By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S FAIRLY EASY TO FIGURE OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAMERA if you are trying to visually depict a vibe of peace and quiet. Landscapes often project their serenity onto images with little translation loss, and you can extract that feeling from just about any mountain or pond. For the street photographer, however, mining the most in terms of human stories is more particularly about locations, and not all of them are created equal.
Street work provides the most fodder for storytelling images in places where dramatically concentrated interactions occur between people. One hundred years ago, it might have been the risk and ravage of Ellis Island. On any given sports Sunday, the opposing dreams that surround the local team’s home stadium might provide a rich locale. But whatever the site, social contention, or at least the possibility of it, generates a special energy that feeds the camera.
In New York City, the stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the eastern side of the Empire State Building is one such rich petri dish, as the street-savvy natives and the greener-than-grass tourists collide in endless negotiation. Joe Visitor needs a postcard, a tee-shirt, a coffee mug, or a discounted pass to the ESB observation deck, and Joe Hometown is there to move the goods. Terms are hashed over. Information slithers in and out a dozen languages, commingling with the verbal jazz of Manhattan-speak. Deals are both struck and walked away from. And as a result, stories flow quickly past nearly every part of the street in regular tidal surges. You just pick a spot and the pictures literally come to you.
In these images, two very different tales unfold in nearly an identical part of the block. In the first, bike rickshaw drivers negotiate a tourist fare. How long, how far, how much? In the second, two regulars demonstrate that, in New York, there is always the waiting. For the light. For parking. For someone to clear away, clear out or show up. But always, the waiting. These are both little stories, but the street they occur on is a stage that is set, struck and re-set constantly as the day unfolds. A hundred one-act plays a day circle around those who want and those who can provide.
Manhattan is always a place of great comings and goings, and here, in front of the most iconic skyscraper on earth, those who haven’t seen anything do business with those who’ve seen it all. Street photography is about opportunity and location. Some days give you one or the other. Here, in the city that never sleeps, both are as plentiful as taxicabs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S CLASSIC REAR WINDOW IS THE ULTIMATE GUILTY PLEASURE, and not just because the Master of Suspense is at the peak of his edge-of-your-seat powers in the telling of its thrilling murder story. No, the massive, full-sized set of James Stewart’s Manhattan neighborhood, with all its apartment-dwellers’ secrets open to the most casual snoop, is the creepy, giddy candy at the center of this cinematic confection. In making it temporarily okay to be, in effect, peeping toms, Hitchcock is making us complicit in his hero’s unsavory curiosity. All these dramas. All these secrets that we have no right in knowing. And, of course, we can’t look away.
Photographing the intersection of living spaces in city settings is far often more subtle than Hitch’s feat of shaving the back wall off an entire community, and that makes for a lot more mystery, most of us beyond solution. Look too little, and a slab of brick is more like a beehive than a collection of stories. Look too deeply, and the truths you unearth can feel stolen, like an invasion done purely for prurient entertainment. What’s most interesting is to imply much but reveal little, and hitting that balance is tough.
I recently killed off the last fifteen minutes of a generally unproductive night of street shooting by gazing out the window of my nondescript hotel at an equally nondescript apartment building across the way. The last vestiges of dusk offered scant details on the outside wall, and the warm yellow hum of electrical light had already begun to flicker on in the various cubicles. I thought of Rear Window and how you could look at the fully visible doings of people, yet still know virtually nothing of their lives. Here the lighting was random, undefined, with little real information on the life throbbing within the individual spaces….the dead opposite of Hitchcock’s deliberate staging.
I couldn’t see a face, a hand, an activity. All I had was the mere suggestion of human presence. What were they reading, watching, wishing, enduring, enjoying, hating? I couldn’t know and I couldn’t show it, but I could show the mystery itself. I could share, if you will, the sensation of not being able to know. And so I made a photograph of that lack of information.
Some photographs are about things, obvious things that you’re able to freeze in time. Other images are about the idea of something, a kind of unsatisfied anticipation. Both kinds of pictures have their own narrative code, and learning how to manage these special languages is great practice for the idea, and the mind back of it.
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
FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.
He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.
I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.
It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?
It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EACH MAJOR URBAN CENTER HAS ITS PHOTOGRAPHIC SUPERSTARS, those destination attractions that are documented to death by shooters great and small. Name the city and you can rattle off the names of the usual suspects. The landmarks. The legends. The here’s-proof-that-I-was-there vacation pictures. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings within our super-cities, that is the majority of the remaining structures on most streets everywhere, remain under-photographed and, largely, unknown.
Part of the problem is our photographic viewpoint, which apes our human viewpoint. As drivers or pedestrians, we necessarily focus most our attention at events topping out at just about two stories above street level. This means we will almost certainly n0t see the mashup of architectural styles just outside our peripheral range. We don’t follow the visual line of buildings all the way up, either because we are walking, or because we don’t want to look like some out-of-town rube. But there is real drama in the collision of all those unseen details, and, if you’re interested in showing the city as an abstract design, some real opportunities.
I find that shooting toward the intersection of parts of three or more buildings amplifies the contrast between design eras, with doric columns and oak clusters crashing into International style glass boxes, overlayed with Art Deco zigzags. I shoot them with standard lenses instead of zooms to preserve the intensity of color and contrast, then create the final frame I want in the cropping. Zooms also tend to flatten things out, making buildings that are actually hundreds of feet from each other appear to be in single flat plane. Regular lenses keep the size and distance relationships relatively intact.
Importantly, I don’t shoot entrances, emblems, signage, anything that would specifically identify any one building, and I steer away from places that are recognizable in a touristy way. I’m not really interested in these buildings in their familiar context, but as part of a larger pattern, so I don’t want to “name” things in the image since it will draw away interest from other elements.
The city is a concrete (sorry) thing, but it is also a rich puzzle of design that offers almost infinite variety for the photographer. Best thing is, these compositions are just inches away from where you were bored to death, just a second ago.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE A THEORY THAT “SERENDIPITY” is just “dumb luck” for pretentious people. Somehow it makes our random discoveries and unplanned miracles sound cooler if we attribute them to some grand lining-up of the planets, as if we apes really meant to discover fire. So, fine. Consider this an incident of serendipity, although it’s mainly a case of “I stepped in sugar instead of….” well, you get the idea.
Setting the scene: a suburban mall near me recently closed its enormous bookstore, applying a dark sheet of tint on the building’s huge windows so gawkers couldn’t spy on the joint’s sad makeover as a furniture store. Of course, if you want to make people curious about something, blacking out the windows is a pretty effective tactic, and there are always plenty of people smashing their faces up against the impermeable tint every day to see what a bookstore looks like when it has, you know, no books in it. I am usually first in line for this ritual.
For some reason this week, a small peephole has been opened in the sheeting, allowing one to see the place’s vast, empty floor, its draped escalator, and an iron tangle of scaffolding, as well as a huge infusion of light from an open-work area at the opposite side of the store. It isn’t quite the “ruin porn” that photographers of dead malls love to record just ahead of the wrecking ball, but eerie enough to make me want to shove my phone camera up against the peephole to try to capture it.
Given the very wide-angle of such devices, however, I discovered, after the click, that the lens had also picked up a portion of the window next to the peephole, a portion still covered by tint and capable of reflecting the scene behind me….various buildings and landscaping of the rest of the mall. Even stranger, the “other” reality behind me melded, through the blurred outline of the peephole and variances of light, with the scene inside the store, as if they were all part of one dreamy landscape, a Hollywood set in transition. Giddy at what I had grabbed by accident, I shot a second frame to compose things a bit better, then converted it to monochrome with a filter that simulates a platinum print effect, an effort to eliminate mismatches in color and tone between the two worlds.
Sinatra once said that “the professional is the guy who can do it more than once”, so this image ranks me solidly among the amateurs. But so what. Whoops. Yay.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS FROM THE ’40’s, especially when it emanates from the ruby lips of a smoking blonde in a Jessica Rabbit-type evening gown, conveys its entire message in its title: Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out! The hilarious lyrics speak of a woman who acknowledges that, yeah, you’re an okay guy, but don’t get needy. No strings on me, baby. I’ll call you when I want you, doll. Until then, be a pal and take a powder.
I sometimes think of that song when looking for street images. Yes, I’m aware that the entire sweep of human drama is out there, just ripe for the picking. The highs. The lows. Thrill of victory and agony of de feet. But. I always feel as if I’m cheating the world out of all that emotional sturm und drang if I want to make images without, you know, all them people. It’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s just that compelling stuff is happening out there that occasionally only gets compromised or cluttered with humans in the frame.
Scott Kelby, the world’s biggest-selling author of photographic tutorials, spends about a dozen pages in his recent book Photo Recipes showing how to optimize travel photos by either composing around visitors or just waiting until they go away. I don’t know Scott, but his author pic always looks sunny and welcoming, as if he really loves his fellow man. And if he feels it’s cool to occasionally go far from the madding crowd, who am I to argue? There are also dozens of web how-to’s on how to, well, clean up the streets in your favorite neighborhood. All of these people are also, I am sure, decent and loving individuals.
There is some rationality to all this, apart from my basic Scrooginess. Photographically, some absolutes of abstraction or pure design just achieve their objective without using people as props. Another thing to consider is that people establish the scale of things. If you don’t want that scale, or if showing it limits the power of the image, then why have a guy strolling past the main point of interest just to make the picture “human” or, God help us, “approachable”?
Faces can create amazing stories, imparting the marvelous process of being human to complete scenes in unforgettable ways. And, sometimes, a guy walking through your shot is just a guy walking through your shot. Appreciate him. Accommodate him. And always greet him warmly:
Told ya I love ya. Now get out.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS IN ITS INFANCY WHEN IT WAS FIRST PRESSED INTO SERVICE as a reportorial tool, a way of bearing witness to wars, disasters, and the passing parade of human folly and fashion. Since that time, at least a part of its role has been as a means of editorial commentary, a light shone on crisis, crime, or social ills. The great urban reformer Jacob Riis used it to chronicle the horrific gulf between poor and rich in the legendary photo essay How The Other Half Lives. Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine, among many others, turned their cameras on the desperate need and changing landscape of America’s Great Depression. And now is the time for another great awakening in photography. It’s time to show where our cities need to go next.
Politics aside, the rotting state of our urban infrastructures is an emergency crying out for the visual testimony that photographers brought so eloquently to bear on poverty and war in ages past. The magnifying glass needs to be turned on the neglect that is rapidly turning America’s urban glory into rust and ruin. And no one can tell this story better than the camera.
We can fine-tune all the arguments about how to act, what to fund, and how to proceed. That’s all open to interpretation and policy. But the camera reveals the truths that are beyond abstraction and opinion. The underpinnings of one of the world’s great nations are rapidly dissolving into exposed rebar and pie-crust pavement. If part of photography’s mission is to report the news, then the decline of our infrastructure is one of the most neglected stories in the world’s visual portfolio. Photographers can entice the mind into action, and have done so for nearly two centuries. They have peeled back the protective cover of politeness to reveal mankind at its worst, and things have changed because of it. Agencies have been formed. Action has been accelerated. Lives have been changed. Jobs have been created.
It didn’t used to be an “extra credit” question on the exam of life just to maintain what amazing things we have. Photographers are citizens, and citizens move the world. Not political parties. Not kings or emperors. History is created from the ground up, and the camera is one of the most potent storytelling tools used in shaping that history. The story of why our world is being allowed to disintegrate is one well worth telling. Capturing it in our boxes just might be a way to shake up the conversation.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NARROW STREETS OF LOWER MANHATTAN WERE NEVER DESIGNED TO ACCOMMODATE the claustrophobic jam of commerce, foot traffic and skyscrapers that have characterized the neighborhood since the early 20th century. I should back that up and acknowledge that, for some locals, the streets of lower Manhattan were never designed,period. New York’s growth has always come in rangy spurts and jolts, much like a gangly adolescent that shoots upward and outward overnight without any apparent plan, and yet, those unruly explosions are also what delight the photographer’s eye and make the city an inexhaustible laboratory for technique.
Shooting down the slits that pass for side streets and alleys in lower Manhattan is enough to make even the most seasoned native feel like he or she is being shut up in a tomb, but I am drawn to going even further, and over-emphasizing the extreme dimensions peculiar to the area. That, for me, means shooting with as wide a lens as I have handy, distortion be damned. Actually, it’s distortion be welcomed, since I think that the horizontal lines of the buildings create a much more dramatic lead-in for the eye as they race far away from the foreground. And since ultra-wide magnify front-to-back distances, the bigness and closeness of the city is jacked into a real exaggeration, but one that serves my purpose.
It helps to crouch down and tilt up when composing the shot, and to make sure that you don’t crop passersby out of the shot, since they will add to the drama even more as indications of scale. I have certainly gone too far more than once and rendered rectangular buildings into futuristic trapezoids, but the aim of each image will dictate what you’re going for. Also, in many of these shots, I decide, after much dithering, to choose monochrome over color, but I always shoot the originals in color, since they respond better to re-contrasting once they’re desaturated.
The magic about Manhattan is that no camera can ever tame her or show all her beauty and/or ugliness. It’s somthing of a fool’s errand to try to take the picture of NYC. Better to take a picture you like and add it to the ongoing story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY CAN GO TWO WAYS ON CONTEXT. It can either seek out surroundings which comment organically on subjects (a lone customer at a largely empty bar, for example) or it can, through composition or editing, artificially create that context (five people in an elevator becomes just two of those people, their locked hands taking up the entire frame). Sometimes, images aren’t about what we see but what we can make someone else seem to see.
Creating your own context isn’t really “cheating” (are we really still using that word?), because you’re not creating a new fact in the photograph, so much as you are slapping a big neon arrow onto said fact and saying, “hey look over here.” Of course, re-contextualizing a shot can lead to deliberate mis-representation of reality in the wrong hands (see propaganda, use of), but, assuming we’re re-directing a viewer’s attention for purely aesthetic reasons (using our powers for good), it can make a single photo speak in vastly different ways depending on where you snip or pare.
In the above situation, I was shooting through the storefront window of a combined art studio and wine bar (yes, I hang with those kind of people), and, given that the neighborhood I was in regularly packed folks in on “gallery hop” nights, the place was pretty jammed. The original full frame showed everything you see here, but also the connecting corridor between the studio and the wine bar which was, although still crowded, a lot less claustrophobic than this edited frame suggests.
And that’s really the point. Urban “hangs” that are so over-attended can give me the feeling of being jammed into a phone booth, like I’m part of some kind of desperately lonely lemming family reunion, so I decided to make that crushed sensation the context of the picture. Cropping down to a square frame improved the balance of the photograph but it also made these people look a little trapped, although oddly indifferent to their condition. The street reflections from the front plane of glass also add to the “boxed in” sensation. It’s a quick way to transform a snap into some kind of commentary, and you can either accept my choice or pass it by. That’s why doing this is fun.
Urban life presents a challenging series of social arrangements, and context in photographs can force a conversation on how that affects us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT STARTED OFF AS WHAT IS CURRENTLY REFERRED TO AS A FAIL: I was clicking away throughout the park areas in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, trying to make some kind of epic composition out of the beautiful Bailey Foundation near the war memorial arch. It features several heroic figures standing on the prow of a ship, under which can be seen several mythical denizens of the deep including Neptune himself. It’s a strong piece of sculpture, crowning a plaza that was designed by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, the mastermind behind Manhattan’s Central Park, and I should have been able to do something with it. Something.
Problem with the fountain is the water itself, which, instead of a wonderfully flowing cascade is something between a Jacuzzi shower head and a resort sprinkler system. Its renders the statuary nearly impossible to get in focus, and sends refracted rainbows and hotspots dancing gaily into your lens. Suddenly the impulse of a moment is a day’s work, and, just as I was beginning to check this particular world wonder off my to-do list, in moved the people you see here.
I don’t shoot weddings but the group you see here was, in fact, a shoot of a wedding, something else altogether, since there is a more relaxed dynamic than will ever be present during an actual ceremony. Photographically, rehearsals are more fruitful than actual play performances, and, in that vein, wedding prep holds more pictorial potential, for me, than weddings with a capital W. There is a looser feel, an air of celebration that somehow gets starched out of the final product. Do I stand here? You want me holding the flowers? Shouldn’t the tall people be at the back? Best thing of all, these folks were already taking direction from their “official” photog, so I was the last thing on their mind. There’s no better role at a wedding than that of The Invisible Man.
My glorious fountain had been reduced to a prop, which means the wedding party saw its potential, as I had. The difference is, they gave me what I hadn’t been able to find for myself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS USUALLY USE FACES AS THE SOLE BAROMETER OF EMOTION. It’s really easy to use a person’s features as the most obvious cues to one’s inner mind. Scowls, smiles, smirks, downcast eyes, sidelong glances,cries of anguish….these are standard tools in depicting someone as either assimilated into the mass of humanity or cast away, separate and alone.
But faces are only one way of showing people as living in a place apart. Symbolically, there is an equally dramatic effect to be achieved by the simple re-contextualizing of that person in space. The arrangement of space near your subject forces the viewer to conclude that he or she is either in harmony with their surroundings or lonely, solitary, sad even, and you do it without showing so much as a raised eyebrow. This is where composition isn’t just a part of the story, but the story itself.
The woman shown here is most likely just walking from point A to point B, with no undercurrent of real tragedy. But once she takes a short cut down an alley, she can be part of a completely different, even imaginary story. Here the two walls isolate her, herding her into a context where she could be lonely, sad, afraid, furtive. She is walking away from us, and that implies a secret. She is “withdrawing” and that implies defeat. She is without a companion, which can symbolize punishment, banishment, exile. From us? From herself? From the world? Once you start to think openly about it, you realize that placing the subject in space lays the foundation for storytelling, a technique that is easy to create, recalibrate, manipulate.
The space around people is a key player in the drama an image can generate. It can mean, well, whatever you need it to mean. People who exist in a place apart become the centerpieces in strong photographs, and the variability of that strength is in your hands.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT COMES TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ART, THE WORD “ABSTRACT” IS PROBABLY THE MOST BATTED-ABOUT LINGUISTIC SHUTTLECOCK OF THE 20TH CENTURY, something we lob at each other across the conversational net as it suits our mood. Whenever we feel we should weigh in on a matter of artistic heft, especially something that doesn’t fit into a conveniently familiar cubbyhole, we drag “abstract” out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and cram it into place somewhere in the argument.
Any talk of architecture, and the photographer’s reaction to it, attracts a lot of stray “abstracts”, since attaching the word seems to settle… something. However, art can never be about settling anything. In fact, it’s about churning things up, starting, rather than resolving, arguments. As pieces of pure design, finished buildings do make a statement of sorts about the architect’s view, at least. But when trolling about town, I am more drawn to incomplete or skeletal frameworks for buildings yet to be. They are simply open to greater interpretation as visual subject matter, since we haven’t, if you like, seen all the architect’s cards yet. The emerging project can, for a time, be anything, depending literally on where you stand or how light shapes the competing angles and contours.
I feel that open or unfinished spaces are really ripe with an infinite number of framings, since a single uncompleted wall gives way so openly to all the other planes and surfaces in the design, a visual diagram that will soon be closed up, sealed off, sequestered from view. And as for the light, there is no place it cannot go, so you can chase the tracking of shadows all day long, as is possible with, say, the Grand Canyon, giving the same composition drastically different flavors in just the space of a few hours.
If the word “abstract” has any meaning at all at this late date, you could say that it speaks to a variation, a reworking of the dimensions of what we consider reality. Beyond that, I need hip waders. However, I believe that emerging buildings represent an opportunity for photographers to add their own vision to the architect’s, however briefly.
Whew. Now let’s all go out get a drink.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY PHOTO SITES THAT SUGGEST SHOOTS CALLED “WALKABOUTS“, informal outings intended to force photographers to shoot whatever comes to hand with as fresh an eye as possible. Some walkabouts are severe, in that they are confined to the hyper-familiar surroundings of your own local neighborhood; others are about dropping yourself into a completely random location and making images out of either the nothing of the area or the something of what you can train yourself to see.
Walks can startle you or bore you to tears (both on some days), but they will sharpen your approach to picture-making, since what you do is far more important than what you’re pointing to. And the discipline is sound: you can’t hardly miss taking shots of cute cats or July 4 fireworks, but neither will you learn very much that is new. Forcing yourself to abandon flashier or more obvious subjects teaches you to imbue anything with meaning or impact, a skill which is, over a lifetime, beyond price.
One of the things I try to keep in mind is how much of our everyday environment is designed to be “invisible”, or at least harder to see. Urban infrastructure is all around us, but its fixtures and connections tend to be what I call the unseen geometry, networks of service and connectivity to which we simply pay no attention, thus rendering them unseeable even to our photographer’s eye. And yet infrastructure has its own visual grammar, giving up patterns, even poetry when placed into a context of pure design.
The above power tower, located in a neighborhood which, trust me, is not brimming with beauty, gave me the look of an aerial superhighway, given the sheer intricacy of its connective grid. The daylight on the day I was shooting softened and prettied the rig to too great a degree, so I shot it in monochrome and applied a polarizing filter to make the tower pop a little bit from the sky behind it. A little contrast adjustment and a few experimental framing to increase the drama of the capture angle, and I was just about where I wanted to be.
I had to look up beyond eye (and street) level to recognize that something strong, even eloquent was just inches away from me. But that’s what a walkabout is for. Unseen geometry, untold stories.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ONE OF THE BEST RESPONSES TO THE DIZZYING SPEED OF CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE. It is, in fact, because of a photograph’s ability to isolate time, to force our sustained view of fleeting things, that image-making is valuable as a seeing device that counteracts the mad rush of our “real time” lives. Looking into a picture lets us deal with very specific slices of time, to slowly take the measure of things that, although part of our overall sensory experience, are rendered invisible in the blur of our living.
I find that, once a compelling picture has been made of something that is familiar but unnoticed, the ability to see the design and detail of life is restored in the viewing of that thing. Frequently, in making an image of something that we are too busy to notice, the thing takes on a startlingly new aspect. That’s why I so doggedly pursue architectural subjects, in the effort to make us regard how much of our motives and ideals are captured in buildings. They stand as x-rays into our minds, revealing not only what we wanted in creating them, but what we actually created as they were realized.
In writing a book, several years ago, about a prominent midwestern skyscraper*, I was struck by how very personal these objects were…to the magnates who commissioned them, to the architects who brought them forth, and to the people in their native cities who took a kind of ownership of them. In short, the best of them were anything but mere objects of stone and steel. They imparted a personality to their surroundings.
The building pictured here, Columbus, Ohio’s 1897 Wyandotte Building, was designed by Daniel Burnham, the genius architect who spearheaded the birth of the modern steel skeleton skyscraper, heading up Chicago’s “new school” of architecture and overseeing the creation of the famous “White City” exposition of 1893. It is a magnificent montage of his ideals and vision for a burgeoning new kind of American city. As something thousand walk past every day, it is rendered strangely “invisible”, but a photograph can compensate for our haste, allowing us the luxury of contemplation.
As photographers, we can bring a particularly keen kind of witnessing to the buildings that make up our environment, no less than if we were to document the carvings and decorative design on an Egyptian sarcophagus. Architectural photography can help us extract the magic, the aims of a society, and experimenting with various methods for rendering their texture and impact can lead to some of the most powerful imagery created within a camera.
*Leveque: The First Complete Story Of Columbus’ Greatest Skyscraper, Michael A. Perkins, 2004. Available in standard print and Kindle editions through Amazon and other online bookstores.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGEST VISUAL EVIDENCE OF MAN’S PRESENCE ON THE PLANET IS HIS ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE HIS THINKING, the ability to say, of his living patterns, “over here, cool. Over there, six inches away, ick. You see these kind of yes/no, binary choices everywhere. The glittering, gated community flanked by feral urban decay. The open pasture land that abuts a zoo. And the natural world, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of its near neighbors from our co-called “civilization”.
I recently re-evaluated this image of the running paths at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and the nearby uber-grid of the central city. The colors are a bit muted since it was taken on a day of pretty constant rolling overcast, and it really is not a definitive portrait of either the city or the nearby greenspace, but there is a little story to be told in the ability of the two worlds to co-exist.
L.A’s lore is rife with stories of destroyed environments, twisted eco-structure, bulldozed neighborhoods and political hackery advanced at great cost to the poor and the powerless. In the face of that history, the survival of Griffith, a 4,310-acre layout of parks, museums, kiddie zoos, sports courts, and concert venues on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, is something of a miracle. It’s the lion lying down with the lamb, big-time, a strange and lucky juxtaposition that affords some of the most interesting fodder for photographers anywhere in California. Photogs observe natural pairings in the world, but they also chronicle alienations, urban brothers from different mothers, tales of visual conflicts that, while they can’t be reconciled, are worth noting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE BEST HUMAN INTEREST STORIES, EVEN WITH A CAMERA, CAN ONLY BE VIEWED INDIRECTLY. There are many cases in which even the best of us have to merely hint or suggest something about people that we clearly cannot show (or cannot show clearly). Maybe that intractable bit of visual mystery actually bonds us to our audiences, united as we are in speculation about what is beyond that wall or behind that door. The visual tease such photos provide are part of the art of making pictures, in that we are challenged to do more with less, and “show” something beyond the visible.
One of the simplest such stories to capture is very urban in nature: the last remaining nighttime lights in largely dormant buildings. Many of us have been the “last man standing” at the end of an extended work day. Others flee to engagements, family, dinner, but there we sit, chained to our desks until the report/project/research/budget is ready to be put to bed. There’s a readily identifiable feeling of loneliness, plus a little bit of martyr complex, that we can share in the plight of these unknown soldiers of the night.
Whenever I am driving through a city at night, I deliberately seek out those bluish, tube-lit warrens within the cubes and grids of otherwise featureless glass boxes. Who is there? What private eureka or oh, no moments are they experiencing? Which of a million potential dramas are being acted out, and with whom? The uncertainty, even from a photograph with little detail, sparks the imagination, and suddenly our viewers are completing the picture we were forced to deliver unfinished.
It’s the ongoing paradox of photography: what you don’t show is as vital as what you do show.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PERHAPS IT’S MY FATHER’S LOVE OF THOREAU AND EMERSON. Maybe it’s a late-in-life turn toward the meditational. It most certainly is due, in part, to a life-long adoration of all things bookish. Whatever the exact mix, I regard library space as far more sacred than the confines of any church or chapel. Many find their faith flanked by stained glass; I get centered in the midst of bookshelves.
And if libraries are my churches, reading rooms are the sanctuaries, the places within which the mind can be channeled into infinite streams, and where, incidentally, perfect mental quiet can translate into visual quiet. And that, for me, means black and white images. Color can be too loud, proud, and garish, wherein monochrome is the language of privacy, intimacy, and a perfect kind of silence. You might say black is the new quiet.
Inside reading rooms, the faces and clothing of the patrons seems, well, irrelevant to the mood. They have all come seeking the same thing, so compositionally, they are, themselves, all alike, and seeing them in silhouette against the larger details of the room seems to enhance the feeling of reverent quiet. As for composing, letting the room’s massive window take up 3/4 of the frame kept the readers as a small understatement along the bottom baseline of the shot. And, since I was reluctant to ruin the atmosphere of the room, or risk my “invisibility” with more than one audible click to betray me, I chose to go for broke with a single black & white image. I exposed for the cityscape beyond the window, to guarantee that the readers would be rendered as shapes, and that was it.
Having successfully purloined a treasure from within the Church Of The Holy Book, I proceeded to beat it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE LEARN, OVER A LIFETIME, NOT TO SEE THEM. The sweepers, the washers, those who clean up, clear away and reassemble our daily environment. They are hidden in plain sight, these silent crews of keepers and caretakers. They are the reason there are towels in the restrooms, liners in the trash bins, forks on the table. A silent machine of constantly moving gears readies our way in so many unseen ways each days, tended by the invisible armies of our cities.
They start early, finish late, glide by silently, and move on to the next task. Busy as we are, once we first hold a camera, they are stories dying to be revealed, wondered at, worried over.
The unnamed lady at the broom in the above image came into my view just because I had chosen, at a particular moment, to cross the window side of the second floor of a bookstore. Framed naturally between a giant rooftop sign and a tree, she was served up as a ready-made subject for me, and would have been completely unseen had I not visited the store at the very moment it opened.
The invisible armies roll in and out, like some silent tide, and their work is usually done before we crank up our day. Their world and ours can dovetail briefly, but in large part we occupy difference spaces in time. I love catching people in the act of prepping the morning.
The best images are the ones you dig for a bit.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
RETAIL CHAINS ARE STARVATION FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, a barren field where nothing grows, at least visually. America used to be a place where, in our business doings, our petticoat showed a bit; a certain raw vitality showed through our saggy banners, our improvised displays, our homespun marketing. It’s no wonder that the photojournalists of the Great Depression or the choniclers of the Lower East Side of the early 1900’s made poetry out of our back-of-the-truck veggie stands, our horse-drawn pushcarts, our roadside tag sales. There was texture there. There was the real drama of struggle, and it was a pictorial gold mine.
Of course it’s not all gone, and we are not, uniformly, Wal-Mart Nation. Not yet.
As picture makers, we have so much more to work with looking at the human, the risky, the uncertain in our do-it-yourself capitalism. There are stories in it. There are real people on the front lines of the culture to watch and capture. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun than trying to find drama in the grand opening of, say, Kwikie Mart # 3425.
And picture opportunities, created by the blacktop gypsies of our time, are still setting up shop across the country…..six days in a Target parking lot to sell fireworks, four hours in a church driveway to hawk cakes and pies, three weeks in a vacant lot to peddle Christmas trees. And then there are the fairs, the craft shows, and the garage sales, those stubborn little machines of mercantile faith. You can’t not grab gold in these fields.
There may be a great epic just waiting to be shot inside a massive wholesale warehouse, but I prefer my drama smaller, and a little more on the human side. Show me a guy trying to make a buck against all odds and I’ll show you a picture.
Or make you one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, UNDER THE SPELL OF A CONCEPT, TO KNOW WHETHER THEY ARE MARCHING TOWARD SOME LOFTY QUEST or merely walking in circles, their foot (or their brain) nailed to the floor. Fall too deeply in love with a given idea, and you could cling to it, for comfort or habit, long after it has yielded anything remotely creative.
You might be mistaking a rut for revelation.
We’ll all seen it happen. Hell, it’s happened to many of us. You begin to explore a particular story-telling technique. It shows some promise. And so you hang with it a little longer, then a little longer still. One more interpretation of the shot that made you smile. One more variation on the theme.
Maybe it’s abstract grid details on glass towers, taken in monochrome at an odd angle. Maybe it’s time exposures of light trails on a midnight highway. And maybe, as in my own case, it’s a lingering romance with dense, busy neighborhood textures, shot at a respectfully reportorial distance. Straight-on, left to right tapestries of doors, places of business, upstairs/downstairs tenant life, comings and goings. I love them, but I also worry about how long I can contribute something different to them as a means of telling a story.
- The bustling tenement neighborhoods of early Norman Rockwell paintings appealed to me, as a child, because the frames were teeming with life: people leaning out of windows, sitting on porches, perching on fire escapes, delivering the morning milk…they were a divine, almost musical chaos. But they were paintings, with all the intentional orchestration of sentiment and nostalgia that comes with that medium. Those images were wonderful, but they were not documents…merely dreams.
That, of course, doesn’t make them any less powerful as an influence on photography.
When I look at a section of an urban block, I try to frame a section of it that tells, in miniature, the life that can be felt all day long as the area’s natural rhythm. There are re-gentrified restaurants, neglected second-floor apartments, new coats of paint on old brick, overgrown trees, stalwart standbys that have been part of the street for ages, young lovers and old duffers. Toss all the ingredients together and you might get an image salad that captures something close to “real”. And then there is the trial-and-error of how much to include, how busy or sparse to portray the subject.
That said, I have explored this theme many times over the years, and worry that I am trying to harvest crops from a fallow field. Have I stayed too long at this particular fair? Are there even any compelling stories left to tell in this approach, or have I just romanticized the idea of the whole thing beyond any artistic merit?
Hopefully, I will know when to strike this kind of image off my “to do” list, as I fear that repetition, even repetition of a valid concept, can lead to laziness….the place where you call “habit” a “style”.
And I don’t want to dwell in that place.
THE FRAME OF AN IMAGE is the greatest instrument of control in the photographer’s kit bag, more critical than any lens, light or sensor. In deciding what will or won’t be populated inside that space, a shooter decides what a personal, finite universe will consist of. He is creating an “other” world by defining what is worthwhile to view, and he also creates interest and tension by letting the view contemplate what he chose to exclude. What finally lies beyond the frame is always implied by what lies inside it, and it is the glory of the invisible that invites his audiences inside his vision, ironically by asking them to consider what is unseen….in a visual medium.
Each choice of what to “look at” has, inherent in it, a decision on what to pare away. It is thus within the power of the photographer to make a small detail speak for a larger reality, rendering the bigger scene either vitally important or completely irrelevant based on his whim. Often the best rendition of the frame is arrived at only after several alternate realities have been explored or rejected.
Over a lifetime, I have often been reluctant to show less, or to choose tiny stories within larger tapestries. In much pictorial photography, “big” seems to serve as its own end. “More” looks like it should be speaking in a louder voice. However, by opting to keep some items out of the discussion, to, in fact, select a picture rather than merely record it, what is left in the frame may speak more distinctly without the additional noise of visual chatter.
“If I’d had more time”, goes the old joke, “I’d have written you a shorter letter”. Indeed, as I get older, I find it easier to try and define the frame with an editor’s eye, not to limit what is shown, but to enhance it. Sometimes, the entire beach is stunning.But, in other instances,a few grains of sand may more eloquently imply the beach, and so enable us to remember what amazing details combine in our apprehension of the world.