the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

LOOK THROUGH ANY WINDOW, PART ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE COMMON THREAD ACROSS ALL THE PHOTO HOW-TO BOOKS EVER WRITTEN IS A WARNING: don’t let all the rules we are discussing here keep you from making a picture. Standardized techniques for exposure, composition, angle, and processing are road maps, not the Ten Commandments. It will become obvious pretty quickly to anyone who makes even a limited study of photography that some of the greatest pictures ever taken color outside the classical lines of “good picture making.” The war photo that captures the moment of death in a blur. The candid that cuts off half the subject’s face. The sunset with blown-out skies or lens flares. Many images outside the realm of “perfection” deliver something immediate and legitimate that goes beyond mere precision. Call it a fist to the gut.

The dawn creeps slowly in on the downtown streets of Monterey, California. A go-for-broke window shot taken under decidedly compromised conditions. 1/15 sec., f/3.5, ISO 640, 18mm.

Conversely, many technically pristine images are absolutely devoid of emotional impact, perfect executions that arrive at the finish line minus a soul. Finally, being happy with our results, despite how far they are from flawless is the animating spirit of art, and feeling. This all starts out with a boost of science, but it ain’t really science at all, is it? If it were, we could just send the camera out by itself, a heart-dead recording instrument like the Mars lander, and remove ourself from the equation entirely.

Thus the common entreaty in every instruction book: shoot it anyway. The only picture that is sure not to “come out” is the one you don’t shoot.

The image at left, of a business building in downtown Monterey, California was almost not taken. If I had been governed only by general how-to rules, I would have simply decided that it was impossible. Lots of reasons “not to”; shooting from a high hotel window at an angle that was nearly guaranteed to pick up a reflection, even taken in a dark room at pre-dawn; the need to be too close to the window to mount a tripod, therefore nixing the chance at a time exposure; and  the likelihood that, for a hand-held shot, I would have to jack the camera’s ISO so high that some of the darker parts of the building would be the smudgy consistency of wet ashes.

Still, I couldn’t walk away from it. Mood, energy, atmosphere, something told me to just shoot it anyway.

I didn’t get “perfection”. That particular ideal had been yanked out of my reach, like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown’s football. But I am glad I tried.  (Click on the image to see a more detailed version of the result)

In the next post, a look at another window that threatened to hold a shot hostage, and a solution that rescued it.

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2 responses

  1. aldraggin

    glad you shot this one. for whatever reason, it reminds me of the painting ‘the nighthawks.’ there is a huge amount of soul and aloneness suggested in both images, at least for me. thanks.

    November 14, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    • The light at this precise moment in the pre-dawn just called to me, and I had to try. Thank you so much for the comment. I love Edward Hopper’s paintings. He really captured something of our alienation and aloneness in urban settings.

      November 14, 2012 at 10:21 PM

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