the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Consignment Shop, Manhattan. 1/80 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.


IF YOU’RE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER WHEN USE OF THE WORD “AIN’T” LABELED YOU AS A GRAMMATICAL LOWBROW, you may also recall the snooty disdain reserved for a verbal construction called the split infinitive. A simple infinitive involved following the preposition “to” with an action verb, such as “go”. To split the infinitive, the writer or speaker inserts an adverb between the two words for an extra boost of  emphasis. Thus, in the most famous split infinitive ever, Gene Roddenberry invited Star Trek viewers

to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Nice, right? A little extra drama. A slight bending of the rules that delivers the goods.

Photography has a formal “grammar” about composition that also begs for a kind of “split infinitive”. Strictly speaking, compositions are supposed to be simple, clean, uncluttered. A perfect line of visual data from top to bottom, left to right. A picture frame, if you will, an organized way of seeing.

Attractive yes, even desirable, but a must? Nope. Life itself, as we observe it everyday, is far from a series of perfect frames. Lines of sight get broken, fragmented, blocked. Nature and light conspire to take that flawless composition and crash it, refract it, photobomb it until it resembles, well, life. And yet we often try to take pictures that show the very opposite of the sloppy, imprecise nature of things.

We try for “perfection” instead of perfect concepts.

Georgia Hotel, Santa Monica, CA. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Georgian Hotel, Santa Monica, CA. 1/60 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Reviewing images for the last several years, I find that I am taking more compositions on their own terms, with light poles, weird reflections, broken planes of view and shadows all becoming more welcome in my final photos. I still labor to get a clean look when I can. But I also make peace with elements that used to doom a photo to the dustbin.

Street scenes especially can better reflect the visual chaos of busy cities if everything isn’t “just right”. It’s really hard (at least in my case) to tear out the mental hardwiring of a lifetime and take a picture that may be more abstract or cubist than I ever thought I could allow myself to be. Maybe it’s a function of aging, but things seem to be relaxing in my approach. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still Alpha Male enough to want to bring everything in a frame under my unswerving control. I just don’t get blood pressure when circumstances force me to unclench my iron fist once in a while.

It’s a process.

To see, yes, but, in allowing my visual infinitives to be occasionally split, it means learning to differently see.

Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.

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