the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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THE INEXHAUSTIBLES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE“, wrote Gertrude Stein, asserting that a thing is merely itself, and nothing else. It’s a classic quote, but a sentiment which is belied by any kind of interpretative art. For the painter, the poet, the photographer, or the sculpturer, the physical limits of an object are merely the jumping-off point to one’s personal way of depicting or describing. Certainly, in one sense, a rose is “merely” a rose. However, in the hands of an artist, it is always, potentially, on its way to being everything else.

Photographers instinctively know that they are not mere recorders of “reality”, that, in their hands, subjects are exaggerated, emphasized, abstracted. We make images of roses, certainly, but also the rose-pluses, the rose-minuses, the rose absurd, the rose imagined. This ability to tailor the showing of things to our ever-evolving sense of their meaning to us allows us to approach even the most over-documented things with fresh eyes.

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It may be that nearly everyone with a camera who’s walked the streets of Paris has, somewhere in their portfolio, a shot of the Eiffel tower. In some ways, the challenge of trying to say anything new about what we might consider an “exhausted” subject is irresistible: we sort of dare ourselves to do a fresh take on it. The thing is, our depiction of these celebrated places, once we have trained our eyes, is actually unbound, or inexhaustible. It is only how well we have developed the muscles of our imagination that determines how many gazillions of personal Eiffels can exist.

The image here of a small selected vista from within the sixteen-story layout (2500 steps, 154 flights of stairs, 80 separate landings) of New York City’s Vessel shows, if nothing else, that there can never truly be a “typical” view of the structure. The visual story changes every few feet or so, depending on where you are standing, and even multiple frames taken from the same vantage point just minutes apart from each other will yield vastly different results, since light, color and the arrangement of visitors is not static. This is great news for anyone who might doubt that they could make a personal picture of something so overwhelmingly public or famous. My point is that you can’t not produce something personal of it, because, for photographic purposes, not only this object, but nearly everything, is inexhaustible.

It’s not that the many millions of images taken of a famous place over time may not seem remarkably consistent, in that they almost replicate each other. It’s that such a result is not predestined, any more than any other photograph we attempt is. Change something in the eye of the beholder, and you may discover that even the eternal rose is, well, something other than a rose. Sometimes.


TAKING ONE FROM THE TEAM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A CERTAIN DIVINE IMMUNITY attached to photographers who are lucky enough to remain amateurs, or, for those who do turn pro, the ability to remember how to shoot with an amateur brain. There used to be a cleanly defined line between people who had to make pictures for a living (under deadline, enslaved to editors, for the marketplace) and those who could never dream of doing so, but who might work every bit as hard just pleasing themselves. However, social media, with its ability to suddenly confer ( or cruelly withhold )sudden celebrity, has recently blurred this line between the careerists and the tinkerers. Now, even when we are making pictures for “no one”, we seem to be making pictures for everyone, anyway.

It’s getting harder to create a photograph in a feedback vacuum, to shoot without even a thought of how well a picture will be received. The tyranny of the new “like” and “fave”  marketplace can riddle a photographer with doubt, gently bending his/her work to what might meet with the most approving eyes. In many ways, this new world is even more unforgiving, for amateurs, than the dreaded editing desk was for the professionals.

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It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, these days, to allow oneself to make a picture like this one. The subject isn’t startling, or even especially unique, except to me. The composition is deliberately formalized, and so can’t qualify as avant-garde. The final shot, the product of a double exposure and some minimal color and contrast tweaking, is neither purely realistic nor challengingly abstract. In short, this picture is nothing in particular, except that it’s mine, made my way, for my own approval. I don’t have to worry that, as Frank Zappa would say, it suffers from N.C.P. (No Commercial Potential).

Any artist that is forced to produce for the popular market has two struggles: to achieve his vision and to package it for consumption by others. It’s THE tightrope act of a lifetime for photographers, with the amateurs envious of the pros’ access and the pros jealous of the casual snapper’s freedom. I have made my daily bread by a number of means over a lifetime, mostly under the gun of deadlines and editors in the print or electronic media, and so, while I have seldom earned a paycheck specifically with a camera, I have empathy for those who do.

There are things about working as a paid shooter that I will never have to endure, or suffer, and I know that. However, in the 21st century, even being an amateur is beginning to take on the haggard hassle that only used to accrue to the Guy Doing It For A Living. That is why the bigger fight in becoming a photographer is the mastery over one’s self rather than the perfection of mere technique. Sports and every other fun pursuit in our world has shown what happens when everything gets too serious and the meaningful meaninglessness goes out of something. In our art, we are being forced, more and more, to do everything for social reasons, to “take one for the team”. However, it is the pictures that you take from the team that truly remain your own, and that you will treasure the most over a lifetime.


THE LOVED ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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I STOLE THIS BOOK.

That is…..I think I might have.

Actually, the truth is a good deal more nuanced than that. Rather than deliberately planning to loot my local library for it, I just…sorta accidentally…failed to return it. Ever. Call it passive-aggressive larceny.

Or just sloth (likeliest option).

To be truthful, the book is merely part of a wider pathology, a lifetime habit of returning, well, anything back to its rightful owner well past its due date. Back in the VHS era, the local Blockbuster probably should have mounted a “wanted” poster of my kisser near the cash register…..but, as it turned out, I probably paid for the manager’s kid’s first year of college with overdue fees that rivaled the operating budget of a small nation-state. The fact:  I’m a bad borrower, and it doesn’t really matter what the borrowed thing is. Late library books were more a symptom than a cause, and so I most likely made no particularly mindful attempt to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament for myself.

However, in re-discovering this relic during a recent house-cleaning and general junk inventory, I can certainly see how I might have dreamed of pinching it, given what its ideas…about artistic integrity, vision, courage and reason… have meant to me for over a third of my life. And, like many old objects I’ve stumbled over anew in recent years, it seemed reasonable to want to photograph it, to try to both see it for what it was and for what it merely is, now.

What it is, among other things, is an old library book, and so it made sense to show its most library-like feature….the now-bygone checkout pocket and circulation ticket mounted inside the back cover. Such systems, in an age of barcodes, are now, themselves, history, as much as the book itself, and so that is the “face” I wanted to display. The wearing and tearing of the binding and pages is also evidence of a sort, of the heavy love-use the book had received over time, and so that also needed to be part of the visual story. Finally, I had located, within the same closet that held the book, an old replacement lamp for a film projector, which I never, as it turned out, actually used. This lightbulb which never had its “lightbulb moment”, could now act as a kind of symbol of the inspiration that had poured forth from the book’s pages for me with every single reading. Pretty on the nose, but still satisfying.

And click.

The objects we keep are never completely captured on camera. Even when we think we are objectively recording a thing, we are interpreting it, and that ambiguous approach somehow fits the muddled memory of the book’s journey from Theirs to Mine. I might have stolen it, after all. But maybe I just couldn’t make myself tell it goodbye. But now, in my picture, regardless of official ownership, I had made it indisputably mine at last, anyhow.


OH, SNAP

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MOST PHOTOGRAPHIC JARGON IS FAIRLY ACCURATE OVER TIME, with words like aperture, shutter, or f-stop remaining clear and useful terms across the years. Other terms like negative or analog are redefined as evolution demands. One holdover from the earliest days of image-making, however, has warped utterly out of relevance over the centuries, however, and for that reason, I’d like to see it retired. Like forever. 

The word is snapshot

When camera technology initially advanced from slow lenses and laboriously long exposures to what was, at the time called “instantaneous photography”, a proponent of this leap forward, writer John Herschel, coined the phrase snap-shot to denote a picture that could be taken in around a tenth of a second, as compared to several minutes for traditional cameras. The term was, then, a celebration of freedom….from the tyranny of the clock, from sustained frozen poses, and, with the introduction of the personal camera, from the tripod and the studio. 

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Reality is overrated: an out-the-window quickie from 2021 converted via phone app to a faux “snapshot”. 

Sadly, over time (there’s that word again), the word snapshot came to denote something else, something substantially less “serious” than a “real” photograph, being used to describe a careless or badly made shot, done on the fly, and with little or no forethought. Go to a dictionary in 2021 and you will still see a snapshot defined as something captured ” without artistic or journalistic intent and usually made with a relatively cheap camera (Wikipedia), “a casual photograph made typically by an amateur” (Merriam-Webster) or even “a photograph taken without the use of professional equipment” (MacMillan). Truly, in a medium that, like all artistic realms, is riddled with its own aristocracy of snobs, the snapshot is the Rodney Dangerfield of photography. 

And yet the word really only means what it originally meant: an image taken in the moment. There is even an entire school of photographic technique that teaches a “snapshot aesthetic”, or the ability to take images simply, quickly, albeit with a sensitive eye. A fast process doesn’t necessarily equate to bad exposure or poor composition: it just means that the photographer is ready to make his/her choice in a short time frame.

In fact, the idea behind what the snapshot originally gave us the freedom to do has driven all camera technology since that time…..that is, a constant evolution toward making pictures quicker and more accurately, in effect making the camera more and more simple in operation so that it can remove the biggest obstacle to taking pictures instinctively. You no doubt have images that you truly treasure that were shot with a minimum of prep or fuss, as is the case with this super-fast capture of my own (which was, ironically, processed afterward to make it look like a snapshot). Merely having the luxury of endless time to linger over your shooting decisions does not guarantee that you will make those decisions wisely. Likewise, speed, ease, or a casual attitude doesn’t automatically doom you to bad pictures. Indeed, the whole history of photography shows us lusting after convenience, as an aid to better photos. Again, it’s down to what you do with what you got. 


SLO-MO EARTHQUAKES

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Now you see it, now you don’t: the death of Paradise Valley Mall, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2021

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE SO-CALLED “CREATIVE” ARTS ARE CONSPICUOUSLY OBSESSED WITH RUIN. Whether our platform is the printed page, the canvas, or the camera, we who are supposedly committed to the depiction of uplift and inspiration seem equally fascinated with devastation. Easily half of the photographic images that have copped the Pulitzer Prize chronicle death rather than life, destruction in lieu of generation. The old saw about not being able to resist craning our necks when slow-rolling past a gruesome accident is based in truth: when it comes to Things Gone Wrong, we just can’t look away.

Our gradual escape from The Great Hibernation has already produced images that act like an encyclopedia of the horrible, a grotesque gallery of sudden tragedies, unexpected nightmares. But not all things that come apart are torn asunder in an instant, and we will continue, for the next few years, to also be witness to a series of what might be called slo-mo earthquakes, shifts in the tectonic plates of our behaviors that unfold in quiet, gradual tableaux, still visceral in their power, but less seismic in their suddenness, parts of our daily lives that don’t so much explode as melt away.

Some of these things, like the dead mall you see here being reduced to dust, will be vanished without epitaph or tears. Others, like the cozy neighborhood bars or the single-screen bijous, may elicit a sigh on their way out the door. Is it important to make photographs of these things? Opinions will vary, as one man’s “tragic loss” is another man’s “good riddance”. But perhaps what’s most important is that the camera is the only time machine that yanks time out of joint on purpose, that extracts people and places out of their proper sequence of life, abstracting them as they imprison selected fragments of them in amber. Without the bustle of people and commerce, is a mall even really a mall? Are the frozen images of a place’s now-separate component parts of any interest, once they are no longer integrated into a whole? And who’s to say?

Well, of course, as always, you’s to say….that is, you and your camera. We not only comment on meaning with our images, we confer meaning on things as well. Photography is both reportorial and editorial; it’s just another tool in the arsenal of the poet. Use your art to suggest, even insist upon, what things mean to you. Because not all earthquakes unfold in slow-motion, and time is opportunity.


LOVE, IN SPITE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS GET A LOT OF PRACTICE HATING WHAT THEY HAVE SHOT, failure being, in our thinking, the necessary road to eventual success. As with any art, mastery is initially shaped by misfires, and so shooters spend a lot of time marinating in regret, longing to close the uncloseable gap between the vision of their eye and the fruit of their fingers. This, in turn, means that we are on very, very intimate terms with the pictures that merely “came close”.

But pining over what we believe we muffed, although it seems like the very heart of humility, is the wrong way to get to better pictures. Instead of thinking in terms of “keepers” and “klunkers”, we should realize that there is no completely wrong or right photograph. Even something we seem to have botched contains the germ of an idea we once loved, and even an imperfect execution shows that we were, after all, in search of something, well, worth searching for. Likewise, even our favorite images bear the same bruises as even the most succulent apple, in that there is always something we have left undone, or under-realized.

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The Joy Dispenser, 2021

At the risk of sounding like I have attended too many post-graduate Zen classes, making a photographic image is, in itself, an essential good. It’s an act of faith….in our concepts, in our skills, in our evolving sense of truth and worth. In that light, we have many pictures which we claim that we don’t “love” which we should love…in spite. We begin making pictures by saying that some things in the ever-zipping parade of instants that make up our life deserve to be savored, preserved. We continue making them because that initial concept was true, and every salvageable frame that we produce after that starting point proves just how true it was.

And so, just as this image is a balance between what I wish I’d done better and what I actually manage to occasionally do perfectly, your best work is half-ripe, half-rotten fruit (the apple, remember?) We are all, as Cat Stevens wrote, On The Road To Findout. Stop trying to make the perfect picture and keep making the potential picture. Over the long haul, it’s a richer, more satisfying journey by far.


FLY/NO FLY ZONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS MORNING, AS I WALKED THROUGH A LOCAL PARK, my “poster child” for this current phase of the pandemic became, in essence, a poster bird.

One thing is certain about predators: they’re not crazy about hanging with humans in close quarters, certainly not at a distance of little more than twenty feet, which is where I found this red-tailed hawk staring back at me on the edge of a suburban park, only ten yards away from the nearest house and barely fifteen feet off the ground. Raptors typically keep their distance and maximize their stealth in heavily peopled areas, and so I was quite astounded that this fellow was remaining within camera range for what seemed forever.

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Then I noticed his left foot….or, rather, his lack of one.

A million different scenarios zipped through my brain as to how this elegant hunter might have been rendered, in the worst case, unable to hunt, to feed himself. A fight? A storm? A birth defect? All roads led to the same conclusion… that an intervention of some kind was needed. A call was made to the local wildlife rescue agency, and the street coordinates were reported. Stay there, a volunteer said, and we will call you back in a half an hour….

And so we walked….literally “once more around the park”. As we killed the clock, I began to think of the bird as emblematic of where we all are at the moment. Technically, we still might have wings, but can we fly? In the wake of our various recent “injuries”, can we protect ourselves from the possibility of even worse harm? Can we keep our balance, adapt, adjust? Which skills are most crucial to the new “us”, and which of us might prove too damaged to make the transition?

Upon returning to the tree just ahead of the wildlife agency’s return call, we found that our charge had already answered most of those questions: he was gone. The agency told us that many such hobbled birds manage, and that, once on the wing, no rescuers could capture our hawk anyhow. Its survival was completely a product of its own actions from here forward. Just like us. God, just like us……


A SYMPHONY IN AQUAMARINE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A DRIVE DOWN OCEAN AVENUE IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA, directly opposite the town’s fabled Pacific Park (and that glorious neon pier entrance), is usually a slow and stately one, given the nonstop traffic along the city’s main artery, which is itself a major link to the Pacific Coast Highway. The streets are regularly clogged with visitors, a given in a city that, only a hundred years ago, was a sleepy bedroom community far enough away from Hollywood Proper to be thought of as an exclusive (and slightly shady) getaway for the rich and famous.

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The Georgian Hotel, Santa Monica, California, July 3, 2021

One of SM’s most venerable architectural citizens is the gloriously Deco-rative Georgian Hotel, which, during the waning days of Prohibition, gained notoriety as a glamorous go-to for those seeking a little under-the-table taste. In the California of the late 1920’s, Santa Monica was still not long past its days as a tiny Chinese-Japanese fishing village, with the site of the hotel surrounded by a small forest, and….not much else. The Georgian’s formal 1933 opening coincided with the return of legal liquor, which confirmed its status as a chic retreat for the film community, with the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard enjoying the ocean views alongside occasional clandestine stays from Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. The hotel came to be the visual signature of the town’s full entry into the 20th century, and of the non-stop westward sprawl from L.A. that would continue to transform the waterfront for decades to come. By 2000, this elegant symphony in aquamarine attained monument status, and underwent a multi-million dollar restoration, guaranteeing its survival to the present day.

Photographing what I call a First-Tier-Postcard attraction, a place that everyone feels they simply must check off their bucket lists, doesn’t often result in anything new being done, beyond merely recording one’s “take” of it. In some ways, famous places are the most challenging things to shoot, since you’re in competition with the entire world in your desire to say something personal or unique. But, as this summer marks almost twenty years since the last time I photographed the Georgian, I recently approached the task with as much “just do it” zen energy as possible. It continues to delight and fascinate me with its quiet elegance, and its ability to evoke a world that has largely vanished, even as it’s been joined by other brighter, brassier neighbors over the years. Sometimes it’s just a privilege to be standing where so much magic has happened, and to take comfort that, to a degree, some of the old spell persists.


A MASK OF A DIFFERENT KIND

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HUMANS EXPERIENCE AMNESIA IN TWO DISTINCT WAYS, both by organic accident, i.e., an affliction or injury that erases the memory, and by a deliberate effort to leave ugly things by the side of the road like a shed skin. It is the second kind with which we are concerned here.

Since early 2021, photographers have leveled their lenses at every aspect of The Great Hibernation, as a world of throngers became, overnight, a planet of cave-dwellers. We shot deserted streets, shuttered businesses, desperate moments in ERs. Now, as we all variously wander out into the sunlight to test our courage in a stab at the “new normal” (a perfect example of willful amnesia), cameras are recording a strange collection of conflicting messages, as both hope and haunting walk our streets hand-in-hand. We are either in the throes of recovery, or a colossal poker bluff with fate, or both, depending on who you ask, and anyone attempting to record what’s happening out there will see manifestations of relief, anxiety, relaxation, and readiness. We are in a unique transition phase, one that could result in both freedom and defeat. And the pictures, as always, will reflect that ambivalence.

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As I mentioned in the post previous to this one, I have just spent the 2021 Fourth of July weekend reinserting myself into the flow of life in Los Angeles for the first time in sixteen months. The sensation was both reassuring and tentative. Masks are not everywhere, but they are in greater evidence in a city that was so battle-scarred by the pandemic than in the foolhardy desert domains of Arizona. People are mixing, partying, eating, laughing, even as they walk across worn “six feet” signs that remind them that, just because the big bombs have stopped falling, the war isn’t over. It’s confusing, but in an exhilarating, jump-out-of-the-plane kind of way. We could fall to our death, but, hey, on the other hand, how about that view?

Willful Amnesia is seen in a camera’s quick flashes, alternating with the latent fears that are still very much a part of our daily navigations. The above image seems to be All About The Party, but equally true pictures of the masked and homeless lie just inches away. Pivot to the left, and the energy says resurrection. Pivot to the left, and it’s Anxiety On Parade. Both kinds of photographs are true, at least until we can replace our willful amnesia with the real, healing variety.


BALANCING ACT

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS WEEKEND MARKS MY FIRST ENTRY INTO LOS ANGELES since February of 2020, or just before the beginning of The Long Dark Night. The city has been a kind of third home to us for nearly twenty years, with both family and friends helping us make the City of Angels a very comfortable fit. Then, as happened all over the world, the familiar became the fraught….as a town that is always ready for its closeup saw more images of tragedy than of tinsel. I have counted the days until I could walk its streets again with nothing more serious on my mind than finding Bing Crosby’s star on the Walk of Fame.

As you read this, I will have spent the Fourth of July weekend trying to, well, feel free, which is still a tricky feat for many of us. We aren’t really done with all this horror, and we pray that our first halting steps back into the sunlight won’t scorch us. Additionally, phrases like “back to normal” will continue to ring hollow for many of us, for……who knows how long?

And yet we venture out. And the pictures that result from those uneasy explorations will have their own special signature. As I have begun packing for the trip this morning, I also spent some time leafing through some of the last images I shot last year, looking for something that could symbolize what we’ve all given up, what we’ve all learned to do to navigate the World After. Oddly, the picture that spoke to me the most has nothing to do with what was about to happen.

On a normal day in a city that boasts amazing museums and galleries, this lad’s wobbly, but essentially risk-free trek across a small hunk of open space, protected by a safety net, now suggests something different about our own uncertain steps back toward Business As Usual. On one hand, we share his thrill: that little bit of hazard quickens the blood and keens the senses, after all. But in a larger sense, we are very much working without a net, learning to weigh each step with care and caution, trying to forget that we’re on a tightwire. So, yeah, I took general shots all over Los Angeles during my last stay there. But this one is both the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and I share it here as a simple metaphor.

Perhaps the net is underneath us all at last. Perhaps not. But from Marco Polo to Lindbergh to Armstrong, explorers press on even where there be monsters. Cities are merely collections of individual journeys, after all. We all crowd together even as our personal paths set us apart. And, as always, images will be first seen, then made.

Safe travel to us all.

“Cal-i-for-nia, here I come….”


BURNERS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“You’re taking your camera with you? TODAY?”

WHEN PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEAK OF A “LEARNING CURVE” for either techniques or gear, they’re actually talking about the process in which you make a whole lot of bad pictures on your way to good ones. Mastery is about of lot of things, but it’s mainly about lousing things up for a good long while and using the negative feedback to figure out what to do right by doing a whole lot of things wrong first.

The reasonable goal, therefore, in trying to get to the next level with your photography, is to do any and everything to speed up that curve…. to, in effect, tunnel toward your goal by getting all those transitionally wrong pictures past you. Being impatient in this regard, I have developed the habit of taking along whatever camera I’m currently trying to tame at every available opportunity, especially if there will be “nothing worth photographing”, whatever that means. I call such outings “burner days”, as I have no expectation whatever of producing any keepers, but am merely making myself shoot enough with the gear in question so that mental and muscle memory are built up more quickly, leaving me readier at an earlier stage to do something of consequence when it really matters.

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The hungry woodpecker seen here was the product of a burner day, as I figured that a June morning in Arizona was too hot for any birds to venture out. I was wrong, and I took home a little miracle, not because I’m amazing, but because I was available.

Shooters who have never known any other realm than digital are already a little mentally ahead in the burner game, in that they are already accustomed to quickly firing off and evaluating lots of blown shots on their way to the final product. Those trained inititally in film were hemmed in by how many shots they could financially afford to attempt; moreover, the time-line of their failures was also drawn out by the unavoidable waiting period between snapping and processing. Now everyone can afford to fail, a lot, very quickly, and that is a good thing. The break-in period for any approach or equipment in greatly foreshortened in the digital era, with the added plus that many shots that might have been total flops in analog days can now be instantly re-calculated and reshot in the field, and possibly saved. An amazing luxury.

And so, there is real educational value in shooting your little fingers off at every opportunity. First, there’s little cost in either time or cash in trying everything you can think of. Secondly, since no one knows for sure that there’s literally “nothing to shoot” when they head out on a given morning, the element of surprise is constantly in effect. Many days you will bring home both blown exposures and technically perfect shots that are devoid of impact. But each one of those misses builds the habits that eventually will produce a higher harvest of hits. Simply, you can’t be sure that the picture of your life won’t jump into your lap even under the most unpromising scenarios. Better to be present to at least make the attempt, because even the bad pictures are stepping stones to the miraculous ones.


AND NOW, THIS WORD…

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

WITHOUT ANY CONCRETE EVIDENCE, I’m willing to bet that the most common name for a photograph, globally, is the simple word “untitled”. And I’m pretty okay with that, truly. Titles are an attempt to identify, classify, or qualify the image to which it’s attached. And I wonder, in the majority of cases, if that’s even important.

One of the first reasons to title or caption photos was to train the first generation of photo observers how to decipher the contents of a picture, or, in the merely journalistic, record-making sense, to anchor the image to crucial content. The first pictures of the Great Pyramids originally needed the context, for most people, of telling you what you were seeing, where it could be found, a little history, etc. Then, for about a century, photos printed in the emerging print media used verbiage as a guide to the picture-as-illustration. The image only existed to make the content more comprehensible or concise.

But now, as photographs become more of a purely visual experience, not tied to a specific explanation or reference point in the viewer’s eye, do titles and captions add to their impact? If a photo is meant to engage the senses on a truly instinctual level, do they, like a verbal narrative, have to be “about” anything at all? Certainly many images are created to tell an A-to-B-C linear story, but, unless they are in service of a story, do we really need words to tell us what we are seeing, or what it ought to be named, or what it has set out to accomplish? Does a title render anything valuable to a photograph?

Either an image has impact, that is, makes a connection with its audiences, or it does not. Spinning sentences about how it was taken, what it’s supposed to show, what you should think about it….all these can be said to be excuses for the picture not having effectively made that connection. And yet, so many photo sharing sites are rife with what can only be termed explanations of pictures, when, in a visual medium, that job should fall to the photograph alone.

Museums (often the worst possible people to entrust art to) are famous for captioning their exhibits into submission, with weary essays of what you’re seeing and what you are supposed think about it tugging many soaring pictures earthward. Some of the most talented curators in the world, learned people with an eye for excellence, often choose images that are wonderfully compelling and then litter them with captions so ponderously pretentious that the viewer is tempted to think he is not intelligent enough to like the images without being “educated”. This subverts what makes photographs eloquent, because it tells us not to trust what we feel, but rather what the prevailing expert consensus is. It’s nonsense. And it’s wrong.

So call your image “Abstruse #7” or “Bellicose Eclipse” or just plain “untitled”, but don’t allow yourself to try to show in words what the photos didn’t show emotionally. Be a photographer or be a clever writer, but be one of those things all the way. And if you don’t want to explain anything, don’t. A photograph isn’t justified because of its reference to anything else. Like all art, it just is. Trust your vision. Show the lily…just don’t gild it.


THE GREAT GIFT OF NOT UN-SEEING

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HAVE THANKED MY WIFE SEVERAL TIMES IN RECENT YEARS for the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am consistently, consciously aware of birdsong. This is no small thing, developing an acuity for something which has been all around me, largely undetected, for my entire existence, and which, at this late point, is suddenly, miraculously obvious to me all the time. Of course we didn’t just move our house to where the most birds are, nor did Marian suddenly give them a power that the Creator somehow overlooked. Instead, she has facilitated a change in me, something I am not even consistently to do for myself. And that’s huge.

And, as all things will, this stands as yet another metaphor for photography.

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Training the eye to see the world beyond the fundamentals is the most important element in making an image, far outranking any merely technical consideration. Once you learn to see critically, curiously, your pictures, and the process of making them, operate on a completely different level, with even your “imperfect” shots taking on a distinct character. Often, when someone witnesses something horrible, they remark that they “can’t un-see” the  event in question. However, vision in photography makes that condition a blessing. Shooting thousands of images over years broadens the scope of how you evaluate what you see, as well as how you plan based on that knowledge. You become a better and better shooter the more you can’t “un-see” the world.

Shooting happens faster and easier once you’ve cultivated the habit of seeing better, because, even in rushed or difficult conditions, you already have a basic pre-conception of what you want your pictures to be. You develop a mental sketchpad of sorts, placing you steps ahead in bending the performance of the camera to your will. That’s not a guarantee that you’ll always get what you went for, but it is a guarantee that you’ll know more clearly what you’re after, and that moves you closer to getting it. The image seen above is an example of my eye having evolved to a certain level at a certain point in time, and thus being able to convert some of my perception into a picture. I could not have made the same picture the same way ten years before, and, ten years hence, I will not make the same choices I made here.

Birdsong existed before I learned how to listen for it. Likewise, the things revealed in your best pictures is not composed of things you invented, just things you learned how to see. More precisely, it’s a smorgasbord of things you no longer can un-see. And the better your own vision, the better the chance that you’ll convey something amazing to your camera.


THE SACRAMENTALS

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHENEVER YOU MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH, you set several things in force at the same time, as if you were generating, in addition to the “sun” or central subject of your image, a rotating solar system of lesser planets, or the other information that hitches a ride along with the main idea of the shot. This is especially true of the memory trove that accompanies our most personal photographs. We think we’re just snapping someone we love: as it turns out, we’re also extending an invitation to their entire surrounding reality as well.

This image of my father in 1964, when he was 35, was rescued from an old Kodachrome slide to accompany a Facebook appreciation of the Old Gunfighter for this year’s Father’s Day. The mission was simple…to summon a few chuckles and tears as he begins his 94th year on the planet. That’s really all I was going for when I resurrected the shot.

But other things, keen, clear, important memories accompany and contextualize him as well, even in a so-called “simple” snapshot. In the Catholic Church these things are called “sacramentals“. They are not sacraments in themselves, but the additional sensations that are forever linked to them: candles: the smell of incense: the kind of noise a wooden pew makes when you first creak into your seat: and so on. In this shot, there are many such sacramentals, many little mental barnacles clinging to the bottom of the photo’s main hull.

First, there are the memories connected to the space itself, which was our backyard at 1752 Marston Road, an address that accounts for twelve years of my young life. The house was wood, painted yellow, which means this picture was taken before it became clad in white aluminum siding, which never felt quite as good, or solid, to my fingers as, well, wood. In a time when people rhapsodize about houses with picket fences, we literally had one, and the section just over Dad’s right shoulder was, in his earliest days as an amateur rose planter, his first trellis. There is the metal awning over the side entrance of our neighbor’s house, which was how my mother entered the place to take morning coffee with the Irish lady who owned it and her adopted Puerto Rican baby boy. And over Dad’s left shoulder is The Tree, an immense maple that belonged to the family four doors down, a supertree too big to climb, so massive that the developers who laid out our tract of homes didn’t even try to yank it out, as they had nearly every other stick of vegetation in the area, a titanic ship’s mast of a tree that could be seen from every vantage point in the neighborhood, like a sign that you were returning to safe harbor.

And with this list I am just getting started. And that’s before I consider how strong, how young, how handsome my father was. I clearly remember being ridden around on those shoulders. He gave me a view that I, in turn, tried to impart to my own children, figuratively if not literally. It was, and remains, quite a ride. The one thing this picture does not reveal is who the person behind the viewfinder of our old Kodak 828 Pony was, although I assume it was my mother, as mere children were not entrusted to operate A Real Camera at that time. But that’s a mystery for another day. In the meantime, I hope you will be spending your Father’s Day smothered in warm echoes. And that when a picture emotionally takes you to church, the sacramentals ring forth as musically as a solemn High Mass.


GO WES, YOUNG MAN

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

IF IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY, then film director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fabulous Mr.Fox) must be blushing about five layers deep. His unique system of composition, even more than his overall cinematic style or subject matter, is currently the jumping-off point for a bumper crop of homages, parodies, websites and books, all celebrating the quirky look of the arcane locales he uses to stage his surreal and sweet comedies. As a result, there is now a recognizable signature image, a “Wes Anderson-like” shot, that occupies one of the more enjoyable wings in the Photo-Art gallery.

Anderson manipulates the real to appear unreal, by breaking certain accepted rules of composition, or, to be more precise, asking why they were accepted in the first place. For example, it’s typical for shooters to frame an object so that the illusion of depth is created…either by leading lines, side-angles, and off-center location in the frame. Wes frequently shoots what has been called flat space….that is, a head-on view of an object or scene (as in the above frame from The Grand Budapest Hotel) that is so nailed to the rear plane of the image that it could have been a 2-d poster pasted to a wall. There is no attempt to make the shot look “deep”, or to invite you eye inside it. Then there is the accepted no-no of placing the subject dead center in the frame, even allowing dead or open space around it. This isolates the subject, making it appear apart, alien, not of this world. Perfectly centered pictures of places with an obsessive amount of symmetrical detail (windows, ornamentation) are supposed to be boring, say all our teachers…except when they actually become hypnotic.

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Anderson seeks the strange in his subject matter, design-wide and otherwise, and then amps up that strangeness with a saturation of primary colors and odd pastels. He makes real places look like table-top models (which he sometimes uses) and vice-versa. This assembly of techniques make his locales fairly scream “once upon a time” and, beyond his own work, have sparked admirers and imitators to see things in the same way, so that a Google search of “Wes Anderson look” yields thousands of pictures that he himself never actually made, such as my own shot of an old information booth at Los Angeles’ Union Station, seen above.

Old Hollywood dictated that directors have no discernible style or signature, while recent filmmakers insist on the dead opposite. In recent years, so many people were shooting their own “Wes Anderson” images that an entire Instagram feed, AccidentlyWesAnderson, began to attract a global fan base, recently resulting in Wally Koval’s sumptuous coffee-table book of the same name, a sampling of the best pictures from the feed, accompanied by detailed essays on locales new and old around the world that resemble the surrealistic perfection of Anderson’s own images. It’s art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating…?

Are all these images true tributes, artsy rip-offs, or an admission that photographic rules are meant to be broken? Can we even make pictures that are non-ironic or free of outside influence? Should we worry about it? While we sort all of that out, it’s just fun to try on Wes’ skin and walk around in it. Whatever we wind up with in our own work will, at least, come as a consequence of our observing, and questioning “how you’re supposed to do it.” Because in photography, tools matter less than what those tools eventually build.


ROCK STEADY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I MAKE NO SECRET OF THE FACT that I would thunderously applaud the total disappearance of tripods from everyday photography. Beyond the pure pain, to both back and neck, created by an abundance of camera luggage, I feel that (a) pods utterly short-circuit the concept of spontaneity in the making of pictures and (b) two centuries-and-change is more than enough time for mankind to have perfected the light sensitivity of recording media (film, sensors, etc.) or to have invented the ideal stabilization system for cameras themselves.

And while there have been amazing advancements in both A and B ), there will still, perhaps always, be at least a few cases when a handheld shot will forever be denied us. And I freely admit that there are those for whom, for one physical reason or another, the pod is an absolute necessity, and I certainly do not mean to seem unkind in wishing that that was not so. Trying to train oneself to remain rock steady when shooting handheld is a very personal matter, and results vary wildly. I have known people who are solid enough to qualify as human tripods themselves, stolid folks who could probably nail a sharp image in the middle of a tsunami, while there are others who labor mightily in all but the most ideal conditions. A blessing upon both houses.

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I’ve tried many exercises to brace the camera against my body, along with experiments in breath control, changes in ISO for faster exposures….you name it, I’ve given it a go. I’ve managed to eliminate the tripod for many shots that used to absolutely require it, such as super-close macros, but, even there, I occasionally have to drag the three-legged beast out of the closet for one last curtain call. Where I’ve seen the most frustration is with so-called “super-zooms” cameras, with some models already actively working against the shooter, either by jacking up the ISO to compensate for the loss in light at super-zoom range, increasing digital noise, or just having inadequate stabilization when the telephoto range is beyond 400mm, which plays hell with resolution, as seen with the cactus wren above.

Such circumstances would seem to argue for the fixed position that a pod offers, but here again, we get back to the idea of spontaneity and flexibility, crucial considerations when your subject is a bird of other wildlife. Shooting something stationary at a distance actually benefits from the use of the pod, whereas tracking a living creature makes it virtually useless. The answer to the problem still seems to exist in the forward-thinking tech that is forever evolving: that is, make all lenses perform better under low-light conditions, and evolve stabilization to the point where even a drunk with the DTs can hold the shot steadily enough for nearly any situation. The tripod is a relic of the 1800’s. It belongs in a museum, not in a kit bag.


SWEET CLAUSTROPHOBIA

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ENOUGH WITH THE FLOWERS.

Give the birds a rest. Put the quiet trails and placid sunsets on pause.

I want my skyscrapers back.

Yes, I’ve dutifully done my photographic confinement therapy, like everyone else whose worlds have shrunk during the Great Hibernation. I’ve lovingly lingered over the natural world, embraced the tiny universes revealed by my macro lenses and close-up filters. I’ve properly marveled at the wonder of simple things, patiently revealed in the quiet composure of a more inward kind of photo-therapy.

It was needful. It was even helpful. Hell, on a few days, it was essential. But instead of steady, slow inspirations into the deepest reaches of my lungs, I now long for shallow, quick breaths, terse inhalations of monoxide, stolen as I dash across a crowded crosswalk. I want to dodge things. I want to run for a train. I need to see the infinite collision of brick, stone, and steel textures all fighting for my visual attention in a mad crush.

I want to hear noise.

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I can make myself comfortable, even modestly eloquent, shooting the splendors of the natural world. God knows we have placed too many barriers of estrangement from our inheritance in field and flower. But I have known, since I was a child, that my soul synched perfectly to the unnatural world, the arbitrary creation of we wicked, weak bipeds, with an affection that is every bit the equal to that which I feel for a tree or a blossom.

I see the same geometry and design in our crude imitations of nature as in the contours of the rose or the patterns within a cactus flower, and I’m not embarrassed to say that the spires, arches, bridges and alleyways that map our densest interactions give me an electric thrill. I should also add that I am not typical within my family, where there are far more Thoreaus, all centered on their respective Waldens, than there are Whitmans, who see glory in even  the failed strivings of the urban experiment. I take comfort in my sweet claustrophobia, and I make no apology for the fact that my photography breathes its fullest in cities.

There were, of course, millions for whom, during the Horror, cities were a cruel prison, and I absolutely get that. As the Eagles said, we are all just prisoners of our own device. Artists can create a heaven or hell in any setting, as witness the miraculous faith of prisoner poets or the inventive tinkering of a Robinson Crusoe. Confinement is largely a matter of geography or physical constraint, but, as we have all spent a long year discovering, it can be overcome by a refusal of the mind to remain locked into a particular place.

Still.

I have not yet completed my slow trip back to the hunting grounds where my cameras talk loudest to me. Like the start of our communal imprisonment, it will come in layers, in a million tiny shards of re-discovery. But it will come. My cities will be restored to me. My flowers and birds and bugs will always be celebrated as the protectors of my sanity, of the need to take my art inward from time to time. But right now, I need to get out on the streets, and see what’s up.


MONUMENTS TO MOMENPOPS

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIFE DURING PLAGUE-TIME has cut like a scythe through both the wheat and the chaff in the global economy, taking down both independent and chain-owned businesses alike, leveling enterprises that, in some cases, took generations to build. And in so doing, they have, in an instant, re-sculpted the visual contours of the world. In simple terms, the virus has changed what we see in daily life, if by no more sophisticated means than erasing the Cafe Down The Block, the Restaurant Where We Got Engaged, or the Donut Place I Stopped At Every Morning For Thirty Years.

Any business failure affects people, certainly, whether the doors close on a mega-chain or a mom-and-pop, but when independent businesses are shuttered, something else dies with them: the personal visual signature of their displays, trademarks, and original art….the home-made signs or bizarre architecture that separated them from the companies that have 200 locations nationwide. Take away one of fifteen Appleby’s in a city and the cultural loss is manageable. Take down a single local hang-out, and you’ve changed, along with the look of the area, its rhythms and rituals.

It’s too early to say what the most valuable photographs of this period will be over time, or what the word “valuable” even means to you personally. But just as we now look at the signage and storefronts of the ’30’s or ’50’s with a certain disbelief that such a world could have even existed, we will surely see a pattern of “befores” and “afters” from this time, with some of the images from the period charting who were were and what was lost as a result of the Grief Tsunami. Already, it’s possible to sort out images of places and things into a general “was” and “is”, a sensation which will only intensify in the years to come. If we’re careful, the passage of many of these places will be marked with sensitive pictures, or even casual snaps. The important thing, as always, is to sense what’s in the process of being taken away, and to designate some of it as worth preserving…if only in a series of glowing pixels.


VERITIES AND VARIABLES

By MICHAEL PERKINS 

FIRST OFF, LET’S AGREE ON ONE THING: photographs are not “the truth”. Well, at least not what we think we mean by truth. Maybe we use the “reality” of a captured image as a mere point of departure, the place we start off from, on the way to…well, that’s up to the artist, innit? What I’m trying to say here is that merely snapping a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve told the absolute truth about what your lens was pointing toward. Only the bones of truth…a structure on which to drape the rest, through interpretation, and the shared experience of inviting other eyes into the discussion. 

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Some of our inherited thinking about the veracity of a photo (“the camera doesn’t lie”) is that it is produced by a machine, a device inserted between our vision and the finished product, a mechanism that we associate with reproduction. After all the device measures light; it is indifferent, just as a seismograph or a lie detector would be. Only it isn’t. We humans are interacting with that “recording” function at every turn, just as personally as the painter measures and controls strokes of a brush. And then there’s the consideration of time. We don’t capture all of life in our box, just a stolen sliver of it, which guarantees that the sample, having been yanked out of its original context, is tainted from the start.

Even the best picture, then, comes out compromised, depending on how it was taken, and by whom. Clicking a shutter may be a means of producing something thought provoking, even profound, but it is nothing as simple as capturing the truth. As illustration: it’s easy to identify all the contributing elements of the above image….light, shadow, color, water textures, solid objects…but it was only possible to combine them all into the result you see here for a single moment. Someone else, working with the very same elements just a second later, would likely produce vastly different results. And yet, both of us are “right”.

Thinking of photographs as truth is tricky business. Consider this quote from photographer Giles Duley, who has garnered some distinction of late as what I call a camera-oriented journalist:

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘truth’ in photography. As soon as I walk in a room and point a camera at you, I’ve already ruled out the rest of the people. As soon as I press the shutter on that second, I’ve ruled out the rest of the day. There is only honesty….”

A photograph is something used to illustrate a point of view. It’s not the only point of view to be had, and so it can’t be the absolute “truth” for everyone. But that’s the beauty of it, the fascinatingly infinite variety of “my truths” to be had in the artistic realm. This is not science. Science is different. You can’t present your “version” of gravity, or photosynthesis, or the speed of light. They just are. Art happens in the realm of “might be” or “could be”, and our photographs are, at their best, suppositions, suggestions. This picture might be true, and it might not, and so let the debate begin. And that is what makes the creation of image an art. Because it’s yours, and, with luck, it might be ours, and the dialogue that decides that is, well, everything.  


DRILLING DOWN TO IT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MANY ONLINE PHOTO CONSIGNMENT SITES, which, of course, make lots of money by buying what shooters no longer love, claims, in its welcome page, that “research (?) shows that nearly half of U.S. photographers have cameras or lenses that they haven’t used in two years.” As evidence, this is both unprovable and un-unproveable. It may be total bushwah, and it may also be God’s truth. But for many people who’ve been shooting for a while, it kinda sorta feels….reasonable.

What would be more interesting to me, however, in terms of specious claims about what equipment we do or don’t use, would be a breakout (pie chart? bar chart? Venn diagram?) of which percentage of even our most favorite cameras we never, ever use, for anything. It’s not a stunning revelation that cameras are larded up with a lot of techo-fat, features upon features, menus upon menus of stuff that sounds wonderful in the brochures but doesn’t serve our most repeated or desired functions. The fact is that lots of gear can place many layers and barriers between what we see and how we set about to trap our vision in the box. We can get so besotted with the setting-up phase, the romantic dance of making a technically flawless picture, that we get sidetracked from how simple a process it really is….or should be.

Aperture. Shutter Speed. ISO. Lather, rinse repeat. Change one part of the triangle and the other two will be changed as well. That’s it. Class dismissed. Now get out of here and go make pictures.

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Is this image made on a cheap point-and-shoot? Or a $2,000 pro tool? A Leica or an iPhone? Analog or digital? Can it, in fact, have been produced equally well by all of those, if the photographer applies vision and care?

Manufacturers drag us from one model camera to another, laying in just enough innovation or novelty to render our current equipment “obsolete” and to artificially engineer desire for the latest thing. I spent a career in mass media and can attest to how effective this approach is. It sells a crap-ton of cameras, as well as cars, apparel, audio gear, and breakfast cereal. But for photographic purposes, it can actually weigh a shooter down, delay the moment of decision, or, worst of all, create the belief that the other guy’s camera, being more advanced than our own, guarantees said other guy better pictures. And, since I have already used “bushwah” once in this tract,  I’ll now characterize this belief as “malarkey”.

The mechanics of making an image are inherently as consistent as they are simple, and, if there was a magical evidentiary graph to show how much of our cameras we actually use, it is my contention that the list of most frequent operations would be small, and would not include the majority of the tools and add-ons built into our equipment. That is why, along with other reasons, I still occasionally shoot film in, completely mechanical cameras….to force myself to think in very simple rules of engagement and to find the pictures that any camera, simple or complicated, can produce. And while there will be times that I miss some of the lovely extras that now crowd our devices, I can always re-learn the habit of shooting without them, drilling down to the bedrock of what makes a picture work. And if, as the consignment sites claim, “nearly half” of us have cameras or lenses that we don’t use, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why that is.