the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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ROCK STEADY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I MAKE NO SECRET OF THE FACT that I would thunderously applaud the total disappearance of tripods from everyday photography. Beyond the pure pain, to both back and neck, created by an abundance of camera luggage, I feel that (a) pods utterly short-circuit the concept of spontaneity in the making of pictures and (b) two centuries-and-change is more than enough time for mankind to have perfected the light sensitivity of recording media (film, sensors, etc.) or to have invented the ideal stabilization system for cameras themselves.

And while there have been amazing advancements in both A and B ), there will still, perhaps always, be at least a few cases when a handheld shot will forever be denied us. And I freely admit that there are those for whom, for one physical reason or another, the pod is an absolute necessity, and I certainly do not mean to seem unkind in wishing that that was not so. Trying to train oneself to remain rock steady when shooting handheld is a very personal matter, and results vary wildly. I have known people who are solid enough to qualify as human tripods themselves, stolid folks who could probably nail a sharp image in the middle of a tsunami, while there are others who labor mightily in all but the most ideal conditions. A blessing upon both houses.

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I’ve tried many exercises to brace the camera against my body, along with experiments in breath control, changes in ISO for faster exposures….you name it, I’ve given it a go. I’ve managed to eliminate the tripod for many shots that used to absolutely require it, such as super-close macros, but, even there, I occasionally have to drag the three-legged beast out of the closet for one last curtain call. Where I’ve seen the most frustration is with so-called “super-zooms” cameras, with some models already actively working against the shooter, either by jacking up the ISO to compensate for the loss in light at super-zoom range, increasing digital noise, or just having inadequate stabilization when the telephoto range is beyond 400mm, which plays hell with resolution, as seen with the cactus wren above.

Such circumstances would seem to argue for the fixed position that a pod offers, but here again, we get back to the idea of spontaneity and flexibility, crucial considerations when your subject is a bird of other wildlife. Shooting something stationary at a distance actually benefits from the use of the pod, whereas tracking a living creature makes it virtually useless. The answer to the problem still seems to exist in the forward-thinking tech that is forever evolving: that is, make all lenses perform better under low-light conditions, and evolve stabilization to the point where even a drunk with the DTs can hold the shot steadily enough for nearly any situation. The tripod is a relic of the 1800’s. It belongs in a museum, not in a kit bag.

SWEET CLAUSTROPHOBIA

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ENOUGH WITH THE FLOWERS.

Give the birds a rest. Put the quiet trails and placid sunsets on pause.

I want my skyscrapers back.

Yes, I’ve dutifully done my photographic confinement therapy, like everyone else whose worlds have shrunk during the Great Hibernation. I’ve lovingly lingered over the natural world, embraced the tiny universes revealed by my macro lenses and close-up filters. I’ve properly marveled at the wonder of simple things, patiently revealed in the quiet composure of a more inward kind of photo-therapy.

It was needful. It was even helpful. Hell, on a few days, it was essential. But instead of steady, slow inspirations into the deepest reaches of my lungs, I now long for shallow, quick breaths, terse inhalations of monoxide, stolen as I dash across a crowded crosswalk. I want to dodge things. I want to run for a train. I need to see the infinite collision of brick, stone, and steel textures all fighting for my visual attention in a mad crush.

I want to hear noise.

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I can make myself comfortable, even modestly eloquent, shooting the splendors of the natural world. God knows we have placed too many barriers of estrangement from our inheritance in field and flower. But I have known, since I was a child, that my soul synched perfectly to the unnatural world, the arbitrary creation of we wicked, weak bipeds, with an affection that is every bit the equal to that which I feel for a tree or a blossom.

I see the same geometry and design in our crude imitations of nature as in the contours of the rose or the patterns within a cactus flower, and I’m not embarrassed to say that the spires, arches, bridges and alleyways that map our densest interactions give me an electric thrill. I should also add that I am not typical within my family, where there are far more Thoreaus, all centered on their respective Waldens, than there are Whitmans, who see glory in even  the failed strivings of the urban experiment. I take comfort in my sweet claustrophobia, and I make no apology for the fact that my photography breathes its fullest in cities.

There were, of course, millions for whom, during the Horror, cities were a cruel prison, and I absolutely get that. As the Eagles said, we are all just prisoners of our own device. Artists can create a heaven or hell in any setting, as witness the miraculous faith of prisoner poets or the inventive tinkering of a Robinson Crusoe. Confinement is largely a matter of geography or physical constraint, but, as we have all spent a long year discovering, it can be overcome by a refusal of the mind to remain locked into a particular place.

Still.

I have not yet completed my slow trip back to the hunting grounds where my cameras talk loudest to me. Like the start of our communal imprisonment, it will come in layers, in a million tiny shards of re-discovery. But it will come. My cities will be restored to me. My flowers and birds and bugs will always be celebrated as the protectors of my sanity, of the need to take my art inward from time to time. But right now, I need to get out on the streets, and see what’s up.

MONUMENTS TO MOMENPOPS

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

LIFE DURING PLAGUE-TIME has cut like a scythe through both the wheat and the chaff in the global economy, taking down both independent and chain-owned businesses alike, leveling enterprises that, in some cases, took generations to build. And in so doing, they have, in an instant, re-sculpted the visual contours of the world. In simple terms, the virus has changed what we see in daily life, if by no more sophisticated means than erasing the Cafe Down The Block, the Restaurant Where We Got Engaged, or the Donut Place I Stopped At Every Morning For Thirty Years.

Any business failure affects people, certainly, whether the doors close on a mega-chain or a mom-and-pop, but when independent businesses are shuttered, something else dies with them: the personal visual signature of their displays, trademarks, and original art….the home-made signs or bizarre architecture that separated them from the companies that have 200 locations nationwide. Take away one of fifteen Appleby’s in a city and the cultural loss is manageable. Take down a single local hang-out, and you’ve changed, along with the look of the area, its rhythms and rituals.

It’s too early to say what the most valuable photographs of this period will be over time, or what the word “valuable” even means to you personally. But just as we now look at the signage and storefronts of the ’30’s or ’50’s with a certain disbelief that such a world could have even existed, we will surely see a pattern of “befores” and “afters” from this time, with some of the images from the period charting who were were and what was lost as a result of the Grief Tsunami. Already, it’s possible to sort out images of places and things into a general “was” and “is”, a sensation which will only intensify in the years to come. If we’re careful, the passage of many of these places will be marked with sensitive pictures, or even casual snaps. The important thing, as always, is to sense what’s in the process of being taken away, and to designate some of it as worth preserving…if only in a series of glowing pixels.

VERITIES AND VARIABLES

By MICHAEL PERKINS 

FIRST OFF, LET’S AGREE ON ONE THING: photographs are not “the truth”. Well, at least not what we think we mean by truth. Maybe we use the “reality” of a captured image as a mere point of departure, the place we start off from, on the way to…well, that’s up to the artist, innit? What I’m trying to say here is that merely snapping a picture doesn’t mean that you’ve told the absolute truth about what your lens was pointing toward. Only the bones of truth…a structure on which to drape the rest, through interpretation, and the shared experience of inviting other eyes into the discussion. 

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Some of our inherited thinking about the veracity of a photo (“the camera doesn’t lie”) is that it is produced by a machine, a device inserted between our vision and the finished product, a mechanism that we associate with reproduction. After all the device measures light; it is indifferent, just as a seismograph or a lie detector would be. Only it isn’t. We humans are interacting with that “recording” function at every turn, just as personally as the painter measures and controls strokes of a brush. And then there’s the consideration of time. We don’t capture all of life in our box, just a stolen sliver of it, which guarantees that the sample, having been yanked out of its original context, is tainted from the start.

Even the best picture, then, comes out compromised, depending on how it was taken, and by whom. Clicking a shutter may be a means of producing something thought provoking, even profound, but it is nothing as simple as capturing the truth. As illustration: it’s easy to identify all the contributing elements of the above image….light, shadow, color, water textures, solid objects…but it was only possible to combine them all into the result you see here for a single moment. Someone else, working with the very same elements just a second later, would likely produce vastly different results. And yet, both of us are “right”.

Thinking of photographs as truth is tricky business. Consider this quote from photographer Giles Duley, who has garnered some distinction of late as what I call a camera-oriented journalist:

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘truth’ in photography. As soon as I walk in a room and point a camera at you, I’ve already ruled out the rest of the people. As soon as I press the shutter on that second, I’ve ruled out the rest of the day. There is only honesty….”

A photograph is something used to illustrate a point of view. It’s not the only point of view to be had, and so it can’t be the absolute “truth” for everyone. But that’s the beauty of it, the fascinatingly infinite variety of “my truths” to be had in the artistic realm. This is not science. Science is different. You can’t present your “version” of gravity, or photosynthesis, or the speed of light. They just are. Art happens in the realm of “might be” or “could be”, and our photographs are, at their best, suppositions, suggestions. This picture might be true, and it might not, and so let the debate begin. And that is what makes the creation of image an art. Because it’s yours, and, with luck, it might be ours, and the dialogue that decides that is, well, everything.  

DRILLING DOWN TO IT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MANY ONLINE PHOTO CONSIGNMENT SITES, which, of course, make lots of money by buying what shooters no longer love, claims, in its welcome page, that “research (?) shows that nearly half of U.S. photographers have cameras or lenses that they haven’t used in two years.” As evidence, this is both unprovable and un-unproveable. It may be total bushwah, and it may also be God’s truth. But for many people who’ve been shooting for a while, it kinda sorta feels….reasonable.

What would be more interesting to me, however, in terms of specious claims about what equipment we do or don’t use, would be a breakout (pie chart? bar chart? Venn diagram?) of which percentage of even our most favorite cameras we never, ever use, for anything. It’s not a stunning revelation that cameras are larded up with a lot of techo-fat, features upon features, menus upon menus of stuff that sounds wonderful in the brochures but doesn’t serve our most repeated or desired functions. The fact is that lots of gear can place many layers and barriers between what we see and how we set about to trap our vision in the box. We can get so besotted with the setting-up phase, the romantic dance of making a technically flawless picture, that we get sidetracked from how simple a process it really is….or should be.

Aperture. Shutter Speed. ISO. Lather, rinse repeat. Change one part of the triangle and the other two will be changed as well. That’s it. Class dismissed. Now get out of here and go make pictures.

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Is this image made on a cheap point-and-shoot? Or a $2,000 pro tool? A Leica or an iPhone? Analog or digital? Can it, in fact, have been produced equally well by all of those, if the photographer applies vision and care?

Manufacturers drag us from one model camera to another, laying in just enough innovation or novelty to render our current equipment “obsolete” and to artificially engineer desire for the latest thing. I spent a career in mass media and can attest to how effective this approach is. It sells a crap-ton of cameras, as well as cars, apparel, audio gear, and breakfast cereal. But for photographic purposes, it can actually weigh a shooter down, delay the moment of decision, or, worst of all, create the belief that the other guy’s camera, being more advanced than our own, guarantees said other guy better pictures. And, since I have already used “bushwah” once in this tract,  I’ll now characterize this belief as “malarkey”.

The mechanics of making an image are inherently as consistent as they are simple, and, if there was a magical evidentiary graph to show how much of our cameras we actually use, it is my contention that the list of most frequent operations would be small, and would not include the majority of the tools and add-ons built into our equipment. That is why, along with other reasons, I still occasionally shoot film in, completely mechanical cameras….to force myself to think in very simple rules of engagement and to find the pictures that any camera, simple or complicated, can produce. And while there will be times that I miss some of the lovely extras that now crowd our devices, I can always re-learn the habit of shooting without them, drilling down to the bedrock of what makes a picture work. And if, as the consignment sites claim, “nearly half” of us have cameras or lenses that we don’t use, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why that is.

SHAPER #1

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE WORD “PHOTOGRAPHY” OFTEN SUGGESTS THE IDEA OF MERELY RECORDING SOMETHING, of using a machine to arrest time in its flight and imprison it forever. That, to me suggests a very passive act, that of merely opening the shutter and harvesting whatever comes along, much in the way one might cast a fishing net. You might haul in a marlin, but you will also snag the occasional boot.

So, for me, the term photography is often misinterpreted, as if the shooter has little choice in the process, a concept I absolutely reject. The word itself basically translates as “writing with light”, and, in that interpretation, the act of making a picture is an active one, with light not merely being a component but the prime determinant, Shaper #1 in that process. George Eastman himself said it first, and best:

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

So now, we have an art form, because, in this mindset, one can begin with accidents and end up with mastery, merely by using light purposefully and with a kind of earnest literacy.

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The first thing the study of light teaches is how fleeting its effects are. Many people who have shot the Grand Canyon have experienced the incredible minute-to-minute changes in the gorge as shadows shift, dance and crawl across the terrain. Many others, working in the transient light of shifting weather patterns, or the sudden remapping of illumination at sunrise or sunset, know the importance of getting the shot the very moment it presents itself, all delays changing your results measurably, even drastically.

These two images of Vancouver’s glorious Marine building, one of the most amazing examples of Art Deco in North America, were taken just twenty-nine minutes apart from each other. The earlier shot, taken at about 10:45 in the morning, presents the elaborate entrance with a kind of even, flat value, while the second shot is a crazy quilt of a million tiny bounces and reflections, as well as a dramatic increase in contrast. I was merely lucky in being able to get two very different impressions of the same building, even though a clearer knowledge of the local light conditions in the area might have allowed me to create two greatly more nuanced pictures. As it is, I got an object lesson on how to do things better the next time, and clear illustration that Eastman was right. Know the light, Shaper #1 in a picture, for all you are worth, and you have the biggest riddle solved.

LADLING IT ON

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN THE PRACTICE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s often difficult to know when a simple composition will serve as the best overall tool for an effective narrative. We all heard something from our ninth-grade science teacher about the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, and some of that directness, expressed as an image that gets to the point without needless visual distractions or detours, certainly applies to some of our best work.

But then again…

Some pictures certainly suffer from an overabundance of detail. The eye can get lost on its way to the main point of the photograph; competing components of equal appeal can wrestle each other for dominance in a scene; and, of course, excessive clutter can defuse a photo’s impact altogether. Imagine a large Where’s Waldo? panorama in which, to your frustration, you just never manage to find Waldo at all.

That said, there are subjects which are busy, busy, busy, but which might actually lose their power if you tried to tidy them up or streamline them. Consider the above shot of a hallway inside the Library of Congress. Here is a place where no one even considered the minimalist credo that “less is more”. Indeed, this magnificent building is about majesty, power, prestige, officialdom, if you will. It means to shout loud and proud. It is an expression of an empire, an edifice to the grandeur of the ideas contained within its walls. Simple and spare just won’t cut it for such a place, and a photograph taken of it needs to respect that.

Even in places that boast this level of ornamentation, however, you can take small steps to prevent your viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed. An even, bright exposure, for example, with nothing lurking in shadows to trick your viewer into going on a scavenger hunt; sharp focus from front to back to allow all the detail to be prominently displayed; and the use of whatever leading lines might be in the structure, to keep the eye moving in as close to a single direction as possible, emphasizing depth and scale.

The old “keep it simple, stupid” rule does, indeed serve photographers well in scads of cases. But for those few occasions where busier is better, go full-tilt boogie and really ladle it on. The knack of knowing when to say “how much” and when to say “too much” is some of the best editorial education you can ever treat yourself to.

DANCING WITH A STRANGER

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’VE BEEN ORGANIZING A GIFT FOR MY SON’S FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, which is an overview of a specific photographic theme spanning the last ten years. A decade is a nice round figure, a handy unit of time for evaluating one’s evolution in various enterprises, and so the exercise has led me to go back the same stretch across my online image postings, but, instead of looking at the entire span of ten years, I became obsessed with throwing out the clutter from exactly ten years ago. I’d like to say it was a pleasant trip down memory lane, but, in fact, I’ve done most of it with one eye closed, all the better to minimize my cringing.

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It’s more than sobering to look at the stuff you felt happy enough about to throw onto the interweb just a decade ago, almost like trying to pull off an intimate dance with a total stranger, and not a very good looking one at that. I am not trying to lead the world championship in false modesty when I say that the old delete button was looking quite shopworn when the job was done, and, if anything, I feel that the large pile of photographic detritus at my feet represents me being generous in too many cases where my sentiment overrode my sense.

You are, of course, a little bit alienated from your old self every new time you pick up a camera. Get enough distance between yourself and what you once thought was your “good stuff” and the contrast can knock you off your pins. Chances are, the You of Today sees composition, narrative, exposure and subject matter with a completely different set of priorities than the You of Yesteryear. That is, if you’re lucky. If you still regard your work of ten years ago as “all killer, no filler”, you may have spent the last decade walking in circles. Or you may be the greatest genius in the history of photography, in which case I’d like to become the local chapter president of your fan club.

Me, I’m pledging to re-edit my portfolio with a lot more regularity in the future. It may not be much more pleasant, but I’d rather face several dozens of my biggest misses at a  time than legions of the suckers. In the meantime, I have that gift book to finish, and I’d better hurry up about it. If I think about it too long, I might just reduce the tome to a pamphlet and send my kid a coupon for a Happy Meal.

FAB FOR THE TIMES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OUR STORY BEGAN as I was recently rifling through early images of the Beatles, and marveling at the material objects the Fab Four spent some of their First Real Money on, like, as with many of us, so-called “serious” cameras. 

Over the history of camera design there have been two distinct Halls of Fame, one being a “who done it first” roster of innovators and the other being more of a “who wore it best” list of brands that had the greatest success and/or reputation connected with those breakthroughs. Many camera makers both introduce and adapt, and some brands, even if they come late to someone else’s refinement, capitalize on them better than even its originators. And so it goes. 

One company that sparked true innovation at its peak but saw its tech eventually adapted by names that eventually eclipsed it was Pentax, now known as a mere phantom shell brand under Ricoh but once a verrrry key player in camera design. Founded in Tokyo in 1919, Pentax began as a maker of lenses for eyeglasses and soon thereafter adapted its polishing and coating techniques to make entry into the camera lens field. By the early 1960’s, the 35mm camera had become universal as an amateur tool, but many things remained to be done for it to appeal to aspiring pros as well. Two such needs, for true through-the-lens focusing and simplified light metering, was being met by a few forward-thinking makers, and, among these, Pentax was the first to create a fully practical SLR, years ahead of Canon, Nikon and other contenders. 

And so enter the Pentax Spotmatic, sporting a film advance lever (faster and easier than most company’s advance knobs), completely in-body metering function, compatibility with all M42 screw-mount lenses (offering a lot of choices across competing manufacturers) and a sleek, lightweight body. And here is where we, if you will, Meet The Beatles. The Fab Four, on their first American tour in 1964, were still in the habit of doing nearly everything as a group, and so Paul, George and Ringo all purchased new Asahi Pentax Spotmatics as their “real” cameras as they made their way across the states. Ringo in particular seems to have taken to the snapping hobby especially well, taking advantage of the hours the band spent sequestered in hotel rooms or sheltering away from their manic public by taking tons of candids that have recently come to light in special exhibitions and in the 2017 book Photograph. Most of the previously unpublished images were shot on Ringo’s Pentax. 

The Spotmatic and its progeny proved to be an affordable, easily-operated workhorse within the Pentax stable for years to come, even as the company itself saw its innovations co-opted and perfected by other brands. Today, like many once-mighty names that have been purchased, re-purchased or hollowed out by new parent companies, this once-major player in the design sweepstakes deserves a hallowed place among those who made the creation of images easier, faster, and more reliable. Analog or digital, all design rises or falls on how it removes obstacles between the envisioning and the execution of an idea, as the world asks but one thing of its most beloved cameras:

“Please please me..”. 

ZOOMACRO

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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THE LONGER ONE IS INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater the temptation is to streamline one’s “quantitative” approach to equipment….specifically, how much of it we need with us at any one time. We’ve all seen ( have often been) the folks who decide to lug along multiple camera bodies, lots of lenses, and assorted support devices and toys, and, for many of these people, that is a workable approach to doing good work. Others decide, over time, that they want less gear that does more. I have lived in Camp One, and I prefer life in Camp Two. I try to decide, before heading out, which camera/lens combo will give me most of what I want in most situations. That means leaving some stuff back at the house and maximizing the flexibility of what you have at hand, or, as the modified stock car racers term it, “run what you brung”.

In recent years, the increased number of wildlife shoots in which I tag along has more or less dictated the use of a telephoto of some kind. However, when the birds and beasts decide to sleep in, I love to default to close work with flowers or other nature subjects. That means trying to make the zoom do the work of a macro lens, since I don’t have a true macro with me at the moment. And, happily, it turns out that I can do about 90% of what I want from a macro with a telephoto anyway.

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The minimum focal distance of a zoom dictates that you stand fairly far away from your target (say a flower), or else your autofocus will just whirr and dither, and so the first thing you have to do is back away. It’s not uncommon to stand fifteen or more feet from your subject before zooming in. Of course, at maximum zoom, your choice of apertures may be more limited, meaning you can’t open up wider than about f/4. This, in turn, means that you may not be as able to isolate a sharp foreground object from its softer background clutter as neatly as a macro would allow you to at, say, f/2 or wider. What I do in a case like this is actually underexpose a bit by shooting at a fast shutter speed, trying to position the subject in direct light and letting everything behind it roll off into darkness. It’s crude but easy.

A caveat: true macros are extremely precise instruments, and, in making a zoom do macro-like work, you shouldn’t expect to nail the same superfine detail as a lens dedicated solely to the task. That means you’ll see the delicate patterns on a butterfly’s wings, but you won’t be able to count the dots in his eyes. Still, in comparing the two images here, one a true macro and the other a “zoomacro”, many might concede that they both generally bring home the bacon (spoiler alert: the top photo is the genuine macro). Bottom line: it is easy to force a telephoto to perform this kind of double duty, making your shooting less complicated and cumbrous and producing fairly consistent results.

THE BALLET OF BIG AND LITTLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LOOKING BACK AT THE EARLIEST FORMATS FOR AMATEUR SNAPSHOTS, it’s almost possible to hear the frustration of photographers trying to deliver the world in a greatly constricted work space. Peruse your grandparents’ photo albums and you will find a number of images printed in such small sizes as to render anything more complex than a candid of a friend nearly unreadable. Size doesn’t matter in all things, but, for some subjects, the canvas needs to have a little breathing space.

Serious photographers with bulky medium and large format cameras could always create work on any scale that they preferred (think Ansel Adams), but amateurs in the first decades of the twentieth century were often confined to small spaces, many around the size of the present-day “credit card” prints produced by the Instax line of instant cameras. This miniature-scaled way of seeing in the world was death for landscape work especially, and it was not until the introduction of the 35mm camera and improved technology for enlargement (including the option of slide projection) that mountain ranges, seashores and canyons started to get their proper due.

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Now, while it’s possible to photographically capture and suggest grand scenes, our urban sprawl hems us in once more, littered as it is with wires, signs and neon clutter.  It’s not what to shoot, but where to stand when shooting it, that makes the difference. Often we ourselves are so desensitized to the garbage through which we habitually view beauty that we’re surprised when the camera records the visual debris that we’ve taught ourselves not to see. I once heard a Nikon rep say that, even in the middle of the ocean, some people’s pictures could somehow manage to have telephone lines visible in them.

But that’s a problem of seeing. Thing is, even when a photographer apprehends an epic-scale scene, getting a shot of it that’s free of junk can be daunting. In the case of this image, I woke up struck by the beauty of enormous banks of clouds rolling through the skies in a part of Arizona that is typically free of anything but solid blue. The problem soon became where to drive/pull over/aim to make sure that nothing else punctuated the impact of these enormous billows. I drove about ten miles until I got to a tiny municipal airport whose elevated observation deck afforded nearly unbroken horizons in all directions and started to crank away. Strangely, it was when I got my unbroken sky that I realized that there was nothing of scale to indicate how big the formations actually were. Enter a tiny mosquito of a private plane, barely big enough to create a flint of light to announce its presence. The ballet of big and little was now complete. The photographer’s job in showing the size of something lies simply in supplying the answer, “compared to what?” It’s Storytelling 101, it’s simple to do, and it makes the difference between a picture and a narrative.

MAKING IT MINE/YOURS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE EARLIEST PROPONENTS OF THE IDEA OF MAKING CELLPHONE CAMERAS the “go to” devices for everyone were also big fans of the motto, “the best camera is the one you have with you”, a sentiment that, for me, has always had a big honking asterisk connected to it. Yes, I guess having a limited camera is better than having no camera when an opportunity arises, if you believe that a compromised version of your vision is better than having made no attempt at all. Certainly, in an emergency, you can use a butter knife as some kind of screwdriver. However, that begs the question: why don’t you have a screwdriver?

A better version of this maxim might be something like, “the best camera is the one that does the best job for you”, coupled with the corollary “and you should always have it with you”. I’m much more aligned with the idea of going through the process of deciding what camera is perfect for your needs and always, always, having it alongside. How can any other option be as correct?

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Of course, this means examining your own habits, biases, and talents, and matching them to the particular machine that mostly translates those things into good pictures. Sounds ridiculously obvious, and yet you still meet many people who excuse a failed image by saying “I didn’t have my good/real camera with me”, and so maybe the idea of properly pairing yourself with the right gear isn’t that on-the-nose, with everyone, everywhere.

This is really basic stuff, reducible to a simple checklist. Is the camera easy to carry, or is it a burden to lug around? People love their cameras, but not if they think of them as luggage. Are the ergonomics right, that is, are the buttons and functions that you use the most easy to get to? How about set-up time? From the moment you take it off your shoulder to when you frame up your shot, how many arbitrary get-ready steps are in the way before your camera’s ready to rock? Does it have the optical ability to approximate what you see in your mind? Is the camera sufficient unto itself, which is to say, can it take pictures that you like without the purchase or assembly of additional gimcracks and toys? Do you understand all its functions, or do you just use the same settings and features over and over? And, if so, is that because you’re successful doing things that way, or because you are, to some extent, afraid of your camera?

To twist the “best camera is the one you have with you” thinking around, you can’t (often) take your best picture with “whatever’s at hand”. Or, more precisely, you can’t make pictures you love with a camera you hate. If you are not on intimate terms with your gear, then get a no-fault divorce from it and marry something that (apologies to Jerry McGuire) “completes” you. You gotta make them little boxes yours. Really yours. “Best available” will always be second best.

EMERGENCES

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

THIS IS NOT AN EXTRAORDINARY PHOTOGRAPH. It only exists because, in the moment, I needed to make it.

Over my lifetime, the two things likeliest to draw me to the side of the road for a quick snap are the polar opposites of existence; things getting ready to be born and things waiting to die off. Both have resulted in pictures that, almost purely on impulse, I felt the urge to attempt. This one, which is of a church under construction, held special appeal to me because, after a year of endlessly looping sameness, it was something just unusual enough to break the pattern I’d established, that of making more and more pictures out of less and less.

It’s not about the church as such, or about whether the world even needs churches at this point or what they convey about our lives. It’s not that grand a concept. To tell the truth, I was more drawn to the building site for how very raw and unrealized it was, how the building is just beginning to transition from a pile of materials into a stated purpose. The round recess at the front promises to eventually hold a stained-glass window, but, for now, it’s just a hole in a wall of wood. That same wood, in all its light and color variations, will soon see all its rough-hewn texture erased by a featureless coat of plaster or paint, making it so definitively “a church” that it will lose its appeal to me as a mere arrangement of shapes. As I said, it’s when things are on the way to being something (or on the way to becoming nothing) that I feel a picture needs to be made, or attempted.

As to said attempt, I shot seven frames very quickly, in simple, stark, midday light with a 35mm prime lens and almost no plan or scheme in mind. When the angle or composition seemed right, I shot. And then I stopped. The whole thing was a matter of three minutes. And yet, after months of unbroken sameness, of being forced to mine the overly familiar in my constricted sphere of experience, trying to find new ways to see it, this almost-church became a holy thing of sorts to me, a fresh canvas on which to paint. The refreshment this little exercise brought me still puts a smile on my face some five days after the fact, and I imagine that I will always have a special affection for this picture. In a way, it sent a signal to my tired brain that there is, still, a world out there, and that I will be one of the lucky ones permitted to re-enter it. I only hope I can earn the privilege.

INSTANT DISAPPOINTMENT

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The Polaroid “Now” camera. One button. Take it or leave it.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I HATE THE DISMISSIVE SNOBBISHNESS THAT CONDEMNS THIS OR THAT PHOTOGRAPHIC DEVICE  as “not a serious camera.” I truly believe that almost any LightStealerBox, modest or fully tricked out, has at least the potential to deliver wondrous pictures, and I can’t think of anything that renders a camera more “serious” than that. But the recent resurgence of the old Polaroid name(along with the films and cameras that have been marketed under that legendary brand) has got me scratching my head.

Seriously.

Since rising from the ashes of the company built by the inventor Edward Land in the 1940’s, the “new” Polaroid has pumped out bright, simplistic photo toys bearing the old name and promising the return of the unpredictable, random fun of creating photos on the spot. However, apart from the admittedly giddy experience of generating shareables and momentoes, I see no sign that the current keepers of the Polaroid flame have taken a single step toward what was, under Land, a constantly evolving forward march toward innovation and technical improvement. Which is to ask, how can photographers take a camera seriously that is not regarded as such by its producers?

Land took the cumbersome development process of his first Polaroid films and eliminated the mess and bother to create a medium that was fairly responsive, pairing them with better and better cameras that were at once stylish and convenient. In the 1970’s, with the creation of Polaroid’s only true SLR, the SX-70, the company moved further beyond its innate novelty to actual artistic control, introducing custom settings, electronic exposure and quality lenses in a sleek package that won design awards and helped the company enter the premium market. Unfortunately, after that, the product line moved toward models that were easier to operate but admitting of less and less user input, and, by the end of its first life in the early 20th-century, Polaroid, embracing cheaper components and flashier packaging, was squeezing out glorified point-and-shoots that produced pictures that, well, looked like Polaroids, which is to say soft, low-contrast mush that just happened to develop quickly.

Cut to the present day, years after the digital revolution and several seasons since a passel of European art students reverse-engineered the defunct company’s system for film production (Polaroid had destroyed all its files on the subject before going bankrupt) and began marketing all-new cameras that took up where the firm’s last “One Step” models left off. Today, the re-introduced film remains a pale imitation of its namesake, which doesn’t really matter since their cameras are essentially playthings. And so, whereas it was difficult for photographers to create their best work even with the best of the original Polaroids, now it is fairly impossible to get even consistent results with the gizmos that bear that once proud name.

Some of this could have been predicted. Polaroid’s rebirth coincided with the 21st-century “Lomography” analog film craze and its love of technically defective “fun” cameras….the “shoot-any-old-way-and-see-what-happens, randomness-and-failure-are-arty-and- cool” school of thought. Polaroid 2.0 is also a reaction to Fujifilm’s Instax cameras, which produce instant images so small as to be good for little else than selfies (which seems to be the market for the things), the blearier and mushier the better.

Why do I care, enough to risk being written off as the creaky troll I probably am? Because Polaroid, at one time, held out the hope of combining instantaneous feedback (a key advantage of digital) with the artistic control of cameras that took themselves seriously and offered a true alternate path to higher-end photographic expression. Seeing the name now used to market murky party favors (at nearly $20 for eight exposures) saddens me, as does the proliferation of any camera that requires its users to leap-frog across endless work-arounds just to get a usable image. When a camera becomes an obstacle between a shooter and a good result, that camera is a bad camera.

Seriously.

THE MIRACLE OF IMMERSION

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE CHIEF ADVANCE IN THE PROCESS OF MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY, a kind of hitchhiker on the back of the digital revolution, has been the unprecedented scope of choice conferred on the shooter. Much is written about how great pictures are selective extractions from the endless flow of time…how random and important seconds are snatched from that flood tide and “captured”. However, the emphasis, for most of the history of the medium has been on many of us getting that one fortunate moment, with few options for re-takes or even a variety of attempts from which to select our final winners.

If this seems to be an arbitrary distinction between amateurs and pros, well, it sorta is, and that’s because of how the technology and the economics of photography work on each other. Before roll film, even a professional had difficulty in taking multiple frames of the same subject in search of a keeper. The media were unwieldy and expensive. Soon, the consumer-based photo market, created by the first simple mass-produced cameras paired with film, allowed for slightly more breathing room for the average snapper to take more than one crack at his/her quarry…to say, try several different angles on a subject rather than one, but, again, the cost of purchasing and processing film tended to divide the photographic world into amateur and professional ranks. Quite simply, a professional, out of necessity or opportunity or both, could afford an investment in enough film to create choices, or multiple ways of seeing the same thing, whereas the amateur has to budget his shots and invest less money in the pursuit overall.

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Digital democratized that entire process, effectively shrinking the photographer’s budget to the purchase of the camera and an occasional memory card (which itself could be wiped and re-used). We immediately shifted from a plan-as-you-go mentality to an all-you-can-eat, shooting-for-free model, which, in turn, changed the results of our picture making. Now newbies can stand in the batter’s box and swing away endlessly in pursuit of their final result, just as the pros always could. Any subject can be given the treatment of an essay, and we have the luxury of going back for seconds, thirds, or whatever is required to develop and eventually deliver on an idea. The image seen above, had I taken it in the age of film, would have been the product of a few snaps, not, as happened digitally, the work of over an hour of walking, planning, experimenting. In the old days, only a pro would have been free to shoot several rolls in search of an iconic image. Now anyone can do it, simply and cheaply.

Photographers who experience this miracle of immersion as everyday reality are freer than shooters in any previous age. We can whittle away years of the ponderous failures that used to take years to accumulate in a matter of weeks or even days. Mistakes are still necessary for the training of the eye, but being able to speed up the process of stylistic evolution is a true liberation. The science and the economics of photography are finally aligned with each other, and although it took some time, time is, finally, on our side, whenever we endeavor to photograph anything.

PATHS AND PURPOSES

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The Rebel (2021)

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE JOURNEY OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN SOCIETY courses along two diametrically opposed paths. Both roads can impel the spirit toward ends that are both cherished and loathed. One fork cruises through the innumerable ranks of the predictable, taking the individual along prescribed patterns of conformity; the other travels the more arduous road to individuality, a complete realization of the unique self. Both paths have their positive and negative aspects; both seem attractive or repellent at different times in our lives. And both have a visual signature for the photographer.

Conformity is perhaps the easier of the two paths to trace, evoking row after row of identical work cubicles or endless blocks of lookalike dwellings. It leaves its visible track in the way we close ranks or join organizations; the kinds of gatherings that offer us protection or anonymity. Our photographer’s eye readily tags the look of the collective, the joiner society.

The path toward individual expression is a little more abstract, as there are as many ways to stand out or apart as there are human hearts in the world. How do we choose to leave the rutted path? What means do we employ in improvising a personal life signature? How is our rebellion in the name of a more sculpted self visually measured?

It can be something simple, like being the only kid that wears bunny slippers to symphony rehearsals. A bumper sticker that’s guaranteed to provoke comment. Or, as seen above, a little public space that we convert to private space with a paper lantern, a wind chime, or a bird feeder. Making photographs of the way we go along to get along is measuring the patterns of our agreement (maybe even our surrender), and that creates one kind of picture. Framing up the stories that we tell out of our very own storybook gives us another result completely. Both kinds of images are educational. Both are commentary. And if we’re really lucky, both can be compelling.

THE YEAR OF SEEING DIFFERENTLY

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There’s something out there. And, I assume, there’s something “in here” as well.

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….

LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT

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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.

THE LAND I LEFT BEHIND ME

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. 

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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.  

IF YOU LEICA ME LIKE I LEICA YOU….

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. 

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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. 

 

 

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