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ONE SURVIVOR AT A TIME

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE CONTINUE TO SELECTIVELY MOVE IN AND OUT of isolation in this, the second year of The Great Hibernation, getting used to being around each other again, yet reflexively prepared to break off from each other and return to our respective safe corners. It’s a strange and vague situation in which to find ourselves, and our images, as always, reflect that uncertainty.

Aside from the familiar pictures that have been generated by the media to ”officially” depict our delicate status during the crisis, there are also the personal visions, the random things we see that can be repurposed to show how we’re feeling. These can seem to be very ordinary things at first, but as photographers we find our eye “translating” them into something symbolic of our own inner dialogue.

Sometimes, it can just start with a single car. And an impending rainstorm.

It really is the thing of a moment. In the case of this picture, for example, it can simply mean being stuck in stop-start rush hour traffic moving toward an increasingly angry sky. Within minutes, the wind would begin slinging sheets of water sideways, my wipers struggling to keep up. But in between those two moments, I would feel the urge to capture what I saw as a measure of how vulnerable life has rendered us all, awed and helpless before the force, and whim, of nature.

We make pictures to map all our emotions, for good or ill, and the purer and more direct we reflect those feelings, the more powerful and immediate those images become.

REGAL

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OFTEN IN PHOTOGRAPHY, reality is, to be polite, inadequate. As in coming up short, unequal to the task of depicting or doing justice to life. We can convince ourselves that merely recording patterns of light and focus as we find them in nature is so authentic as to sell any image.

In fact, the “real” world is only, at best, a point of departure.

Depending on how and when you learned to make pictures, you may see the ”actual” world as either the ideal or as merely the place where you start, not where you end up. In the above picture, the wondrous gift in happening on the raw elements of this elegant tempts the viewer to just get the picture without pause or reflection.

However, in doing something as simple as gently over-exposing the scene, as was done in this case, you actively take control of the process, if only in a small way. In doing so, you turn mere recording into interpretation. The essentials remain the same, but the final product is now a personal expression. Your camera already possesses the ability to merely capture data. The photographer in you uses that data to craft something unique.

NOT QUITE PLAIN SIGHT

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CAN PERHAPS BE DESCRIBED as the means by which the invisible is rendered visible, a way of seeing things in one’s everyday world which are so familiar as to go generally unseen, and somehow make them prominent, to illuminate that which is hidden in plain sight. It can be documentary or reportorial in effect, but mainly the aim is merely to un-camouflage things, to render them newly obvious to the viewer.

The street work that is emerging as the Great Hibernation slowly unwinds is rolling out along two tracks. One of these tracks will contain the newsier, more sensational images of Gee, How Much Things Have Changed, scenes of adaptation, loss, a repurposing of our old way of life. The other track, every bit as worthy of comment, will be everything else, or See How Much Remains The Same. These photographs are assurances that we will still ride the morning train, still walk on beaches, still fall in love. These pictures will be amazing by the assuring ordinariness of them, for the message that not everything was destroyed. And to rebuild our world, we will need images from both viewpoints.

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The Completion Of Their Appointed Rounds, 2021

This shot of a village mailman in a small town seems to borrow from both camps. His mask indicates that he is part of our nervous new order, but his track, measured from house to house as h delivers the daily goods is eternal, in that I could have made this picture in much the same way six months, a year, or ten years ago. The houses he’s delivering to are also part of a pattern of reassurance. Their architecture is weathered, settled, and their various elements, from flags to bird feeders, seem to say, we’ve been here for a while. We’re going to be around.

Street photography can be simply the act of catching an event or a human reaction on the fly. And when that is done with perception and skill, it can almost look as inevitable as a staged act. But on a simpler level, we’re just snatching moments out of the time flow, holding them up to the light, and asking, “J’ever notice this?” And on a good day, that little act of daring is as good as photography gets.

ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION

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BY MICHAEL PERKINS

THE EYES HAVE IT” went the old maxim, a phrase which was a kind of bookend to another chestnut about the eyes being the “window to the soul”. Both sayings relate to most of our earliest photographic training, with scads of manuals and tutorials dictating that all portraits must focus (literally) primarily on the eyes, even at the expense of sharpness in the remainder of the picture. This rule has also been enshrined in the eye detection focal systems of even the most rudimentary cameras. 

All of which has served us well, apparently, during these days of the Great Hibernation, when masks have concealed many clues to our personality, even as they have protected us against contagion. Indeed, in many social situations, the eyes have become almost the sole messenger for people’s inner thoughts, intentions, moods. And depending on how you view the situation as a photographer, that’s either maddeningly frustrating or grandly intriguing. Still, the idea of making a formal portrait of a person while they are masked hasn’t really occurred to me as a legitimate means of measuring the self of said person. I am always waiting for the gauze to come off, for the “complete” person to be revealed.

That’s why, recently, I was truly surprised when, out of about a half dozen snaps of my wife Marian as she visited with a friend, I chose the one with the least amount of her face in view as my favorite. There’s was something…call it mystery, call it minimalism…about the way her hand momentarily fanned across her features in much the same area that a mask might cover. Why was this interesting? Why is anything interesting? The point was that her eyes were, indeed, a perfectly reliable barometer of her mood, prompting me to ask, how much face is enough face for a portrait? Are we more fascinated by what is left out of a picture? And, if so, are there many more remarkably veiled faces to be explored before the Age Of The Mask fades away? 

“…you’re probably wondering why I’ve called you all here…”

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A few ruminations on how I conduct myself.

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

AT DISMAYINGLY RANDOM INTERVALS OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS OF THE NORMAL EYE, I’ve tried to occasionally stop to thank those of you who’ve joined our ranks since, well, since the last time I did this. I always mean to be more fastidious about observing exact anniversaries or sending out formal notes of appreciation, but, somehow, I am always me, and me isn’t very reliable in that respect. Please excuse my lack of breeding and let me say, again, how very much I value your enthusiasm, your loyalty, and your feedback. Part of these periodic notes is also, out of necessity, a re-statement of what we do, or don’t, do here.

The Normal Eye is not a tech guide. There are many, many places to find the requisite “how-to” tutorials for any kind of physical technique you’re pursuing, and I trust you to be well able to teach yourself the step-by-step mastery of how your camera works, where to buy what toy, or how to make a given image. Here, we concentrate on the things that I deem far more essential than gear…including intention, vision, and the training of your eye to do your heart’s bidding. To look outward in creating in image, you have to be able to look inward as well, to know where you fit into the world you inhabit, and to export that inner knowledge outside of yourself, into your hands and the camera they operate. Everything else in photography is mechanics, and, while you may expertly operate a machine, you are not one yourself. The picture must happen inside you before it gets anywhere near the camera.

This platform began after I had spent an entire year working solely with a 50mm prime lens, shooting everything with that single optic, regardless of subject or conditions. It was an exercise is making myself able to produce pictures no matter where I found myself, disconnecting from the idea that it was great cameras that made great pictures, and forcing myself to be a better growth medium for photographs. I loved the idea that 50mm primes were once called “normal” lenses for their close resemblance to the way humans actually see, and I began to refer to my desired destination as the development of a more natural, or “normal” way of seeing….free of biases, suppositions, bad habits, or narrow thinking.

For me, achieving a “normal” eye meant one unclouded by my own shortcomings, an eye working at peak perceptual and instinctual capacity. Thus The Normal Eye became a way for you and I to explore what it took to purify and clarify that eye, a journey, as Ansel Adams described, from taking a picture to making one, the trip from passively snapping to purposefully planning. Thanks to you, it continues to be a great trip, one based on the adventure over the destination. Thank you.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

JUXTAPOSITION IS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL, as well as one of the easiest, forms of photographic narrative, a key tool in the effective composition of a picture. Just placing two elements side by side within the frame creates opportunity for comparison, an analysis of the attributes of the old versus the new, the tall versus the small, the important versus the meager. The correct choice in the juxtaposing of two things can add up to an image that explores contrast and actually comments on their relationship to each other.

When the superb stands directly next to the shabby, a statement has been made. When the giant is flanked by the tiny, a judgement has been rendered. Even the mere intermingling of dark and light objects in a purely abstract way comes off as a deliberate arrangement, an intentional remark in visual terms. A thing by itself is one kind of picture. A thing in relation to another thing in a photograph can open up a far wider universe of ideas.

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Often, juxtapositions are just organic discoveries of things that already exist in opposition to each other, as in the image seen here. In other cases, the comparison is more deliberately staged or interpreted in some way that has not previously been as clear to the casual observer, yet visible to the photographer’s eye. The idea is to place choice before the viewer, asking him/her to either favor or refuse one thing in reference to the other, to, in effect, rank the two ideas in order of importance. This is a key part of the engagement between photographer and audience.

When everything seems to be already shown, or decided, in a picture, it’s less engaging. However, once something has been placed in the frame that leaves something unanswered, engagement increases dramatically. A dialog of sorts has been begun with the “outcome” of the photo that’s been left in a suspended state, only to be resolved by the exchange of ideas, both by the taker and receiver of the image, as to what the whole thing is “about”. One of the first visual exercises given to children is being asked to comment on “which of these things is not like the other”. Turns out that adults respond to that mental tug-of-war as well, and that creates real opportunity for the photographer.

TONAL TOSS-UPS

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BY MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ADVANCE IN PHOTOGRAPHY OVER THE PAST SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS, at least for me, is the fact that everyone, regardless of gear or budget, shoots in color as a baseline default. I am old enough to remember when the opposite was still true, when most people shot primarily in monochrome, either because of the cost, or the slow speed of color film, or the fact that labs were still not great at delivering natural polychromes, or, in some circles, because the medium’s artists disdained color as too brash or distracting. The digital era completed the conversion to color as the starting place for a master shot, in that the camera will always shoot that way unless you deliberately tell it not to.

And that’s a choice I don’t fully understand. I always make every master shot in color and then decide which of those will be more effective without it. Because then my choices are unlimited, whereas, if I’m forced to shoot masters in mono, I can’t second-chance the shot back into color later. Even more confusing to me are the high-art cameras that are manufactured to shoot black-and-white only, cameras that are typically twice as expensive as ones that shoot in both formats. It’s like paying twice as much for a steak that someone’s already taken two bites out of.

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Most of all, I like grappling with certain shots. I dig the inner quarrel that goes on as to whether color will complete or compete with a picture’s power. Some color images have an immediacy that is simply too muted in b&w, but there are times when the message of a picture will be diluted if something too loud or pretty fights with it for dominance. That’s why they put more than one foot pedal on pianos.

For instance, the “before” and “after” versions of this storefront have been haunting me for several weeks now, and I still can’t declare a clear winner. Is the contrasting mixture of bolder colors a comment on the changing phases within a business block over time, or does the removal of color call more attention to texture and shadow? I consider that the practice of mastering a photograph in color, for many years a luxury, remains my favorite control option today. In a medium where messages are measured by so many factors, the color/no color decision might, at least on occasion, be the most important call a shooter can make.

FORWARD INTO THE PAST

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN HIS ESSENTIAL 1982 BOOK MEGATRENDS, the late John Nesbit, trying to predict the uber-changes that would eventually govern our present-day world, described a coping method, a law of compensation called “high tech / high touch”. HT/HT was a kind of social recalibration in which the feeling of dislocation generated by surges of technological advancement would be followed by movements that re-emphasized the comforts of the world just vanished. Think of it as a kind of emotional recoil, in which we spring back from forward leaps to the familarity of simpler times, such as the recent re-emergence of physical vinyl phonograph records as a reaction to the phantom musical realms of the cloud. Nesbit’s prophecy seems to have been realized in many such areas of our society, and photography has certainly seen its share of the phenomenon.

In the camera world, Nesbit’s “high tech-high touch” is a boomerang reaction to the digital era in picture-making, a time of enormous advances in the way images are recorded, manipulated and distributed. Indeed, as foretold in Megatrends, the past thirty years has seen a tremendous counter-revolution that, far from embracing a world that is bent upon perfecting the photographic process, actually rejects it, longing for a return to the very imprecision that defined the analog world, topped off, this time around, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia.

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Digital photo sharing was no sooner off the drawing board than people began to pine for their old shoeboxes of physical prints, pictures “you could hold in your hand”. Cue the rebirth of the defunct Polaroid company and a return to instant analog photography, bad film, faulty lenses and all. Hate the coldness of binary storage? Enter the new passion for film of all kinds, aimed at an audience too young to remember how expensive and unwieldy it was, or how poorly built some bargain cameras had been. Coated with the sheen of yester-appeal, these shortcomings became pluses, hailed as “spontaneous”, “unpredictable”, or “delightfully imperfect” in the re-introduction of cheap old plastic toy cameras like the Holga (see above image) and, in turn, the creation of an underclass of all-new, technically compromised gear under the banner of the “Lomography” movement. Like your retro on the arty side? Welcome to the all-manual Lensbaby line, whose higher-end optics sold selective focus to a global fanbase.

A loving return to the imprecision and high failure rate of the film era became attractive to the creators of apps as well, and today, the insanely efficient cameras of the iPhone age sell millions of dollars of applications designed to simulate light leakage, expired film, high grain, lens flares….to, in essence, enshrine all the aggravations of the analog age as some kind of photographic golden oldies. We now praise the defects we used to spend tons of money to avoid. The scary uniformity of high-tech photography has come with a side of high-touch comfort food. It’s a little like Captain Kirk refusing the option of living in a world free of conflict, declaring, without irony, “I need my pain.” Perhaps the chance that something will go wrong is a needed contrast in a world where the likelihood of error has largely been engineered out. Neither precision or randomness is a guarantee of artistic merit, however: that, at least remains, as constantly as ever, in the individual photographer’s hands.

THE BEST WAY THERE?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS is, quite simply, to stop working against yourself. The single most frustrating thing about reviewing images that didn’t quite work is that you can so clearly identify when you, yourself, were the main obstacle to getting what you wanted. A misguided vision, an incomplete idea, the wrong technical method, or simply inflexibility or ignorance can cost you the shot, and it’s always, always horribly plain that it was you, not the light or the camera or anything external, that stamped “fail” all over certain photos.

I really had a clear, if painful, demonstration of this phenomenon last week, during a birding trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. Summers in “Flag” may bring unpredictable and sudden rainstorms and flash floods, but offer the consolation prize of one of the most amazing color explosions in the west, in its annual blankets of smaller sunflowers. Even when every bird in creation decides to sleep in late or simply play it coy, there are those sunflowers, filling every field, pasture, roadside ditch and creekbed. They are an insanely joyous gift, and it’s not so much a question of whether you’ll shoot them…it’s how well.

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Perk’s Law: Don’t use a “superzoom” bridge camera for your serious landscape work. 

The image you see here is a classic example of the right intention meeting the wrong gear. The bridge camera I use to attain insane zoom access to tiny tweeters is also one of the worst lenses for landscapes of faraway scenes. The more you crank up the magnification on a superzoom, the lousier the quality becomes, as their sensors, made tiny to accommodate the space-sucking bulk of a lens that goes from 24 to 2000mm, lose a ton of light, illumination that they try to compensate for by jacking up ISO. The lenses are great in their midrange, in broad daylight, but they reek in shade and, as you can see here, are mushy when it comes to textures and finer details of faraway scenes.

The aggravating thing is that I had a regular wide-angle prime (so, no zoom capability) that is sharper than an executioner’s blade sitting in my car, not 300 yards from this field of flowers. This was somehow too “inconvenient” for me, however, and so I allowed myself to imagine that, as the adverts claim, my superzoom “could do it all”. But what did I need a zoom for in this case, anyway? Consider: I was unrestricted in my access to the area, and could easily have walked to the composition I needed, which, if I had gone out with only the wide-angle prime, I would have had no choice but to do anyway.

So, let’s call a spade a spade: I zoomed because I could, because it was handy. The quality on the wider lens, which can close down to f/16 (the superzoom tops out at only f/8, because, well, starving for light, etc.) would have rendered the flowers sharp to the horizon instead of the melted crayon look delivered by the bridge camera. As for a tighter composition, I could have achieved that later with some intelligent cropping, cutting from an inherently larger, more detailed and sharper image file. The ultimate take-home is that I knew better than to send a boy lens to do a man len’s job, and my bad choice cost me a picture.

Biting-yourself-in-the-butt dept: I’m a huge advocate of taking along as small a haul of kit as possible, always searching for ways to do more with fewer lenses, cameras and gizmos. I’m a big believer in finding a camera that will deliver 90% of what you want 90% of the time, and in leaving all the other gear back in the hotel room. But when convenience actually means a bad return on your vision for an image, you’re not shrewd or concise. You’re just lazy.

A LAND BEYOND THE SCARS

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Flagstaff, Arizona, 2021

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I WAS ABOUT TWELVE THE FIRST TIME I ENCOUNTERED ONE OF THE LITERARY WORLD’S SIMPLEST AND BEST METAPHORS FOR THE PROCESS OF HEALING. However, I didn’t discover it visually, that is, on the printed page. Instead, I felt it in the strange, lonely, tremulous cadences of a lone voice on my teacher’s portable phonograph. She was trying to demonstrate the rhythm of verse, how it counted out its beats and measured its messages, and so she played us a reading of the source material, Grass, as read by its author, Carl Sandburg.

Thrilling to the almost creepy quality of his voice, the way certain words gurgled and shook in his throat, I struggled to hear not how he sounded, but what he was actually saying. Half a century later, I hear that voice when I walk through a field of simple green blades waving in the wind. And now, in a way that was impossible in my youth, I feel the complete truth of those words. They inform my photography as they guide my heart, a heart that needs to believe in healing, in the permanence and dominance of Nature, and Her ability to erase even our most grievous faults…..

  • Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
    Shovel them under and let me work—
                                              I am the grass; I cover all.
    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
    Shovel them under and let me work.
    Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                              What place is this?
                                              Where are we now?
                                              I am the grass.
                                              Let me work.

The work continues. In our hearts. In our hands.

In our eyes.

THE MAN WHO MADE MEDIA

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE MANY PURISTS WHO WOULD ARGUE that Matthew Brady (1822-1896), the man that transformed photography from a tinkerer’s hobby into the world’s first mass medium, was not, strictly speaking, a photographer himself. This is a little like saying Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, was not a musician. To be clear, the nearly blind entrepreneur who first used the fledgling art of picture-making to mold public opinion and promote the archival value of images for posterity often attached his name, or his studio’s, to views actually taken by his assistants. Even at that, the modern history of photography as we know it is impossible without him. 

Brady, the closest thing there can be to a visual “biographer” for Abraham Lincoln, was certainly not the first to make portraits of famous people, but he was the most important early artist working from studio space designed primarily for portrait work. As a result, the famous and the ambitious alike flocked to his galleries in New York and Washington, eager to have their likenesses, and perhaps their fortunes, “made”. Brady and his staff were pioneers in the craft of staged sittings, featuring scenic backdrops, props, and even a different way of posing their subjects. The 1860 portrait of Lincoln taken just ahead of his historic launch at a speech at New York’s Cooper Union shows a clear, confident young politician directly engaging the camera, not staring off to the side, as was the custom in many other portraits of the time. But, even as Brady introduced artistic touches to his work, he was no dainty dilettante : he saw in photography a tremendous business opportunity, and worked constantly to expand its effect and reach. And the first thing he did to attach more fame to his Manhattan studio was to leave it. 

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The artist as subject: a studio portrait of photographic pioneer Matthew Brady, taken in the 1860’s.

Brady’s famous quote about his urge to take his enterprise to the new battlefields of the Civil War (“I had to go; a sprit in my feet said, ‘go’, and I went”) may sound like a description of a grand adventure, but it was, essentially, a way to grow the market for his product. In sending fully equipped shooting and processing wagons to the front, he was, wittingly or not, inventing the demand for documentary photography, for a newly pictorial kind of war journalism. He and his teams became the first in the world to provide blanket coverage of an active cataclysm, an approach so stunningly novel that it created a global sensation when he mounted the first exhibition of the results, “The Dead Of Antietam” back at his home gallery in New York.

More of interest to the millions of amateur photographers that would come a generation later, Brady moved the science of the art forward in ways that would eventually improve the ease and efficiency of the process of picture-making for the average shooter. In addition, in freeing the camera from the studio, he lit a rocket under the way advertisements, newspaper articles and books were marketed. Steel engravings and pencil drawings of major events in local gazettes soon gave way to photographic inserts in even small papers, and a fundamental change in how politicians, goods and ideas were “sold” to the public. And then there is the legacy of his amazing portrait work. Absent a million tiny nuances about Lincoln the complete man that are now lost to us, even in the mountain of print that survives on him, generation after generation continues to feel it “knows” him through the mosaic of  images snatched out of time by Brady and others. In unleashing the camera’s complete potential, he can be rightfully called the godfather of all modern media, the creator of the grammar by which we visually engage the world around us.  

 

A REQUIEM IN NEON

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MY GRANDMOTHER CALLED THEM “THE PICTURE SHOW“, which I always thought was a more elegant phrase than the self-important motion pictures. Indeed, well into our second century of going to special, secret places to see illuminated instants stab across the dark to illuminate a wall and charm our collective senses, we are experiencing a sea change in every way that we refer to “the movies”, including how much of the experience is “picture”, how much is “show”, or even how much of that event is to be shared with others.

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I came back across this image from 2015 as I was thinking about the reported demise of movie palaces, about the umpteenth such prophecy I’ve heard over a lifetime. Television, the death of the nuclear family, the scourge of home video, and now streaming and plague have all taken their place in conversations about how the movies, or at least how we consume them, are “finally over”. Who knows, this time out, it might finally be time to cue the end titles and think of these stories in some profoundly different way. What I do know is that, as the drama unfolds, cameras of all kinds need to be there, to chronicle the transition.

The theatre seen here is actually holding a gala on its last night in operation. It is closing, not because of hard times, but because of good ones, as the Harkins family, the most powerful name in movie theatres in the soutwestern USA, prepares to raze the Camelview Cinema to build an insanely larger version of it just across the street inside a mall. There will be speeches, local tv coverage, even a few tears. And the neon will dim and the attendees will become ghosts, just as this time exposure has visualized them. It’s a gloriously unsubtle night of Happy/Sad/But Mostly Happy.

Since 2020, this scene has been repeated all around the world as, for the first time, the future of theatrically projected “picture shows” is seriously in doubt. As I write this, only mega-blockbusters and “franchise” releases like the latest Marvel Masterwork are turning the turnstiles to any degree. Cocooning, before smaller screens, phones, and tablets, is still being driven by a strange cocktail of convenience and survival.

But many theatres won’t get the luxury of a Harkins sendoff, or even a poetic fade to black, merely the sudden, jarring contrast of Lights Out. In my grandmother’s day, going to the movies was still a bit of a miracle, a definite event. The houses were gaudy, resplendent in their excess, with even the boxy little bijous of her own small town fitted out in their own carnival colors. Part picture, part show. The road ahead in uncertain, but I want to seek out the ones that last the longest and the ones that wink out the saddest and everything in the middle, and snap my shutter madly until the last “flicker.”

THE SECOND SHIFT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

SOME CITIES ARE 24-HOUR HABITATS, and so provide a constant crop of photographic opportunities. New York certainly is not the only burg that “never sleeps”: it’s merely the one whose nightly pulses are as legendary as its daylight rhythms. Other places, drained of workaday bodies by nearby suburban sprawl, empty out to the bare bones after 5pm, spending fully half of every calendar day as ghost towns. I love being immersed in the unique flavor of a big city’s “second shift”, where darkness dictates a completely different set of rules for visual engagement. It’s more than just headlamps and neon signs: it can also be a strange kind of sleep mode where daytime spaces, underused at night, become redefined in ways both visible and mysterious.

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The inside of this building, a fairly featureless slab in midtown Los Angeles, can’t really be examined in daylight, when it’s filled with worker bees. Contrast from the outside sunlight can make this glass grid imperviously blank from 9 to 5, and only at night can its inner cubicles and their interior glows be seen more clearly. Looking into these windows, however, is a reveal without a revelation. We merely see light patterns, a checkerboard mosaic of active and dormant work spaces. We look in even as we look “across” at reflections of the neighboring building from which I’m shooting. It’s intriguing simply as an abstract pattern, but there is no true narrative, such as might be observed by photographing, say, busy workers crowding the streets below at midday. Photographs of such night scenes aren’t really about anything, they just are.

However, the fascination for me is the viewpoint, which can only be observed at night, at a controlled distance, and, in the case of this image, in the even more artificial reality of a fifteen-second long exposure. In photographing under such conditions, I somehow feel like I’m stealing something, a something that’s invisible in the city that most people know and use during the day. It’s calming and exhilarating at the same time. I’m getting a privileged view into….what? Does it matter? Why did I bother coming here?

And when can I come back again?

A HOME FOR ORPHANS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ABOUT BEING A PARENT is that we all come to terms with the fact that, of course, even though you are not supposed to have a favorite child, you often sorta do. Maybe we don’t so much love one above all the others, but just struggle with the messy process of learning to love each child for very specific reasons. You can’t, officially speaking, choose one over all the rest, but you do ( but you don’t).

And, of course, in any field of artistic endeavor, we also parentally favor some of our works over others. Or, to return to my earlier point, we just love some of them differently. As photographers, we make very fast initial groupings of our images, sorting them quickly into grossly over-simplified “worked” and “didn’t work” piles, as if we were even capable of producing either spotless masterpieces or irredeemably flawed failures. Some of the zillions of pictures we generate never break out of these two polarized winner/loser silos, either being blessed with immediate approval or consigned to permanent dismissal. The fact is, our photographs can easily be broken into four, or eight, or dozens of piles that show a nuanced range from miracle to mire….pictures that almost worked “except for” some little something, or snaps that almost completely missed “except for this one part I really like.” We’d like to believe we live in a two-pile world, where even art is subjected to a nice, clean either/or judgement, but the truth is far more tricky than that.

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I once categorized this image as a failure. I no longer feel that way. I cannot explain either reaction. I don’t have to.

Often, in reviewing or re-reviewing or re-re-reviewing the orphan images we originally stuck in the reject pile, we are struck by how foolish our original sorting process was. As with the picture you see here, we are struck, with the luxury of a little time distancing, to evaluate the things with fresh eyes. Shots that were utterly without merit may still be, generally speaking, misses rather than hits. But in finding them again after a prolonged absence, we lose some of the concept or animating spirit of the original concept: details of why we did it can fade a bit, and the picture will sometimes stand either straighter or crooked-er when forced to stand on its own. And in the light of this new viewing, some orphans will find a home, with even the still-bad shots imparting more wisdom about ourselves than they might have in the heat of battle.

The lonely part, for an artist, is when you love one of your “children” in a way that you can’t explain and in which the world can’t share. That love must be unconditional and absolute. You made the thing and you must own it, because you can see a little piece of yourself in it. The orphan gets a home because it needs one.

FROM BEAUTIFUL TO BLEAK AND BACK

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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Main Barber, 1968 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)

BY MICHAEL PERKINS

FRED HERZOG (1930-2019) MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHERS you’ve never heard of, just as there are hundreds of other unsung heroes in the slow transition of street photography from a medium dominated by monochrome to one defined by color. Indeed, it is because of Herzog and others like him that we now regard color as not only a valid tool for street work, but, for some, the only way to fly. However, it took a long time to get to this point. 

By the time Fred began shooting almost exclusively in what we now call “un-re-gentrified” neighborhoods in the Vancouver of the 1950’s, he had earned his bread with less fanciful work as a medical photographer and fine arts instructor. At the time, the raw, immediate feel of black & white film was still the world’s go-to. Color films were thought to be the domain of amateur snapshots or high-end magazine ads. Monochrome was stark; color was pretty. How could any serious art shot depict the real state of mankind in the plump, primary tones of Kodachrome? 

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Granville/Smythe, 1959 (Courtesy of the estate of Fred Herzog and Equinox Gallery)

Herzog shot not only what he wanted, confining himself to the same small knot of neighborhoods for most of his shooting life, he shot how he wanted, and Kodachrome was his go-to. Vancouver was run-down and worn, but it was also bursting with a kind of bumptious neon flavor that would have been stripped away in black-and-white. In an age that said that color would beautify (and thus blunt) a picture’s reportorial impact, Herzog set out to demonstrate, in one iconic image after another, that color didn’t soften the harder edges of his world; it actually fleshed them out. 

Technology, or rather its slow evolution, kept Fred’s work from being properly seen until years after he had created some of his best work. Kodachrome was a very slow reversal film which defied even the best labs’ efforts to create good qualtity prints, and so Herzog kept the results largely to himself in slide format until the world caught up, delaying the first public exhibition of his work until 2007. The wait was worth it, as his full body of work became one of the most valued studies on a single locality in photographic history. Herzog managed to chronicle the rise, fall, and resurrection of a city in a sprawling portfolio covering more than a third of a century, but, more importantly, he has become, with every passing year since his death in 2019, one of the greatest prophets of the full power of color, not to merely make life warmer, but to render it more completely. Time has vindicated his instinct, the feeling that life, rendered in all its natural hues, could still register the complete range of human experience, from the beautiful to the bleak, and do it faithfully. 

THE INEXHAUSTIBLES

By MICHAEL PERKINS

A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE“, wrote Gertrude Stein, asserting that a thing is merely itself, and nothing else. It’s a classic quote, but a sentiment which is belied by any kind of interpretative art. For the painter, the poet, the photographer, or the sculpturer, the physical limits of an object are merely the jumping-off point to one’s personal way of depicting or describing. Certainly, in one sense, a rose is “merely” a rose. However, in the hands of an artist, it is always, potentially, on its way to being everything else.

Photographers instinctively know that they are not mere recorders of “reality”, that, in their hands, subjects are exaggerated, emphasized, abstracted. We make images of roses, certainly, but also the rose-pluses, the rose-minuses, the rose absurd, the rose imagined. This ability to tailor the showing of things to our ever-evolving sense of their meaning to us allows us to approach even the most over-documented things with fresh eyes.

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It may be that nearly everyone with a camera who’s walked the streets of Paris has, somewhere in their portfolio, a shot of the Eiffel tower. In some ways, the challenge of trying to say anything new about what we might consider an “exhausted” subject is irresistible: we sort of dare ourselves to do a fresh take on it. The thing is, our depiction of these celebrated places, once we have trained our eyes, is actually unbound, or inexhaustible. It is only how well we have developed the muscles of our imagination that determines how many gazillions of personal Eiffels can exist.

The image here of a small selected vista from within the sixteen-story layout (2500 steps, 154 flights of stairs, 80 separate landings) of New York City’s Vessel shows, if nothing else, that there can never truly be a “typical” view of the structure. The visual story changes every few feet or so, depending on where you are standing, and even multiple frames taken from the same vantage point just minutes apart from each other will yield vastly different results, since light, color and the arrangement of visitors is not static. This is great news for anyone who might doubt that they could make a personal picture of something so overwhelmingly public or famous. My point is that you can’t not produce something personal of it, because, for photographic purposes, not only this object, but nearly everything, is inexhaustible.

It’s not that the many millions of images taken of a famous place over time may not seem remarkably consistent, in that they almost replicate each other. It’s that such a result is not predestined, any more than any other photograph we attempt is. Change something in the eye of the beholder, and you may discover that even the eternal rose is, well, something other than a rose. Sometimes.

TAKING ONE FROM THE TEAM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE IS A CERTAIN DIVINE IMMUNITY attached to photographers who are lucky enough to remain amateurs, or, for those who do turn pro, the ability to remember how to shoot with an amateur brain. There used to be a cleanly defined line between people who had to make pictures for a living (under deadline, enslaved to editors, for the marketplace) and those who could never dream of doing so, but who might work every bit as hard just pleasing themselves. However, social media, with its ability to suddenly confer ( or cruelly withhold )sudden celebrity, has recently blurred this line between the careerists and the tinkerers. Now, even when we are making pictures for “no one”, we seem to be making pictures for everyone, anyway.

It’s getting harder to create a photograph in a feedback vacuum, to shoot without even a thought of how well a picture will be received. The tyranny of the new “like” and “fave”  marketplace can riddle a photographer with doubt, gently bending his/her work to what might meet with the most approving eyes. In many ways, this new world is even more unforgiving, for amateurs, than the dreaded editing desk was for the professionals.

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It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, these days, to allow oneself to make a picture like this one. The subject isn’t startling, or even especially unique, except to me. The composition is deliberately formalized, and so can’t qualify as avant-garde. The final shot, the product of a double exposure and some minimal color and contrast tweaking, is neither purely realistic nor challengingly abstract. In short, this picture is nothing in particular, except that it’s mine, made my way, for my own approval. I don’t have to worry that, as Frank Zappa would say, it suffers from N.C.P. (No Commercial Potential).

Any artist that is forced to produce for the popular market has two struggles: to achieve his vision and to package it for consumption by others. It’s THE tightrope act of a lifetime for photographers, with the amateurs envious of the pros’ access and the pros jealous of the casual snapper’s freedom. I have made my daily bread by a number of means over a lifetime, mostly under the gun of deadlines and editors in the print or electronic media, and so, while I have seldom earned a paycheck specifically with a camera, I have empathy for those who do.

There are things about working as a paid shooter that I will never have to endure, or suffer, and I know that. However, in the 21st century, even being an amateur is beginning to take on the haggard hassle that only used to accrue to the Guy Doing It For A Living. That is why the bigger fight in becoming a photographer is the mastery over one’s self rather than the perfection of mere technique. Sports and every other fun pursuit in our world has shown what happens when everything gets too serious and the meaningful meaninglessness goes out of something. In our art, we are being forced, more and more, to do everything for social reasons, to “take one for the team”. However, it is the pictures that you take from the team that truly remain your own, and that you will treasure the most over a lifetime.

THE LOVED ONE

By MICHAEL PERKINS

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I STOLE THIS BOOK.

That is…..I think I might have.

Actually, the truth is a good deal more nuanced than that. Rather than deliberately planning to loot my local library for it, I just…sorta accidentally…failed to return it. Ever. Call it passive-aggressive larceny.

Or just sloth (likeliest option).

To be truthful, the book is merely part of a wider pathology, a lifetime habit of returning, well, anything back to its rightful owner well past its due date. Back in the VHS era, the local Blockbuster probably should have mounted a “wanted” poster of my kisser near the cash register…..but, as it turned out, I probably paid for the manager’s kid’s first year of college with overdue fees that rivaled the operating budget of a small nation-state. The fact:  I’m a bad borrower, and it doesn’t really matter what the borrowed thing is. Late library books were more a symptom than a cause, and so I most likely made no particularly mindful attempt to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s A Testament for myself.

However, in re-discovering this relic during a recent house-cleaning and general junk inventory, I can certainly see how I might have dreamed of pinching it, given what its ideas…about artistic integrity, vision, courage and reason… have meant to me for over a third of my life. And, like many old objects I’ve stumbled over anew in recent years, it seemed reasonable to want to photograph it, to try to both see it for what it was and for what it merely is, now.

What it is, among other things, is an old library book, and so it made sense to show its most library-like feature….the now-bygone checkout pocket and circulation ticket mounted inside the back cover. Such systems, in an age of barcodes, are now, themselves, history, as much as the book itself, and so that is the “face” I wanted to display. The wearing and tearing of the binding and pages is also evidence of a sort, of the heavy love-use the book had received over time, and so that also needed to be part of the visual story. Finally, I had located, within the same closet that held the book, an old replacement lamp for a film projector, which I never, as it turned out, actually used. This lightbulb which never had its “lightbulb moment”, could now act as a kind of symbol of the inspiration that had poured forth from the book’s pages for me with every single reading. Pretty on the nose, but still satisfying.

And click.

The objects we keep are never completely captured on camera. Even when we think we are objectively recording a thing, we are interpreting it, and that ambiguous approach somehow fits the muddled memory of the book’s journey from Theirs to Mine. I might have stolen it, after all. But maybe I just couldn’t make myself tell it goodbye. But now, in my picture, regardless of official ownership, I had made it indisputably mine at last, anyhow.

OH, SNAP

By MICHAEL PERKINS

MOST PHOTOGRAPHIC JARGON IS FAIRLY ACCURATE OVER TIME, with words like aperture, shutter, or f-stop remaining clear and useful terms across the years. Other terms like negative or analog are redefined as evolution demands. One holdover from the earliest days of image-making, however, has warped utterly out of relevance over the centuries, however, and for that reason, I’d like to see it retired. Like forever. 

The word is snapshot

When camera technology initially advanced from slow lenses and laboriously long exposures to what was, at the time called “instantaneous photography”, a proponent of this leap forward, writer John Herschel, coined the phrase snap-shot to denote a picture that could be taken in around a tenth of a second, as compared to several minutes for traditional cameras. The term was, then, a celebration of freedom….from the tyranny of the clock, from sustained frozen poses, and, with the introduction of the personal camera, from the tripod and the studio. 

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Reality is overrated: an out-the-window quickie from 2021 converted via phone app to a faux “snapshot”. 

Sadly, over time (there’s that word again), the word snapshot came to denote something else, something substantially less “serious” than a “real” photograph, being used to describe a careless or badly made shot, done on the fly, and with little or no forethought. Go to a dictionary in 2021 and you will still see a snapshot defined as something captured ” without artistic or journalistic intent and usually made with a relatively cheap camera (Wikipedia), “a casual photograph made typically by an amateur” (Merriam-Webster) or even “a photograph taken without the use of professional equipment” (MacMillan). Truly, in a medium that, like all artistic realms, is riddled with its own aristocracy of snobs, the snapshot is the Rodney Dangerfield of photography. 

And yet the word really only means what it originally meant: an image taken in the moment. There is even an entire school of photographic technique that teaches a “snapshot aesthetic”, or the ability to take images simply, quickly, albeit with a sensitive eye. A fast process doesn’t necessarily equate to bad exposure or poor composition: it just means that the photographer is ready to make his/her choice in a short time frame.

In fact, the idea behind what the snapshot originally gave us the freedom to do has driven all camera technology since that time…..that is, a constant evolution toward making pictures quicker and more accurately, in effect making the camera more and more simple in operation so that it can remove the biggest obstacle to taking pictures instinctively. You no doubt have images that you truly treasure that were shot with a minimum of prep or fuss, as is the case with this super-fast capture of my own (which was, ironically, processed afterward to make it look like a snapshot). Merely having the luxury of endless time to linger over your shooting decisions does not guarantee that you will make those decisions wisely. Likewise, speed, ease, or a casual attitude doesn’t automatically doom you to bad pictures. Indeed, the whole history of photography shows us lusting after convenience, as an aid to better photos. Again, it’s down to what you do with what you got. 

SLO-MO EARTHQUAKES

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Now you see it, now you don’t: the death of Paradise Valley Mall, Phoenix, Arizona, July 2021

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE SO-CALLED “CREATIVE” ARTS ARE CONSPICUOUSLY OBSESSED WITH RUIN. Whether our platform is the printed page, the canvas, or the camera, we who are supposedly committed to the depiction of uplift and inspiration seem equally fascinated with devastation. Easily half of the photographic images that have copped the Pulitzer Prize chronicle death rather than life, destruction in lieu of generation. The old saw about not being able to resist craning our necks when slow-rolling past a gruesome accident is based in truth: when it comes to Things Gone Wrong, we just can’t look away.

Our gradual escape from The Great Hibernation has already produced images that act like an encyclopedia of the horrible, a grotesque gallery of sudden tragedies, unexpected nightmares. But not all things that come apart are torn asunder in an instant, and we will continue, for the next few years, to also be witness to a series of what might be called slo-mo earthquakes, shifts in the tectonic plates of our behaviors that unfold in quiet, gradual tableaux, still visceral in their power, but less seismic in their suddenness, parts of our daily lives that don’t so much explode as melt away.

Some of these things, like the dead mall you see here being reduced to dust, will be vanished without epitaph or tears. Others, like the cozy neighborhood bars or the single-screen bijous, may elicit a sigh on their way out the door. Is it important to make photographs of these things? Opinions will vary, as one man’s “tragic loss” is another man’s “good riddance”. But perhaps what’s most important is that the camera is the only time machine that yanks time out of joint on purpose, that extracts people and places out of their proper sequence of life, abstracting them as they imprison selected fragments of them in amber. Without the bustle of people and commerce, is a mall even really a mall? Are the frozen images of a place’s now-separate component parts of any interest, once they are no longer integrated into a whole? And who’s to say?

Well, of course, as always, you’s to say….that is, you and your camera. We not only comment on meaning with our images, we confer meaning on things as well. Photography is both reportorial and editorial; it’s just another tool in the arsenal of the poet. Use your art to suggest, even insist upon, what things mean to you. Because not all earthquakes unfold in slow-motion, and time is opportunity.

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