By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENOUGH WITH THE FLOWERS.
Give the birds a rest. Put the quiet trails and placid sunsets on pause.
I want my skyscrapers back.
Yes, I’ve dutifully done my photographic confinement therapy, like everyone else whose worlds have shrunk during the Great Hibernation. I’ve lovingly lingered over the natural world, embraced the tiny universes revealed by my macro lenses and close-up filters. I’ve properly marveled at the wonder of simple things, patiently revealed in the quiet composure of a more inward kind of photo-therapy.
It was needful. It was even helpful. Hell, on a few days, it was essential. But instead of steady, slow inspirations into the deepest reaches of my lungs, I now long for shallow, quick breaths, terse inhalations of monoxide, stolen as I dash across a crowded crosswalk. I want to dodge things. I want to run for a train. I need to see the infinite collision of brick, stone, and steel textures all fighting for my visual attention in a mad crush.
I want to hear noise.
I can make myself comfortable, even modestly eloquent, shooting the splendors of the natural world. God knows we have placed too many barriers of estrangement from our inheritance in field and flower. But I have known, since I was a child, that my soul synched perfectly to the unnatural world, the arbitrary creation of we wicked, weak bipeds, with an affection that is every bit the equal to that which I feel for a tree or a blossom.
I see the same geometry and design in our crude imitations of nature as in the contours of the rose or the patterns within a cactus flower, and I’m not embarrassed to say that the spires, arches, bridges and alleyways that map our densest interactions give me an electric thrill. I should also add that I am not typical within my family, where there are far more Thoreaus, all centered on their respective Waldens, than there are Whitmans, who see glory in even the failed strivings of the urban experiment. I take comfort in my sweet claustrophobia, and I make no apology for the fact that my photography breathes its fullest in cities.
There were, of course, millions for whom, during the Horror, cities were a cruel prison, and I absolutely get that. As the Eagles said, we are all just prisoners of our own device. Artists can create a heaven or hell in any setting, as witness the miraculous faith of prisoner poets or the inventive tinkering of a Robinson Crusoe. Confinement is largely a matter of geography or physical constraint, but, as we have all spent a long year discovering, it can be overcome by a refusal of the mind to remain locked into a particular place.
I have not yet completed my slow trip back to the hunting grounds where my cameras talk loudest to me. Like the start of our communal imprisonment, it will come in layers, in a million tiny shards of re-discovery. But it will come. My cities will be restored to me. My flowers and birds and bugs will always be celebrated as the protectors of my sanity, of the need to take my art inward from time to time. But right now, I need to get out on the streets, and see what’s up.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FIRST OFF, LET’S AGREE ON ONE THING: photographs are not “the truth”. Well, at least not what we think we mean by truth. Maybe we use the “reality” of a captured image as a mere point of departure, the place we start off from, on the way to…well, that’s up to the artist, innit? What I’m trying to say here is that merely snapping a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve told the absolute truth about what your lens was pointing toward. Only the bones of truth…a structure on which to drape the rest, through interpretation, and the shared experience of inviting other eyes into the discussion.
Some of our inherited thinking about the veracity of a photo (“the camera doesn’t lie”) is that it is produced by a machine, a device inserted between our vision and the finished product, a mechanism that we associate with reproduction. After all the device measures light; it is indifferent, just as a seismograph or a lie detector would be. Only it isn’t. We humans are interacting with that “recording” function at every turn, just as personally as the painter measures and controls strokes of a brush. And then there’s the consideration of time. We don’t capture all of life in our box, just a stolen sliver of it, which guarantees that the sample, having been yanked out of its original context, is tainted from the start.
Even the best picture, then, comes out compromised, depending on how it was taken, and by whom. Clicking a shutter may be a means of producing something thought provoking, even profound, but it is nothing as simple as capturing the truth. As illustration: it’s easy to identify all the contributing elements of the above image….light, shadow, color, water textures, solid objects…but it was only possible to combine them all into the result you see here for a single moment. Someone else, working with the very same elements just a second later, would likely produce vastly different results. And yet, both of us are “right”.
Thinking of photographs as truth is tricky business. Consider this quote from photographer Giles Duley, who has garnered some distinction of late as what I call a camera-oriented journalist:
“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘truth’ in photography. As soon as I walk in a room and point a camera at you, I’ve already ruled out the rest of the people. As soon as I press the shutter on that second, I’ve ruled out the rest of the day. There is only honesty….”
A photograph is something used to illustrate a point of view. It’s not the only point of view to be had, and so it can’t be the absolute “truth” for everyone. But that’s the beauty of it, the fascinatingly infinite variety of “my truths” to be had in the artistic realm. This is not science. Science is different. You can’t present your “version” of gravity, or photosynthesis, or the speed of light. They just are. Art happens in the realm of “might be” or “could be”, and our photographs are, at their best, suppositions, suggestions. This picture might be true, and it might not, and so let the debate begin. And that is what makes the creation of image an art. Because it’s yours, and, with luck, it might be ours, and the dialogue that decides that is, well, everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE JOURNEY OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN SOCIETY courses along two diametrically opposed paths. Both roads can impel the spirit toward ends that are both cherished and loathed. One fork cruises through the innumerable ranks of the predictable, taking the individual along prescribed patterns of conformity; the other travels the more arduous road to individuality, a complete realization of the unique self. Both paths have their positive and negative aspects; both seem attractive or repellent at different times in our lives. And both have a visual signature for the photographer.
Conformity is perhaps the easier of the two paths to trace, evoking row after row of identical work cubicles or endless blocks of lookalike dwellings. It leaves its visible track in the way we close ranks or join organizations; the kinds of gatherings that offer us protection or anonymity. Our photographer’s eye readily tags the look of the collective, the joiner society.
The path toward individual expression is a little more abstract, as there are as many ways to stand out or apart as there are human hearts in the world. How do we choose to leave the rutted path? What means do we employ in improvising a personal life signature? How is our rebellion in the name of a more sculpted self visually measured?
It can be something simple, like being the only kid that wears bunny slippers to symphony rehearsals. A bumper sticker that’s guaranteed to provoke comment. Or, as seen above, a little public space that we convert to private space with a paper lantern, a wind chime, or a bird feeder. Making photographs of the way we go along to get along is measuring the patterns of our agreement (maybe even our surrender), and that creates one kind of picture. Framing up the stories that we tell out of our very own storybook gives us another result completely. Both kinds of images are educational. Both are commentary. And if we’re really lucky, both can be compelling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHERLOCK HOLMES BUILT A CAREER ON LEAVINGS. The master sleuth of Baker Street was not famous not so much for actually catching malefactors in the act, but by being the first on the scene to decipher clues they left behind, in ashes from cigars or traces of muddy footprints, determining if the Bad Guys had been there as well as where they might likely appear next. In those early days of forensic analysis, Holmes was a little like a photographer, who frequently happens on scenes that are both the echoes and the harbingers of human activity.
In the past year, shooters have spent a lot of time walking deserted cities, framing up the echoes of events that were called off or interrupted, analyzing the streets for evidence of the people who have fled them for safer quarters. Neon signs that blink and boast to no one; infrastructures built to accommodate multitudes, now reduced to dusty silence. Pictures made of these things are, in some ways, proof that people were here just a minute ago, and may, in fact, sneak back soon, in staggered, smaller waves…..a few brave walkers or bored explorers at a time. Indeed, many of us are making what I call “you just missed them” pictures…..shots that prove that, like us, others ventured out for a look at the emptiness, or might even have tried to re-fill it for a time, then retreated.
The timid re-beginnings of things are under way now, and our brief, out-of-the-cave venturings are slowly building back to nominal speed, with things like baseball, once so omnipresent as to be invisible, now returning like a spring shoot. In small parks and playgrounds, you may still find it hard to arrive at the precise moment when actual humans are on the scene. Some days you overlap with each other, other days we’re like Holmes examining the traces of someone who’s left some kind of mark, like the phantom footprints seen here around home plate. We still have to imagine the bodies, the cries of “play ball”, the whir of activity. Right now, there are just traces of people who, like us, have decided to walk outside and see what’s up. But the traffic is returning, and, with it, the opportunity to, like Holmes, ascertain that “the game’s afoot.”
Once again, the imperatives that determine what kinds of pictures we make are about to redefined. And persistently clicking away, as the changes roll on, is the true role of photography, as we stitch a bunch of isolated, frozen moments into a narrative quilt.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS A UNIQUE MARRIAGE OF SETTING AND SUBJECTS, that delicate balance of locations and denizens that make streets into neighborhoods. The drama created in such studies is always a thrilling, moment-to-moment improvisation in which small things generate big effects. Incremental changes in the scenario, like waiting for the old man with the dog to walk directly under the deli sign, or framing the sullen teen right next to a reflective window, can be the difference between something that’s merely quaint and something that’s universal. And the more crowded with subjects the frame is in a street shot, the more options there are to weigh. Doing choreography for a lone dancer is not the same thing as blocking out space an entire troupe.
Streets shots are about weighing the importance of several things at once, in opposition to each other rather than as isolated elements. Tensions are set, tightened and released; motives are explored and exploited. In 2021’s cautious re-emergence from our respective quarantine caves, we are not only re-learning the flexing of our own muscles; we are also watching the equivalent adjustment in others. With or without a camera in hand, we are all more deliberate people watchers in this nervous re-entry phase. People are not, at least for right now, mere wallpaper, but active orbiting bodies in little constellations. We are a little more keenly aware, as we venture out, what their personal Great To Be Back moments are. Perhaps, in time, we will go back to our old habit of generally walking past each other, but now, in this careful new world, we are paying a little more attention. And those of us who, through photography, are in the habit of seeing with a little extra intensity will be in for a feast.
As stated before, the more people you decide to include in a street shot, the more choreography there is to fuss over. In the “day-out-with-dad” scenario shown here, I had several stories that all wanted telling at the same time. In some frames shot over the space of a minute (about eight), various players were all contending for star status. In some shots, the father seemed to be guiding the kids and the dog. In a few, the dog’s personality as explorer-at-large seemed to place his energy in charge. In yet more, the young girl seemed to be trying to run things by standing atop the rock on which, in the selected frame, she’s seen leaning. Thus, in the final version, she’s a little more passive, Dad is trying to keep things in balance, and the dog is definitely on point as the overall leader of the expedition.
All versions of this scene had their elements of tension, warmth and humor, and so in choosing a single final rendition, I was neither right or wrong. The joy of the enterprise was in the element of spontaneous creation offered by what was happening upon the stage and amongst the players. I could write the ending so the guy gets the girl or where the cowboy just rides into the sunset, but that part is really unimportant. In street photography, the potential is the attraction. We are only able to extract a single instant to suggest a whole reality, and both the thrill and the terror of that choice, while it’s no walk in the park, is, for some, simply irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.
That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.
Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.
And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN ONE SENSE, THE GLOBAL LOCKDOWN OF 2020 has created the biggest simultaneously experienced event outside of a world war. The advertising slogans are right: we really are in this altogether. On the other hand (thinking purely like a photographer), the way we all go through this is often solitary, hidden from mass view. Many of our struggles are not waged in the public eye, which is where so many amazing images are born. Instead, we are living with a mass event without the mass reactions.
And so, yes, I miss crowds. Audiences. Throngs. Multitudes cheering, crying, yearning, celebrating. Because photographs of those instantaneous, shared emotions are, in themselves, deeply affecting, sometimes more so than whatever the crowd is actually reacting to. A static picture of a guy cranking a bat around to send a homer over the back fence is one thing, while the backdrop of amazed thousands seeing him do so takes the photo to a completely different level. Certainly, we all crave solitude, as a measure of what is most personally affecting or shaping us, and photographs borne of those feelings are undeniably poignant. But in this time of general-suffering-individually-contained, we are robbed of the pictures that actually show us all being in it together. Consider the opening to the old 1950’s Superman series. It’s not that a guy is flying right over your head: it’s that you’re in a crowded street full of people all having your minds blown simultaneously. Look! Up in the sky……
The aftermath of a rainstorm over the Hollywood Hill, seen here, would have been gorgeous all by itself. But what makes me love this picture most is the fact that everyone gathered here (actually visitors to Griffith Observatory, which points the opposite direction, and packs its own killer view, of downtown L.A.) has been struck by the same wonder at the same time. We are all, for a few moments, one person. For just a few seconds, nothing is as important as what we’re seeing and feeling, together.
There will be a time, again, when images will be made of us all emerging from this shadow, all blinking our collective eyes at the strange sensation of walking back into the sunlight. And yes, there will, in the anxious interim, be news footage of us cramming like crazed ants into beach bars or partying heedlessly in crowded streets. But that brief surge of manic novelty won’t be the real picture. The real picture will occur when honest cameras register the genuine joy of not just getting back out but getting back to each other, and pointing skyward to ask, “is that a bird? A plane…?”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN TIMES LIKE THESE, OUR EYES HUNGRILY SEEK OUT signs of continuity, proof that, even as many things pass away, other things, essential things, will go on. This desire to see a way for part of today to remain, as a part of tomorrow, is strong in days of crises, and it finds its way into the viewfinders of our cameras. We know, logically, at least, that a bit of the world is always ending. But we emotionally, we long to be assured that something important will remain. And we make pictures accordingly.
Like many, I have recently limited my time “out” to walks in wide open spaces. Six feet of separation and all that. The thing that connects me anew to those that I encounter is my camera, and so I have been shooting almost exclusively with what the commercial market calls a “super zoom”, the perfect tool for people who want to feel close but dare not actually get close. I don’t think of myself as deliberately spying or peeping on people, and much of what I see I reject as being a bit too intimate for sharing. But the general tableaux of everyday humanity comes up again and again, in ways which suggest effective images that do not betray my subject’s privacy, yet convey things that we are all feeling. It’s a tightrope walk, but with care, that very important personal distance can be respected.
In the image you see here, there’s nothing more universal than a mother and daughter walking together, and yet its value in memory, to me, is very specific. I clearly recall the sensation of walking with my father, all five feet nine of him, as a tiny boy, and seeing him as a giant….a mountain of reassuring protection. I stood on his shoulders: I ran between his legs: He swung me like a sling: His arms bore me up and gave me the sensation of flying like Superman. Most important was the pure transmission of happy energy from him to me, his life conducting itself into mine. We were a big candid photo family, and so I have lots of archival data on every part of my childhood, chronicles of years when my young parents grew up side by side with my sister and me and we were absorbed into the best part of them. My parents are 91 and 88 this year, and the current situation forbids my being in even the same half-continent as they, but I carry with me all my Walks With Giants, all the times I was the laughing girl in this image. I hope that she and her mother would not begrudge me the privilege of borrowing their energy and trapping a bit of it inside my box. It’s a life force that, in a larger sense, belongs to us all.
Because some things must go on.
And they will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Reports Of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PRONOUNCING NEW YORK CITY DEAD since the Dutch first tried to turn the place into a satellite business enterprise and the locals decided, in reverse Cinderella fashion, that those wooden shoes weren’t really a good fit for their feet. In fact, The City That Never Sleeps is kind of like a cat on steroids, endowed with not merely nine but a seemingly infinite number of separate lives, each one built on the ashes of the one that preceded it. Something in New York is always under threat, soon to open on this site, not as good as it used to be, and something that no one’s ever seen before, all at the same time. It is a chorus that, to outsiders, can sound like a cacophony. The locals hear music in the crashing of the garbage cans. To those who don’t get it, the reaction to what Manhattan regards as Business As Usual is often some variation on Oh My God How Can You Live Like This.
It’s no wonder that the camera, any camera at any time, can’t look away.
After all, you blink….you might miss something.
At this writing, March of 2020, the city is curled up into a ball, bracing itself for an impending impact that no one knows how to estimate or pre-measure. By any reasonable guess, the meteor, when it hits, will hurt big, and for a long time. And so I don’t propose a mere “pick yourself up” attitude or cheery bravado as the country looks down the barrel of this cannon. But I also believe that, like Twain’s death, any bets that are taken against New York’s survival will be ill-advised. I am not a native, but over a lifetime, I have spent enough time in New York streets to know that this brash kid is here to stay. You can smash airplanes into our neighborhoods. So what else you got? You can tear up the streets, close our favorite bar, church, or theatre, swaddle the whole place in economic depression, and even flood the subway. Is that your best shot? This isn’t empty bluster: it’s demonstrated fact. Yeah, sure, we’ll dim the lights on Broadway from time to time, but, hey, there’s a new sushi joint opening in Soho next week, y’know?
The proof of what I’m saying is in the photographic record, in the visual poetry of all the Berenice Abbotts and Walker Evanses and Alfred Eisenstadts and Robert Frankses and Diane Arbuses and too many other testimonial eyes to count. If you’ve got a little spare time these days, check out a few. There are even a few occasionally lucky entries from yours truly. And while everyone else in the world has an opinion, good or bad, with or without a camer, about New York, only one vote really counts.
And that’s theirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE WAYS WE USE PHOTOGRAPHY TO NAVIGATE through our tricky lives is to use it to sort of mark our personal territory. To leave a trail of bread crumbs about the places we passed on our journey. Pictures stitch together a rough chronology of who we are, who we care about, what we believe is important. And one of the most conspicuous parts of this timeline involves our interactions with each other, and the images that those interactions generate.
Our virtual world, with all its facebookings and instagramations, is but a simulation of the dimensionally deep contact we have with each other in our best moments. It’s a wonderful abbreviation of full human experience, but it is just that: an abbreviation. A synthetic version of real interplay between real people. Photographs, by contrast, are of endless interest to us because they are chronicles of those interplays. A visual record. A testament. As we often say, the camera both reveals and conceals, showing what might have happened, what we wish had happened….and maybe, in lucky moments, a trace of what actually did happen when we met. And talked. And shared. And traded lives, if only for fractions of seconds.
The picture you see here is what, for lack of a more precise term, was a happy accident. It wasn’t planned. Heck, it wasn’t even deliberately framed, being a snap taken from lap level in the second it occurred to me that the two men seen here might be having a moment. An exchange. A life-swapping. Turns out, without really having done much of anything on purpose, I walked away with what I regarded as a story. It doesn’t even bother me that I don’t know the players, or the plot, or the outcome. The story, as seen in the picture, just is. There is a connection between Man A and Man B that lives on in frozen form and it doesn’t require, or even benefit from, a word of explanation from me. It’s something real, even if it’s not something real clear. It’s a record of the Luxury Of We.
As humans, we crave connection. We even settle for social media, which is a sharp step down in true intimacy, just because we want that contact so badly. Me? Give me a real human moment every time. Snapping such special exchanges is more than mere “posting”: it’s witnessing, and that’s a whole other level of experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: signs, designed for a set purpose, repurposed by accident or intention into very different messages. They are everywhere: the “deer crossing” warning that is riddled with shotgun holes: the speed limit posting that gets spray-painted a few mph higher than what the law allows: the red diamond where the word “racism” is added to the word “stop”. For photographers, observing the environment is more than adding our own interpretation: it’s also noticing the way messages are modified by others, and chronicling the effect of it all.
Humans are highly adaptive, and if a sign isn’t working for them, they’ll set about to make it right, or at least put it in sync with their view of the world. But not all these revisions are vandalistic in nature. Certainly signs are morphed as pure commentary, but they are also messages of urgency, protests against official injustice, cries for help. In all cases, to show them in photographs is to acknowledge the passions behind the revisions.
And then there are the signs that nature itself takes a hand in reshaping. Wear and tear can render warnings and advisories ironic, even useless. Is a stencil symbolizing a handicapped parking space subject to reinterpretation, once it’s been weathered into abstraction, as seen here? If a safety zone sign is smashed by one careless car too many, are we seeing a good argument for further civic action? Street photography is partly about people and partly about how people fit (or don’t fit) into the infrastructures of their lives. Sometimes, of course, we can try a little too hard to make sense of it all. I recall, decades ago, during the making of one of my many ill-advised student films, falling in love with a particular EXIT sign and deciding that I should shoot enough movie film to edit a shot of it into multiple mileposts of my magnum opus. Sadly, the movie in question didn’t have much to conceptually hold it together beyond the occasional popping-up of the word EXIT between sequences. Truly, if I were hooked up to a polygraph I could prove that I remember nothing else about the project. However, I can still see that sign in my dreams/nightmares. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
All of which is to merely say that no sign registered by our cameras is ever just about what it “says”. It’s always evaluated within the context of what we want to say….or want to avoid saying. That is, we can never just take signs at their word. In the right hands, they have so much to say beyond that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGE RITUAL BY WHICH WE HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED to political candidates has been forged alongside our inherited habits of chronicling life with cameras. The select corps of reporters that is technically tasked with capturing the “official” look and feel of a campaign actually accomplishes no such thing. In the era of ubiquitous personal recording devices, the impressions that can be conveyed of a politician’s viability are finally as varied as the number of people in their desired audiences. All impressions matter, and at the same time, none of them matter. We are all in charge of our own lenses, and our own truth.
Wherever you rate a candidate on a scale of uncool to cool (and how you, in turn, envision his or her “electability” with your camera) is naturally linked to everything you subjectively experience when in contact with that person (or his entourage). Was the hall air-conditioned? Was the free food any good? Was there easy parking at the rally? Did you stand next to someone obnoxious during the speech. And, as to the speech, was it erudite or homespun? Concise or long-winded? Was the sound system working? Had you already heard that same stump speech too many other times? Did he/she look older/thinner/taller than on tv? And then there are the exact same in-the-moment technical challenges of a “live shoot” that the professional network crews are contending with, from lighting to composition to that idiot in front of you who blocked your million-dollar shot with his campaign sign. The whole situation is, in its own way, as dynamic, moment to moment, as covering a sports competition. That is to say, not easy.
Ironically, the thing about shooting political events that is most problematic is the shooter himself, since we, as either passive or active voters, have already brought our biases and hopes to the rallies, linking them in series with our lenses and optics just as surely as if they were color filters. We begin our “coverage” from an established viewpoint, completely obviating the idea of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: to be able to take a shot you are also able to control a shot, and if you can’t bring your own take to something as personal as a political contest, then it’s not worth even lifting your camera to your eye.
Since photography is all about selection, i.e., the extraction and suspension of specific particles of time, it stands to reason that an image which makes a politician look godlike in one moment can make him look like a drooling idiot the next. We are all subject to the shaping of reality achieved by skillful use of the camera. Once we experience it in our own work, that knowledge may help us be better consumers of the images made from outside our own viewpoints, and calculated to persuade, reveal, or conceal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” – Anais Nin
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A PERSON, observe them in a relationship.
Alone, each of us is a sealed chamber of secrets. Matched with just one other living thing, however, an individual’s inner truths begin to seep out, to display themselves like buds slowly blossoming into blooms. Photographers concentrate mightily on solo portraits, and that is certainly a treasure trove of its own, but the visual grammar of a portrait is completely different than that of a group shot, and provides completely distinct information. The self has its native language, but when we are placed in a situation with others, be it a simple social chat or a key interaction, we are translated into a different tongue altogether.
We experience joy, regret, conflict, triumph as individuals, and a photograph can certainly read pieces of all of that (or at least imply it), but once we are in twosomes, threesomes, and so forth, all those emotional states are measured differently. The signals become amplified, more easily detected. Of course, people in conversations can be presenting completely false versions of themselves (spoiler alert) , but, in an image, the mask can be seen to slip, if only a little, revealing at least a smidgeon of the real person beneath the guise.
Admittedly, a photograph is not an x-ray, and so anything it records is open to interpretation, including our guess about the actual mindset of the subject. Translation: the camera can easily lie, or transmit a falsehood. Once that untruth is out in the open, however, the viewer is the jury that determines whether what’s on display is fact or fiction. My point is that palpably different things are in view in pictures of social interaction than in images of isolated individuals, and so all shooters should be conversant in mining both areas. The fact that the faces of the two women in the top picture are concealed is no more an inhibitor to our discovery than the plainer display of expressions of the duo on the subway. Our minds will devise their own ways of decoding these interactions. The fact remains that a whole extra level of view into the human mind/spirit can be achieved in watching people interact. For me, it’s the difference between shooting through a window to catch a glimpse of a house’s interior and being invited inside the place for a better look.
But that, as they say on the shrink’s couch, is just me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HISTORY DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHIN THE STORMY SURGE OF A CROWD, but with the quiet, agonized turning of individual hearts. One heart at a time, that’s how the world is turned…..or overturned.
Protests and demonstrations are a natural magnet for photographers. They appeal to the journalist in all of us, as street photography meets street theatre in a roiling mix that maybe, just, maybe will allow us to trap history inside our magical boxes. Thing is, certain surface elements of marches and public gatherings are dismayingly uniform: the sea of signs, the crush of bodies, the speaker’s rostrum….and masses of angry/jubilant faces. Photographers realize that world-changing events are really about faces, more than any other visual element. We look for features that record the raw essence of those events: pity, fear, exhilaration, relief, anger. Finding the right face within a mass gathering is the toughest assignment for anyone hoping to use a camera to record the over-large mash-up of sensations within a movement. A solid wall of people with signs isn’t the real story: what brought individuals to the site is the only message that can be trusted. You must fan past the mass of noise to find the quiet at the center.
You need not pick a side in a struggle to record what it costs people to invest their energy in having picked one themselves. The woman seen here, standing near an improvised speaker’s platform, may never have seen herself as a force to change the world. She is not triumphant: she is not a bomb-hurler: she doesn’t share in the giddy me-tooism of youth: she may actually wish she were somewhere else, even as something has told her she must be only here, right now. The parade/protest will rage on in big waves of zeal, but her emotion, at least in this moment, is not one of celebration. She is not having a good time. But written in her apprehension is something universal, eternal.
The human race seems, age after age, to be in search of the same basic things. The drama in our lives is defined by the path we choose to reach those things. And all of our quests force their way up into our features. Our faces betray what path we’re on, and why. There is no wisdom in the mob, unless it is in the wisdom of one face after another, all of whom, on the same day, strangely found themselves standing in the same spot.
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.