By MICHAEL PERKINS
TAKE ENOUGH PHOTOGRAPHS AND YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF acting more deliberately, and thus less reflexively. Your snapshot mind, the scatter-shot, try-anything part of your brain that acts purely on impulse, is never completely eradicated, but is suppressed, tamed if you like, by a more careful and selective way of seeing things, a habit of taking additional time to size up a situation before you shoot. This evolution in style is to be expected, as you learn, over the years, that a few extra moments of mental prep can yield consistently better results than merely shooting from the hip.
It’s not really healthy to let the prudent half of our brains win every argument. Likewise, we should never completely renounce our membership in the “Nothing To Lose” club, that proud aggregation of people who will always, always go for the shot, despite the realizations that I Brought The Wrong Lens, The Light’s Not Exactly Right, or It Probably Won’t Come Out. Don’t get me wrong: I love, love, love to think that my extra seconds of calculation and forethought will consistently give me better results. And, often, I am proven right. But shooting on instinct, in fact being comfortable with both randomness and uncertainty, can sometimes bring home the bacon as well. The only uniformly wise option is: always shoot something, or, as they say in politics, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The Vibe On Vine, Los Angeles, September 2022
This windshield shot, taken on the fly during a recent ride down Vine Street in Hollywood, represents such a case. The car was not going to stop: it was not in our plans to get out, set up a formal composition of these iconic buildings, or take a walking tour through the neighborhood. And so I found myself, once again, a member in good standing of the Nothing-To-Lose club, and I got, well, what I got. And of course there are technical flaws galore in the shot, not the least of which is severe color imbalance caused by shooting through glare and factory window tinting, resulting in the loss of nearly a stop of light.
But I can live with the bruises on the peach because, generally speaking, I got to eat the peach. I may or may not be able to return to the scene in future to try for a four-star job, but, in the meantime, I can chalk this one up to what you might call a workable preliminary sketch, and stop stressing about it. Because, in the final analysis, by failing to at least try, I did have something to lose.
The fun of making a picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE NON-STOP SELF-PROMOTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY (of which I am certainly a part) that has been created by the internet seems, to me, to center as much on explaining our pictures to each other verbally as it does trying to give them more impact visually. That is to say that we gab a lot a lot a lot about how we got our result, with increasingly text-heavy captions on the precise settings and processing that went into the project. Sometimes, it seems as if we believe that, if we gab enough, that alone will make the pictures more special.
I don’t believe that is true, which is why The Normal Eye has never been about “how I did it” as much as “why I did it.” For me, it’s simple: motivation outranks technique. Every. Single. Time.
Come To Me, All Ye That Are Burdened, 2022
I have never written a single caption that succeeded in “explaining” a picture, that made it a better storyteller than it already was. In trying to explain an image, I sometimes feel I am only calling attention to its poor power to make its own case. Any words I add to detail the execution of a photo prove inadequate to illustrate the special something that occurs (or fails to occur) once I’ve made a series of technical calculations. Such footnotes cannot express my motivations or dreams. They don’t make plain why, sometimes, I do everything “correctly”, and yet wind up with a picture where nothing is “right”…..or, more importantly, how, other times, despite my having fouled up every possible bit of intentional planning, the picture is unmistakably just there, that it somehow fought its way into life despite my own utter ineptitude. As an example, the above image is one that, in terms of technique, I have made dozens of times. And yet, this one, for me, made it into some other category. Something, if you’ll excuse the expression, clicked.
Finally, why even bother to make a picture if you can express your feelings better in words? How can you talk enough to redeem a shot that, essentially, didn’t work? Is a poor image any clearer because we slather more talk on top of it, like frosting a tasteless cake? Captions are occasionally a necessary evil, and, to the extent that they convey purely technical information, like lens or aperture used, they can at least be instructive on a purely technical level. But they don’t explain what a picture does or does not convey.
That is the picture’s job.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT COMES TO OUR MOST PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHS, we often reach an appreciation of them long after they are taken…..that is, after the delicate things we preserved in them have been largely taken away. We become misty-eyed curators of our own lives, remarking about “how young we once looked” or “man, I loved that car”, demonstrating just how delicate an operation it is to seize moments from those we love even as, in real time, we are trying to savor them. Much of the time, pictures are a sorry substitute for actual experience, a kind of take-home consolation prize. Sorry, you don’t get to keep the thing in your life that is real….but here’s a two-dimensional, incomplete souvenir.
My wife Marian has been my most constant muse over the active years of my picture-making, and it’s always a balancing act when I see her doing something that I want desperately to keep. I have to, to a degree, yank myself out of the suddening she is in, the real, beating moment she occupies, and step back into a more objective role, more commentator than witness. I always get to keep some small part of who she was at that instant, but I have to become less real for her while I attempt to steal it away from time. It’s an odd bargain.
I could fill a bookshelf with moments in which, for an instant, I feel like I am seeing her again for the first time, the second the thunderbolt first hit me. In such settings, she is every age of her life, from toddler to elder, in a twinkling. That creates a challenge beyond the reach of any mere technical device, and so, like a squirrel visually drunk at the site of a tree with a thousand acorns lying beneath it, I have to quickly select what I hope is the best acorn within reach, and make good my escape. Portraits of anyone are made of such grab ‘n’ snatch instincts, but when it’s someone you love to your very core, the task is even more daunting.
Sometimes you get a 4 out of 10, or even, very rarely, a 7 or 8. The fact that no one has ever gotten a 10 should never deter you, however. All you need to keep in mind is that a miracle is playing out before you, right this minute, and that trying to grab “a suddening” is a worthy goal.
If it ain’t dead, don’t kill it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, THE WORLDWIDE CAMERA MARKET IS UNDERGOING THE KIND OF SPASM that always presages either the introduction of a new format or the imminent demise of an existing one. In this case, we are seeing the accelerating death of the DSLR platform as it is being edged out by mirrorless models. The transition from the former format to the latter has been underway for about ten years, but at a fairly leisurely pace, with both legions of adherents billeted in separate but fairly non-contentious camps. That, however is finally coming to a head, in what I see to be an ugly trend.
And it’s all happening because the camera companies want it that way.
The single-lens reflex camera has been the global standard for serious photography for two generations now, and, if you ask its users, that tradition could go on for another two generations and they would regard that as just fine, thank you very much. However, the manufacturers want it gone, and, since that’s happening too slowly to suit them, it’s time, in their estimation, for a little nudge to speed the platform’s demise. Mirrorless cameras are in some ways an amazing advance, and I speak here as a recent convert to them after years of DLSR devotion. However, part of my “seeing the light” is due to my also seeing the handwriting on the wall, as Nikon, Canon and others are simply abandoning the DSLR format: first, by withdrawing more and more models from their product line, and then by slowing and eventually halting the introduction of any new models, especially entry-level ones, onto the market. Time marches on, of course, and old tech is always being obviated by the new, but usually with the eager approval of the consumer, who recognizes the value of the latest and the next and demands it. However, in this case, I believe that the DSLR’s fan base is not jumping: it’s being pushed.
Or, to address the manufacturers in a reverse of the old breakup cliche: it’s not us, it’s you.
Scanning scads of sites and chat forums, I simply do not see a global urge for the DSLR to be summarily discontinued. Certainly, there is plenty of enthusiasm out there for mirrorless, but many people either believe the new systems are either too expensive or too limited in lens choice or both, and many others would be just as content to replace their aging DSLRs with newer ones, if they could be sure that the format would continue to be supported by the manufacturers. And there is a very present fear that the market will be dominated by mirrorless simply because the companies want it that way.
To be clear: I am no Luddite. I believe it is beyond foolish to stand in the way of true progress, and I welcome technical advances that truly work to extend an artist’s reach or speed his progression. New photographic formats can do this. But there is also a lot to be said about being able to make pictures with the tools that work best for you. Tech should serve, not dictate, the terms of artistic engagement. It’s about the painter, not the latest brush. In the case of the rapidly advancing end for DSLR’s, the Big Makers are choosing their own expediency over the desires of their customers. That doesn’t feel like a natural death for the format. More like a murder.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU SEE HERE THE ONE CAMERA I OWN THAT IS BOTH the primary cause my lifelong love of making pictures, and the only camera I have that I have never taken a single image with. It seems absurd, but upon examination, it makes perfect sense.
I was a small child when my parents bought this Kodak. I never touched a dial or button on it, but it nonetheless shaped my earliest awareness of what happens when you perform the magic of freezing time in a box. It preserved family gatherings, first steps, birthdays, vacays, and the everyday rhythms in the suburban midwest life of the 1950’s and ’60’s. The images that it produced, 35mm Kodachrome slides that took three full days to come back from the processor, splashed big-scale color and delight across our living room wall for over ten years. The arrival at our house of a new yellow and red Kodak box was like getting an extra Christmas.
The Kodak 828 camera was one of four fairly simple “Pony” models that Kodak cranked out by the millions from 1949-1959, and ours was the only one of the models that used 828 roll film. The format was designed to allow for the manufacture of more compact, entry-level cameras that could use what was essentially 35mm stock and yet produce substantially larger images by eliminating the use of sprocket holes. It had a 51mm fixed lens that could only shoot at one of four shutter speeds, with apertures ranging from f/4.5 to f/22 and a rudimentary distance/focus dial. The use of even amateur cameras of the time required deliberate calculation, planning and not a little luck, and so, as you might imagine, our family’s near misses (and outright fails) with the Pony became the stuff of family legend, every bit as much as our keepers.
More importantly for me, the camera taught me, as its admiring non-user, to dream beyond my own limits. Once I got my own no-controls box camera at the age of thirteen, I went through a period of horrible discouragement, realizing that my piece of plastic junk wouldn’t automatically deliver the kind of pictures Mother and Dad made, even if I wished real hard (and, trust me, I tried). I learned, in short, just how much I had to learn, that good images had to be, in a very real way, earned. After the disappointing revelation that I couldn’t easily make what I saw in my mind come real through the work of my hands, my mistakes gradually became my teachers instead of my torturers. The Pony gave me the hunger to make that happen. And, in time, the pictures came.
I’ve purchased a lot of old cameras just to run a roll of film through them to see what happens, but the near total disappearance of even expired 828 stock has kept me from shooting with my own parents’ chosen kit. But maybe I don’t have to: maybe I have already pulled as much delight out of it as I ever can. I see them, young and smiling, filled with dreams and desires, every time I pass the camera on my den shelves. That’s a pretty premium image all by itself. Don’t know if I can ever top it.
World in my pocket: a typical “tiny planet” app for making landscapes into well-rounded domains.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTO-PROCESSING APPS HAVE PROLIFERATED WITH INCREDIBLE SPEED over the last ten years, making it possible for even the casual snapper to achieve nearly any look, either on the cheap or absolutely free. It’s created a miraculous marketplace. Impulse is immediately entertained, and the old risk and costs of trial-and-error attempts at certain effects are all gone. Trying something fresh costs us little but patience and time.
Fun thing is, even though lots of such apps are only designed do one thing really well, some are actually little trojan horses of alternate effects if you only, well, use them “wrong”, or at least counter-intuitively. For example, an app that’s made primarily to blend together double-exposures could also act as a cheap, fast HDR generator, with the combining of light and dark copies of the same image resulting in a composite that has a wide range of light-to-dark dynamics. It’s just a matter of ignoring the rather boring thing the app was designed for, or, if you like, using a kitchen knife as a screwdriver.
Some of my favorite one-trick-pony apps, ones that I would normally play with once and then forget, are the so-called “tiny planet” converters that take a horizontal landscape and make it look as if it were rolled up into a small separate world (see top) in which skyscrapers and trees jut out into empty space like something out of The Little Prince. It’s was a cool trick ten years ago, but, since everyone has now pounded what used to be a unique illusion into a single-stroke cliche, it becomes boring rather quickly. However, most of the tiny planet apps have adjustment controls that can actually take the “ball” and turn it inside out or even fold it over on itself. You just do the effect “wrong”, and go from there. And so, you’d start with something like this:
And use the orientation controls in the app to churn and twist it, until you get this..
The reason this becomes fun again is because it’s damn near uncontrollable. That is, the adjustments are so clumsy and crude that it’s hard to fine-tune them, meaning that it’s damned difficult to get anything like the same result more than once in a row. As a consequence you wind up producing one happy, unrepeatable accident after another…and that, actually, renders the thing perversely interesting to me. In fact, I’m now so into fun-intended consequences with apps that, when someone asks me about a new one, my first question is, “how do the pictures look when you totally screw it up?” Turns out, going nowhere in particular at warp speed is pretty trippy.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY WIFE’S MOTHER WAS NOT MUCH FOR COLLECTING, but, over the years, she did lay aside a rather large bag of silver dollar coins dating from the late 1800’s through the post-WWI era. Like many of us, I suppose she thought they would inevitably increase in value, sort of like a low-interest passbook account. The jury’s still out on that, although I really doubt if Marian and I are sitting on the motherlode: the real value in the coins lies in their ability to conjure other times.
Occasionally, the coins are trotted out and sniffed over, then put back under wraps, but, at their most recent airing, I decided to do some macro work with them, employing a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens (which magnifies nearly to 1 to 1). Like most Lensbaby optics, the 56 is designed to create a “look” that borrows more from art than reality, delivering a warm, glowing haze layer atop a focused underlying image. Words like “glamour” or “dreamy” are used to describe the effect, conjuring visions of Hollywood starlets posing for their studio head shots.
Most of the coins showed no human face at all, just a profile of Lady Liberty, but one from the U.K. featured a visage that was both real and fantasy, depending upon whom you asked: a portrait of a decidedly young Elizabeth II from the 1950’s, an artist’s idealization that happens on all official money, sanding the rough edges and more mortal flaws from various sovereigns both good and evil, transforming them into a vision of the leaders we wish we had. Elizabeth’s 70-year reign is a classic example of how the idea of something substantial, or lasting, is as powerful as actually being substantial or lasting. Come to think of it, that sounds like the very stuff of making photographs.
What could be less “real” or “representational” than using a lens to make an abstraction of something that was an abstraction to begin with? And yet, what could be more purely photographic? In my choice of lens, alone, I’ve made a series of interpretive choices… deciding that I would present this object in this distinct fashion, that its flaws and features alike would be filtered through something that would assign a different value to them. Pictures are made of things as we wish to see them, not as they are, since that kind of reality is beyond the power of any device. If we let ourselves, we truly work without limits or expectations.
It’s almost as great an entitlement as being Queen….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
September 11, 2022
TWENTY-ONE YEARS. The life of a legally arrived adult. The space of a generation. How much time has passed since the horror of 9/11, and yet how immediate remains its emotional resonance. Photographers the world over, then and now, have tried to capture the surreal universal gasp of shock that unfurled in those few minutes on 9/11/01. And now, today, as the wound has become the scar and the flash has morphed into a flashback, an entirely reborn Lower Manhattan both recalls the history and serves, ironically, to obliterate it. For those who make images, the present era is a fraught one.
The first pictures, of course, were of the burning, the dying, the national open grave. The second wave of images was of the remains of people and buildings being literally trucked away, of a starched, scraped plain that promised a a repurposing. Coming soon on this site. Flags and markers and makeshift memorials, as holy as they were to many, were soon ushered offstage, as New York, the city that knows more about staging revivals than any other, prepared for a new production. As a frequent visitor to New York over the past fifteen years, I was present at many of the stages of the set design.
Lights, action, rebirth.
I have tried to have it both ways with the pictures I have made in the area, with both respectful homages to the sacramentals within the September 11th museum and the memorial pools, and the explosion of creative energy that mushroomed into the new WTC plaza. It’s been a high-wire act, artistically and emotionally, but I feel an urge now, to move my lens almost exclusively to The Next Act, since it now exists not merely as a yearning for a return to normalcy, but as a defiant fait d’accompli, another proof that New Yorkers are always about Getting On With It.
This image, with its lettered reflection of the 90 Church Street Post Office (which was itself littered with falling debris of the twin towers’ collapse), is my attempt to capture past survivors and forward strivers in the same frame, to say, yes, amen, a prayer for the dying, but also yes, hell yes, for the indomitability of America, which honors its founders best when doubters prematurely pronounce it out for the count.
We are back.
We are always back.
We are staying.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN LEARNING HOW TO MAKE PICTURES, we progress from the general to the particular, in that we initially learn formalized rules that apply in many or most situations, and then develop our own, shorter list of more rubbery regulations that most precisely fit our own approach to creativity. We learn from rigid do’s and don’ts, “always” and “nevers” that gradually bend or dissolve in deference to our fully realized style.
That means that, in photography, all standards are negotiable, even disposable. Think what freedom that sentence implies. In architecture, such a thing is not possible, since a building either has support or doesn’t. In math, such leeway is nigh unto unthinkable, because the specs in a space vehicle are either in tolerance (people survive) or out (people don’t survive). However, in a visual art, things work when they work, whether they adhere to a formal technique or not.
Because of its fairly soft focus, this picture, according to some who may view it, is imperfect, flawed, or what might term a bad photograph. It had to be grabbed in a second of impulse because everything in it was perishable. Things like the approaching auto, because it was needed for scale, composition, and a sense of urgency: the storm, which was refracting the dying sunlight of a late afternoon in amazing, but fleeting contrast: even my car, since I was shooting out my driver’s side window and would soon have to move on to avoid snarling traffic. It is not a precise picture, but instead it is an image of an opportunity. I might, with an additional second or two, have guaranteed the sharpness that, for some, disqualifies this shot, but I was shooting one-handed, and on full manual, and the oh-what-the-hell rule trumped everything else.
But for me, everything else except the lack of sharpness works powerfully enough to “sell” the picture, to convey what I felt when snapping it. Crispness might have been an additional plus for the final image, but I will never know. I do know how rotten I would have felt if I hadn’t had a go at it. Emotions can often carry a photograph where mere technical precision can never reach, and you’ll know when the time is right to choose one or the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
All the odds are in my favorSomething’s bound to begin It’s gotta happen, happen sometime Maybe this time Maybe this time, I’ll win
EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER CAN IDENTIFY with Liza Minnelli’s hope, expressed in the musical Cabaret, that her personal losing streak is about to end. The very first time you click a shutter, you create the unbridgeable gap between what you see and what your hands and the machine can re-create, and, in our various disappointments, we theorize about what it’ll take to get us back on the path. More instruction? Travel? Mentoring with a master?
Or how about a new piece of kit?
We’ve written exhaustively about the allure of so-called G.A.S., or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the intoxicating belief that our very next camera or lens will turn the trick on our fortunes, somehow transforming us into the master photog we were born to be. The new toys’ attributes waft out of the brochure like the perfumes of a thousand Arabian dancing girls, curling around our hopes, blinding us with the seductive aroma of “next time”. And, while new gear often can allow us to execute things better from a technical standpoint, we are destined, in most cases, to settle into a kind of post-purchase melancholy when we realize that, after the Christmas-morning glow burns off, we just have one more piece of equipment to lug around with no ironclad guarantee of wholesale improvement. And them New Toys Blues are hard to shake, baby. Especially once the credit card statement posts.
Of course, we need to forgive ourselves if we occasionally lapse into the habit of seeing better picture-making as somehow coming at us from outside ourselves. After all, we must invest our money and trust in external devices to a degree. However, on our best days, we realize, at least for a while, that “the odds”, as the song goes, are already in our favor. Our best images still flow from us, not to us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE HAD MORE THAN A FEW ISSUES with the term street photography. I get to the point where I either think I know what I mean by it, and then there are times when I think I know what others mean by it. People other than me seem to think it describes human activity as it’s displayed and captured outdoors…little dramas recorded as folks gather in public places, near restaurants and bars, sitting on a bench, running for a cab. For me, the term should also apply to streets that are utterly devoid of human traffic, since even in “empty” spaces the mark or influence of people is still richly encoded into the works: in the buildings and businesses they build, in how they prioritize color or texture, in what they choose to preserve or destroy. In other words, people-influenced life without people actually moving through it.
Anything that happens on the street, regardless of whether people are seen, is “street photography”.
We understand this view whether we think we do or not. Consider the particular phenomenon of public art, either the institutional, statue-in-the-park kind or the sprayed-out-of-a-paint-can type. Chances are that when we behold the artist’s testimony…on walls, subways, sidewalks…the actual artist is nowhere nearby. Street photography occurs with or without people in the pictures, since they can be detected whether they inhabit the scene in physical form or not. Public art is just one way this happens.
It’s manifested in many ways: how a small business decides to dress its windows: the mystery of how the mottos or decorative touches on an old bank came to be: the crazy quilt of competing architectural eras within the same block…all these signs and more signal human activity no less than does a highway map or an electrical circuit. The skewed take on the Mona Lisa, seen above and painted on the side of a building in midtown Columbus, Ohio, implies the grins that will no doubt grace the faces of the many who walk past the lady’s mystic smile on their way out of the parking lot that frames her. What could be more human, more “street” than that?
Terms, in photography or any other pastime, are useful parameters for labeling and identifying major areas one from another. When they crowd the artist into corrals, however, they stop helping and start hindering. Street photography is easy to define. It’s anything that happens on the street.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ORSON WELLES ONCE SAID OF JAMES CAGNEY that, while he was not a “realistic” actor per se, there had never been a single frame of film shot of him that was untrue. Something in the Yankee Doodle Dandy’s presence on screen was both more and less than real, and so, as a result, it registered with audiences as authentic, as if it ought to be true. Oddly, in making this observation, Welles may as well have been talking about two competing visions of photography, two disparate camps that choose either “truth” or “reality” in almost everything they create.
Many of us learn a formal definition of words like sharpness, tone, contrast, color, and many more of us learn that a certain combination of these elements equals a picture that is “like life”. This comes from the earliest years of photographic instruction, in which raw amateurs, who were necessarily outcome-oriented (i.e., wanting a return on their investment in gear and film) were given certain arbitrary rules for the making of a so-called “good” picture. But “good”, or “real”, or “authentic” according to whom? After reading all the “how-to” booklets, we have to spend the rest of our lives figuring out the answer to those questions.
In comparing these two renderings of a single landscape shot, what, in your mind, qualifies (or disqualifies) one version over the other in terms of its post-processing? Which reflects what I saw in the moment versus what I later re-sculpted in terms of tonal range, intensity, color? Which picture came first? (Spoiler: I’m not telling). Is one “realer”, or more naturalistic, than the other? Why or why not? And which one is, to your mind or eye, true?
More to the point, whatever your conclusion, how can it become the standard for my opinion, or his, or hers, or theirs? When we look at an image, are we actively weighing what was, at various stages, done to it, or do we merely judge the result (Spoiler Two: often we do both)? Cagney’s entire approach to acting was summarized in his advice to a beginner: “Plant your feet, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth”. How that truth makes it from vision to result is anyone’s guess, and everyone’s decision. No manual, no set of rules, no formal class can teach that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AGO, “SUCCESS” FOR THE WORLD’S FIRST SUPERBRANDS IN PHOTOGRAPHY was defined by how well a company could induce people who had never shot pictures to try it, and then do so again and again. Camera companies around the turn of the 20th century realized that the process of making a photo was dense and daunting, and so they designed the risk out of it with the first “box” cameras, turning millions into consumers of not only the cameras but, more importantly, the film they needed to feed them with. The message in their advertising: we’ve made it easy. Have no fear.
More than a century later, it’s even easier, one might almost say insanely easy, to take a picture. But I want to argue that, in the face of all this convenience, we might have just a little fear. A tad.
Even a technically bad picture like this may have the seeds of a good picture within it. But that does not make it a “keeper”.
Historically, the word fear meant a healthy respect for something. The phrase fear of the Lord was not intended to enshrine terror as a virtue, but was promoting humility, a recognition of a higher authority. A little healthy “fear” is nearly mandatory when climbing a mountain, or in daring to launch yourself into the cosmos. In the case of photography, tech has nearly guaranteed that we will almost always walk away with a usable, technically acceptable picture. But it can not warrant us against failure of other kinds.
We’re talking failure of vision. Of purpose. Failing to recognize that there are times when we should not shoot, or not shoot from this angle, or just shoot the way we’ve always shot. Failure to develop our eye and to coordinate it with our heart, making the camera merely the servant that carries out our plan.
The digital era has seen a mind-boggling tsunami of images produced daily around the world, and social media has seen more of those images shared out than was ever conceivable in the past. David Brinkley was being wry when he wrote a book called “Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion”, but many of us now spill our every image into the mainstream as if everyone were entitled to every picture we’ve ever taken. This is potentially bad for our development as artists.
If every picture we make is a masterpiece, then none of them are. We have to be more aggressively self-editing because we don’t have anyone outside ourselves to carry out that task. We have to narrowly redefine what makes a photograph a keeper, or special, or extraordinary. Tech guarantees that we’ll crank something out of the box. Learning whether it’s something special is worth retaining a little fear for.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NIGHT CITYSCAPES PRESENT TREMENDOUS OPPORTUNITIES to me these days, especially with the technical advances of recent years. Many shots that required tripods or lengthy exposures just a short while ago are now possible as handheld snaps. Great improvements in the balanced exposure performance and color rendering of digital sensors, along with smoother resolution, even at higher ISO settings, have tamed the “black ‘n’ blurry” curse of night images that haunted much of my earlier work. Even so, I still employ a few old-school tricks to further improve my odds, as I try to impart a greater sense of depth, or “space” in pictures jammed with competing information.
Conveying a dimensional look in the dense mashup of buildings of a big city can be tricky. I could certainly decide to avoid the problem completely, deliberately going for a flatter effect with the use of a zoom lens (a look I don’t really like). If, however, I do want parts of the photograph to “pop” in reference to others, there are a few things to try. Shooting foregrounds and backgrounds with boldly divergent color schemes and textures, as I was able to do in this image, can help the various layers of the image to stand out in clear relief from each other. Experimenting with depth of field can also diminish the focus of one plane and make the other call more loudly for the eye’s attention. Additionally, foreground objects (like the immense billboard at left) can be partially cropped out (as seen here) so that they only narrowly enter the edges of the shot, operating as a kind of partial frame around the main subject.
Shooting on the fly in night cityscapes can still be tricky for me. Take bright downtowns areas, like, say the bright-as-eff, blitzkrieg of light in Time Square, which falls off to nearly nothing within the space of a single city block because distant structures are used less at night, creating a contrast nightmare. Newer cameras are better at capturing detail in the shadows, or at least enough of it to be retrieved in post-production, but the real challenge is taking the time to plan a shot when (a) technology frequently rewards us for even an imperfectly executed image and (b) the overall stimulus level of the city tends to make us shoot more and shoot faster, rather than slowly and purposefully. As always, your best shots are balanced on a knife’s-edge between impulse and deliberation.
A: When is a knot hole knot a knot hole?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN MY SHORT PANTS DAYS, I USED TO DRAW WEIRD STARES FROM GROWNUPS when I would point at objects and claim that I saw faces within them. Highway light poles. The fronts of radios. The headlights and grilles of cars. Often the faces were merely strange, but to my Child-Of-The-Cold-War mind, they were often malevolent. My youth was also, in addition to the being the golden age of nuclear jitters, also a high-water mark for a pop culture landscape littered with aliens and creatures of questionable intent.
All you armchair analysts may now pause to trot out your pet treatises on anxiety.
But one man’s crazed paranoia is another man’s photographic vision, and, years later, I find that the ability to see things that others cannot is less an affliction than a gift (within reason). Difference between Now and Then is that, now, I no longer care if anyone else thinks I spend too much time hanging out in the anxiety closet.
A: When it’s one half of a “galaxy being”, naturally.
The montage (visage? face? nightmare? abstraction?), seen directly above, wasn’t readily visible in the making of the original image from which it sprang, starting its life as merely a soft-focus shot of a tree’s knothole surrounded by outward radiating “wrinkles”. In fact, upon first seeing it in playback (see top image), I had no intention for the shot at all, stumbling back over it many months later, at which time it seemed to suggest the eye of an elder elephant. I started playing with the idea of making it seem like a super close-up of a wise old pachyderm, when I started asking myself what kind of symmetrical “face” might be fashioned out of doubling the knothole. There was dead space to the left of the original, so I just duplicated the shot, reversed one copy, converted it to mono, and blended the two pieces in Photomatix in the “Exposure Fusion” mode. The elephant had now become….the Elephant Man?
Actually, the more I live with this…thing, the more I realize that he very likely was coughed up from my unconscious memory of the title character in The Galaxy Being, the pilot episode of the classic Outer Limits series. He, too was all about the eyes (and not much else, since he was pure electromagnetic energy, duh). But sixty years on, an aging kid with an overactive imagination knows that monsters, and mashups, are where you find them. And, these days, with far scarier monsters to contend with in the real world, the process is less freaky and more fun.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEAR ONE WITH MY VERY FIRST CAMERA was a demonstration in pure randomness. Whatever passed directly in front of my $5 Imperial Mark XII got caught in the frame. Whatever wasn’t… well..
Without a doubt, I made some fumbling attempts at composition, but, at least at first, the idea that anything at all would show up on the film was so mind-blowing that my idea of “success” was a packet of prints that came back from the processor having registered basically any registration of color or definition. I was too busy being grateful for the miracle to nitpick the results.
This picture of my sister Elizabeth came from that period, probably the summer of 1966, and although it was, in execution and planning, a pure snapshot, it has brought a few souvenirs along with it as it’s travelled through time. It’s shot wide, but then, with a fixed-focus plastic lens loaded with aberrations, that’s about the only way she could have wound up even reasonably sharp. Again, I said reasonably. And so, even though she is prominent in the shot, it also took in a lot of incidental time-capsule information that is really only relevant to we two, all these ages later.
For one thing, the thoroughfare to her right, a two-lane country road out in “the sticks” at the time, is now an eight-lane feeder highway to Columbus, Ohio’s massive I-270 outerbelt. The creek she is looking into is largely invisible due to this expansion. Up beyond the horizon on the right is a densely forested metro park where we were taken for school picnics and field trips. It’s still there, but negotiating a service road to gain entry into it now requires a degree from MIT. And, of course, the only place you’ll find the autos that are touring back and forth is at either a museum or a classic car show.
When I’m away from this shot, it’s easy to forget a lot, like how going to that park was a “day in the country” for us at the time, even though it was hardly a twenty-minute drive from our house. Today, that “country” is a sprawling crush of chain stores, restaurants, and housing tracts, all of which have surged further and further eastward from the city’s core over half a century. And finally there is that face, that flawless, guileless, innocent face, still free of the scarring battles that would envelop us both over the course of our lives together. This week, this child turns sixty-eight, and I am about four hundred and thirteen or so, depending on which day you ask. But when my thoughts turn to my undying love for Elizabeth, I see this image, taken wide to include lots of temporal flotsam and jetsam, but shot just close enough to bring an angel into focus.
Picture of an actor playing a picture-maker taken by a picture-making actor: Dennis Hopper’s candid portrait of “Blow-Up” star Devid Hemmings, 1968.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DENNIS HOPPER’S FILM CAREER STANDS TODAY as one of the iconic cautionary tales about what happens when one’s talent enters into a death struggle with one’s demons. He was the contemporary of another troubled actor, James Dean, but instead of smashing himself to pieces in a car crash all at once, like his friend, he was destined to unravel slowly, over decades, like a hideless baseball wobbling over the rear fence, caroming from suspension to firing, from screw-up to royal screw-up. Every time the candle of Hopper’s undeniable gifts began to truly glow brightly, he’d get too close to it and burn his eyebrows off.
Today, Hopper’s long stretch as an actor, writer and director has largely been boiled down, in the public memory, to his creative energies on the era-defining Easy Rider, with many of his other near misses blurring into the haze of the unique amnesia that is showbiz’ permanent dream state. However, since his passing in 2010, it is his other output, the 18,000 images he made as an amateur photographer between 1961 and 1968, that have burnished his legend, making his informal snaps of life among the famous and anonymous of Los Angeles in the ’60’s the stuff of coffee table books and gallery shows. Gifted with a Nikon on his birthday in 1961, Hopper trained it constantly on the people he worked with, as well as those he would, sadly, never work with. The result is a portfolio that is as essential as Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in its depiction of the dreams, excesses and delusions among the showmakers and the stars they spawned in that vanished decade.
Hopper’s 1962 portrait of fellow cineaste Andy Warhol.
During his life, various collections of Hopper’s work, including In Dreams and Photographs 1961-1967 were published in book form, and a comprehensive showing at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art accelerated interest among people who were only passingly familiar with his acting work. In the years since his death, his images have increasingly served as a time capsule for a Hollywood that was sandwiched between the end of the old studio system and the invasion of a younger generation of actors/directors that would include the Scorceses and Spielbergs of a new era. Hopper found a different kind of voice outside the world of movies, but one of his quotes about his first career seemed to portend the power of his second: “I was very shy, and it was a lot easier for me to communicate if I had a camera between me and people.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE PROPERTY AT THE NORTHWESTERN CORNER OF GOODALE PARK, in the “Short North” district of Columbus, Ohio has, over the past 117 years, served as private residence, office building, daycare center, fraternal lodge for commercial travelers, nursery school, and alcoholics’ recovery center. Incredibly, every one of these uses has been housed by the very same structure, a bizarre relic of the golden age of robber barons locally known as “the Circus House”.
And with good reason.
By 1895, Peter Sells was one of the founders of the nationally famous “Sells Brothers Quadruple Alliance, Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus”, and so was, in terms of the nineteenth century’s pre-mass-media entertainment scene, a very rich man, and eager to be seen as such. Engaging one of the nineteenth century’s hottest architects, Frank Packard (creator of many of Columbus’ iconic structures, both public and private), Sells ordered up a mishmash of styles he and his wife Mary has seen during a recent trip to California, with elements of Moorish, High Gothic Victorian, Mission Revival and other flavors melding into a sprawling, three-story mansion that eventually swelled to 7,414 square feet, hosting twelve rooms, four bedrooms, five full bathrooms, and two half-baths. And there was more: the Sells’ servants’ quarters, a carriage house erected just to the west of the main house, weighed in at an additional 1,656 square feet, larger than most large private residences of the time.
For the photographer, the Circus House is more than a bit…daunting. Capturing the strange curvatures of its twin turrets, its swooping, multi-angled roof, its jutting twin chimneys or its scalloped brick trim (suggesting, some say, the bottom fringes of the roof of a circus tent), all in a single frame, is nearly impossible. For one thing, circling the structure, one finds that it looks completely different every ten feet you walk. This seems to dictate the use of a “crowd it in there” optic like a wide-angle lens, which further exaggerates the wild bends and turns of the thing, making features like the huge porte-corchiere loom even larger than they appear in reality.
Finally I decided to be at peace with the inherent distortion of a wide lens, as if it were somehow appropriate to this bigger-than-life space. Like any true circus, the Sells house has many things going on at once, often more than even the average three-ring managerie. Architecture as a kind of personalized signature, long after its namesakes have faded into history, creates a visual legacy that photographers use to chart who we were, or more precisely, who we hoped to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL CLOWNS ARE COMMENTATORS. Their leering grins and forced chortles are a mock of the all-too-mortal constraints of life, reminders of the gloom that lurks just behind the performance curtain. They concoct artificial joy at a harsh cost to themselves. In this way, they suffer somewhat for all of our sins.
Upon discovering, a few years ago, this life mask of the late Robin Williams, which is on display at the Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, I was still in a mixture of mourning and denial at the Great One’s passing, all the sadder because the laughter he gave us exacted such a price from him. The mask itself was made to act as a framework for make-up artists who would then construct prosthetics on his features for a role. In turn, those features themselves became the role, the face reduced to its essence, strangely at rest after a life of inner turmoil. Seeing this image after several years of, frankly, not being able to bear to look upon it, I hear Lord Hamlet, who, upon discovering the skull of his father’s court jester at a burial site, muses:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio:
A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy:
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times;
And now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
My gorge rims at it.
Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?
Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber,
And tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come;
Make her laugh at that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I DON’T POSSESS THE TALENT FOR COMPARTMENTALIZATION that pros like Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon have shown in making extremely intimate “final” images of the most important people in their lives. Annie’s sad, understated portraits of the last days of her partner Susan Sontag are oddly comforting, in contrast to the harrowing loneliness of Avedon’s images of his dying father, but, in both cases, they managed to force themselves to tell those stories in a way that I could never do. And, given that I believe that the camera can, and should, have universal access to any kind of story, I know that this makes me a bit of a hypocrite.
The reigning champion, my father.
My father, at this writing, is ninety-three years of age, and as fragile as a Japanese paper lantern. He may not be at the volcano’s edge just yet, but, damn, he is certainly in the neighborhood. I recognize the value in photographing the tough as well as the triumphant. And I get that, when I am feeling “reportorial”, that may strike someone else as being predatory, invasive. And my indecisiveness about taking, well, any pictures of him, at this point, has been exacerbated by the nagging realization that, living far from him, as I do, the next snap might well be the last one I will ever take.
During my most recent visit with him, the importance of the individual moments…our every ritual, each major or minor exchange, hung so heavy in the air that picking up my camera just seemed…vulgar, perhaps even disrespectful. How Leibovitz and Avedon could look upon that inexorable ebbing of life, day after day, and still be able to tuck their feelings into a pocket long enough to make an objective subject out of their dear ones….Jesus, the whole thing strikes me as supernatural, like being able to levitate, or render oneself invisible.
I took one picture of Pop the entire week I was around him, and it was just before I was due to fly “home” (what does that word even mean?), during an evening that was actually a little miracle, a night in which Mother and he were both awake, strong, playful even, and most importantly, really there…..present in a way that reminded me of the real, amazing people entombed inside these decaying carapaces. On such a night, through all the pain, despite all the storms on the horizon, there, for a minute, was my Father. Strong. Decisive. Reflective. Dignified.
And, hopefully, not for the last time…