By MICHAEL PERKINS
UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.
That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.
Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.
And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.
THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.
The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.
If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.
Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.
I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE MAY BE LIMIT to what the human mind will devise In the way of diversion during times of forced solitude, such as our current Great Hibernation, but thankfully I haven’t yet bumped my nose up against that particular ceiling. And while photogs are taught to make pictures out of damn near anything, you begin, under quarantine, to rethink even that minimalistic criterion. The term “make-work” springs to mind. That, along with “desperate.”
But as long as I’m making pictures of something/anything, I can feel less guilty about not being able to, for example, master sourdough bread baking. Subject-wise, I’ve been trying, lately, to crank out something that is vaguely environmental in aspect, since our failure to serve or even consider nature seems to be at the root of so many of our current woes. Sooo….time for that “make-work” ethic to kick in.
The project began as a simple capture of a recent Supermoon, which is fairly easy with my “bird camera”, a Nikon Coolpix 900, a hybrid superzoom bought to help stalk all things winged but also handy for handhelds of heavenly bodies.
My lunar capture took mere seconds, but it was long enough to conjure a memory of the classic 1903 George Melies film A Trip To The Moon, one of the very first special effects movies. The prehistoric flicker contains the iconic image of the dismayed face of the “man in the moon”, seconds after an Earth spaceship lands squarely in his eye, and, moonsnap in hand, I commenced working on my own version.
I wondered what a concerned, even sad version of that face would look like, as if the moon were desperately entreating us all to get our act together. I finally decided to re-use a closeup of one of my wife’s antique dolls, which had the right balance of sentiment and creepiness, and blended the two pieces on a phone app appropriately named Fused.
And so, an act of improvised lunacy, along with another slow night, goes into the record books. Turns out that even quarantine can yield to the images inside your skull. You no doubt have similar visions swimming around inside your brain pan at this point, and now is the perfect moment to summon them forth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON JANUARY 13, 2009, BARACK OBAMA, a man of many firsts both personal and political, created a benchmark in the history of photography as well, becoming the first President of the United States to have his official portrait created with a digital camera. Data nerds will note that the exposure was made with Pete Souza’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera without flash and settings of 1/125 sec., f/10, ISO 100, and 105mm. In the interval between that time and this, the break with analog film-based photography seems both natural and inevitable, and so the shot has one key thing in common with the very first presidential portrait, in that it was taken using the most advanced technology of its time, changing forever the way we thought of “official” records of the Chief Executive.
One hundred and sixty-six years prior, in 1843, John Quincy Adams, some fifteen years after the end of his presidency, sat for what, today, is the oldest surviving original photographic portrait of an American president. The term original, when speaking of early photographs, must be given a bit of additional context. The process known as daguerreotype was, at the time of Adams’ sitting at Philip Haas’ Washington studio, only four years old. Each photograph was printed directly on glass plates, and were therefore one-of-a-kind images in the truest sense, as no means for printing copies of photos would exist until the creation of negative film by George Eastman nearly half a century later. The fragility of daguerrotypes added to the special quality afforded them as keepsakes in the nineteenth century, as they were quite literally irreplaceable. And then there was the arduous process of getting a usable exposure made in the first place. In President Adams’ diary of the day, he remarked that, upon arriving for his appointment, he found
“...Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”
Full disclosure: In fact, the very first presidential portrait was taken of the spectacularly unlucky William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office just one month after taking the oath, likely due to complications of pneumonia brought on by failing to dress warmly enough during inclement Inauguration Day ceremonies. Indeed, a photographic portrait was made of Harrison on March 4, 1841, mere days before he fell ill. However, the original of the image is said to be lost, surviving only in copies, while the Adams image, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is the very same glass-plate photo taken two years later by Haas. Adams probably deserves the distinction of hanging in the NPG for an additional reason, in that he was one of the primary forces behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Portrait Galley is a subsidiary.
Like Barack Obama, Adams had additional historical mileposts attached to his fame as a photographic subject. Serving in the House of Representatives for many years following his presidency, he was the last living tie to the Founding Fathers, one of the men who, as they sing in Hamilton, was “in the room where it happened”. Photography was lauded, at its birth, as one of the proudest achievements of the Industrial Revolution, but many feared that it might be a merely mechanical medium, devoid of the soul of painted portraiture. And yet, since its very beginnings, it has not only performed a purely reportorial function, but has also anchored us to all ages in a most un-machinelike fashion, preserving the essences of our humanity and allowing us to sing Hail to many a Chief.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PICTURE YOU SEE HERE is not the type of photo I typically do a lot. And that’s odd, because it seems, in some way a prime example of what we all seek when we go out to photograph. Use your own term for it…slice of life, the common man, street photography..the list of names is long, but the idea is the same: the practice of recording something of life, from life, that reminds us of our universal humanity in some small way.
Maybe that word small is the key to it. In normal times (remember those?) we hardly blink at the millions of wee moments that aggregate to the total of our sense of “normalcy”. And if we don’t notice these millions of mini-moments ourselves, we trust artists to notice them for us, to amplify the ordinary into the marvelous. But the artist’s eye can fail as well, can become blind to minutia, aiming for bigger game to portray or preserve. The mega-calamities; the earthquakes; or, in the current world context, the boarded-up shops and empty streets. Everyone wants to take The Big Picture that explains it all, and it’s easy to forget that a large tapestry of tiny testimonies, mini-moments, can be woven into a Big Picture as well.
Even in these soul-testing times, the scene shown here is hardly front page news; Couple Walks Dog. And yet, its very ordinariness (may not be a word, look it up, campers) can be reassuring in a time when routine has been ripped to rags and not much can be taken for granted. In such a world, a child’s laugh, a sunlit hollow, a scene that appears to be part of An Uninterrupted Life, can become precious. Hardly forty-eight hours has passed since I shot this picture, and yet, in that short span of time, it has gone from a casual snap to something I hold to be precious. Certainly not for any innate skill in its execution or groundbreakingly fresh approach, but, again, for the appearance that, despite everything, some things will go on, and that we can well afford, in this superabundance of spare time, to slow down and savor them.
One of the wondrous things that was lost in the transition from analog to digital photography was the deliberateness, the necessary caution and calculation that used to go into the making of every shot. Mistakes were costly and gratification was delayed, and our slower, more reflective method reflected that. Maybe, during this forced time-out, the best thing we can do for our photographer’s eye is to allow it to notice more of everything, to slow our roll and harvest the million little fireflies that have always been swirling about our unseeing gaze.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLE IS REFLECTIVE of the human aging process. You often make pictures differently in different phases of your life. Many of my favorite shooters have, over their careers, evolved on two parallel tracks, both toward simplicity. That is to say that their picture-taking process, i.e., equipment and gear, becomes more streamlined as they age, even as their approach to composition becomes simpler. In every way possible, the best photographers tend to learn, over time, how to do more and more with less and less.
Going into battle with a single camera that’ll do 98% of what you need in any situation is highly desirable, but it takes time to learn how to do that, to resist the temptation to carry every gizmo under heaven on your shoulder at once. But the struggle is worth it; knowing every single feature and quirk of a camera that’s ergonomically solid and functionally streamlined allows you to work fast and instinctively. As for composition, I found that, at least for me, I had to either learn to simplify or just give up on things like landscape work, where everything I shot was crammed with clouds, trees, trickling streams, flocks of birds, and, who knows, the Barnum & Bailey circus. I was making picture after picture where, if the human eye was asking, “where do I look?” my answer was likely to be, “It’s a smorgasbord! Pick anything!” The truth was that I had to go simpler as I aged if I was ever to be effective at all in conveying visual ideas.
Twenty years ago, this image would have taken up twice the area you see here, because, even today, its master frame included, along with the barn and stable, a side building, some empty blue sky, and a few small piles of farm implements….enough distractive information for five pictures. Zeroing out all the color and cropping to keep the entire picture to a basic series of rectangles and triangles (plus their multiplied shadows) turned out much better; all I had to do was develop the courage to cut, decisively, in search of a less cluttered picture. I only select this example because it’s a very clear illustration of the process that I now go through for composing nearly every shot, in that I try to pre-visualize how little information I need to convey my concept. Yes, how little.
This is an ongoing struggle for any photographer, because it’s easy and alluring to do more of everything…more stuff to carry, more stuff to cram in the frame, more things to draw energy away from your primary vision. I am nowhere near where I need to be in this journey, but I can track a little progress, and, amidst all the distractions of, well, living, that’s at least something.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEYOND THE RAW TRAGEDY of this year’s Great Hibernation, our forced stay-cation away from each other, the biggest loss for artists is the loss of faces. Photography engages the purposes and layers of human features, and draws its energy and appeal from the interpretation of those elements. When the people, through death or isolation, go away in great numbers, the faces that fuel our art go away as well. For those who create images, it’s like losing half the colors in the Crayola box.
That hunger for faces isn’t even fully satisfied after we have begun to cautiously crawl out of our respective caves, either, because the faces that we do see are partially concealed. We see eyes where once we saw both eyes and smiles. We try to intuit from memory what kind of expression lies behind the cloth of containment. Maybe that’s why, at least for this photographer, I’ve turned to a source I only selectively visit during normal times….the faces of animals.
It makes a kind of baseline sense. One of the only public places I go, while all this horror is sorted, is the local zoo. And here’s where the purists amongst us will moan that such places are the worst way to discover animals for purposes of photography. Snotty image contests have even gone so far as to routinely exclude such images from competition over the years, keening about how “dishonest” it is to capture an animal’s image in captivity, blah, blah, blah. That view is, of course, idiotic. The photographer alone determines whether an animal shot in the wild or in an enclosure registers with viewers as “real”. Better to shoot a stunning picture through bars than to let it go unmade.
And so, absent the human faces that typically populate our photography, we go in search of emotion and feeling in the faces of cats, apes, birds, and why not? If our own features are supposed to be a visual seismograph of our inner struggles, how does that happen any less with an animal? We’re already accustomed to labeling the reactions of the animals closest to us as those of a “happy” dog or a “lonely” cat, so the idea that animal faces register emotions is far from alien to us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, as I await the full return of human faces in all their mystery and madness, I will practice portraiture of another kind with friends of a different stripe. We love to flatter ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs are the only ones worthy of mention in the world. It’s time to realize what a stupidly limited concept that has always been.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is available from NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’RE OFTEN TOLD, WHEN PLANNING TO SHOOT A GIVEN SUBJECT, to “set an intention”, to draft some kind of approach to the task, both to save time and avoid disappointment. You’ve seen the mental checklist: what kind of lens, camera, angle, framing, etc. will yield the best results? So making up your mind is Job One in a lot of photo tutorials. Fine. However, it’s what you do once you change your mind, or, in effect, junk your original plan, that can present real opportunity.
In driving around a neighborhood I hadn’t visited for a while near a small municipal airport, I discovered that, since I’d last been there, they’d erected a multi-story memorial to all the pilots from various conflicts who had used this particular airfield for training purposes. Appropriately enough, they’d hung a beautifully restored example of one of the most popular trainers of the 30’s and ’40’s, a Boeing Stearman 75, the craft that taught hundreds of World War II-era air jockeys how to fly. Built near the twilight of the biplane area, these agile and cheap little crates, nicknamed “yellow perils”, were a vital part of the history of aviation, and the one seen here is a gorgeous specimen. I’d planned to make the standard museum-post-card view of it, using the buttery texture of a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens to add a slightly dreamy look. It wasn’t a hard shot to make and I made it.
It was later, however, during several walk-arounds, that I decided to try a non-objective, more abstract approach, not to merely document the plane, but in the spirit of history and myth, to suggest it, rather like a dream or a memory. The slight distortion and color shifts in a window reflection of the plane, combined with just a fragment of the actual craft, seemed to suggest speed, but to also render the plane in a kind of mystical way, as something shifting, vanishing, appearing and re-appearing. Hardly a postcard rendition, and yet I’m glad I gave it a try. The plane that’s physically here is glorious, to be sure, while the hallucination of the plane is transitory, like the era that produced it, like the names inscribed on the memorial’s explanatory plaque.
Planning your shots ahead of time is comforting, and truly helpful in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. But just because photographs can depict things in a fairly “real” fashion doesn’t mean you have to be anchored to that one way of seeing. Plan “B” can be as exciting as “Plan A” if you let your brain ( and, in turn, your camera) go with the flow.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
TO FLIP THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF ON-LINE DEBATES between those who favor automatic exposure over manual, you’d think that the two camps (both vociferous and intractable) had existed since the beginning of photography. In fact, however, this argument only goes back about as far as the 1970’s, when the first cameras with automatic modes of any kind began to re-define the market. Think about that: we now are asked to choose up sides on what was, for 75% of photography’s history, a non-issue.
Automodes began as partial assists to an overall manual process of making pictures. Then the manufacturers came to a startling realization; that many more beginners and amateurs would enter the camera hobby if the cameras were engineered to do more of the heavy lifting involved in snapping a shot. Quite simply, the less worry and uncertainty that could be evolved out of the process, the less frustrated people would be and the more they would shoot…spelling increased sales for both film and gear. It also created the “move-up” market, because, if photographers could stay at it long enough, they would either outgrow their equipment or surrender to the urge to replace it regularly, since a better and more expensive camera makes better pictures, right?….or so went the logic.
And so the hobby evolved from a craft that required total personal control of every aspect of exposure to occasional assists to where we are today, which is a world of cameras engineered to anticipate every need for every situation and to provide an automated guarantee that most of the resulting shots are above average, or “good”. There are millions who still shoot 100% manually, of course, but they are numerically in the majority, simply because many people will trade a high-average, convenient experience for a greater risk of failure. We are thus in an age of “good enough” photography.
But one thing gets lost in this ongoing debate, and that’s the answer to the question, “who’s taking the picture here?” Again, let’s just look at exposure. Many considerations go into what happens to a shot at various levels of light, with variations in color, texture, contrast, and so on. As seen in the top image, a fully automatic exposure is far from “bad”…in fact, it’s a tribute to the engineer’s art that it is a perfectly fine, average depiction of what I saw through the viewfinder. However, for anything interpretive, it’s only a starting point. The second exposure, shot at exactly the same time and under the same general conditions, could not be any more different from the auto-mode version. Color plays a decidedly different role. Texture and contrast call attention to the building’s weathered exterior. And as for the time of day, the image, taken under harsh Arizona midday light, could easily be mistaken for early sunrise or late afternoon.
Manual shooting isn’t a holy calling, like the priesthood, and being good at it isn’t magic, just a matter of doing it enough to work past all the mistakes. In other words, a normal learning process. Cameras that make decisions for you will often make them in keeping with your own preferences, but when they don’t (or can’t), taking back control is a sure way to make the pictures yours, and only yours. As the man says, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LENGTHY TIME-OUTS, whether imposed by illness, separation, or the combination of both that we find ourselves presently enduring, limit our ability to create new experiences, but they do provide ample space for deeply breathing in the vapors of old ones. If, like me, you’ve found yourself reviewing a lot of old images, either to burn time or enrich your memories, then you’re bound to stumble across pictures of more than a few things or people that make the photographs truly poignant, because the subjects they depict are simply….gone.
Not just gone from your reach or your convenience, gone as in destroyed, razed, demolished. Victims of “progress” or disaster. Casualties of time or carelessness. Locales that recall amazing days with friends, or lonely nights of longing. Places that are so gone that a photo is the only testimony to them ever having existed. I don’t know why so many of these places, for me, are joints; remote watering holes, out-of-the-way dives with no distinguishing charm or saving grace. The word bar is far too exalted for grungy little crevices such as those that I most dearly cherish. The decor ranges from random to desperate. The menus are the stuff of dyspeptic nightmares. The customers inhabit some purgatory between Damon Runyon’s subterranean sharpies in Guys ‘n’ Dolls to the sweat-soaked retreats of defeated fighters to the hidey-holes of lost souls. And I have done my best, in rotten light and good, with or without the management’s blessing, to do them justice with whatever camera I have had handy.
The place you see here used to grace a dusty stretch of rural biker retreats north of Scottdale, Arizona collectively known as Greasewood Flats, and, take it from me, both the food and drinks did the name proud. No pink cellophane toothpicks in your girly cocktails here, dearie. We came to drink until we need help sorting the denominations of the beer-soaked bills out of our wallet, till the door to the parking lot becomes a major navigational negotiation. Sadly, the Flats fell to the wrecking ball a few years ago, and I have yet to summon the courage to see what civilized nonsense occupies the land today. I only know that I can still smell the burgers (broiled outside over big pits, then walked inside), and I will never be able to hear Dwight Yoakam again without a distinct pang.
But I got the picture.
So here’s a toast to whatever divine dives or forgotten apartments or first girls your pictures bring back into your heart in these long, long days. They are good companions and good friends. And powerful. Because other than a great picture, only a good friend can really make you cry.
(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, I’M EXPERIENCING WHAT I CALL AN EXQUISITE TORTURE, a feeling I associate with my very first days as a photographer. The term recalls the period between when someone shoots with film and when that film comes back, and both words in the phrase are of equal power. Exquisite— because, as long as the film is in the hands of the processors, I may have made the greatest pictures of my life—and torture, because, in this waiting period, I no longer trust the choices in exposure and technique that I felt so strongly about just days ago. In short, until the mailman arrives, my little roll of film is teetering between Everything and Nothing. It’s a feeling I recall deeply, a feeling I no longer experience with regularity in the digital age.
And beyond a certain perverse nostalgia, I haven’t missed it.
Why do I even have a roll of film at the lab in 2020? Idle curiosity, mostly, sparked by the fact that, several years ago, Kodak decided to revive one of its old slide films, Ektachrome, an emulsion that accompanied me on many a key journey along the road to making pictures, and an event that intrigued me just because of its Quixotic hopelessness. I don’t miss the uncertain waiting for film because I frankly don’t miss film itself, as either a process or a tool. Of course, I can call forth specific memories of what it felt like to work that way. The mechanical moves and calculations. The limits, the frustrations. The rituals.
And the expense. Oy, the expense.
I can’t imagine teaching myself everything I’d need to learn with a new camera today, hamstrung by the economics of film. Every shot, hit or miss, costs you money. You actually pay three times for every shot; for the film itself, for making an attempt at a picture, and for paying to have your picture, hit or miss, processed. All to have the entire enterprise fail, which has happened more than a few times to many of us over a lifetime. Technology’s only essential role in the development of photography is to make processes reliable and invisible, to ensure that the machinery will get out of the way of making a picture, not ensure that a higher percentage of those pictures never get made.
Film in the hands of a master (which I sadly never was) is a crap shoot….a well-calculated, educated guess of a crapshoot, but a crapshoot nonetheless. So no, beyond the ache of memory (a phrase which is the linguistic origin of the word nostalgia), I don’t miss film, any more than I long for watering and shoeing my horse before climbing into the saddle to amble into town. It was necessary for us all to go through that evolutionary layer in order to get to where we are, with film occupying an honorable place in the same long time line that includes tintypes and glass plates. However, we don’t primarily use these formats anymore because we have learned better. I’m not disrespecting any part of that journey….but it is a journey, not a destination. You either move forward, or you nail one foot to the ground and forever walk in a circle. It’s fun to put your old Army uniform for five minutes, but you’re not going to wear it to dinner.
That said, I sure hope my slides come out good (damn you, inner child)….
Fiat Lux, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BOTH IN THESE PAGES AND IN MANY OTHERS, FROM PEOPLE far wiser than I, a very basic recommendation for photographers has been to choose the simplest camera that you can for what you want to shoot, rather than purchase a high-tech toy loaded with extras that you don’t currently use. Makes sense; get as many features as you actually need to get the job done, but don’t fall for the old con that your next best picture will only come once you buy your next, better, costlier camera. This advice is not based on some rugged manliness on my part, but on the simple truth that you need personal development far more than you need state-of-the-art (or break-of-the wallet) gear.
And now consider this corollary; equipment manufacturers cannot survive if you only buy simple, efficient cameras. They can only profit by selling you everything that comes with; the cases, the filters, the extra lenses, the solar-powered cookie oven that ties into your USB port. The reality for the legendary Eastman Kodak Company was that, even if it made almost nothing on the sales of its cameras, all those cameras needed film pretty much forever. As for the camera companies that didn’t also own their own film factories, there was allure in selling their customers that one extra cool trick that their camera could not do all by itself. And thus came the brackets, the bolt-ons, the custom attachments, the gauges, and the meters. This “just one thing more” approach was a vital part of the analog camera market, and it has carried forward into the digital era. The camera, apparently the very same one for which you just shelled out major buckos, is, sadly, just not enough.
The image seen here is from the user’s manual for one of the first automatic SLRs of the late 1970’s. All of this stuff was available for sale for one model of one camera from one manufacturer. You will notice that this exhaustive listing of geegaws does not even include auxiliary lenses, which would probably be more crucial than, day, #48, the battery-driven power film winder, made for those too lazy or absent-minded to wind the film on themselves (think ’70’s!). And while there may be few customers indeed who coughed up for the entire toy catalog seen here, the very fact that it exists tells us that there is a better than average chance that, if you make an “Extender FD-2XA”, someone will convince themselves that they need one.
Here’s the take-home; the rules of composition, optics and exposure have not substantially changed in the last 100 years. What changes is the elegant little tasks and tricks designed into the camera and its attendant add-ons beyond those basics. Some you need, but most you don’t. If the camera you buy does not do 75% of what you need to do all by itself, and in a few simple steps, take it back. No one ever became a better photographer by merely buying more equipment, and many have actually made their process so complicated with extra doodads that their pictures are worse. Start basic and stay there until you develop a genuine need to take an additional step, and then take it. If you only buy what you need, photography is an art, like painting. If not, it’s just a hobby, like collecting baseball cards.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU’VE LIKELY EXPERIENCED IT: I call it shutter lock, the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block. You have the subject. You have opportunity. And you certainly have motive. But the picture won’t come.
More specifically, the right picture won’t come. You’ve chosen the wrong angle. The wrong aspect. It’s lost in a sea of busy. Or it’s just…well, hiding. Your perfect shot has now become some frustrating game of Where’s Waldo? Should you move on? Reconsider? Or in Oz’ words, simply “go away and come back tomorrow”?
And then you move a few inches. You walk around your quarry and something else about it begins to speak, first in a whisper, and then, in a clear, loud voice that says, “of course”. And you make the picture.
My recent and most stubborn case of shutter lock has been on me since the start of our Great Hibernation, a time when photographers have flooded social media with ideas for “projects”. Essays. Statements that will sum up What We’re All Going Through. And more than a few challenges to find all that Supreme Truth in a self-portrait. How is this affecting you? How has it reshaped your features, the part of your soul that seeps though haunted eyes or pursed lips? I was fascinated by that idea, of course, and why not? We all love to explore ourselves, to regard ourselves as our own True North. But I wasn’t capturing it, or at least enough of it. I was staring at a landscape that I couldn’t turn into a picture.
And then I stopped looking inward. Selfies can certainly reveal our inner dialogues, but all my own face was registering was a kind of unreadable…numbness. And so I moved about thirty inches, and she was there.
Marian is always there at my most instructive moments of clarity. She hacks through my busy clutter and lets enough air into my brain to allow me to see sense, and regain my bearings. The most wonderful thing about it is, she often doesn’t know she’s doing it. There is was, on her face, the look I was seeking, and missing, on my own. A mix of grim resolution, hope, helplessness, exhaustion. Not a look of absolute despair….more like a dead serious attempt to re-focus, to keep swimming against the tide. Suddenly her face was not only a better expression of my own journey but everyone’s. It felt universal, beyond language. In short, it looked like a photograph.
And now it is one. I took it with the crudest camera I have, under the worst conditions possible. And then I tortured it even more in an app to make it appear antique enough to feel relevant to all crises, all dark nights of the soul. It’s technically a wreck, and yet I’m proud of it. Proud of myself for getting outside myself in order to see it. Proud of it as a possession. And proud to allow my partner to be The Interpreter.
FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.
The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.
A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.
But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.
And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.
(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS ONGOING CHRONICLE, for anyone who is relatively new to it, is more about the motivations, rather than the methods, behind photography. The mechanical techniques of snapping a picture can only ensure that you will, in fact, produce an image. Everything else….the shaping, the conceptualizing, the intention of making a picture, happens outside the camera, inside yourself. What I’m leading to here is that, between you and your device, your device is far less crucial. This is why people can take good pictures with bad cameras, and why you can make a lousy image with a Leica. If I believed that photography was, like xerography, just a means of recording, then I could have saved you and me both the meanderings and mutterings of the last nine years.
Photography is a strange art because it begins with real subject matter and renders it surreal. Once an instant is yanked out of its rightful place in the orderly crawl of time, once it’s isolated and arrested in its flight forever, it becomes something else than what we first aimed at. We make a decision, in the present, to preserve something, and, in that instant, that object becomes something ago. Part of the past. Not only that, but it takes on the biases of the shooter, who decided that this light, rather than that light, should be the storytelling medium, that this composed frame should be chosen over all other possibilities. We dedicate ourselves, in a sense, to making things look “real”, while the very act of photography renders that reality null and void. The final picture of a thing is either real-plus, or real-minus, but, being filtered through both the camera and our own perceptions, it can never be merely “real” again.
We also decide what is worth photographing, as if the act of taking a picture of something could confer importance on it. Certainly, we are right at least some of the time. Some moments are, by their own nature, vital, essential to an understanding of the world. But then again, who is to say what’s meaningful and what’s banal? Perhaps the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it’s an argument, like a summary made before a jury. Well argued, the photograph is seen by one’s peers as necessary, as having added something to the overall experience….that is, the jury finds for your “truth”. Badly made, the argument that is a photograph is rebuffed or, worse, ignored. When I use the phrase the normal eye as the title for this screed it, means the process of teaching the eye to see in its own way, devoid of the interpretations or prejudices of others. To develop your most normal way of seeing. The trick of selecting little seconds of time to steal and preserve is quickly taught, in the purely mechanical sense. But as we soon learn, that’s only the first baby step in the quest for a photograph. That inner journey takes a lifetime.
(the image seen on this page is part of a new collection of Michael Perkins’ images, “Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light”, available from here from NormalEye Press.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE WORD MONOGRAPH in the early pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, as I was just becoming acquainted with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process. The word was applied to, in this case, an extensive study of different kinds of cigar ash as a tool in the identification of criminals, but I came to know the word to denote a collection of thoughts around a common central subject, an examination of a theme over much time and many case histories. And, while the word is predominantly used to label written studies….collections of essays, the building of a theory, etc., I have always admired the “monographs” which have become the signature works of great photographers.
Robert Franks’ iconic The Americans is surely a monograph, as his eye builds a mosaic-like profile of this country across all its race and class lines. The first eerie series of portraits by Diane Arbus is also a monograph, as is Edward Steichen’s staggering museum exhibit The Family Of Man. In this age of self-publishing, it’s possible for photographers to organize book collections of their work along whatever thematic lines they choose, and, even though its role is vastly different in the present century, the book format is at least a way to contain one’s theme within fixed physical borders. And that may be why I still find it a comfortable format.
It’s been some time since I tried such a project (such as the one with which this blog shares its title), mostly because I never seemed to have quite enough images to flesh out the theme I was trying to present. And then there’s the problem of subject matter. People naturally expect photo collections to be “about” something, and the thing that unifies a set selection of pictures for me may be absolutely meaningless to the viewer. But with the distance of some twenty years of shooting in the digital domain, I’ve given it another go. My new book Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is nothing more than a chance to examine, in as broad a variety of pictures as I can, of the properties of “available light”. I never set out to deliberately boycott flashes or artificial illumination, but I find that the preparation that accompanies their use tends to slow me down and make me lose shots. Moreover, I find that the modeling properties, mysteries and drama of light often makes it the star of a picture all by itself. Most importantly, I see the original object of photography, that is, harnessing light to one’s purpose, as its most enduring and seductive feature, and I always choose the most direct route, from simple cameras to fast lenses, to achieve that goal.
The other objective in compiling Fiat Lux is to force myself into an editorial conundrum. I deliberately kept the total number of images in the book low to make myself make tough choices about (a) whether I have a style at all, and (b) which shots are essential to an understanding of that style, assuming I’d vanish off the earth tomorrow with nothing but this slim volume to explain myself to interested parties. I’ve had several people ask me, over the years, why I didn’t “just put out a book”, but, of course, I never “just” do anything, and so a certain amount of self-doubt and agony has gone into the process. Anyway, if you are so inclined, a sneak preview of some of the collection’s pages, as well as the option to order it, can be found here. Is it a monograph? Perhaps more of an autograph. Or an autobiography. Captions and labels are pretty useless, anyway, if the pictures aren’t there. The important thing is to show what you can show, and move on to the next picture. Thank God there’s always another picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF STILL PHOTOGRAPHY IS BASED ON EDITING CHOICES, on the selection of one key instant which stands in for an entire experience. The frozen moment when a runner breaks the tape. The isolated frame of one flap’s worth of an eagle’s descent. Single pieces of seconds that symbolize the complete flow of time. Still images are not really expected to show everything that happens in a scene, from Beginning to End, the way motion picture images are. And yet, there are always groundbreaking visionaries who can create astounding exceptions to that rule. Pep Ventosa is such an artist.
In your first view of Ventosa’s images of carousels, streetcars, or monuments, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at an impressionistic painting, a kind of lively Picasso-style mashup of viewpoints melded together in a single frame. But his work is completely photographic; it just comes packed with way more information than you encounter in a normal image. Because they aren’t images at all, but layers of images, sometimes hundreds of them, all taken at up to 360 degrees of difference from each other and blended artfully into composites. The actual concept is simple. Pep chooses a common part of an object or scene that he establishes as a center (like the carousel platform at left), and then rotates himself and his camera around that point to shoot multiple “takes” on a single scene, all shot at slightly different angles. Imagine yourself walking all the way around a tree and shooting frames during every part of the circuit. He then calls upon his lifelong experience in both film and digital darkrooms to give all those layers different levels of prominence, sculpting the color and the detail that will be both active and passive in the final composite. What he winds up with could be called a frozen movie, since his resulting photos are a recording of long sequences of activity, different in result from, say, a time exposure, but with the same intent.
Just as the cubists tried to create static paintings that included all the different ways of viewing an object married into a single canvas, Pep Ventosa is freeing the photographic process from having to choose one “decisive moment” of a subject to use a static format (the print) to suggest movement in time. And while he really has no equal in the way that he manages this process, he has begun to inspire others to do their own mini-Peps with still life or tabletop images, with far fewer building blocks of, say, a dozen or so exposures assembled in programs like Photoshop that are universally available.
In the image of a Coca-Cola drinking glass seen at left, I shot about 18 frames, merely rotating the glass a bit between shots and keeping the camera on a tripod triggered by a remote. I was careful not to let the central core of the glass move too far left or right, using it as the anchor for the project, allowing the embossed script on the outside of the glass, as well as the shadows created by its vertical ribs, to flow into shapes that simply could never be rendered in a single image. I’m just starting to get a feel for what kind of subject matter will work best with the process, starting small, rather than heading for the local skyscraper, where the rotating process would be reversed, with the building staying constant while I circled around it.
In either small or large cases, what Ventosa has done (and something which is damned hard to achieve in photography’s third century) is to say, in a completely original fashion “oh, you thought you knew what a picture was…..but how about this?” In the making of photos, as in any other visual art, there can be no more important question.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
“Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” –Susan Sontag, On Photography
IS AN OBJECT, A PLACE, A PERSON only worth noticing if we’ve officially “noticed” it with a camera? By constantly being in “capture mode”, i.e., looking for something to “take a picture of”, do we substantially shortchange ourselves of the memory of recording an experience rather than savoring the memory of having lived the experience itself? If we were to come back from a trip having taken no photographs at all, would we consider ourselves the poorer for it?
Perhaps the answer lies in some blend of direct and indirect experience. That is, maybe we should sometimes limit our photography to things that already have some meaning or connection to us, only using images to create a reminder of that which we have true memory of. In the case of the building you see here, that was certainly the case.
Several years ago, when the fate of the last residential design by Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix, Arizona was decidedly uncertain, I had the chance to work briefly as a tour guide on the grounds of a dwelling that some regard as a dress rehearsal for the Old Man’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The David and Gladys Wright House had passed, over the years, to parties that intended to raze the structure for “development”, at which time a local millionaire purchased the house just to protect it. Preservation and restoration being extremely expensive (if needful), he explored plans to convert the house into a learning center/museum, trying to partner with Arizona State University and others to get the project off the ground. Locals from the neighborhood, fearing that their property values would be undone by artsy invaders, freaked. Somewhere in that mad timeline of contention, the house was opened to the public in an effort to sway opinion. Not in my backyard, saith the locals.
As of this month, then, the property was resold, this time to a team of people who had actually worked at the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture, also headquartered in Phoenix. Again, the motive was to keep the house out of the clutches of apartment builders and others who would bulldoze it into dust. And here’s where the value of photographs comes in, at least for me; the same wheel of chance that allowed me to explore a place that otherwise would be completely off-limits to me has now spun ’round to close that door again, making the images of my time there doubly precious. At least for this particular photographic subject, the door has closed, and is likely to remain so. I certainly have my direct experience of the time to comfort me, but it was the indirect experience, the making of images after I had thoroughly taken in the scene with my raw senses, that imparts extra value to the pictures that remain. So, in the strictest sense, I didn’t just randomly wander onto the place and start clicking. That’s the stuff of snapshots. All of the house’s history was of value to me long before I ever aimed a camera at it. My pictures weren’t taken to make it important, or make it mine, like a trophy. They are now keepsakes of the most valuable kind.
(For the curious: the tabs at the top of this page are links to various personal photo essays, including Wright Thinking, a selection of views of the house taken during its days as a public attraction. Cheers.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE BIGGEST BENEFITS I’ve derived by overseeing this forum over the past nine years has been the great gift of being able to distance myself from my earlier work, to get far enough away from techniques I once embraced to regard them with a mixture of bemusement and horror. The shorthand for this sensation is a variant on the phrase “what was I thinking?”
The important thing is not to either completely repudiate or uniformly defend earlier versions of one’s photographic output, but, in evaluating each piece separately, to find that some work shows a shift in perspective, an evolution in the way of doing things. Absolute consistency over years is not only unlikely but unhealthy. Art can’t breathe in a vacuum.
Lately, in reviewing some images shot within the last decade, I have run head-on into a huge clutch of pictures that, although they may have been pretty balanced in the master shots, were absolutely overwrought in post-processing. It wasn’t a case of putting lipstick on a pig, but of slathering it onto a fairly attractive woman, or maybe like the cartoonist who had the habit of ending the sentences in every one of his dialog balloons with TWO exclamation points, regardless of the content. In many of these shots I seemed on some kind of quest for the ultimate rendering of detail, coupled with a love of the most extreme contrasting and color saturation. HDR was where I committed my gravest sins but I was gooping up pictures in other processes as well. For some reason, I was proceeding as if there were no image that could not be “improved” simply by tinkering a little longer with it. The results were, shall we say, uneven.
Look at the way I processed a simple coastal vista from a trip I made to Monterey, California in 2012 (see top image). Man, you can count every damn grain of sand on that beach, cantcha? And how about all that stone texture, eh? And then there are the clouds, which, in my heavy-handed treatment, were transformed from fluffy accents to signs of impending doom. Whole thing appears a bit grim, as if the apocalypse is definitely coming any second, and, golly ned, kids, you’d better run for it. The second, dialed-back version from this year allows for a slight tweak in color balances and luminescence, but then it’s hands off the steering wheel. Which place would you rather head to for a relaxing holiday? One scene actually appears somewhat inviting, while the other is like El Greco after an evening of far too much wine.
Sometimes I think that photography, rather than being labeled a “profession” or a “hobby”, should be referred to as a “practice”, since the constant addition and subtraction of skills and experience is similar to what a doctor tries to do. Fortunately, no one died as a result of my artistic malpractice, although I feel a little sick myself facing up to my shortcomings. But on we go. I may not, in fact, be able to tell you, years later, what I was thinking during earlier versions of myself. I only hope I was thinking at all, and that the needle has moved just a little, from there to here.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO’S RIFFED THROUGH EVEN A MODEST SAMPLING of my photography will soon deduce that I am a sucker for storefronts. If eyes are the window to the soul, the street-facing faces of businesses great and small are my favorite kind of mystery game. Who dwells within? What’s for sale? Why that name? Why this sign? And of course my insatiable curiosity about the lives of the people who bravely flip over the “open” sign every morning. Long before the customer steps inside to check out a merchant’s wares, he is “asked for the order”, so to speak, by the visual language of the storefront.
I once knew a gent whose urban shop had an enormous double showcase windows, a space far too big for the mounting of anything large or expensive. As the windows, which flanked his front entrance, both had shalow ledge shelves, he filled them with about a half dozen black rubber cat-toy rats. Nothing else. No signs, no specials, no mannequins. Just….rats. Guy was an exterminator, and he had been in his particular neighborhood for so long that he no longer needed to blow money on fancy advertisements or weekly specials. Maybe his name was on the building, but I’m not even sure of that. Got rats? I get rid of rats. End of story.
And there you have my quest in a nutshell. I love storefronts which boldly state that ground beef is going for $1.40 a pound or that “we repair any shoe”, but my absolute favorites are always the conundrums, the “exactly what is this place”-type businesses, where even a creatively decorated scheme is zero clue as to what is transpiring within….sort of like the shop seen here. And, yes, there are some tiny clues that Eyes On You is a place that sells glasses, as there are, indeed, a few of them just visible in a small niche in the right-hand windows. But what is all that other stuff? And what does it have to do with selling, well, anything? It doesn’t matter; half the fun, as the cruise lines used to say, is getting there, and decoding the marketing mysteries of small businesses is fun in the way that a brisk game of Twenty Questions can be. Photographs, as we often remind ourselves, both reveal and conceal….sometimes at the same time. Loving where and when that happens is the spice of the game.