By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE ALWAYS ARGUED THAT THE PRINCIPLE AIM OF PHOTOGRAPHY is twofold: firstly, to capture what is splendid in the world, celebrating the order of beauty, the majesty of nature, the grand talents of the enterprising soul: and, secondly, to point unflinchingly to what needs correction, to what challenges and threatens us. You can’t have life without both these drives, and you certainly can’t call photography an art if it doesn’t address them equally.
The world is at war at the moment. Our tragedies and losses in this conflict are not incurred by shells and bombs, but by the most primal forces in the natural world. For those who fall before this horror, the results are as final as if they had occurred during a bombardment or battle. The visual ways in which we measure our fear and dislocation are in some ways similar to those seen in regular wars. They are not symbolized by a single, terrible image, but by a million little pictures of very ordinary things, some of which we must put away for awhile as we arm our hearts for what is to come. In this very real way, every one of us that is armed with a camera becomes, in some sense, a war correspondent.
The image seen here is certainly not sinister in the true sense. It’s hard to summon a negative association with playground equipment. But that’s in peacetime.
During times of turmoil, the normal rhythms of life are not yanked away in one clean rip-of-the-bandaid jerk. Rather, they are eroded. Narrowed. You can only do your favorite thing on certain days, at certain hours, and under certain conditions, for the time being. Updates will be posted…
I sat before this scene for several moments before I could unpack why it upset me so. In personal terms, I had walked through the very same park several days prior. Nothing was different now, except…the tape. The word on the tape. And the implied message: this thing that typically gives you joy is now to be avoided. Normal is suspended.
In the short term, there will be many pictures that will break our hearts far more fundamentally than this one ever can. Images that will test our resolve. Touch off volatile emotions. This photo is nothing by comparison to what’s to come. And yet, it is part of the mosaic we are creating during this Great Hibernation (my gentle name for a horrific reality). Each tile in the mosaic is a story of some way that some part of the larger tragedy effected someone among us. I know that I, myself, will create other pictures that are far more jarring than this one. But, as always, it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact. Because when reality shifts, it happens one routine, or one playground, at a time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
What moves me about what’s called “technique”…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.” – Diane Arbus
ONE EVERLASTING ARGUMENT ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY centers on whether there is any such thing as a “pure” picture…..that is, an image which is merely the recording of reality without the slightest hint of intervention by the photographer. I believe that, in making pictures, we convince ourselves that we have only made a “document” of life, that our own thumbs don’t touch the scale in favor of any kind of bias. But I also believe that, no matter what we tell ourselves about the process, it is impossible for us to retreat to the mere act of punching the shutter button, since even that simple motion has some level of choice inherent in it. The objectivity we believe that we practice is largely an illusion: the impact of our photographs is in direct proportion to just how much we do interfere.
So if just punching the button is at one end of the interference spectrum, then self-portraiture, the age’s dominant obsession, is clear over at the other extreme. In trying to take our own picture, we do nothing but interfere. And stage. And shape. And edit. And perform. Most of this very hands-on approach to immortalizing ourselves is a matter of mere human vanity. We want to come off well. Is my hair all right? Do I look pleasant? Does this make me look too fat/serious/lonely/decisive? In the largely theatrical sphere of selfies, the massage is really the medium.
But, just because we’ve tried to frame our truth in the most sympathetic light doesn’t mean our self-portraits are automatically untrustworthy. In some very real way, we are trying to reveal something about ourselves that no one else has seen, or in Arbus’ words, to show “very deep choices” we have made “that take a long time” and keep “haunting” us. One of the most personal things about what I call our current Great Hibernation is the care or worry that’s etched on our faces in our unguarded moments, those minutes when we’re not sending along recipes and cheery memes on Facebook, or taking online classes, or catching up on our reading. There are real photographs to be made of the anguish and uncertainty we’re all experiencing, even if they can’t be taken in real time. The self-portrait you see here admittedly involves some acting, as it’s a purposeful re-creation of emotions once truly experienced in full, albeit in isolation. As a consequence, I stipulate that the result is imperfect, even though it may still be “true”. My thought process actually proceeds from an experiment in which, after making this picture, I’d show it to others and ask, “does this look like what you’re feeling right now?” In turn, the responses I got made me wonder if I should ever confess that I was the photographer as well as the subject, since I was afraid that such as admission would, for some, render the picture void, since, after all, aren’t we the worst judge of how we look, or should look, in an image?
But what if we’re not? What if our own knowledge of ourselves is so unique that we are, indeed, qualified to say to the world, I know this isn’t a true “candid”, but so what? Yes, it’s true that, in this photo, I wasn’t “caught unawares”. What you see here is a re-creation of how I felt, and will again feel. Still, who is around in my otherwise quiet house to tell this tale more effectively? Am I disqualified because I am trying to make art out of my own life? Diane Arbus also said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. Perhaps the most important pictures we can make, to plumb our own secrets, is to try to map our anxieties…in the moment, if we can, but as faithfully as we can after the fact, even when they’re re-constructed from memory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN DARKNESS LOOMS IN THE HEART OF MAN, THE SIZE OF ANY LIGHT IN THE ROOM IS LARGELY IRRELEVANT. What matters is that someone, anyone, struck a match. The light puts physical limits on the dark. The light points toward escape. The light is the promise of continuation, of survival.
During the present forced hibernation among nations, it’s easy to compare today’s responses to The Latest Troubles with the responses seen in other crises. Everyone is free to make those comparisons, to crowd the air with arguments about who did what, and, once all the discussion abates, having a record of what we’ve tried and learned over the years is the work of art. Art records the dimension of our dislocations, measures the distance between Old and New Normals. Memorials, built by survivors, exist to delineate what happened to us, and, more importantly, what happened next.
There are four open-air “rooms” in the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., each designed to symbolize one of the separate presidential terms of Franklin Roosevelt, along with references to the specific challenges of those four eras-within-an-era. One such room houses sculptural reminders of how the average person interacted with the White House as it faced the singular challenges of the Great Depression. The figures, by George Segal (1924-2000), are spare, gaunt, haunting. One tableau shows an emaciated farming couple standing with grim determination amidst reminders of the Dust Bowl. Another shows a string of ragged men waiting in line for bread. My favorite figure shows a seated man leaning forward on his knees, his eyes fixed on the small “cathedral” radio set located just inches away. The sculpture is more than a mere tribute to Roosevelt’s encouraging series of “fireside chat” broadcasts, which acted to bolster the frightened nation as banks failed and privation swept across America like a plague of locusts. It is a snapshot of the relationship between leaders and the led. A bond. A lifeline of trust.
For Segal, who himself spent some of his college years scratching out a living on a chicken farm, and whose personal loss was measured in the Holocaust-related deaths of much of his family, the figures were emotional measures of the space taken up by mere mortals in alternating renderings of both pain and potential, expressed in a bold blend of materials. Covering models’ bodies completely in orthopedic bandages, he removed the hardened shells of plaster and gauze from their human “bearers” to create life-sized hollow spaces in three dimensions, leaving the details of the bandages in full view. In addition to his impactful pieces at the FDR Memorial, his surviving work in this format includes memorials to the gay liberation movement and the victims of Kent State.
Where do we regular shooters come into it? Making photographs of other people’s art from other types of media can range from mere snapshots to a kind of re-interpretation. The eye of the beholder shapes the eye of the camera. In Segal’s work for the FDR, a time so far removed from our own is transported back to anguished relevance. Generations later, we are all still seeking that bond, that link between leader and led. If we achieve it, the souvenirs of earlier days are merely quaint. If we can’t find that connection, however, these Echoes Of Hopes Past become more harrowing in their haunting power.
Because we need to walk toward the light.
Anyone have a match?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN TIMES LIKE THESE, OUR EYES HUNGRILY SEEK OUT signs of continuity, proof that, even as many things pass away, other things, essential things, will go on. This desire to see a way for part of today to remain, as a part of tomorrow, is strong in days of crises, and it finds its way into the viewfinders of our cameras. We know, logically, at least, that a bit of the world is always ending. But we emotionally, we long to be assured that something important will remain. And we make pictures accordingly.
Like many, I have recently limited my time “out” to walks in wide open spaces. Six feet of separation and all that. The thing that connects me anew to those that I encounter is my camera, and so I have been shooting almost exclusively with what the commercial market calls a “super zoom”, the perfect tool for people who want to feel close but dare not actually get close. I don’t think of myself as deliberately spying or peeping on people, and much of what I see I reject as being a bit too intimate for sharing. But the general tableaux of everyday humanity comes up again and again, in ways which suggest effective images that do not betray my subject’s privacy, yet convey things that we are all feeling. It’s a tightrope walk, but with care, that very important personal distance can be respected.
In the image you see here, there’s nothing more universal than a mother and daughter walking together, and yet its value in memory, to me, is very specific. I clearly recall the sensation of walking with my father, all five feet nine of him, as a tiny boy, and seeing him as a giant….a mountain of reassuring protection. I stood on his shoulders: I ran between his legs: He swung me like a sling: His arms bore me up and gave me the sensation of flying like Superman. Most important was the pure transmission of happy energy from him to me, his life conducting itself into mine. We were a big candid photo family, and so I have lots of archival data on every part of my childhood, chronicles of years when my young parents grew up side by side with my sister and me and we were absorbed into the best part of them. My parents are 91 and 88 this year, and the current situation forbids my being in even the same half-continent as they, but I carry with me all my Walks With Giants, all the times I was the laughing girl in this image. I hope that she and her mother would not begrudge me the privilege of borrowing their energy and trapping a bit of it inside my box. It’s a life force that, in a larger sense, belongs to us all.
Because some things must go on.
And they will.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE LATEST VIRUS-FORCED GLOBAL HIBERNATION, in which we try to wait out a capital “T”-sized terror, has left us alone with a lot of lower-case “T”s as well, that being our accumulated To-Do lists, which, what the hell, since we’re stuck here anyway, we might as well tackle, right? Said lists can contain anything, from repairing a squeaky door hinge to paring down that pile of unanswered junk mail…but, whatever the list’s holdings, the human impulse remains, yeah, well, maybe tomorrow, if I’m not busy.
Even the most severely sequestered amongst us are occasionally allowed out for a walk and a breath of air, and for those who also happen to be photographers, the itch needs regular scratching. But once a huge percentage of our usual haunts are closed for the duration, you must make pictures with whatever subject matter still remains in the rotation. For me, occupying one of the southwest states in the USA, that means heading to the various open spaces and digging the scenery, which sounds like a welcome respite, unless you know me. I wouldn’t exactly say that landscapes and me aren’t on speaking terms, but I would agree that we generally speak different languages. Thing is, when the great outdoors is most of what you’re going to be allowed to make pictures with, you must get your language straight, or give up the ghost. And so, during the worldwide lay-off, I’m communing with nature and hoping something worthwhile seeps into my pictures. It’s not easy for me. It’s more like “to-do” with a vengeance.
Give me a buzzing urban environment, a tableau in which people are scaled and contextualized and do battle with all manner of their own dwellings and creations, and the photographic truths fairly jump out of my camera. I see stories. I sense relationships. I create speculations and divine meanings. But point that same camera at a tree, a mountain, a seashore, and….well, it’s not as if I can’t make something “nice” out of the effort, but I must struggle to pull the truths out. I mean, I can compose and capture the essential beauty of a scene as well as the next guy, but it doesn’t feel like reporting as much as recording. I feel at the mercy of nature’s caprices in a way that I never do in cities. In working with landscapes I sense a division between what’s visually appealing and what’s emotionally compelling. My head can dig the scene but my heart is lagging behind. What’s wrong with me?
All photographers gravitate toward interpretations of the world as they see it, and they likewise grapple with ( or outright avoid) whatever their short suit happens to be. Some shooters are terrified of portraits. Others break out in a rash when forced to calculate arcane lighting schemes. No one gets it all. I marvel at the natural world. I do. I like solitude and silence and contemplation and all that there Thoreau stuff. But after long periods of silent dawns and rolling clouds, I feel an irresistible urge to head for a very loud, mob-crushed subway car. Gershwin once said that certain rhythm patterns came to him when he was clacking over train tracks. Others must go completely Ansel Adams and see the world within the veins of a single leaf. As it happens, our international time-out is occurring just as I have taken possession of a new camera, and so my mindfulness is already at a kind of artificial peak. Perhaps that process, coupled with a forced slow-down out in the wilds, will be enough to get my juices flowing.
Or at least, I’ll get a decent amount of exercise.
Hey, hug enough trees and you can really build up those biceps.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Reports Of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PRONOUNCING NEW YORK CITY DEAD since the Dutch first tried to turn the place into a satellite business enterprise and the locals decided, in reverse Cinderella fashion, that those wooden shoes weren’t really a good fit for their feet. In fact, The City That Never Sleeps is kind of like a cat on steroids, endowed with not merely nine but a seemingly infinite number of separate lives, each one built on the ashes of the one that preceded it. Something in New York is always under threat, soon to open on this site, not as good as it used to be, and something that no one’s ever seen before, all at the same time. It is a chorus that, to outsiders, can sound like a cacophony. The locals hear music in the crashing of the garbage cans. To those who don’t get it, the reaction to what Manhattan regards as Business As Usual is often some variation on Oh My God How Can You Live Like This.
It’s no wonder that the camera, any camera at any time, can’t look away.
After all, you blink….you might miss something.
At this writing, March of 2020, the city is curled up into a ball, bracing itself for an impending impact that no one knows how to estimate or pre-measure. By any reasonable guess, the meteor, when it hits, will hurt big, and for a long time. And so I don’t propose a mere “pick yourself up” attitude or cheery bravado as the country looks down the barrel of this cannon. But I also believe that, like Twain’s death, any bets that are taken against New York’s survival will be ill-advised. I am not a native, but over a lifetime, I have spent enough time in New York streets to know that this brash kid is here to stay. You can smash airplanes into our neighborhoods. So what else you got? You can tear up the streets, close our favorite bar, church, or theatre, swaddle the whole place in economic depression, and even flood the subway. Is that your best shot? This isn’t empty bluster: it’s demonstrated fact. Yeah, sure, we’ll dim the lights on Broadway from time to time, but, hey, there’s a new sushi joint opening in Soho next week, y’know?
The proof of what I’m saying is in the photographic record, in the visual poetry of all the Berenice Abbotts and Walker Evanses and Alfred Eisenstadts and Robert Frankses and Diane Arbuses and too many other testimonial eyes to count. If you’ve got a little spare time these days, check out a few. There are even a few occasionally lucky entries from yours truly. And while everyone else in the world has an opinion, good or bad, with or without a camer, about New York, only one vote really counts.
And that’s theirs.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE WAYS WE USE PHOTOGRAPHY TO NAVIGATE through our tricky lives is to use it to sort of mark our personal territory. To leave a trail of bread crumbs about the places we passed on our journey. Pictures stitch together a rough chronology of who we are, who we care about, what we believe is important. And one of the most conspicuous parts of this timeline involves our interactions with each other, and the images that those interactions generate.
Our virtual world, with all its facebookings and instagramations, is but a simulation of the dimensionally deep contact we have with each other in our best moments. It’s a wonderful abbreviation of full human experience, but it is just that: an abbreviation. A synthetic version of real interplay between real people. Photographs, by contrast, are of endless interest to us because they are chronicles of those interplays. A visual record. A testament. As we often say, the camera both reveals and conceals, showing what might have happened, what we wish had happened….and maybe, in lucky moments, a trace of what actually did happen when we met. And talked. And shared. And traded lives, if only for fractions of seconds.
The picture you see here is what, for lack of a more precise term, was a happy accident. It wasn’t planned. Heck, it wasn’t even deliberately framed, being a snap taken from lap level in the second it occurred to me that the two men seen here might be having a moment. An exchange. A life-swapping. Turns out, without really having done much of anything on purpose, I walked away with what I regarded as a story. It doesn’t even bother me that I don’t know the players, or the plot, or the outcome. The story, as seen in the picture, just is. There is a connection between Man A and Man B that lives on in frozen form and it doesn’t require, or even benefit from, a word of explanation from me. It’s something real, even if it’s not something real clear. It’s a record of the Luxury Of We.
As humans, we crave connection. We even settle for social media, which is a sharp step down in true intimacy, just because we want that contact so badly. Me? Give me a real human moment every time. Snapping such special exchanges is more than mere “posting”: it’s witnessing, and that’s a whole other level of experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALTHOUGH BEING ROMANTICALLY SMITTEN IS NOT A PREREQUISITE for being a great photographic portraitist, I firmly believe that the very best of them are, indeed, lovers…..or at least in love with a mysterious something that informs their work. From treasuring humanity so much that they breathe empathy into their candid street work, or loving an individual in a way that can only be satisfied by turning that someone into an ideal bit of moldable clay, portraitists are a bit possessed, fervently dedicated to showing something only their affection can let them see. It seems perfectly normal now for cameras to fall head over heels over faces. So inevitable, so logical. And yet the camera and the face had to have their own early days of courtship.
One of the earliest and most fascinating muses in photographic history was herself an artist, a soul so amazingly unchained and boundless that the natural, if perverse, reaction to it was to try to imprison it inside a box. The face of the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was not classically beautiful, but upon meeting her in 1916 at an exhibition, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a man whose enthusiasm helped to launch dozens of art careers beyond his own, was knocked cold. After years as the promoter of the Pictorialist movement and editor of the revolutionary art publication Camera Work, Stieglitz had, in his own estimation, become disconnected from his own photographic instincts. Stuck, if you will. O’Keefe, twenty-three years his junior, and as close to the embodiment of the phrase “free spirit” as you can imagine, unstuck him. Between 1917 and 1937, often as a sidebar to their famously torrid relationship, Alfred made over one hundred portraits of her, posing her in every setting, mood, and level of intimacy. Many of the images were nudes or partial nudes, but all of them were Stieglitz’ attempt to hone his own style to its purist form, to see O’Keefe as the ultimate object and subject. Writing to a friend, he described the opportunity and the challenge Georgia had brought to his work:
I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind.—No humbug.—No sentimentalism.—Not old nor new.—It is so sharp that you can see the pores in a face—& yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person—heads & ears—toes—hands—torsos—It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.
Stieglitz also promoted O’Keefe’s own art in shows at his legendary 291 gallery and in a mixed show of photographers and painters entitled Seven Americans. Some of his most intimate portraits of O’Keefe were exhibited at the time as well, often with no attribution as to the name of the subject. Over the years, Alfred and Georgia’s relationship was as uneven as it was ardent, with Stieglitz having an affair after they were married, only to later see O’Keefe have a dalliance with the very same person several years later. Eventually, the combined tensions of their competing careers, issues of fidelity, and their gravitation to very different geographic art destinations (O’Keefe’s New Mexican desert versus Alfred’s beloved Manhattan) spelled the end for the marriage. Eventually, in history’s typical pattern, it is the art, rather than the artist, that survives.
And what Stieglitz had shown, early on in the 20th century, was what photographs created by a person possessed might look like, what portraits that were ignited by the heart might aspire to. I relate to this idea strongly in the case of my own work, which has been informed and often expanded by having my wife for a muse. In learning all the facets of her face, I in turn learn more about the secrets behind all other faces. I understand the spark that snapped when Alfred met Georgia, and I look for those fabulous fireworks every time I myself snap a shutter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RISE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY empowered artists to chronicle events in documentary fashion for the first time in human history. And as miraculous a change as that worked (and is still working) on the world, one can still have fun pondering what that power might have allowed us to show, had it been granted us years earlier. Imagine being able to map the daily progress of the great pyramids, or to report on Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. I have my personal “what if” list of what I’d love to have seen through a camera, and you no doubt could compile one of your own, if you haven’t already.
Since the craft of making pictures centers so much on human quests, it also lends itself readily to the study of human motivation. We can picture what we are looking for, but we can also trace the emotions that play over our faces as we set out on our explorations. And that’s, of course, how photojournalism has developed over the years. We don’t merely snap the planting of the flag, so to speak, but also the anxiety and near-misses that preceded that triumph, as mapped on the faces of those who embark on the journey. Photo essayists have documented great achievements that, as a sidebar, are also triptychs through the human mind, giving us the procedural steps of the first heart transplants and the terse emotions on the faces of the surgical crew. The two parts of the story each suffer if they are not paired in the narrative.
I don’t typically find myself in the company of globe-trotting explorers, but, when I am with people who are working toward any goal, such as the patient birdwatchers at left, I try to spend just as much time studying their process as what they actually produce. Sure, the main objective is to snap the Vermillion Flycatcher, but, to me, the other part of the job is looking at the lookers, telling the story of the search. The quarry may actually escape, but the quester’s journey is a tale in itself, maybe even a better one.
So, in my retelling of the history of photography, a history in which we are actually present with a Leica when Caesar first rides into Gaul, the preferred part of the assignment for me would be to get a look at the great man himself in the act of conquering not only the foe but, perhaps, himself. We like to think that we use our cameras to tell the truth, but without examining why people choose to do great things, and capturing those desires as well as their deeds, we can miss a vital part of the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE FORMAL TRAINING IN PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITURE rightly emphasizes the eyes, those so-called “windows of the soul”, and it’s hard to argue with their weight as indicators of the inner mind. But, in reality, every facial feature can be eloquent in conveying that which comprises the individual: love, fear, hate, happiness…whatever mix of outward cues that connote personality in a photograph. And it’s also true that, generally speaking, one’s face is a more reliable identifier of traits than, say, an arm or an ankle. However, portraits are loaded with information that occurs from the neck down as well, and a good deal of it can be mined for solid indicators of just who it is we’re looking at. And while we concede that most of us would never deliberately cut the top off a subject in everyday practice, (as seen here) doing so, at least for this exercise, illustrates just how much data can be left to work with when we, in a sense, lose our head.
Clothing, regalia, body language, even something as basic as color…all these come ripe with codes about the life of the individual under consideration, and can be as valuable in portraiture as the face itself. Now, the idea of recommending that you re-examine your favorite portraits without considering their facial information is not to convince you to choose someone’s suit or hand over their face, but to increase our consciousness of what besides the face can amplify and deepen our sense of the people we photograph. I have seen many images where the depth of field was so narrow that, from the eyes outward, most of the face is largely softened, with everything else outside that narrow radius so blurred as to yield virtually no information. And, yes, that approach works wonderfully in many instances. Still, I am the very last person to propose any ironclad rule that always works or never works, since I believe that absolutes have no place in art. Every case must be considered separately.
So long as people are much more than merely their faces, I believe that everyone who works in portraiture should cultivate the habit of looking at every subject as a unique mix of elements, resulting in a range of pictures where sometimes the face is everything, or is sometimes just a thing among others, and occasionally is of no importance at all. The eyes may be a vary reliable window to the soul, but there are always other kinds of eyes, other kinds of windows.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS, AT BEST, a frustratingly imprecise method of, well, eavesdropping. In such unplanned documentary images, the photographer is cast as a kind of sneak-thief, bent upon prying into the unguarded moments of an unsuspecting quarry. But unlike the practice of listening at the keyhole, of course, unposed pix provide no sound, no dialogue to accompany the streetie’s stolen views, and so the resulting pictures often conceal as much as they reveal about What Is Going On Here. We see, but we don’t discern. At least, not solely on what is shown.
Of course, that is the delicious element of the process of street. We supply the missing pieces of the puzzle, assigning our own “meaning” to what we think we have seen. Line up a handful of viewers to interpret a photographed interaction between people and note the incredible variety of “answers” or “solutions” to the image. Part of the allure of photography is that we think as much about what a photo doesn’t show as what it does. In some ways, it’s like the relationship moviegoers had with silent film. Certainly the title cards provided the essential story points or pivotal bits of dialogue, but we also had our minds to conjure what those longing glances, those missing voices, those unseen details were really all about. And so, even in an art form in which we prize the miracle of preserving moments unmoored from time, we agree, along with our audiences, that these moments are incomplete, that, in fact, the finishing of them, in our eyes, is part of the wonder, part of the art.
And so perhaps the best street photographs are special not so much for what they show, but for how successfully they spark that urge within us to know more. Our speculations and guesses, are, in the absence of important information, as valid or “true” as anyone else’s take on the thing. That again demonstrates that photography is a creative process for both taker and viewer. It’s a cooperative enterprise, a divine guessing game with no final resolution: a circle.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I MAY NOT BE PHOTOGRAPHER ENOUGH TO FOOL THE HUMAN EYE, but on a good day, I can apparently con Photos for Mac. I know this because I caught the program using its own “logic” to arrange images into categories for which, truly, they don’t qualify. One such category is “panoramas”, a folder which Photos has chocked with pictures that were not made either with a true panoramic camera or a stitch-up phone app, but merely by cropping larger shots. The thing is, such clipped art work as panoramas because of what they ask of the viewer’s eye.
Most of my landscapes, in town or out in the country, are shot with a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle, which is my go-to for urban work. It adds little in the way of barrel distortion if you aim it right, and allows for very inclusive framing when you’re in cramped quarters (lower Manhattan, I’m talking to you). It’s also as sharp as a diamond, and so, at its sweet spot of efficiency (around f/5.6) it’s a snap to focus manually. It’s a sophisticated lens that performs almost as easily as a point-and-shoot, and even though landscapes shot with it will result in a lot of excess detail, this one lens will do nearly 100% of what I need on an average day. And since there’ll often be way too much info in the landscapes, a-cropping I will go.
Panos are often tiresome because there simply aren’t a lot of linear subjects that are uniformly fascinating from left-to-right. I mean, if you’re bent on having all of General Grant’s 103rd regiment muster up in front of you, or if you’re trying to drink in all the delicious detail along the Cote D’Azur, it can be worth the extra effort. But this is me confessing that most of the shots that my Mac calls “panos” depict decisions made after the shutter snap, and only then because most of the useful visual info in the shot turned out to be linear in nature. I don’t intentionally head out of a morning to “do a pano”, and, in making landscape shots with other objectives in mind, I often don’t see, in the moment, the super-wide image lurking within the greater one. But on days when the camera gods are in a good mood, you find that, even in paring away half of your original, you’ve actually rescued something workable inside your master frame.
In the two examples seen here, the contrast is fairly obvious. The human activity, the line of the boats and, beyond, the skyline of the Brooklyn shore seem to be primarily inviting the eye into a left-to-right reading of the image, whereas crowding the frame with extraneous structures, more boardwalk lumber, or extra sky really saps the picture of any impact it might potentially have, and so, out come the scissors. I also believe that giving the eye more stuff to process means it will do some of it badly. Just as a portrait is usually made more effective by framing its subject mid-waist to head only, so do landscapes often benefit from cutting off their top and bottom thirds, depending on the image. I’m not one of those faux purists who believe you’ve “cheated” by cropping a picture after it’s made. I believe that resizing the frame is part of the making, albeit a part that takes place after the click.
So, yes, my trusty wide-angle is, in most cases, also my trusty makeshift pano lens. I’ve done the same thing with fisheyes, cropping them to highlight the super-wide center of a shot to the exclusion of the extreme bends at the edges. In many such cases, I am trending toward carrying less and less glass with me and getting more and more flexibility out of what I do take along, a development applauded by my aging neck and shoulders. It may be true that you need to suffer to be beautiful, but in the name of a healthy spine, I’m going to keep testing that theory.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF SHARPNESS IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS OLD as photography itself, and remains one of the most sought-after qualities in lens performance. For many, it is the measure of the quality of a recorded image.But just because an idea is old doesn’t make it true. And so sharpness, at least to me, is just like any other element in a well-made picture. That is, it’s negotiable, not absolute.
At photography’s birth, sharpness made a strong argument for the mechanical accuracy of cameras. It was the main reason to trust a machine over the human eye, to choose recording reality with a mysterious box instead of rendering it with a paint brush. Many early lenses were, in fact, fairly soft, and so the “goal” of eventually perfecting sharpness became the impetus to develop better optics and to create a perpetual market for new advances among consumers. Built-in obsolescence.
But lenses are not merely recording devices, like seismographs or thermometers. They are tools, which, in the hands of vastly different users, can and should render vastly different results. Certainly it was always easy for manufacturers to sell users on the idea that sharpness, all by itself, was the thing that made a lens “good”, and to train those same users to want to upgrade constantly in some pursuit of precision. But at some point sharpness became optimized even in the cheapest lenses, with most cameras making images extremely crisp even at huge sizes and certainly as sharp or sharper than the acuity of even the healthiest human eye. Thing is, as this race for precision was afoot for over a century or more, some photographers also wanted to use that same precise gear to create things whose lack of ultra-sharpness was their appeal, their most effective means of communication. Movements in every culture began to emerge in which razor-keen focus was not the most desirable element, nor even, in some cases, a consideration at all. For these shooters, then and now, sharp was dull.
Only you can decide whether your pictures gain or lose by a traditional adherence to sharpness, just as all musicians do not play the same sheet music at the same uniform volume. Like anything else in your bag of tricks, focal faithfulness is a guideline, not a commandment. I know many who would reject the image seen at left as far too ill-defined, while others would embrace its deliberate softness as far more warm and intimate than a tack-sharp shot. Thing is, they are both correct under the appropriate circumstances. There are technical limits and better/poorer regions in even the best lens, and trying to completely eradicate softness from end to end of the frame is like looking for the perfect man/woman to spend your life with. Every piece of your equipment has things it does marvelously well and things it can never do. Know that information, and work it to get what you want. But don’t for a moment think the perfect lens is “out there somewhere”, just waiting for you to buy it and fix all the problems with your photography. We love shooting with these little boxes, but only when we think outside them do we really start making pictures that matter.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PUBLIC STRUCTURES CAN BECOME THE MOST OVER-PHOTOGRAPHED objects on the planet, especially if they strike people as personally symbolic. As visual icons of status, history, empire, and other human yearnings, our buildings and gathering places can flood the world market with images, as everyone does their “take” on things that have already been explored beyond human imagination. Eventually, saying something new about these places can be a challenge, since all the obvious renditions of it have themselves become iconic. That is to say, the predominant way most people have photographed a thing becomes, itself, the “official” way of looking at it.
This problem exists less with new or emerging destinations, places that are not as yet pre-imagined into “correct” photographic interpretations. Such sites are, if you will, fresh out of the oven. Be one of the first hundred million or so to “discover” a special place, and you may just have a chance of looking at it in an original way, before the prevailing version becomes carved in stone. Take two iconic sectors of Manhattan as an example. One has to really, really strain to make a new image of the Empire State Building, and so many of us just shoot our copy of the expected view. Head down to Ground Zero, however, and it seems much easier to do a lot more, imagination-wise, with something like the Oculus, the space-erific replacement for the PATH terminal that was destroyed on 9/11. Its contours still surprise. Its overall design intention is still a matter of personal conjecture. It has not yet become either universally beloved or universally despised.
Art thrives in areas where, conceptually, we haven’t truly made up our minds…where the jury’s still out. Photographing something in an influential vacuum….that is, uninfluenced by all the others who have discovered the subject before you…is difficult. Both the glorious and the notorious attract shooters like a summer porch light does moths, and soon, what I call the “postcard average” version of a thing emerges, and is cemented into place. At that point the photographer who wants to mine something new out of the subject has to be prepared to dig deep, to undercut expectations. But when we measure the impact of a thing with our own eyes, rather than just recording our agreement with the popular view, then the mob stops being in charge inside our heads. Then we can actually see.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.
We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.
Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?
Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.
After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.
I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.
Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ASTRONAUT KEN MATTINGLY, ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF AMERICANS IN 1970, never caught the measles. But on April 8th of that year, doctors at NASA were convinced that he might, and that educated guess was all it took to scrub him from the Apollo 13 mission, a mere three days from launch. But, even in the exacting skill universe of space flight, “not this time” doesn’t always mean “never”.
Fans of Ron Howard’s cinematic re-telling of 13’s ill-fated trip to the moon have long since learned of Ken’s essential role in helping to bring the crew and their mangled craft home safely back to Earth. But his story didn’t merely end with that amazing save. Just two years later, Mattingly would notch his own slot in NASA history, piloting the lunar orbiter module for Apollo 16, the program’s second-to-last moon expedition, maintaining his unique observational perch for a record-breaking 64 lunar orbits, a trek comprising over 81 hours of solo spaceflight.
Photographs are largely taken by direct witnesses to events, with space exploration being a notable exception. All of the images we have digested of various extra-terrestrial explorations over the last seventy years are, at most, second-hand visual experiences for most of us. We weren’t, in the popular phrase from Hamilton, In The Room (or module) Where It Happened, nor did we walk On The Surface Where It Happened. The pictures we know of these epic journeys were created and curated by a select minority, inviting us to share their experience even as the images designed to assist us actually serve to prevent our doing that. It is only now, as the various gear and apparel of these modern odysseys are consigned to museums and archives, that we can even take direct pictures of the objects that once made history. And while that can never be quite connective enough, it is at least a chance for us, as photographers, to interpret, to do our take on things we only know through various historical filters.
For Ken Mattingly, now a retired Navy rear admiral, the journey from witness to participant went from abstract to concrete. For photographers, the same transition is sometimes possible. Often, however, it is the souvenirs of history, rather than history itself, that we are able to examine, making us archaeologists even in our own time. We often must be satisfied at flying standby on the big rides.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS YOU READ THIS, I WILL BE SAILING ACROSS YET ANOTHER ANNUAL MERIDIAN, my shaky little rowboat meekly tying up at the dock of one more birthday. Many years, I am astonished to find the scruffy little skiff of my life still afloat: it’s certainly not due to my skills as a navigator or seaman, but rather the kind fortune of the currents, the gentle mercy of the waves. Life is an ocean which can and does engulf us all, sometimes in a series of undulations, sometimes in surges of anger. But eventually we all head to the same damp destiny. Chalking up one more year on the topside of the foam doesn’t create a feeling of relief so much as a tsunami of amazement.
In years past, like many of us, I have indulged my vanity by taking at least a quick-snap selfie to mark the occasion, as if my continuing to draw breath was, in itself, some kind of achievement. Of course, in my quieter moments, I realize that I am, in the main, merely a lucky idiot, far more fortunate than smart. But, when I consider the role my wife Marian has played in my ongoing survival…..well, then, I am looking at a kind of genius, an emotional genius that has done more than merely protect and value me. Better than knowing my worse flaws, she has systematically outfoxed them at every turn. And in doing that, she has not only bought me time, she has made that time burn brighter than any birthday candle.
And so, this year, I’m giving the back-patting selfie a rest, and filing this small report with an image of her that, over the years, has given me courage and comfort. On one level, it’s merely a woman looking out to sea. For me, however, it’s the nature of that looking, and the deep concentration that goes with it. Marian never just glances: she evaluates, she catalogues hopes and fears: she shuffles the cards of a million scenarios and masterminds the selection of the perfect hand. As I said, a kind of genius.
So Happy My Birthday to Marian, my Magellan, my compass, my north star. Without her, I’d be lucky to read the map of my own mind. With her, I can journey on.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: signs, designed for a set purpose, repurposed by accident or intention into very different messages. They are everywhere: the “deer crossing” warning that is riddled with shotgun holes: the speed limit posting that gets spray-painted a few mph higher than what the law allows: the red diamond where the word “racism” is added to the word “stop”. For photographers, observing the environment is more than adding our own interpretation: it’s also noticing the way messages are modified by others, and chronicling the effect of it all.
Humans are highly adaptive, and if a sign isn’t working for them, they’ll set about to make it right, or at least put it in sync with their view of the world. But not all these revisions are vandalistic in nature. Certainly signs are morphed as pure commentary, but they are also messages of urgency, protests against official injustice, cries for help. In all cases, to show them in photographs is to acknowledge the passions behind the revisions.
And then there are the signs that nature itself takes a hand in reshaping. Wear and tear can render warnings and advisories ironic, even useless. Is a stencil symbolizing a handicapped parking space subject to reinterpretation, once it’s been weathered into abstraction, as seen here? If a safety zone sign is smashed by one careless car too many, are we seeing a good argument for further civic action? Street photography is partly about people and partly about how people fit (or don’t fit) into the infrastructures of their lives. Sometimes, of course, we can try a little too hard to make sense of it all. I recall, decades ago, during the making of one of my many ill-advised student films, falling in love with a particular EXIT sign and deciding that I should shoot enough movie film to edit a shot of it into multiple mileposts of my magnum opus. Sadly, the movie in question didn’t have much to conceptually hold it together beyond the occasional popping-up of the word EXIT between sequences. Truly, if I were hooked up to a polygraph I could prove that I remember nothing else about the project. However, I can still see that sign in my dreams/nightmares. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
All of which is to merely say that no sign registered by our cameras is ever just about what it “says”. It’s always evaluated within the context of what we want to say….or want to avoid saying. That is, we can never just take signs at their word. In the right hands, they have so much to say beyond that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGE RITUAL BY WHICH WE HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED to political candidates has been forged alongside our inherited habits of chronicling life with cameras. The select corps of reporters that is technically tasked with capturing the “official” look and feel of a campaign actually accomplishes no such thing. In the era of ubiquitous personal recording devices, the impressions that can be conveyed of a politician’s viability are finally as varied as the number of people in their desired audiences. All impressions matter, and at the same time, none of them matter. We are all in charge of our own lenses, and our own truth.
Wherever you rate a candidate on a scale of uncool to cool (and how you, in turn, envision his or her “electability” with your camera) is naturally linked to everything you subjectively experience when in contact with that person (or his entourage). Was the hall air-conditioned? Was the free food any good? Was there easy parking at the rally? Did you stand next to someone obnoxious during the speech. And, as to the speech, was it erudite or homespun? Concise or long-winded? Was the sound system working? Had you already heard that same stump speech too many other times? Did he/she look older/thinner/taller than on tv? And then there are the exact same in-the-moment technical challenges of a “live shoot” that the professional network crews are contending with, from lighting to composition to that idiot in front of you who blocked your million-dollar shot with his campaign sign. The whole situation is, in its own way, as dynamic, moment to moment, as covering a sports competition. That is to say, not easy.
Ironically, the thing about shooting political events that is most problematic is the shooter himself, since we, as either passive or active voters, have already brought our biases and hopes to the rallies, linking them in series with our lenses and optics just as surely as if they were color filters. We begin our “coverage” from an established viewpoint, completely obviating the idea of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: to be able to take a shot you are also able to control a shot, and if you can’t bring your own take to something as personal as a political contest, then it’s not worth even lifting your camera to your eye.
Since photography is all about selection, i.e., the extraction and suspension of specific particles of time, it stands to reason that an image which makes a politician look godlike in one moment can make him look like a drooling idiot the next. We are all subject to the shaping of reality achieved by skillful use of the camera. Once we experience it in our own work, that knowledge may help us be better consumers of the images made from outside our own viewpoints, and calculated to persuade, reveal, or conceal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HALF-CENTURY OR SO can be seen as a road race with the world of painting, with both runners trying to outpace each other in “realistically” depicting the world. The camera, being an actual recording machine, was first reviled, later praised as a more reliable chronicler of the actual world. Painters, in reaction, quit the reality playing field, inventing new, more abstract forms of expression like Impressionism, and left the documentary work to photogs. Or so everyone assumed.
After 1900, photographers, too embraced the idea that mere “reality” was overrated and developed their own very individualistic ways of making images, introducing the first manipulations of film, light, lenses, printing techniques and composition. Freed from the stricture of merely capturing a scene, shooters began to propose alternative visions, to interpret the world in very subjective ways. Today, one’s photographs can be as tightly naturalistic or as loosely abstract as one pleases, with some of the most impactful pictures being the ones that seem to be about nothing in particular. These “absolute” compositions, basic arrangements of color and light, may not be storytelling images in the same way that a war photo or a news snap are. They not only don’t provide explanations, they don’t even require them. The terms of engagement for such photographs are stark and simple: they’re pictures because we say they’re pictures, and they either grab you or they don’t.
My own training in photography manifested itself as a need to exercise control, to execute well and follow the rules of technique faithfully. However, my idea of getting a picture “right”, which might easily have stopped at just technical precision, has, thankfully, continued to crawl forward toward the kinds of absolutes I described before. Pictures that just are, such as the one shown here, pose a problem for me, since I have to leave the safety of things I know that “work”, entering a realm where I’m not sure where the paths are. I truly love what happens when I relax my grip on the old reliable truths and let things just happen, but it’s also a bit like walking in space: my tether could break, and I could be cast adrift.
The first time I heard someone, in speaking of one of my photographs, ask, “what’s that supposed to be?” I was stung, nervous. The question is, of course, ridiculous, as if there were only one way to represent the world, with every other way somehow counted as wrong. But the camera is not (and never was), a mere measuring and recording instrument. Over the centuries, it has been whatever we have asked of it, a seismograph of our own undulating curiosity. We learn to see by learning its operations. We learn to listen by shutting out every other sound except our own clear voice.