By MICHAEL PERKINS
Let me kick my credentials.
Ice-T, Back On The Block
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, THE WORD WAS “BALLYHOO“, a term for the most salient trait of Americans; self-promotion, the proud and loud announcement that we are here. Ballyhoo has assumed many forms, being at once proclamations about who we are; statements of who we hope to be; agendas for what we want you to think; claims about what we have to sell or bargain with; reminders about how much respect we demand; warnings about our boundaries; rules of engagement, for good or ill.
“Self-legending”, and how it makes its way into our every visual communication, is perhaps the most American of American qualities. We didn’t single-handedly invent mass communication or advertising, but we certainly promoted and perfected the fine art of ballyhoo in ways that are still modeled the world over. Photographs of our urban landscape are a blur of our various brags, boasts, promises, and promotions, along with the hard truth that, like it or not, you must deal with us. Americans are almost fatally allergic to being ignored, and so, simply announcing is never as good as shouting through a megaphone, or, in graphic terms, making the colors bolder and the letters bigger. We visually bellow at each other like barkers in a carnival or competing vendors in a street market.
In making their enduring images of life in this country in the twentieth century, masters like Robert Frank and Walker Evans often shot frames that were almost completely composed of signage. Today, those time freezes are a valuable resource for marking what our priorities were in bygone eras; the various announcements of merchandise, company names and prices anchor the pictures in specific dreams of specific times. Nearly one hundred years on, we use different tools to, in Ice-T’s phrase, “kick our credentials”, but the same urgent need to be noticed, to be heeded, goes on, albeit in new guises. I can never photographically take the measure of a city without trying to contrast old and new signage, original inscriptions and names along with the newest refits from a Starbucks or a McDonald’s. Photography is the first art in the history of the world that is equal parts reportage and interpretation, and trying to learn how to see humanity amidst all the ballyhoo will always make for legendary pictures.
I GOTTA WORK TOMORROW, BUT……
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I CRUISE MY WAY CAREFULLY TOWARD THE END OF YET ANOTHER YEAR, I have the distinct sensation of coming to a slow, smooth landing after having descended through a bank of dense storm clouds. Having made pictures for over half my life, I find my mind, near year’s end, riffing through a stack of images that now serve as a catalogue for the markers and milestones of more than two thirds of a century, as if my existence somehow compiled one of those kids’ flip books that, when properly thumbed, looks like a continuous movie.
And as November careens toward December, I find that I want to slow the movie down. I want to celebrate moments that were miraculously, often accidentally, destined to be frozen, evergreen, in my mind. Trying to determine what pictures within a year earn the title “keeper”, I am also rotating past earlier years, to purer and purer depictions of joy that I could never have created myself, but was blessed to be witness to. This is one such picture.
2016.It is a summer Sunday evening in Seattle, Washington. I have never walked through this neighborhood before, but the joyful whoop of this street party has drawn me blocks away from my hotel. I am enjoying the long, golden sunset hours that are a photographer’s bounty in that part of the American Northwest, and I am drawn like a magnet to these wonderfully free and frolicsome people. The music is loud, the dancing is carefree, and the mood is lighter than a dandelion seed on a breeze. This is what happiness looks like.
I know nothing about who sponsored this shindig, be it the parks department, a bunch of friends, or just the sheer life-affirming impetus of a summer night. It matters little what started, it or why: what matters is that, when I enter this space, I never want to leave it. However, I know I am bound for other places, and so, if I must leave, I’m taking a souvenir.
One of the things I love most about this picture is that nearly everyone in it is present, attending to some other person or persons. They are there, not scrolling, not checking their Instagram, but immersed in the miracle of being with other human beings. Tomorrow, they have to work. Tomorrow, they have to report to someone, fulfill deadlines, make plans, cut their losses.
But here, in this frame, it ain’t tomorrow yet.
And it never will be.
TRACE OR NO TRACE?
How do you like your pizza photo? With a guy…?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING PEOPLE IN THEIR NATIVE SETTINGS, that is, making pictures of what they do in order to explain what they do, is the essence of street work. We are fascinated by people being “caught in the act of being themselves” (as the intro to the old show Candid Camera used to state), and we get a ton of context on all the stuff we’re seeing in a frame when we see where human activity fits into it all. I get it.
And yet, I still find myself evaluating the impact of an image with a sort of “trace or no trace” choice. Do the people in the picture explain it, actually anchor it, or am I (we) merely in the habit of sticking them there, like punctuation in a sentence? Can we comprehend what the photograph is about, and what part humans had in its meaning, without the actual presence of said people?
The pair of shots you see here, taken seconds apart in a funky urban pizzeria, are the latest pair to present me with this conundrum. Certainly the cook in the top image conveys scale to the surrounding oven and fixtures. For example, with him in the frame, it’s easy to convey the size of the interior space, i.e., it’s pretty compact. He also “looks the part” in that he looks like he fits in a pizzeria, that is, he’s well cast in his part.
But look at the second image, which was taken after he ducked briefly into the kitchen. You get many of the same cues and clues. You get atmosphere from the distressed brick in both the walls and the oven. Indeed, without the chef to distract you, you might actually linger longer over the details in the oven itself, which unmistakably screams pizza. I suppose the reason I dither with this dilemma is the fact that I’ve often been forced to suggest the presence of people in various still lifes and architectural compositions, either because they’re not part of, say, a museum exhibit, or because they are dead or absent for more mortal reasons, leaving me with only their leavings from which to tell a story.
Even if we (or you) can’t come up with a consistent rule, the point is that not all people make a photographic story richer. Sometimes they are mere pieces of furniture, props if you will, added for balance. You alone must decide whether they’re a necessity or mere window dressing.
STUMBLING ONTO SECRETS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU CONSIDER YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY TO BE JOURNALISTIC BY NATURE, you will, over the course of your shooting life, have the visual evidence of other people’s stories dumped into your lap. In most cases, it’s the physical aftermath of some human event that you are arriving at after the fact. Leave-behinds from a mystery. Who left this here? What happened here? Who made this, and why?
Photogs regularly stumble onto other people’s secrets, or at least the litter of secrets. People abruptly break camp and move on from the site of their strangest whims, leaving clues that may or may not make their original intentions clear. And since we take just as many images of the things we don’t understand as those we think that we do, we snap away at the strange archaeological digs people abandon when they go on to the next thing in their lives. The fact that we don’t comprehend just what it is that they left behind doesn’t make the pictures any less compelling. In fact, quite the contrary.
This office chair was discovered just where you see it, under the golden canopy of a single enormous palo verde tree in full spring blossom. The shady seclusion of the scene seems to indicate a desire to shelter, to escape, to carve out a quiet spot of contemplation. And while that may indeed be the case, the whole thing invites a lot of other questions. Why this chair? Was it the person’s favorite, or, conversely, a perch so hated that dragging it here was the next best thing to lugging it to the town dump or pouring lighter fluid on it? What was motivating enough to transfer a chair from the nearest office suite (about a tenth of a mile away) and finding a place where it could be left with no fear of discovery? Was the site scouted, or merely happened upon? How many times did the person come to sit in the chair, and why and for how long? Was it the object of reward (in an hour I’ll be able to escape to the chair) or some kind of desperate relief (if I don’t get away from these people, I’m going to just lose it..)?
One picture conjures all of this, and more, additional plot lines which I’m sure even the casual viewer can supply without much effort. That’s the beauty of even the untold stories captured in photographs. They tell us enough to keep the seeker coming back for more. We think, as photographers, that we want to reveal everything, but, in reality, many of our most treasured images are of other people’s secrets, unrevealed, and, hence, irresistible.
THE STREET GIVETH…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S BEEN CALLED SPYING, PRYING, PREDATION, and, occasionally “art”….the strange cross between eavesdropping and journalism that is collectively known as “street” photography. The elements of it that reveal something universal or profound about the human condition are hailed with exhibitions and awards, while the worst of it is considered rude, intrusive, even cruel. For those of us who only want our picture taken when we give specific permission, or when we are “ready”, street work can feel like theft, that is, something that is stolen from us. Then again, it also, sometimes, nails the truth about someone else’s vulnerabilities or foibles, and that, miraculously, we seem to be able to live with.
In a world in which billions of images are snapped globally each day, and in which most shutters are absolutely silent, and flash is on the endangered species list, it seems as if we have long since passed the point of no return in terms of privacy. We emotionally demand it even though we have no logical right to expect it. Every day there are more and more places where cameras can not only intrude, but intrude with laser precision, and we must reluctantly admit that, effectively, we are all under surveillance, always.
We have almost unlimited access to everyone’s quiet inner moments, at least the ones they play out in public. Does everyone deserve to have every part of their life laid bare, and who is to decide? If you come upon a private moment, such as the one seen above, does slicing off a sample of it for public use cheapen that moment? Or does it in some way celebrate it as emblematic of something essential about being human, something we all recognize, even share?
I shake up all these arguments on a day-by-day and frame-by-frame basis, and I don’t always come up with a coherent answer. The street giveth and the street taketh away, and photographers pluck their harvest from it like an army of insatiable fruit pickers. Are we bad? Are we wrong? Can anyone say for sure?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CAMERA IS THE MOST INTRUSIVE INVENTION EVER UNLEASHED ON THE WORLD, and the world has been altered forever by its peering, prying eye. That is both a negative and positive statement.
It has to be, since the fruits of photography are, on a good day, a mixed blessing. This unique bit of Industrial-Age machinery has, over several centuries now, investigated, invaded, illuminated and violated all of us. We simultaneously embrace this phenomenon and recoil from it. We hope its all-seeing orb won’t expose our particular secrets, but we cannot look away when it probes the dark truths of others.
Like many, I shoot through open windows as I walk through neighborhoods. I record what I tend to call “life leaks”. I maintain what I tell myself is a respectful distance, working hard not to capture anything starkly intimate about the lives that are concealed within houses, apartments, shops. I am only after shards, suggestions. Hints at the real wonders within. After all, it’s not, strictly speaking, my business, is it? Or might it be?
The camera, at any given time, is engaged in several ongoing chronicles of horrors and triumphs of the human condition in various global “hot spots”. It has ever been thus. We look in on people’s daily toils, invited or not. We are peepers. This is not always a good thing, nor is it always a bad thing. Sometimes, as in the image shown here, our curiosity about how people live is rather benign. Look at the way the light plays inside that house. Oh, what’s that picture on the wall? What’s around that corner, I wonder? Other times, our curiosity is reportorial, even prurient. What happened to this building? Is there anyone left alive inside? Who did this? It’s a short walk from childlike wonder to journalistic horror shows. I wonder where the line is.
I wonder if there even is a line.
Since the invention of the camera, we are all witnesses. And we are all subject matter.
I worry about walking a tightrope between wanting to know and demanding to know, and how we can all stay aloft on that rope. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. We, every one of us, has to make that call one image at a time.
STRIKE A POSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS GENERALLY ABOUT CAPTURING PEOPLE in their most natural element, freezing the more narratively interesting samples from their daily activity. In theory, the format really offers a fairly infinite number of quick examinations of virtually every trait and pursuit, promising a lot of visual variety in the depiction of the human condition. However, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing number of pictures of people on the street seem to be about more and more of the same thing: fixating on our phones.
You must have noticed by now that random images of people on the street are, in more cases than ever before, pictures of them watching screens. Texting. Tweeting. Dialing. Reading. In a world in which we do more of our private business out in public, our engagement has gone further and further inward, ever more insular, isolated. This is not a critique of the value of these precious devices, or a wish that they somehow be magically uninvented. My point is that their ubiquitous use presents fewer opportunities for exploration of human behavior by the street photographer, since, even though our phones are holding us spellbound, the way we look when we’re on them is, well, boring.
This 21st-century “look” is a strange sort of update of the facial aspect of photography’s first era in the 1800’s. In a time when exposures took a long time and people were just beginning to formulate their relationship to this invasive eye known as a camera, people tended to look frozen, solemn, as if they were only reluctantly granting admittance to the blasted thing. They stood at attention, staring blankly, their faces a cipher. Later on, we learned to love the camera, to mug and model and talk to it, a habit that still shapes our candids at intimate moments or the tidal wave of selfies we create.
On the street, however, that is to say, on our way to something else (all our various something elses), we are facially as lifeless as a Victorian-era farmer posing for his first daguerreotype. Thus the man in this image, already physically alone by virtue of the space he occupies, is doubly isolated by his further act of pulling away into his phone. A key part of him, a part that has always been a basic element of street shooting, is simply not available.
Does this trend alarm you? Do you find yourself approaching street work in a fundamentally different way because of it? Or is the job of a photo-observer to merely record what he sees, or in many more cases, what he sees being withheld?
FROM BEAUTIFUL TO BLEAK AND BACK
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Main Barber, 1968 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
FRED HERZOG (1930-2019) MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHERS you’ve never heard of, just as there are hundreds of other unsung heroes in the slow transition of street photography from a medium dominated by monochrome to one defined by color. Indeed, it is because of Herzog and others like him that we now regard color as not only a valid tool for street work, but, for some, the only way to fly. However, it took a long time to get to this point.
By the time Fred began shooting almost exclusively in what we now call “un-re-gentrified” neighborhoods in the Vancouver of the 1950’s, he had earned his bread with less fanciful work as a medical photographer and fine arts instructor. At the time, the raw, immediate feel of black & white film was still the world’s go-to. Color films were thought to be the domain of amateur snapshots or high-end magazine ads. Monochrome was stark; color was pretty. How could any serious art shot depict the real state of mankind in the plump, primary tones of Kodachrome?
Granville/Smythe, 1959 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)
Herzog shot not only what he wanted, confining himself to the same small knot of neighborhoods for most of his shooting life, he shot how he wanted, and Kodachrome was his go-to. Vancouver was run-down and worn, but it was also bursting with a kind of bumptious neon flavor that would have been stripped away in black-and-white. In an age that said that color would beautify (and thus blunt) a picture’s reportorial impact, Herzog set out to demonstrate, in one iconic image after another, that color didn’t soften the harder edges of his world; it actually fleshed them out.
Technology, or rather its slow evolution, kept Fred’s work from being properly seen until years after he had created some of his best work. Kodachrome was a very slow reversal film which defied even the best labs’ efforts to create good qualtity prints, and so Herzog kept the results largely to himself in slide format until the world caught up, delaying the first public exhibition of his work until 2007. The wait was worth it, as his full body of work became one of the most valued studies on a single locality in photographic history. Herzog managed to chronicle the rise, fall, and resurrection of a city in a sprawling portfolio covering more than a third of a century, but, more importantly, he has become, with every passing year since his death in 2019, one of the greatest prophets of the full power of color, not to merely make life warmer, but to render it more completely. Time has vindicated his instinct, the feeling that life, rendered in all its natural hues, could still register the complete range of human experience, from the beautiful to the bleak, and do it faithfully.
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.
VERITIES AND VARIABLES
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.
PUT ME IN, COACH
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.
CHOREOGRAPHY IN THE PARK
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.
COLLISIONS OF CONVENIENCE
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.
LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!
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…?”
WALKING WITH GIANTS
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.
THE LUXURY OF WE
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.
JUST GIMME SOME KIND OF SIGN
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.
WHAT A LONG, STRANGE (ROAD) TRIP
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.
PATHS AND PURPOSES
The Rebel (2021)
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.
April 21, 2021 | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: Commentary, Street Photography | Leave a comment