By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALSO THE HISTORY OF A STRANGELY INTIMATE DANCE WITH DEATH, a fascination with its look, its effects, its ability to transform both man and materials, mood and matter. From the first images of combat in the mid-nineteenth century to today’s Instagram chronicles of turmoil and trauma, we have tried to testify about how the world changes when we, or others like us, pass out of existence. The process is a constant rug-of-war between intimacy and publicity, between the glare of public destruction and the privacy of inner oblivion. And the pictures that result are arguments, quarrels with ourselves, which can never truly be settled.
There seems to have been a shift over the past few decades in how we grieve, or at least in the visual vocabulary of that grief that we choose to put on display. The quiet graveside memorials of eras past seems to have been supplanted by increasingly public vigils. We cry our tears in front of each other now, and the creation of instantaneous, group-generated shrines has become a bizarre kind of performance art, as visible as graffiti, and as personal as each man’s ending. Whether it takes the form of mountains of teddy bears stacked around an accident site or candle-lit collages of mementos offering mute testimony from well-meaning strangers, mourning is now something we experience globally, tribally. John Donne’s 1624 sentiment that “every man’s death diminishes me” seems, in the present day, eerily prescient.
I recently drove past an improvised memorial for a deceased high school student. I knew nothing of his life beyond what his friends decided to collect to mark its passing. And so, visually, I was presented with a puzzle. What specific articles can be used to symbolize a life? Conversely, what should be excluded? How does an object that says something for one person presume to speak for he who has been silenced?
I made the shot you see here in as plain and reportorial a fashion as I could, shooting it head-on, in the manner of Walker Evan’s iconic images of signs and posters from the 1930’s. The only interpretive factor here, really, is the light in which I chose to shoot, deciding that sunset would help boost texture in the shot, and, incidentally, serve as a kind of metaphor. Make of that what you will.
Some pictures don’t need people in them to speak loudly for them. Today’s collectively assembled registries of loss are, in themselves, interpretive statements, not unlike paintings, editorials, or eulogies. Acknowledging them in pictures seems less like invasion and more like reportage, since they are clearly designed to be seen, to bear witness. The fact that they are anonymous makes them intriguing. The fact that they are so intensely personal makes them photographically essential.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY USED TO LITERALLY BE A MATTER OF MATH. Formulating formulae for harnessing light, predicting the reactivity of chemicals, calculating the interval between wretched and wonderful processing. And all that math, measured in materials, apprenticeship, and learning curves, was expensive. Mistakes were expensive. The time you invested to learn, fail, re-learn, and re-fail was expensive. All of it was a sustained assault on your wallet. It cost you, really cost you, in terms a math whiz could relate to, to be a photographer.
Now, the immediacy of our raw readiness to make a picture is astounding. Well, let’s amend that. To anyone picking up their first camera in the last thirty years, it’s pretty astounding. For those who began shooting ten years ago, it’s kinda cool. And for those falling in love with photography now, today, it’s……normal. Let’s pull that last thought out in the sunshine where we can get a good look at it:
For those just beginning to dabble in photography, the instantaneous gratification of nearly any conceptual wish is normal. Expected. No big deal. And the price of failure? Nil. Non-existent. Was there ever a time when it was a pain, or an effort just to make a picture, you ask Today’s Youth? Answer: not to my knowledge. I think it and I do it. If I don’t like it, I do it again, and again, faster than you can bolt down a burger on a commuter train. It’s just there, like tap water. How can I not be, why should I not be, absolutely fearless?
To take it further, Today’s Youth can learn more in a few months of shooting than their forebears could glean in years. And at an immeasurably small percentage of the sweat, toil, tears and financial investment. They can take a learning curve of rejected photos and failed concepts that used to be a long and winding road for pa and grandpa and compress it into a short and straight walk to the mailbox. And they are not sentimental, since they will not be spending enough time with any technology of any kind long enough to develop a weepy attachment for it, or for “how things used to be”. DSLR? Four-Thirds? Point and Shoot? Hey, anything that lets them take a picture is a camera. Make it so they can flap their eyelash and capture an image, and they’re in.
For some of us, hemmed in by experience, the limits of our technical savvy, and yes, our emotions, photography can be a somewhat formal experience. But for the many coming behind us, it’s just a reflex. A wink of the eye. Any and everything is an extension of their visual brain. Any and everything leads to a picture.
These new shooters will stop at nothing, will quake at nothing, will be awed by nothing, except ideas. They will be bold, because there is no reason not to be. They will take chances, since that, from their vantage point, is the only logical course. Photography is dead, long live photography.
The great awakening is at hand.
I AM INTERESTED MOST IN WHAT MAKES PEOPLE WANT TO TAKE PICTURES, as well as what makes them take the best ones. In that spirit, I have been recently re-examining the decade-long debate on the trend known as lomography, or the use of plastic bodied, low-tech toy cameras as serious imaging instruments. In renewing the impact of “lomo”, with its rudimentary shutter speeds and fixed-focus meniscus lenses, I have pored over four bazillion angry diatribes by those who condemn the cameras’ extreme technical limits and dismiss their enthusiasts as trendy phonies. I have also tracked its rabid defense by ardent users who celebrate lomo cameras as a way back to a kind of artistic innocence, a return to a photographic Eden in which we all shoot with our hearts instead of our heads. At the end of it all, does it matter what anyone thinks about how we take pictures if something, anything comes along to want them to take more of them? Probably not, and I certainly can’t decide the issue, if it needs deciding at all. Still, a brief re-examination of the whole concept, as I see it, might be worth a run-through. Your mileage may vary…
And, yes, before we proceed, I freely admit that a few world-class photos have been taken with cameras that are one step above drawing the image yourself with a crayon, just as a few amazing canvasses have been created by artists who hurl paint the way a monkey flings poo. I leave it to your discretion whether these accomplishments are vindication of a great vision, or happy accidents granted by the randomness fairy.
Backstory section: as a lifelong shooter, I enthusiastically began taking pictures with the very types of cameras which lomo fans so highly prize. This was dictated purely by economics, not art. It’s fair to say that, with the opening of every new packet of prints that arrived from the processor in those days, I spent more time cursing the smotheringly narrow limits of my light-leaky box and its take-it-or-leave-it settings than I spent cheering the results as some kind of creative breakthrough. I knew what real cameras could do. My father had a real camera. I had a toy, a toy which would betray my best efforts at breathtaking captures pretty much at will.
I didn’t feel avant-garde. I didn’t feel edgy.
I felt like I wanted a real camera.
Turns out that the manufacturers of my Imperial Mark XII, along with the Holga, the Diana, and other constellations in the lomo firmament, eventually came to the same conclusion. Many of their cheap products were made in the underdeveloped economies of iron-curtain countries.They cranked these babies out with the chief object of making a quick buck on undemanding first-time buyers and children. There was no attempt to market these clunkers as serious instruments; they were the fixed-focus, plastic-lensed equivalent of a bootlegged Dylan album taped off the mixer board. Eventually, these companies went on to other ways of separating the rubes from their rubles.
Now factor in the effect of time, nostalgia and (wait for it) ironic marketing. In the beginning of the digital age, photography arrives at a crossroads. Film is being challenged, if not falling under actual attack. Photography seems, to some, to have surrendered to a soulless technology rather than the “warm”, “human”, “hands-on” feel of analog picture-making. And as for the black arts of post-processing, the digital darkroom begins to be demonized only slightly less than the clubbing of baby seals. The unexpected, the unforseeable, the random begins to be attractive, simply because it spits in the eye of all this robo-gearhead slide toward pixels and light sensors.
A longing for a simpler time is observed among the young, who long to dress in forty-year old clothes and who regard vinyl records as more “authentic” than digital audio, not in spite of the scratches, but because of them. Film photography and its worst accidental artifacts becomes “retro” product, to be marketed through trendy boutiques and vintage stores. The sales message: anyone can take a picture (true, actually). The box isn’t important (less true). None of it’s important (outright lie). Shoot from the hip! Look, it made a weird rainbow streak on the picture, isn’t that cool?
Cool at a premium cost, as well. Cameras that went for $5.00 as toys in the ’60’s are now topping $100.00 for the same optics and defects in 2012, with one principal, cynical difference; in the newly produced cameras, the optical defects are being engineered in on purpose, so that every frame comes saturated not only with garish color but attitude as well. Every click produces a tic. This kind of salesmanship makes Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans seem absolutely honorable by comparison.
Tolerance disclaimer: can great art be created with a rudimentary tool? ABSOLUTELY. Cave dwellers made wheels good enough to move their carts to market well before Sears Craftsman came on the scene. I can make a sort of painting using dried sticks, but somehow I suspect that a supple, tapered brush gives me more fine-tuned control. In the field of combat, I can open someone’s airway with the shaft of a Bic pen (see your favorite M*A*S*H* re-run) but writing instruments are not, typically, the tool of choice in the operating rooms at the Mayo. We don’t use sealing wax to send love letters anymore, we don’t take the family horse on a Sunday jaunt to the county seat, and we don’t eat peas off a knife. Of course we could. But what is our motivation to do so?
The historic arc of photography bends toward technical development, not fallback. As soon as glass plates were developed, their limits implied the need for film. Once film first froze movement, we needed it to do it faster. No sooner had pinhole apertures allowed a picture to be crudely focused than the market cried out for dedicated glass to refine those pictures. And while many were just getting over the novelty of recording events in monochrome, some dreamed of harnessing all the shades in the rainbow.
Tolerance disclaimer #2: the only reason to use a technique or system is if it gives you the pictures you want. Once your dreams exceed the limits of that medium, however, it’s time to seek a better system. Prevailing over the limits of your medium because that’s all there is can be noble. However, there is no artistic triumph in deliberately using bad equipment to take great pictures. Lomo cameras may entice people to begin shooting, then move on once they outgrow the warps, distortions and flares that these toys produce. Thus the trend will at least have given them time to experiment and master the basics. But for the most part, for me,there are already far too many obstacles to making good pictures to allow the camera itself to be one of them.
Even in the name of cool.