By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MORE INDEPENDENCE DAYS that I mark as an American, the more the holiday is fine-tuned, for me, from one of pure celebration to one of sober reflection. As a child, I waved my little flag, oohed and ahhed at fireworks, and ran up the scores of all our national wins and points of pride. As a middle-aged man, I think of the USA as a wonderful, but incomplete “to-do” list. I cherish what we’ve been but also try to be mindful of what we need to be. And that, in turn, widens my concept of what an Independence Day photograph can look like.
The above image, taken within the solemn sanctum of the 9/11 memorial, may not be many people’s choice for a “Happy 4th” -type picture, for a whole bunch of reasons. And I get that. There’s nothing celebratory about it. No wins, no rousing anthems. No amber waves of grain. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s inappropriate. It may not rhapsodize about victory, but it does affirm survival. It doesn’t brag about what we have, but it does remind us of how much we stand to lose, if we take it easy, or take our eye off the ball.
The 9/11 site is unique in all the world in that it is battlefield, burial ground, transportation hub, commercial center, and museum all in one, a nexus of conflicting agendas, motives and memories. And while it’s a lot more enjoyable smiling at a snapshot of a kid with a sparkler than making pictures of the most severe tests of our national resilience, photography taken at the locations of our greatest trials are a celebration of sorts. Such pictures demonstrate that it’s the freedom we earn, as well as the freedom we inherit, that’s worth raising a cheer about.
And worth capturing inside a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF YOU’RE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER WHEN USE OF THE WORD “AIN’T” LABELED YOU AS A GRAMMATICAL LOWBROW, you may also recall the snooty disdain reserved for a verbal construction called the split infinitive. A simple infinitive involved following the preposition “to” with an action verb, such as “go”. To split the infinitive, the writer or speaker inserts an adverb between the two words for an extra boost of emphasis. Thus, in the most famous split infinitive ever, Gene Roddenberry invited Star Trek viewers
to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Nice, right? A little extra drama. A slight bending of the rules that delivers the goods.
Photography has a formal “grammar” about composition that also begs for a kind of “split infinitive”. Strictly speaking, compositions are supposed to be simple, clean, uncluttered. A perfect line of visual data from top to bottom, left to right. A picture frame, if you will, an organized way of seeing.
Attractive yes, even desirable, but a must? Nope. Life itself, as we observe it everyday, is far from a series of perfect frames. Lines of sight get broken, fragmented, blocked. Nature and light conspire to take that flawless composition and crash it, refract it, photobomb it until it resembles, well, life. And yet we often try to take pictures that show the very opposite of the sloppy, imprecise nature of things.
We try for “perfection” instead of perfect concepts.
Reviewing images for the last several years, I find that I am taking more compositions on their own terms, with light poles, weird reflections, broken planes of view and shadows all becoming more welcome in my final photos. I still labor to get a clean look when I can. But I also make peace with elements that used to doom a photo to the dustbin.
Street scenes especially can better reflect the visual chaos of busy cities if everything isn’t “just right”. It’s really hard (at least in my case) to tear out the mental hardwiring of a lifetime and take a picture that may be more abstract or cubist than I ever thought I could allow myself to be. Maybe it’s a function of aging, but things seem to be relaxing in my approach. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still Alpha Male enough to want to bring everything in a frame under my unswerving control. I just don’t get blood pressure when circumstances force me to unclench my iron fist once in a while.
It’s a process.
To see, yes, but, in allowing my visual infinitives to be occasionally split, it means learning to differently see.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
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