the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

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THE UNDERLOVED

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.

We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.

Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?

Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.

After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.

Mommy Will Be Right Here, 2019

I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.

Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.

FLYING STANDBY

Flight suit A7-LB, worn in 1972 on the Apollo program’s mission 16 by Admiral Ken Mattingly.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ASTRONAUT KEN MATTINGLY, ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF AMERICANS IN 1970, never caught the measles. But on April 8th of that year, doctors at NASA were convinced that he might, and that educated guess was all it took to scrub him from the Apollo 13 mission, a mere three days from launch. But, even in the exacting skill universe of space flight, “not this time” doesn’t always mean “never”.

Fans of Ron Howard’s cinematic re-telling of 13’s ill-fated trip to the moon have long since learned of Ken’s essential role in helping to bring the crew and their mangled craft home safely back to Earth. But his story didn’t merely end with that amazing save. Just two years later, Mattingly would notch his own slot in NASA history, piloting the lunar orbiter module for Apollo 16, the program’s second-to-last moon expedition, maintaining his unique observational perch for a record-breaking 64 lunar orbits, a trek comprising over 81 hours of solo spaceflight.

Photographs are largely taken by direct witnesses to events, with space exploration being a notable exception. All of the images we have digested of various extra-terrestrial explorations over the last seventy years are, at most, second-hand visual experiences for most of us. We weren’t, in the popular phrase from Hamilton, In The Room (or module) Where It Happened, nor did we walk On The Surface Where It Happened. The pictures we know of these epic journeys were created and curated by a select minority, inviting us to share their experience even as the images designed to assist us actually serve to prevent our doing that. It is only now, as the various gear and apparel of these modern odysseys are consigned to museums and archives, that we can even take direct pictures of the objects that once made history. And while that can never be quite connective enough, it is at least a chance for us, as photographers, to interpret, to do our take on things we only know through various historical filters.

For Ken Mattingly, now a retired Navy rear admiral, the journey from witness to participant went from abstract to concrete. For photographers, the same transition is sometimes possible. Often, however, it is the souvenirs of history, rather than history itself, that we are able to examine, making us archaeologists even in our own time. We often must be satisfied at flying standby on the big rides.

CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

Marian In Monterey Bay, California, October 20, 2012

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS YOU READ THIS, I WILL BE SAILING ACROSS YET ANOTHER ANNUAL MERIDIAN, my shaky little rowboat meekly tying up at the dock of one more birthday. Many years, I am astonished to find the scruffy little skiff of my life still afloat: it’s certainly not due to my skills as a navigator or seaman, but rather the kind fortune of the currents, the gentle mercy of the waves. Life is an ocean which can and does engulf us all, sometimes in a series of undulations, sometimes in surges of anger. But eventually we all head to the same damp destiny. Chalking up one more year on the topside of the foam doesn’t create a feeling of relief so much as a tsunami of amazement.

In years past, like many of us, I have indulged my vanity by taking at least a quick-snap selfie to mark the occasion, as if my continuing to draw breath was, in itself, some kind of achievement. Of course, in my quieter moments, I realize that I am, in the main, merely a lucky idiot, far more fortunate than smart. But, when I consider the role my wife Marian has played in my ongoing survival…..well, then, I am looking at a kind of genius, an emotional genius that has done more than merely protect and value me. Better than knowing my worse flaws, she has systematically outfoxed them at every turn. And in doing that, she has not only bought me time, she has made that time burn brighter than any birthday candle.

And so, this year, I’m giving the back-patting selfie a rest, and filing this small report with an image of her that, over the years, has given me courage and comfort. On one level, it’s merely a woman looking out to sea. For me, however, it’s the nature of that looking, and the deep concentration that goes with it. Marian never just glances: she evaluates, she catalogues hopes and fears: she shuffles the cards of a million scenarios and masterminds the selection of the perfect hand. As I said, a kind of genius.

So Happy My Birthday to Marian, my Magellan, my compass, my north star. Without her, I’d be lucky to read the map of my own mind. With her, I can journey on.

Anywhere.

JUST GIMME SOME KIND OF SIGN

A sign of determination?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: signs, designed for a set purpose, repurposed by accident or intention into very different messages. They are everywhere: the “deer crossing” warning that is riddled with shotgun holes: the speed limit posting that gets spray-painted a few mph higher than what the law allows: the red diamond where the word “racism” is added to the word “stop”. For photographers, observing the environment is more than adding our own interpretation: it’s also noticing the way messages are modified by others, and chronicling the effect of it all.

Humans are highly adaptive, and if a sign isn’t working for them, they’ll set about to make it right, or at least put it in sync with their view of the world. But not all these revisions are vandalistic in nature. Certainly signs are morphed as pure commentary, but they are also messages of urgency, protests against official injustice, cries for help. In all cases, to show them in photographs is to acknowledge the passions behind the revisions.

And then there are the signs that nature itself takes a hand in reshaping. Wear and tear can render warnings and advisories ironic, even useless. Is a stencil symbolizing a handicapped parking space subject to reinterpretation, once it’s been weathered into abstraction, as seen here? If a safety zone sign is smashed by one careless car too many, are we seeing a good argument for further civic action? Street photography is partly about people and partly about how people fit (or don’t fit) into the infrastructures of their lives. Sometimes, of course, we can try a little too hard to make sense of it all. I recall, decades ago, during the making of one of my many ill-advised student films, falling in love with a particular EXIT sign and deciding that I should shoot enough movie film to edit a shot of it into multiple mileposts of my magnum opus. Sadly, the movie in question didn’t have much to conceptually hold it together beyond the occasional popping-up of the word EXIT between sequences. Truly, if I were hooked up to a polygraph I could prove that I remember nothing else about the project. However, I can still see that sign in my dreams/nightmares. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.

All of which is to merely say that no sign registered by our cameras is ever just about what it “says”. It’s always evaluated within the context of what we want to say….or want to avoid saying. That is, we can never just take signs at their word. In the right hands, they have so much to say beyond that.

WHAT A LONG, STRANGE (ROAD) TRIP

Arizona Bloomberg Campaign Office Rollout, February 1, 2020.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE STRANGE RITUAL BY WHICH WE HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED to political candidates has been forged alongside our inherited habits of chronicling life with cameras. The select corps of reporters that is technically tasked with capturing the “official” look and feel of a campaign actually accomplishes no such thing. In the era of ubiquitous personal recording devices, the impressions that can be conveyed of a politician’s viability are finally as varied as the number of people in their desired audiences. All impressions matter, and at the same time, none of them matter. We are all in charge of our own lenses, and  our own truth.

Wherever you rate a candidate on a scale of uncool to cool (and how you, in turn, envision his or her “electability” with your camera) is naturally linked to everything you subjectively experience when in contact with that person (or his entourage). Was the hall air-conditioned? Was the free food any good? Was there easy parking at the rally? Did you stand next to someone obnoxious during the speech. And, as to the speech, was it erudite or homespun? Concise or long-winded? Was the sound system working? Had you already heard that same stump speech too many other times? Did he/she look older/thinner/taller than on tv? And then there are the exact same in-the-moment technical challenges of a “live shoot” that the professional network crews are contending with, from lighting to composition to that idiot in front of you who blocked your million-dollar shot with his campaign sign. The whole situation is, in its own way, as dynamic, moment to moment, as covering a sports competition. That is to say, not easy.

Ironically, the thing about shooting political events that is most problematic is the shooter himself, since we, as either passive or active voters, have already brought our biases and hopes to the rallies, linking them in series with our lenses and optics just as surely as if they were color filters. We begin our “coverage” from an established viewpoint, completely obviating the idea of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: to be able to take a shot you are also able to control a shot, and if you can’t bring your own take to something as personal as a political contest, then it’s not worth even lifting your camera to your eye.

Since photography is all about selection, i.e., the extraction and suspension of specific particles of time, it stands to reason that an image which makes a politician look godlike in one moment can make him look like a drooling idiot the next. We are all subject to the shaping of reality achieved by skillful use of the camera. Once we experience it in our own work, that knowledge may help us be better consumers of the images made from outside our own viewpoints, and calculated to persuade, reveal, or conceal.

REDUCTION DIET

Recharging The Centrifuge, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY’S FIRST HALF-CENTURY OR SO can be seen as a road race with the world of painting, with both runners trying to outpace each other in “realistically” depicting the world. The camera, being an actual recording machine, was first reviled, later praised as a more reliable chronicler of the actual world. Painters, in reaction, quit the reality playing field, inventing new, more abstract forms of expression like Impressionism, and left the documentary work to photogs. Or so everyone assumed.

After 1900, photographers, too embraced the idea that mere “reality” was overrated and developed their own very individualistic ways of making images, introducing the first manipulations of film, light, lenses, printing techniques and composition. Freed from the stricture of merely capturing a scene, shooters began to propose alternative visions, to interpret the world in very subjective ways. Today, one’s photographs can be as tightly naturalistic or as loosely abstract as one pleases, with some of the most impactful pictures being the ones that seem to be about nothing in particular. These “absolute” compositions, basic arrangements of color and light, may not be storytelling images in the same way that a war photo or a news snap are. They not only don’t provide explanations, they don’t even require them. The terms of engagement for such photographs are stark and simple: they’re pictures because we say they’re pictures, and they either grab you or they don’t.

My own training in photography manifested itself as a need to exercise control, to execute well and follow the rules of technique faithfully. However, my idea of getting a picture “right”, which might easily have stopped at just technical precision, has, thankfully, continued to crawl forward toward the kinds of absolutes I described before. Pictures that just are, such as the one shown here, pose a problem for me, since I have to leave the safety of things I know that “work”, entering a realm where I’m not sure where the paths are. I truly love what happens when I relax my grip on the old reliable truths and let things just happen, but it’s also a bit like walking in space: my tether could break, and I could be cast adrift.

The first time I heard someone, in speaking of one of my photographs, ask, “what’s that supposed to be?” I was stung, nervous. The question is, of course, ridiculous, as if there were only one way to represent the world, with every other way somehow counted as wrong. But the camera is not (and never was), a mere measuring and recording instrument. Over the centuries, it has been whatever we have asked of it, a seismograph of our own undulating curiosity. We learn to see by learning its operations. We learn to listen by shutting out every other sound except our own clear voice.

WORK UNIFORMS

For all of us everywhere, every day is dress-up day.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARN EARLY THAT THE WORLD’S VAST ARRAY OF FACES comprises only part of the ongoing pageant of human behavior. Certainly our features afford the most obvious clues to our inner mind (or serve to artfully obscure it), but it’s only part of the story, a story we complete by constructing the work uniform of our daily costume.

Just as comic-book and sci-fi fans lovingly recreate the armor and cape details of their favorite comic-book heroes in “cosplay”, we too piece together a kind of costume in the assembly of our everyday apparel. We don’t just don shirts and trousers, hats and coats: we actually craft a total outward identity for ourselves, an outfit that we think correctly projects who we are. Some work uniforms are as plain as a nun’s habit, while others scream as loudly as a Catwoman leotard. We make dozens of decisions about dozens of details. This makes me look old. This makes me look too fat. This gives off an attitude. This is a good look for me. That’s the just the accent I needed. This will turn heads.

This will protect me from detection.

Our street garb is creative work for people who don’t especially see themselves as artists, even as they turn themselves into living, walking canvasses. And the combination of our faces, with their twin abilities to reveal or conceal, with the outer layers we’ve pieced together to advertise ourselves, is, artistically speaking, an original. The person who begins at the mirror each morning and ends in the street as a deliberate concoction is unique, in that all of the individual components involved in the assembly will not look exactly the same on any other person. Shakespeare’s maxim that “all the world’s a stage” and that all of us are “merely players” holds across the centuries. We are our own invention, clad in creations that are part armor, part stagecraft. What a harvest for the photographer, who, among other contrasts of light and shadow, is also measuring the contrast between what we hope to be and what we appear to be. Every day on the street is shopping day for a shooter. The game, the play, the masquerade is always afoot, and when we witness it all with a trained eye, we wind up enrolled in a master class on both drama and tragedy.

DRESS REHEARSALS AND OPENING NIGHTS

Soon On This Site, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.

No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.

NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.

Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.

TRANSFERENCE

Flyover Country, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE PROVIDE THE PROGRAM WHICH CAMERAS ARE INSTRUCTED TO PERFORM. The actual box itself, like many other tools, is really a dumb thing, fueled not by its own ideas but instructed to carry out the whims of its owner. The camera thus does not really “see”, but merely follows the direction of those who can.

If they can.

The frustrating part of photography’s learning curve is that, over time, we all come to think of our most enlightened ideas as, well, primitive. The things we regard as obvious in our present incarnation as picture-makers were once invisible to us. And it follows that our present blind spots may, in a future version of ourselves, be the source of our greatest accuity. We are thus learning photography on several planes. There is the merely technical level, in which the mastery of aperture and focus is the primary mission. Then there is learning to see, as we begin to recognize patterns, themes or compositions. Finally there is the ability to evaluate what we see, to place different emphases on things depending on how we ourselves have evolved. This transference can take a pictorial element from the status of an object to that of a subject. We notice a thing differently and thus we photograph it differently.

I find myself in the process of such a shift at the time of this writing, mostly because I have recently made new friends within the birdwatching community, mostly due to my wife’s passion for the hobby. Now, of course, I have taken my share of bird photos over a lifetime, but most of them could be classified as opportunistic accidents (one landed next to where I was sitting) or as props within a composition, something to add scale, balance or flavor to, let’s say a landscape. That is to say that birds, for me, have been objects in my pictures, not, for the most part, subjects. Lately, however, I can see a subtle shift in my own prioritization of them.

Part of my pedestrian attitude toward them is borne of my own technical limits, as I have never owned the kind of superzooms that are required to make a detailed study of them. If I can’t afford to bring them into close view and sharp detail, it’s just easier to represent them as dots, flecks or shadows, as you see in the image at left. This, in turn, connects to my admittedly jaundiced view of telephoto images in general, since I think the gear required to capture them invites as many problems as it solves. I prefer prime lenses for their simplicity, clarity, efficiency of light use and, let’s face it, affordability. I realize now that all those biases are under review: I am, for better or worse, revising how I see the natural world, or, more specifically, the living things within it. Much of this is thanks to Marian, who sees the earth as a kind of game preserve with we bipeds charged with its responsible curation. The influence of her good example has been amplified further by my rage against the corporate titans who would lay waste to the last unicorn if it lined their pockets, and the fact that, at this juncture, their side seems to have the upper hand.

And so as both a photographer and a person, I can’t really relegate birds, or bison, or duck-billed platypuses to the background of my work any more. I may never become a great nature photographer, but that’s not the point. Fact is, the journey involved in sharpening our eye is always a staircase. Each step is important, but the upward journey itself is the main thing. Any photographer lucky enough to have his/her seeing powers challenged, even changed, is blessed indeed.

I know this is true. A little bird told me.

LINKS

The Confidence, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

 

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”  – Anais Nin

 

IF YOU WANT TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A PERSON, observe them in a relationship.

Alone, each of us is a sealed chamber of secrets. Matched with just one other living thing, however, an individual’s inner truths begin to seep out, to display themselves like buds slowly blossoming into blooms. Photographers concentrate mightily on solo portraits, and that is certainly a treasure trove of its own, but the visual grammar of a portrait is completely different than that of a group shot, and provides completely distinct information. The self has its native language, but when we are placed in a situation with others, be it a simple social chat or a key interaction, we are translated into a different tongue altogether.

We experience joy, regret, conflict, triumph as individuals, and a photograph can certainly read pieces of all of that (or at least imply it), but once we are in twosomes, threesomes, and so forth, all those emotional states are measured differently. The signals become amplified, more easily detected. Of course, people in conversations can be presenting completely false versions of themselves (spoiler alert) , but, in an image, the mask can be seen to slip, if only a little, revealing at least a smidgeon of the real person beneath the guise.

Cross-town Cross-talk, 2019

Admittedly, a photograph is not an x-ray, and so anything it records is open to interpretation, including our guess about the actual mindset of the subject. Translation: the camera can easily lie, or transmit a falsehood. Once that untruth is out in the open, however, the viewer is the jury that determines whether what’s on display is fact or fiction. My point is that palpably different things are in view in pictures of social interaction than in images of isolated individuals, and so all shooters should be conversant in mining both areas. The fact that the faces of the two women in the top picture are concealed is no more an inhibitor to our discovery than the plainer display of expressions of the duo on the subway. Our minds will devise their own ways of decoding these interactions. The fact remains that a whole extra level of view into the human mind/spirit can be achieved in watching people interact. For me, it’s the difference between shooting through a window to catch a glimpse of a house’s interior and being invited inside the place for a better look.

But that, as they say on the shrink’s couch, is just me.

 

 

INFORMATION AVENUES

Phytomorphology 623, 2020

By MICHAEL PERKINS

JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.

That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.

All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.

Monochrome conversion.

“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.

“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.

 

BOTH ENDS OF THE GIG

Master pickers Miles Gilderdale and Greg Carmichael of Acoustic Alchemy enjoy a post-shot brew at the autograph table, 2019.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I REMEMBER WHAT A MAD MIX OF SKILL AND DUMB LUCK IT TOOK ME to score any usable concert images in the glory days of film photography, which has been one reason why, for both economic and mental health reasons, I tended not to attempt them too often. I have known several people over the decades who simply kill at such work, and their abilities leave me as stunned as a caveman who has just discovered fire. Such people are masters of light, wizards of journalism, and maybe, just maybe, unofficial auxiliary members of the bands they cover. They’re that linked in.

Many years and many technological advances later, one of the barriers to my becoming a great concert shooter has vanished, in that, in the digital era,  I can at least afford to try a lot of things without putting my wallet on the endangered species list. And perhaps that fact has, in turn, also safeguarded my mental health as well. ‘Cuz, since I can now shoot, and shoot, and shoot, I can flail away until I actually produce something worth the effort, improving my overall demeanor and putting me once again in harmony with cute puppies, adorable babies, and unicorns. Of course, I have expanded my play area in recent years to include more offstage/backstage images, not only because they are technically easier to control, but because they contain something that stage performances may not: that is, unguarded, candid moments, or the exact opposite energy seen during a concert.

As a case in point: many current artists are making a bigger percentage of their touring “take” from on-site music sales than in earlier eras, and so the good old autograph table experience frequently offers the occasional relaxed moment. It doesn’t have the same drama as a classic shot of a guitar god shredding his way to immortality, but it almost counts as street photography, depending on what kind of energy you’re trying to capture. I myself enjoy the greater freedom to grab more of the miracle moments in a show, but I also find it liberating to work both ends of the gig.

THE DISSOLVING EVERYDAY

If a phone call comes in when no one’s there to answer it, does it ring?

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TECHNOLOGY IS A SNAKESKIN, a perpetually decaying epithelial layer that we shed to reveal the fresh flesh (or the latest “version) just beneath. This death-and-rebirth cycle is so constant in our world as to be nearly invisible: things are in daily use, everywhere, until they’re not, and once they have been replaced, their new iterations seem inevitable, as if they had always been around, as if nothing else ever made any sense. How did we ever survive with that other old thing? How could we call ourselves advanced without the shiny new one?

Photography is at least partly about observing the mile markers at which we said goodbye to things. You can comprise a whole career just out of documenting objects that have made the journey from Latest And Greatest to Oh, That Old Thing, that inexorable slouch from You Simply Must Get One to Are You Still Using That? We don’t stop needing a function like television, but television sets themselves are as transient as mayflies. We don’t stop driving cars, but we have already torn down the first museums that enshrined the earliest automobiles. And so it goes.

In a recent walk through the old downtown in Flagstaff, Arizona, I seemed to pass something on every other block that reminded me of how quickly and completely we shed the tech snakeskin. In some cases, the old devices were still sort of in use, like the battered pay phone seen above. In other cases, they were so far out of synch with the times that they had been reduced to arcane decor in a store front window, as seen with the old Speed Graphic press cameras below, abstracted to mere form by their utter uselessness. In either case, I felt that a picture was warranted.

“Just one more, Miss Monroe..”

This all may be a symptom of my own rapidly advancing age. I certainly acknowledge a feeling that the entire merry-go-round of progress seems to have been cranked faster in recent years, although it may just be that I am catching slower than life is pitching. Either way, I find myself in the process of saying goodbye to lots of things lots more of the time. And even though I vainly try to slow this cascading process by catching glimpses of the casualties within my magic light box, I know, at some level, that it’s a losing battle. The snake sheds its skin, but never sheds a tear about that skin. It’s just something that was vital, until it wasn’t. Most of the time, we shed whole versions of ourselves, with little more thought or regret. It’s when we do pay attention to what’s been lost that we have to decide, in our pictures and our hearts, what of it was really important.

 

ACROSS THE MERIDIAN

By MICHAEL PERKINS

TIME, BEING A HUMAN CONSTRUCT (AND ESSENTIALLY AN ILLUSION) is one of those handy mind tricks we use to convince ourselves that we’re in charge. That we know how to plan, that we can bend events to our will, plot them out on a strategic map. Catch them in our camera boxes. It’s pure nonsense of course, just like stipulating that we all believe that green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them are of value. But as long as we’re all in on the joke, then…what?

Photographers are all about time, of course. Stealing it, freezing it, even trying to render it irrelevant. With a camera in hand, we dare to declare that time is what we say it is. Or isn’t. And on this day, billions of images will have been shot by breakfast in an effort to mark the act of crossing the meridian, the passing of one year into another (or, in this case, one decade into another). We feel some kind of biological urge to record what it was like/will be like. Snap. Here we are at the stroke of midnight, when one thing became another. Can you tell the difference? Can you show the difference in a frame? Time’s status as the Great Hoax doesn’t diminish its power. And so we click, and play.

One image, two years. A time exposure begun in the dying seconds of 2019 and ending in the first moments of 2020.

What you see here is the attempt to imprison two years within a single image. I was struck, New Year’s Eve, by the contrast between my party-prone neighbors (they of the brightly lit trees to the left) and my own party-resistant nature (the quiet patio to the right), so much so that I thought the comparison of the two worlds was worth a picture. I set up the camera from my bedroom window and ran a few tests as the last hours of 2019 drained away, then tripped my remote timer in the final seconds of that dying year, so that the 43-second exposure would originate in one year and end in the next. Nothing much would change over the taking of the image, but I would know that I had crammed two years into one frame. Like time itself, a trick, an illusion. Turns out, that one year looks quite like another, with less to distinguish them than there is to distinguish my neighbor’s busy yard from my still one. There wasn’t so much as a fleeting firecracker light trail to betray the secret that I had taken a picture of time travel. Just the strange fable in my head. Just as it’s always been.

Happy New Year. Happy Wise Year. Happy Humble Year. Happy Whatever You Need It To Be Year.  I hope we can tell a difference between the time we think we’ve lost and the time we think we have.

And here, again, is to the sweet and mad miracle of imprisoning magic in a box.

OF SUBSTANCE AND SHADOW

Brooklyn Morning Constitutional, 2011. A typical HDR experiment from earlier in the closing decade.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE END OF A DECADE is often used as an arbitrarily mile marker to measure the effects of a particular parcel of time. The requisite lists of “bests” “biggests” and “top” accomplishments or events, trotted out in an attempt to define an era, are as irresistible as they are meaningless. The appeal is understandable: people, including photographers, love trying to make sense of something, especially their own work. But ranking one thing as better than another is not nearly as important as noting contrasts in one’s output over time. Simply put, we produce different work at different periods because we are actually different people.

Looking at my own stuff between 2009 and 2019, I can see several shifts in emphasis that have shaped the way I make pictures today. For example, over that period, I re-embraced prime, or single focal-length lenses, which had been a fundamental part of my film years but which temporarily got supplanted by the first kit lenses and moderate zooms of the digital era. I also came to greatly reduce my use of ultra-wide angle glass, settling on 24mm as about as wide a frame as I would ever shoot. Also, after flirting with auto and semi-auto shooting modes with my first DSLRs, I resumed another old school habit, that of shooting on full manual. Along with millions of others, I saw my work with cel phone cameras evolve from “just in case” or “emergency” shots to images that I would purposefully plan, preferring some of the results over those from my “real” cameras. And, overall, I tried to stop just short of a full-on minimalist approach to gear, trying to do more and more with less and less. That meant eschewing flash almost completely, and choosing in-camera technique over post-processing whenever possible. For me, the real magic still happens inside the box, one momentary impulse at a time.

The biggest change for me over the last ten years, however, was far more fundamental, as I seem to have completely reprioritized what I look for in an “acceptable” picture. As the decade began, aware as I was of the contrast limits of the first digital sensors, I sought a way to rescue every single iota of detail from the darker portions of my pictures, even as I accented sharpness and focus with near-religious zeal. That led me to work heavily with the HDR platform Photomatix, taking multiple exposures of single subjects which were then blended to amp up every grain of sand and woodgrain. The pictures looked dramatic in their “equalizing” of all tones, from dark to light, but which could often result in an over-cooked, glowing surreality. A slightly more restrained 2011 example of my HDR “period” is shown above.

By contrast, around the middle of the decade, I began to value subjects for a different kind of narrative impact, things that were allowed to be softer or even selectively underexposed. In a sense, I started to regard sharpness and focus as negotiable for certain pictures, not merely allowing backgrounds to fuzz out in contrast to foregrounds, but using Lensbaby and other “art” lenses to select things within a single foreground plane that could be softened in reference to others in that same plane…assigning additional focus priorities within the overall focus strategy. An example of this approach is seen here, in a crowded San Francisco street scene from earlier this year.

Hurtling Toward Everywhere, 2019. Shot with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 tilt-shift lens, which can place the focal “sweet spot” variably within the frame.

Over the last ten years, my images, especially the urban scenes, have gradually taken on a looser look, a more dreamy, if less “realistic” aspect. These new pictures are not just “captures” of things that pass in front of me, nor are sharpness and perfect exposure the only objective in photographing them. Instead, I like to hope that their non-specific quality will invite a more interpretive look from the viewer. Since everything isn’t spelled out or recorded in such photographs, there’s breathing room in them for anyone to supply his or her own detail (or not). I don’t always produce pictures like this now, but I am far more open to the idea of relinquishing control than I was ten years ago. Progress? Who knows? End-of-decade lists don’t really make a statement about “better” or “worse”. They are only reflections that, as the mind is always in flux, so, too, must any products of that mind be.

Happy New Year.

Happy New Pictures.

Happy New Adventures.

CITY (AND LIFE) LIMITS

Violet Cemetery, Pickerington, Ohio, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE STILL PLACES ACROSS AMERICA where all the needs of life seem to be concentrated into very compact spaces. Small towns where the eating places, the living places, working places, worshiping places and dying places are all within a few blocks of each other, all of them viewable, knowable to everyone, all the time. The unchecked sprawl of modern life has left such villages behind, so isolated that they may as well be contained within a snow globe, their functions blended together like a box of inter-melted crayons. In such towns, photographs of a very different nature can be made.

The idea of a local main street moving seamlessly from the business section to residential houses to graveyards to a children’s playground now runs counter to the way we plan things. In little cities all functions orbit each other tightly, like animals sharing the same watering hole. Maybe some of these burgs were, originally, just that….replenishment stops, a place to change horses, grab a meal before heading back onto the trail, a collection point for outlying farms or ranches. In terms of the images that can be created in these out-of-the-way places, they are chronicles of a different kind of rhythm. They simply have to result in different kinds of pictures.

In traveling through such towns, I invariably stop at local churchyards. In a strange way, by containing the remains of our all too temporary shells, the yards themselves achieve a kind of permanence. Things go there and stay there. No one digs up a cemetery to build a supermarket. Its space remains apart, freed even more of the constraints of time than the towns which they occupy. And here, in the aftermath of the greatest interruptions we can ever face, there is order. A grave is just one more thing that falls to the human need to organize. To make sense of it all. We lay out parcels with a certain arbitrary logic. Grandpa is in section 3-A, while the mayor and his family are in 4-D, and so forth. Churches in such towns taper off into the sky with stiff steeples, and brick and marble perpetuate the illusion that everything in the area, in some way, lasts. In terms of technique for these oddly reassuring patches of quiet, I often will play around with selective focus, since that dreamy half-state seems to align with my interior dialogue. Our pasts are as strange in their own way as our presents, and the standard rules for picture-making are vaporous, like ghosts.

Small towns are often liberally dotted with antique stores, as if objects themselves have need of a graveyard, a place to be collected beyond anyone’s needs or desires. The way we say farewell to things is often impossible to measure visually, but we carry cameras along wherever we go, because, well, you never know. When life’s various elements slip away there is often nothing to mark their passage. And yet sometimes there is just a little. And sometimes we can see it. And steal it. And hoard it.

SNAPSHOT NATION

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By MICHAEL PERKINS

FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, my final Normal Eye post before Christmas has been dedicated to the unique place occupied in the American holiday season by the Eastman Kodak Company, which not only sold most of us our first cameras near the dawn of the twentieth century, but taught us how to use them, all the better for increased film sales. Indeed, no sooner had Kodak placed simple Brownie box cameras in our hands than they began generating educational guides like How To Make Good Pictures, a book which remained in print with various revisions for over sixty years. But that was only half of the sales pitch.

The other half came in the dawning field of mass advertising, as Kodak became one of the most omnipresent features of the new illustrated magazines, creating luxurious reminders of how handy your Kodak would come in during your upcoming birthday, camping trip, or, most importantly, Christmas. Much of the company’s ad budget went into their annual yuletide messages, which, from year to year, introduced new models along with a visual depiction of happy people enriching their lives by taking lots and lots of pictures on Kodak film. Since The Normal Eye is more about the intention, rather than the technology, of photography, I made an annual habit of rifling through my own mental hoard of Kodak-tinged holiday memories. I remember the gadgets, for sure, but I mostly longed for the lives of the people in the ads. I wanted their Christmases and birthdays. I wanted to be welcomed into a room filled with their smiling faces, the joy of youth, the comfort of community. In short, I bought the whole package.

The most effective advertising promises you more than a consumer product: it sells you an experience, a state of mind. A transformation that, by an amazing coincidence only the seller’s product can deliver. Buy this, and you’ll be this, you’ll be here, you’ll be with…..whoever. The Kodak advertising campaigns sold a lot of camera and film for sure, but the message worked because it sold us the sensation of being other places, with other people, maybe as some other better version of ourselves. We dreamed of Christmases that never were, families that could never be. We associated making pictures with creating something better than the mere world. But in that process of becoming lifelong consumers of photographic equipment, a few of us learned that our cameras really could capture something just a little better, a little more joyous, than reality. It was a fable, certainly, but it was a warm and wonderful one.

It’s hard to connect the hollowed-out husk that Kodak has become in recent years to the titanic influencer it was in the 1900’s. The company forged our first photographic habits and channeled our dreams by first giving us a reason to want a camera, then showing it what it was for. Later on, most of us re-defined those rules of engagement in appropriately personal ways, deciding what to see and what to show. But before you can become a chef you first have to discover fire, or have it shown to you. And each fire begins with a spark.

Or the click of a shutter.

FINDING THE RIGHT FACE

Mother Courage, 2019

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HISTORY DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHIN THE STORMY SURGE OF A CROWD, but with the quiet, agonized turning of individual hearts. One heart at a time, that’s how the world is turned…..or overturned.

Protests and demonstrations are a natural magnet for photographers. They appeal to the journalist in all of us, as street photography meets street theatre in a roiling mix that maybe, just, maybe will allow us to trap history inside our magical boxes. Thing is, certain surface elements of marches and public gatherings are dismayingly uniform: the sea of signs, the crush of bodies, the speaker’s rostrum….and masses of angry/jubilant faces. Photographers realize that world-changing events are really about faces, more than any other visual element. We look for features that record the raw essence of those events: pity, fear, exhilaration, relief, anger. Finding the right face within a mass gathering is the toughest assignment for anyone hoping to use a camera to record the over-large mash-up of sensations within a movement. A solid wall of people with signs isn’t the real story: what brought individuals to the site is the only message that can be trusted. You must fan past the mass of noise to find the quiet at the center.

You need not pick a side in a struggle to record what it costs people to invest their energy in having picked one themselves. The woman seen here, standing near an improvised speaker’s platform, may never have seen herself as a force to change the world. She is not triumphant: she is not a bomb-hurler: she doesn’t share in the giddy me-tooism of youth: she may actually wish she were somewhere else, even as something has told her she must be only here, right now. The parade/protest will rage on in big waves of zeal, but her emotion, at least in this moment, is not one of celebration. She is not having a good time. But written in her apprehension is something universal, eternal.

The human race seems, age after age, to be in search of the same basic things. The drama in our lives is defined by the path we choose to reach those things. And all of our quests force their way up into our features. Our faces betray what path we’re on, and why. There is no wisdom in the mob, unless it is in the wisdom of one face after another, all of whom, on the same day, strangely found themselves standing in the same spot.

 

NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE FIRST DAYS OF PHOTOGRAPHY MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE A REALM OF CONJURED DREAMS, as technology first enabled man to snatch instants from the flowing continuum of time. This grabbing and freezing process, the notion of stopping history and imprisoning it on a plate, involved a great deal of experimentation, as the very rules of exposure were being drafted on the fly. At first, both optics and recording media were slow to drink in light, meaning that calculating the precise duration for which to uncap the lens was, in the period before mechanical shutters, largely a matter of guesswork. Thus was born the world’s first photographic “aritifacts”, the blurred smears of things or people that kept moving during prolonged exposures. The Reverend H.J.Morton, writing for the Philadelphia Photographer in 1865, summed up the surreal experience of finding ghosts lurking in an otherwise frozen scene:

A beautiful picture lies smiling before the lens, when a cow gets up slowly and walks away deliberately, giving us a fine landscape with a continuous cow of many heads, much body, and centipedian legs.

Cinema Inverite, 2015

Today, with the lightning-fast response that is built into even the simplest cameras, that cow can only be summoned in a deliberate time exposure, typically with the camera mounted on a tripod. It’s fair to say that our motives for making these kind of images has changed over the years, again, mostly due to technological advances, including vibration suppression, wider ISO ranges, and enhanced noise reduction (which works hand-in-glove to clean up high-ISO pictures). Fact is, there are fewer instances than ever before in which long exposures are needed, unless we utilize them to generate the very artifacts that we used to wish we could eliminate. As one example, everyone eventually creates at least one “light trail” photo, letting cars zoom through a long exposure largely unseen while leaving the glowing paths of their headlamps hanging mystically in the air. And there are certain collapsed studies of long durations which can only be appreciated by prying the lens open for a few extra beats. In the case of the above image, I was photographing the final night before the closure of a local art cinema, which would soon be razed to make room for a bigger cineplex with more screens, more room, and far less charm. I felt as if a lot of Spirits Of Cinema Past were in attendance, and so mounted a tripod to turn the customers themselves into passing shadows, just like the many spectres that had flickered across the theatre’s screens over the decades. And that’s the strange time-travel feature of photography: one era’s annoyance is another era’s cherished effect.

I seldom use my tripods any more, but having recently inherited one from a departed friend, I find myself recalling the days when it was my near-constant companion, a reverie which, in turn, sent me searching back for the theatre images. Making pictures is about harnessing the light with whatever lasso we have handy. As we grow, we learn to do more with less, creating in seconds what used to require elaborate forethought. But all that really means is that, as we improve, we are freer to focus on the picture, rather than the mechanics of making one. That means choices….and yes, even the choice to do conjure ghosts if the fancy strikes us.

NASTY AND NICE THINGS

Lord Snowdon portrait of his wife from 1960-1978, Princess Margaret of Great Britain.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

“I’M NOT A GREAT ONE FOR CHATTING PEOPLE UP, because it’s phony”, legendary photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones told an interviewer toward the end of his life. Answering standard questions about his approach to creating some of the most memorable portraits of both the haves and have-nots during the second half of the twentieth century, he added, “I don’t want people to feel at ease. You want a bit of edge. There are quite long, agonized silences. I love it. Something strange might happen. I mean, taking photographs is a very nasty thing to do. It’s very cruel….”

Such a remark was de rigeur for Armstrong-Jones, who worked hard over a lifetime to create the impression that he didn’t really work that hard at all, that his photographs were, in his words, “run of the mill”, although anyone looking over the body of work published under his British title, Lord Snowdon, would roundly disagree. His clients ranged from the royal family, including his first wife, Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth), as well as the family’s next generation of nobles, highlighted by his celebrated portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also scores of portraits of a vast range of other subjects from ditch-diggers to dowagers, a list that boasted Princess Grace of Monaco, David Bowie, Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other times his lens would be trained on documentary subjects like natural disasters or the plight of mental patients. In Snowdon’s personally curated origin story, he seems to have backed into photography after flunking out of Cambridge, where he had originally studied to be an architect. Even the acquisition of his first camera, a gift from his sister to help pass the time during his recovery from a bout of polio, seems to have been an afterthought. Beginning as an assistant for the reigning British court photographer, he first distinguished himself with images of the brighter lights of the British stage, truly launching his career with an official 1957 tour portrait of Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Three years later, he married Margaret in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony that made history on two fronts, being the first such ritual to be televised as well as the first union between a royal and a commoner (from which union came Armstrong-Jones’ induction into the House of Lords). The marriage was most graciously described as “tempestuous”, and ground to a halt eighteen years later, hobbled by Margaret’s legendary partying and Snowdon’s equally celebrated eye for the ladies.

Perversely, Snowdon often disdained the very photographs that earned him his living, saying they were “all right for pinning up” but not worthy of being framed or treasured. Once, when asked if he had a favorite image, he quipped “yes….I haven’t taken it yet.”

Snowdon’s work catalogued the rich and famous, including this portrait of David Bowie.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Snowdon ever gave any public clues as to how such a masterpiece might evolve, since he was remarkably closed-mouthed about technique, whenever he wasn’t actively denying that he had any. Proud of the fact that he didn’t prep or engage his subjects in conversation to relax them, he claimed he never even asked them to smile, since that was “a false facial expression”.

His professional credits ran the gamut from the London Sunday Times magazine (where he worked as photo editor) to commissions for Vanity Fair, The Daily Telegraph, and over thirty years with Vogue, with a notable retrospective of his work being mounted at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Interestingly, his favorite projects were not photographs at all, but the architectural designs he created for the London Zoo and various mechanical inventions, including a type of electric wheelchair which he patented. He consistently deflected probing questions about the style and philosophy behind his pictures, cutting off interviews with glib gibes that made it seem as if the images just jumped out of the camera by their own power. Perhaps, he seemed to be proposing, it had all been a happy accident.

Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the pictures are best suited to speak for themselves. Perhaps trying to explain how the magic works makes the magic sort of…not work. “I’m very much against photographs being treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art”, he once told a writer. “They should be seen in a magazine or book and then be used to wrap up fish and chucked away.”

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