the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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PARING AWAY THE BROWN SPOTS

What was originally a general scene in a cafe cropped down to a decent candid.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’M A BIG FAN OF THE PRACTICE of distancing yourself from photographs that didn’t immediately connect with you. Some of our images just don’t register with us at first glance, however, in many cases, they can be approached with a fresh eye if you just shove them in a shoebox (digitally speaking) for a time, giving them a second hearing somewhere down the road.

Of course, once you get down that road, you may conclude that your first impression was correct, and that something in the picture was off, or just ineffective. But then there are the late-arriving miracles, the photographs that had to wait until your mind was right to reveal their best truths, eliciting some reaction like “that’s not so bad, after all.” In other words, the ones you’re now glad you didn’t delete in a fit of initial disappointment. The late bloomers.

Often I find that a simple cropping reveals that there really was a decent picture in there all the time, but that it was being eclipsed by all the extra dead space, props or distractions that were also captured in the moment. In such cases, the entire apple wasn’t rotten; it merely needed a few brown spots to be pared away. The trick is to think of cropping not as an admission of failure but as an opportunity.

Few of us have the chops to perfectly frame a great story in an instant. There are a few among us with that talent, and they are the ones enshrined in museums and textbooks. The rest of us can often capture a great picture within a larger picture, however, and in eliminating the fluff and filler we actually redeem it instead of writing it off as defective. One old-school photo editor was famous for telling his shooters to “crop ’til it hurts”, revealing his own belief that, if you kept wielding the scissors without mercy, good pictures would often be freed from the junk that surrounded them. Taking an understandable amount of ownership in our own work, we can often become overly attached to the first version of a project. We protect it like a young mother who cries the first time her baby gets his hair cut. But while great pictures are often “taken” (see earlier remark about the people in museums), many more are revealed by merely peeling away a few dead leaves.

The candid seen here retains less than 50% of the content that surrounded it, which originally included additional people and most of the interior of a good-sized cafe.  Given the chance to add all that other clutter back in, I would issue a hard “no” and be grateful for having hacked at the task until I found the real essence of the picture. You have no doubt experienced the same Christmas-morning unwrapping thrill in your own pix. We need to remember that what comes out of the camera is often just the first draft of history, and that helping the best part of it be amplified is not cheating, or “making the best of a bad situation” but staging, directing our dramas for the audience’s best experience.

THINK A, SHOOT D

Many of us don’t miss anything about analog photography except the discipline of it.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

2020’s GREAT HIBERNATION HAS FORCED US to add many arbitrary items to our “to do” lists, if for no other reason than to consume the mountains of newly available time with which we find ourselves encumbered. We know that a certain number of our new daily tasks are what bureaucrats call “make-work” projects, but the therapeutic value of adding real energy to even “fake” goals is indisputable. And for photographers, those projects can involve a return to things we used to do but came to consider ourselves as “done with.”

For me, that’s meant a revisitation of film, not so much for any superior aspect it might have over digital shooting, but as a refresher in the use of habits I’ve held longest as a photographer. First; it’s true that, given the technical advances and conveniences introduced over the years, there is nothing left in analog that I can’t do almost unilaterally better and faster in digital. Nothing. However, from a planning or sensibility viewpoint, there certainly are mindsets that analog photography confers upon your process. As a consequence, I try to balance the discipline of working with film with the ease of shooting in digital…to think A and shoot D, if you like.

In film, you were working with a finite work medium. Your camera could only take 24 or 36 images at a time without being hungry for more “fuel”. You paid for each new dose of that fuel, and then you paid again to have it processed, in order to see if you succeeded or failed. Worse, there were no “do-overs” built into the system, which meant that you paid real money even for your mistakes. This automatically slowed down your picture-taking process and taught you the habit of planning purposely for a set outcome. Anyone who is too young to have ever shot film has no direct experience with the extra steps in metering, measuring and composing that accompanied every shot. Everything took four moves or more. Additional lighting was cumbersome and often unreliable. Worse, some kinds of film were more unforgiving of mistakes than others, and they usually came at a premium price. And then there’s the risk of not even being able to get the camera to give you what you want. The analog frame seen here, for example, took me five full minutes to shoot, and I can still find about a dozen things wrong with it. But I can inform my digital work with the thought process it took me to make this imperfect analog image.

So far, I’m doing a great job of unselling everyone on analog for all time. But in an age in which there was no immediate results for your shots, the exercise of planning and waiting before shooting had a payoff. You seldom shot anything you didn’t care about. You were slower, more deliberate about shoots, and tended to pre-plan them, to engineer all the failure out of a picture well before you took it. You edited yourself in advance, because it cost too damned much to, as in the digital era, just crank off thirty variations of every subject and hope one of them worked out. Am I asking anyone to go out and buy a roll of film and load it into Grandpa’s Hasselblad? Not at all, and that’s not even the point. It’s far more important to shoot with analog’s special brand of intentionality, even within the comfy confines of digital. As I said earlier, think A and shoot D. Maybe an exercise in which you shoot your next, say, thirty-six images on 100% manual settings, with no re-takes on any of them and no allowing yourself to go beyond that arbitrary number of frames, might be valuable. Or not. We no longer need to put up with much of the drudgery of film, but we might be well served to observe some of the disciplines it imposed on our work.

THE CANUTE CONUNDRUM

A street entrance that announces an address that is forever vanished.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE BELIEVE WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY IN ITS ESSENCE  because some version of it has been handed down to us across the ages, but, as we grow wiser, we know that there are many versions of What Really Happened, each filtered through the agenda/biases of the storyteller. Many of us have at least heard, for example, of the 12th-century King Canute, and may dimly recall a story about his going down to the seashore and foolishly ordering the waves to stop to demonstrate his imperial power. In examining the legend further, however, it seems that he may have gone through the exercise just to illustrate for his subjectsthe limits of his powers. Both versions make great stories. Both drive home the concept of the futility of our struggle against nature, and time.

As I write this, I have received word that the old building where I began my professional career is about to be torn down. Aside from being the physical site of events that pertained to me particularly, the joint has no real reason to be preserved, or saved. It’s architecturally insignificant and aesthetically bland, not to mention its physical decay after lying empty for many years. The project which will stand in its place is likewise lackluster in the extreme, but it will at least be useful and profitable in a way that the old hulk can never be again. And so it goes.

It’s been so long since I walked the halls of 22 South Young Street, Columbus, Ohio (which still bears a few stamps of the call letters for WCOL radio, my alma mater) that taking a tour of it now would only rupture the delicate membrane in which my memories are preserved. I have few photographic records of the time I spent there, as can happen when you’re busier living your life than documenting it. The only images of any recent vintage I have were taken about four years ago and are limited to a few exterior shots, which do what photographs do…document that, like Canute, we are powerless to hold back the sea, and more foolish than powerless in even making the attempt. Sometimes I think that the ultimate “memory” shot for all occasions, designed as a kind of universal symbol, would merely be an image of sand sifting through fingers. Plus or minus a few personal particulars, photographs of things that were are mostly illustrative within the mind. The camera, a dumb box essentially, can only see things as they are, not as they were or might have been.

Still, we cling to these pallid echoes and paltry souvenirs of our lives, gleaning at least minor comfort from them. Some days that’s enough. Other days, the magic fails us. As old King Canute, I often fantasize that he might actually have gone down to the shore more than once, always thinking, en route, “maybe this time it will work.” All too sad, yes, but also, all too human.

MYSTERIES SOLVED AND UNSOLVED

By MICHAEL PERKINS

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS OCCASIONALLY DISPARAGED as some kind of intrusion, the visual equivalent of picking someone’s pocket or peeping through their bedroom window. And while some shooters certainly invade, even steal, privacy from people, there are many more gentler practitioners, artists compelled by curiosity rather than predation. I think the difference between these two approaches shows in the work. At least I hope it does.

The photographic street scene is greatly altered in this Year Of The Great Hibernation. Making pictures of people is severely hampered when there are, literally, fewer full faces in view. Our choice to purposely avoid personal contact cuts that crop down yet again. And without faces, the street is only, well, the street. Faces provide photographers with that divine mix of solved and unsolved mystery. It is, after all, our inability to absolutely plumb the inner thoughts of others with our puny cameras that make our little acts of emotional eavesdropping so addictive.

The Conference, 2017

In recent months, I have been giving myself a refresher course on what it is about street work that “works” for me. I keep coming back to images very similar to the one you see here, the instinctual capture of a moment on a pier in Ventura, California some three years ago. Something about the exchange between the woman and the two males continues to fascinate me. Maybe it’s because the woman, whose face is the only one of the three in clear view, is in such a position of dominance. She clearly seems to be in charge of whether the conversation continues, and on whose terms. She looks, at once, impatient, engaged, weary, cold, contemptuous, even maternal. I can’t nail her down, and that’s intriguing. The males are almost certainly boys, or are at least servile in the way that only boys can be in the presence of an adult woman. Either way, their energy is greatly diminished in comparison to hers. The picture does, then, what street work does best…at least for me, in that it starts conversation, but cannot end it.

Of course, some street photography is not “about” anything but itself, that is, a random momentary arrangement of props and shapes. And it would be a mistake to label such images as any less or more “meaningful” just because no clear intent is implied in them. A sunset is, for some, symbolic of many things, but for others, it’s just a picture of a sunset. As to whether it’s somehow wrong to spy on the feelings or interactions of passersby with the intent of trapping them inside a box, I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Me, I’m thinking about the grand parade of lives passing before me, which I regard as the grandest feast since the invention of Hot Pockets…

CHROMEDOMES

This color original is lovely, but the multiple hues on the water seem to fight with the duck for attention.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.

But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.

Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.

Neutralizing the reflective hues on the water can make the center subject a bit more prominent.

Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.

Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.

SEMI-MANUAL

Yeah, I got your “documentation” right here, buddy…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE BEST INDICATIONS THAT YOUR TECH CUSTOMER IS, er, of a certain age is when you hear the question, “where’s the user manual?”, a phrase which registers, these days as, well, quaint. For photographers, the acceleratingly intuitive nature of camera gear, especially in the post-film era, may just mean that the designers have done their best to obviate the manual to as great a degree as possible.

This makes sense. Cameras used to require a lot of explaining just to make them work at all, and user manuals reflected this. The message was simple: unless you follow our prescribed steps, you can really louse things up. In an age that predated modern givens like autofocus, exposure compensation, or aperture priority, the user was responsible for everything involved in the making of a picture. You felt responsible as well, since you yourself had to deliberately set up anything you wanted your camera to do. There were no defaults, and the camera would not assume to know what you wanted.

Fast-forward to now, then, when, in taking delivery of your new camera, you are not usually taking delivery of the full “user’s manual”. It exists, but mostly online as a pdf. What’s actually in your box is a mini-quickie “startup guide”, about twenty pages of basics to allow you to operate the main functions of the toy. Curious about the rest? Go online. The secret behind the Amazing Shrinking Manual is simply that manufacturers don’t believe you will read the full manual ever, ever, anyway. A recent article on Learningstream.com, aimed at designers and marketers, even made a list of seven reasons why consumers would rather swallow arsenic than read the manual. They are; 1. They don’t have time; 2. They are lazy. 3. They “already know everything”. 4. They aren’t too bright. 5. They think “common sense” is enough. 6. They would rather call a help line. 7. The instructions are poorly written.

I would posit an eighth reason that people don’t read the full camera manual anymore; they will likely never use even half of the deluxe functions and add-on tricks that the camera has on offer. All cameras function largely the same way, and making a picture in the most basic fashion is remarkably consistent across brands. The things that give those brands their competitive edge is in the add-ons, the extra options that have been crammed into their chassis. Look through the documentation for your own camera and ask yourself, honestly, if there are tricks the thing will perform that you never thought to ask for, don’t use, or wouldn’t use in a million years. The simple truth; you don’t need a two-hundred page document to tell you how to take a picture. The bulk of the manual is for the “sometime” functions and exotic accents, while the majority of us can get up and running with only the start-up pamphlet. For pete’s sake, you get no documentation at all inside the box of the camera you’ll probably use most in your life…the one inside your phone. The manufacturers for cels have already taken things to the next level, assuming that consumers are not only bored but annoyed at anything that slows the taking of pictures. And since mistakes are free, and easy to fix, who can say they’re wrong?

One thing I do think is profound is that designers are constantly shrinking the space between our desire to make a picture and the delivery of said picture into our hands. It can certainly be argued that anything that gets out from in between the camera and the user is an overall good. As to the other stuff, take the advice my father gave me every time I asked him an annoying question: go look it up.

NEGOTIABLE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE FIRST “COMMANDMENTS” that were once sacrosanct to newbie photographers was the concept of sharpness. We were taught to worship the resolution quotients of all lenses and to choose them based on arcane charts and bench tests that professed to certify perfection. Such data made us look askance at the glass we currently owned and to slobber over the newer, crisper glass that shone forth from the catalogues (or websites). Many of us broke the bank in this pursuit, abandoning perfectly fine lenses that didn’t live up to someone else’s holy absolute, chasing the little red wagon of sharpness right down the street to bankruptcy court.

Escape, 2020

But as it turns out, sharpness is only a must for some kinds of photographs, and (listen closely), only if we say so. Museums around the world are bursting with life-changing images that fall far below that arbitrary high water mark for resolution set by God-knows-what-secret-society, and, if you examine the whole range of images you personally regard as your “keepers” there will be compelling pictures within that stack that don’t pass the sharpness fantasy…..and yet work, and make their arguments powerfully and elegantly. Leaning too hard on any one commandment in photography, whether it be sharpness or exposure or composition, leads you away from spontaneity and into stultification. Work that has only to meet some arbitrary technical standard to be qualified as art can, of course, never aspire to be art at all.

The best path to satisfying photographs is to trust yourself in the moment, to hear the voice that says that it’s time to snap the shutter and go for broke, damn the results and the critics. The shot you see here is, yes, technically “imperfect”, as it was shot a bit slow for the speedy little bird’s sudden departure. My original plan was to cook up something poetic as he placidly sat on a perch, obligingly posing for my convenience. But he is a bird, and has a bird’s priorities and doesn’t give a ripe damn about mine, and so off he went. Now, I could waste a lot of space here rationalizing the whole result and saying that, of course, I planned it all along, only I didn’t. Like some of my other favorites pictures, it contains a generous kiss of good luck from the camera gods, and that’s okay. I could fret over the fact that if I’d had a faster, sharper lens, the bird’s body would be frozen in perfect register, but I’m not going to. I love it when a plan works out, but I also love it when something just happens.

Today’s emerging photographers have a much more relaxed attitude toward “rules” than we older shooters, and that, on balance, is a welcome change. It explains the entire “low-fi” and lomography movements which value shooting from the hip and the heart with minimal forethought, something that consciously chooses emotional verity over technical imperfection. And why not? What harm to bring more kinds of voices into the conversation? As I get older, I am more grateful for the choices that are negotiable, more likely to be labeled as “sometimes try” rather than “never do”. For a guy who can’t even manage to eat two consecutive hot dogs with the exact same condiments, I find that it’s a better way to, er, fly….

EITHER / OR, EITHER WAY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

 

CERTAINLY, PHOTOGRAPHY IS PARTLY ABOUT LIGHT, AND EQUIPMENT, AND TECHNICAL MASTERY. However, after all those means are applied, the only determinant of the ends of all our energies comes from human choices. Arguments within the mind of the photographer about what “belongs” in a picture. How to convince the viewer that it belongs. How to apply all the means to make that information compelling, or universal.

It’s knowing what to say “yes” to, but, just as crucially, it’s about being able to say no to every other option, and being prepared to live with your decision. Of course, deciding what to put in an image is not, literally, a matter of life and death, as a choice of career, mate, or philosophy might be, but it is a very visual demonstration of what choice entails. Because, when you choose something, in a picture or in a life path, you automatically unchoose everything else. There is no way, in art in life in general, to have it all.

But better voices, voices far wiser than mine, have already spoken brilliantly of this process. One, in particular, has been considered by many to be the final word on the subject, so today it serves as my own picture’s caption:

Robert Frost / The Road Not Taken 
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Make good choices. Make your choices.
Take the path. Take the picture. 

 

CAESURA

Nullified Nursery, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE WORLD’S ACCUMULATED ARCHIVE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is largely an inventory of the vanished. Some of these subjects have an abstract quality that allows them to survive specific eras, but many photos are, in fact, testimony to things that are, simply, no more. Some of these records are accidental, since we mostly turn our lenses on things and people that are active factors in our daily lives, giving little thought to how antique they will appear in just a few years’ time. Sometimes, we mark the departure of things on purpose, shooting the occasional deserted factory or abandoned church. We chronicle the end of our worlds wherever we detect it. We snap when things have stopped.

But there is another kind of stopping which defines much of our life at the close of 2020; the temporary kind, the suspension of normal rhythms, symbolized by empty schoolyards, locked buildings, places that will be, as the signs promise, re-opening soon. Our “closed for the duration” cities echo old newsreels from the Great Depression, which show boarded-up mills, vacant stores, and idled farms as symbols of failure, despair. Photographically speaking, there is something poignant about looking into spaces that were designed to hum and teem with life that are, for the moment, forced into silence. Teachers in recent interviews have pined for the noise and confusion of the classroom, while city dwellers who thought they’d never live long enough to “have a little peace around here” now walk deserted streets with unease. You, like myself, have probably had occasion to document the desolate places in your own neighborhoods, places not closed forever, but closed until whenever, which, in some ways is lonelier. In the above image, what could be more upside down than a greenhouse, a building literally created to nurture life, being placed in lockdown?

Life, like water, seeks its own level, and as the world collectively holds its breath, we find ourselves anticipating the next great sigh, that easing off of breath that means that window shades can be raised, lights can switch back on, and doors can swing open. We know that life after wartime is inevitable. Until then, we document the emptiness, because, in time, those pictures, too will impart their lessons.

 

SOUL-VENIRS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU FIRST READ THIS POST, the events of The Horror Year 2020 may well already have sealed the fate of the establishment I write about today. The perishability of current events is one of the reasons that, over the last decade, I have almost completely kept “news” items out of the pages of The Normal Eye. Such stories age worse than limburger in the hot sun, and I have mostly chosen to address the eternal questions that affect photography, those universal struggles that occur in every age, regardless of what’s on the front page on any given day.

The Strand Bookstore bargain section, NYC, 2019.

But part of photography is always about that very perishability, the race to document or capture things before they vanish beneath the tides of time. And so I find myself calling attention to what is, at this moment, a poignant by-product of the Horror Year. On the surface, it’s just about the potential closing of a bookstore, hardly worth a ripple in the tragic tsunami of business failures and bankruptcies that are the persistent drumbeat of our current time. On another level, it’s about one of the most familiar and venerable of bookstores anywhere in America, the Strand in New York City, an establishment whose very existence symbolizes survival. Once part of a glorious 44-store district in the city known as Book Row, The Strand, at age 93, is the last man standing, its 2.5 million volumes serving as not merely a commercial concern but a community center, a cultural touchstone in the life of Manhattanites. Under the care of Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of the founder, the Strand, in this Season of the Plague, has crawled through the first months of the pandemic with some federal help, but, at this writing, it faces nothing short of extinction, and just this week, in October of 2020, the store has posted appeals to current and former customers around the world…a desperate S.O.S. that simply says, if you love us, save us. Within twenty-four hours of the story going public, the store’s website was so flooded with responses that it crashed.

And there my crystal ball goes dark. At the time of this writing, I can’t predict whether you, the someday reader, are smiling because the Strand has been saved or shedding a quiet tear at its passing. The one reason I felt compelled to cite a fast- moving news story at all in this forum is that it reminds me why we make pictures of things in the first place. Because they close. They fade. They burn. They fall to enemy bombs. To floods. To negligence. To our own failed memories. Photographs are one of the only hedges against the dread onslaught of temporal decay. And they themselves are also subject to that rot, becoming lost, left behind, forgotten. Beyond mere “souvenirs” of lost times, they are soul-venirs, testaments of times ago. For this reason, I went rooting this week through my old images of the Strand from the last twenty years. None of them are masterpieces, but all of them are markers, headstones for a time, and a condition, and a way of life, not only for New York but for your town, my town. Time is fleeting. Therefore make pictures. Sometimes, as Yogi Berra famously said, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but even a smudged shadow of history may someday be all we’ve got. Better to grab a box and go shadow-catching.

COLLISIONS OF CONVENIENCE

By MICHAEL PERKINS


UNLIKELY JUXTAPOSITIONS are the very essence of photography. We use the camera to extract the mood from one time of day and paste it over the atmosphere of another. We put light in places where once was only darkness. We take the colors of joy and superimpose them over somber scenes. We shove the past up against the present and force the two of them to become BBFs. And so, as picture makers, we should be comfortable when elements that seem to have nothing in common co-exist comfortably within a single image.

That said, this picture, which pretty much fell into my lap last year, feels very much like the kind of improvisation that informs the re-imagining of practically every rite and routine right now, rather than a “fun” idea from 2019. That is, in the present state of affairs, observers might understandably react to, say, a wedding rehearsal inside a bookstore with a big, “um, sure, why the hell not?” In this way, the great hibernation has made more of us think like, well, photographers.

Here’s why: shoot enough photos and you will inevitably become more limber in your idea of what fits or doesn’t fit within a single frame. Quite simply, the randomness of life will force you to look at seemingly exclusive realities and admit that, yes, they actually do justify each other in your final composition.

And just as so many non-shooters have learned, in plague times, to accommodate plans “B”, “C”, “D”, photographers must stay in the game, stay loose, and conclude that, yes, all things considered, holding a wedding in a bookstore is a pretty dope idea.

FROM EYE TO DOCUMENT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE UNIQUE BLEND OF TECHNICAL AND MENTAL PROCESSES that combines to form the phenomenon of photography is as real, and as elusive, as smoke. Real, because it results in a physical transfer of information from eye to document. Elusive, because, like smoke, photographs waft and curl in different contours with each and every image.

The making of a photograph is forever thrilling because it is an attempt to make something purely mental cohere into a tangible object. It’s a tantalizing dream that ends in a frustrating compromise, something pure that often enters the real world hobbled by impurities. And yet it’s the flawed part of this process that makes it irresistible.

If the Magic Picture Box had actually been able to reproduce reality, as many feared at its introduction, it would have long since lost its allure, and would offer no more romance than a seismograph or any other mere recording instrument. But something different happened instead.

Instead of the camera being reliable as a mirror of “the truth”, the very imperfectIon of its nature made it a messenger for “my truth”….a machine that must bend to the whims of its user. That’s why even the best camera is only as good as the eye behind it. It’s not that “the camera can’t lie”, but that it can neither lie nor tell the truth without human intention steering it.

I offer these scribblings as an answer to the oft-asked question, “why do you love it so much?”, not really to convert the unconvinced as to remind the devoted; because even people who make pictures constantly can occasionally forget what a miracle we help oversee.

 

 

 

MAN-MADE MELIES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE MAY BE LIMIT to what the human mind will devise In the way of diversion during times of forced solitude, such as our current Great Hibernation, but thankfully I haven’t yet bumped my nose up against that particular ceiling. And while photogs are taught to make pictures out of damn near anything, you begin, under quarantine, to rethink even that minimalistic criterion. The term “make-work” springs to mind. That, along with “desperate.”

But as long as I’m making pictures of something/anything, I can feel less guilty about not being able to, for example, master sourdough bread baking. Subject-wise, I’ve been trying, lately, to crank out something that is vaguely environmental in aspect, since our failure to serve or even consider nature seems to be at the root of so many of our current woes. Sooo….time for that “make-work” ethic to kick in.

The project began as a simple capture of a recent Supermoon, which is fairly easy with my “bird camera”, a Nikon Coolpix 900, a hybrid superzoom bought to help stalk all things winged but also handy for handhelds of heavenly bodies.

My lunar capture took mere seconds, but it was long enough to conjure a memory of the classic 1903 George Melies film A Trip To The Moon, one of the very first special effects movies. The prehistoric flicker contains the iconic image of the dismayed face of the “man in the moon”, seconds after an Earth spaceship lands squarely in his eye, and, moonsnap in hand, I commenced working on my own version.

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I wondered what a concerned, even sad version of that face would look like, as if the moon were desperately entreating us all to get our act together. I finally decided to re-use a closeup of one of my wife’s antique dolls, which had the right balance of sentiment and creepiness, and blended the two pieces on a phone app appropriately named Fused.

And so, an act of improvised lunacy, along with another slow night, goes into the record books. Turns out that even quarantine can yield to the images inside your skull. You no doubt have similar visions swimming around inside your brain pan at this point, and now is the perfect moment to summon them forth.

POWER ON THE PLATE

John Quincy Adams is ready for his close-up, 1843.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ON JANUARY 13, 2009, BARACK OBAMA, a man of many firsts both personal and political, created a benchmark in the history of photography as well, becoming the first President of the United States to have his official portrait created with a digital camera. Data nerds will note that the exposure was made with Pete Souza’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera without flash and settings of 1/125 sec., f/10, ISO 100, and 105mm. In the interval between that time and this, the break with analog film-based photography seems both natural and inevitable, and so the shot has one key thing in common with the very first presidential portrait, in that it was taken using the most advanced technology of its time, changing forever the way we thought of “official” records of the Chief Executive.

One hundred and sixty-six years prior, in 1843, John Quincy Adams, some fifteen years after the end of his presidency, sat for what, today, is the oldest surviving original photographic portrait of an American president. The term original, when speaking of early photographs, must be given a bit of additional context. The process known as daguerreotype was, at the time of Adams’ sitting at Philip Haas’ Washington studio, only four years old. Each photograph was printed directly on glass plates, and were therefore one-of-a-kind images in the truest sense, as no means for printing copies of photos would exist until the creation of negative film by George Eastman nearly half a century later. The fragility of daguerrotypes added to the special quality afforded them as keepsakes in the nineteenth century, as they were quite literally irreplaceable. And then there was the arduous process of getting a usable exposure made in the first place. In President Adams’ diary of the day, he remarked that, upon arriving for his appointment, he found

“...Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”

Full disclosure: In fact, the very first presidential portrait was taken of the spectacularly unlucky William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office just one month after taking the oath, likely due to complications of pneumonia brought on by failing to dress warmly enough during inclement Inauguration Day ceremonies. Indeed, a photographic portrait was made of Harrison on March 4, 1841, mere days before he fell ill. However, the original of the image is said to be lost, surviving only in copies, while the Adams image, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is the very same glass-plate photo taken two years later by Haas. Adams probably deserves the distinction of hanging in the NPG for an additional reason, in that he was one of the primary forces behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Portrait Galley is a subsidiary.

Like Barack Obama, Adams had additional historical mileposts attached to his fame as a photographic subject. Serving in the House of Representatives for many years following his presidency, he was the last living tie to the Founding Fathers, one of the men who, as they sing in Hamilton, was “in the room where it happened”. Photography was lauded, at its birth, as one of the proudest achievements of the Industrial Revolution, but many feared that it might be a merely mechanical medium, devoid of the soul of painted portraiture. And yet, since its very beginnings, it has not only performed a purely reportorial function, but has also anchored us to all ages in a most un-machinelike fashion, preserving the essences of our humanity and allowing us to sing Hail to many a Chief.

TINY TESTIMONIES

 

Stroll, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE PICTURE YOU SEE HERE is not the type of photo I typically do a lot. And that’s odd, because it seems, in some way a prime example of what we all seek when we go out to photograph. Use your own term for it…slice of life, the common man, street photography..the list of names is long, but the idea is the same: the practice of recording something of life, from life, that reminds us of our universal humanity in some small way.

Maybe that word small is the key to it. In normal times (remember those?) we hardly blink at the millions of wee moments that aggregate to the total of our sense of “normalcy”. And if we don’t notice these millions of mini-moments ourselves, we trust artists to notice them for us, to amplify the ordinary into the marvelous. But the artist’s eye can fail as well, can become blind to minutia, aiming for bigger game to portray or preserve. The mega-calamities; the earthquakes; or, in the current world context, the boarded-up shops and empty streets. Everyone wants to take The Big Picture that explains it all, and it’s easy to forget that a large tapestry of tiny testimonies, mini-moments, can be woven into a Big Picture as well.

Even in these soul-testing times, the scene shown here is hardly front page news; Couple Walks Dog. And yet, its very ordinariness (may not be a word, look it up, campers) can be reassuring in a time when routine has been ripped to rags and not much can be taken for granted. In such a world, a child’s laugh, a sunlit hollow, a scene that appears to be part of An Uninterrupted Life, can become precious. Hardly forty-eight hours has passed since I shot this picture, and yet, in that short span of time, it has gone from a casual snap to something I hold to be precious. Certainly not for any innate skill in its execution or groundbreakingly fresh approach, but, again, for the appearance that, despite everything, some things will go on, and that we can well afford, in this superabundance of spare time, to slow down and savor them.

One of the wondrous things that was lost in the transition from analog to digital photography was the deliberateness, the necessary caution and calculation that used to go into the making of every shot. Mistakes were costly and gratification was delayed, and our slower, more reflective method reflected that. Maybe, during this forced time-out, the best thing we can do for our photographer’s eye is to allow it to notice more of everything, to slow our roll and harvest the million little fireflies that have always been swirling about our unseeing gaze.

 

(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)

DOING WITHOUT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLE IS REFLECTIVE of the human aging process. You often make pictures differently in different phases of your life. Many of my favorite shooters have, over their careers, evolved on two parallel tracks, both toward simplicity. That is to say that their picture-taking process, i.e., equipment and gear, becomes more streamlined as they age, even as their approach to composition becomes simpler. In every way possible, the best photographers tend to learn, over time, how to do more and more with less and less.

Going into battle with a single camera that’ll do 98% of what you need in any situation is highly desirable, but it takes time to learn how to do that, to resist the temptation to carry every gizmo under heaven on your shoulder at once. But the struggle is worth it; knowing every single feature and quirk of a camera that’s ergonomically solid and functionally streamlined allows you to work fast and instinctively. As for composition, I found that, at least for me, I had to either learn to simplify or just give up on things like landscape work, where everything I shot was crammed with clouds, trees, trickling streams, flocks of birds, and, who knows, the Barnum & Bailey circus. I was making picture after picture where, if the human eye was asking, “where do I look?” my answer was likely to be, “It’s a smorgasbord! Pick anything!” The truth was that I had to go simpler as I aged if I was ever to be effective at all in conveying visual ideas.

Simplicity is the final step in a photograher’s development….or at least in mine.

Twenty years ago, this image would have taken up twice the area you see here, because, even today, its master frame included, along with the barn and stable, a side building, some empty blue sky, and a few small piles of farm implements….enough distractive information for five pictures. Zeroing out all the color and cropping to keep the entire picture to a basic series of rectangles and triangles (plus their multiplied shadows) turned out much better; all I had to do was develop the courage to cut, decisively, in search of a less cluttered picture. I only select this example because it’s a very clear illustration of the process that I now go through for composing nearly every shot, in that I try to pre-visualize how little information I need to convey my concept. Yes, how little.

This is an ongoing struggle for any photographer, because it’s easy and alluring to do more of everything…more stuff to carry, more stuff to cram in the frame, more things to draw energy away from your primary vision. I am nowhere near where I need to be in this journey, but I can track a little progress, and, amidst all the distractions of, well, living, that’s at least something.

 

(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.)

FACE IT

A mandrill wrestles with the meaning of it all.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BEYOND THE RAW TRAGEDY of this year’s Great Hibernation, our forced stay-cation away from each other, the biggest loss for artists is the loss of faces. Photography engages the purposes and layers of human features, and draws its energy and appeal from the interpretation of those elements. When the people, through death or isolation, go away in great numbers, the faces that fuel our art go away as well. For those who create images, it’s like losing half the colors in the Crayola box.

That hunger for faces isn’t even fully satisfied after we have begun to cautiously crawl out of our respective caves, either, because the faces that we do see are partially concealed. We see eyes where once we saw both eyes and smiles. We try to intuit from memory what kind of expression lies behind the cloth of containment. Maybe that’s why, at least for this photographer, I’ve turned to a source I only selectively visit during normal times….the faces of animals.

It makes a kind of baseline sense. One of the only public places I go, while all this horror is sorted, is the local zoo. And here’s where the purists amongst us will moan that such places are the worst way to discover animals for purposes of photography. Snotty image contests have even gone so far as to routinely exclude such images from competition over the years, keening about how “dishonest” it is to capture an animal’s image in captivity, blah, blah, blah. That view is, of course, idiotic. The photographer alone determines whether an animal shot in the wild or in an enclosure registers with viewers as “real”. Better to shoot a stunning picture through bars than to let it go unmade.

And so, absent the human faces that typically populate our photography, we go in search of emotion and feeling in the faces of cats, apes, birds, and why not? If our own features are supposed to be a visual seismograph of our inner struggles, how does that happen any less with an animal? We’re already accustomed to labeling the reactions of the animals closest to us as those of a “happy” dog or a “lonely” cat, so the idea that animal faces register emotions is far from alien to us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, as I await the full return of human faces in all their mystery and madness, I will practice portraiture of another kind with friends of a different stripe. We love to flatter ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs are the only ones worthy of mention in the world. It’s time to realize what a stupidly limited concept that has always been.

 

(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is available from NormalEye Books.)

HEADING DIRECTLY FOR OBSCURE

A fairly standard “I went to the museum today” rendering of a classic Boeing-Stearman 75 biplane.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE’RE OFTEN TOLD, WHEN PLANNING TO SHOOT A GIVEN SUBJECT, to “set an intention”, to draft some kind of approach to the task, both to save time and avoid disappointment. You’ve seen the mental checklist: what kind of lens, camera, angle, framing, etc. will yield the best results? So making up your mind is Job One in a lot of photo tutorials. Fine. However, it’s what you do once you change your mind, or, in effect, junk your original plan, that can present real opportunity.

In driving around a neighborhood I hadn’t visited for a while near a small municipal airport, I discovered that, since I’d last been there, they’d erected a multi-story memorial to all the pilots from various conflicts who had used this particular airfield for training purposes. Appropriately enough, they’d hung a beautifully restored example of one of the most popular trainers of the 30’s and ’40’s, a Boeing Stearman 75, the craft that taught hundreds of World War II-era air jockeys how to fly. Built near the twilight of the biplane area, these agile and cheap little crates, nicknamed “yellow perils”, were a vital part of the history of aviation, and the one seen here is a gorgeous specimen. I’d planned to make the standard museum-post-card view of it, using the buttery texture of a Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens to add a slightly dreamy look. It wasn’t a hard shot to make and I made it.

Plan B: the plane that was/wasn’t there.

It was later, however, during several walk-arounds, that I decided to try a non-objective, more abstract approach, not to merely document the plane, but in the spirit of history and myth, to suggest it, rather like a dream or a memory. The slight distortion and color shifts in a window reflection of the plane, combined with just a fragment of the actual craft, seemed to suggest speed, but to also render the plane in a kind of mystical way, as something shifting, vanishing, appearing and re-appearing. Hardly a postcard rendition, and yet I’m glad I gave it a try. The plane that’s physically here is glorious, to be sure, while the hallucination of the plane is transitory, like the era that produced it, like the names inscribed on the memorial’s explanatory plaque.

Planning your shots ahead of time is comforting, and truly helpful in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. But just because photographs can depict things in a fairly “real” fashion doesn’t mean you have to be anchored to that one way of seeing. Plan “B” can be as exciting as “Plan A” if you let your brain ( and, in turn, your camera) go with the flow.

BE REASONABLE (DO IT MY WAY)

This shot was taken at full automatic: f/3.5, 1/100 sec., ISO 100, 12.5mm

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TO FLIP THROUGH THE THOUSANDS OF ON-LINE DEBATES between those who favor automatic exposure over manual, you’d think that the two camps (both vociferous and intractable) had existed since the beginning of photography. In fact, however, this argument only goes back about as far as the 1970’s, when the first cameras with automatic modes of any kind began to re-define the market. Think about that: we now are asked to choose up sides on what was, for 75% of photography’s history, a non-issue.

Automodes began as partial assists to an overall manual process of making pictures. Then the manufacturers came to a startling realization; that many more beginners and amateurs would enter the camera hobby if the cameras were engineered to do more of the heavy lifting involved in snapping a shot. Quite simply, the less worry and uncertainty that could be evolved out of the process, the less frustrated people would be and the more they would shoot…spelling increased sales for both film and gear. It also created the “move-up” market, because, if photographers could stay at it long enough, they would either outgrow their equipment or surrender to the urge to replace it regularly, since a better and more expensive camera makes better pictures, right?….or so went the logic.

And so the hobby evolved from a craft that required total personal control of every aspect of exposure to occasional assists to where we are today, which is a world of cameras engineered to anticipate every need for every situation and to provide an automated guarantee that most of the resulting shots are above average, or “good”. There are millions who still shoot 100% manually, of course, but they are numerically in the majority, simply because many people will trade a high-average, convenient experience for a greater risk of failure. We are thus in an age of “good enough” photography.

Same place, same time, but on full manual: f/6.3, 1/250 sec., ISO 100, 12.55mm

But one thing gets lost in this ongoing debate, and that’s the answer to the question, “who’s taking the picture here?” Again, let’s just look at exposure. Many considerations go into what happens to a shot at various levels of light, with variations in color, texture, contrast, and so on. As seen in the top image, a fully automatic exposure is far from “bad”…in fact, it’s a tribute to the engineer’s art that it is a perfectly fine, average depiction of what I saw through the viewfinder. However, for anything interpretive, it’s only a starting point. The second exposure, shot at exactly the same time and under the same general conditions, could not be any more different from the auto-mode version. Color plays a decidedly different role. Texture and contrast call attention to the building’s weathered exterior. And as for the time of day, the image, taken under harsh Arizona midday light, could easily be mistaken for early sunrise or late afternoon.

Manual shooting isn’t a holy calling, like the priesthood, and being good at it isn’t magic, just a matter of doing it enough to work past all the mistakes. In other words, a normal learning process. Cameras that make decisions for you will often make them in keeping with your own preferences, but when they don’t (or can’t), taking back control is a sure way to make the pictures yours, and only yours. As the man says, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

REQUIEM FOR A DIVE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LENGTHY TIME-OUTS, whether imposed by illness, separation, or the combination of both that we find ourselves presently enduring, limit our ability to create new experiences, but they do provide ample space for deeply breathing in the vapors of old ones. If, like me, you’ve found yourself reviewing a lot of old images, either to burn time or enrich your memories, then you’re bound to stumble across pictures of more than a few things or people that make the photographs truly poignant, because the subjects they depict are simply….gone.

Not just gone from your reach or your convenience, gone as in destroyed, razed, demolished. Victims of “progress” or disaster. Casualties of time or carelessness. Locales that recall amazing days with friends, or lonely nights of longing. Places that are so gone that a photo is the only testimony to them ever having existed. I don’t know why so many of these places, for me, are joints; remote watering holes, out-of-the-way dives with no distinguishing charm or saving grace. The word bar is far too exalted for grungy little crevices such as those that I most dearly cherish. The decor ranges from random to desperate. The menus are the stuff of dyspeptic nightmares. The customers inhabit some purgatory between Damon Runyon’s subterranean sharpies in Guys ‘n’ Dolls to the sweat-soaked retreats of defeated fighters to the hidey-holes of lost souls. And I have done my best, in rotten light and good, with or without the management’s blessing, to do them justice with whatever camera I have had handy.

The late and lamented (at least by me) Greasewood Flats, Northern Arizona.

The place you see here used to grace a dusty stretch of rural biker retreats north of Scottdale, Arizona collectively known as Greasewood Flats, and, take it from me, both the food and drinks did the name proud. No pink cellophane toothpicks in your girly cocktails here, dearie. We came to drink until we need help sorting the denominations of the beer-soaked bills out of our wallet, till the door to the parking lot becomes a major navigational negotiation. Sadly, the Flats fell to the wrecking ball a few years ago, and I have yet to summon the courage to see what civilized nonsense occupies the land today. I only know that I can still smell the burgers (broiled outside over big pits, then walked inside), and I will never be able to hear Dwight Yoakam again without a distinct pang.

But I got the picture.

So here’s a toast to whatever divine dives or forgotten apartments or first girls your pictures bring back into your heart in these long, long days. They are good companions and good friends. And powerful. Because other than a great picture, only a good friend can really make you cry.

 

(FIAT LUX, Michael Perkins’ latest collection of images, is now available through NormalEye Books.) 

 

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