By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE PROVIDE THE PROGRAM WHICH CAMERAS ARE INSTRUCTED TO PERFORM. The actual box itself, like many other tools, is really a dumb thing, fueled not by its own ideas but instructed to carry out the whims of its owner. The camera thus does not really “see”, but merely follows the direction of those who can.
If they can.
The frustrating part of photography’s learning curve is that, over time, we all come to think of our most enlightened ideas as, well, primitive. The things we regard as obvious in our present incarnation as picture-makers were once invisible to us. And it follows that our present blind spots may, in a future version of ourselves, be the source of our greatest accuity. We are thus learning photography on several planes. There is the merely technical level, in which the mastery of aperture and focus is the primary mission. Then there is learning to see, as we begin to recognize patterns, themes or compositions. Finally there is the ability to evaluate what we see, to place different emphases on things depending on how we ourselves have evolved. This transference can take a pictorial element from the status of an object to that of a subject. We notice a thing differently and thus we photograph it differently.
I find myself in the process of such a shift at the time of this writing, mostly because I have recently made new friends within the birdwatching community, mostly due to my wife’s passion for the hobby. Now, of course, I have taken my share of bird photos over a lifetime, but most of them could be classified as opportunistic accidents (one landed next to where I was sitting) or as props within a composition, something to add scale, balance or flavor to, let’s say a landscape. That is to say that birds, for me, have been objects in my pictures, not, for the most part, subjects. Lately, however, I can see a subtle shift in my own prioritization of them.
Part of my pedestrian attitude toward them is borne of my own technical limits, as I have never owned the kind of superzooms that are required to make a detailed study of them. If I can’t afford to bring them into close view and sharp detail, it’s just easier to represent them as dots, flecks or shadows, as you see in the image at left. This, in turn, connects to my admittedly jaundiced view of telephoto images in general, since I think the gear required to capture them invites as many problems as it solves. I prefer prime lenses for their simplicity, clarity, efficiency of light use and, let’s face it, affordability. I realize now that all those biases are under review: I am, for better or worse, revising how I see the natural world, or, more specifically, the living things within it. Much of this is thanks to Marian, who sees the earth as a kind of game preserve with we bipeds charged with its responsible curation. The influence of her good example has been amplified further by my rage against the corporate titans who would lay waste to the last unicorn if it lined their pockets, and the fact that, at this juncture, their side seems to have the upper hand.
And so as both a photographer and a person, I can’t really relegate birds, or bison, or duck-billed platypuses to the background of my work any more. I may never become a great nature photographer, but that’s not the point. Fact is, the journey involved in sharpening our eye is always a staircase. Each step is important, but the upward journey itself is the main thing. Any photographer lucky enough to have his/her seeing powers challenged, even changed, is blessed indeed.
I know this is true. A little bird told me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” – Anais Nin
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A PERSON, observe them in a relationship.
Alone, each of us is a sealed chamber of secrets. Matched with just one other living thing, however, an individual’s inner truths begin to seep out, to display themselves like buds slowly blossoming into blooms. Photographers concentrate mightily on solo portraits, and that is certainly a treasure trove of its own, but the visual grammar of a portrait is completely different than that of a group shot, and provides completely distinct information. The self has its native language, but when we are placed in a situation with others, be it a simple social chat or a key interaction, we are translated into a different tongue altogether.
We experience joy, regret, conflict, triumph as individuals, and a photograph can certainly read pieces of all of that (or at least imply it), but once we are in twosomes, threesomes, and so forth, all those emotional states are measured differently. The signals become amplified, more easily detected. Of course, people in conversations can be presenting completely false versions of themselves (spoiler alert) , but, in an image, the mask can be seen to slip, if only a little, revealing at least a smidgeon of the real person beneath the guise.
Admittedly, a photograph is not an x-ray, and so anything it records is open to interpretation, including our guess about the actual mindset of the subject. Translation: the camera can easily lie, or transmit a falsehood. Once that untruth is out in the open, however, the viewer is the jury that determines whether what’s on display is fact or fiction. My point is that palpably different things are in view in pictures of social interaction than in images of isolated individuals, and so all shooters should be conversant in mining both areas. The fact that the faces of the two women in the top picture are concealed is no more an inhibitor to our discovery than the plainer display of expressions of the duo on the subway. Our minds will devise their own ways of decoding these interactions. The fact remains that a whole extra level of view into the human mind/spirit can be achieved in watching people interact. For me, it’s the difference between shooting through a window to catch a glimpse of a house’s interior and being invited inside the place for a better look.
But that, as they say on the shrink’s couch, is just me.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.
That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.
All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.
“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.
“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER WHAT A MAD MIX OF SKILL AND DUMB LUCK IT TOOK ME to score any usable concert images in the glory days of film photography, which has been one reason why, for both economic and mental health reasons, I tended not to attempt them too often. I have known several people over the decades who simply kill at such work, and their abilities leave me as stunned as a caveman who has just discovered fire. Such people are masters of light, wizards of journalism, and maybe, just maybe, unofficial auxiliary members of the bands they cover. They’re that linked in.
Many years and many technological advances later, one of the barriers to my becoming a great concert shooter has vanished, in that, in the digital era, I can at least afford to try a lot of things without putting my wallet on the endangered species list. And perhaps that fact has, in turn, also safeguarded my mental health as well. ‘Cuz, since I can now shoot, and shoot, and shoot, I can flail away until I actually produce something worth the effort, improving my overall demeanor and putting me once again in harmony with cute puppies, adorable babies, and unicorns. Of course, I have expanded my play area in recent years to include more offstage/backstage images, not only because they are technically easier to control, but because they contain something that stage performances may not: that is, unguarded, candid moments, or the exact opposite energy seen during a concert.
As a case in point: many current artists are making a bigger percentage of their touring “take” from on-site music sales than in earlier eras, and so the good old autograph table experience frequently offers the occasional relaxed moment. It doesn’t have the same drama as a classic shot of a guitar god shredding his way to immortality, but it almost counts as street photography, depending on what kind of energy you’re trying to capture. I myself enjoy the greater freedom to grab more of the miracle moments in a show, but I also find it liberating to work both ends of the gig.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TECHNOLOGY IS A SNAKESKIN, a perpetually decaying epithelial layer that we shed to reveal the fresh flesh (or the latest “version) just beneath. This death-and-rebirth cycle is so constant in our world as to be nearly invisible: things are in daily use, everywhere, until they’re not, and once they have been replaced, their new iterations seem inevitable, as if they had always been around, as if nothing else ever made any sense. How did we ever survive with that other old thing? How could we call ourselves advanced without the shiny new one?
Photography is at least partly about observing the mile markers at which we said goodbye to things. You can comprise a whole career just out of documenting objects that have made the journey from Latest And Greatest to Oh, That Old Thing, that inexorable slouch from You Simply Must Get One to Are You Still Using That? We don’t stop needing a function like television, but television sets themselves are as transient as mayflies. We don’t stop driving cars, but we have already torn down the first museums that enshrined the earliest automobiles. And so it goes.
In a recent walk through the old downtown in Flagstaff, Arizona, I seemed to pass something on every other block that reminded me of how quickly and completely we shed the tech snakeskin. In some cases, the old devices were still sort of in use, like the battered pay phone seen above. In other cases, they were so far out of synch with the times that they had been reduced to arcane decor in a store front window, as seen with the old Speed Graphic press cameras below, abstracted to mere form by their utter uselessness. In either case, I felt that a picture was warranted.
This all may be a symptom of my own rapidly advancing age. I certainly acknowledge a feeling that the entire merry-go-round of progress seems to have been cranked faster in recent years, although it may just be that I am catching slower than life is pitching. Either way, I find myself in the process of saying goodbye to lots of things lots more of the time. And even though I vainly try to slow this cascading process by catching glimpses of the casualties within my magic light box, I know, at some level, that it’s a losing battle. The snake sheds its skin, but never sheds a tear about that skin. It’s just something that was vital, until it wasn’t. Most of the time, we shed whole versions of ourselves, with little more thought or regret. It’s when we do pay attention to what’s been lost that we have to decide, in our pictures and our hearts, what of it was really important.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?
Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.
What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.
Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year. I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.
And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE END OF A DECADE is often used as an arbitrarily mile marker to measure the effects of a particular parcel of time. The requisite lists of “bests” “biggests” and “top” accomplishments or events, trotted out in an attempt to define an era, are as irresistible as they are meaningless. The appeal is understandable: people, including photographers, love trying to make sense of something, especially their own work. But ranking one thing as better than another is not nearly as important as noting contrasts in one’s output over time. Simply put, we produce different work at different periods because we are actually different people.
Looking at my own stuff between 2009 and 2019, I can see several shifts in emphasis that have shaped the way I make pictures today. For example, over that period, I re-embraced prime, or single focal-length lenses, which had been a fundamental part of my film years but which temporarily got supplanted by the first kit lenses and moderate zooms of the digital era. I also came to greatly reduce my use of ultra-wide angle glass, settling on 24mm as about as wide a frame as I would ever shoot. Also, after flirting with auto and semi-auto shooting modes with my first DSLRs, I resumed another old school habit, that of shooting on full manual. Along with millions of others, I saw my work with cel phone cameras evolve from “just in case” or “emergency” shots to images that I would purposefully plan, preferring some of the results over those from my “real” cameras. And, overall, I tried to stop just short of a full-on minimalist approach to gear, trying to do more and more with less and less. That meant eschewing flash almost completely, and choosing in-camera technique over post-processing whenever possible. For me, the real magic still happens inside the box, one momentary impulse at a time.
The biggest change for me over the last ten years, however, was far more fundamental, as I seem to have completely reprioritized what I look for in an “acceptable” picture. As the decade began, aware as I was of the contrast limits of the first digital sensors, I sought a way to rescue every single iota of detail from the darker portions of my pictures, even as I accented sharpness and focus with near-religious zeal. That led me to work heavily with the HDR platform Photomatix, taking multiple exposures of single subjects which were then blended to amp up every grain of sand and woodgrain. The pictures looked dramatic in their “equalizing” of all tones, from dark to light, but which could often result in an over-cooked, glowing surreality. A slightly more restrained 2011 example of my HDR “period” is shown above.
By contrast, around the middle of the decade, I began to value subjects for a different kind of narrative impact, things that were allowed to be softer or even selectively underexposed. In a sense, I started to regard sharpness and focus as negotiable for certain pictures, not merely allowing backgrounds to fuzz out in contrast to foregrounds, but using Lensbaby and other “art” lenses to select things within a single foreground plane that could be softened in reference to others in that same plane…assigning additional focus priorities within the overall focus strategy. An example of this approach is seen here, in a crowded San Francisco street scene from earlier this year.
Over the last ten years, my images, especially the urban scenes, have gradually taken on a looser look, a more dreamy, if less “realistic” aspect. These new pictures are not just “captures” of things that pass in front of me, nor are sharpness and perfect exposure the only objective in photographing them. Instead, I like to hope that their non-specific quality will invite a more interpretive look from the viewer. Since everything isn’t spelled out or recorded in such photographs, there’s breathing room in them for anyone to supply his or her own detail (or not). I don’t always produce pictures like this now, but I am far more open to the idea of relinquishing control than I was ten years ago. Progress? Who knows? End-of-decade lists don’t really make a statement about “better” or “worse”. They are only reflections that, as the mind is always in flux, so, too, must any products of that mind be.
Happy New Year.
Happy New Pictures.
Happy New Adventures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE STILL PLACES ACROSS AMERICA where all the needs of life seem to be concentrated into very compact spaces. Small towns where the eating places, the living places, working places, worshiping places and dying places are all within a few blocks of each other, all of them viewable, knowable to everyone, all the time. The unchecked sprawl of modern life has left such villages behind, so isolated that they may as well be contained within a snow globe, their functions blended together like a box of inter-melted crayons. In such towns, photographs of a very different nature can be made.
The idea of a local main street moving seamlessly from the business section to residential houses to graveyards to a children’s playground now runs counter to the way we plan things. In little cities all functions orbit each other tightly, like animals sharing the same watering hole. Maybe some of these burgs were, originally, just that….replenishment stops, a place to change horses, grab a meal before heading back onto the trail, a collection point for outlying farms or ranches. In terms of the images that can be created in these out-of-the-way places, they are chronicles of a different kind of rhythm. They simply have to result in different kinds of pictures.
In traveling through such towns, I invariably stop at local churchyards. In a strange way, by containing the remains of our all too temporary shells, the yards themselves achieve a kind of permanence. Things go there and stay there. No one digs up a cemetery to build a supermarket. Its space remains apart, freed even more of the constraints of time than the towns which they occupy. And here, in the aftermath of the greatest interruptions we can ever face, there is order. A grave is just one more thing that falls to the human need to organize. To make sense of it all. We lay out parcels with a certain arbitrary logic. Grandpa is in section 3-A, while the mayor and his family are in 4-D, and so forth. Churches in such towns taper off into the sky with stiff steeples, and brick and marble perpetuate the illusion that everything in the area, in some way, lasts. In terms of technique for these oddly reassuring patches of quiet, I often will play around with selective focus, since that dreamy half-state seems to align with my interior dialogue. Our pasts are as strange in their own way as our presents, and the standard rules for picture-making are vaporous, like ghosts.
Small towns are often liberally dotted with antique stores, as if objects themselves have need of a graveyard, a place to be collected beyond anyone’s needs or desires. The way we say farewell to things is often impossible to measure visually, but we carry cameras along wherever we go, because, well, you never know. When life’s various elements slip away there is often nothing to mark their passage. And yet sometimes there is just a little. And sometimes we can see it. And steal it. And hoard it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.
The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.
The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.
It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.
Or the click of a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HISTORY DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHIN THE STORMY SURGE OF A CROWD, but with the quiet, agonized turning of individual hearts. One heart at a time, that’s how the world is turned…..or overturned.
Protests and demonstrations are a natural magnet for photographers. They appeal to the journalist in all of us, as street photography meets street theatre in a roiling mix that maybe, just, maybe will allow us to trap history inside our magical boxes. Thing is, certain surface elements of marches and public gatherings are dismayingly uniform: the sea of signs, the crush of bodies, the speaker’s rostrum….and masses of angry/jubilant faces. Photographers realize that world-changing events are really about faces, more than any other visual element. We look for features that record the raw essence of those events: pity, fear, exhilaration, relief, anger. Finding the right face within a mass gathering is the toughest assignment for anyone hoping to use a camera to record the over-large mash-up of sensations within a movement. A solid wall of people with signs isn’t the real story: what brought individuals to the site is the only message that can be trusted. You must fan past the mass of noise to find the quiet at the center.
You need not pick a side in a struggle to record what it costs people to invest their energy in having picked one themselves. The woman seen here, standing near an improvised speaker’s platform, may never have seen herself as a force to change the world. She is not triumphant: she is not a bomb-hurler: she doesn’t share in the giddy me-tooism of youth: she may actually wish she were somewhere else, even as something has told her she must be only here, right now. The parade/protest will rage on in big waves of zeal, but her emotion, at least in this moment, is not one of celebration. She is not having a good time. But written in her apprehension is something universal, eternal.
The human race seems, age after age, to be in search of the same basic things. The drama in our lives is defined by the path we choose to reach those things. And all of our quests force their way up into our features. Our faces betray what path we’re on, and why. There is no wisdom in the mob, unless it is in the wisdom of one face after another, all of whom, on the same day, strangely found themselves standing in the same spot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE A REALM OF CONJURED DREAMS, as technology first enabled man to snatch instants from the flowing continuum of time. This grabbing and freezing process, the notion of stopping history and imprisoning it on a plate, involved a great deal of experimentation, as the very rules of exposure were being drafted on the fly. At first, both optics and recording media were slow to drink in light, meaning that calculating the precise duration for which to uncap the lens was, in the period before mechanical shutters, largely a matter of guesswork. Thus was born the world’s first photographic “aritifacts”, the blurred smears of things or people that kept moving during prolonged exposures. The Reverend H.J.Morton, writing for the Philadelphia Photographer in 1865, summed up the surreal experience of finding ghosts lurking in an otherwise frozen scene:
A beautiful picture lies smiling before the lens, when a cow gets up slowly and walks away deliberately, giving us a fine landscape with a continuous cow of many heads, much body, and centipedian legs.
Today, with the lightning-fast response that is built into even the simplest cameras, that cow can only be summoned in a deliberate time exposure, typically with the camera mounted on a tripod. It’s fair to say that our motives for making these kind of images has changed over the years, again, mostly due to technological advances, including vibration suppression, wider ISO ranges, and enhanced noise reduction (which works hand-in-glove to clean up high-ISO pictures). Fact is, there are fewer instances than ever before in which long exposures are needed, unless we utilize them to generate the very artifacts that we used to wish we could eliminate. As one example, everyone eventually creates at least one “light trail” photo, letting cars zoom through a long exposure largely unseen while leaving the glowing paths of their headlamps hanging mystically in the air. And there are certain collapsed studies of long durations which can only be appreciated by prying the lens open for a few extra beats. In the case of the above image, I was photographing the final night before the closure of a local art cinema, which would soon be razed to make room for a bigger cineplex with more screens, more room, and far less charm. I felt as if a lot of Spirits Of Cinema Past were in attendance, and so mounted a tripod to turn the customers themselves into passing shadows, just like the many spectres that had flickered across the theatre’s screens over the decades. And that’s the strange time-travel feature of photography: one era’s annoyance is another era’s cherished effect.
I seldom use my tripods any more, but having recently inherited one from a departed friend, I find myself recalling the days when it was my near-constant companion, a reverie which, in turn, sent me searching back for the theatre images. Making pictures is about harnessing the light with whatever lasso we have handy. As we grow, we learn to do more with less, creating in seconds what used to require elaborate forethought. But all that really means is that, as we improve, we are freer to focus on the picture, rather than the mechanics of making one. That means choices….and yes, even the choice to do conjure ghosts if the fancy strikes us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“I’M NOT A GREAT ONE FOR CHATTING PEOPLE UP, because it’s phony”, legendary photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones told an interviewer toward the end of his life. Answering standard questions about his approach to creating some of the most memorable portraits of both the haves and have-nots during the second half of the twentieth century, he added, “I don’t want people to feel at ease. You want a bit of edge. There are quite long, agonized silences. I love it. Something strange might happen. I mean, taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do. It’s very cruel….”
Such a remark was de rigeur for Armstrong-Jones, who worked hard over a lifetime to create the impression that he didn’t really work that hard at all, that his photographs were, in his words, “run of the mill”, although anyone looking over the body of work published under his British title, Lord Snowdon, would roundly disagree. His clients ranged from the royal family, including his first wife, Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth), as well as the family’s next generation of nobles, highlighted by his celebrated portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also scores of portraits of a vast range of other subjects from ditch-diggers to dowagers, a list that boasted Princess Grace of Monaco, David Bowie, Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other times his lens would be trained on documentary subjects like natural disasters or the plight of mental patients. In Snowdon’s personally curated origin story, he seems to have backed into photography after flunking out of Cambridge, where he had originally studied to be an architect. Even the acquisition of his first camera, a gift from his sister to help pass the time during his recovery from a bout of polio, seems to have been an afterthought. Beginning as an assistant for the reigning British court photographer, he first distinguished himself with images of the brighter lights of the British stage, truly launching his career with an official 1957 tour portrait of Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Three years later, he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that made history on two fronts, being the first such ritual to be televised as well as the first union between a royal and a commoner (from which union came Armstrong-Jones’ induction into the House of Lords). The marriage was most graciously described as “tempestuous”, and ground to a halt eighteen years later, hobbled by Margaret’s legendary partying and Snowdon’s equally celebrated eye for the ladies.
Perversely, Snowdon often disdained the very photographs that earned him his living, saying they were “all right for pinning up” but not worthy of being framed or treasured. Once, when asked if he had a favorite image, he quipped “yes….I haven’t taken it yet.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Snowdon ever gave any public clues as to how such a masterpiece might evolve, since he was remarkably closed-mouthed about technique, whenever he wasn’t actively denying that he had any. Proud of the fact that he didn’t prep or engage his subjects in conversation to relax them, he claimed he never even asked them to smile, since that was “a false facial expression”.
His professional credits ran the gamut from the London Sunday Times magazine (where he worked as photo editor) to commissions for Vanity Fair, The Daily Telegraph, and over thirty years with Vogue, with a notable retrospective of his work being mounted at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Interestingly, his favorite projects were not photographs at all, but the architectural designs he created for the London Zoo and various mechanical inventions, including a type of electric wheelchair which he patented. He consistently deflected probing questions about the style and philosophy behind his pictures, cutting off interviews with glib gibes that made it seem as if the images just jumped out of the camera by their own power. Perhaps, he seemed to be proposing, it had all been a happy accident.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the pictures are best suited to speak for themselves. Perhaps trying to explain how the magic works makes the magic sort of…not work. “I’m very much against photographs being treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art”, he once told a writer. “They should be seen in a magazine or book and then be used to wrap up fish and chucked away.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ——William Shakespeare, As You Like It
And though she feels as if she’s in a play….she is, anyway…. ——Lennon & McCartney, Penny Lane
THE NATURE OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE AWARENESS THAT WE ARE ALL PERFORMERS, that, from sunrise to sunset we are carrying out roles, parts played to move society along or smooth our own way within it. The most obvious symbols of performance….masks, costumes, a proscenium…these are all artifacts of the stage, and are but a small part of the dramas and comedies awaiting the attentive eye of the photographer, most of them outside the physical limits of the theatre.
We assume parts that convey ritual, occupations, celebration, even our rank within our communities. We divide our years into seasons and our seasons into roles, marks on the calendar that also define how we will dress ourselves, the codes of behavior we will observe, and the slogans and symbols we use to commune with all the other players. Thus, in street photography, we train our eyes to spot the beginnings, middles and endings of these “scenes”, to see performances in nearly every aspect of life. Some of us are destined to go for the laugh, while others seemed fated for tragedy. We invent insignia, uniforms, jargon, procedures for playing our parts, like the policemen seen here standing on alert at what will be the beginning of a parade. Over time, we develop, as an actor does, “bits of business”, ways of doing things, each with their own key visual signatures. But street work happens in the unranked and the unorganized as well…..indeed, there are actors and actresses everywhere we look. When we first begin to take notice, we may find it hard to see their stories; after a while, we can more easily trace where they’ve come from, where they’re headed, and what constitutes a climax or a turning point in their lives.
Some people choose to see street photography as eavesdropping, as an invasion of privacy. I reject this idea, because my personal intention is not to degrade but to cherish, to attempt pictures that celebrate the universal struggles of the human animal. The thing that makes our part-playing truly lonely is not the sensation that someone is watching, but the fear that no one is. Just as literature, poetry, painting and song all tie the travails of the individual to the traits of the general, so to, then, does the best photography. For if we are all “merely players”, may we not all long for the occasional chance to take a bow?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS NUMBERS AND LETTERS ARE SYMBOLIC OF THINGS LARGER THAN THEMSELVES, cues in photography act as a visual vocabulary, a kind of shorthand for more complex ideas. This way of showing ideas through a commonly recognized series of signals means we don’t always have to explain everything from scratch every time we create a picture. In order to convey the idea of a train, we don’t have to show the entire history or design of locomotives: a railroad crossing sign sells the concept immediately. And so, as storytellers. we use symbols to get to the point faster, and, nearly two centuries into our shared art, the shortcuts get more compact and more immediate with the passage of time.
One of the ideas that we convey in this way is the idea of limits or barriers, especially images that show confinement or limited admittance. Signs, lights, gates, traffic cones, warning signals, all convey a ton of information in a short space of time…everything from beware to keep out. These cues also allow a photograph to be all shorthand, to be about the limit or barrier. The image seen here adequately conveys the idea of a physical limit with a very meager amount of data. Even resolution itself has been relaxed, leaving just the suggestion of textures that are typically rendered in fine detail. There are no clearly readable signs, no clue to what the viewer is being kept from, no idea of whether the gate represents safety or repression. And while this symbol conveys a limit on our movement; everything else is open to interpretation. In some cases, not revealing what lies beyond the gate may make for a more intriguing image than if the photographer were to show everything in full. The beauty of this process is that most photographic ideas can be expressed with a very spare inventory of information, as our eyes have learned, over years, to see interpretively, enabling us to decode what the photographer as encoded. It’s a very intimate relationship.
All of which, I believe, argues for making your picture’s case in as few strokes as possible. We still pay more attention to framing, i.e., what fits in the rectangle, versus composition, or the arrangement and selection process within the borders of our pictures. We sometimes overcrowd and oversell messages which may be conveyed more effectively with much less information. Learning how to say more with less comes slowly; we need to build up a substantial log of attempts before we can begin to tweeze out the most effective amongst them. But that is the difference, as we often say, between taking a picture and making one, or the difference between pictures that are merely nice and those that are essential.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO TRY TO SOLVE MYSTERIES, with many pictures providing sufficient data to reveal or imply a complete story. The still image can feel confining, though, since its space and time limits are strict and unforgiving, and so, narration-wise, we ask a lot of a single frame, and, in turn, we also ask a lot of our target audiences, expecting them to infer what isn’t stated, supply in their minds what goes beyond the things we’ve chosen to show. The tension between what a photographer tries to relate and what a viewer manages to extract is strong, so strong that it can often exceed our talents. We are always trying to lock down all aspects of the tale, and sometimes we don’t succeed.
And then there is the opposite drive, the urge to remove important information from a picture, asking even more of the viewer as we purposely hold back clues. Some photographs can almost seem to starve the eye, a strange effect indeed in a visual medium. What happened before we came to this place? Who are these people? What are they here for? What happens next? Good photographers know how to amass enough information to tell a story. Great photographers can pare away so much information that their pictures become a deliberately constructed puzzle. And as for the creative process, sometimes photographers get a subject or scene in view and don’t know, ourselves, what it really is we’re seeing. Instinct pushes us ahead to click the shutter anyway, convincing us that this incomplete story may have something more to give in future.
The picture seen here is an example of something I felt was intriguing in the moment, and yet, looking at it afterwards, I’m unsure whether it works or not. There are no clear hints of what the people in it are doing. Are they mere passersby, or engaged in some special mission? Does the light create a mood of anticipation? Of concern or dread? Does the shot’s conversion to monochrome help its overall mood, or does it just make it tougher to decode? Perhaps I just reacted to the composition or the light, and nothing more. And what could someone else would bring to the picture by looking at it? The frustrating part of these kinds of inner dialogue is that there is no final answer, because I didn’t select or set up this scene with the idea of conveying anything specific. I wasn’t working with intention. As with thousands of pictures over a shooter’s life, this is an instance in which I just reacted in the moment, and the results may or may not be of any value.
Narratives are strange things. We are often not in complete control of stories as they come forth, even though we would like to believe that we always act under some kind of plan. Sometimes pictures just happen. We are either open to that success/failure coin toss or we aren’t, but our attitude will color the kinds of pictures we’re willing to make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S A GIVEN THAT WALKING AROUND IN NEW YORK CITY IS A VASTLY DIFFERENT SENSATION depending upon where on Manhattan Island’s sprawling, kaleidoscopic grid you first plant your feet. The legendary contrasts from one neighborhood to another, as you journey from rich to poor, brassy to peaceful, are a key part of the collective character of the whole. Photographers, however, since they are necessarily fixated on variations in illumination, may have an additionally unique experience between the cramped streets of Lower Manhattan and those in any other part of the region.
Quite simply, there is a premium on the amount of light that reaches the pavement in Lower Manhattan, the legacy of a spurt of urban growth that, in the first grand era of the skyscraper, threatened to smother the city’s avenues in darkness. Before the historic “setback laws” of 1916, buildings tended to grow not only tall but also virtually straight up, occupying the full space of the owners’ property lines all the way out to the sidewalk. As a result, it only took a few years into the twentieth century before Lower Manhattan’s streets were cloaked in shadow, with many byways too cramped to allow sunlight to make it to the pavement at all. Zoning was thus revised to require future buildings to rise only so far (the precise formula varies with height) before they would have to “set back”, or recede, to a smaller section, then be allowed to rise again by another maximum percentage before setting back yet again, with the cycle repeating up to the top. The new laws created the template for what we consider the modern skyscraper, which, for decades would feature a wide base followed by tapering sections that ended in a capital, rather like an open telescope. Think of the Empire State Building as emblematic of the breed.
Of course, for the streets in Lower Manhattan, especially the old financial district around Wall Street, the dye, in 1916, was already cast, with sunlight only making the occasional angled crawl into the lower stories, something which can create interesting patterns that shift and scatter throughout the day, tinting colors with a moodier edge and causing the occasional under-exposed image. The effect is sometimes like being inside the studio of Rembrandt, or any other artist credited with the use of so-called “Dutch lighting”. The overall sensation, to me, at least, is one of warmth and comfort. My wife, a native New Yorker, spent years working near Trinity Church, and considers the area claustrophobic, even as her hayseed Midwesterner husband gives it a thumbs-up. Of course, the entire area is also dotted with scads of ornate old-growth icons of skyscraper lore, such as the bull-nosed building that houses the legendary Delmonico’s steakhouse (seen at left), buildings that further enhance the time-traveler feel.
Photographically, there’s no reason to settle for one kind of New York, as there are literally dozens of flavors of it on offer at any one time. Me, I like to make pictures where the light creeps in on little cat feet instead of thundering in like a megawatt marquee. You pays your money and you takes your cherce, er, choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE SOCIAL-MEDIA EQUIVALENT OF SMACKING SOMEONE ON THE BACK and saying “Attaboy” is affixing the remark “Great capture!” to your “like” of another person’s images. This is meant to be a compliment, but I think it is misapplied. Of course, on one level, I admit that carping about one little word constitutes world-class nitpicking on my part. On the other hand, I think we need to think critically about what happens in the making of an effective picture. It’s an active, rather than passive, process.
In one sense, a camera does, in fact, “capture” a scene, snatching a millionth of a minute from its place in the steady flow of time. But seldom does a golden moment or lovely subject present its best self to us, ready to be harvested, requiring only that we lower our butterfly net. Photography is a much more deliberate art than that. In fact, we often happen upon images of things that are not yet “ready for their close-up”, in that the first way we see them may not be the best way for us to show them to others. Long before the snap of the shutter, we select our angle, our composition, our light, and even reject all of those choices and make them all over again. We are carefully crafting the best way to reveal something….not merely happening by and passively recording it.
In this spirit, the word “capture” simply isn’t strong enough, as it implies little more than luck in the production of a great photograph. In fact it is really describing a snapshot, in which something very great may have been gathered, but without much in the way of effort. It’s like complimenting someone on catching a baseball no one was expected to catch, a celebration of good fortune rather than skill. Photographs aren’t made merely by grabbing whatever the camera is pointed at: they’re made by a selective process of saying “yes” to some elements by including them in the frame and then reaffirming those elements even further by saying “no” to many other elements that might otherwise clutter or complicate the communication between image and viewer.
Ken Rockwell, a pro photographer whose www.kenrockwell,com site also functions as an online clearing house of technical information on the specs of various camera manufacturers, occasionally steps away from his role as Lord High Adjudicator of gear and reminds his readers of the true essentials of their art. In these random pep talks he will often insist that, in the end, nothing….no lens, no camera, no shiny new toy.. can supplant the human equation in the making of pictures. One of his best such sermons illustrates (far better than your humble author can), just what an “on purpose” process is afoot in the best pictures, as in this paragraph, where he discusses the difference between composition and the mere act of framing:
“Composition is the organization of elements within a frame that leads to the strongest, clearest, cleanest, simplest, most well-balanced and therefore best picture. The best composition is the strongest way of seeing a subject. Framing is what you do by zooming in and out, by moving the camera up and down and left and right, and by rotating it to any angle, including vertical and horizontal. Framing has almost nothing to do with composition, but sadly, few photographers realize this. Framing can’t do much of anything to change the relationships between objects. Framing is easy. One usually can frame a picture after it’s shot by cropping. Composition is very difficult. Composition is what makes or doesn’t make a picture. Composition is the organization of elements in the picture in relation to the other elements…..”
Nothing, of course, will ever eradicate all the “great capture” salutes from the interweb, and maybe we should just stipulate that a compliment is a compliment. But I love to emphasize, since it is so important, that what you all do in the creation of wonderful images is purposeful, not random, that great pictures seldom just jump into your camera. When a composition is eloquent, it is usually a photographer, and not a camera, who has given it voice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A WHOLE SUB-UNIVERSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, as we near the two-century mark for the art, is devoted to emulation, or the artificial creation of the look of some part of photography’s past. This can include the aspect of a bygone lens, the framing offered by certain old cameras, and, in recent years, the digital simulation of the look of certain film emulsions. Seems that no sooner had we left the analog world than we began to devise ways to bring it back….or at least summon its ghost. Suddenly, through apps and other editing platforms, people who never shot a frame of film in their lives can render the color bias, grain, and even the speed (light sensitivity) of old stock. Part of this mini-craze is, of course, pure nostalgia, a longing for a certain simpler…. something. Part of it is also irony, as we use old recording media to impart a specific mood to a contemporary shot that it might not otherwise possess.
The revived visual impact of film in the digital era is reminiscent of those old-time photo booths that popped up at tourist attractions decades ago, providing customers with quaint costumes in which they might pose for sepia-toned “tintypes”, casting their families as pioneers and cowpokes. Today, faux-film is a tremendous profit machine within the world of phone apps, and is even creeping back in the recent resurgence of instant photography, which was resurrected in part because, hey, that weirdly imbalanced Polaroid film looked so cool. I have my own personal weakness in all of this, as a lifelong fan of Kodachrome slide film, which winked out of existence after nearly three quarters of a century just a few years ago. Kodachrome struck many as a very naturalistic kind of color medium, and it certainly introduced millions of amateurs to color in the 1930’s, just about the time shooters also embraced 35mm roll film. Everyone had to shoot a ton of the stuff, however, to get a high yield of usable images, mostly because it was verrrrry slow (50 ASA/ISO, although it eventually crawled to 100) and thus seriously prone to underexposure if you didn’t calculate your shots just so. Today, cameras do so much of all that figgerin’ that even those who still shoot film (you know who you are) don’t have half the head-scratching math their forebears needed just to take a snap. Still, I (and we) hunger for the look produced in the day when it was all too easy to make an expensive error. The horse, in uncertain times, even during a barn fire, always heads for the barn.
Of course, if you truly emulate a film, you also emulate everything that it did, good or bad, and one of Kodachrome’s artifacts, when slightly underexposed, was to enrich and deepen colors. Being basically lazy by nature, when I want that kind of muted, voluptuous look, I simply underexpose my shots by a few aperture stops….not enough to lose all detail in the dark areas, but enough to boost intensity and warmth and isolate the brighter elements from the darker ones with more pronounced contrast. The other way to get the same result, as seen in the above image, is to take an already dark scene (like this late sunset) and either speed up the shutter, to make it a mite darker, or use a fast shutter and an ISO that’s only raised to about half of what a “correct” exposure might require.
Like any other “look”, my Kinda-Kodachrome is not a consistent signature of my work, but an occasional fun asterisk on it. At some point, some able app-smith may eventually craft a faithful approximation of it, but, until then, I have fun blending old and new elements into a kind of composite-tribute of my own. Photography itself has always been like twin-headed Janus, looking into the past and future at the same time. Such is the dual goal of all art. Every time you record the now, you’re using the wisdom of the was.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY’S EXPLOSION IN THIS STILL-FRESH CENTURY has shown itself not to be about a single, big revolution but an ongoing cascade of small ones. As more and more shooters have shifted their emphasis away from film technology….itself, admittedly a fundamental earthquake of change, they have also had to constantly adapt to a continuous flow of refinements and reinventions in the digital realm. Nothing is static and nothing will ever again be in its final form. Things that were considered cumbersome and clumsy just a few seconds ago now are accomplished effortlessly. We move from custom to standard in the wink of an eye.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the rise and not-quite-complete fall of HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography, the practice of shooting several different exposures of the same subject and melding the best of all of them into one seamless composite through software. The need for such a solution arose from the inefficiency of early digital sensors, which caused light and dark extremes in an image to be either blown out or smothered in shadow. HDR was devised as a way to imitate how quickly the human eye can adjust to allow us to see everything in about the same degree of contrast. It doesn’t actually do that, but instead presents a ton of images of varying contrast to our brains so quickly that we imagine that we actually always see everything in balance. Early renditions of Photoshop did not address this problem, nor did the earliest cell phone cameras, and even traditional manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were years away from including HDR-like modes in their DSLRs, and so editing platforms like Photomatix, HDR Efx Pro, and Aurora HDR were created in the early 2000’s to specifically blend and tweak anywhere from two exposures on upward in a work flow that came to be known as “tone mapping”. The apps sold well and addressed a real niche within the photographic world. Transitions between light and dark seemed more elastic, and textures, from beach sand to wood grain, seemed to be rendered with greater emphasis.
HDR drew both praise and poison from the start, with some photographers subtly enhancing their work while others “over-cooked” the effect, delivering surreal palettes of day-glo color and gooey skin textures surrounded by strange halos and other unwanted artifacts. The result, as is occurring with greater and greater speed in the digital-web complex, was that, just as a revolution/solution for a real problem hit the market, others began almost immediately to concoct an antidote for the wonder drug…a fix for the fix. A few scant years later, manufacturers of both standard and phone-based cameras have their own HDR-like modes, which are both more limited in precision and hellishly convenient: digital camera sensors themselves are already in their second generation, with greater dynamic range already designed in: and uber-tools like Photoshop and Lightroom have become more supple in the quick adjustment of even single batches of images. Thus HDR has gone the regular developmental route seen that all tech has across history, from balky and bulky to sleek and instinctive. We learn to do more with less, and what was once custom equipment (like radios once were in automobiles) becomes standard (like seat belts in automobiles) but with even greater immediacy in the digital era. In my own work, after years of HDR love writ large, I now tend to solve 95% of the problems that used to dictate the use of HDR with simple in-camera moves, some of them as basic as exposing for the highlights and recovering the detail in the dark areas in post editing (as seen in the image above).
I was recently toying with an old Canon A1 SLR from the late ’70’s and marveling at the fact that its owners initially had to special-order (at considerable expense) a screw-on battery motor drive that had no other function except to assist forgetful users by winding the film on to the next frame. Obviously the winder unit was only in production for a few years until the same challenge was met with less hardware, fewer steps, and a lot less cash. And so it goes. All of which goes to say, as we frequently do in these funny papers, that gear is not the primary determinant in the creation of great photographs. If equipment does not currently exist to produce the results we want, we find a way to fake it until the lab boys make it. Technology follows inspiration. Art cannot happen if things go the other way.