By MICHAEL PERKINS
MANY OF THOSE WHO TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON, D.C.’s VARIOUS MONUMENTS each year generally strike me as visitors, while those who throng to the memorial honoring Abraham Lincoln seem more like pilgrims. Scanning the faces of the children and adults who ascend the slow steps to the simple rectangular chamber that contains Daniel Chester French‘s statue of the 16th president, I see that this part of the trip is somehow more important to many, more fraught with a sense of moment, than the other places one may have occasion to view along the National Mall. This is, of course, simply my subjective opinion. However, it seems that this ought to be true, that, even more than Jefferson, Washington or any other single person attendant to the creation of the republic, Lincoln, and the extraordinary nature of his service, should require an extra few seconds of silent awe, and, if you’re a person of faith, maybe a prayer.
This week, one hundred and fifty years ago, the gruesome and horrific savagery of the Civil War filled three whole days with blood, blunder, sacrifice, tragedy, and finally, a glimmer of hope, as the battle of Gettysburg incised a scar across every heart in America. Lincoln’s remarks at the subsequent dedication of the battlefield placed him in the position of official pallbearer for all our sorrows, truly our Commander-In-Grief. Perhaps it’s our awareness of the weight, the loneliness, the dark desolation of that role that makes visitors to the Lincoln Memorial a little more humble, a little quieter and deeper of spirit. Moreover, for photographers, you want more of that statue than a quick snap of visiting school children. You want to get something as right as you can. You want to capture that quiet, that isolation, Lincoln’s ability to act as a national blotter of sadness. And then there is the quiet resolve, the emergence from grief, the way he led us up out of the grave and toward the re-purposing of America.
The statue is a simple object, and making something more eloquent than it is by itself is daunting.
The interior of the monument is actually lit better at night than in the daytime, when there is a sharp fall-off of light from the statue to the pillars and colored glass skylights to its right and left. You can crank up the ISO to retrieve additional detail in these darker areas, but you risk the addition of grainy noise. In turn, you can smooth out the noise later, but, in so doing, you’ll also smear away the beautiful grain in the statue itself.
In my own case, I decided to take three bracketed exposures, all f/5.6, , nice and wide at 20mm, low noise at ISO 100, with shutter speeds of 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200. In blending the three later in Photomatix’ Detail Enhancement mode, I found that the 1/200 exposure had too little information in it, so a composite of the three shots would have rendered the darkest areas as a kind of black mayonnaise, so I did the blend with only two exposures. Stone being the main materials in the subject, I could jack up the HDR intensity fairly high to accentuate textures, and, for a more uniform look across the frame, I gently nudged the color temperature toward the brown/amber end, although the statue itself is typically a gleaming white. The overall look is somewhat more subdued than “reality”, but a little warmer and quieter.
Abraham Lincoln was charged with maintaining a grim and faithful vigil at America’s bedside, in a way that no president before or since has had to do. Given events of the time, it was in no way certain that the patient would pull through. That we are here to celebrate his victory is a modern miracle, and the space his spirit occupies at the Lincoln Memorial is something photographers hunger to snatch away for their own.
What we try to capture is as elusive as a shadow, but we need to own something of it. The commander-in-grief’s legacy demands it.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.
- Other Proposed Designs for the Lincoln Memorial (ghostsofdc.org)
- Lincoln Memorial Under Construction (ghostsofdc.org)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONG TITLES EVER IS BRIAN WILSON’S You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone. At least in my own life, that is probably the truest sentence in the English language. We love to promote the all-too-American myth of the self-made man (or woman), the rugged pioneer who walks into the dark forest and emerges covered in gold and glory. Our folklore is chock full of legendary giants who seem to have single-handedly crafted their own destiny. All by themselves. Don’t need help, thanks. I got this.
It is, of course, baloney. And it may help, in light of the devastation that is still unfolding this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to start emphasizing how crazy it is to talk about our wondrous ability to bend the cosmos to our will. Instead, we might reluctantly admit that we are all part of the same timid bluff against a random universe that regularly delivers knockout punches too strong for any one of us to sustain.
I thought about this last night while reviewing some recent shots of the Monterey Peninsula’s gorgeous visual icon of survival, “The Lone Cypress”. This hardy tree has endured on a barren crag on the coastline between Pacific Grove and Carmel, California since being planted nearly 250 years ago. To call its location “iffy” would be an understatement, given the typical delicate constitution of cypresses, and it has only been able to hold its position against storm and surf by being able to snake its enormous root system down deep into cliff stone, giving it at least a fighting chance.
Adopted nearly a century ago by the Pebble Beach Co., (the golf course people) as its official symbol, the tree has been immortalized on shirts, caps, ads, and promotional materials of every size and type, making the cypress into the botanical equivalent of that “self-made man.” Don’t need nothin’ from nobody. I’m good. I’m gonna do this all by myself.
Only, like the humans it inspires, it doesn’t…really…do that.
The “lone” cypress is bolstered by a brick basin built around its root line. It is tethered and stiffened with steel cables. Most importantly, it is fenced off at some considerable distance from the millions of people who pull off the Seventeen Mile Drive each year to snap it, their multiple accents filling the air with various international versions of, “Gee, ain’t that purty?” Without the fence, the cypress would already be souvenir popsicle sticks hanging from the keychains of every Tom, Dick and Tourist. It comes down to this: the tree is too vital as a symbol to truly be a “lone cypress” any longer.
It, like us, needs a mess of help to stand alone.
Half a country away, this week, we have millions of little lone humans trying to stand alone as well, and, without the rest of us being factored in, regardless of their grit or willpower, some will be blown out to sea. They will crack and snap and wither unless we make their survival as important as…..well, as a tree.
We all have a lot of work to do.
We sink or swim together.
- Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath How you can help… Millions of… (instagram.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard, remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).
The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.
It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.
But that’s only the beginning.
On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.
The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.
Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.
Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.
Suggested video link: Desmond’s Department Store http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS PHOTOGRAPHIC STAGE FRIGHT, it most likely is that vaguely apprehensive feeling that kicks in just before you connect with a potentially powerful subject. And when that subject is really Subject One, i.e., New York City, well, even a pro can be forgiven a few butterflies. They ain’t kidding when they sing, if I can make it there I can make it anywhere. But, of course, the Apple is anything but anywhere…….
Theoretically, if “there are eight million stories in the Naked City”, you’d think a photographer would be just fine selecting any one of them, since there is no one single way of representing the planet’s most diverse urban enclave. And there are over 150 years of amazing image-making to support the idea that every way of taking in this immense subject is fair territory.
And yet we are drawn (at least I am) to at least weigh in on the most obvious elements of this broad canvas. The hot button attractions. The “to-do list” locations. No, it isn’t as if the world needs one more picture of Ellis Island or the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t likely that I will be one of the lucky few who will manage to bring anything fresh to these icons of American experience. In fact, the odds are stacked horribly in the opposite direction. It is far safer to predict that every angle or framing I will try will be a precise clone of millions of other visualizations of almost exactly the same quality. Even so, with every new trip to NYC I have to wean myself away from trying to create the ultimate postcard,to focus upon one of the other 7,999,999 stories in the city. Even at this late date, there are stories in the nooks and crannies of the city that are largely undertold. They aren’t as seductive as the obvious choices, but they may afford greater rewards, in that there may be something there that I can claim, that I can personally mine from the rock.
By the time this post is published, I will be taking yet another run at this majestic city and anything additional in the way of stories that I can pry loose from her streets. Right now, staring at this computer, nothing has begun, and everything is possible. That is both exhilarating and terrifying. The way to banish the travel jitters is to get there, and get going. And yes, I will bring back my share of cliches, or attempts at escaping them. But, just like a stowaway on a ship arriving in the New World, something else may smuggle itself on board.
I have to visit my old girlfriend again, even if we wind up agreeing to be just friends.
And, as all photographers (and lovers) do, I hope it will lead to something more serious.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN AMERICA WE GET ACCUSTOMED TO SEEING OUR URBAN HISTORY REGULARLY REDUCED TO RUINS, not because our cities are laid to waste by invaders or sacked by conquerors, but because we are such paltry stewards of the architectural legacies we share in this essentially young nation. Obvious nationalistic images aside, the wrecking ball, our answer to the crushing glaciers of history, is the real visual signature of the USA. We get tired of looking at old stuff. We knock the old stuff down. And in doing so, we squander the value of things to which we once attached great importance, rendering them moot, as if we really never cared about them at all.
The change glacier usually sweeps through the vast canyons of our larger cities, cutting a swath of wreckage that levels, implodes or simply knocks down any testimony to history, fashion, flair, whimsey, and the thing we most dread, uselessness. Every town has its casualties; stadiums, grand hotels, transportation hubs, retail centers, neighborhoods…it’s simply not American to get too attached to anything. It’s all going away, all of it, and with it, any sense of continuity, memory, or a contextual place in time.
Fortunately, it is the tendency of the glacier to “think big” that keeps the crushing onslaught of “renewal” concentrated in the larger urban centers, often leaving more survivors in small towns and rural communities. That means that some things in off-track towns, being below the radar of macro-change, are simply left alone, allowed to survive, because they are neglected by the bigger sweep of things.
This means that the “in-between” parts of the country still hold some treasures, a few gentle ties to times we have largely disposed of in the major hub cities. And while no one is suggesting that we bring back the village blacksmith and the local cobbler’s shop, it’s comforting in some way to be able to see and touch what in other parts of the nation are merely footnotes in books. That is, if we haven’t burned the books.
The building pictured at the top of this post is such a survivor. Built in 1879 just as the Toledo & Ohio Central railroad was being cut across the small village of Pickerington, Ohio (just southeast of Columbus), this compact little structure was the nerve center of trade and travel for “Picktown” for more than half a century. Its three rooms included an entry area for freight, an arrival room for passengers, and, in the center, an office for the combined jobs of depot agent and Western Union telegrapher. It was not until the hiring of its first female depot agent in 1947 that the facility could boast indoor plumbing, but the T&O’s tracks, during rail’s heyday, criss-crossed the tiny town with spur lines to a lumberyard, a grain mill, a hoop factory and warehouses.
Amazingly, the depot survived an extended closure from 1958 to 1975, when private money made its restoration possible. Lanterns, tools, bottles, wall maps, schedules, freight wagons, and a fully functional Western Union telegraph key were all assembled to visually cement the station in time. And there it stands to this day, serving no other “function” than to mark where the town, and we, have passed on our way to the inevitable.
Better than my luck in finding this place was in finding it just as dusk was streaking across the sky, giving me the perfect visual complement to the passing of time. And yet, here, out of the path of the glacier, time was allowed to tick just a little slower, slower enough to teach. And remember.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE CAN ONLY GUESS, AS HE GAZED OUT UPON CANAAN, the long-promised homeland of the wander-weary Israelites, what Moses felt, especially given that he himself would be forbidden to set foot upon that sacred soil. Perhaps, in our recent history, something of a parallel can be drawn to the vista shown above, the aerie from which John Muir, the lanky, ascetic Scotsman who became the first champion of the Yosemite, peered into the vast wilderness he was sworn to protect. This is the view from atop Glacier Point, directly opposite Half-Dome and, in the farther distance, the majesty of Yosemite Falls. It is also one of the only places in the United States where you can literally stand on the spot where history took a new turn.
Like Moses, Muir was a both a prophet and a protector, entranced by the stunning beauty of his adopted country and horrified at its vulnerability before the juggernaut of progress. Unlike Moses, he actually gained entry to his personal promised land, hiking its immense acreage, personally discovering many of its most amazing features and acting as correspondent to his fellow countrymen to apprise them of the great treasure lying unknown inside their borders.
As the founder of the Sierra Club and the most profound poet laureate of the preservation movement (he favored that word over the later “conservation”), Muir’s first choice would probably have been to surround all of Yosemite with at least a mental fence, a barrier of conscience to prevent its plunder by profiteers. His second choice became fateful for us all…..to enlist the federal government as a guardian for his Eden, and to unleash the energy of that nation’s most intrepid crusader for the environment.
John Muir was a veteran of nearly 35 years of preservationist skirmishes by the time he met President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Muir, desperate for a way to protect Yosemite beyond the puny efforts of local and state governments, met TR in Oakland, California, and the pair traveled by train to Redmond before taking a stagecoach the rest of the way into Yosemite Valley. Muir used the travel time to implore the president to place Yellowstone under national protection, and Roosevelt, agreeing, asked his host to show him “the real Yosemite”. After heading out into the back country essentially alone and camping under the stars atop Glacier Point, the two awoke to new-fallen snow and a new alliance.
That alliance was captured in the shot at left, which shows nearly the same view of the Yosemite Valley as my image at the head of this article. Three years later, in 1906, Muir and the Sierra Club successfully added the valley and the Mariposa Grove (a massive forest of giant sequoias) to the overall Yosemite National Park acreage, and finally saw the entire area placed under federal protection. The United States National Park concept, unique in the entire world of the early 20th century, had been born, the American Moses leading the way to a greener, more perfect union.
- Congress to consider Yosemite site for new “Los Angeles Lake” (yubanet.com)
- Happy 174th birthday, John Muir. (fossicking.wordpress.com)
- My First Summer in the Sierra: Illustrated Edition downloads (dubcoou.typepad.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK IS A SUPREME PARADOX FOR A SHOOTER. On one hand, it has never been technically easier to simulate the texture and range of tones that were hard-won miracles for its guardian angel, Ansel Adams. On the other, the very act of visiting the park has never presented a more severe barrier to the kind of mental and emotional commitment to picture making that was, to him, a constant.
The original mission of this blog is to share creative successes from amateur to amateur, but also to name the problems which restrict us to taking, instead of making, pictures. Yosemite, historically the proving ground for photographers the world over, also presents one of these problems.
Adams had to suffer, slog, hike, and persevere to set up his visions, all the while wrestling with a technology that punished the slightest miscalculation. The park itself presented a rugged challenge to him as well in the early 20th century, as its greatest vistas were not just a minivan jog away and its best treasures resisted his inquiring eye. So how come his pictures are so much better, still, than anything most of us can deliver in an age of ultimate simplicity, ease, and access?
There is a disturbing statistic quoted by the park service, that the average visitor to Yosemite is actually in the park for a grand total of two and a half hours. Not exactly the time investment that a photographic subject of this scope warrants. We also tend to enter the park in much the same way, stop by a predictable list of features, and take most of the same “money shots”. We all know where the good stuff is, and it seems to be irresistible to offer up our “take” on the craggy face of El Capitan, the serene power of the Mariposa Grove (with its astonishing giant sequoias), or the obligatory capture of a waterfall….hell, any waterfall. And yet….I can’t be the only one who has come home from vacation to find that my pictures are just….okay. Overwhelmingly…..non-sucky. Stunningly….passable.
Adams’ life’s work, a mutual exchange of energy in which he and Yosemite were creative partners in the deliberate making of images, is, for us, a re-creation, a simulation, the photo equivalent of karaoke. Just like many lounge lizards “kinda” sing like Sinatra, too many of us “kinda” shoot pictures like Ansel. For Adams, photography was like asking the wilderness to dance. For us, it’s like asking the mountains to say “cheese”.
Part of his mission was showing us what a treasure we had, but he might have sold the product too well. Part of the Yosemite that spoke to him is gone, compromised into tameness by sidewalks,snack bars, and gift shops. Worse, much of what we do choose to record of it is done in quick stops off the tour bus, stolen moments before the kids get too tired , and the rabid urgency of God-let’s-hurry-up-we-have-three-more-places-to-hit-today. Indeed, park officials laughingly refer to people who drive in and out of the park’s main areas without even emerging from their cars, bragging that they “did” Yosemite, like a ten minute rock wall climb at REI, squeezed in before a trip to the food court.
The Ansel Adams Gallery, which has operated in the park for more than a century now, certainly features fresh visions by new artists who are still re-interpreting the wonder, still managing to say something unique. But many of our cameras will betray how little of our selves are invested behind the viewing screen. Adams’ work resonates through time because we recognize when someone has poured part of their soul into the creative cauldron. And certainly, if we are honest, we also know when that ingredient is missing.
“I want to see your face in every kind of light” goes the old love song lyric. Being in love with a woman, an idea, anything, demands time, deliberation. To see the object of one’s affection in all light, all seasons, all moods and tempers, is more of a pact than many of us are willing to make. The pictures we bring back from many places may not be lessened in their impact by this fact. But Yosemite is not “many places”, and she will not give up her secrets to just anyone. Fortunately, if we care, we can return and try again to do more than merely tattoo pixels onto a sensor. That has always been the promise of photography, that you can redeem your myopia from one day by re-thinking, re-feeling on another. But it means changing the rules of engagement with our subject. For those of us who cannot or will not do that, the world will not stop spinning, and, in fact, we will chalk up many acceptable images along the way, but Ansel will always be the one among us who really understood the magic, and discovered how to conjure it at will.
- What’s black & white, famous, and coming to Peabody? (hangwithbigpictureframing.com)
- A Weekend in Yosemite (theepochtimes.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE SHEER WEIGHT OF THE NUMBERS attendant to the D-Day invasion, begun sixty-eight years ago today, beggars the imagination. And yet, faced with the even tougher task of weighing the unimaginable horror and slaughter played out on the beaches of Normandy, the ability to somehow quantify the cost in raw data is oddly comforting. It’s certainly easier than evaluating the loss to the world, in muscle and blood, of the largest military operation in recorded history. Some selected figures:
The players: one million Allies, seven hundred thousand German troops.
The hardware: 8.000 artillery pieces; 2,546 Allied bombers and 1,731 fighters, 820 German bombers and fighters; 3,500 towed gliders (100 glider pilots killed).
Lost materiel: 24 warships and 35 merchant ships sunk; 127 allied planes shot down.
The human cost of the initial invasion in gross numbers: 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, 946 Canadians, and between 4,000 and 9.000 Germans;
And then there was the “before” killing and the “after” killing, with 12,000 airmen and 200 war planes lost in April and May 1944 in preparation for 6/4/44, and a general toll by the end of the Battle of Normandy of 425,000 Allies and Germans killed or wounded.
Today, in Normandy, spread across 77 separate cemeteries lie the remains of 77,866 Germans; 9,386 Americans; 17,769 British; 5,002 Canadians and 650 Poles.
- ‘Band of Brothers’ honored on D-Day anniversary (newsobserver.com)
- June 6, 1944: Artificial Harbor Paves the Way for Normandy Invasion (wired.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A COMMONLY HELD VIEW OF SELF-PORTRAITURE is that it epitomizes some kind of runaway egotism, an artless symbol of a culture saturated in narcissistic navel-gazing. I mean, how can “us-taking-a-picture-of-us” qualify as anything aesthetically valid or “pure”? Indeed, if you look at the raw volume of quickie arm’s length shots that comprise the bulk of self-portrait work, i.e., here’s me at the mountains, here’s me at the beach, etc., it’s hard to argue that anything of our essence is revealed by the process of simply cramming our features onto a view screen and clicking away…..not to mention the banality of sharing each and every one of these captures ad nauseum on any public forum available. If this is egotism, it’s a damned poor brand of it. If you’re going to glorify yourself, why not choose the deluxe treatment over the economy class?
I would argue that self-portraits can be some of the most compelling images created in photography, but they must go beyond merely recording that we were here or there, or had lunch with this one or that one. Just as nearly everyone has one remarkable book inside them, all of us privately harbor a version of ourselves that all conventional methods of capture fail to detect, a visual story only we ourselves can tell. However, we typically carry ourselves through the world shielded by a carapace of our own construction, a social armor which is designed to keep invaders out, not invite viewers in. This causes cameras to actually aid in our camouflage, since they are so easy to lie to, and we have become so self-consciously expert at providing the lies.
The portraits of the famous by Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and other all-seeing eyes (see links to articles below) have struck us because they have managed to penetrate the carapace, to change the context of their subjects in such dramatic ways that they convince us that we are seeing them, truly seeing them, for the first time. They may only be doing their own “take” on a notable face, but this only makes us hunger after more interpretations on the theme, not fewer. Key to many of the best portraits is the location of their subjects within specific spaces to see how they and the spaces feed off each other. Sometimes the addition of a specific object or prop creates a jumping off point to a new view. Often a simple reassignment of expression (the clown as tragedian, the adult as child, etc) forces a fresh perspective.
As for the self-portrait, an artistic assignment that I feel everyone should perform at least once (as an intentional design, not a candid snap), there is a wealth of new information gleaned from even an indifferent result. Shooters can act as lab rats for all the ways of seeing people that we can think of to play at, serving as free training modules for light, exposure, composition, form. I am always reluctant to enter into these projects, because like everyone else, I balk at the idea of centering my expression on myself. Who, says my Catholic upbringing, do I think I am, that I might be a fit subject for a photograph? And what do I do with all the social conditioning that compels me to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and smile in a friendly manner?
One can only wonder what the great figures of earlier centuries might have chosen to pass along about themselves if the self-portrait has existed for them as it does for us. What could the souls of a Lincoln, a Jefferson, a Spinoza, an Aquinas, have said to us across the gulf of time? Would this kind of introspection been seen by them as a legacy or an exercise in vanity? And would it matter?
In the above shot, taken in a flurry of attempts a few days ago, I am seemingly not “present” at the proceedings, apparently lost in thought instead of engaging the camera. Actually, given the recent events in my life, this was the one take where I felt I was free of the constraints of smiling, posing, going for the shot, etc. I look like I can’t focus, but in catching me in the attempt to focus, this image might be the only real one in the batch. Or not. I may be acting the part of the tortured soul because I like the look of it. The point is, at this moment, I have chosen what to depict about myself. Accept or reject it, it’s my statement, and my attempt to use this platform to say something, on purpose. You and I can argue about whether I succeeded, but maybe that’s all art is, anyway.
- Avedon For Breakfast (fabsugar.com)
- Getty Center Exhibits Herb Ritts and Celebrity Portraits (ginagenis.wordpress.com)
- Annie Leibovitz: ‘Creativity is like a big baby that needs to be nourished’ (guardian.co.uk)
ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS of shooters is, “what’s that supposed to be?”, usually asked of any image that is less obvious than a sunset shot of the Eiffel Tower or a souvenir snap of Mount Rushmore. You may have found, in fact, that the number of times that the question is asked is directly proportional to how intensely personal your vision is exercised on a given project. As much as the hidden aspects of life fascinate us, the obvious recording of familiar objects soothe the eye, like a kind of ocular comfort food. The farther you wander in your own direction as a photographer, the greater journey you also ask of your viewers. Sometimes the invitation is taken. Sometimes you must face “the question”.
What’s that supposed to be?
How, actually, in a world shaped by our own subjective experience, an image is “supposed” to be anything is a little baffling. It’s probably safe to say that what we present, as artists is probably supposed to be the view as one’s mind filters it through his or her accumulated life. When we use the camera as a mere recorder, it may make it easier, presenter-to-viewer, to agree on that image’s terms of engagement, but that may or may not reveal what we actually felt about when creating it. If I use the same three colors to render a picture of the American flag as everyone else uses, I may get into fewer arguments about how appropriate the resulting image is, but then, I don’t get to open up the discussion to any other conceptions of that flag. Back in the first days of the environmental movement, the simple use of green on the original, Old-Glory-derived ecology flag suggested an alternative way of being American, of living your life. As I recall, some viewed the design as sacrilegious, while others embraced it as liberating.
Over 150 years after the first photographs were regarded as a threat to the painter’s domain, we are still most at ease with pictures that ape the painting’s method for framing the world. Oddly, it is always outlaws and amateurs that break free of these pictorial chains first; the professionals must protect the turf they have so carefully mapped out for themselves in the mainstream. There remains, then, an ongoing battle over what should or should not be called a “picture”. Abstractions, arranged or perceived patterns, even selected details or drastic re-imaginings of small parts of the so-called “actual” world must always fight for their place at the table alongside the technically accurate mirroring of easily named subjects. We still regard that which is realistic as being the most real, and the most worthy of praise.
To want to show something for its own sake on our own terms is to move into more personal territory, and hence onto shakier ground for critical evaluation, but occasionally we strike a balance between what people want to see and what we must show. In the above image, I only wanted to focus attention on an arrangement that was a very small and visually ignored accent along a heavily travelled public street. An unsung landscaper’s arrangement of tiles, gravel, paving rock, and succulent plants, was in plain view, and yet, at only a few inches in height, easily missed by the thousands of daily passersby speeding along the street. To me, when framed close to ground level, it resembled a kind of desert cityscape, blocks of abstract skyscrapers, a cactus metropolis, and that’s how I tried to frame and process it. Of course, it us, after all, just a pattern, and anyone who looks at the image can fill in their own blanks with impressions that are just as valid as my kind of toy idea.
The vital point is that no one else’s take on your dream can be wrong, just because it differs with yours. Art is not a science, which is why we don’t become photographers, or as the word implies, “light writers” just by pushing a button.
We become photographers by pushing everyone’s buttons.
What is it “supposed to be”? You tell me, and I’ll tell you.