By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN READING ALICE IN WONDERLAND as a child, I tried to imagine myself in the heroine’s place as she was buffeted about between strange creatures and bizarre environments. I wasn’t sure how I would react to a talking White Rabbit or an infant who turned into a pig at a moment’s notice, but I felt that, if I had to improvise while being alternatively enlarged and shrunk, as poor Alice was, that I would be ingenious enough to master my situation. All those “eat mes” and “drink mes” would have been tough to manage, for sure, but my natural explorer’s spirit would, I was confident, prevail in the end.
The current international cabin fever has made me think a lot of Alice lately, both Tiny Alice, being swept away in a torrent of her own tears, and Overgrown Alice, straining at the cramped limits of a house she has outgrown. You can see where I’m going with this. As photographers, we often are outwardly biased. The next great picture is somewhere “out there”. We are just one mile and a quick left turn from something stunning, and, in most cases, it’s beyond our own back yard (apologies here to Dorothy Gale as well). Add a forced quarantine into the formula, however, and we feel, at some point, like Overgrown Alice, thrusting a hand out the window of a micro-house. We fear there’s “nothing to shoot”. Our typically cheery disposish becomes dark and churlish. We start to watch daytime TV and bake.
Overgrown Alice’s constantly morphing dimensions made her constantly re-evaluate her world by the latest shifting data, with the very special challenge of being crushed by its shrinking confines. Photographers who are locked inside are likewise forced to re-think their relationships to objects in their environment…to re-contextualize everything. A flower under the macro lens becomes an entire botanical garden. Objects too familiar to be noticed under normal conditions become fascinating examples of design and pattern when seen from a different angle or distance. Anything and everything can become completely new because we have been forced, through either genius or boredom, to change our perceptions. A web search of the phrase cabin fever photography has become a major trender in recent months, and with good reason. We can’t go out to shoot as we’d prefer: we have to turn the camera further in. In so doing, we find ways to get more and more out of less and less. We discover, as we must regularly do as photograpers, that our relationship with the world must be as flexible as Alice in all her sizes, to guarantee perpetual refreshment of how we see. We gotta get curiouser and curiouser.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAYBE IT’S THE TERM ITSELF. MAYBE IT’S HOW WE DEFINE IT. Either way, for photographers, concept of the “still life” is, let’s just say, fluid.
I believe that these static compositions were originally popular for shooters for the same reason that they were preferred by painters. That is, they stayed in one place long enough for both processes to take place. Making photographs was never as time-consuming as picking up a brush, but in the age of the daguerreotype the practice was anything but instantaneous, with low-efficiency media and optical limitations combining to make for looooong exposure times. Thus, the trusty fruit-bowl-and-water-jug arrangement was pretty serviceable. It didn’t get tired or require a bathroom break.
But what, now, is a “still life”? Just a random arrangement of objects slung together to see how light and texture plays off their surfaces? More importantly, what is fair game for a still life beyond the bowl and jug? I tend to think of arrangements of objects as a process that takes place anywhere, with any collection of things, but I personally seek to use them to tell a story of people, albeit without the people present. If you think about museum collections that re-create the world of Lincoln or Roosevelt, for example, the “main subject” is obviously not present. However, the correct juxtaposition of eyeglasses, personal papers, clothing, etc. can begin to conjure them in a subtle way. And that conjuring, to me, is the only appeal of a still life.
I like to find a natural grouping of things that, without my manipulation or collection, suggest separate worlds, completely contained universes that have their own tools, toys, architecture, and visual vocabulary. In the above montage of angles and things found at a beach resort, I had fun trying to find a way to frame the “experience” of the place, in abstract, showing all its elements without showing actual activities or people (beyond the sunbather at right). The real challenge, for me, is to create associations in the mind of the viewer that supply all the missing detail beyond the surfboards, showers, and sundecks. That, to me, is the real attraction of a still life….or, more accurately, taking a life and rendering it, fairly intact, in a still image.
Hey, it’s not that I don’t like a good bowl of fruit now and then. However, I think that one of photography’s best tricks is the ability to mentally conjure the thing that you don’t show, as if the bowl were to contain just apple cores and banana peels. Sometimes a picture of what has been can be as powerful as freezing an event in progress. But that’s your choice.
Which is another of photography’s best tricks.