By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR YEARS, I HAVE READ INTERVIEWS WITH VARIOUS PHOTOGRAPHERS that include some form of the question, “why do you think you first picked up a camera?” Some answers are profound, detailed, while others are more along the lines of “because it was there”, or “well, why not? In 2021, as the surfaces of many of our personal cocoons begin to crack a bit, a more relevant question might be “why will you next pick up a camera?” All art is fueled by motivations, by the need to create an outside expression of the person within. Change that person, or, in our case, change the entire human species, and motivations, and the art they create, will likewise be altered.
All of which is to say that, without a doubt, I am somehow a different kind of photographer today than I was a year ago. The fact that I can’t yet analyze in what specific ways that change has manifested itself is beside the point. Every cell in our bodies is a replacement for a cell from an earlier version of our physical selves, and yet the change has come about so gradually that we feel that we are the same person that we always were. It will take time, and the evidence of my work, to be able to see how this last year has adjusted how I see, and more importantly, what I now choose to look at.
This online forum, now in its tenth year, was never designed to be a meditation on my personal life, and that’s generally the way I like it. I can talk all day about why I decide to make a picture, and I have tried to find, in those reflections, something that is universal to the growth of every photographer. Sharing things more personal than the creation of an image, however, comes less naturally to me, a strange admission from someone who has chosen social media as a platform, but there it is. I always feel that the work will provide and clues to the person that created it better than my poor power to add or detract, or indulge in any freehand navel-gazing.
It will be some time before any of us can draw a clean line from “the kind of pictures I used to make” to “here’s how I see now”. I do know, however, that there’s been a huge change in the subject matter that’s available to me to shoot, whether it’s the faces of distant loved ones or the loss of routine hangs. But just being forced to create photographs with different stuff is not the whole issue; being persuaded to actually see differently is where the rubber meets the road, or, if you will, where the eye meets the viewfinder. I have been fortunate enough to see most of my old world emerge from this global nightmare intact, a fact that I consider a miraculous, if random, gift. I have been given what photographers value most; time. Now let’s see what I can do to identify the work to be done before me, both as a photographer and as a human being. No doubt new narratives and stories will emerge. And they will all need illustrations….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION MAY MATTER MORE than any other single aspect of technical mastery. The godlike power to decide what to include in the frame is the ultimate tool in the making of any photograph. It sets the terms of engagement, stating, merely by what’s been included, this is what we’re talking about today. That makes the photographer a narrator…a storyteller. The rest is all just measurements.
Macro photography, or, as we used to call it, “close-ups” are the purest exercise in compositional choice, because in getting nearer to our subject, we are forced to be aware, in the making of a picture, just how much of the rest of the world we are paring away…whether because it’s distracting, or too busy, or merely because it’s not what our picture is “about”. Macro work also shows, in the clearest possible terms, what happens when too much is left in the frame, and reinforces the same discipline that’s vital in composing a shot at any scale, i.e., including what communicates best, and snipping out the rest. It also becomes a useful introduction to “abstraction”, which is valuable even for people who think they hate that term.
When you abstract something, you are merely pulling it free of its normal contexts and associations. Once you are close enough to your subject, you are working more and more in terms of raw light, patterns, and texture, in a way that makes the familiar unfamiliar. You see compositional elements purely. For example, a piano, as a fully-sized object, registers in the mind as a quite particular thing, whereas magnified detail applied to the arrangement of its inner workings, is an exercise in mechanics, math, the pure arrangement of repetitive motifs. Composition in macro , then, is always great practice for composition in general. When you are zoomed in tight, you must make real choices as to what will make the cut for the final image, and these choices are obvious, and immediately understood. Pull back out for shots taken in the wider world, and that choice-making ability is now more instinctual. There’s a reason so many people say that, in the acquisition of a skill, you should start small. Because little things mean a lot, and the sooner that thinking gets into our pictures, the better tales we tell.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LANDSCAPES, AS I HAVE CONFESSED SEVERAL TIMES IN THESE PAGES, are not the lead arrow in my photographic quiver. Given an urban setting exploding with human activity, I will typically forsake a serene seacoast or majestic mountain range as shooting fodder, not because I necessarily disdain them, but because I often find myself unable to bring anything profoundly personal to them. Perhaps shooters with a more naturalist bent are inspired to new heights of expression when framing up scenery. I certainly value nature as a foundation for certain kinds of pictures, a backdrop for my “lead” components, if you will, but I find myself flummoxed in trying to depict them as the main attraction, as nature for its own sake. Why?
Of course, I have shot literally thousands of landscapes, and, under certain circumstances, such as the past year’s Great Hibernation, I have been forced to embrace more open spaces not only as refuge but as default subject matter. I simply am stuck miles from where I prefer to shoot, and so I have tried to capitalize on the surplus practice time to, at long last, be “better” at landscapes. This time, I have tried to plow into fresh ground by changing the way I depict such scenes, with the traditional sharpness and detail of the postcard giving way to understatement and atmosphere. And I’m finding that the resulting minimalism is comforting, that the idea of trying to say more things through mere suggestion might finally be my sweet spot.
Once the baseline information of a landscape needed for identification has been established…that is, once enough visual cues have been provided to attest to its being a picture of a boulder, shoreline, forest, etc., what really needs to be included that has any additional narrative power? I totally get the fact that detail and texture can be a story in themselves, as in the granite grandeur of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite giants, but I believe that landscapes rendered in paintings, for example, often reduce those details to their essence, especially in the work of impressionists. Why does the photograph have to be faithfully “graphic” or documentary in depicting those details?
The image shown here certainly contains enough data to be perceived as a night shot of a beach with birds. Would a further rendering of every grain of sand and every ripple of ocean make the picture “work” any better, or can the piece just succeed as a hint of reality in which your heart or mind fill in the blanks, a picture in which the openness of the thing allows more individual interpretation on the part of the viewer? I understand that, to a certain audience, this is a blurry mess, while, for others, it might be the beginning of something that originates in the picture and finishes in the mind. What I’m starting to learn, finally, as a landscape photographer, is how to show just enough of the story I see to convey it to another person, but to rein myself in before I just produce a document that is technically accurate but emotionally threadbare.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO WILL NEVER OWN A LEICA, the brand has always been synonymous with pristine quality, innovation, and a mystique that is as durable as gold and as elusive as vapor. In fact, the company which began its life in Germany 1907 as Ernst Leitz Optische Werke (or simply “Leitz”) has inspired imitation, envy, and a definite bloodlust of desire that separates Those Who Would Have Nothing Else from Those Who Can Only Dream. In short, all Leicas are good children and all good children go to heaven. They are an impeccable species sufficient unto themselves, making no concessions to lesser species. History, right?
Except of course, that such “history” is mostly folklore. In point of fact, Leica has experienced the same ups and downs, the same botched launches and bitter failures, as other manufacturers, creating its own mutant wing of weird hybrids and downright flops, occasionally going so far afield as to come dangerously close to winking out of existence. One of those errant wanderings is traceable to the 1970’s, which was, overall, a marvelous time to own a camera, unless that camera was… a Leica.
Beginning in the ’60’s, the single-lens reflex camera revolutionized the world of both pro and amateur shooting, with Nikon, Canon, Pentax and other lean young barbarians adding amazing features at a reasonable cost in a way that was rendering the venerable Leica rangefinder system obsolete. The late-breaking line of Leicaflex SLRs, introduced years behind the competition, offered a mealy-mouthed feature set and insane price tags. They also brought the company nearly to its knees, as its makers found themselves unable to control runaway production costs, actually losing money on every unit sold.
And then something historic happened. Around 1973, Leica (whose parent company was still officially named Leitz) looked down from its perch atop photography’s Mt. Olympus (no camera joke intended) and asked for help, entering into a partnership with Minolta, which, at the time, was one of the big dogs in the SLR kennel. The two companies agreed to share designs while the actual manufacture of selected components would be moved from Wetzlar, Germany to Japan. Their first product collaboration was a revised rangefinder called the CL, which sold well, but chiefly at the expense of the equivalent “pure” Leica product line, a fact which succeeded in ticking off the company’s purist fan base (bless ’em). Right on schedule, the ever-present Leica snob machine began to put an asterisk after all such Leitz-Minolta products, marking them as less than genuine than “real Leicas”, even though the partnership actually helped improve the sleekness of the company’s SLR design and pioneered many new features, such as aperture and shutter priority, that would become standard in the following decades.
Over the next decade, the Leitz-Minolta marriage refined the weight, ergonomics and acuity of its mutual “children”, producing some of the world’s favorite cameras before differences in philosophy forced a divorce in the early ’80’s. Notable among their successes was the magnificent Leica R3 (1976, seen above), which boasted center-weighted metering, an improved mount to better accommodate a variety of lenses, and a more responsive shutter, all making for a full-on comeback for the folks in Wetzlar.
After the breakup, Minolta entered into a later arrangement with Sony, as eventually would Leica, which also went on to share technology with Panasonic. Neither company would ever again fly completely solo, and their original collaboration would demonstrate that even the companies with the highest pedigrees could enhance their survival in a fiercely competitive global market by thinking outside their own branded boxes.
RECOMMENDED READING: Josh Solomon, The Sweetest Taboo: The Unlikely Story Of Leitz-Minolta.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR BOTH ARTIST AND AUDIENCE, operates like all the other arts, in that it affords us entry into a million worlds beyond the narrow confines of our own. The camera is both reporter and thief, a kind of mechanical pack rat that comes back to home base bearing treasures from other people’s lives. Like poetry, painting, literature, and music, the art of making images is an act of purloining pieces of things that do not belong to us. And that’s a good thing?
The question mark at the end of that sentence is needful, as are further inquiries. Are the things we nick from the stores of other people’s experience thefts, or are they an innocent sampling of wonder, like a bunch of wildflowers carried home from the field? Obviously, such questions can only be settled one picture at the a time. Photographers have, indeed, hooked themselves, worm-like, onto the hearts of people who are both content and suffering, of those who deserve some kind of baseline privacy which the very existence of the camera has placed at risk.
In making pictures of children at play, I make no bones about the fact that I am, certainly, eavesdropping on their experience. It can’t be expressed any other way. I am using a machine to freeze slices of their joy in an effort to enhance my own. But it’s not a predatory activity per se: I have no criminal motive in stealing a fragment of their carefree game, which is both private and public property in a strange see-saw that photographers must always struggle to keep in balance. The photograph shown here, for example, is more benign, even respectful, than the work of a reporter, say, who, under deadline, must extract loss or grief from the aftermath of war or disaster to earn his daily bread. But is my invasion only a friendly one because I have told myself it is? This is all to be discussed further, and by “further”, I mean “endlessly”.
In other arts, the audience comes into contact with a variety of lives, and yet, in novels or movies, those lives are largely invented to illustrate the creator’s point of view. In a photograph, the subjects are actual people, and our parking ourselves near them for our enjoyment dictates different rules of engagement. Appropriating someone’s story makes you, as its next translator, responsible for its truth.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS MUCH AS WE’D LIKE TO PRE-VISUALIZE OR PLAN OUR IMAGES, the practice of photography is still chiefly a test to see how well we calculate and react in the moment. We all love to map out the various itineraries for our respective photo safaris in advance, but are also keenly aware that everything, literally everything in our blueprint can, and should be, blown to bits the moment magic is afoot.
The image you see here is the product of such a moment.
Officially, on the day this was taken, I was at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to scope out new birdwatching sites. I was a first-timer on the property, wandering pretty much in whichever direction my friends decided to drift. At some point, a smaller portion of our party decided to trek along the edge of the Salt River, in search of what I had no idea, or design. Half a mile or so later, I was surprised to have our point man remark that he had seen two horses wading and munching along the shore.
Barely five more minutes went by before it became clear that an entire small herd of wild mustangs had decided to cross the river from the far shore toward where we were standing. In what swiftly became something out of my own personal chapter of Lonesome Dove, I scrambled for an open space on the river’s sandy beach and, without thinking very much, cranked out as many frames at as many different exposures as I could. The entire parade got across in the space of barely two minutes. There was no way to plan: this was the frontier equivalent of what urban street shooters call “run and gun”. All in or all out.
But here’s the deal: while the appearance of a clutch of wild horses during a casual stroll certainly exemplifies the There Are No Second Chances rule in a very obvious way, all photographers are operating under that same rule all the time, in every situation. We may not be at risk of missing our own personal Wild West Fantasy, but there are thousands of expressions, variances of light, rapid transitions and other immeasurable changes that we stand to lose in every single shooting scenario. We are always being challenged to detect and isolate such moments-within-moments, with big events or small, and we need to calculate and click before the horses reach the opposite shore.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST REPEATED TROPES IN PHOTOGRAPHIC INSTRUCTION in recent years has been some variant on the “there are no rules” theme, as if all of image-making were some miraculous hybrid of instinct and chance. And while I certainly applaud an attitude of flexibility when it comes to artistic expression, and even allowing for personal preferences for baseline techniques or practices, I would assert that, for nearly all photographers, there is one immutable law, and that is, simply, to allow yourself the opportunity to fail.
Failure is the cheapest and most lasting of educational building blocks. No art happens out of a natural superabundance of talent or taste: it has to be nurtured through the refinement of negative feedback. Even the most advanced AI devices feed off of bad data; evaluating errors, filtering them out, re-designing systems to reject those errors in future iterations. Failure in photography, defined here as “making bad pictures”, is the only correct path to making good ones. There is no technical advancement or ideal toy that can short-cut this process. You simply have to put in the time.
This is means learning to love your losers, to, in fact, have a particular gratitude for the shots you blow. Just as we lament over other mistakes we’ve made in our lives, we naturally linger over our artistic miscalcuations. The mis-read light. The fouled focus. The Compositions From Hell. The gap between what we could see and what we could induce our camera to see. And, most significantly, our own ignorance or life inexperience. Mistakes make us questions things in a way that successes seldom do.
A picture doesn’t even have to be a flat-out flop to gnaw at us, to demand re-takes and re-thinks, as seen in the image above, which neither completely delights or disgusts me, but certainly haunts me. The near misses can sometimes nag us as mercilessly as the missed-by-a-miles. More aggravating still is the fact that some of the very things that drive us mad will totally skate past the casual observer, or even appear to them to be “just fine”. Happily, as we develop, we learn to trust our own eye and dismiss everyone else’s as, well, irrelevant. Buying a more expensive camera, trying to “go with the flow”, following trends….nothing can compete with the slow, gradual, agonizing, and eventually gratifying process of snapping a lot of duds and changing course as we digest what went wrong until the problem is addressed.
The study of photography is fat with experts who swear it’s all about a whole bunch of rules on one end and people on the other extreme who declare that rules are meaningless. The real truth, your truth, is somewhere in between those two poles. But believe this: there is no substitute, formal or otherwise, for doing your homework, loving your losers as if they were wayward children, and working honestly to bring them right.
IF YOU’VE SHOPPED FOR A CAMERA OVER THE PAST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OR SO, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen a chart similar to the one shown here, which compares the dimensions of variously sized digital camera sensors. Across the history of photography, there have always been a selection of frame shapes and sizes on offer, many passing in and out of existence based on technical advancements or the changing needs of shooters. In the digital era, however, there are more formats existing side-by-side than ever before, each grappling for their chunk of the overall marketplace.
The longest-lasting such configuration is the “full-frame” format, which carries over the basic dimensions of the old 35mm film frame. When introduced in the 1920’s by Oskar Barnack, it sped his development of the Leica and the introduction of hand-held or “miniature” cameras, which freed amateurs from the bulkier “medium format” cameras of the period. With many popular consumer films like Kodachrome created specifically for it, 35mm remained pretty close to a universal format until the 21st century, when early digital cameras began to offer the convenience of ever-smaller sensors. Of these, the APS-C, or “crop” sensor became the new standard of use for DSLRS, compacts and “bridge’ cameras. The crop, as its name implies, delivers a smaller frame area (and fewer pixels) than an FF, changing a larger image’s focal length by a multiplier (or “crop factor”on the chart) of roughly 1.5x. Your lens may say that it’s a 50mm, but, with the multiplier, on your crop sensor camera, your focal length is effectively 75mm.
And so things progress across the chart as you move further to the right on the chart. Each smaller-sized format has its own listed crop factor, with each higher number giving you a smaller percentage of the framing area in a full-frame format. Trends in the camera market have shifted back and forth a lot in the digital age, but none of the listed formats has managed to eclipse the rest to become a truly universal standard. Full-frame is still a factor, but has become increasingly expensive since fewer models are offered than was the case just a few years ago . 4/3rds has its fans, both for convenience and compactness, but, as is generally true of smaller sensors with fewer pixels, it can perform poorly in low light. Cellphone cameras, some of the smallest sensors available, began their run at a definite disadvantage when it came to resolution, with even more image loss once their pictures were translated through apps. However, each new iteration of the technology deals more effectively with these problems, and cels can no longer be dismissed as “not real cameras”. Just depends what you need and what you are willing to pay for/do without/put up with/settle for.
Size discussions off to the side, sensors rise or fall on how efficiently they process light. Some bitty ones do a bang-up job, while some larger ones are flat horrible. Overall they are a miraculous improvement over even great film because their sensitivity and performance can be customized in-camera and on-the-fly. That’s a consistent truth in photography: anything that gets out from between you and the easy making of pictures is a good thing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN THE HALTING EARLY DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, the only thing balkier than the making of an image was in getting one’s work seen outside the artist’s personal social circle. Several dozen technical revolutions later, we take real-time distribution networks for granted, accustomed to a reality with literally no time lag between the generation of a picture and its dissemination to the world at large. Click, it exists. Click Click, it’s published. That is now the rhythm of a photograph. It’s ours, and everybody’s, in the same instant .
That immediacy has proven to be of incredible value in our most recent Great Hibernation, as a virtual way of compensating for the shrinking of our material worlds. Early 19th-century photographs were initially stunted in their impact on society, since they had to overcome the obstacles of space and time to reach mass audiences. A picture made in one place had to be physically shipped or transported to the few centers from which it could be faithfully reproduced and effectively shared. A lockdown of the entire world in such a time would have corraled art into small local sectors of influence, whereas Covid-19 internees have lost nothing in the options for connecting their visions with the entire globe at a keystroke. Thus our literal isolation has a kind of modern-day antidote, in that our art can travel where we cannot. And so, in terms of images, two opposing statements are nonetheless equally true: we are all going through this alone, and we are all going through this together.
Photographs have indeed proven the great storytellers in this weird, weird banishment. In the years ahead, volumes will be written on the psychic and emotional damage suffered by those who will have survived these times. That damage is real, and will probably be long-lasting for some. But, in what must be one of the most bizarre sources of comfort possible, it’s hard to imagine how much worse the isolation would have been in an earlier time, a time when going it alone also meant not being able to release a little carrier pigeon of wonderment or hope via our poetry, our wonderings, or our pictures. Can a camera save one’s sanity? Not literally, of course. However, the time-honored thrill of being able to simply shout across a canyon and get an answer back has a modern analog, and sometimes that echo comes in the form of an image.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHERLOCK HOLMES BUILT A CAREER ON LEAVINGS. The master sleuth of Baker Street was not famous not so much for actually catching malefactors in the act, but by being the first on the scene to decipher clues they left behind, in ashes from cigars or traces of muddy footprints, determining if the Bad Guys had been there as well as where they might likely appear next. In those early days of forensic analysis, Holmes was a little like a photographer, who frequently happens on scenes that are both the echoes and the harbingers of human activity.
In the past year, shooters have spent a lot of time walking deserted cities, framing up the echoes of events that were called off or interrupted, analyzing the streets for evidence of the people who have fled them for safer quarters. Neon signs that blink and boast to no one; infrastructures built to accommodate multitudes, now reduced to dusty silence. Pictures made of these things are, in some ways, proof that people were here just a minute ago, and may, in fact, sneak back soon, in staggered, smaller waves…..a few brave walkers or bored explorers at a time. Indeed, many of us are making what I call “you just missed them” pictures…..shots that prove that, like us, others ventured out for a look at the emptiness, or might even have tried to re-fill it for a time, then retreated.
The timid re-beginnings of things are under way now, and our brief, out-of-the-cave venturings are slowly building back to nominal speed, with things like baseball, once so omnipresent as to be invisible, now returning like a spring shoot. In small parks and playgrounds, you may still find it hard to arrive at the precise moment when actual humans are on the scene. Some days you overlap with each other, other days we’re like Holmes examining the traces of someone who’s left some kind of mark, like the phantom footprints seen here around home plate. We still have to imagine the bodies, the cries of “play ball”, the whir of activity. Right now, there are just traces of people who, like us, have decided to walk outside and see what’s up. But the traffic is returning, and, with it, the opportunity to, like Holmes, ascertain that “the game’s afoot.”
Once again, the imperatives that determine what kinds of pictures we make are about to redefined. And persistently clicking away, as the changes roll on, is the true role of photography, as we stitch a bunch of isolated, frozen moments into a narrative quilt.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO LOOK MOST KINDLY ON THOSE LENSES that will perform the widest variety of tasks. Over time, photography can easily experience what the military call mission creep, with equipment escalating in both cost and complexity as the hobby sinks its roots into the bedrock of our little shooter’s souls. This can contribute to an ever-escalating array of specialized tools, or what I call more and more of things that do less and less. Over the decades, my aching back and wounded wallet have conspired to make me seek out optics that can handle macro, landscape, street and portrait work all by themselves, shrinking the number of instances in which I have to switch to hyper-dedicated gizmos, thus increasing how much I lug about with me. That said (don’t you hate sentences that begin this way?), there are times when you need a scalpel instead of a Swiss army knife.
A fisheye is the textbook example of an over-specialized lens, a hunk of glass that delivers a very distinctive, very controversial view of the world. To some, they are the gateway to innovation, to viewpoints beyond the power of the human eye. To others, they’re a gimmicky abomination. They’re really just ultra wide-angles that take in such a vast view (anywhere from 120 to 180 degrees or even wider) that they literally bend the field of vision, encompassing shots within an actual circle in full-frame cameras or what’s called a diagonal fisheye in cropped sensors. In both cases, the shot features dark vignettes at the corners in images where proportions are nearly normal at the center, then increasingly bowed-out closer to the edge of the shot. They are still in the minority as far as general lens use is concerned for a variety of reasons, including the rarity of cases in which they can be truly appropriate or effective, the heinous cost of the good ones, and the heinous artifacts in the cheap ones.
I happened to have lucked out with a fisheye that is fairly crisp and free of chroma flaring at f/16 or smaller, although the accompanying need for increased ISO bears watching. I shoot on a crop, so I don’t worry about maintaining the “encircled” look since I can’t get it anyway, allowing me to crop to wherever the frame is strongest. In the “before” shot of a strange but huge art installation at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden (see above), you see what a standard 18mm wide-angle will do. Given that I had very limited space either behind or above me, there was no way to back up in order to include the entire scene, and so, out came the fisheye, shooting at about 12mm and taking in a 160mm field of view (see below).
Now, standing in exactly the same place, I could see where the “yellow wave” of straw-like fibers originated at the far end of the shot, while the distortion factor in the lens gave the flow of straws a kind of “S” curve as it made its way to the foreground. Other considerations: super-wides exaggerate the distance between front and back, making the whole installation seem more vast than it was in reality; and also, by keeping most of the crucial action in the center, I kept the image’s most radical distortion (like on the footbridge at upper left) confined to the outer edge of the composition.
Would I, for this shot, have resorted to the fisheye except out of desperation? Unlikely. It is not a “go to” tool in any real way, since like all gimmick glass tends to pull attention away from the subject and toward itself. However, even though I love to head out with “one lens to rule them all”, I find, like any good sawbones, that I will, occasionally, need that scalpel.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A FEW YEARS AGO, in trying to express what it felt like not to have a distinctly defined photographic style, I used the title of one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, a phrase which even Van The Man may have lived to regret. The idea was that I couldn’t trace my own approach to making pictures directly to any particular mentor, not that I was so bloody original that I had never fallen under anyone’s influence. The problem in identifying my teachers, gurus and methods was certainly my own; I simply found it hard to draw a straight line from the examples of various photographers to elements of my own work. Now, I find that I can enumerate many profound professors, once I realized that the best of them are often not photographers at all.
That’s where my wife Marian comes in.
I have already spoken at length in these pages of her amazing value to me as a muse and model, but her ability to inspire me as a subject is separate and distinct from her role as a real and fundamental teacher. We’re not talking technical instruction here. This is a woman who has seldom even picked up a camera unless it was in the service of candid shots of friends and loved ones, or as a recording device to freeze the good times of a trip or vacation. Nonetheless she has taught me to see in very specific ways, expanding my idea of what should even be looked at. That ability resides in her love of the natural world, a place where she is a native and I am often a mere visitor. Her passion for birdwatching, for example, has helped me shoot anything, bird or object, with greater patience and deliberation, showing me the value of waiting for your moment. In her case, that might mean standing for fifteen minutes for a glimpse of the bright flicker on the wing of a flitting bluebird, while the equivalent for me might be the discipline to wait for light which, if I wait for an extra five minutes, will be perfect for exactly ten seconds.
Just as most of my other best photographic teachers are not shooters per se, Marian teaches by not trying to; her curiosity incites my own; her humility refines my own. I happily list her among the poets, illustrators, spiritualists and secular saints, from James Thurber to Emerson to Gibran, who have shown me things that no purely technical instruction ever could. Certainly among my heroes are listed many who are, in fact, actual photographers, but, since photography occurs in the eye and the soul long before it animates the hand, there are many people I love for the pictures that reside exclusively in their souls. Marian and I, like many millions of other couples, have spent three lifetimes together over the past year, and she has helped me go from caterpillar to butterfly in the metamorphosis of my camera work. That’s a gift beyond price, and a learning experience beyond the limiting titles of teacher, guru, or method.
And I am grateful.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS A UNIQUE MARRIAGE OF SETTING AND SUBJECTS, that delicate balance of locations and denizens that make streets into neighborhoods. The drama created in such studies is always a thrilling, moment-to-moment improvisation in which small things generate big effects. Incremental changes in the scenario, like waiting for the old man with the dog to walk directly under the deli sign, or framing the sullen teen right next to a reflective window, can be the difference between something that’s merely quaint and something that’s universal. And the more crowded with subjects the frame is in a street shot, the more options there are to weigh. Doing choreography for a lone dancer is not the same thing as blocking out space an entire troupe.
Streets shots are about weighing the importance of several things at once, in opposition to each other rather than as isolated elements. Tensions are set, tightened and released; motives are explored and exploited. In 2021’s cautious re-emergence from our respective quarantine caves, we are not only re-learning the flexing of our own muscles; we are also watching the equivalent adjustment in others. With or without a camera in hand, we are all more deliberate people watchers in this nervous re-entry phase. People are not, at least for right now, mere wallpaper, but active orbiting bodies in little constellations. We are a little more keenly aware, as we venture out, what their personal Great To Be Back moments are. Perhaps, in time, we will go back to our old habit of generally walking past each other, but now, in this careful new world, we are paying a little more attention. And those of us who, through photography, are in the habit of seeing with a little extra intensity will be in for a feast.
As stated before, the more people you decide to include in a street shot, the more choreography there is to fuss over. In the “day-out-with-dad” scenario shown here, I had several stories that all wanted telling at the same time. In some frames shot over the space of a minute (about eight), various players were all contending for star status. In some shots, the father seemed to be guiding the kids and the dog. In a few, the dog’s personality as explorer-at-large seemed to place his energy in charge. In yet more, the young girl seemed to be trying to run things by standing atop the rock on which, in the selected frame, she’s seen leaning. Thus, in the final version, she’s a little more passive, Dad is trying to keep things in balance, and the dog is definitely on point as the overall leader of the expedition.
All versions of this scene had their elements of tension, warmth and humor, and so in choosing a single final rendition, I was neither right or wrong. The joy of the enterprise was in the element of spontaneous creation offered by what was happening upon the stage and amongst the players. I could write the ending so the guy gets the girl or where the cowboy just rides into the sunset, but that part is really unimportant. In street photography, the potential is the attraction. We are only able to extract a single instant to suggest a whole reality, and both the thrill and the terror of that choice, while it’s no walk in the park, is, for some, simply irresistible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DISCUSSIONS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY begin with a body of commonly held terms, the basic and uniform names given to things. Such common ground is vital if we’re to understand each other. I can’t expect you to hand me a hammer if I ask you for a wrench. And so we base all our conversations about making images on words that mean generally the same to all of us….focus, aperture, exposure, etc. Makes sense, doanit?
And yet, over the years, we can disagree on what some of those words even mean, and that can slow down discourse.
Take the word monochrome. Most simply translated from the original Greek word monochromos, it means “having one color”, just as a monopod is a one-legged tripod. Seems a simple enough concept, and yet, in recent years, photographic journals, camera manufacturers and, Lord save us, blogs have increasingly begun to define the word as something that is color-less…that is, black-and-white. I know, seems like a really nit-picky point to raise in these complicated times of serious issues. And yet, if we allow imprecise speech to creep into our communications, we eventually get discourse which is imprecise as well.
Black-and-white, or grayscale is monochrome, but not all monochrome is black and white. The image seen here consists of varying tones of a single color, and so, strictly speaking, it is monochromatic, but is certainly not grayscale. Since photography was exclusively b&w for almost a century before films could produce a complete range of hues, we tend to think of the medium as being divided into two eras, Before Color and After Color. However, shooters who worked nearly their entire careers in grayscale, or, let’s say, a good 2/3 of an Ansel Adams’ lifespan, black-and-white was not “colorless” but a kind of color all its own, as legitimate as blue or red or whatever have you. Under the present understanding of these things, however, my image of a warm orange railway bench would be summarily tossed out of any image sharing site that defined itself as monochrome-themed. And that would be wrong.
Yes, I know……
Can’t you think of anything else to obsess over on a Sunday morning, old man?, I hear you moaning. Well, yes, yes I can. However, a 400-word treatise on why my poached eggs were runny at breakfast wouldn’t exactly leave readers riveted either, so, for the moment, let’s not call a wrench a hammer, and let’s not pretend that only grayscale is monochrome.
THIS FORUM HAS NEVER REALLY BEEN ABOUT GEAR, being an examination of why we make photographs rather than what specific equipment we use to do so. Of course, pictures aren’t born in a vacuum, so, even with the purest artistic motives, you still need a mechanism of some kind to carry out your wishes…and that means that some of what we discuss here is very much about what happens in them little magic light boxes. Still, this awareness has never led us into actual recommendations for specific products, as there are simply too many such advisories littering up the webby highway without me jumping into the fray.
Such neutrality about suggesting what to buy, however, can be maintained if I am listing reasons not to buy a camera, as such cautions transcend brands and models. That is, no matter why you decide to go gear shopping, there are things that should always be borne in mind, if our point is the motivation behind photography and not the devices we use. Call it a “how to not do” list. So, assume for a moment that you are suddenly in the market for a new gadget and consider the following.
DO NOT buy a camera because your friend, uncle, friend at the factory or buddy at the camera store uses it. Unless they are also going to take your pictures for you, their advice is so subjective as to be worthless.
Even in the age of easy online returns, do yourself a favor and DO NOT buy a camera that you’ve never held in your hand. The ergonomic layout of cameras varies widely from maker to maker, and it really does make a difference where they stick the buttons.
DO NOT buy any more camera than you need for what you do right now. It’s all right to select a few features that you may eventually use, even if you don’t use them at present. But that’s a far cry from buying a device that is drowning in options, seldom-used features, and infinite sub-menus. Pay good money for just the camera you need, with a smidge of extra growth room built-in. If you later find that you’ve outgrown the camera, then and only then is it time to trade up. Gear that is too strong on extra gizmos only gets partly used and can be intimidating enough to wind up in the hall closet a year later, after you’ve gone back to your cell phone.
DO NOT assume that the latest thing is the greatest thing. Manufacturers make their profits on the backs of customers who can be made to feel dissatisfied with what they own, and obsolescence is built into their marketing. There is aIso the problem that some companies’ models decrease in quality or precision as the brand ages (or as they chase greater profits). If your camera helps you take good pictures easily, and without a lot of exotic setup or detours, then keep it until it disintegrates in your hand.
DO NOT purchase equipment that places unnecessary obstacles between your conception and the finished product. If going from framing to shooting involves too many steps, your camera is taking your attention away from seeing, and that means missing shots. Making a picture should be as effortless as 1, 2, 3. If you already are on step 5 before you even click the shutter, get another camera.
DO NOT initially over-invest in a battalion of specialized lenses. You will eventually get to the point where lugging all that load will prove either inconvenient or painful or both, and many a photographer has eventually winnowed down his/her “must-carry” gear to a single lens that delivers 90% of what they want 90% of the time. Think about how much fun it is to lug around a lot of devices that only do a single task, and then run in the opposite direction.
Finally, DO NOT buy a camera that you are not head-over-heels, OMG, stop-the-presses in love with. Anything less will also wind up in the aforementioned hall closet.
Smmary: photography is about the gear….sometimes, but mostly it’s about everything else. Sexy ads and four-star reviews are deliriously distracting, and we all love to dream. But mostly, we’re here to make pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S NOT HYPERBOLE TO SAY THAT THE GREAT HIBERNATION, our global banishment from our regular lives, feels a bit like living through a war. As in a traditional conflict, there are separations, sudden deaths, deprivations, and a feeling of “where have I been?” that accompanies our every venture outside our safe zones. So many of us have simply backed out of the flow of time that, as in times of war, we are startled by what has been altered or even vanished since the last time we cautiously emerged to explore the sites of our old existence. And that shock, in turn, informs all of our art, including, of course, photography.
The first thing that we notice is that so many things that were solid and substantial before we ducked under cover have been either greatly altered or completely vaporized. And the sensation is not limited to things that were already crumbling, but also includes things that were just becoming part of our world in the moments immediately before the lockdown. Places that just cut their ribbons of newness a heartbeat ago, but which already find themselves neutralized, obsolete. Of course, society is always closing chapters and tearing down buildings, in a cycle of goodbyes that seem almost normal, pandemic or no. But the toll created by our withdrawal from the daily parade also lists things that were just getting started, the space between their grand opening days and dark closing nights shrunk by circumstance . And our photographs of those things, taken either before or after these brief appearances, are poignant images of what might have been, a measure of the gap between our hopes and the ruthless randomness of this strange new world.
As one example, consider this image of Vessel, a bold (and controversial) open-air attraction that acts as a kind of visual rendezvous at the head of the massive new Hudson Yards district in Manhattan. Part sculpture, part observation deck, part tourist trap, the structure sits opposite the main entry to the Yards’ Public Square mall. Built at a cost of 200 million dollars, it rose to sixteen floors, honeycombed 154 flights of stairs, and became an instant hit with visitors, who were admitted via free but timed tickets. Vessel’s very bigness rendered its actual value as art moot; like the Eiffel Tower (to which it was compared) or Niagara Falls, it just was, and, in so being, became part of what you do when you “do” New York. It opened to the public in March of 2019.
You can guess a lot of what followed. As NYC locked down, retail took a major hit and retail on the massively ostentatious scale seen at Hudson Yards took an even bigger one. Leases were renegotiated, then abandoned outright. The project (still unfinished) that was designed to reconfigure an entire economic sector of the Apple was down on one knee. And something weirdly symptomatic of the times occurred with Vessel; people started to jump off of it to their deaths. Last month (January 2021), the structure was closed “indefinitely”, its term as a pet chunk of Americana capped at just under two years’ time.
I was lucky enough to photograph Vessel in person, creating day and night images that now seem as bizarre as launch-party pix of the Hindenburg or snapshots from Titanic. Photographers often catch a flavor of a time by accident, and many of our personal archives are populated by things we never thought of as perishable or mortal at the moment we shot them. Vessel is just one very public barometer of Dreams Gone Wrong, visions that deserve to be preserved inside our magic light boxes, either as tributes to our dreams or tombstones to our folly.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I REMEMBER BEING FASCINATED as a child by the 1963 film The Birdman Of Alcatraz, based loosely on the life of murderer Robert Stroud, whose accumulated crimes drew him a life sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, centered on Stroud’s almost accidental introduction to birds, an improvised pastime which blossomed into an extensive and self-taught study of ornithology. The story’s biggest impact on me was the idea that someone could center on the smallest scintilla of hope, something others around you might ignore or simply not see at all, and that such small things might lead beyond mere survival to a kind of separate peace, even wisdom. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a better model than that of a total psychopath. Still, the idea of being able to successfully navigate isolation was one that occasionally fascinated me over a lifetime. It’s also come to mind a great deal over the past year.
To paraphrase a cliched expression, we are all Burt Lancaster now; we have all learned to place greater focus on smaller worlds, and it is no accident that one of the biggest growth industries during our Global Great Hibernation has been the hobby of birdwatching. It’s cheap, it’s relatively easy to break into, and it’s as close as your window. More importantly, it’s a reassurance that life, or some semblance of it, has gone on, even if all we can do is watch as it wafts by. Like Stroud, we are all improvising to reduce the ache of greatly reduced circumstances. And like prisoners everywhere, confined behind either tangible or figurative bars, we are able, maybe for the first time, to see, in depth, something that was all but invisible to our previous system of seeing.
For photographers, including this one, birds can be a metaphor for many things we already value about our art. Color, motion, texture, context, even a kind of portraiture…all are addressed in trying to assign traits or personalities to flying creatures. Working from the long, empty days, we slow down and deepen our observational powers. We view things in finer depths and degrees, in inches rather than miles now. I will freely admit that my own photographic coverage of birds had been, during The Before Times, confined to the easiest, most obvious captures; flocks caught accidentally in a vast beach vista; raptors in zoo cages; the occasional comic shot of a gull stealing a hot dog, etc. The quarantine has altered all that, stretching time like taffy, elongating our implementation of any undertaking from hours to days. But this is not an effort to overprescribe a general therapy for everyone; your “birds” may be furniture, the veins of a leaf, still lifes of your accumulated buffalo nickels. This is why we have congregations of varying denominations. While I am worshipping at the first temple of the ruby-throated sparrow, you may bow your head at the Community Church of the Holy Art Deco Ashtray or some such. The idea is that photography always benefits from patience and deliberation. Snap shots are marvelous manifestations of our impulses, but they are not the products of quiet contemplation.
My point is that there is room in your photography for both the spontaneous and the deliberative. In my case, tiny tweeters have become a kind of surrogate for human subjects, as I find myself searching their faces for traces of motive, emotion, even joy. Unlike the Birdman of Alcatraz, most of us will eventually be sprung, released back into the larger work yard, hopefully having learned a little more about playing well with others. And the pictures we made behind walls will be, in lasting ways, capable of taking grander flight.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN BEGINNING FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, students are typically steeped in whole systems of procedure on the creation of a composition. In this pursuit, we’ve all trudged through swamps of techno-sludge, from “golden triangle” to “rule of thirds” to “leading lines”, along with dozens of other schemes for organizing visual information within the frame. Many of these credos are, in fact, valuable in training the eye to prioritize the data in their pictures and streamline their effectiveness, and I applaud their use. What irks the semanticist within me, however, is when these tips are referred to as rules. That’s when things wander into the weeds.
This is not mere finicky wordplay on my part; first, the idea of the word “rules” being applied to something as mutative as art makes no sense to me. It is in the defiance of accepted norms that art fully triumphs, and photography cannot breathe if it’s drowning in its own catechism. I understand that we humans love to list things, to map steps out in order of perceived importance. However, when it comes to arranging the photographic frame, I contend that all the approaches we learn about are merely that…approaches, and that, were I to grudgingly use the word rule in regard to composition, that there would only be one: engage the eye.
What else is there? Photographs begin as one person’s vision sent forth with the aspiration of becoming a shared experience. To that end, everything is about grabbing the viewer’s eye and effectively saying, here is where I want you to look; here is the order of importance among the things in this picture. All of the tricks taught about composition are merely a means to acheiving, by many roads, this one objective. Use whatever graphs, spirals, force perspectives or focus tricks you like, or mix them all together; if they don’t result in a conversation between you, the picture and the audience, then you have nothing except mere technical mastery. And just as there are paintings that are more expert in execution than in emotional effect, there are millions of wondrous exposures that communicate nothing.
In the inset above, the original of a street scene image is an attempt to express the size and energy of an urban neighborhood. There’s nothing technically wrong with the picture, but, after looking at it for several weeks, I decided that the energy of the shot lay not in the car traffic or even the height of the buildings, but in the conversation between the two men at left. In the cropped version of the shot, seen directly above, this relationship is pushed to the foreground, without losing the feel of the city’s busy energy or scope. Certainly, basic compositional rules might have pronounced the first shot “balanced”, but it’s the deliberate intervention taken to create the tighter version that is an act of composition. And, of course, this is not meant to hold my own work out as an example to be followed. It’s just an illustration of the point that rule-breaking is where pictures begin, not where they go to die. Even though a picture is mounted on a wall with the help of a hammer and nail, no one would argue that either the hammer or the nail is what makes the picture compelling. Engage the eye, and you will have faithfully executed the only compositional “rule” that matters.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NO SOONER OUT OF THE CRADLE than it was being aggressively tweaked and twiddled with, in a thousand myriad experiments aimed at improving it both technically and aesthetically. Seldom has the birth of an art form been accompanied by a surge of re-inventive energy equal to or greater than its release of creative energy. Photographs were both art and science, a strange hybrid of human expression and mechanical reproduction. One of the earliest and most consistent treasure hunts in the young craft was the quest for color, simulated and daubed on at first, then integrated into the actual making of the picture in-camera. In this age, which could be labeled Photography Century III, we use color mostly without thinking, even though it is one of the most crucial elements in how we tell stories in pictures.
Although the first practical color films date back to the early 1930’s, mostly by way of Kodachrome and its later imitators, the majority of important photographs for the first half of the twentieth century were taken and published in monochrome. In the minds of the pros like Ansel Adams, early printing processes for color were unsteady or “untrue”, with only mass-circulation magazines using them with any regularity (with a ton of touch-up) until well after World War II. After all the G.I. Joes and Janes came home, the tidal wave of leisure culture that accompanied them also brought a new explosion in amateur color photography, although it was not until the 1970’s that the economy of global film sales truly tipped in favor of the rainbow. Today, for many, monochrome is now a nostalgic effect, a quaint way of recalling the “look” of earlier photographic eras.
In 2021, our attitude about hue is all over the road. Some still obsessively pursue the most accurate depiction of “natural” colors as is technically possible, while, for many others, color is negotiable, malleable. We acknowledge its power as an expressive tool, but we tinker with it for interpretative purposes more than ever before. We even seek out software designed to re-produce the color errors or biases of bygone brands of film stock, seeking a color that is technically “wrong” in order to get the right “feel”. We shoot with color as we use any other modern means of expression, which is to say, with an overlay of irony.
In making an image like the one seen here, the very nature of the subject is a kind of unreality, since the desert blooms and bushes used in this art installation have been dyed before the work was assembled, in an array of colors that is nothing like the limited palette they would display in their natural state. The resulting work is thus a kind of psychedelic fever dream of a desert scene. Do I record this as I find it? Do I remix the colors even further to interweave my own mood into it? Just trying to render an accurate record of this object with the color films of long ago would have been enough to send the most battle-hardened photo editor into choleric fits, and yet today, we accept that color is, as with any other element in a photograph, precisely what we say it is, and nothing more. In a way, we’ve come full circle to photography’s earliest days, before the development of actual color film, when painters touched up black-and-white images with whatever arbitrary color choices they thought “completed” the picture. Is it art? Is it not? The answer is, it is ours, a response which silences all other questions.