By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMERICA HAS NO LOVE OF INTERMEDIATE CHAPTERS. We’re big fans on huge, new beginnings of things. We are likewise fascinated by catastrophic finales. By contrast, the stories that take place between the first and last episodes of things are like flyover cities between the coasts.
Consequently, we tend to generate photographic tonnage when the Bright Shiny New Mall cuts its opening day ribbon, and crank lots of frames on the day the Sad Old Mall is razed to the ground, but not much quotidian stuff. There may indeed be less drama in the day-to-day goings-on in towns, public works, and other human endeavors. or maybe we just bore easily. Or maybe we haven’t learned to detect the tiny stories that rise and fall between the more obvious bookends of history.
Boom and Bust are big news to photographers. Humming Along Normally, not so much.
Virginia City, Nevada typifies what Americans call Ghost Towns, places which ran their life cycle from explosion to collapse but still physically exist in some way. Some are mere hollowed-out ruins crumbling in the dust, while others, like Virginia City, have survived as commercial entities (spelled: tourist traps) selling nostalgia. They make money recalling how they used to make money, which, in the case of V.C., was mining silver. This little bus stop of a town was once one of the wealthiest places on the planet, ripping ore out of the ground and sending it all over the world at a rate that minted a new millionaire every few minutes. Virginia City had its own short line railroad making freight runs hundreds of times each day. Its well-heeled lords imported materials from every continent to appoint opera houses, churches, hotels and saloons with glitter and grandeur. And the city created one of the most progressive elementary schools in the nation, equipped with central heating, flush toilets, water fountains, and individual student desks….in 1876.
Ghost towns are the walk-through museums, the pickled cadavers of American life. They’re finished but they aren’t through. There is a bright coat of paint replicating the gaiety of better times, but, beyond the fro-yo stands, ersatz whiskey joints and souvenir shoppes, the skeleton of a very different daily life is still visible. And a well-aimed camera can still summon a degree of Boom within the Bust.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT GOES BY MANY NAMES: THE MONEY SHOT, THE GOLDEN ANGLE, THE POSTCARD VIEW. Travel enough and you will snap one. The all-roads-lead-to-this-picture, must-shoot frame that defines a town or city. Rattle off the names from Eiffel to Empire State. Drawn like moths to flame, we make the same treks that millions before us have made to capture the classic destination, the local Mecca. Do we truly believe that we, the 400,000,000th visitor to the special site, will capture something that someone else missed? Well, yes, we do. For all the other tourists, it’s just a Kodak moment, but once we focus our lens, boy, it’ll be a moment for the ages. Or not.
But I also believe in the value of the dead opposite of the obvious shot, the image taken 180 degrees away from the holy object we all think we must shoot. The hiding-over-my-shoulder treasure that no one came to take, but which might just qualify as a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s across the alley from the Alamo? What’s a half a block to the left of Notre Dame? Or, in the case of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, what happens when you deliberately turn away from the most desired view in the city?
The iconic downward vista of the Steel City, at precisely the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers blend at the town’s terminus to form the Ohio, is chiefly shot from atop Mount Washington, a district reached via the romantic, cable-driven incline service that has trucked commuters up the Mount and down for over a century. Add the souvie shop and the walk-out view platforms at the top, and it’s one of the most obvious cases of here, take this picture in all of American tourism.
But the Mount, an old urban neighborhood unto itself, is like a flatland city dropped on top of a lumpy cliff, its streets rising and falling like a stone roller coaster. The sheer suddenness of its drop-offs and the skyward pitches of its roofs lends a zany angularity, its tiered vistas contrasted by the glass and steel of contemporary Pittsburgh just below. Think Rio with Czechs and Germans.
There’s something of a religious pilgrimage quality to taking your shot at a popular attraction, but it takes mere minutes to scout around beyond the crowds to what lies immediately beyond. The opposite of obvious is often a synonym for discovery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE SURE THING ABOUT TAKING IN “THE SIGHTS” AT THE AVERAGE TOURIST ATTRACTION. You will be channeled, herded, if you will, toward exactly what the proprietors want you to see. This insures most people their coveted “Kodak Moment”, with Mom and the kids standing at the precisely picturesque sweet spot at the cathedral, the ruins, the monument, the mountain, etc. In fact, Kodak worked with parks for years to actually post signs near such perfect vistas, a polite way of yelling OVER HERE, STUPID at passersby. Thanks for the flash cards, guys.
Obviously this attempt to guide visitors to the “good stuff” can result in the occasional great image. But you and I know that, for the most part, it amounts to the completion of a homework assignment. You know, like the opposite of fun, spontaneity, um, photography.
Tomorrow, class, bring a picture of yourself standing in front of a famous landmark. And remember to smile.
I’m a big one for wandering away from the tour group….not so far as to wander aimlessly into a scary forest full of monsters, just far enough to take in the entire area while the guide drones on.
I’m not so much interested in what’s available to photograph as I am in what else is available to photograph.
Sometimes, of course, you are better off just taking your approved thirty seconds in front of the waterfall and moving on. Other times you hit something, sometimes by just looking thirty feet further.
Do I have an example? Thought you’d never ask…
There is an over-hyped old house-turned-souvie shop in La Jolla, California (one of the most gorgeous coastal towns in the west) that sits atop a subterranean cave which looks out onto the ocean. Once inside the shop, the able-boded (and those who do not suffer claustrophobia) pay to enter an extremely dark, steep, damp and cramped staircase that takes them down below the house to the cave.
Now, for a guy with a camera constantly hanging from his neck, taking anything like a usable shot in this crimped cavern is largely a crap shoot, since light is, let us say, at a premium. So the “officially” cool thing, was, for me, frustrating to say the least, and I trudged up The Staircase From Hell (my knees aren’t what they used to be) to re-enter the shop at the earth’s surface. So far, so pointless.
While my wife performed her mandatory inspection of the store’s copious supply of trinkets, I walked outside, then, instead of going back to the street, wandered around to the back of the building. Lucky choice. Suddenly I was in someone’s backyard, a hilly, curvy, strange little lot that could prove to be a nightmare for whatever neighborhood kid was doomed to cut the owner’s grass. It was only a matter of being curious enough to go about thirty feet off the official path….and yet here was the relief I wanted from chronic tour disease. An actual human habitation, complete with Hobbit-like stone landscaping and an extremely cool red scooter to counter-balance the rain-rich greens. Here was a picture I wanted. The “famous” view had shown me nothing. The “unimportant” view had given me everything.
Hey, I regularly get lost anyway. Why not have some fun doing it?
Now, where did my mommy go?