By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL ENDURED ONE: a brave gig by a solitary volunteer musician, solemnly squeezing out a song set on a threadbare recreation-department stage, providing aural filler near the picnic tables at an art festival/neighborhood fair/neighborhood rally. Crowds are sparse to the point of threadbare: enthusiasm is restricted to a few anemic claps between tunes: stage announcements mostly involve updates on the change in location for the caramel corn tent. For the artist, the whole performance is the musical equivalent of a game of solitaire.
But, hey, my son has copies of my CD at the table over there.
Now that’s optimism.
On the day this image of a doggedly dedicated young pitchman was taken, his mother was smiling and slogging her way through a hot Labor Day afternoon on a nearby platform while he ran the store. The budding entrepreneur was referenced on mic several times, responding to the plug by pivoting, pirouetting, and punching the air with a $5 disc held aloft. His energy waxed and waned, now calming to a mild wave, now heating up to a wild flailing of arms, spinning on the ground, and, at the moment I snapped him, conducting from the height of a folding chair. As he spots me, his gaze is a mixture of caution, determination, and businesslike focus, as he tries to assess whether I am a fan, or a threat, or even his shot at the fame for which he is so earnestly striving. The sum of all these feelings is a perfect storm of childhood, and I scoop it up gratefully.
His dedication also earns a small cash dividend, as he manages to actually sell a few pieces, mostly to women who are hosting the art tents near him. Hey, I have a son of my own. Good boy.
Good indeed. He has given me a gift as well. Time to knock off, as I’m not going to find this kind of luck for the rest of the day. Now, where were they selling those corn dogs?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“DO YOU KNOW THAT PERSON?”
If you’ve ever even dipped your little toe into street photography, chances are that you have fielded that question from somebody, right after they encounter an unfamiliar face among your pictures. Further, should you answer in the negative, you’re liable to be met with a quizzical look, as if the person were asking, “then why in the world would you take their picture?” Strangely, the answer isn’t that complicated: it’s because that face is at least as interesting, as full of mystery and misery and joy, as the face of any of my “tribe”: a face, in short, worth a picture.
Of course, the majority of faces we record with cameras are those that we know and cherish. But every face on the planet has the same potential to be treasured as every other face, since all record the same conflicts and aspirations. The features found in our own social circle are not exclusively magical: they don’t portray dramas or dreams that are peculiar to us alone. The “others” are just “us” with some of the information missing. The information that begins being amplified the moment the shutter clicks.
Street photography is a second cousin to journalism in one very key respect, in that both kinds of images endeavor to take us from the particular to the general, showing us faces that react the way we might react to a given stimulus, be it a celebration, a war, a comedy, or a tragedy. We are led by the best of these images from the very specific reaction of one person we don’t know to a general shared human feeling we all recognize. Magazines, televised news reports, documentaries all remind us of the feelings we all hold in common. And yet, when an unknown face invades a batch of pictures that we regard as “relevant” someone is bound to sneer that the photographer ” always takes pictures of complete strangers”, as if there could be such a thing. In the case of the woman seen above, with whom I had the great accidental luck to share a bench in a museum, I see a symphony of short stories, mixed and remixed every time I come back to the image. I will never be her intimate friend in the standard sense of the word, but, in another sense, we are communicating with each other on a very special level.
At minimum, once a photograph is made of a face, the person to whom it belongs can never again be a “complete stranger”. At most, he or she could be an “incomplete” stranger, with the strangeness of a good candid portrait ebbing away with each additional viewing. Like the reporter or journalist, the street photographer is finding the unguarded moment, the unanticipated event, the unforeseen result. And that humanness is universal, immediate in its cognitive effect. We know these people.
We are these people.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you wish to depict humanity as your mind would arrange and design it, then a formal sitting or a studio setting would seem to be the place where you could exercise the most creative control. If, on the other hand, you wish to capture humanity in the act of just, well, being, then street work is probably better. This means taking what you get from people, behavior-wise, and noticing how those behaviors shift and evolve.
Street work is truly a barometer on what’s important to people, from the fashions they wear to the conveyances that take them around to what they prize most about daily life. And, in this part of the twenty-first century, that means how they interact with cellular phones.
The ubiquity and non-stop use of these devices is now simply a part of the visual vocabulary of street photography. It has become, in a very short space of time, nearly impossible to take a candid scene without recording someone on their phone….consulting it, catching up with it, charging it, using it for social connectivity. This has become a real challenge for me, since I believe that the best social pictures come from evidence of inter-action between people in real time, in real physical places. What I have to work with, instead, is a crop of one-sided interactions. There may be some human drama in such images (imagine outrage, surprise, delight playing out on phoners’ faces), but I frequently just chuck many of these frames from a street batch because I, personally, can’t extract any kind of story from them.
Of course, isolation as an urban condition is not new, nor is it even novel in the street shooter’s experience. Seventy-year old photos of commuters crammed on the subway, each mesmerized by his or her own personal newspaper, reflects just as much loneliness as a present-day scene of crowds all separately entranced by their mobiles. And yet the cellphone has produced a new kind of lonely, with greater numbers of us showing a more complete pulling away from each other. I find this sad, and, while that feeling, by itself, can also produce a good picture, I still, typically, put such images in my “pass” pile.
This one registered a little differently with me.
I really had no interest in the two people in the frame other than their ability to take up compositional space and account for a wide range of light contrast, something I always like to practice with. So I must be honest and report that, in the actual taking of the picture, their “story” was not on my radar. Moreover, given how many hundreds of other “phoners” I’ve accidentally recorded, usually concluding that there was “no picture there”, I think I can be forgiven a certain dismissiveness in snapping the photo. It was only later that the completeness of their isolation struck me. Not only are they facing away from the somewhat scenic, bright view out the window, but they are completely isolated from each other. As it happens, they are in a Manhattan museum which, even if you were to completely eschew the contents of the exhibits, offers any number of stunning skyline scenes out the windows, including several high-rise walk-out platforms. But none of that matters to this pair, any more than they matter to each other, or whether a live, nude performance of King Lear would matter, were it just inches away from them. Their place in the present world does not matter…..only their proximity to a wall outlet. This, to me, is beyond isolation. This is self-banishment, and, in this case, the image I accidentally snapped of the condition shows, at least in miniature, the crux of the dilemma: the fact that we have become one international village of strangers.
But if we completely ignore this phenomenon, of what are we to craft street images that are accurate testimony of our age? Are there deeper stories behind this tsunami of blank faces, stories that are worth pursuing? Or do we, as photographers, just turn away from those who have turned away?
I really wish I knew.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CALL IT “WINDOW SHOPPING“, the strange practice of taking random photographs while being driven through urban neighborhoods, usually in the back seat of an Uber, usually to or from a hotel or an airport. For any shooter who likes to engineer as much control as possible in their image-making (as is my own bias), cranking off shots out the side window of the back seat of a ride-share is the closest thing to complete chaos, and yet surprisingly exhilarating. It’s also good exercise for those occasional planned shoots in which you will need to react quickly, and hopefully with effect, under rapidly changing conditions.
The whole thing began for me several years ago with one of many trips I’ve made to and from New York, a place that, for a photographer, embraces both formal technique and shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity. I’ve had to teach myself to be more comfortable with the latter than the former, and so I have to regularly place myself in situations in which I’m forced to mentally shoot with, if you like, one hand tied behind my back. I have to make myself shoot looser and with less of a fear of loss-of-control situations. At some point, a boring cab ride to JFK gave me the perfect jumping-off point for such a project.
Think for a moment about how little I have to say about the conditions of this kind of shoot. The driver is taking me through neighborhoods I often know little about, so I can’t anticipate or plan. The speed of the vehicle, the smoothness of the ride, whether the “good stuff” is to the left or right of the car, and, certainly, when I’m about to behold anything with any potential all guarantee a kind of randomness. There are no warnings, no forecasts. Add to this that I will probably be shooting at full manual, meaning that, in addition to reacting in the moment to my subject and shooting conditions, I’m also throwing hundreds of frame-to-frame calculations about how to capture anything of value into the equation.
Not surprisingly, my yield is often 90% garbage, something that is also great for maintaining a sense of humility. However, the images that do work would never have been made at all had I not placed my precious precision in jeopardy. Thinking back to when I started, I, like many young photographers, disliked most of my pictures because there was always something I hadn’t understood, hadn’t planned for, didn’t yet know how to do. The paradox of this kind of machine-based expression is that you have to learn all the rules and then decide which ones you have no interest in following going forward. I often suspect that many younger shooters actually begin their careers at the opposite end of that continuum, starting at “what the hell” and eventually growing into more formalized technique. Doesn’t really matter. The important thing to remember is that both control and chaos can be useful, but they can both be imposters as well. A picture isn’t guaranteed to be wonderful because you cared and planned “enough”, and it certainly isn’t fated to be brilliant just because you cared so little. All roads don’t lead to Rome, but all roads also don’t lead away from it. From a window with shaky hands and a lousy Uber driver, or on solid, tripod-secure ground, you can be both the hero or the goat, given what’s happening between your ears.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.
HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.
In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:
For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.
Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.
We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.
Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOUR CONCEPT OF “STREET” PHOTOGRAPHY, assuming it interests you at all, is shaped by a variety of influences, including your idea of appropriate subject matter, biases in style or equipment, even your technical limits. But from my own particular perch, I think that the era into which I was born may be one of the strongest determinants of my preferences in street work, at least when it comes to the choice between black and white and color. To me, this kind of reportorial photography is vastly different either side of a key time line, with one side, say the world up to about 1955, weighted toward monochrome, and the other, the years that follow that mark and track forward up to the present day, being the more “color” era.
Before the mid-50’s, nearly all “important” photography was still being rendered in monochrome, much of it of a journalistic or editorial nature. From the crash of the Hindenburg to the New Deal’s chronicling of the impact of the Great Depression through endless newsreel and magazine essays, the pictures of record, of the stuff that mattered, was black and white. Consumer photography generally followed suit. Early color films were available from the 1930’s on, but the overarching curve of Everyman hobbyist work did not immediately flip to general use. Color was largely for commercial work, for selling things in a hyper-saturated advertising spread or brochure. Seminal black and white essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment seemed to reinforce the idea of monochrome as the messenger of realism, authenticity, grit. Ugly, sad, tragic, important things happened in black and white. Color was for kids’ parties.
By the 1960’s, faster consumer color films changed candid photography virtually overnight as amateurs opted for more “lifelike” images. Color print, slide and movie film sales soared, and, while magazine and newspaper “documentarians” continued to emphasize mono as the “official” tonal language of street work, younger photographers began to reframe the argument as to what constituted a fit format for commentary. In the present day, both approaches live comfortably side by side, and many shooters are not exclusively in the ‘either” or “or” camp, deciding one frame at a time whether a narrow or wide palette is right for a given image. Even the shooters who embraced color as young photographers may, today, toggle back to monochrome for a singular impact or even a nostalgic evocation of the past. Fashion historians can easily lose count: we’ve zoomed past ironic, post-ironic, post-post-ironic, and back to innocence again, spinning through both unconscious and super-self-conscious styles like the blades of a pinwheel. Beneficiaries of technologies that abett and invite multiple ways to rendering the same subject, we shoot in all eras and influences at once. Everything about photography is a la carte.
For me, black and white isn’t a signature, but then again, neither is color. I find them both adequate for the candid work that encompasses “street”, and I reserve the right to make the choice between the two at a moment’s notice. Tonal properties, after all, should be as improvisational as the decision to make a given picture. We are freer than ever to worry less about the how of a photograph, and focus on the why.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS, LIKE ME, you keep, within your photographer’s memory, a running total of many, many shots that might have been salvaged, had you only had a few extra moments to plan them better. Any approach to serious picture-making hinges not merely on conceiving an image, nor just having either technical means or talent, but on being able to weigh all one’s options within the constraints of time.
Of course, mastering all other elements of photography, from equipment to raw skill, does allow you to shoot faster, or, more correctly, to make the best use of the time you have. Still, no matter your experience level, there will always be instances where the setting, the light, or other conditions move so quickly that reaction time is minimalized and some shots simply get away. The way I sum this up is to say that we’re trying to create art on a snapshot time budget.
As is often the case, this problem becomes crystal clear in the moment of shooting. Everything about this image began as happenstance. I happened to call on a friend as he was finishing up work for the day. That, in turn, meant that he happened to conduct me to his office’s break room near a sixth-floor window. The final and most crucial bit of chance occurred when he asked me to wait while he went to close out his desk before we headed for dinner, giving me up to ten precious minutes to decide what to do with this amazing view. Ten minutes to try, reject, reframe, rethink…..all without the pressure of worrying if I was keeping anyone waiting, or fretting that the walk light would change and I’d have to move on, or any of a myriad of other picture-killing factors. I had the luxury of lingering.
Of course, I could fill another half-page discussing what I was looking for, or how the five or six frames I shot shaped what I eventually landed on, but that discussion is for another day. What’s important is that the circumstances allowed me the time to set an intention for the picture, to walk it through several iterations until I was comfortable (not an insignificant word) in making a choice.
As you can probably surmise, the purely technical aspects of getting this shot were relatively simple: the true challenge was in mentally massaging the idea of the scene until it, well, looked like a picture, and not having to do so on the fly. We’re forced, all too frequently, to do things by reflex, and so to make a picture at leisure, on purpose…..that, to me, is the very essence of photography.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, MUSEUMS SHOULD NEVER BE A ONE–WAY STREET. The popular conception of the role of our various Hallowed Halls of Important Stuff is that the artifacts do all the sensory sending and we, the visiting public, do all the receiving. The idea prevails that paintings and sculptures and installations impart their wisdom and we passively soak it up, like ambulatory blotters. Thus, this logic must follow, a photographic record of the museum experience should only pointed in one direction.
But of course this is nonsense.
Anywhere you have hundreds of humans assembling in a common area, you have created an active anthropological laboratory, and thus a rich harvesting ground for the camera. A myriad of motives and paths, from “something to do” to a personal thirst for experience to a place to duck in out of the rain, converge as a “temporary collection” mixing with the museum’s’ more permanent ones. All these arrivals, each with their own energy, curiosity, hostility, apathy, fatigue, and joy to deal with, create a kaleidoscopic pattern of intrapersonal intersections and collisions. The eager attendee and the unwilling hostage exist side by side. That creates the unpredictable, and that unpredictability, for the photographer, creates opportunity.
In the image shown here, the “official” delights of the museum in question have failed to amaze, at least for the group occupying the bench. As for the woman peering out the window, she has simply found something with bigger “wow” value than anything hanging on the walls. The sheer dimensions of the space threaten to dwarf the group, to make it seem small or insignificant, and yet their faces and bodies contain a strange mix between tension and ennui that is so wonderfully human that it invites the investigative eye of the shooter.
This shot came to me virtually ready-made, although a later conversion to monochrome eliminated the minor color distractions of various articles of clothing. When a picture is this simple, everything that tends to complicate it becomes expendable. The phrase keep it simple, stupid, may not have originated with photographers, but we ought really to have it tattooed on our foreheads.
I spent nearly two hours in the museum in question (name withheld) and, I assure you, this was one of the most interesting tableaux I observed in the entire joint. It’s not that I find no interest in the arts: quite the opposite. It’s just that, visually, people reacting to the world is more vital to me than just pictures of the world alone. The whole gig is a museum, really, and frequently, the permanent collection of life is thus upstaged by the temporary one. Go figure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME IMAGES REQUIRE NO WORDS. At least that’s the standard we aim for.
Many others may or may not benefit from what I call accompaniment. Sometimes a few words act as a sort of period at the end of a photographic “sentence”. Other times, a pre-existing sentiment….literary, musical, poetic…. seems somehow to have been just waiting for a picture with which to pair up.
I shot this picture of two longtime pals in just a second, but for two weeks after that, my mind kept looping back to 1968, and the words of a then-young songsmith who found it a real mind stretch to picture himself at the opposite end of his life. And, most likely, many other baby-boomers who read those lyrics, from the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album of fifty years ago, tried to make the same mental leap. In 2018, those of us lucky enough to have made that journey to “the other side”, living out those dreams of dotage, may be, even now, able to recall that young writer’s words at will:
Old Friends / old friends / sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes/ of the high shoes
Of the old friends
Old friends / winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats / waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders
Of the old friends
Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy……
(c) 1968 Paul Simon
Here’s to songs that are worth a thousand pictures, and to pictures that try to return the favor….
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
THE DEMIMONDE. The night shift. The third trick. Up with the dawn. Done for the night.
At any given time, some of us are starting our days and heading to work while others are wrapping up their labors and stumbling into bed. Our nights are others’ days, our bustle others’ quiet time. We come at life on the planet from different directions, our suns and moons meeting at the time clock. Wait till coffee break, say some. That’s when things really get going. Hang around till after midnight, say the rest. That’s when this place really start to happen.
Time really comes unmoored in the cities, where our deliveries, destinies and dreams are on all kinds of stop/start cycles. The big town is as photographically alive for the night owls as for the morning glories. People whose days are other people’s nights are forever exotic and strange to each other, the images of their routines as mutually mysterious as the extremes of heat and cold. And always, the same underlying drum beat: got things to do. No day or night, pal: things get done when they get done.
The camera never sleeps because we never close. Open seven days a week, open all night. Last train at midnight, early bird special, full price after six, in by 9, out by 5. Rules of engagement for the breakfast surge, the lunch rush, the dinner crowd. Lives in motion. Pistons rising and falling. Disharmony and sweet accord.
The shutters keep blinking. The moments keep rolling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CROWDS ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED as if they were single entities, as if each member were acting in accord with all others, like cells combining to form an organ. Writers likewise use the word “crowd” as a kind of collective noun, as in “the crowd went wild” or ” the crowd grew restless”, again making it seem as if a collection of individuals can act as a single thing. Spend time in any crowd as a photographic observer, however, and it becomes obvious that there is virtually no such thing as group behavior. Everyone comes to a crowd separately, one motive, one agenda at a time, and photographers can begin to harvest real human stories by seeing them that way.
To be sure, there is scope and drama in making uber-pictures that convey the sheer size and scope of mass gatherings. Likewise, there are certainly moments when crowds seem to be moving or acting as one, as in the moment when the winning run is hit or a rousing orator evokes a roar of approval. But look carefully within those general waves of action and you will still see the individual proudly on display. By turns, he is, even in a crowd, engaged, irritated, enthusiastic, bored, tired, ecstatic, and angry, just as visibly as if he were in any other situation. Get close enough to a mass of people and you’ll see The Person…..perhaps attempting to be part of something larger than himself, but still pushing his own brand of street theatre, still brandishing his own quirks.
Demonstrations, parades, celebrations, protests….they’re all staging points for persons, persons who give up their stories to the photographer’s eye no less in a mob than in the family den. Wait for the moment when that happens and grab it. Teach yourself to look at a crowd and see the person who’s truly one in a million.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE INK HAS BEEN POURED OUT about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of “the decisive moment” than perhaps any other chunk of photographic philosophy ever hashed out between honest brokers. HCB’s assertion was, essentially, that there is a single, ideal instant in which a picture of something will be, like an apple, perfect for the plucking. Miss that moment, and all is lost.
While some applaud this theory as holy scripture, others dismiss it with a vulgar reference to bovine by-products. All well and good. Everyone needs to evolve a belief system that drives their personal photographic vision. The important thing is to evolve something.
Personally, while I don’t believe there is only a single moment that will make an image immortal, I also don’t think that just any moment you choose to freeze an event is as good as every other moment. Conditions, timing and decisions matter in the making of a picture, and, when they intersect, the magic happens.
So the number of “decisive moments” for an event, for me, would number about three. Think of them as acts in a play, each act performing a distinct element in a dramatic story. Act One shows things that are about to happen: a nearly blooming blossom: the minutes before street lights are turned on for the evening. Act Two depicts something that is in the process of occurring: candles on a cake being blown out: a pistol shot. And Act Three shows where things have now completed. A concert crowd leaves the theatre: a dog snoozes after a long day of play.
The image seen here can potentially be an example of any of the three acts. Are the backstage props being spread out in anticipation of a show? Is the performance, unseen from this angle, being given right now? Or have the stage hands already begun to strike the tents and gather everything up before moving the players on to the next town? All three interpretations are of specific places in time. And all can be “decisive moments” when the right bond between photographer and viewer is established.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY TOWNS in the American southwest, Superior, Arizona sprung up in the nineteenth century primarily to get people close to something promising that Nature had already parked in the local dirt. So long as that something gushed up, flashed in a prospector’s pan or helped light or heat something, the towns flourished….. boomed, as the term goes.
Until they didn’t.
In the case of Superior (2010 census population 2,837), the silver that anchored the locals to the grim crags of the Superstitions mountain range tumbled in value when the metal lost its status as the backing for the American dollar in 1893. Fortunately, Superior had a second act, rebounding with the discovery of copper in the same area where silver had been mined. And then, of course, Hollywood came calling, seeking a visual taste of the Real Old West. Superior rose yet again, standing in for yesteryear in the films How The West Was Won, Blind Justice, and The Gauntlet, among many others. And the beat goes on; as recently as the 1990’s, yet another copper mining company hooked Superior up to yet one more source of life support. And how’s your hometown?
Even so, a photographer looking to take Superior’s pulse in the twenty-teens is well advised to look a little deeper than the shopworn storefronts of the main street, heavy with thrift shops and antique stores but also alive with hot pastels and the twang of Saturday afternoon dance music, complete with Stetsons and cold longnecks. The town is rusty and dusty down to its toenails, pressed up against gritty stone peaks, but it is still brave at the corners of its mouth. As a place that is “a fur piece” from Phoenix and a hoot and a holler from Globe, Superior is more mile marker than actual destination, but it is still standing, still smiling for the camera.
And, who knows, things could change.
They always have before….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM NEVER TRULY COMFORTABLE working with a camera that isn’t physically locked onto my eye. Shooting without a viewfinder was, for me, perhaps the hardest part of gradually embracing cel photography, and continues to be a control issue that still inclines me toward my Nikons most of the time. Part of it, I freely admit, is mere sentimental habit……maybe even, who knows, superstition?…..and yet when I’m crammed up against that little square of glass, I feel as if I’m “really” taking a picture.
That’s why it’s really a rare bird for me to “shoot from the hip” with a DSLR, to try to sneak a street candid without my camera anywhere near my face at all, holding the thing at mid-chest or waist level or even squeezing off a frame while it’s hanging from my shoulder. If the opportunity is literally too juicy to resist, and if looking like a (gasp) photographer will spook my quarry (or get a Coke thrown in my face), well, then, desperate times call for desperate measures.
I arrived at such a “desperate times” moment the other day by being caught out with the wrong lens. I had thought that I would be spending my afternoon at a horse show inside barns and stables, indicating a wide-angle to open up cramped spaces, so I packed a 24mm to go wide but keep distortion to a minimum. Once Marian and I arrived at the event, however, she got interested in an arena competition, and so in we went. Now I’m taking big shots of a cavernous hall punctuated by long lines of little tiny horses. If a rider lopes directly in front of my seat, I can almost make out his face. Otherwise I’m zoomless and story-less. Can we go home now?
I hear a husky female drawl off to the left.
“Jus’ let her walk, Annie. She wants to walk.”
Turns out the voice belongs to a spangled matron with a Texas twang sharp enough to chop cheddar, herself apparently just off the competition track and now shouting guidelines to another woman in the field. I immediately fall in love with this woman, hypnotized by her steely stare, her no-nonsense focus, and the fact that, unlike the far-away formations of horses directly in front of me, she is a story. A story I need to capture.
But any visible sign of guy-with-a-camera will ruin it all. I will swing into the range of her peripheral vision. Her concentration will break. Worse, the change in her face will make the story all about the intrusive jerk six feet away. And so I hug the camera to the middle of my chest, the lens turned generally in her direction. Of course I have no reliable way to compose the shot, so I spend the next several minutes shooting high, low, losing her completely in the frame, checking results after every click, and finally settling on the image you see here, which, despite my “calculations” for a level horizon, looks a bit like a shot from the old Batman tv series. Holy carsickness.
Strangely, shooting at actual horses (at least with the glass I brung) was telling me nothing about horse culture. But the lady with the spangly blouse and Stetson got me there. It’s literally her beat, and I was grateful to, yes, sneak a glimpse at it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING CROWDS IS SOMEWHAT AKIN to using one’s camera to track a billowing cloud of soap suds. The shape of the mass shifts constantly, roiling this way and that, presenting the shooter with an ever-evolving range of choices. Is this the shape that delivers the story? Or does this arrangement of shapes do it?
And is just the size of the overall crowd the main visual message….with the perfect picture merely showing a giant jumble of bodies? Plenty of great images have been made that convey a narrative with just mass or scale. But throngs are also collections of individuals. Can’t a compelling tale also be told focusing on the particular?
When shooting any large gathering, be it a festival, a party or a demonstration, I am torn between the spectacle of the “cast of thousands” type shot and the tinier stories to be had at the personal level. In the shot seen below, I was following a parade, actually behind the traditional approach to such an event. What arrested my attention from this vantage point was the printed shawl of the woman directly ahead of me. The graphic on the shawl had been seen on other flags and banners in the march, but, billowing in the breeze on her back, the print became a kind of uniform for the march… a theme, a face all its own.
In this context, I didn’t need to see the actual expressions of the marchers: there was enough information in their body language, especially if I composed to place the woman at the center of the shot, as if she were the leader. That was enough. The actual march boasted thousands, but I didn’t need to show them all. The essence of everyone’s intentions could be shown by the assemblage of small parts.
Some crowd photographs speak loudly by showing the sheer volume of participants on hand. Others show us the special energies of individuals. Neither approach is universally sufficient, and you’ll have to see which is better for the narrative you’re trying to relate in a particular moment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A PARTICULARLY CHILLING SCENE from the classic film The Third Man, Orson Welles, as the story’s amoral profiteer Harry Lime, looks down from a carnival ride to the teeming, tiny throngs on the pavement below, distancing himself from people that have been reduced, in his mind, to mere ‘dots’. ” Tell me”, he asks his friend Holly Martens, “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Lime has, in fact, been selling tainted medicine to desperate refugees in post-war Berlin, and his product does, almost certainly, make several of those dots stop moving. Forever. Horrible, and yet his estrangement from his fellow wanderers on that sidewalk occurs all the time in all our minds. When we look more carefully, more compassionately, however, photographs can happen.
We are all nomads, wanderers, dots on a map. We convince ourselves that our journey is surely taking us toward something….a very important something. As for everyone else….what? Like Harry Lime, we place great emphasis on our own story, with ourselves cast as the hero. In fact, though, pulling one’s eye just far enough back from the throng can show our camera’s eye the real story. Every journey, every destination is equal….equally vital or equally banal. It’s the process of observing that seeking that creates a tableau, a composition. That, and how we view it.
I take a lot of images of crowds in motion: streaming in and out of buildings, rushing for trains, teeming through malls, crowding the subway. What they’re after isn’t what gives them the drama. It’s the continuous process of seeking, of going toward all our collective somewheres, that provides the narrative. I don’t try to record faces: these are moving chess boards, not portraits. Additional clinical distance can come from the use of monochrome, or angle of view. Sometimes I think of the overhead camera shots of director Busby Berkeley, he of the kaleidoscopic dance routines in 42nd Street and other ’30’s musicals. The rush of the crowd is all a kind of choreography, intentional and random at the same time.
One of the images that brought this idea home to me as a child was a cartoon James Thurber drew for the New Yorker titled “Destinations”(above left). It shows, simply, a rightward mob rushing toward a leftward mob, with a cemetery in the background. Everyone is headed for the same end point but all act as if they are bound for someplace else. The story for a photographer in all this wandering lies in how we look as we do it. Where we eventually wind up may well be fate’s whim, but the story of all the comings and the goings, of ourselves and our fellow nomads, is in the hands of the camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST EXHAUSTIVE portrait projects in the history of photography was August Sander’s Face Of Our Time, a collection from the 1920’s of sixty formal portraits of German tradesmen of every class and social station, each shown with the tools or uniforms unique to his chosen profession. Sanders photographed his subjects as documents, without any hint of commentary or irony. The story in their pictures was, simply, the visual record of their place in society and, eventually, as cultural bookmarks.
Since Sander’s eloquent, if clinical work, similar photo essays have taken on the same subject with a little more warmth, notably Irving Penn’s Small Trades portrait series from the early 1950’s. Like Sander, however, Penn also shot his images in the controlled environment of the studio. In my own work, I truly feel that it’s important to capture ordinary workers in their native working environment, framed by everything that defines a typical day for them, not merely a few symbolic tools, such as a bricklayer’s trowel or a butcher’s cleaver. I also think such portraits should be unposed candids, with the photographer posing as little distraction as possible.
I really like the formal look of a studio portrait, but it doesn’t lend itself to reportage, as it’s really an artificial construct….a version of reality. So called “worker” portraits need room to breathe, to be un-self-conscious. And, at least for me, that means getting them back on the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH MUSEUMS ARE DESIGNED as repositories of history’s greatest stories, I often find that the most compelling narratives within those elegant walls, for the photographer in me, are provided by the visitors rather than the exhibits.
We’ve seen this effect at zoos: sometimes the guy outside the ape house bears a closer resemblance to a gorilla then the occupant within. With the museum experience, making controlled, serene exposures of the artifacts is never as interesting as turning your reporter’s eye on the folks who came in the door. The juxtaposition of all the museum’s starched, arbitrary order with humanity’s marvelously random energy creates a beautifully strange staging site for social interaction….great hunting for street shooters.
The sculpture gallery shown here, one of the most beautiful rooms in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is certainly “picturesque”enough all by itself. However when the room is used to frame the chessboard-like weaving of live humans into the pattern of sculpted figures, it can create its own unique visual choreography, including the mother who would love to bottle-bribe her baby long enough to finish just one more chapter.
Anyone who’s visited The Normal Eye over the years recognizes this museum-as-social-laboratory angle is a consistent theme for me. I just love to mash-up big art boxes with the people who visit them. Sometimes all you get is statues. Other times, one kind of “exhibit” feeds off the other, and magic happens.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW all the elements of a story to tell it visually. Yes, photography certainly has the technical means to tell a detailed tale, but that narrative need not be spelled out in every particular by the camera.
Indeed, it might be the very information that’s “missing” that may be the most compelling element of a visual story. That is to say, if you don’t know all the facts, make the picture. And if you do have all the facts, maybe leave out a few…. and make the picture anyway.
The above image illustrates this strange mis-match between storytelling and story material. As a shooter, I’m tantalizingly close to the couple at the table next door to me at a plaza restaurant. I mean, I can practically count the salt grains on the lady’s salad. I can also tell, by her male companion’s hand gestures, that a lively conversation is underway. But that is the sum total of what I know. I can’t characterize the discussion. A business planner? A lover’s quarrel? Closing the sale? Sharing some gossip? Completely unknown. Sure, I could strain to pick up a word here or there, but that alone may not be enough to provide any additional context, and, in fact, I don’t need that information to make a picture.
This is what I call “low info, high narrative”, because I don’t require all the facts of this scene to sell the message of the picture, which is conversation. As a matter of fact, my having to leave out part of the image’s backstory might actually broaden the appeal of the final product, since the viewer is now partnering with me to provide his/her version of what that story might be. It’s like my suggesting the face of a witch. By merely using words like ugly or horrible, I’ve placed you in charge of the “look” of the witch. You’ve provided a vital part of the picture.
You won’t always have the luxury of knowing everything about what you’re photographing. And, thankfully, it doesn’t really matter a damn. That’s why we call this process making a picture. We aren’t merely passive recorders, but active, interpretive storytellers. High narrative beats low info every time.