the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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GOING HALFIES

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN A PERFECT WORLD, all our photographs would have their permanent address at the intersection of Flawless Technique Street and Great Message Boulevard. And while some do, magically, make it to this mystical crossroads, many others lose the paper the directions were scribbled on and wind up down some back alley.

Powerful narratives can arrive in perfect packages, sure. But not often and not with any predictability. Often we settle for one half of the ideal or the other. That “going halfies” choice determines what we regard as most important in our favorite images.

I would love to be able to achieve technical perfection every time I’m up to bat, but I’m not religious about raw precision….at least not the way I am about emotional resonance. Every one of you has a pile of pictures which are optically flawless and another pile of pictures that speak to your best intentions. Given an either/or judgement on which of these are your “keepers”, why wouldn’t you always, always choose the images that, regardless of various “flaws”, conveyed your mind and heart?

Down At Duke’s, 2018

Light, focus, aperture, even composition are tools, not ends unto themselves, and even the best photographers drop one or another of these techno-balls in some of their best work. But should we seriously disqualify an image merely on technical points? If the answer is yes, then half of the works that we collectively value as great must be stricken from the public record, and photography is merely a recording process, like the operation of a seismograph or any other instrument where precision trumps every other consideration. But if the answer is no, then a picture that fails one or more technical tests can stil be considered valid, so long as it is emotionally true.

I struggle with these choices whenever I produce a shot that has things “wrong” with it, but which is also an authentic register of where my mind was at the time it was snapped. Photos like the one seen here would fail many a judge’s test, depending on who’s doing the judging. It’s too dark. The shutter speed is way too slow, inviting blur. Some of the shadows swallow detail that might just be important. And yet I love this building, these people, this moment. In my defense, I had to decide in an instant whether to even attempt the picture, taken, as it was, from the back seat of an Uber lurching unevenly through the streets of Manhattan. Shooting on full manual, I had to anticipate fast changes in available light, the length of traffic signals, the process of shooting through glass with a filtered lens, and the occasional offensive/defensive maneuvers of the driver. In raw scoring, I just didn’t manage to master all of these variables in a technically perfect manner. And yet..

There has been a lot of talk lately about not letting the Perfect be the enemy of the Good, a phrase which says more about photography in ten words than I’ve said in this entire page. Rule one for shooters: don’t let the flawless be master over the real.

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DOUBLE REVERSE CHAOS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME THINGS CANNOT BE MADE VISUALLY COHERENT merely by pointing a camera at them. That is, all subjects won’t give up their secrets to the mere act of photographic recording. And that’s when mere documentation must give way to interpretation.

A case study……

There is probably no denser concentration of immersive marketing on earth than in the yawning canyons of New York City’s Times Square, a cacophonous minefield of flashing, spinning, exploding LED overload. Messages aren’t simply or singly sent or received here: rather, they elbow past each other by the hundreds, desperately contending for the viewer’s attention in microbursts of insane color and absurd scale, in what actually amounts to the dead opposite of communication. Billboards, marquees and crass chunks of street theatre, from ersatz Miss Liberties to pose-with-me Batmen, all scream and stream at once, sending the senses careening from sensation to sensation like pinballs on ampthetamines. The irony: nobody wins the race: messages all eventually fail to register, cascading in a blur like a flipped deck of cards.

Street Rebus (2018)

This is why, for a Times Square-type subject , “straight” photography is doomed to disappoint. It’s just not enough to convey the feeling of fragmentation created by the site’s sensory bombardment. Merely freezing the action with one’s camera is an attempt to “make sense” of a reality that is, by definition, non-sensical. We don’t need to slow things down so they’re recognizable…..quite the opposite. We need instead to capture and comment on the confusion in a visual language we ourselves improvise.

In my own case, I try to further amp up the broken, shattered quality of the information that meets the eye by breaking pieces of data into even smaller pieces….a kind of double-reverse chaos. In the image seen here, I’ve turned away from a bright cluster of signs on one side of the street to shoot their reflections in a split-panel office window, forcing all the messaging from the signs into splintered abstractions, some of which come from shadows within the office itself.

This is, of course, just an example and not in any way a universal template. The precise method for creating a distortion of an already distorted reality isn’t paramount, but what I don’t want is a literal representation of these streets. Reality is in short supply in the Times Squares and Tokyos of the world. Photographers intent on commenting on that condition have to stay one step ahead, to find the double reverse chaos lurking within.

 

 

 

 

DRINK / SHOOT YOUR FILL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SHOOTING FROM A PROPRIETARY VIEWPOINT is the photographer’s equivalent of being invited to a wedding with an open bar. You try everything. Turns out you don’t really like Singapore Slings? Leave it on a tray and go back for the Jack and Coke.

It really is that simple. If you find yourself with a one-of-a-kind view, assume you’ll never be invited back and hit the subject with everything you’ve got. Change lenses. Up-end your normal method of working. Do something screwy. But do try it all. Hey, you’re on top of Mt. Fuji, right? So it’s not like you’re passing this way again next month. Go for broke.

The Manhattan rooftop from which these samples were shot was a gift, and I knew it. I popped off dozens of frames in every direction with every combination of gear and settingscI could think of, simply because the vantage point would likely never be available to me in the future. Not anytime soon, anyway. One thing that’s always in the back of my mind when shooting in New York is the wonderful look of classic images shot in Kodachrome, the greatest but most temperamental film in history, now gone to that Big Darkroom In The Sky. Kodachrome had amazingly warm color saturation, but, all science-y talk aside, its “look” was probably due in large part to the fact that it was slooooww, just the equivalent of 100 ISO at its speediest. That means that, simply, many of us were underexposing it. By a lot. Anyway, I’m always out to craft my own Kodachromesque Manhattan, and I saw a chance to do so in this particular situation.

The two shots seen here were taken mere seconds apart from each other, both shot with a 24mm prime sporting a circular polarizing filter. The lighter one is f/8 at 1/60  sec., while the darker, more “day is done” image is deliberately underexposed at f/16, 1/160 sec. The combination of the smaller aperture and the filter doubles the intensity of all colors, but sacrifices someinformation in the shadier areas. I leave it to you as to what’s been gained and what’s been lost. The point is that I shot about eight other versions of this scene, erring on the side of too many choices in everything I aimed at that afternoon. Photography is not only apprehending where you are, but understanding just how briefly you’ll be there.

But, hey, it’s possible I’ll get a repeat invitation to this particular roof. Then again, I spilled my Jack and Coke all over the hostess on my way out, so you never can tell.

 

 

 

OSCAR’S CRADLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HOLLYWOOD IS ONE OF THE SELECT LOCALITIES in the world’s largest democracy where royalty is not only tolerated but slavishly sought after. The crown (or crowns, plural) transfer from the recently fallen to the newly anointed with predictable regularity, but the ritual is always the same: we love the common people (they’re just like us!) until they are lucky enough to escape our ranks, after which we, in turn, adore them, despise them (who do they think they are?), forgive them, and adore them anew.

In terms of photography, the camera seeks out ever new lovers, nearly all of them human, and therefore fleeting. A careful study of Tinseltown, however reveals that the true royalty, the royalty that endures, is the real estate. And even in a town where “reality” is defined by whether you shoot on location or on the back lot, Hollywood harbors plenty of actual places where actual events actually occurred. Some are on the bus tours (Marilyn Monroe slept here), while others require a bit more digging. One of the industry’s most prestigious addresses is smack dab in a section so spectacularly tacky that, by virtue of merely being merely ostentatious, it seems positively muted.

The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named in memory of Teddy, not Franklin) survives in legend not because it served as a studio or corporate cradle for the film industry, but because it was the first time the town turned out to honor….itself. Then make an annual habit of it. Hey, if you want modesty, live in Des Moine, okay?

The Roosevelt earned its filmic pedigree from the get-go, financed in 1926 by a group that included MGM chief Louis B.Mayer and screen idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (two-fourths of the founding quartet behind United Artists Pictures, along with Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith). Two years later, the hotel hosted a modest little dinner for 270 guests to fete honorees of the newly organized Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, some three months after the actual awards had been handed out, and minus the nickname “Oscars”, which would come about four years later.

Over the decades the Roosevelt and its across-the-street neighbor the Chinese Theatre (which opened within months of the “R”‘s premiere) saw a fairly staid business district transformed into “Hollywood & Highland” (trade mark)…. Sucker Bait Central, a day-glo drag whose countless souvenir stops, IMAX pleasure palaces, low-rent novelties and neon knock-offs raised tackiness to the status of a religious movement. Meanwhile, the hotel’s crazy-quilt architectural style (‘Spanish Colonial Revival’…and, yes, there will be a test later), with its coffered ceilings, mid-century pool cabanas and wrought-iron chandeliers, was just fake-elegant enough to pass for average in a town renowned for its, er, flexible relationship with “class”. Rolling through the years with an occasional ownership transfer and the odd walk-on in movies like Beverly Hills Cop II and Catch Me If You Can, the Roosevelt has recently offered lodging as a contest prize on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and landed landmark status as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #545.

The Roosevelt’s photographic riches lie chiefly in its extremely dark main and elevator lobbies, its still-regal pool area and the legendary Cinegrill Lounge. The lobbies, at least for handheld shots, require high ISOs, slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. Flash may not be verboten but you won’t like the result, trust me. Indeed, the soft gold afforded by natural light washing into the murk from outside brings out the warmth of the Spanish textures, and adds a little tonal nostalgia to the scene. All things together, the Roosevelt stands as a monument to real occurrences, some of them fairly historically significant, in The Town That Invented Phony. And that’s the main challenge in Hollywood: if you can fake sincerity, the rest is easy.

 

 

WRITING THE FINAL CHAPTERS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SAXOPHONIST PAUL DESMOND, asked the “how’s it going?” question during his many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, frequently answered, “we’re making music like it’s going out of style….which, of course, it is.” A glib answer, certainly, but no less accurate for being so. Everything, everywhere, is, indeed, always going out of style. Photographers feel the rhythm of a clock that is synched to all of existence. We raise constantly against that unheard tick, extracting and freezing moments to testify that, yes, the world was this way.

But the clock is now ticking off not only the passing of things within the world, but, plausibly, the very world itself. The planet is straining at its physical limits, veering toward the voiding of The Big Warranty. And while can all rattle our gums about where all this change will eventually lead, photographers have an obligation to record where it has already made itself known. In shrinking ice shelves. Rising seas. Searing summers. Vanishing species. Storms without mercy and without end.

From my viewpoint, in the American southwest, the seasons pass into years and the years pass into decades with record-setting drought as the only constant. Reservoirs become ditches. Temperatures start to resemble good IQ scores. And in the above image, shot about an hour south of Tucson, Arizona, the bed of the San Pedro River is a cracked plain, a parched memory, a ghost.

In marking these monumental shifts, photography is both eloquent and neutral. The camera doesn’t care how we got to this place, nor does it assign a name to the blame. That kind of storytelling falls to wiser minds. But in a visual medium like ours, a tale can be told just by declaring “this is.This happened.” Politics and science can arm-wrestle about the details and the destiny. Pictures go beyond that noise. They are eloquent beyond words.

One thing is certain. Whether we are reporting the latest chapters of the human story or the final ones, photography is testimony. And we are all witnesses.

THE HYBRID APPROACH

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE RECENT LOWFI MOVEMENT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, immediately following the rise of digital imaging, was something of a reflexive spasm, a retro-reaction against the feared extinction of film (still not arrived as of this writing). Its chief weapon was the plastic toy camera, its principal quest a stubborn return to unpredictability, a celebration of the flaws, defects and deficiencies of film photography, made novel, even holy, once the bad old pixels threatened to end them for all time. Such is human nature: if you want people to brush after every meal, threaten to outlaw toothbrushes.

But not every primitive is a genius, and not every hipster wielding a $35 Diana with light-leaks, color streaking, vignetting and fixed-focus was serving up masterworks under the low-fi credo “don’t think, shoot”. Turns out that a lot of lousy cameras produced…..a lot of lousy pictures. Funny thing: shooting with bad gear is no more a guarantee of “authenticity” than a Leica is of artistry. But that doesn’t mean low-fi is a complete write-off.

What kept me from pledging myself to the plastic was the guaranteed cost of financing film, whether the pictures were great or horrid. Whether you produced dynamite or duds, you paid for each image twice, once for the consumption of the stock itself and once more for the extra time needed to plan and process shots. It was, for me, a constant reminder of all the compromises forced upon photographers by that medium. I occasionally loved the look but despised the labor.

Enter the hybrid solution, introduced a few years back: a lens typically made for a Holga toy camera but minus the Holga body, adaptable to both Nikon and Canon DSLRs…..a cheapo lens (typically under $25), loaded with divinely low-fi features, including vignetting, fixed aperture (f/8) frozen focal length (60mm), stiff-as-a-board “zone” focusing (turn to the “mountain” symbol to shoot a landscape!) and a rear lens cap you can easily pry off with a Philips screwdriver and a modicum of swearing. We’re talking precision here.

The results? Every bit as great as you’d expect for 25 bills, mitigated slightly by your DSLR’s ability, running 100% on manual, to turn at least some straw into gold, as witness the above picture. Even at that, you’ll generate a lot of shots that you’ll try to convince yourself are “edgy”. You just won’t be laying out cash for the true nightmares. Turns out you can put a price on hipness. Or at least keep it from bankrupting you.

HOW TERRIBLY STRANGE…..

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME IMAGES REQUIRE NO WORDS. At least that’s the standard we aim for.

Many others may or may not benefit from what I call accompaniment. Sometimes a few words act as a sort of period at the end of a photographic “sentence”. Other times, a pre-existing sentiment….literary, musical, poetic…. seems somehow to have been just waiting for a picture with which to pair up.

I shot this picture of two longtime pals in just a second, but for two weeks after that, my mind kept looping back to 1968, and the words of a then-young songsmith who found it a real mind stretch to picture himself at the opposite end of his life. And, most likely, many other baby-boomers who read those lyrics, from the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album of fifty years ago, tried to make the same mental leap. In 2018,  those of us lucky enough to have made that journey to “the other side”, living out those dreams of dotage, may be, even now, able to recall that young writer’s words at will:

*****************

Old Friends / old friends / sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes/ of the high shoes

Of the old friends

Old friends / winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats / waiting for the sunset

The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders

Of the old friends

 

Can you imagine usyears from today, sharing a park bench quietly?

How terribly strange to be seventy……

************

(c) 1968 Paul Simon

Here’s to songs that are worth a thousand pictures, and to pictures that try to return the favor….

BECAUSE WEIRD ISN’T FOREVER

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHAT DO YOU DO when you’re a quirky bit of modern art and the museum that hosts you has been shuttered for missing the rent? Futher, let’s assume your creator’s homeland regards your “art” as political blasphemy and let’s also stipulate that you are, say, a fifteen-foot-high chromed head of Vladimir Lenin with a tiny baby balanced on its top.

In the words of Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.”

Beginning in 2011, expatriot Chinese artist brothers Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang found a home for their satirical sculpture, Miss Mao Trying To Poise Herself At The Top Of Lenin’s Head, in front of Los Angeles’ ACE Museum  at 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. Locals and tourists alike soon embraced the weird, much as motorists might grow fond of sites like The Giant Ball Of String or The World’s Crookedest House, worshiping the sheer asinine novelty of the thing over any aesthetic merit. The result? Art meant as provocation landed, instead, with the soft cushiony comfort of fun, an ironic landmark, as in, “to get to my house, take the first left after the Lenin head..”

I Caught Lenin when he did L.A.

But here’s the take-away for photographers. Part of our job is to freeze the human drama as it shifts and morphs. That means being particularly sensitive to the things in society that change the quickest, including the fashion waves of the art world. And if serious art falls out of favor quickly, art that is loaded with satire or irony really races to the front of the obsolescence checkout. Weird ain’t forever.

Lenin and Miss Mao found by 2017 that it’s hard to stay a head (sorry) when the ACE Museum was evicted, leaving the work essentially homeless. Zhen and Qiang tried in vain to land the Commie Chromedome a new roost in China, but the Big Red One basically told them to pound sushi (humorless bunch, those socialists). What’s a murderous goateed revolutionary to do?

Well.

At this writing (June 2018), the most recent citing of Vlad’s Big Head was at the site of a trucking company near Newberry Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert, property owned by artist Weiming Chen, a friend of the Gao brothers who operates the area as a kind of statuary boneyard for his own works and those of others. A snapshot taken of the head showed Lenin looking characteristically defiant, although absent the lovely Miss Mao. I like to think she’s found peace as the hood ornament for a 1966 Diamond Reo rig highballing down CA-10. Hey, I can dream.

So, I treasure my 2014 snap of the head in situ in L.A. (seen above), back when life was good and fate was kind. Photography is commentary, but often, the top comment that comes to mind is something like “okaaaaay, so that happened..” No matter: it’s always worth a grin, and usually worth a picture.

As with Miss Mao, it’s a balancing act.

WE NEVER CLOSE

 

11:30pm, Queens, New York.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DEMIMONDE. The night shift. The third trick. Up with the dawn. Done for the night.

At any given time, some of us are starting our days and heading to work while others are wrapping up their labors and stumbling into bed. Our nights are others’ days, our bustle others’ quiet time. We come at life on the planet from different directions, our suns and moons meeting at the time clock. Wait till coffee break, say some. That’s when things really get going. Hang around till after midnight, say the rest. That’s when this place really start to happen.

Time really comes unmoored in the cities, where our deliveries, destinies and dreams are on all kinds of stop/start cycles. The big town is as photographically alive for the night owls as for the morning glories. People whose days are other people’s nights are forever exotic and strange to each other, the images of their routines as mutually mysterious as the extremes of heat and cold. And always, the same underlying drum beat: got things to do. No day or night, pal: things get done when they get done.

The camera never sleeps because we never close. Open seven days a week, open all night. Last train at midnight, early bird special, full price after six, in by 9, out by 5. Rules of engagement for the breakfast surge, the lunch rush, the dinner crowd. Lives in motion. Pistons rising and falling. Disharmony and sweet accord.

The shutters keep blinking. The moments keep rolling.

24/7.

 

GO SMALL, GO SLOW

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WHATEVER THE PERCEIVED DOWNSIDES of the switch from analog to digital photography, perhaps the only real net negative has been how speedy the process of picture-making has become. Yes, I said negative.

Admittedly most of that vaunted speed connotes as a positive to many, a miraculous convenience. And, indeed, progressively more responsive, even “intuitive” cameras produce usable images only slightly slower than their creators can hatch a whim. Want it, take it, got it. Fast.

But “usable” doesn’t necessarily mean “great”. And it can be argued that the sheer velocity at which we crank out photographs promotes, even guarantees a stunning yield of photographic mediocrity. Because art takes forethought, a pre-imagining discipline. And there is no way to achieve that if every picture, every time, is taken in an instant.

Eventually, photographers have to proactively take back control over their final product, by the simple expedient of slowing everything down. And there are any number of simple ways to practice this. Shoot on manual. Set aside the zooms and shoot with primes. Engineer more natural light shots in lieu of flash snaps. Keep one particular lens on your camera for a month and force yourself to shoot everything with it. In short, make the process harder, not easier. Make yourself uncomfortable.

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises come from shooting macro. It’s harder in every way from any other kind of work. Focus, composition, lighting and exposure are all exponentially more difficult at short distances, and that means a higher harvest of bad pictures(the photo shown here was the lone survivor among twenty frames). And that’s good, because that, in turn, makes it impossible to settle for your first frame. Or your twenty-first. And that means you have to try, adjust, compare, re-try. It takes time, all of it educational. But first you need to escape the realm of Snapshot Mind, a fun and carefree play land that digital makes especially seductive, but which can become a trap.

Of course, there is the phenomenon called “first thought, best thought”, in which amazing, fully realized images come right out of the chute, and very quickly. And there is no guarantee that, by simply taking your time, you will always use it wisely. But creating situations in which you must be more present, more deliberate, will, more often than not, show you how to shape and then re-shape your vision.

Turns out Rome really wasn’t built (or photographed) in a day.

 

 

THE GIFT

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT NEVER FAILS. You go to the grocery store for a carton of milk and come back with salsa, canned pineapple and half a pound of bologna. You may not have even known you “needed” the additional items, but, son of a gun, that extra large salsa is on sale. And, just like that, a quick stop becomes a shopping trip.

Photography is sort of like that.

You head out with specific objectives in mind, not thinking that fate has other plans, and will gently incline you in their direction. “Gentle”…like a freight train. In the case of a recent bird walk, my photographic plan “A” may seem odd to the average observer, in that it was to walk around with birders and not take any bird photos.

In my defense, I was already halfway through an extended birding weekend, accompanied by my wife and other serious spotters in a variety of southern Arizona locales. Moreover, even though I possess zero talent and little inclination in the study of all things airborne, I had nonetheless nailed a few easy exposures of very tame birds in the habit of eating very slowly on feeders near very large throngs of people…..basically zoo shooting with better singing. But the morning in question was different. Spotting birds in the wild is for grown-ups, and my infantile attention span is often drawn off center by the woods or canyon or, in this case, woodsy canyon that houses the various winged wonders. The spotters can spend hours arguing over the nomenclature of whatever they’ve flushed out of the foliage. For me, the foliage is why I came.

1/400 sec., f/5.63, ISO 400, 195mm.

Thus, on this morning, I was sporting a 24mm wide angle to highlight the contours and curves of Ramsey Canyon, although I also had shoved my 300mm zoom inside a fanny pack as an act of pure superstition. Thus, the appropriate division of labor for the outing was established: Bird People watch birds. Tree Hugger tags along and shoots trees. Then we came upon a small footbridge surrounded by a small pack of mule deer, feeding at a level of relaxation that can only occur when you become accustomed to bipeds in goofy hats routinely traipsing through your backyard. One of the Bird People, knowing a camera nut was in their midst, gave me a heads-up. A desperate minute of crouching, zipping, fumbling and mild cursing later, I had managed to attach the 300, worrying all the time that something or someone would spook the group.

After that fear was allayed by the deer’s total state of chill, however, I was overcome by a new emotion, something I can only characterize as gratitude. I have had many encounters with deer in the wild over the years, but in each case I had only had scant seconds to try to capture anything. Here, suddenly, I was presented with a group so docile that I could walk to within twenty feet of them and have the most precious gift, the gift of time, with which to plan shots. The female seen here was intent on staying in clear sunlight next to a tree, while her male companions were gamboling inand out of the dappled shade at too great a speed for accurate metering, so, yeah, I went the easier route.

The point is that the situation allowed me to shoot twenty or more frames and have time in between to make an assessment as to what might succeed. It was an astounding luxury, a rarity among rarities, and my photos became my prayer of thanks.

Come for the forest, stay for the deer.

Or: come for the milk, stay for the salsa, pineapple, and bologna.

 

NOTHING IS EVERYTHING

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE HAVE DEFINITELY BEEN TIMES IN MY LIFE when I have actually craved the special kind of loneliness that Arizona has in abundance. This is a place where brain-boggling chasms of space can exist between society and desolation, between boom and bust. The contrast is stark with a capital, well, stark. If you want to get lost, I mean good and lost, like vanished-off-the-freaking-map lost, Arizona’s vast, starched plains and heat-blasted mesquite are your solution. Other times there is such a sharp edge between lots of something and all kinds of nothing that you can almost feel despair chewing around the edges of your contentment like a termite on a bender.

Photographically, you can either celebrate Arizona’s chest-thumping pride in the survival of the individual or lament the sense of isolation underscored by its lunar landscapes….or both. An image that thrills one person with a sensation of unfettered freedom can make another individual feel like the state has abandoned him or her by the side of a dusty road to no place.

In the case of the above image, it could go either way. The buildings here do not constitute the entire business district of downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, but they’re damned close. One thing that’s absolutely true is that there isn’t much on either side of the town’s main stem that feels…townlike. Yes, the municipality has a few small supporting streets, peppered with a smattering of residences and small shops, but Cottonwood is essentially a brief, linear dash in the middle of an endless paragraph about emptiness. To some shooters, (sometimes me) this is an enlistment poster for personal liberty, with the land always having the last say in any discussion. For others (again, sometimes me), it’s a reminder that, in a face-off between man and the West, the West has a decided, even unfair edge. Showing both of these stories within a single picture, however, isn’t necessarily a conflict in terms.

Photography addresses extremes, and often in a frustratingly ambiguous fashion. But show me an art where that doesn’t happen.

BEARING WITNESS

Orpheum Lofts, Phoenix, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.

The Loftstenant entrance.

Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.

Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.

Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.

As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.

JOTTINGS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SINCE I FIRST WROTE, several months back, about using my cellphone as a “sketch pad” for the first versions of images I would later finalize on a more adjustable camera (SLR, mirrorless, etc.), I’ve seen quite a few photographers confess to the same practice. As I said before, it’s not as if the cell isn’t a “real” camera, but that working with it is less mentally formal, less hemmed in by strict rules, than the cameras many of us cut our teeth on. At present, cells promote a more spontaneous, improvisatory approach to picture-taking: we produce work very quickly, and even our bombs have a short learning curve. We then make a second pass at the most promising “sketches” with cameras that both promote and reward deliberation.

Now I’m enjoying yet another variation on this formula as I play with the first instant film camera I’ve owned in nearly forty years. Optically, my Fujifilm Instax 90 is less precise than my mobile phone, and miles behind a full-function SLR. However, the “feedback loop” from snap to physical print rivals the turnaround time of a cell, and I have used some of these medium-fi images as dress rehearsals for shots that only my more advanced cameras can properly finesse. The main difference here is working with film, which translates to how fast and how freely I shoot.

Cels are technically limited, but you can shoot endlessly for free, so it’s tempting to experiment without regard to anything except the moment: very intuitive. By comparison, film is finite. More importantly, your shots, both home runs and strikeouts alike, all cost money. If you’ve never shot film (ya young whippersnappers!) it’s really a trip learning to “budget” your shots, weighing all the stuff you want against the physical limit of shots you actually have to work with. Old guys like me had lots of reasons to desert film for digital, but being freed from the tyranny of the wallet was my personal Numero Uno.

So, if you follow this strange line of reasoning, here’s where we stand: an instant film camera gives you a fast result, but the low volume of output (just ten shots per pack of Fuji Instax Mini film) and the cost (nearly a dollar per shot) means that you will be shooting slower and more deliberately than with a cel. You’ll be actively planning your shots, editing your projects on the fly, and producing a smaller yield of “possibles” to refine with a higher-end camera. Or you might do such a bang-up job with your film sketch pad that you produce your ” keeper” right then and there. In the two cases shown here, the Instax shot shows me that the central idea (the punctured shrink wrap atop the carton of Coke) can be improved by including a spent bottle on the side and tightening up the frame, allowing my Lensbaby Velvet 56 to show the textural variances in surface tension, something the Instax isn’t precise enough to do. The Lensbaby can also deliver a wider range of tones and deliver sharper focus, albeit within a soft glow.

Will this tortured method ever become your own? Really doesn’t matter. Your results may vary, as the man says, because they are yours. There are many routes to the promised land. Take the expressway or slog along the old dirt road. Just get the shot.

WORDS FAIL ME (AND MAYBE THAT’S GOOD)

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

GIVEN THAT THERE’S AN ELEMENT OF CHANCE in even the most carefully planned photographs, it’s tempting for me to think of some pictures as pre-existing, like a piece of fruit that might well hang on a tree forever unless you happen to walk by and pick it. People sometimes refer to such images as being “captured”, but maybe “harvested” is a better word.

That would explain the photographs that you don’t, or can’t plan, the ones that are unbidden but also undeniable. Of course you don’t ever have to take a picture, but under the right circumstances it can sure feel that way.

Which leads me to this image. I don’t understand a thing about it except that I had to take it. I can’t offer a thrilling backstory about its creation because I wasn’t its “creator”. I likewise can’t offer a thoughtful analysis or provide the illuminating context that makes its message shine forth. Honestly, this picture isn’t “about” anything, despite the fact that I’d love to spin you a thrilling tale, some revelatory saga that reflects my sheer genius. But eventually, the picture isn’t anything but, well, this picture.

In an instant, as happens to everyone, I had a second to decide to buy or not buy, and I bought. God knows why. We all love to think that everything in art happens for a reason, as part of a plan. We can often shy away from “pure” or “absolute” photography, but, if we’re honest, we can’t explain all of the images we harvest/capture/ stumble onto. We love to think we’re always in charge of our process.

But guess what……

ARTIFACTS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHS come riding in on the backs of the scrawniness stories, like Don Quixote limping into town astride Rocinante. To be sure, images are evidence, proof of a kind of a person’s various truths or journeys in life. But there are times when that evidence is scant, hidden, confined to the dimensions of a bone, the chip of a cup, The Dress She Loved.

Or a tool.

Like the camera itself, the tool is a device designed to work its wielder’s will. Case in point: the instrument at left, a punch for cutting holes into leather, a device which has no other official function than to execute the hand movements of the shoemaker who once owned it. A thing created to dumbly create other things.

But now, absent its master, it is also testimony.

With the shoemaker gone, the tool becomes a partial proof of his life, a defining characteristic of the way he made his living. It’s also a kind of miniature history of things in general, a living demonstration that, literally, “they don’t make ’em (or him) like that anymore”. In photographing the things people carried, which now must speak for them, I use the sharpest, most accurate lenses I can, using nothing but opaque backgrounds and soft window light, seeking the registration of every speck of patina, rust, discoloration or personalization available. For example, I love the worn fragment of leather glued to the left grip of the punch. I know, historically, that this particular tool was not originally made with any such pad or cushion, and so it had to have been the very human creation of its owner, an attempt to add a smidgeon of comfort to what must have seemed an endlessly repeating task.

I have photographed many artifacts from people I either knew too little or too briefly, from military decorations to cameras to scientific instruments to pocket watches. All reveal quiet stories about the vital beings who once thought of their quotidian uses as the stuff of forever. Now, weilding my own tool of trade, I can extend tiny bits of those forevers into a few more precious days.

“LIKE”-MINDEDNESS

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS about reading photographer’s discussions of their most celebrated work is that, frequently, they can only guess at what accounts for the success of one of their images over another. Even more fascinating is when they express their dismay that some of their personal favorites actually fail to connect with the public. I take heart at such accounts, because I, like many of you, have no idea what makes a photograph “work” for anyone else…not, at least, beyond what I hope for.

This, to me, rates a “hilarious” on the irony meter, since the present age values “likes”, “faves”, and “LOVEs” above all other laurels in photography in a way that has made us slaves to popular approval even as we remain completely clueless as to how it’s earned. No cute tricks succeed. We can’t just replicate what people liked about our past stuff. We can’t cynically analyze what vaulted others’ images into the like-o-sphere. We can’t even play to what we believe others’ biases to be. And, for the sake of our photographs, we’re foolish to even try.

As a personal illustration of my point, I have absolutely no idea why this image has, at this writing, racked up over 4,000 views in the space of three days. This is not me boasting. To boast, I’d have to be taking credit for something I understood or had something to do with. No, this is me being dumbfounded. The picture represents, for me, the most transitory of whims, a final frame clicked off in impulse on the way back to my car after I thought I’d done the “important” work of the day. I thought there was something mildly (underlined) interesting about seeing this public pool “at rest”, if you will, just a week ahead of the end of the school year. No kids. No noise. Not a ripple or a wave to be had. A picture of something that hasn’t happened yet. That’s it. It was truly a case of “let’s shoot this and see what (excuse me) develops”.

And so the views and likes pile up for this one, and knowing that fact is no help at all. I want to take the brief flashlight being shown on my least favorite child and shine it on my pet instead, but it don’t work that way. Humans are perverse. We desperately seek to make a connection, then kvetch about whether it was done with AC or DC current. We want you to like us, but we want you to like the same thing about us that we like about us.

This gap between what photographers hope is important and what strikes everyone else as noteworthy reminds me of the actress Nastassia Kinski, who once came onto the Letterman show with her hair pasted into a straight vertical spike two feet high. Dave decided to act as if this were as normal as having a nose between your eyes and proceeded through the the interview without a remark. As the segment drew to a close, a slightly desperate Kinski purred, ” you haven’t asked me about my hair..”, to which Letterman replied, “Oh, you want it to look like that…”

THE INVISIBLE MIDDLE

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

GIVEN THAT JOB ONE, FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, is maximizing his ability to see, it’s worth considering how we unconsciously condition our eyes not to see….to, in a way, confer a sort of invisibility on whole big chunks of the viewable world. It’s not that those chunks can spontaneously vanish on their own: it’s that we, in the act of managing the everyday flood of sensory information, prioritize some data above others. The lowest priority data effectively becomes invisible.

 

Cities provide an interesting example of this phenomenon, which I term the Invisible Middle. The upper stories of the buildings in a metropolitan are clearly noticed as “treetops”, clusters of skyscrapers easily apprehended from a distance. Equally visible are the bottom, or street-level layers of cities, the door-to-door sequences of businesses that parallel our daily journeys, the very stuff of habit. By contrast, the details of urban life from just above our line of sight all the way up to the spires and crowns of the skyline can become phantom acreage, something our schedule doesn’t demand that we notice.

As one example, the building shown here, 452 Fifth Avenue in New York City, presents a magnificent face to anyone lucky enough to be in a position to crane their neck just a few extra floors above street level. Built in 1902, when a ten-story building was still a big deal in Manhattan, the Knox Building, named for Edmund Knox and the hat factory that made him a millionaire, was an anomaly from the start. Knox decided not to engage just any architect, but to hire John Hemenway Duncan, the man who had designed both the memorial arch at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Grant’s Tomb, an act slightly akin to hiring Frank Lloyd Wright to build you a 7-11. Decades later, however, having survived years of attempts to raze it, the Knox landed on the National Registry, and in the 1980’s, got a new glass tower wrapped around it to make it the crown jewel of a major midtown banking complex. If one of Mr. Knox’ hats were still available, giving it a tip would be an apt gesture of respect.

This particular view was chiefly available to me because I was seven floors up in the building on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Vantage point gave me access to this part of the city’s Invisible Middle, but, more importantly, it left my eye hungry for more, and just a little more trained as to the complete range of places to cast my gaze. Because of this lucky accident, I may, in future, also do other good things….on purpose.

YOURS (FOR THE MOMENT)

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A tensecond night exposure from a Fujifilm Instax camera.

INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY, or at least the analog experience of rapidly developing film photography (in the digital era, all pictures are ‘instant’) has always been more about emotional excitement than technical satisfaction. In terms of lens and camera design, the idea of “instant” has consistently been more powerful than the reality.

The recent “second wave” of instant camera and films, now spread across three main companies (Polaroid Originals, Lomography.com, and Fujifilm) reproduces the thrill aspect that typically accompanies nostalgia, but also seems, at least in the case of Fujifilm, to actually move the technology from its take-it-or-leave-it roots, attempting to design gear that is substantially more attuned to photographers’ needs than a plain vanilla shutter button. Moreover, Fujifilm has also created a film which beats the competition in both color rendition and price point.

The Fuji Instax Mini system, which produces pictures of 62mm x 46mm versus the historical 79mm x 79mm dimensions of the Polaroid, includes more than a half-dozen models that, while hardly full-function by any realistic yardstick, do afford shooters a variety of fixed-aperture shooting modes, including macro, landscape, “party”, and “child” options as well as a “bulb” mode for time exposures (of up to ten seconds), a self-timer, and even a double exposure setting. Like Pinocchio, the Instaxes are not yet real boys, but they can sorta kinda walk and talk like one.

Some Fuji instant models offer double exposures.

As for the competition, Polaroid Originals (the zombie resurrection of the old Polaroid carcass) still hasn’t perfected its watery-looking color film (or its horrendous $2-per shot cost) but has begun making new cameras again. Spoiler alert: they’re a crude reboot of the old One Step system, which is to cameras what Frankenstein was to smooth motor skills. As for the instant camera line from Lomography, they continue that company’s well-established tradition of charging you a stiff excise tax on hipness which is totally unwarranted by the product’s actual performance.

The images you see here, examples of double and time exposures, are both from a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 NeoClassic, the top of the company’s line and the closest thing that currently exists in the instant universe that can reasonably be called a camera instead of a toy. Hey, it’s a start. The first golden age of instant photography undoubtedly produced a lot of smiles. The technology’s second act could finally produce cameras worthy of all that global good will. Or it could all vanish again. In an instant.

PARING AND SPARING

Standard landscape composition. Lots of….well, everything.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ALL REAL ESTATE IN A PHOTOGRAPH IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.

Space within a composed frame must be earned. Every element that doesn’t strengthen or streamline a picture’s narrative power is detracting from it. Remembering this simple rule makes editing as easy as it is essential.

It’s usually true that you add something to an image by taking something away from it. This can seem counter-intuitive when shooting landscapes, epic-sized collections of scenic…stuff, where wide-angle lenses rule the roost and it seems to just make sense to crowbar as many trees, mountains, and waves as possible into the scene, as if more will automatically be better. However, the same thing is true of vast vistas that is true of smaller ones: there are few photographs which are uniformly strong from top to bottom, end to end. You have to find the strongest core within the larger picture and pare the rest away.

The tighter shot lurking within.

I call attention to this because, slow learner that I am, I can often spend years coming to the conclusion that one of my pictures has been weakened or held back by a hyper-abundance of information. The topmost shot, an original from a 2008 trip to Carmel, California, is a case in point. None of the visual elements are particularly wrong: it’s more like they are simply too plentiful. There’s just too much sky, sea, and stone…..that is, far more than is needed to sell the story.

Worse, the grouping of birds at the center of the frame, which is potentially strong enough to economically make smarter use of all those other elements, is being buried under all the surrounding… padding. The eye is being asked what to prioritize as it wanders its way through too much picture. By comparison, in the second shot, reframed as a mostly horizontal composition with the birds bumped up to prominence, the picture is now telling the eye what to see.

Which only serves to illustrate that what is left out of an image is just as important as what is left in it. Just like you can muck up a story with too many plot lines, you can get in a picture’s way by making its narrative take too many detours. Say what you have to say in the cleanest way possible, and then drop the mic.

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