By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
IF YOU ARE IN THE RANKS OF THOSE PHOTOGRAPHERS who still shoot film on occasion, you will, in the return to your old analog ways, find yourself suddenly cured of a habit we all have acquired to varying degrees since the dawn of digital. The instantaneous feedback of the pixelated life has taught us the now-instinctual reflex of what is called chimping, or the practice of checking our screens immediately after every click, ostensibly to determine if we’re getting things right/wrong. The name of this syndrome may have come from the “ooh-ooh-ooh!” sound made by chimpanzees when they are excited…like when they nail an exposure perfectly and can’t wait to get a perfunctory agreement grunt from the next chimp over. All ape references aside, to look is human, or, as Tarzan discovered, there’s a little Cheeta in all of us (sorry).
Chimping has changed the rhythm of photography from shoot/shoot/shoot/shoot/wait….(and eventually)view to shoot/look/share/shoot/look/share(and occasionally) delete. There is no equivalent to chimping in the film world, since there is no way to instantly review one’s results. In anaog shooting, correction from frame-to-frame is a matter of calculation and informed guesswork, and the results….well, they kind of define the phrase “delayed gratification”, don’t they? Chimping is a product of the very opposite…..which is the utter obliteration of the space between desire and payoff. So is this a good thing?
Every time you sneak a peek at your screen, you are, however briefly, taking your mind out of “shooting mode”. You are also taking your eye off of whatever subject you just shot, which may still be developing or changing. It’s conceivable, then, that while you are reviewing a shot that may/may not be any good, a shot that may/may not be better is invisible to you, simply because you are not looking at it. In some instances, this may be no big deal. For instance, if you are doing a leisurely shoot of a landscape or a sleeping child, breaking the thought flow to review images in between frames may not be a problem at all. On the other hand, if you’re following a sports event or a flitting bird, you could easily miss out on what’s happening by cooing over what’s already happened.
Of course, it’s easy to make broad generalizations on the value/risk of any shooting rhythm, and, like the commercial says, ask your doctor is chimping is right for you. It’s principally interesting to consider its value, however, simply because it is such a recent part of photography, and one which has become part of everyone’s work flow largely without our being aware of its encroachment. Maybe it’s caught on for purely social reasons, like our desperate need, via social media, to post and be liked. That’s the part of chimping I most disdain; its use as an instant booster shot of validation, our bid for more immediate applause. I can’t say I’m without guilt in making use of it myself, but I love to occasionally work in an older medium in which you build confidence by making a plan, setting an intention, and focusing solely on making the picture, not drooling over how fast you might garner applause for the result. I will always fail at totally suppressing my own inner Cheeta, but I can dream, can’t I?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF A PHOTOGRAPH TO PRETTY MUCH ILLUSTRATE EVERYTHING IN LIFE can tempt shooters to try to do exactly that; to pack a universe of stuff into every frame. In the minds of some of us, the camera is an information-gathering machine, and so, the more information, the better. But if we call to mind the photographs that have affected us most profoundly, we may see that there’s a hierarchy in the way information is presented in many of those uber-keeper photos. Everything in the world is not a number one priority; events and experiences are always ranked higher in importance than some and lower than others. And the photograph that shows too much may actually not communicate anything particularly well. Things need to be chosen and unchosen in order for a picture to breathe.
As a consequence, rather than showing four hundred trees of equal size and detail in a frame, we deputize one or several trees to stand for the entire forest. In any routine edit, we decide to crop out things which are part of the scene but which either don’t, narratively speaking, carry their weight, or, worse, act as distractions. It’s not only all right not to show everything, it’s a really important part of the covenant between artist and audience.
When you leave out some kinds of information, you’re respecting your viewer’s intelligence, since you’re recognizing that you both share a vast store of common experience, some of it so obvious that it can merely be implied and yet understood. As a very simple example, in the image seen here of a young boy running through the woods, his body language conveys all that’s needed for a complete understanding of the scene. Every part of his physical energy advertises the freedom and excitement he is experiencing, even though the picture provides little more than his silhouette and nothing whatever of his features. Would he be any more clearly delineated as a happy young boy if you were to show his smiling face? And as to the surrounding trees; they are, in life, rich in texture, but the prevailing shadow doesn’t keep them from being identified as trees, and so, really, how much better could that work, even if they were all in complete sunlight?
I’m only occasionally an advocate of minimalism for its own sake, mainly because in many cases it’s not the right approach. But over-delivering on information, while creating a thorough “document” of a scene, also has the potential for short-circuiting an image’s impact. As is often the cases, the best rules are the ones that come equipped with tons of exceptions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NEGOTIATIONS between primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of information, and how they will be arranged in a frame. You either feature or mute that information in order to direct attention to the primary story you’re trying to tell. The simplest example of this process is the selective focus engineered into many shots, with important details being rendered in sharpness while the rest of the competing data goes soft to help isolate the main message of the picture. In its simplest application this means a clearly focused foreground and a blurred background.
The blur used to be the eye’s clue that the information in that part of the picture was not a priority. Thinking in terms of portraits, for example, your subject is clearly defined, with the space behind it dulled or diminished. You make that choice by selecting your depth of field and shoot accordingly. However, recent trends in the making of a photograph have elevated the status of the blurs themselves to something that needs to be chosen, or shaped for artistic purposes. In other words, the part of an image that is inherently unimportant, by virtue of being out of focus, is now a source of attention as to what kind of blur is being created. This formerly fussy concept of bokeh is popping up in more and more advertising copy for the sale of lenses. A given piece of glass is now touted as having great bokeh, which somehow makes it more desirable than some other piece of glass.
Bokeh is really nothing more than the quality of the shapes that occur when a particular lens breaks up light in its non-focused areas. Some people use the terms “buttery” or “geometric” or “dreamy” to describe the work of a given optic, and some lenses are actually marketed based on how this texture is rendered. I can only speak to this fascination from my own viewpoint, and so you have to plug in your own approach to photography, and whether the non-essential part of a picture is now, strangely, important to you.…important enough to influence your purchase of one hunk of gear over another. I admit that some bokeh acts as a beautiful backdrop to a foreground subject, but I also contend that, as seen in the above image, some lenses can actually render it in a way that is distracting, even irritating. However, whether I admire the swirls and ellipses of some forms of bokeh, I don’t see it as anywhere near as important as what I’m trying to feature in front of it. If all things in a frame are of equal importance, why not just shoot everything at f/11 and make sure it’s all recorded at the same sharpness?
I think that, in photography, as in many other art forms, we can become fascinated with effects rather than substance, and that, if you don’t know what you’re trying to get a picture to say, you can become more interested in how cool something looks instead of what a picture’s narrative is supposed to be. Bokeh can be lovely, but giving it too much prominence is a little like sitting in a theatre and intensely watching what the third Roman to the left is doing with his toga while Marc Antony is at center stage delivering his big speech. Things in a good picture must be arranged in a hierarchy, some priority of intentions, in order to communicate effectively. And if I have my choice between a bird and a blur, I will unapologetically choose the bird every time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THEY HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR WHAT FEELS LIKE FOREVER, and yet the time that’s passed between them seems like mere minutes. They elicit envious sighs when they are seen, perpetually locked arm in arm. They are the proof that love can last, that some things can actually be eternal. That a promise matters.
They walk a little slower.
They measure out their days in tiny things. Small wins. A nice cup of tea. A shared confidence. A fond memory. Maybe even a joke they’ve told so many times that they’ve both memorized it.
And they seek the sunshine.
Carefully, deliberately, they move through yet another sunset. Is it one of their last? A world races past them with its myriads miracles and miseries. It’s all a blur to them, and not just because they’ve misplaced their glasses. Their focus on each other remains sharp and sure; it’s the rest of the world that’s fuzzy, that’s uncertain.
They hardly have separate heartbeats anymore. When one sniffs, the other sneezes. And the most amazing thing that starts each day is their first glimpse of the other.
The calendar tells them that a lifetime has gone bay since first they said yes to each other.
And yet, it seems a matter of a moment.
They make a pretty picture.
(2021 marks the beginning of The Normal Eye’s tenth year. Endless thanks to our longstanding friends and newest arrivals. Please share what you find useful in our latest or archived pages and alert us to what we can do better. Peace to all.)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHER LUCAS GENTRY has been mentioned in many of those handy web searches that collate the most memorable quotes about camera work, little bon mots that help spice up term papers and make bloggers (ahem) sound erudite. His single sentence, “Photography has nothing to do with the camera” is guaranteed to provoke either agreement or argument, depending on whom you share it with. I tend to camp with the “agreement” team, although I would perhaps amend his statement to assert that photography can have everything…or nothing to do with the camera. Taking a picture without some kind of gear is impossible, and every camera, good or bad, can produce some kind of picture. But, beyond that, the possibilities are wide open, and nothing is guaranteed.
We have all been assisted by a piece of equipment that helped us generate the image we had in mind, but first we had to have the vision. A camera is, first and foremost, a recording instrument, like a microphone. It does, to use a hideously overused term, capture something, but like a microphone, it can preserve either cacophony and rhapsody. Another famous photographer made this issue even more poetic by stating that a picture is made either in front of or in back of the camera. Those of you who have traveled through these pages with us over the years know that this sentiment is one of my guiding principles. As I frequently say, masterpieces have been taken with five-dollar disposables, while unspeakable horrors have been committed with Leicas. And vice versa.
We live in a progressive consumer culture, an endless cycle of buy-and-buy-again. We are trained to desire the Next Big Thing. Something shinier, sexier, newer. As a matter of fact, newness alone is often enough to part many fools with their wallets because they are led to believe that the best camera is the one they don’t yet own. If you know someone like this, scribble a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge on a cocktail napkin and get them to sign it immediately. In the meantime, let me assert that working a little longer with a slightly “outdated” camera that you understand and can bend to your will is preferable to jumping to one that is so difficult to master that it actively conspires against your success. I’m not talking about taking the logical upward step to the next level of gear that you’ve naturally evolved to; I’m talking about feverishly convincing yourself that you will be a better photographer once you’ve bought X or Y camera. Remember Mr. Gentry’s truth: it has nothing to do with the camera. Equipment is not magic. You will not win the Grand Prix because you bought a Ferrari.
Establishing the best possible bond between yourself and your machine of choice makes a difference in your work, because you are directing that work, which means knowing what the machine can deliver. If you don’t have that relationship with your camera at present, work until you get it. If you can’t master the device you currently own, you’ll be even further behind the curve with a camera you have to catch up with. Don’t expect to create art that’s alive by relying on an inanimate object to do the heavy lifting. When we refer to the “normal eye” in the official name of this blog, we’re talking about developing a way to see, to get back in touch with your vision, to “normalize” it. That means taking responsibility for your work, not delegating it to the gear. Forget everything else about photography, but remember that your camera can either be an ally….or a conspirator.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME pinpointing the first photograph I shot after formally going into the Great Hibernation of 2020. The designated do-or-die date for heading ourselves into the bunker was fairly elastic, person-to-person, with some of us taking cover early in the spring, while others were forced to stay in-pattern for longer. I can determine, from the very type of pictures I took in this strange year, which were shot After The Before Times, but it would be mere guesswork to say that this image or the other was the first “confinement” photo per se.
But I can detect a change in the subject matter and viewpoint of those first days. I will always recall the realization that, as my world proceeded to shrink, my photography would become more introspective. This meant that my reaction to the sudden flood of spare time was, at least on good days, to luxuriate in the freedom it gave me; the leisure to select, to plan, to choose in the process of making pictures. As a consequence, in reviewing the year’s photographic yield, I find myself not so much choosing “favorites” or “bests” from the thousands of snaps I took in quarantine, but instead looking for the truest depictions of where my head was, and still is. This is all to say that I resisted getting in a year-to-year contest of some sort with myself over technique or skill and tried to concentrate on emotional accuracy.
This picture is not technically distinctive by any measure, nor is it particularly original, but it is true to where I was when I made it. In what could be called The Year Of Uphill Walking, it projects that struggle to just keep climbing, across rocky, barren terrain, in anxious anticipation of what may lie over the next horizon, and without the blandishment or warmth of color. No destination is sure, or even promised; no arrival time is predicted; only the journey itself exists. If I had to deliberately try to show what 2020 felt like, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate visual metaphor than this picture. This is not me being a superb planner of shots. This is me, months after the fact, marveling that some measure of this madness somehow organically made it into my camera. I never went out formally looking for a way to give expression for my feelings; I merely let the process happen through me, to be a barometer of what I thought it important to see and record.
Maybe that’s the way I should always make pictures. Sometimes I think I understand my process and other times I feel like it’s leading me around by the nose. I hope to re-discover genuine hope in 2021, but, if I…we, have to settle for less, I pray that I’ll at least find a way to tell stories about how that felt. And I hope I’ll remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PURELY TECHNICAL ANALYSIS OF A PHOTOGRAPH understandably centers upon the measurable aspects of their capture…..aperture, exposure rate, focus, et cetera. However, in any full understanding of why an image works (or fails to), the photographer him/herself has to be factored in, alongside any purely mechanical settings, because, when you change life for the photographer, everything else in the picture is changed as a consequence. That’s the most determinative factor for photography in this grotesque year. We have been altered in ways great and small, and that will have made all the difference in what we see, and what we say about it with a camera.
For me, as in the case of so many others, these months have meant the struggle to expand my own photographic strengths, even as the physical plane in which I operate has been increasingly restricted. Many of us who have never experienced the isolation of exile, imprisonment or war now have at least an inkling of how those events cut people off from each other, challenging us to glean more and more life experience from less and less sensory input. In the face of the ever-present need to keep shooting, there are the increasingly narrow choices of what to shoot, with many sites and subjects closed off, at least for the duration. We have all become experts on every nook and light change in our immediate environments, and have discovered that, yes, there may be a 35th different way of photographing a window, a door, or our own faces.
Looking over my own output for the year, I see a definite bent toward minimalism, an almost ruthless appetite for reducing compositions to their raw essences. I am shooting things closer, abstracting the contexts of familiar objects in an effort to see them anew. I have thrown off most standard approaches to exposure, shooting in the sparest light that I can; and I have re-imagined more and more shots as monochromes, seeing even color as an unneeded distraction in these spare times. Mostly, I have been faced, as have so many, with a nearly zen approach to things I have photographed many times over the years, searching for new secrets in old friends.
For one example; as a consequence of the pandemic, I find myself walking again and again through a few designated-safe gardens and parks, which means a lot of repeated shots of the kind of subjects I find most difficult to put my stamp on, which is landscape work. Give me a crowded, noisy metropolis and I’m right at home, whereas I have to emotionally educate myself to be at ease in a natural setting. Sad, I know, but there it is. And so, I experiment a lot with seeing patterns in plants, trees, terrain, in terms of raw design, such as in the agave plant seen here. Another fortunate corollary was the acquisition of a camera, early in the year, that finally enabled me to shoot birds with greater precision, which allows the winged wonders to become something of a substitute for traditional portrait work on humans. As I learn to read their feathered faces, I am somewhat consoled, even as I miss their human equivalents.
And so it goes. Change life for the photographer, and you change the photographs. And since this little small-town gazette has always been about intentions, rather than equipment, it’s important for us to do a skull, at year’s end, on how we’ve changed the way we approach using the Magic Light Boxes in our lives. We are different people now, and, if we’re honest and awake, amazing pictures will come about as a result.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MAN’S FIRST MAJOR QUEST WAS THE SIMPLE EFFORT TO EMERGE FROM THE DARK; the darkness of his own ignorance; the shadows of isolation, the dimness of despair. Looking back, the discovery of fire was perhaps the single greatest forward leap in our early evolution. Once we could make light, we could channel many other of our other energies, with the idea of illumination governing every one of our creative urges, literally and metaphorically. Photography is but one very direct example of what happens when you learn to, as George Eastman termed it, “harness” light.
This year, in many deeply profound ways, we have all had to make almost daily choices between light and darkness, certainly in the dire life decisions fate has placed before us, but also in the things we choose to create. Making images of the holidays that are cheery and bright used to be the most instinctual thing for us; after all, we have had a lifetime of practice. But when the light from which we craft those pictures becomes endangered, when it comes horribly close to being extinguished altogether, that’s when our artistry must double down, digging deeper to extract as much brightness as we can. Many of us have managed it in unprecedented new ways; many more would be well to practice it a lot more in the tough months to come.
Some of that effort will come from inside our cameras.
I don’t consider this image to be negative, or pessimistic. I have made, and will continue to make, those wonderful postcard creations we all strive for in normal times. But art can instruct or lead, as well as charm, and as a consequence, this is the Christmas photograph I most want to sign my name to in this season. Making others safe is the best way to make ourselves safe, and delaying our immediate gratification is the best way to ensure that we’ll be around to, humanly, ask for even more of life, later on.
And so a Merry Christmas to all. We have spent nearly a year trying to get off Nature’s “naughty” list, and now we must do much better at getting off each other’s. If there’s anything to all that storied “good will toward men” stuff, we need to make it more manifest. And make pictures of it that not only document, but illuminate.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OF A CERTAIN AGE, that is, those who began in film and switched to digital, there was something unambiguously known as “a mistake”, by which we meant something that showed up in your final image that you either blew in execution or didn’t plan for. Smears on the lens, accidental double-exposures, lens cap left on….you get the idea. In the pre-ironic days of film, goofs were just that…goofs. They weren’t made to suggest a retro feel or simulate the look of….anything. They were merely flaws.
In the digital era, we still commit errors that wind up in our images, often for the same reason we committed them in the analog age. What’s different is that we often make these “mistakes” on purpose now, to create a mood that we associate with a romanticized view of film. One such accident that we generate intentionally purpose is lens flare.
To grossly over-simplify things (and to thus infuriate the high priests of tech), flare occurs when light enters a lens at such an angle that it is refracted or bounced within the mechanism of the lens on the way to the sensor and creates a wild, often prismatic shape that remains a permanent part of the photograph. The intensity of these bright spots is often determined by how complex the given lens is, since the more parts there are within the optic, the more places there are for the light to scatter and split. Sometimes a flare’s contours, which can tend to be roughly hexagonal, mimic the shape of the aperture opening within the shutter. Many people guard against flares simply by using a lens hood or by being careful not to shoot directly into light, and photographers are all over the road as to whether the effect is annoying or artistic. Flares are as old as cameras themselves, and they happen for much the same reasons on digital gear as on analog equipment.
The ironic part, which has grown out of several generations of digital post-production, is that what was once regarded as a “mistake” is now one of the most common tools in nearly every editing suite on the market. Like vignetting at the corners, graininess (for that gritty, low-fi look!) and other things that used to be regarded as imperfections, flaring is just as likely to be added into a photo after it’s shot, for an “artifact” that has been called everything from “authentic” to “dramatic” by many a game designer or A-list movie director. J.J. Abrams loves the effect so much that he has used it in his Star Trek reboots, as well as the film Super 8, to both cheers and jeers. Michael Bay also adds flare, mostly to his CGI processes. The search for the look has even led several filmmakers to swap out recently designed lenses, which lessen the look, to old optical glass, that has more of it.
The image you see here, just so there’s no debate, featured flares which were (a) created in the moment and are (b) a total accident. I actually shot about a half dozen frames of this particularly enchanted truck, and chose this one for the keeper when I saw how it (quite by chance) enhanced the mood of what I was after. I assure you that I am far too un-hip to have conceived of this effect in advance of my shoot. So, in other words, I got this digitally on-demand look the analog way…that is, because I didn’t know quite what I was doing. However, if it ever wins any awards, I can alway say that I meant to do it that way, hee hee. In photography we deal in truth, lies, and a lot of stuff that lives between the two poles. This one comes from that mystery middle.
Or maybe it’s gremlins, I dunno.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020, IN ADDITION TO BEING THE EMOTIONAL EQUIVALENT of a meteor shower for many of us, has also packed a lot of cruel ironies into the overall mix of horrors. Observe; electronically, we are closer to some than we have ever been, while also being geographically more distant; we can’t go out for our favorite foods, but have connected with our inner sourdough baker; and, most poignant, to me at least, we have seen photographs exalted from random markers of time and place to essential messengers, proxies to represent us to those we love.
Pictures of the holidays pack an extra dollop of emotional freight in a good year. In a horrific one, everything that comes out of a camera is weighted with extra heft. Everyday tasks become art; mundane events are promoted to major milestones. That means that seasonal images, already doing a lot of heavy lifting, impart, in pandemic times, even greater import. Things are both sad and happy, hopeful and despairing. Pictures measure both joy and loss in ever more profound ways.
Take the simple idea of the front entrances to our homes. During the holidays, we decorate them to amplify the concept of home, safety. And yet, this year, the welcoming message is a hollow one. The front door is not so much an invitation as the final barrier between the outside world and the people within, who must, for this time, barricade themselves behind it. The bells, balls, tinsel and lights say, “Come on in” even as our wiser minds tell us to say “Stay away.” The third-degree burn of this irony has made me reduce my usual wide tide of seasonal shots to almost exclusively focus on front doors. The warmth they project remains visually unchanged from that of years past. It’s our own emotional context that makes us feel the pictures differently. They are images of conditional welcomes, as the entire holiday season, as it must, becomes one big exercise in delayed gratification.
As with so many other things, photographs have become repurposed in the Year Of The Plague. How could they not? And yet, as My Happy Home is temporarily recast as My Brave Face, the photographs we take during the final stretch of this global nightmare may, in time, be among our most prized possessions, because half of “bittersweet” is still, after all, “sweet”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
EASTMAN KODAK WAS THE FIRST COMPANY to truly democratize photography, taking it from a tinkerer’s hobby or the domain of the studio professional and placing it in the hands of the average consumer. A streamlined process for producing modestly-priced, easily operated cameras, as well as the introduction of roll film and standardized processing, made it possible for anyone to capture memories on a reasonable budget. To do this quickly, Kodak, well before 1900, also became one of the first and best early forces in the use of mass marketing. And one of the biggest pillars in the foundation of that effort was Christmas.
For the near decade that The Normal Eye has been in business, we have always dedicated one annual post to the nostalgia and pure brilliance of Kodak’s Christmas ad campaigns. Being a company that fostered the creation of indelible memories (the well-known “Kodak Moment”), the creators of the Brownie camera sold us not merely the means of making pictures, but the motivation for doing so, capitalizing on the special sentiment that permeates the holiday season. The question was not “should I buy a camera?” but “why aren’t you already taking pictures as fast as you can squeeze a shutter?”. The Eastman company achieved the ultimate goal for a manufacturer, that is, creating a market that had never existed before and inventing the means to fill said market. Using full color photographs in their magazine ads in the early 20th century, an era which was still typified by painted or drawn illustrations, the company showed people using their cameras to freeze-frame both special occasions and everyday events, all the while reinforcing the idea that going so was easy and fun.
And when it came to Christmas specifically, Kodak, well before 1920, developed two key ambassadors to drive home the message. First was the pre-cheesecake pin-up known only as The Kodak Girl, who was shown clicking off memories in a variety of settings, and featured on calendars, packaging, and roll-outs for new products. As a back-up, the company became one of the first to enlist Santa Claus himself as a pitchman, which even the wizards at Coca-Cola would not do until 1930. The combination was the stuff of dreams, as well as of profits. Kodak cameras were not merely another element of the Big Day; they were a guarantee that the Big Day would be a success. A great holiday was a nice thing, but a great holiday caught in pictures was on another level entirely.
Wish fulfillment, or the possibility thereof, is so woven into the appeal of photography, that, once cameras and film were standardized and simplified, the hobby really didn’t need a big nudge to become a worldwide habit, as it remains to this day. But, as they say in the ad biz, you must always be Asking For The Order, and lots of our hard-wired desire to Say It In Pictures was inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the medium, to the consumption of products. “Open Me First”, the tag on Kodak gifts asked in over a generation of seasonal ads, and we certainly did. The message was, and remains, you can’t call it a life event until you’ve started taking pictures of it. That is both photography’s curse, and its blessing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available from NormalEye Press)
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TRUSTEES OF MEMORY, AND, AS SUCH, can recall either clear testimony about the past as it actually appeared, or emotional echoes of how it felt. How you choose to depict something in the moment, whether real or abstract, will color the reliving of that event or thing in the future. In which case, will the photograph match your inner record of the experience? And is that experience sharp, as in a super-precise lens, or soft, as in the gauzy reverie of a dream?
Some photographs are made with a certain “emotional filter” in mind. Take the most personal, memory-driven events within our lives, such as the holidays. Can we really see clearly into the past as it exists in our mind? Does it seem softened or blurred by time? And if that’s how our memory renders things, is it accurate to depict such events, in the moment, in that hazy fashion?
I tend to interpret things that have a lot of sentimental heft in a way that resembles the look of memory to me…that is, softened, velvetized if you will. The hard edges and strong contrasts assigned to more reportorial photography seem too harsh when I’m cruising Christmas shop windows, and so my eye/mind/heart trusts a more diffuse approach. This is not revolutionary, of course, as many seasonal entertainments, from greeting cards to television favorites, are often rendered in a fairy-tale light and resolution. Can it become a cliche? Certainly. For me, however, such outward creations of holiday spirit comport perfectly with the movies that play inside my head, and so I really do dial back the “real” aspect on such occasions. The image seen here has plenty of definition, and so diminishing its sharpness can add to the picture even as something is “subtracted.”
This is part of the intention you set for photographs. I hate the word “capture”, because it implies that you merely froze what was in front of you without interpretation or comment, and what fun is that? Reality is often insufficient in the way it plays to our feelings, and art of any kind can sand away its rougher edges to create a custom feel for the heart. Some messages should be shouted, while others are more hearable in a whisper. Photographs only begin with the mere recording of light, but, if we’re lucky, they end with something truly personal.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available now from NormalEye Press)
IN 1939, THIS STRANGE CLAMSHELL-SHAPED OBJECT sneaked onto the photographic market as a souvenir of the New York World’s Fair, offering itself as a thoroughly modern version of the 19th-century stereopticon. Instead of a rectangular card, the gizmo contained a disc, inside of which were sandwiched seven matching pairs of color transparencies, one for each eye of a stereoscopically-abled human, and which, when held up to any light source, allowed the brain to blend the two slightly different versions of the subject into a convincing illusion of depth. Model “A” of the contraption, called a “View-Master” by its inventors, would, over the next eight year, allow armchair adventurers to travel the world without leaving their living rooms, seeing in each reel, as the advertisement went, “seven more wonders of the world.”
At this writing (December 2020), those ubiquitous little discs, about 1.5 billion of them so far, could easily circle said globe several dozen times, with the View-Master brand growing over the generations to include lighted viewers, talking viewers, models shaped like Mickey Mouse, Batman and Barbie, both two and three-dimensional projectors, study guides for surgical anatomy, sighting practice for WWII fighter pilots, and, by the second decade of the 21st century, even virtual reality headpieces linked to phone app content. The brainchild of postcard magnate Edwin Mayer and photographer William Gruber grew from primarily scenic travel titles sold in serious camera shops to one of the biggest purveyors of affordable kiddie entertainment, starting with View-Master’s first contract with Disney in the 1950’s and continuing with every major cartoon and movie tie-in since then, marketed mostly through major toy chains.
Over the years, the company passed through the hands of several corporations, from the original Sawyer’s optical company to GAF, then Mattel, Fisher-Price, and other firms major and minor. The venture into virtual reality of recent years, sadly, seems to have spelled the end for the product, which is, alas, finally too slow and low-tech for the world of 2020. As recently as last year, there was talk (and only talk) of a feature film based on VM, based on the proposition that, as with The Lego Movie, every classic toy has a big-screen blockbuster lurking inside it, if only you look hard enough. Turns out…no.
But I must shed at least a quiet tear at View-Master’s demise, given that it was the product’s seductively scenic “packets” that initially excited me about the idea of making my own pictures. Those cramped little squares taught me a lot about what to include or exclude in a composition for minimum clutter and maximum narrative impact. Decades later, I even managed to scavenge a View-Master stereo camera (yes, there were such things) and a Stereo-Matic 500 projector, allowing me to come full circle, both shooting and projecting my own reels in 3-D (thus pre-paying my Geek Insurance for the next foreseeable lifetime). More importantly, the dozens of VM shooters (most of them uncredited in their lifetimes) who covered everything from the Grand Canyon to the moon landing over 81 years informed the way I approach the very idea of photography. The lessons were simple; make something beautiful; tell a story; and keep looking around the next corner, for, who knows, seven more wonders of the world.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection FIAT LUX, available through NormalEye Press)
ACROSS HISTORY, HALF OF THE WRITING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY seems to be about the ongoing debate over which is more crucial, equipment or ingenuity. Some fervently believe that better gear inevitably leads to better pictures, while others point to the fact that million-dollar images often emerge from modest machinery, when backed by a trained eye. I have been shooting for too long to favor extreme, either/or arguments, as my experience makes a good case for both viewpoints. There have been times when a particular level of technical tool has saved my bacon, but there have also been many instances in which the camera, by itself, would have merely got in my way without my resorting to improvised workarounds designed to compensate for its shortcomings.
One of the things I do to boost color and maximize contrast is to deliberately under-expose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to dramatically change the game at a moment’s notice, a nostalgic nod to the days of Kodachrome and other early color films that would often be too slow for effective captures unless you were really spry with your field calculations. Thing is, what others regarded in some shots as “too dark” would, to me, be moody, romantic, even mysterious. What others called “balanced” light I often considered mediocre, and so, as I have travelled through time, I have retained my affection for the chiaroscuro look. It simplifies compositions and jacks the richness of hues. Thing is, I have to be mindful of what camera I’m using at the time, and how it can or can’t readily render the look I want.
Case in point: the Nikon Coolpix P900, which took the shot you see here. This is a so-called “superzoom” camera designed to extend one’s telephoto reach to a ridiculous extreme, and was purchased primarily for birdwatching. Its zoom amounts to something like 83x magnification, and, while it can deliver surprisingly sharp detail at insane distances, it hampers the camera’s performance in other ways. Since so much light is lost when they are extended fully, the manufacturers of superzooms “cap” their minimum aperture at around f/8. Want to shoot at f/11 or higher? Use a different camera.
The fun thing about exposure is that there are several ways to get there, and so, if you can’t stop your iris down far enough to suit yourself, you can always ramp up your shutter speed, which is what I’ve done here. In a typical shot, the poinsettia would have been backed by more leaves, the edge of a pot, foil wrapping and other clutter, but at the P900’s smallest aperture, f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/500 in early morning light, the red leaves become the exclusive star. Early direct light in Phoenix, Arizona would also have generated a complete blowout of any texture or detail in the structure of the leaves, and, while much of them remain hot in this shot, some vein detail is suggested here, especially when the edge of a leaf falls off into blackness. The result is a genuine fake of 64 ASA Kodachrome, achieved largely by accident in my youth, now purposely chosen in my….dotage.
Whatever equipment you use, you may find it necessary to try to occasionally outwit the thing, to, if you like, enter through the side door, if only to keep the thing from giving you the picture it assumes you want. Don’t buy into the manufacturers’ hype. Between a photographer and a camera, only one of them can think. Hint: it isn’t the camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS (author of the new image collection “FIAT LUX”, available through NormalEye Press)
LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS THEMSELVES, THE REMARKS INTENDED AS COMPLIMENTS for photographs are often crippled by cliche, as we struggle to appreciate not only what an image looks like but what we believe it ought to look like. “It’s so realistic” and “looks just like a postcard” are two of my favorites, along with “nice color” or “you must have a really good camera”, but one of our well-worn go-to’s is, to me, head and shoulders above the rest: “the picture looks better than the real place/person/thing”. In that one sentence is the entire tug-of-war our minds wage between the province of the photographer and that of the painter.
In a painting, we know that fallible/biased human hands are not rendering “reality”, but a subjective amplification of it. Who knows if the trees were really that green, or the mountain that drenched in sun, and who cares? We stipulate that we are looking at an interpretation. There is no accusation of manipulation or fakery, since the painter’s perspective is baked into the process of painting. He doesn’t have to add, “at least that’s how I see it” because we all accept those terms of engagement.
The camera, however, is quite another thing.
Despite over nearly two hundred-plus years that demonstrate how very subjective photography is, we have a hard-wired reflex to see the camera as the agent of creativity, the soulless, unerring recording instrument which is the arbiter of all that is “real”. When the personal input of the photographer, like that of the painter, is introduced, we adopt different words to judge the results, many of them unflattering. We label the picture a “trick”, a “fake”, “manipulated” and, the latest insult in the critical lexicon, “post-processed”, as if any attempt at personalizing or idealizing a view of the world is untrustworthy, non-genuine. To say a picture looks “better than the real thing” is to somehow suggest that it is something less than the real thing, not more. Certainly, some painters have been tarred with the same brush, but not to the extent that photographers typically are. In fact, photographs are, as Picasso said of art in general, “a lie that makes us realize truth”. We create images that escape the mereness of reality on the road to something more essential about the condition of being human.
My grandfather’s old chess set, pictured here, is, in reality, pretty wrecked, bearing the scars of hundreds of skirmishes with many vanquished foes. Now, I could make a photograph that depicts all that detail, and it might be engaging, even touching as a comment on the fragility of objects. But in this frame, I’m approaching the white and black armies as real combatants, using selective focus to re-visualize them as mythic stand-ins for the legions who face off in actual battles over the broad span of history. The same focus scheme is designed to render everything else around them as fuzzy, immaterial. The fight, not little pieces of wood, is the so-called”reality”, and everything around it melts into obscurity. This is a picture planned like a painting is, a deliberate as-I-see-it denial of actuality in search of a different reality….my own. Like painters, photographers are looking for a verity that is occasionally “better” or “worse” than the real thing. Because if all you want of a camera is for it slavishly to perform a recording function, like a seismograph or a thermometer, then all photographers are obsolete and need to take up a different hobby.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A BIG FAN OF THE PRACTICE of distancing yourself from photographs that didn’t immediately connect with you. Some of our images just don’t register with us at first glance, however, in many cases, they can be approached with a fresh eye if you just shove them in a shoebox (digitally speaking) for a time, giving them a second hearing somewhere down the road.
Of course, once you get down that road, you may conclude that your first impression was correct, and that something in the picture was off, or just ineffective. But then there are the late-arriving miracles, the photographs that had to wait until your mind was right to reveal their best truths, eliciting some reaction like “that’s not so bad, after all.” In other words, the ones you’re now glad you didn’t delete in a fit of initial disappointment. The late bloomers.
Often I find that a simple cropping reveals that there really was a decent picture in there all the time, but that it was being eclipsed by all the extra dead space, props or distractions that were also captured in the moment. In such cases, the entire apple wasn’t rotten; it merely needed a few brown spots to be pared away. The trick is to think of cropping not as an admission of failure but as an opportunity.
Few of us have the chops to perfectly frame a great story in an instant. There are a few among us with that talent, and they are the ones enshrined in museums and textbooks. The rest of us can often capture a great picture within a larger picture, however, and in eliminating the fluff and filler we actually redeem it instead of writing it off as defective. One old-school photo editor was famous for telling his shooters to “crop ’til it hurts”, revealing his own belief that, if you kept wielding the scissors without mercy, good pictures would often be freed from the junk that surrounded them. Taking an understandable amount of ownership in our own work, we can often become overly attached to the first version of a project. We protect it like a young mother who cries the first time her baby gets his hair cut. But while great pictures are often “taken” (see earlier remark about the people in museums), many more are revealed by merely peeling away a few dead leaves.
The candid seen here retains less than 50% of the content that surrounded it, which originally included additional people and most of the interior of a good-sized cafe. Given the chance to add all that other clutter back in, I would issue a hard “no” and be grateful for having hacked at the task until I found the real essence of the picture. You have no doubt experienced the same Christmas-morning unwrapping thrill in your own pix. We need to remember that what comes out of the camera is often just the first draft of history, and that helping the best part of it be amplified is not cheating, or “making the best of a bad situation” but staging, directing our dramas for the audience’s best experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION HAS FORCED US to add many arbitrary items to our “to do” lists, if for no other reason than to consume the mountains of newly available time with which we find ourselves encumbered. We know that a certain number of our new daily tasks are what bureaucrats call “make-work” projects, but the therapeutic value of adding real energy to even “fake” goals is indisputable. And for photographers, those projects can involve a return to things we used to do but came to consider ourselves as “done with.”
For me, that’s meant a revisitation of film, not so much for any superior aspect it might have over digital shooting, but as a refresher in the use of habits I’ve held longest as a photographer. First; it’s true that, given the technical advances and conveniences introduced over the years, there is nothing left in analog that I can’t do almost unilaterally better and faster in digital. Nothing. However, from a planning or sensibility viewpoint, there certainly are mindsets that analog photography confers upon your process. As a consequence, I try to balance the discipline of working with film with the ease of shooting in digital…to think A and shoot D, if you like.
In film, you were working with a finite work medium. Your camera could only take 24 or 36 images at a time without being hungry for more “fuel”. You paid for each new dose of that fuel, and then you paid again to have it processed, in order to see if you succeeded or failed. Worse, there were no “do-overs” built into the system, which meant that you paid real money even for your mistakes. This automatically slowed down your picture-taking process and taught you the habit of planning purposely for a set outcome. Anyone who is too young to have ever shot film has no direct experience with the extra steps in metering, measuring and composing that accompanied every shot. Everything took four moves or more. Additional lighting was cumbersome and often unreliable. Worse, some kinds of film were more unforgiving of mistakes than others, and they usually came at a premium price. And then there’s the risk of not even being able to get the camera to give you what you want. The analog frame seen here, for example, took me five full minutes to shoot, and I can still find about a dozen things wrong with it. But I can inform my digital work with the thought process it took me to make this imperfect analog image.
So far, I’m doing a great job of unselling everyone on analog for all time. But in an age in which there was no immediate results for your shots, the exercise of planning and waiting before shooting had a payoff. You seldom shot anything you didn’t care about. You were slower, more deliberate about shoots, and tended to pre-plan them, to engineer all the failure out of a picture well before you took it. You edited yourself in advance, because it cost too damned much to, as in the digital era, just crank off thirty variations of every subject and hope one of them worked out. Am I asking anyone to go out and buy a roll of film and load it into Grandpa’s Hasselblad? Not at all, and that’s not even the point. It’s far more important to shoot with analog’s special brand of intentionality, even within the comfy confines of digital. As I said earlier, think A and shoot D. Maybe an exercise in which you shoot your next, say, thirty-six images on 100% manual settings, with no re-takes on any of them and no allowing yourself to go beyond that arbitrary number of frames, might be valuable. Or not. We no longer need to put up with much of the drudgery of film, but we might be well served to observe some of the disciplines it imposed on our work.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE BELIEVE WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY IN ITS ESSENCE because some version of it has been handed down to us across the ages, but, as we grow wiser, we know that there are many versions of What Really Happened, each filtered through the agenda/biases of the storyteller. Many of us have at least heard, for example, of the 12th-century King Canute, and may dimly recall a story about his going down to the seashore and foolishly ordering the waves to stop to demonstrate his imperial power. In examining the legend further, however, it seems that he may have gone through the exercise just to illustrate for his subjectsthe limits of his powers. Both versions make great stories. Both drive home the concept of the futility of our struggle against nature, and time.
As I write this, I have received word that the old building where I began my professional career is about to be torn down. Aside from being the physical site of events that pertained to me particularly, the joint has no real reason to be preserved, or saved. It’s architecturally insignificant and aesthetically bland, not to mention its physical decay after lying empty for many years. The project which will stand in its place is likewise lackluster in the extreme, but it will at least be useful and profitable in a way that the old hulk can never be again. And so it goes.
It’s been so long since I walked the halls of 22 South Young Street, Columbus, Ohio (which still bears a few stamps of the call letters for WCOL radio, my alma mater) that taking a tour of it now would only rupture the delicate membrane in which my memories are preserved. I have few photographic records of the time I spent there, as can happen when you’re busier living your life than documenting it. The only images of any recent vintage I have were taken about four years ago and are limited to a few exterior shots, which do what photographs do…document that, like Canute, we are powerless to hold back the sea, and more foolish than powerless in even making the attempt. Sometimes I think that the ultimate “memory” shot for all occasions, designed as a kind of universal symbol, would merely be an image of sand sifting through fingers. Plus or minus a few personal particulars, photographs of things that were are mostly illustrative within the mind. The camera, a dumb box essentially, can only see things as they are, not as they were or might have been.
Still, we cling to these pallid echoes and paltry souvenirs of our lives, gleaning at least minor comfort from them. Some days that’s enough. Other days, the magic fails us. As old King Canute, I often fantasize that he might actually have gone down to the shore more than once, always thinking, en route, “maybe this time it will work.” All too sad, yes, but also, all too human.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.
The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.
In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.
Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.
But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.
Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.
Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.
Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.