empty rooms they once occupied. There is fullness there inside the emptiness. Likewise, we shoot endless images of ancient ruins like the Roman Coliseum, places where there aren’t even four walls and a roof still standing. And yet the space is arresting.
In a more conventional sense, we often re-organize the space taken up by familiar objects, in our efforts to re-frame or re-contextualize the Empire State, The Eiffel, or the Grand Canyon. We re-order the space priorities to make compositions that are more personal, less popular post card.
And yet all this abstract thinking can make us twitch. We worry, still, that our pictures should be about something, should depict something in the documentary sense. But as painters concluded long ago, there is more to dealing with the world than merely recording its events. And, as photographers, we owe our audiences a chance to share in all the ways we see.
Subdivisions and all.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU VISIT ENOUGH MUSEUMS IN YOUR LIFETIME, you may decide that at least half of them, seen as arranged space, are more interesting than their contents. It may be country-cousin to that time in your childhood when your parents gave you a big box with a riding toy inside it, and, after a few minutes of excitement, you began sitting in the box. The object inside was, after all, only a fire engine, but a box could be a mine shaft, a Fortress of Solitude, the dining car on the Orient Express, and so on.
And so with museums.
I truly do try to give lip service to the curated exhibits and loaned shows that cram the floors and line the walls of the various museums I visit. After all, I am, harumph and ahem, a Patron Of The Arts, especially if said museums are hosting cocktail parties and trays of giant prawns in their hallowed halls…I mean, what’s not to like? However, there are times when the endless variations on just a room, a hall, a mode of lighting, or the anticipatory feeling that something wonderful is right around the next corner is, well, a more powerful spell than the stuff they actually booked into the joint.
Spaces are landscapes. Spaces are still lifes. Spaces are color studies. Spaces are stages where people are dynamic props.
Recently spinning back through my travel images of the last few years, I was really surprised how many times I took shots inside museums that are nothing more than attempts to render the atmosphere of the museum, to capture the oxygen and light in the room, to dramatize the distances and spaces between things. It’s very slippery stuff. Great thing you find, also, is that the increased light sensitivity and white balance controls on present-day cameras allow for a really wide range of effects, allowing you to “interpret” the space in different ways, making this somewhat vaporous pursuit even more …vaporous-y.
In the end, you shoot what speaks to you, and these “art containers” sometimes are more eloquent by far than the treasures they present. That is not a dig on contemporary art (or any other kind). It means that an image is where you find it. Staying open to that simple idea provides surprise.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.