By MICHAEL PERKINS
CULTURAL ICONS, which burn very distinct patterns into our memory, can become the single most challenging subjects for photography. As templates for our key experiences, icons seem to insist upon being visualized in very narrow ways–the “official” or post card view, the version every shooter tries to emulate or mimic. By contrast, photography is all about rejecting the standard or the static. There must be, we insist, another way to try and see this thing beyond the obvious.
Upon its debut as the central symbol for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the stainless steel structure known as the Unisphere was presented as the emblem of the peaceful ideals put forth by the Exhibition’s creators. Under the theme “Peace Through Understanding”, the Uni, 120 feet across and 140 feet in height, was cordoned off from foot traffic and encircled by jetting fountains,which were designed to camouflage the globe’s immense pedestal, creating the illusion that this ideal planet was, in effect, floating in space. Anchoring the Fair site at its center, the Unisphere became the big show’s default souvenir trademark, immortalized in hundreds of licensed products, dozens of press releases and gazillions of candid photographs. The message was clear: To visually “do” the fair, you had to snap the sphere.
After the curtain was rung down on the event and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park began a slow, sad slide toward decay, the Unisphere, coated with grime and buckling under the twin tyrannies of weather and time, nearly became the world’s most famous chunk of scrap metal. By 1995, however, the tide had turned; the globe was protected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and its rehabilitation was accompanied by a restoration of its encircling fountains, which were put back in service in 2010. The fair park, itself staging a comeback, welcomed back its space-age jewel.
As for photography: over the decades, 99% of the amateur images of the Unisphere have conformed to the photographic norm for icons: a certain aloof distance, a careful respect. Many pictures show the sphere alone, not even framed by the park trees that flank it on all sides, while many others are composed so that not one of the many daily visitors to the park can be seen, robbing this giant of the impact imparted by a true sense of scale.
In shooting Uni myself for the first time, I found it impossible not only to include the people around it, but to marvel at how completely they now possess it. The decorum of the ’64 fair as Prestigious Event now long gone, the sphere has been claimed for the very masses for whom it was built: as recreation site, as family gathering place..and, yes, as the biggest wading pool in New York.
This repurposing, for me, freed the Unisphere from the gilded cage of iconography and allowed me to see it as something completely new, no longer an abstraction of the people’s hopes, but as a real measure of their daily lives. Photographs are about where you go and also where you hope to go. And sometimes the only thing your eye has to phere is sphere itself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’LL NEVER KNOW THE NAMES OF MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT HAD THE GREATEST ROLES IN SHAPING MY EARLY WAY OF SEEING. The most important primary influences on my visual style in childhood weren’t the guys who received billing in the very public credits of Life, Look, or National Geographic, but the nameless freelancers whose work popped out of the small 3-d Kodachrome squares mounted in white cardboard View-Master reels. To this day, I can directly link the way I visualize images to VM’s crew of uncredited shooters, with their full-color highlight tours of everything from Yosemite to Notre Dame. Truly, from the first brown bakelite Model “D” viewer I received as a boy, through endless model variations over the next fifty years, I framed my own method for telling a picture story after the scenes in those little blue envelopes which bore the portentous legend, Seven More Wonders Of The World.
If you’ve been out of short pants for a while, you might not know that these little middle-tech stereoscopic beauties are still around, although just barely. View-Master has provided diversion and delight for three generations of devotees the world over, but the ride, billions of reels and zillions of memories later, might finally be crawling to a halt. More on that in a moment.
The co-invention of a photographer/tinker and a postcard salesman, View-Master cranked out its first rudimentary viewers and travel titles in 1939, more or less growing out of its appearance at the New York World’s Fair, where its souvenir views of “The World Of Tomorrow” made their debut. One of the earliest VM subjects was the then-new Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, setting the tone for the format’s explanatory “texts”, image descriptions short enough to make Tweets look encyclopedic, all crammed to fit inside the tiny caption window resting between your eyes. View-Master was largely an adult amusement for its first decade, catering to the armchair traveler with an endless catalogue of national parks, castles, cathedrals, and natural wonders, selling through a network of dealerships at camera shops and the souvenir stands at various travel attractions. Many of the format’s contributing scenic photographers also made some side money as VM sales agents, criss-crossing the country by car, shooting a little here, selling a little there.
By the early 50’s, View-Master grew from single-subject reels to three-reel packets and from travel images to its first children’s titles. Entering into a contract with Walt Disney studios, the VM format made a seismic shift toward youth fare with cartoon and TV shows, movies, even their own original fairy tale and nursery titles, shot with tiny clay figures arranged in their own miniature tabletop dioramas. And of course “the scenics”, as they were called, rolled on to chronicle many more World’s Fairs, canyons, mountains, parks, even NASA flights.
Depending on when you first encountered the format, View-Master was made either by Sawyers, GAF, Tyco, Fisher-Price, or Mattel, and the classic viewer was joined by projectors (2-D and 3-d), stereo cameras for making your own reels, “talking” viewers with internal phonographs to announce the captions, home “theatre” sets, storage cases and a slew of other short-and-long-term products.Now for the inevitable “passage of time” part: by the start of the 21st century, View-Master’s ancestral factory in Portland, Oregon closed its doors and production was moved to Mexico. And in 2013, there is, after sixty-four years, the clear possibility that the View-Master division of Mattel will be leased to a separate company, spun off like a despised stepchild, if not discontinued altogether.
Why the nostalgia? Because my whole orientation toward trying to tell a compelling, simple story in pictures, nurtured later by more famous photographers, cut its baby teeth on View-Master images: the composition, the angle, the way of leading the viewer’s eye into a frame and nailing it there….that’s all part of the “reel” world of my early, baby-sized eyes. There is no wasted space, no cute artiness in a View-Master image. It is all practical information, all shorthand communication. And even though the kiddie titles have long dominated the format’s output, there are, amazingly, still artists who create everything from complete tours of the Lewis & Clark expedition to edgy art exhibits with View-Master. And in a world that still embraces lo-tech imaging artifacts like plastic toy cameras and artificial “retro” platforms like Instagram, it seems that VM could still be an instrument for at least some kinds of photo expression.
Or, as with our tearful farewell to Kodachrome a few years back, we might, at least, cast a fond backward glance at the little box that gave us the world.
Seven wonders at a time.