the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BEFORE I CAN SURPRISE ANYONE WITH A PHOTOGRAPH, I myself must be surprised. It’s true that by re-examining familiar subjects, I can occasionally bring some under-appreciated feature of it to light, but, in the main, I do my best work when I have little or no idea what’s coming next. I have to be dislocated to some degree to feel at home.

I have to jump-start the section of my brain that inclines toward a fresh perspective or a novel approach. Placing myself in the position of A Stranger or A First-Time Visitor throws me enough of a sensory curve to knock me back off my comfort perch and see with something that approximates an original eye. And the culture I have inherited from thousands of generations of seekers shows me that I am not alone in this. 

The film director Sydney Pollack once said that many of the greatest stories in history involve being thrown out of Eden, lost from home, forced to navigate what Star Trek calls “strange new worlds”. His thinking was that, from the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn to The Wizard of Oz to E.T., an amazing transformation happens to all of a culture’s heroes due to their being, at least for a while,  outcast from their points of origin. In terms of photography, while I can’t say that my favorite images always result from striking out into alien territory, I am firmly convinced that the feeling of estrangement, of being, for a time, banished from one’s factory settings can create the spark for creativity. Images that come from that insecurity act as a kind of reset button for the senses. We are on heightened alert when we’re tossed out of the nest, and that informs the pictures we make. 

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My absolute favorite pictures over a lifetime are the ones that I had no plan for in the moment, no prior experience that could help me know what to do about them, no other clear motive other than the certainty that I wanted to make them somehow. Let’s face it, few of us would deliberately head out to see what a car wash looks like after dark in a forgotten midtown neighborhood of Los Angeles as seen through a rain-smeared windshield, but once I saw one, I wanted to capture it. Don’t ask me why. It’s not my favorite picture in the world, but it is my favorite way to allow myself to stretch a bit.

“I photograph to see what something looks like photographed”, said Garry Winogrand, who shot with as pure a sense of impulse as any photographer I’ve ever seen. And I can come close to that purity of purpose when I’m out of my element. Sometimes that means going to a physically different location, but other times it might merely be achieved by going into the left side rather than the right side in a museum, or visiting an anteroom you’ve somehow ignored the first 10,000 times you entered the same building. 

Some operate from the principle of familiarizing yourself with your surroundings before making a picture. I often hit pay dirt when I shoot despite the fact that I’m unsure of where it’s all heading. Both approaches have gifted me with images that surprised me. In the meantime, you may find that admitting that, yes, you’re a stranger here pries opens your eyes, and in turn, your heart. 

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