THE WAY IT USED TO COULDA MIGHTA OUGHTA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMBINE A NEW SERIES OF MOVES TO GENERATE AN EFFECT, and you are likely making art. Reduce the making of that same effect to a predictable rote series of steps with a uniform outcome, and you are likely making craft. Photography is a series of calculations: a certain adherence to rules will give you a solid framework in which to create. Slavish service to those same rules will make that framework a cage and imprison your vision within the confines of mere habit.
The comedian Lenny Bruce was famous for saying, “If I do something more than once, it’s a bit”, meaning a routine, to merely be recreated or played back, on demand….the opposite of creativity. I make mention of this because I fear that my own satisfaction with routines…how reliably they work, how comfortingly familiar they are…..can creep into my photography and replace all the vital blood in its veins with concrete. It’s an insidious trap. Repetition can act as a kind of sedative. Feels great in the moment, but soon you’re sleepwalking through the process. Photos become mere product. You can actually feel when all of your picture-making habits start morphing from a protective roof to a crushing winepress.
Fan Dancer, 2022
One remedy I try, to shake things up in these moments of torpor, is changing out gear to something, anything that I don’t think will work at all, or which may at least force me, through partial misuse of it, to think less habitually. Think of it as the difference between lighting a fire with a match or witching one up out of damp sticks. In the picture seen here, one of dozens I’ve made over time of the steeplejack daredevils who climb up and trim super-high palm trees in the southwest, I was actually forced to use a 300mm manual focus telephoto that was attached to the only camera I could reach in time for a shot. The nearest “appropriate” alternative was half a house away, and, meanwhile, this guy was hauling away the debris from his job at a good, er, clip. That meant making an attempt with something that was zoomed in way too far in relation to the distance between him and me. It meant focusing on the fly with a 1970’s lens barrel that is not exactly greased lighting. Oh, and to make things interesting, I could go no further open than f/4.5, so there would also be shutter speed fiddling to factor in. None of it should have worked.
Oddly, the minimal information forced on me by the close-at-hand framing, which now had eliminated all other context of size or place, actually made the worker’s crooked arm counter-balance the frond fan in an almost Asian fashion. A shy little Geisha gardener? I liked it. Could I do it again, on purpose? Not the point, really. What made me alert enough to maximize my opportunity in this case was the sheer uncertainty of the whole attempt. Now, all I have to do in future is resist saying, in the future, “whenever I shoot this kind of image, I always, always….”
Or else, in Lenny’s words, I’m just doing a bit….