By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO TWO ARTISTS view the human condition of solitude in quite the same way. In photography, there are scores of shades between alone and lonely, between the peace of private reflection and the terror of banishment, shades which define their images as everything from comforting to terrifying. Thoreau hangs out solo in the woods and finds fulfillment. Hansel and Gretel, stranded in the forest, feel only dread.
The argument might be made that modern society at large fears solitude, that there is nothing more horrific than being alone left with one’s self. And, if that is your viewpoint, then that will eventually be reflected in how you depict people in isolation. Conversely, if you see “being apart” as an opportunity for self-discovery, then your photographs will show that, as well. You can’t “sit out” commenting on a fundamental part of the human condition. Some part of your own outlook will be stamped onto your photography.
That’s not to say that you can’t shade your “alone” work with layers of mystery, even some playfulness. Is the young woman shown here glad to be away from the crowd, or does she feel banished? Is her physical attitude one of relaxation or despair? The photographer need not spell everything out in bold strokes, and can even conspire to trick or confound the viewer as to his true feelings.
To make things even trickier, images can also convey the feeling of being alone in a crowd, lonely in a crushing multitude. That’s when the pictures get really complicated. With any luck, that is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, ALMOST CERTAINLY, A STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPH BELOW. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is. And probably never will.
Images often state or at least imply a narrative, allowing the photographer to relate a dimensional story within the confines of a flat, static frame. It’s kind of a miracle when that happens, but there are also those pictures in which, although part of a story has been captured in mid-flight, the whole of the tale will never be revealed. Sometimes it’s because I flat-out don’t possess the skill to tell it properly. Sometimes it’s because, although I set out to tell something in a coherent fashion, I mucked it up in execution. And, in the most interesting/frustrating of cases, it’s because the photo simply contains too little content or context to make a story emerge.
Yet, these are the images that, perversely, I find myself returning to, as if staring at them multiple times will somehow solve the puzzle. It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay, since these “quandary” pictures also become some of my favorites. Maybe it’s because they’re orphans. Maybe I actually like that they defy explanation. It’s like reading Ulysses. I don’t get it, But then again, nobody else does, either.
This particular question mark of a picture was snapped in Boston on a day soaked in enough rain to chase my wife and myself off a local walking tour around the Commons, trading squishy sneakers for butt lumps on a bus that spent 10% of its voyage hipping us to the local scene and 90% gridlocked in Beantown traffic, which is about average, as I understand it. There was, as a consequence, plenty of time to snap things out of the windows, even though the rain played serious hell with both focus and resolution. After a while, however,even the doomed task of trying to shoot anything usable became a kind of pastime all its own, especially after the driver was forced to retrace the same circle of traffic hell for a second or third go-round.
The scene you see here is in front of a historic graveyard right in the heart of the commons, a “who’s who” of honored dead, where, so say the locals, you can sit in a bar drinking a cold Sam Adams, and gaze out the window at (say it with me) a cold Sam Adams. What inspired the ragtag orchestra you see marching in front of the illustrious headstones, sans any insignia, uniforms, or sense of self-preservation is, and will remain, beyond me. What they were marching for, who their intended audience or cause might be….all of it is forever a befuddled “huh?”. Bonus round: what with the light being so meager amidst the downpour, I had dialed down to a pretty slow shutter speed, so even basic sharpness was DOA for this particular frame.
Somehow, however, I love this picture, even more than if it made any actual sense. Unmoored from reality, I can make up a dozen might-be scenarios that explain it, and so it actually has more entertainment value than many of my so-called “successful” photographs. Or maybe I just like sitting in a pew at the Church of Weird every once in a while. And, on particularly dreamy days, I can stare at this band of gypsies and wish I could take up a tuba and head their direction for a bit.
After all, they know where they’re going…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER AUGUST SANDER (1876-1964) created one of the most amazing projects in the history of portraiture with his seminal book The Face of Our Time. Born into a world that defined people much more by class division and by the literal work of their hands, Sander created a document of a vanishing world in a very simple way, surrounding bricklayers, cooks, soldiers, and dozens of other professionals with the literal tools of their trades. His work influenced street photography and portraiture throughout the 20th century, acting as both document and commentary.
The manual trades that Sanders celebrated are rapidly vanishing as automation and changing tastes take away the tv repairmen, cobblers, and pillow makers of yesteryear, taking with them the physical look of their workplaces. It’s feels like I’ve happened upon an archaeological dig when I run across a place where handcrafted work takes place, and to photograph the shops where the old magic still happens. The encroachment into urban neighborhoods of chain stores and the crush of ever-higher rents are chasing out the last generations of tinkerers and makers. Storefronts and the stories that reside within them are winking out across the urban landscape.
August Sander’s challenge to present-day photographers is to bear witness to the worker’s signature, the mark he makes on the world and the echo he leaves behind when he departs. The world is always in the act of going partly instinct. The camera measures what we lose in the process. In Sander’s elegant, simple pictures of working people, there is a peaceful quality, as everyone seems fitted to their place and role in the world. As we photograph the final days of such a world, we are commenting on the uncertainty that follows it into our present age.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE BEGINNING, PHOTOGRAPHY WAS MOSTLY ABOUT RECORDING, arresting time in its flight in order to preserve scenes for posterity. And, for its earliest practitioners, that purely technical feat of stopping the clock was enough. We still use the word capture to describe this harvesting of moments. Soon, however, photographs became truly interpretive. That is, they set out to be about something beyond a mere logging of the physical world. In so doing, they passed from documents to statements, with shooters choosing which world view they wanted to present.
I find that, even in the most complex documentary photos, those views seem to collect into two main camps of thought. One kind of image, which may be called the “ruin” category, depicts what we have lost. Abandoned buildings, wrecked cities, damaged lives. “Ruin” campers show the deterioration of things and ask us to assess the loss of dreams. The second general kind of interpretive category, which I’ll call the “resurrection” camp, shows the things that might have experienced ruin but are rebounding, on their way back up. Rez campers show the resiliency of the human spirit, the belief that there will, indeed, be a tomorrow.
Human beings being partisan by instinct, curators, editors, and audiences can, and do, glorify the pictures of one camp while decrying the worthlessness of images from the other camp, in what is really a false choice. Life is never cleanly divided between heaven and hell, and neither should your pictures be.
Photographs that show what we have wasted are no more “authentic” than those that show us recovering from loss. And truly great photographers actually straddle both camps in their best work. But your purpose in a picture must be clear: the image at the top of this page seems to mourn the devastation of an old family farm. However, if I were to pull back to a larger frame, the camera would also show the freshly furrowed fields of a property that is in the process of being re-developed. Ruin or Resurrection? It’s down to approach, and context.
Some days it seems like the best story you can tell is a tragic one, but, at other times, there is nothing more courageously honest than depicting hope. It all depends on what comes to hand. The best plan is not to plan, to be open to whatever the best testimony is, right here, in this picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ROLE OF THE URBAN PHOTOGRAPHER IS TO REKINDLE OUR RELATIONSHIP to our cities, to ignite a romance that might have gone cold or fizzled out. We grow up inside the buildings and streets of our respective towns one day at a time, and, while familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, the slow, steady drip of repetitive sequence can engender a kind of numb blindness, in that we see less and less of the places we inhabit. Their streets and sights become merely up, down, in, out, north side or east side, and their beauty and detail dissolve away before the regular hum of our lives.
An outside eye, usually trained on a camera, is a jolt of recognition, as if our city changed from a comfy bathrobe into a cocktail dress. We even greet images of our cities with cries of “where’s THAT????”, as if we never saw these things before. The selective view of our streets through a camera, controlling framing, context, color and focus, enchants us anew. If the photog does his job properly, the magic is real: we truly are in new territory, right in our own backyards.
A city with iconic landmarks, those visual logos that act as absolute identifiers of location, actually are easier for the urban photographer, since their super-fame means that many other remarkable places have gone under-documented. Neighborhoods are always rising and falling, as the Little Italys fade and the Chinatowns ascend. Yesterday’s neglected ghetto becomes today’s hip gallery destination. Photographers can truly rock us out of the lethargy of daily routine and reveal the metropolis’s forgotten children in not only aesthetic but journalistic ways, reminding us of problems that need remedy, lives that plead for rescue.
The photographer in the city is an interpretive artist. His mantra: hey, townies, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE MOST UNIQUE CASUALTIES OF SO-CALLED URBAN PROGRESS, key parts of a city’s visual signature, are the everyday signs associated with local businesses, from the red neon over your local bar to the hand-painted address on your favorite eatery. Naturally, photographers have a big stake in the obliteration of any feature of the changing urban landscape, and there is a growing movement to treasure signage as symbols of identity in neighborhoods that are increasingly in danger of being genericized by fast-food and mega-retail chains.
Graphic designer Molly Woodward deserves a lot of credit for the attention now being paid to urban signage, and her website on what she calls vernacular typography contains essays and samples that illustrate what is being lost in town after town. Cities like New York that experience a faster-than-average turnover in area retail see signs for locally owned businesses vanish more frequently. And while it’s normal for mom-and-pop ventures to wink in and out of existence all the time, the chance for entire blocks to be graphically drenched in a candy coating of Starbucks logos is greater in major metropolitan areas.
Woodward’s web archive is rich in photographs of these disappearing urban signatures, and there is certainly a rich vein of source material for any enterprising city photographer. Signs help anchor neighborhoods, acting as mile markers, landmarks, and a more human scale of commerce. They remind us where we are, what our streets are all about. They mark where we grew up, what we wanted to be. The boundaries of our bailiwick. They are personal transactions. Meet me under the clock near the Chinese laundry. See you at 5 near the giant neon cheeseburger.
Shooting signs is an act of reportage; it’s correspondent work. And it’s no less important than photographing the ruins of an ancient cathedral or a portal on the Great Wall, since it’s a kind of archaeology. Many thanks to the Molly Woodwards of the world as they hold back the tide against a mindless homogenization of our streets. And thanks in turn to those who pick up her vibe and click away at the Acmes and Ajaxes in their own towns, often just steps ahead of the wrecking ball.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CITIES ARE A CONTINUOUS POST-GRADUATE COURSE IN THE MILLIONS OF DIFFERENT WAYS TO SEE. They not only afford an endless array of things to visualize, but offer up just as many vantage points or angles to frame, select, show, or conceal them. It’s just as much about how you shoot something as what you selected to shoot.
My favorite images in urban environments are essentially stolen glances. Brief shards of light arrowing past a subway car window. Slanted slashes of sun crawling up an alley wall. And, more recently, views of the street that hide as much as they reveal, teasing winks of the city in all its rhythm as viewed from the inside out.
It might be the tension, or the anticipation of a scene that is not, but is just about to be, cracked fully open. People pass by framed by windows, distorted by warps and reflections, amputated and edited by panels, shadows, partially eclipsed by walls. It’s a visual striptease. Now you see life, now you don’t, now, here it comes again. Sometimes standing just inside the entrance of a building can feel like viewing life at a distance, as anonymously as you might watch surveillance video on a giant screen or a movie in a dark theater.
Photography is one part content and one part context. We have all been surprised when someone standing right next to us points a camera in the same general direction that we do and comes away with a completely different kind of image. That surprise is the shock-reminder of our very individual way of framing and selecting information, and cities offer a remarkable laboratory for sampling all of those variances.
Inside looking out or outside looking in, the view is the thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW YORK CITY IS A VERY IRONIC CANVAS. Artists who set brush upon that canvas may think they are attempting to depict something outside themselves, but what they show actually reveals very personal things. There are more stories than all the storytellers in the world can ever hope to render…in paint, in print, or through the lens of a camera, and while some of us entertain the notion that we are adding this commentary objectively, that, plainly, is impossible.
From handheld luggage to emotional baggage, everyone brings something to New York, layering their own dreams and dreads onto the multi-story sandwich of human experience that makes it the world’s most unique social laboratory. Hard as it is on the artistic ego, one can’t make the statement that defines the city. Wiser minds from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan have tried, and they have all contributed their versions….wonderful versions. But the story can never be completed. New York won’t be contained by mere words and images. It is, like the song says, a state of mind.
Still, trying to scale the mountain can be fun. So, with this post, The Normal Eye has added a new gallery tab at the top of the page to share a few recent takes on my own ongoing love affair with the Apple. The title, I’ll Take Manhattan, is hardly original, but it is easy to remember. I have done essays on NYC before, but, this time out, I strove to focus as much on the rhythm of people as on the staggering scope of the skyline. New York is, finally, its people, that perpetually fresh infusion of rigor, rage, talent and terror that adds ever-new coats of paint to the neighborhoods, and this batch of pictures tries, in 2015, to show the town as it is used, by its daily caretakers. The push. The pull. The gamut of sensations from sky to gutter.
So have a look if you will and weigh these impressions against those you’ve discovered through others or developed within yourself. Taking on a photographic task that can never be finished is either frustrating or freeing, depending on your artistic viewpoint. In the meantime, what a ride.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF URBAN PHOTOGRAPHY, versus shooting in rural settings, is the constant variability of light. On its way to the streets of a dense city, light is refracted, reflected, broken, interrupted, bounced and just plain blocked in ways that sunshine on a meadow can never be. As a result, shooting in cities deals with direct light only intermittently: it’s always light plus, light in spite of, light over here, but not over there. And it’s a challenge for all but the most patient photographers. Almost every frame must be planned somewhat differently from its neighbors, for there can be no “standard” exposure strategy.
I often think of city streets as big window sills sitting below a massive set of venetian blinds, with every slat tilted a little differently. And I personally greet this condition as an opportunity rather than a deficit, since the unique patterns of abstraction mean that even mundane scenes can be draped in drama at any given moment. That’s why, as I age, I’ve come to highly value selective lighting, for mood, since I’m convinced that perfectly even lighting on an object can severely limit that selfsame drama.
I’m also reminded of the old Dutch masters painters, who realized that a partially dark face contains a kind of mystery. Conversely, a street scene that contains no dropouts of detail or light makes everything register just about the same with the eye, and can keep your images from having a prominent point of interest. Darkness, by contrast, asks your imagination to supply what’s missing. Even light is a kind of full disclosure, and it can rob your pictures of their main argument, or the “look over here” cue that’s needed to make a photograph really connect.
Back to street photography. Given that glass and metal surfaces, the main ingredients in urban structures, can run a little to silver and blue, I may actually take an unevenly lit scene and either modify it toward those colors with a filter, or simply under-expose by a half-stop to see how much extra mood I can wring out of the situation, as in the above image of an atrium in midtown Manhattan. Think of it as “working” those big venetian blinds. Cities both reveal and conceal, and your images, based on your approach, can serve both those ends.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE SEEMS TO BE TWO SETS OF RULES WHEN IT COMES TO CANDID PHOTOGRAPHY.
It seems size does matter.
Let me explain.
The physical dimensions of cameras are an unspoken code for the comfort level we extend to the photographers behind them. This may go back to the very first days of the medium, when all cameras were obtrusively large and obvious. Getting your picture “took” was a formal, intentional thing, and that bulky machine was there to record something permanent, important. Contrast that with the appearance , at the end of the 19th century, of the Kodak Brownie, the first genuine “everyman” camera. Small. Personal. Informal. Most of all, non-threatening.
Jump to the present day and the pronounced size difference between compact cameras and DSLRs, a distinction which still signals whether a photomaker is perceived as friend or foe. “Friend” is the guy who quickly snaps a picture of you and your friends blowing out birthday candles with his cute little Fuji or iPhone. “Foe” is more likely the guy taking time to frame a shot while hiding his predatory face behind a big scary Nikon….since he’s the “serious” photographer, thus less trustworthy. Is he after something? Is he trying to catch me doing something stupid, or worse, actually revelatory? Is he trying to imprison my soul in his box?
This binary reaction….good camera, bad camera…is deeply rooted in our collective DNA. It’s understandable. But it’s illogical.
Seriously, consider the twin assaults that digital media and miniaturization have launched on the concept of privacy in recent decades. Ponder the sheer ubiquity of all those millions of new “friendly” little phones. Contemplate the invasion represented by the indiscriminate, relentless posting of giga-hunks of previously personal moments on social networks, then tell me how the presence of more formal, “foe” cameras represents anything close to the same level of risk or exposure. And yet it is the purse-sized camera that is regarded in public places as benign, while the DSLR is far more likely to be rousted by mall cops acting as self-appointed foto sheriffs.
I’m not saying for a moment that there shouldn’t be civility, decency, respect and restraint practiced by photographers who are, however briefly, entering the personal space of strangers. That’s just common sense. I always feel horrible when I think my presence has caused my subjects to cringe or twitch. However, I think it’s time that, for candid photography, there be a single set of rules on the concept of comfy versus confrontational.
- Kodak Brownie Reimagined as Vintage iPhone Dock (iphonesavior.com)